17 January 2012

Changing Gears 2012: social networking beyond Zuckerbergism

(1) ending required sameness     (2) rejecting the flipped classroom     (3) re-thinking rigor     (4) its not about 1:1      (5) start to dream again     (6) learning to be a society (again)     (7) reconsidering what literature means     (8) maths are creative, maths are not arithmetic     (9) changing rooms     (10) undoing academic time     (12) knowing less about students, seeing more     (13) why we fight

Facebook began in the toxic social environment of the Ivy League...
The Social Network as a ranking system, if I win, you lose

Mark Zuckerberg isn't really an evil guy, as I think the film The Social Network made quite clear. He is simply a guy without the social skills which would allow him to understand the impact of his work. I don't just say that because I watched the film, I know people who know Mark, surely who knew Mark growing up. He is a great success in many things, but has always been a total failure with humanity, which makes it unfortunate that he created a tool with so much impact on humanity. Ah well, that is simply not a rare thing. Mitt Romney, who seems about to be chosen by the Republican Party to run for president of the United States seems completely unaware of what a human is, despite growing up with a remarkably humane father. Our leaders, whether from the privileged economic background of David Cameron or the privileged intellectual background of Barack Obama, all seem to struggle with this. We know this, the exceptions who can actually communicate in two directions with other humans, whether Robert Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, or Tony Blair, stand out in shocking contrast against their "peers."

One of the things which comes with this lack of humanity in our leadership is a belief in human competition which is wholly at odds with actual human experience - when that competition has not been aggressively trained in to people. Most humans do not really compete in their family groups, their "tribes," their "clans," or even their workplaces. Most people try to cooperate, to build things together, to move forward together. "[T]here are theoretical reasons to suppose that mentalizing demands of cooperation and competition differ in some aspects," says an fMRI study from 2004, "In case of competition, the opponent’s upcoming behavior is less predictable than in the case of cooperation in which there is a clear expectation for the behavior of the other agent. Research ... demonstrated that one’s own actions are facilitated when actions of the other are at the disposal of the self. This is the case in the cooperation trials, but exactly the opposite during the competition trials."

In other words, though both competition and cooperation are "natural," cooperation is not just more efficient for humans - "In accordance with evidence from evolutionary psychology as well as from developmental psychology, we argue that cooperation is a socially rewarding process ... these arguments are consistent with the hypothesis that executive functions evolved to serve social planning in primates and, in humans, are applied to both physical world and the social realm" - but that we see with less prediction - we see more clearly and innovatively - in cooperative mode than in competitive mode.

Cooperation is not something foreign to the human race.

I'm certain that Mitt Romney once knew
why Mormons chose the beehive
as Utah's symbol, but life in the
culture of Harvard and Bain Capital
stripped that knowledge away.
Richerson, Boyd and Henrich (2002) call this the "tribal social instincts hypothesis," "Humans are prone to cooperate," they say, "even with strangers," yet, the enculturalization is key to these behaviors, "The elegant studies by Richard Nisbett’s group show how people’s affective and cognitive styles become intimately entwined with their social institutions. Because such complex traditions are so deeply ingrained, they are slow both to emerge and to decay. ... The slow rate of institutional change means that different populations experiencing the same environment and using the same technology often have quite different institutions."

Mark Zuckerberg, like most of our leadership, grew up in the rather anti-human confines of the wealthy, Wall Street obsessed, suburb. In these places where the institutions of the culture have embraced selfishness and competition in all things as a "good." Though, yes, "Human societies represent a spectacular outlier with respect to all other animal species because they are based on large-scale cooperation among genetically unrelated individuals" (Fehr and Fischbacher 2004), the social norming those authors describe seem to overwhelm the natural, creating places in which competition, in every single thing, is trained in from birth. My kid's Apgar score is higher than your kids, and onward and upward to 5,000 square foot homes for four people and Mercedes-Benz station wagons in the driveway, and $5,000 commercial ranges in kitchens that are turned on twice a year, and SAT test tutors and paid preparers for those Harvard applications.

In that world, as the Zuckerberg character in Aaron Sorkin's film makes clear in the first scene, being in one of the most prestigious fraternities of the most prestigious university in the nation is simply not enough, because it is not the "most of the most." Now Zuckerberg has neurological issues (I'm pretty sure) which make this especially difficult for him, but no matter the brain wiring, the world of Harvard and Harvard-like places is built on this essential set of what might be called personality disorders. A "zero-sum" world in which your success is only possible through the (relative) failure of those around you.
Able to not just speak to those different
from himself, but to hear them as well
Robert Kennedy was a remarkably
rare type of political leader.
"It is a revolutionary world we live in. Governments repress their people; and millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich; and wealth is lavished on armaments.  For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked for us.  The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American society." - Robert Francis Kennedy, 1968
We need a different kind of leadership in education. "The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike." We need a believe in our shared capabilities as people. And it has to begin with a radically different conception of our educational social networks. We need a concept of social networking where we are not comparing schools, teachers, and students in ways little different than Mark Zuckerberg's FaceMash.

Because I simply do not want schools to compete (the goal of the profiteers of "ed reform"), teachers to compete (the goal of Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Michael Gove, and many of America's Governors), or students to compete (the goal of way, way too many adults in schools and around children), I want them to succeed in their own ways, in their own time, and mostly, cooperatively. I want them all working together, helping each other...
Might this student do better in your school? This student with that teacher? These three students if working together?
What can this school learn from that school? How can this teacher help that teacher? What can this student learn from that student?

FaceMash: Which school is hotter?
Not competing, not ranking, not rating, but doing something much more directly human... helping each other.

We don't really want schools fighting over the "easy to educate" students, or teachers refusing to help other teachers escape that "bottom 5%," or students refusing to help each other do better, do we? And if we do, what are we suggesting? About ourselves, about society, even about our businesses?

Now comes the hard part, rethinking our own positions. Because if step eleven of Changing Gears 2012 is going to be "un-competing" in our social networking, we need to begin with our own behaviors. We do a lot of things which, often unintentionally, send the wrong messages, and those messages not only impact our students, they impact ourselves.

I've had my fights with online colleagues/friends I respect over stuff like the EduBlog Awards, and I know they "recognize" many people, but determining quality by letting people organize "vote for me" campaigns is the essence of building competition into something in which competition serves no positive purpose. And I'm troubled when people beg for more followers on Twitter (or friends on Facebook, or...). That's competition based in the most meaningless count, quantity where you don't even know what you are counting (bots, multiple accounts from one person). (I tend the other direction, I remember blocking new followers when I approached 500 followers, for whatever reason "500" seemed like a lot, and I wondered if "a lot" of followers would change the way I was communicating.) I'm troubled when people quote stats about number of readers of blogs too often. And I know I don't want to be that person people ask for help most often.

Obviously, our "official" rankings are problems - those "Honor Rolls" (I mumble, being one of the perpetually unhonored), class rankings, the whole idea - I'm always stunned by this - that the instructor is doing something wrong if everyone does well in the course, concern about "grade inflation," or the dreaded "awards ceremony."

Perhaps I'm strange, but I always think that being at the top - in this (especially American) work - encourages you to worry about staying at the top instead of encouraging you to do what you need to do. One issue. The second - and far more important issue is this - when you rank you are turning to artificial and external motivators to replace your own heart and soul. You are no longer trying to be the best you can be, you have given away your own internal measures for some flimsy badge which represents someone else's ideas.

A top retailer, 1972. Fighting to be on top
doesn't always work.
But perhaps I'm not alone. Toyota is still trying to recover from the disastrous quality control lapses they accepted because their goal was to sell more cars than General Motors. I've seen many businesses over-expand themselves out of business. The jury is still out on what Volkwagen's desire to be number one in sales will do to their long term reputation. Sometimes, a decent slice of the pie is better than either none of it or even all of it, because "number one" can be a tough thing: If I go back forty years to 1972, the top American retailers were: Sears, A&P, Safeway, J.C. Penney, and Kroger. The top airlines were United (yes, still up there), TWA, Pan Am, American, and Eastern - with only two of those five still even existing. I couldn't find my way back to 1972, but in 1976 the top selling cars in the United States were: the Oldsmobile Cutlass, Chevrolet Caprice, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Ford LTD, and Chevrolet Malibu. No real need to point out that the basic design of our schools, the functional engineering of our schools, is a lot older than 40 years, as is our systems management, as are our grading systems, subject structures, and most of our course materials designs.

The change, among smart businesspeople, was apparent in late 2008-early 2009 when Ford joined the rush to Washington to get help for, yes, General Motors and Chrysler. Ford put considerable muscle, and took a lot of absurd abuse from Republicans, behind efforts to not just keep their competitors in business, but to reduce their debts far below those of Ford's. Why? Ford knew that their supplier chain needed healthy customers beyond themselves. Ford also knew that a health industry would be good for the country, and Ford knew that a full-scale depression spinning out from the nation's center wouldn't do much for its sales. Plus Ford knows that a healthy multiplayer industry is good for everyone. The Big Three in the US, Volkwagen, BMW, Daimler in Germany, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi in Japan.

It was also apparent in Google's recent conversations about Mozilla: "So it's very easy to see why Google would be willing to fund Mozilla: Like Google, Mozilla is clearly committed to the betterment of the web, and they're spending their resources to make a great, open-source web browser. Chrome is not all things to all people; Firefox is an important product because it can be a different product with different design decisions and serve different users well. Mozilla's commitment to advancing the web is why I was hired at Google explicitly to work on Firefox before we built Chrome: Google was interested enough in seeing Firefox succeed to commit engineering resources to it, and we only shifted to building Chrome when we thought we might be able to cause even greater increases in the rate at which the web advanced. It's not hard to understand the roots of this strategy. Google succeeds (and makes money) when the web succeeds and people use it more to do everything they need to do. Because of this Chrome doesn't need to be a Microsoft Office, a direct money-maker, nor does it even need to directly feed users to Google. Just making the web more capable is enough."

So, the world's biggest companies know something educational reformers, and our political leaders, can't quite figure out. I know Ford would like to sell more cars in the US than General Motors, but that kind of win is not their goal. And Google, which could dominate many things, chooses not to.

The Nash Equilibrium: It is not all about competition
"Adam Smith, is wrong"
Mark Zuckerberg doesn't understand that, which is why Facebook will always be about rankings and superiorities. More friends, more messages, more writings on the wall. Even Barack Obama, doesn't fully understand this, he wants America to be triumphant - whatever that may mean - in education. But we look around our schools and we see so many differing talents, so many differing personalities, so many differing skillsets, and we know that we'll always be better together.

I don't want FaceMash or SchoolMash or Students-in-MathMash. I sure do not want algorithms which will artificially rate people. I don't want counts of followers or popularity contest awards, and I don't want kids accorded an "honor" because they got one more answer right on some multiple choice test than another. I don't want teachers rated on test scores or graduation rates, and I don't want schools rated those ways either. We've tried that for generations. It sucks for just about everybody.

So let's try something different. Let's join together, in all of our learning spaces, with as little hierarchy as we overtrained animals can muster. Maybe we'll discover something.

- Ira Socol

next: knowing less about students, seeing more

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