The Best Vehicle of a Transformed Mind:
How Educators Can Balance Technology with
Class Discussion and Close Reading
by John Kendall
Rutgers Preparatory School
Somerset, NJ, 08873
Final Report for the Murdock-Thompson Center for Teachers
The Murdock-Thompson Center for Teachers
178 Gano Street
Providence, RI 02906
September 6, 2013
"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end."
—Henry David Thoreau
My initial premise when applying for this teacher research grant was prompted by the stigma that technology in general is negatively affecting the 21st century classroom and with the advent of a mandatory 1:1 iPad initiative next fall in the school where I teach, I applied for a teacher research grant to explore how an increase in digital involvement could make a positive impact in the classroom. I felt that live classroom discussion should remain primary. However, I wanted to see how I might use our classroom web sharing software (Moodle in the past, switching to Schoology this coming year) to reinforce and permanently archive our discussions of demanding works of literature into a form that might encourage close reading and reflection.
At the end of the summer, I wanted to provide colleagues and those interested in current education with: 1) an annotated bibliography of key resources; 2) an extended bibliography of all the works I came across; 3) a detailed simulation of how I might oversee live discussion of a literary work (Pride and Prejudice), and how I would then archive it, using Schoology web pages; and 4) a written final report describing the results of my research. I confess that I will have more sympathy with this upcoming group of Freshmen when they begin their own research papers, and complain that they are finding too much information and don't know how to organize it. I kept reading and researching far too long, ending up with about 15-19 books, some 40 web page articles, and a number of TED Talks to try to make sense of. Despite the mountain of research I'd created, one fact stood out: the global implications of technology have changed our lives, inside and outside the classroom, and can hardly be underestimated.
I also feel that the final report could have two very different directions. On the one hand, I have direct quoted sources in a far larger ratio than I would ever allow my freshmen to do, because I feel like most of the people reading the report would benefit as much or more from the experts themselves, rather than my paraphrasing them. Indeed, as I was amassing several hundred 4 x 6 notecards, I started a separate area (Section II: Short Observations and Imagery) which didn't seem to be fitting in with the paragraphs I was writing, but were still of value.
The second, more personal direction of my final report reflects how I approach this fall's classes, using my new knowledge. My educational experts all agreed that it was important to keep humans as the primary focus. We do need to use the digital tools available to us, but to remember they are only tools, subordinate to the maximum interaction between teachers and students.
Douglas Rushoff's Idea of "Present Shock"
Douglas Rushkoff's 2013 book, Present Shock, pays homage to Alvin Toffler's famous work, Future Shock, a prediction of how technology would change our lifestyles back in 1970. Rushkoff proposes that "we tend to exist in the distracted present" (3), where too many electronic stimuli bombard us. "It's not about how digital technology changes us, but how we change ourselves and one another now that we live so digitally É If only we could catch up with the wave of information, we feel, we would at last be in the now." (73-74) But people are still analog, and we need to program our technology to adjust to our biological and real-world rhythms. Rushkoff's earlier work, Program or Be Programmed, captures this philosophy beautifully, like the old clich about the tail not wagging the dog.
Many aspects of our current society create present shock, and work against the way analog human minds operate. Clay Shirky likes to use the term "filter failure" rather than "information overload," suggesting the human need to exert more control over what and when to process, rather than the sheer quantity of what to process. (Rushkoff 116) The rise of cable television, with its 24/7 news feeds, began the process of not having time to absorb information, and not being able to reflect on the information before responding. Computers and the web magnified this condition of present shock even further, and the terrorist attack of September 11 further splintered our sense of unity. (Rushkoff 17) Perhaps most symbolic of this creeping presentism is watching the "Black Friday" shopping season edge backward, hour by hour, year after year, until stores are now opening on Thanksgiving evening. "We get so much better and faster at consuming all the time that there's no point in actually having anything at all. In a certain light, it sounds almost communal. Except we are not building a new commons together where everything is shared; we are turning life into a sort of monetizable experiences where the meter is always on." (Rushkoff 169)
When Rushkoff contrasted the two types of "reading," analog vs. digital, it reinforced my focus of emphasizing close reading of works of literature:
Stored information, like a book, is usually something you want to absorb from beginning to end. It has greater longevity and is less dependent on the exact moment it comes out. We can read it in our own time, stopping and starting as we will, until we get to the end . . . Flowing information, like 24-hour news or MTV videos, is more like the nonnarrative experience of electronic music or extreme sports. We get a textural experience, we learn the weather, or we catch the drift. We do not get to the end; we shut if off and continues without us. (142-143)
Rushkoff points out that analog technology anchors us in ways that digital ones don't. "In a book or a scroll, the past is on our left, and the future is on our right. We know where we are in linear time by our position in the paper . . . The future on a blog is not to one side, but above—in the as-yet-unposted potential. The past isn't to the other side, but down, in and among older posts." (113-114)
Trying to always respond to our e-mail or our cell phone typifies this situation of our technology controlling our behavior, rather than our see them as merely tools . . . our trying to always respond to e-mail immediately, like Lucy and Ethel at the bon-bon assembly line." (119)
. . . Instead, we must re-train ourselves "to see the reward in the amount of time we get to spend in the reverie of solo contemplation or live engagement with another human being. Whatever is vibrating on the iPhone just isn't as valuable as the eye contact you are making right now." (117)
Social Networks, Big Brother in 2013, and Being a "Real" Friend (not the Facebook Kind)
I'm sure George Orwell would be surprised to see how many ways his vision of Big Brother and a government monitoring its citizens' thoughts is coming true, though not the way he warned. From Nicholas Carr's coining of the phrase, "Googlethink" (Nimz and Michel 127) to the recent revelations of the degree to which the NSA monitors private citizens to the gradual acceptance of many younger people just assuming they have little or no privacy, I realized how pervasive technology threatens to engulf our individuality, and that of our students. Andrew Keen cites Twitter co-founder Biz Stone: "The Social will be the killer app of the 21st century." (Keen 9) The writer defines "social" as "the sharing of our personal information, our location, our taste and our identities on Internet networks like Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and Facebook," (9) and suggests that the unofficial motto of many 21st century citizens is "I update therefore I am." (12)
Keen fears that "We are becoming schizophrenic—simultaneously detached from the world and yet jarringly ubiquitous," (14) and that this increasing "hive" identity is on the rise, especially with younger people. "Sharing has become the new religion," (17) Keen suggests, and Rushkoff sees teens as being even more susceptible to embracing this form of Orwellian brainwashing. "The anxiety of influence gives way to the acceptance of intimacy and shared credit. Many young people I encounter are already more than comfortable losing their privacy to social networks, preferring to see it as preparation for an even less private, almost telepathic future in which people know one another's thoughts, any way." (198) Lisa Nimz and Jerry Michel continue the paraphrasing of past ideologies, ("You are what you click") noting that Google increasingly re-configures its search engines to track choices made by its users. "So Big Brother is finally here, and it is not an institution or a government. It is an equation." (126-127)
While my new 11th graders read 1984 for the first time, learning about Winston Smith and Julia's struggle to keep some degree of a private life, many experts offer positive strategies to slow down or counteract such hive brainwashing in our real world. John Dewey pointed out that our "personalities are neither as rationally self-interested, quantifiable or fixed as [Facebook CEO] Zuckerburg believes. Our individual identity, Dewey argued, is actually "something moving, changing, discrete and above all initiating instead of final." (Keen 63-64) Zadie Smith distinguishes the value of personal identify from "Googlethink" with equal fervor: "To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos, and it also happens that we buy things . . . To the advertisers, we are our capacity to buy, attached to a few personal, relevant photos." ("Generation Why").
Susan Maushart erupts into an eloquent and scathingly critical rant against the corruption of the noun "friend" into a verb (see her classic "Digital Immigrant vs. Digital Native" juxtaposition in the "Single Lines" section). She is one of many authorities to cite the "Dunbar Number," a study by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, which propounds that human beings can realistically have no more than 150 friends in their lifetime. (Coevolution of Neocortical Size, Group Size and Language in Humans) "What keeps a community together is a sense of mutual obligation and reciprocity," Professor Dunbar observed (How Many Friends Does One Person Need? 21) Keen contrasts two movies in the running for the Oscar for Best Picture a few years ago, The Social Network and The King's Speech, and suggests "The choice [is] between liking and loving; the choice between being human and being an elephant or a sheep." (179)
To combat this trend towards a hive mentality, Keen offers John Stuart Mill as a role model for the strong moral values need required of 21st century citizens. Maushart feared ""The information paradox—that the more data we have, the stupider we become—has a social corollary, too: that the more frantically we connect, one to another, the more disconnected our relationships become." (185) But Mill, 150 years earlier, replied that "Men are not sheep," and must resist the insistent, ubiquitous pressure to "like" everything. "Mill's faith lay in individuals avoiding being corrupted by the conformity of the newly networked masses and remaining true to themselves," Keen offers. "To Mill, therefore, individual autonomy, privacy and self-development were all essential both to human process and to the development of a good life." (184)
Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants
Maushart's intensely personal six-month "retreat" from digital devices with her three teenagers in 2010 offered many personal images and observations of the two generations—of "digital immigrants," those of us born before 1990 or so, and "digital natives," those beings who have always had internet access and a number of electronic screens at their disposal through childhood and adolescence.
No matter how tech-savvy we Digital Immigrants become, we betray our Old World origins at every turn. Starting with reading the instructional manual, which is a dead giveaway. When a new technology arrives in the home, the Natives don't need to set out on a humbling search for the "On" button. They just know, as though they've been fitted with an auto-detect device their elders and inferiors have only read about in the IT pages of their sad little newspapers. A new application is the same. Immigrants such as you and me wade conscientiously through the documentation. We do the tutorial. We register for online support. In short, we approach every new media experience—from Twitter to TiVo-as if it were a digital disaster waiting to happen. We respond by lining up a walking stick and a wheelchair, just in case. (Maushart 50)
The single mom realized that her kids "inhabited media" (1) and as a freelance writer, unearthed alarming statistics, such as "today the average American child spends almost as much time online as he or she does sleeping." (28-29). She also admitted her own degree of addiction: she used to fall asleep with her iPhone in her hand. (12)
Psychologist and computer expert Sherry Turkle has dedicated her life to examining how humans interact with technology. She observed the paradoxical nature of parents thinking more technology will help with their children, when often the opposite is true. "Perpetual networking is undermining many parents' relationships with their children . . . and claims that teens stopped using e-mail and voice-to-voice phones because they were "too intimate" (Keen 67). Maushart realized that for parents in the twenty-first century, staying connected with your kids might seem logical at first (your son is locked out of the house, your daughter has a flat tire), but soon degenerates into exchanges of "nuisance text" ("We're out of cereal"). (116) In her most recent work on how human relationships have changed, Alone Together, Turkle described the irony: "We go online because we are busy but end up spending more time with technology and less with each other." (280-281)
Distraction and Multitasking
Many teachers challenge the idea that digital natives multitask a number of different activities as successfully as they think they do. Most experts confirm the teachers' assessment. The digital world bombards children and teenagers constantly for attention. Maushart described her children as living in the state of "cogitus interruptus" (147), and that "Reading in the age of the internet is skim deep (167). Nicholas Carr, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his study of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, provided these contrasting images of his own change in reading habits: "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski." (Carr) Rushkoff explained that "The deliberate style of cognition we normally associate with reading or contemplation gives way to the more superficial, rapid-fire, and compulsive activities of the net." (Rushkoff 125) Kids become "fast learners," able to grasp the gist of ideas quickly, but are often confused about the quality of what they are seeing. Even when given the opportunity to benefit from live, meaningful education, technology can distract them. Professor Turkle has noticed the increasing difficulty college students have: "People are going to lectures by some of the greatest minds, and they are doing their mail [at M.I.T.]. I tell them this is not a place for e-mail, it's not a place to do online searches . . . You've got to get people to participate in the world as it is." (Maushart 176)
Professor Maryanne Wolf has studied the neuroscience of how humans learn to read, from first literacy through adulthood, and makes a strong argument for sustained interaction with text. "Reading is a neuronally and intellectually circuitous act, enriched as much by the unpredictable indirections of a reader's inferences and thoughts, as by the direct message to the eye from the text." (16) She is also concerned about "the Google universe of my children," where massive amounts of information appearing instantaneously. (16) "Is the act of reading dramatically different in such contexts? . . . . Can we preserve the constructive dimension of reading in our children alongside their growing abilities to perform multiple tasks and to integrate ever-expanding amounts of information? Should we begin to provide explicit instruction for reading multiple modalities of text presentation to ensure that our children learn multiple ways of processing information?" (16)
Problems with Current Schools
In examining why school systems seem so immune to reform, especially with technology, James Gee thought of a complex ecological system, such as when the Australians introduced cane toads to eat the cane beetles, who were, in turn, eating the sugar cane. While the cane toads did eradicate the insects, they also replaced their former prey, and became an even bigger problem to the Australians than the cane beetles. (143) Too often, humans attempt to reform schools, using technology as their own "cane toads." Gee argues that we need to look at bigger questions that can "only be answered by considering and at least partially figuring out the workings of a complex system . . . They required looking at things from different perspectives and seeking alternative viewpoints and new sources of ideas. They require humility and questioning of our own values and ideologies. They require the search for new tools and new uses of old ones . . . as well as when to stop asking old questions and start asking a better one." (144)
In addition to the need to look at schools as complex ecological systems, Gee also sees them as large institutions "frozen in thought." Like the QWERTY keyboard, which was originally designed for mechanical typewriters whose keys stuck together, large institutions like schools become locked into one period; computer keyboards no longer need the QWERTY system, but too many people now see it as "normal" and resist change. (88) Gee also feels that schools are often based not on problem solving, but on learning information. They need to move away from having students merely store abstract information, but instead see why they should use it to solve real-life, meaningful problems. (89) He notes that such "hard problems" (meaningful challenges) are "deep problems that are often not centered in only one academic discipline. Hard problems need content as a means to an end." (206)
Schools can also misuse technology, giving classrooms a "quiz show approach now favored by public schools, where . . . intelligence is equated with speed . . . More, faster, is better." (Rushkoff 125) Todd Oppenheimer, in The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved, feels that if schools used technology in a better ratio, with the tail not wagging the dog, it might have more effective results.
"Education, being the construction site for a variety of individual skills, forms a pyramid of its own. Judging from the literature on psychological development, the first layers of this pyramid should consists of a variety of exercises that build up and enrich students' internal capacities—their ability to observe, listen, reflect, and imagine, among other things. On top of this foundation is the ability to think critically as one strives to solve life's complex problems. Following this layer, and somewhat mixed within it, is hard, factual knowledge about how the world works. Somewhere higher, near the top, comes opportunities to use fancy tools. That is probably where technology should come in—as but one of a number of extra options. (Oppenheimer 212)
Rushkoff also argues in favor of real face time instruction rather than too much online education, explaining many of the subtler, neurological advantages of face-to-face contact:
"In the real world, 94 % of our communication occurs non-verbally. Our gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions, and even the size of our irises at any given moment tell the other person much more than our words do. These are the cues we use to gauge whether someone is listening to us, agrees with us, is attracted to us, or wants us to shut up. When a person's head nods and his irises dilate, we know—even just subconsciously—that he agrees with us. This activates the mirror neurons in our brains, feeding us a bit of positive reinforcement, releasing a bit of dopamine, and leading us further down that line of thought." (126)
Technology in School: Problems or Past Experience
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neal Postman points out how new technology changes society in unexpected ways. "When Gutenberg announced that he could manufacture books . . . he did not imagine that his invention would undermine the authority of the Catholic Church. And yet, less than 80 years later, Martin Luther was, in effect, claiming that with the world of God available in every home, Christians did not require the papacy to interpret it for them." (151) In a similar fashion Oppenheimer reminds us of the enthusiasm Thomas Edison had in 1922 for the motion picture: "I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system, and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks." (3) Then in 1945 experts predicted the same thing about the "portable radio receiver." Then in 1968 President Johnson was sure educational television would transform schools. In 1995 President Clinton talked about computers forming a bridge to the twenty-first century. (Oppenheimer 4-6) You see the patterns, here.
Oppenheimer visited schools and researched for five years, and felt that schools needed to "to be smarter about how and when they use technology and how they separate its wheat from its chaff." (393) He also echoed the need for the more "long game" skills of learning how to learn, focusing more on the fundamentals, "rather than programs that are likely to be pass by the time the students enter the work force." (394) He felt that many school districts spent extravagantly on computers and other hardware, using special grants, but were then trapped into using much of the budget to maintain upgrades or to transfer regular funds to computers when the grants were not extended. (138)
Tom Snyder, a long-time producer of quality computer educational software, reminded his audiences that learning remains a largely linear process. Snyder would tell the story of the man with the TV remote control, who kept changing channels. "He clicks whenever something complex comes on," says his girlfriend. Snyder doesn't want a generation of students who leave ideas because they are too complex." (Oppenheimer 344) Snyder's key question for any software was always, "Does the computer actually contribute to having conversation?" (343)
Jane Healey, in Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds—for Better and Worse, described an English teacher who could readily tell which of her students' essays were conceived on a computer.
They don't link ideas," the teacher said. "They just write one thing, and then they write another one, and they don't seem to see or develop the relationships between them." Computers tend to hide the "analytical gaps" which "won't become apparent until [the student] can't organize herself around a homework assignment or a job that requires initiative. More commonplace activities such as figuring out how to nail two boards together, organizing a game . . . may actually form a better basis for real-world intelligence." (203)
Nimz and Michel provided useful information about current brain research and technology, although they also warned that "Myths about neuroscience and the applications of it to the classroom abound." (56) Three recent insights on cognitive science include:
¥ Plasticity: The brain has unknown potential for growth and is not limited by a predetermined natural ability.
¥ Meaningful Practice: Learning is greatly enhanced by engaging in focused practice that is in the learner's control. Effort, engagement and ability to assess and correct mistakes along the way all have significant influence on developing expertise.
¥ Expectations aid motivation: When teachers promote the importance of effort over ability, both explicitly and implicitly, all students do better. (62)
Nimz and Michel offered a useful metaphor, that "The ability students bring to school is their starting point, not their finish line," (63) which jives with Dweck's findings about having a "growth mindset." She divided up students into two groups: one group was praised for their native ability, while a second group that was praised for effort they exerted in solving problems. The "effort" group did better over a period of time, while the "ability" group had their confidence easily undermined. (Nimz and Michel 61) Maushart's research in this area concurred with this theory. "To an important degree, we really do become what we behold—and so, it turns out, do our brains. It's not so much the content we absorb that makes the difference. It's the way that content is packaged and transmitted via symbols (like an alphabet or semaphore) and media (like the printing press or a Bluetooth headset). (157)
Researching material about the skill of close reading, of examining a text for deeper levels of meaning and understanding, offered some antidotes to problems with distraction and the current group of students having difficulty with sustained or lengthy spans of concentration. Marcel Proust described the successful act of reading as a partnership, an activity where the writer triggers new ideas in the reader:
We feel quite truly that our wisdom begins where that of the author ends, and we would like to have him give us answers, while all he can do is give us desires. And these desires he can arouse in us only by making us contemplate the supreme beauty which the last effort of his art has permitted him to reach. But by . . . a law which perhaps signifies that we can receive the truth from nobody, and that we must create it ourselves, that which is the end of their wisdom appears to us as but the beginning of ours. (Wolf 17)
The noted child psychologist Vygotsky described the "inner dialogue" of writer and reader in a similar fashion. "In other words, the writer's efforts to capture ideas with ever more precise written words contain within them an inner dialogue, which each of us who has struggled to articulate our thoughts knows from the experience of watching our ideas change shape through the sheer effort of writing." (Wolf 73) In the same way that the brain's learning how to read is an utterly unnatural process, unlike sight or speech, so do students need to cultivate this dialogue between themselves and the authors they read.
Part of this process is highly personal and occurs at a young age, but the classroom teacher can encourage and cultivate this understanding of words on the page, by lengthy periods of class time devoted to passages, without a lot of extra technology. E-books, like the paper and ink kind that Gutenberg began producing half a millennium ago, offer an equal opportunity to slow down and concentrate on the words themselves. "In this process we step outside ourselves for ever-lengthening moments and begin to understand the 'other,' which Proust wrote lies at the heart of communication through written language." (Wolf 86) Others have described the self-revelation of sustained interaction with the text as well. Writer Anna Quindlen recalled,
In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself. But I felt that I, too, existed much of the time in a different dimension from everyone else I knew. There was waking, and there was sleeping. And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer but was never really a stranger. My real, true world. My perfect island. (How Reading Changed My Life 82)
Schools that Use Technology Effectively, or Ways to Improve Schools
Many current schools do supply a good grasp of how to balance technology with education. Alfred North Whitehead, all the way back in 1929, offered an admirable philosophy: "The best education is to be found in gaining the utmost information from the simplest apparatus." (Oppenheimer 345) Many experts agreed with Oppenheimer's sense of balance, that schools need "a teacher who could advise when to use the tools inside and when not to." (351) Gee added that "the key is how they are subordinate to human learning . . . digital tools are no salvation." (xiii) The author expanded this vision to say that the human mind is more powerful with a tool (such as technology), and ultimately with "'humans as reciprocal tools for each other," to form a vast network, a "Mind with a capital 'M'." (164)
Nimz and Michel, despite advancing a major push for greater technological skills, also agree that 21st century students need some traditional skills, such as how to solve problems, work collaboratively, think critically and make purposeful choices." They feel that it is the context of the technology that's new. (Nimz and Michel 15) Judith Walzer, English professor at New School University, adds: "I've had the experience of teaching students or examining students where you ask a question and there's a one-sentence answer. And it's not a question of shyness or dumbness or anything like that, but the person hasn't learned how to develop an idea. How to make a statement and then qualify and describe and give examples and illustrations. Each and every one of these people could do that." (Oppenheimer 323)
Clearly, today's educators need new skills to learn what the increasing influence technology has on our society. However, many traits of a good teacher have not changed much from previous generations. Professor Wolf, in studying the interaction of teachers with the developing ability of young children learning to read, observed: "The act of teaching not only requires a firm knowledge of the subject, but also forces the teacher to analyze what goes into the learning of a particular content. Moreover, good teaching renders the multiple dimensions of the subject to be taught more visible—in this case, the complex nature of language in its written form." (37) Coyle agreed that "one of the marks of a great teacher is 'the matrix,' a deep understanding of the subject matter they are teaching," (Coyle 79) and her ability to transcend their specific knowledge and connect it with how students are learning. Stephen Kindel adds some theatrical skills: "Education depends on the intimate contact between a good teacher—part performer, part dictator, part cajoler—and an inquiring student." (Oppenheimer 397)
Strong educators should also not be afraid to admit that they do not know everything. As 21st century technology suggests moving educators more into the role of a facilitator and a coach, rather than as a lecturer, this willingness to grow and acknowledge limitations displays good role modeling for their students. Ferdi Serim's advice makes sense: "You can't master anything you've not been exposed to, so it is important to take a look at what's commonly available now, take stock of how these capabilities extend the learning experiences you provide, and take charge of your strategy for keeping your tool kit current." (53) Science teachers might enjoy his observation: "Don't let errors go unnoticed or uncommented, but instead let errors prompt you to build to deeper understandings. Remember, many discoveries started out as mistakes." (6)
As technology becomes more all-encompassing, teachers need to remain all the more human in their treatment of their students. "At its core, education is a people process . . . We need people . . . who are as sensitive to the culture's humanistic needs as they are to its electronic possibilities." (Oppenheimer 395) For example, John Wooden exemplified not just good basketball skills when coaching at UCLA, but also superb awareness of his players as human beings. "For me, concern, compassion and consideration were always priorities of the highest order." (Dweck 103) Just as Jane Healey coined the phrase "the hurried child" so many years ago when she worried about interfering with a child's normal development, current teachers have warned against the rush for higher test scores and earlier involvement of technology in the educational process. Mikko Bojarsky, a science teacher, worried that, "Nowadays we always push people to think so fast instead of letting them reflect." He struggles not to answer questions, but to challenge his students to find their own answers. (Oppenheimer 380)
21st Century Literacy
My research branched out into two different paths when considering the concept of 21st century literacy: the larger impact on a student's entire culture and specific skills pupils should be learning in school. Some experts, such as Gee, delved into the broader aspects of how all human beings were affected by the increasing degree of technological complexity, while others, such as November, Richardson, Nimz and Michel, narrowed their foci to more specific, pedagogical concerns. Gee reminded readers that "We didn't come smart out of the box" (6-7) and argues in favor of a "synchronized intelligence, . . . a well-coordinated dance among humans and tools in the service of a better world." (171) Jeff Dunn's chart also illustrates this dichotomy. (Appendix graphic # 2) He coins the term "affinity space," where people with similar interests can exchange information on the internet and improve their situation, whether it's as simple as a grandmother and her granddaughter becoming proficient at customizing aspects of the Sims game online, and thereby dispelling loneliness or feeling helpless, or a more profound sense of what form education could take in the future. Gee criticizes many aspects of current college life reinforcing class differences and keeping people from feeling empowered, but envisions the possibility of a different kind of college, with "hundreds of linked spaces . . . People graduate when they have found a passion through a trajectory of different interests they have pursued in the search for that passion. Their "major" is constituted by the significant contributions they have made to the affinity space or spaces devoted to their passion." (179)
On a smaller scale Nimz and Michel argue that many important skills of the past—the "3 R's" of "readin,' 'ritin' and 'rithmatic of half a century ago—are still relevant today. "Students need to learn to read—whether they learn from a book on paper or on a screen. They need to learn to write, not just use a keyboard." (24) They also refute a typical student of today's protest, "Why do I need to know anything? I can just Google it" with the argument for mastery of knowledge in their content area. Do you really want an ophthalmologist standing over you during laser surgery, they ask, saying "Wait, let me Google that"? (32) Just as we want teachers to possess a deep and wide knowledge of their content area, so is it important for students to pursue their career choices with similar depth.
Alan November stresses that "learning how to learn is the most essential 21st century educational goal." Simply adding technology won't help much. (14) He cites Daniel Pink's claim that the most "important predictors of high-quality work are autonomy, mastery and purpose." (13) He reinforces what I mentioned in the section about teachers, that "Teaching . . . doesn't require a strong command of specific technical tools and skills; instead, it leverages educators' ability to tap the underestimated value of student contribution." (18) Teachers need "clear evidence of student learning, but they also empower students to be more autonomous and more collaborative." (19)
November's book, Who Owns the Learning?, serves as a good model for a teacher resource book: not only does it provide up-to-the-minute examples and information, but it also has QR (Quick Reader) squares, which allow the reader to jump almost immediately to related web sites and in several cases, to informative TED Talks videos by November, Michael Wesch, Eli Pariser and others. November suggested a handful of key traits for specific 21st century literary skills: tutorial designer (learning to write and make short videos), scribe (recording and archiving live discussions within a class and between video conferences with groups at other physical locations), researcher, and global communicator and collaborator. He also offers examples of many teacher and student blogs and wikis, as do Serim, Nimz and Michel, and provides specific case studies, such as the local history textbook wiki, which the students of two middle school history teachers, Garth Holman and Michael Pennington, 36 miles apart, constructed. Pennington said, "From the beginning, it's been students doing it because they want to leave that digital footprint" and Garth added, ""Empowerment holds the key to their motivation." (November 83-84)
Researching Effectively in the Age of the Internet
One of the most beneficial aspects of my research is that I will return to my classroom more confident and ready to teach my students effective 21st century digital research. As I mentioned in the annotated bibliography, Alan November's chapter 4, "The Student as Researcher," goes into great detail about intelligent and thoughtful searches on the Internet. He warns that "The web has its own specific architecture of information, its own grammar, punctuation and syntax, its own way of storing and retrieving information." (50) He suggests four useful search engines (Twitter, Google's advanced search tools, Wolframt, Alpha, and Diigo) and provides many examples of both inaccurate if not intellectually negligent searching by students, and then concrete steps to prevent this. "One of the most astonishing gaps in many students' educations is their inability to validate information on the internet . . . We must train them to apply the same rigor and discipline to their online research that they apply to other skills across the curriculum." (51)
Gee cautions teachers against blindly accepting a textbook as "fact," since they are often sourced backwards without the writers always starting with primary sources or knowing their field well. (127) Case studies again offered contrasts, such as Oppenheimer observing that on the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some teachers employed minimal, knee-jerk responses that leaned towards mere patriotism and propaganda, whereas more savvy teachers used the opportunity as a chance "for students to ponder the new complexities in international relations (sometimes through role-laying) and to pursue the questions that arise from such exercises." (190-191) "If we only teach one skill to prepare our students to survive in a web-based world,' November posits, "it should be that of critical thinking in the analysis of online information."(62
Nimz and Michel share a personal anecdote about Michel's setting off on a family trip, using only his iPhone as a map, and having his 10-year-old daughter as head navigator. As is so often the case of digital media, "All is going well, until it isn't," and they wish they had not abandoned their paper maps and atlases. "There is where mindset—especially a mindset raised on technology—demonstrates that the medium is not the most crucial element to finding your way; rather, it is the flexibility of your thinking that makes all the difference." (137) We want out students to be able to use technology as valuable tools, but not to be overly dependent on it. "Don't demean the tool," they add. Empower students to be able to use a wide variety of them, and to know which might be best to use when. (138)
Dr. Dweck's entire book centers around the concept that "too many humans are trapped in a "Fixed Mindset," where their "qualities are carved in stone . . . which creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over" and to fear taking risks." Instead, she urges people to embrace a "growth mindset" "based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your effort . . . everyone can change and grow through application and experience." (Dweck 6-7) Many adolescents suffer from the "anxiety of being de-throned," too worried about A.P. course or apprehension of being accepted to the right college. By switching from the traditional role of teacher and instead being more of a facilitator of student responsibility, schools can help students to embrace a growth mindset. November and Serim's books supply many positive case histories, where students and teachers have together created wikis, collaborated with other schools, and been more motivated and more successful, with a careful and intelligent use of technology. As Anna Switzer, a principal of P.S. 234 put it, "Kids should be producers of knowledge, not just consumers." (Oppenheimer 353)
"We stray often when we read [printed material]," neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf admits, but not in the negative way distracted readers of digital media often do. "Biologically and intellectually, reading allows the species to go "beyond the information given" to create endless thoughts most beautiful and wonderful. We must not lose this essential quality in our present moment of historical transition to new ways of acquiring, processing and comprehending information." (16-17) The definition of "close reading" is exactly what it sounds like, "reading to uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension." (Boyles) In her article, the author cites a more detailed description of the process from The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC):
Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (PARCC, 2011, p. 7)
The best students do employ metacognition, "thinking about their thinking," but through an electronic version of this in discussion threads, they can also examine how classmates are thinking about their thinking as well. Socrates observed that the unexamined life is not worth living. English teachers might argue that the unexamined book has not been truly experienced.
The TeachThought staff provides an illuminating graphic (see image # 1 in the appendix) for both teachers and student scribes, who might be in charge of categorizing or organizing daily comments posting on a class web page. The color-coded "Where is your thinking?" chart breaks student close reading into three areas:
Within: summaries, sequence of events, conflict/resolution, etc. Mostly recall and other lower-level Bloom's Taxonomy (which, to clarify, is perfectly fine as a starting point in examining text).
Beyond: Inferring, implicit ideas, evaluation, etc. Mostly mid-to-upper-level Bloom's Taxonomy.
About: Author purpose, author style, characterization, etc. Mostly mid-level Bloom's Taxonomy ("20 Reflective Questions To Help Students Respond To Common Core Texts")
Boyles also supplies some useful guidelines. "Teaching is about transfer. The goal is for students to take what they learn from the study of one text and apply it to the next text they read." (Boyles)
Carr, an early critic of how severely technology changes human brains, offers a segue between the deep reading I want to preserve, and how it can lead to stronger students.
The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author's words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking. (Carr)
From those "quiet spaces" and "deep thinking," a classroom teacher can then encourage meaningful discussion of how the reader perceives the writer's ideas, and ultimately, how careful recording of these thoughts on paper and screen, can create a class-wide archive of reflection on the work.
Talking about what a student has just read is one of the least technological ways of understanding literature, yet it remains one of the most reliable. Proust understood a crucial paradox of verbal literacy: "the goal of reading is to go beyond the author's ideas to thoughts that are increasingly autonomous, transformative and ultimately independent of the written text. From the child's first, halting attempts to decipher letters, the experience of reading is not so much an end in itself as it is our best vehicle to a transformed mind, and literally and figuratively, to a changed brain." (Wolf 17-18) I used this phrase for the title of my final report, because Proust's imagery might apply to capturing and extending this "best vehicle" to include effective use of technology.
Examining the nature of good discussion can allow us to extend it successfully into its technological offshoots. Teachers from Socrates right on down have been employing group discussion to encourage this kind of thinking, and such discussion should remain at the heart of learning in the twenty-first century. Wassermann stresses listening, attending and apprehending as central goals. These precepts give students "the information they need to formulate an appropriate response that will promote interactive dialogue. It also creates a climate of respect for students, making it safe for all to offer their ideas. . . When the teacher's attention is riveted on a single student, other students become more attentive, knowing that such concentrated focus will inevitably come around to them as well." (Wasserman) She also cautions teachers against the need for certainty, the desire for the ultimate "right answer" or "final answer," and admits, "For teachers taking their first steps into effective classroom discussion, the prospect can be intimidating. For teachers who are comfortable in such territory, the experience is exhilarating." (Wasserman)
"The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer," remarked Henry David Thoreau (Thoreau); this is still true in good classroom discussion today. Kenneth Bruffee also points out the link between good discussion as a means towards written analysis.
We can think because we can talk, and we think in ways we have learned to talk . . . . If thought is internalized public and social talk, then writing of all kinds is internalized talk made public and social again. If thought is internalized conversation, then writing is internalized conversation re-externalized . . . . We converse; we internalize conversation as thought; and then by writing, we re-immerse conversation in its external social medium. (Bruffee 640)
During the several weeks of discussion of Austen's Pride and Prejudice last spring, my 11th graders were regularly writing about the novel in their weekly journals and on small index cards when we ran out of class time for their observations. As I will explain later, I plan to implement these daily thoughts into a more permanent archive, and to invite more interaction between classes of live discussion, as you will see in Section IV: A Simulation of Archived Student Comments and Teacher Commentary for Online Discussion of Pride and Prejudice. As Barton, Heilker and Rutkowski note, "classroom discussion functions best when students are talking to students. Indeed, our goal is to get as many students involved in talking to one another as possible and for the teacher to fade into the background." (Barton et al) With the ongoing threads of comments on the Schoology web pages, students will have a greater chance to post questions and reply to classmates.
Archiving Marginal Notes
In Heather Wolfe and Bill Sherman's scholarly examinations of marginalia of Elizabeth texts, they offer further connection between good class discussion and how a teacher can use the technological tools of the 21st century to expand upon them.
Margins are exciting places, full of possibility. Early modern authors use them to guide readers, emphasize important passages, and add commentary. Early modern readers use them to highlight memorable text and make notes on their reading. Early modern scholars like to hang out in margins in order to witness these interactions, and then draw conclusions about the particular reader(s) or work, or about reading practices in general. This relationship between author, reader, and scholar works well when we think about marginalia in published works as being primarily about reader guidance (printed marginalia) or reader response. (Wolfe and Sherman)
Calvey explained the process on the beginning level: "To read carefully, it is essential that you write "all over" what you read, usually in the margins or between the lines–wherever there is space. Marginal notes will help you to conceptualize the piece as you read and will save you time later on if you have to summarize or discuss it. By annotating, you'll be creating a shorthand version of what you're reading to which you can return later for reference. It's always much easier to navigate something you read a few days ago if you have taken detailed marginal notes." (Careful Reading and Marginal Note-Taking)
Whether my twenty-two AP Writing Juniors wrote their notes about Pride and Prejudice in the margins of their books or on the 2.5" by 3" index cards, they began the dialogue between author and reader. Last Spring that's also where it stopped, to some extent, because I gathered the cards only to award participation credit for high-achieving students who ran out of time before they could vocalize their questions. So as part of the summer fellowship, I typed the nine days and about 240 index cards and inserted them into theoretical online discussion threads in Schoology, the software my school is adopting to replace the previous on-line software. I imagined that at the end of each live discussion, my students posted their comments onto the web course page, and that I had read through them, sometimes replying directly to a particular thought (in italics and indented, with my name first), and writing a "teacher's commentary" at the end of each day, to see what patterns I observed in their understanding of Jane Austen's novel.
People reading this report may either view my approximation of how the nine days would have transpired by going online to the Schoology pages (I will be happy to e-mail you the enrollment key for the asking (email@example.com), or may flip through a separate printed version.
Proust continues to offer revelations about how to maintain the priority of live class discussions, yet incorporate productive aspect of digital media, when describing the ability of reading to elicit our own thinking.
We feel quite truly that our wisdom begins where that of the author ends, and we would like to have him give us answers, while all he can do is give us desires. And these desires he can arouse in us only by making us contemplate the supreme beauty which the last effort of his art has permitted him to reach. But by . . . a law which perhaps signifies that we can receive the truth from nobody, and that we must create it ourselves, that which is the end of their wisdom appears to us as but the beginning of ours. (Wolf 17)
This fall, I envision the following sequence. First, preferably without multiple distractions, my students read a James Thurber short story or a chapter from Austen. Then we discuss the text (the literary kind, not the one sent from cell phones), where I suggest deeper levels of understanding, but also require their own investment in contributing as well. In small groups, but often individually, I will ask them several times a week (since we meet five days out of every seven, usually for 50 minutes, but once for 70 minutes) to post the deepest level of understanding they possess at the moment (For example, "Walter Mitty's switching back and forth from reality to his day dreams was really confusing," or "Elizabeth Bennet seems more like a woman of today's culture than 200 years ago."), or their best question (For example, "Was Mitty really crazy?" or "Did all mothers act like Mrs. Bennet, and spend every waking minute of the day trying to marry off her daughters?").
After a few weeks of my posting at least brief summary comments, probably much shorter than this summer's nine days of Pride and Prejudice example, thanks to the luxury of the summer fellowship, I would like to use Alan November's concept of the student scribe, who summarizes significant information from daily discussion and who would moderate that day's comments and questions in the Schoology discussion thread. (November 39) Students' posting three times a week could segue into longer journal entries and eventually, more formal essays. With sufficient proof of daily understanding, I may re-adjust my need to give as many formal reading comprehension quizzes. I would still assert some guidance and correction of misleading observations, but would hope to sustain regular permanently archived threads more successfully, if I share this work with my students, and they, in turn, can grow in intellectual responsibility and understanding by possessing significant responsibility of the class's learning. (November 47)
At the same time, I disagree with November and Farman, when they advocate maintaining a "back channel" of commentary during class discussion. I do not want students watching a projected LCD screen of prose being typed (a process somehow both fascinating and simultaneously thought-deadening), when they should be doing their own work or listening to others in an on-going class dialogue. To multiply the negative distraction by inviting students to follow a Twitter back channel or a current set of postings on their iPads in Schoology directly violates most of my findings about effective learning. For the first quarter to the first semester, I would start a class cycle of having students come in with a typed comment or question of the previous night's reading, engage in class discussion using both my agenda, but also their comments, and then a few minutes before class ends, have students post their original or revised comments onto our Schoology discussion thread. The class scribe of the day would then post daily notes and make a few observations about the patterns of the comments in the Schoology thread. Then, I would look them over and use them for a brief recap or preview at the start of class the next time we meet. This should limit as much regression or disorganization, especially when I have two sections of the same course, or we are taking five or six weeks to read The Odyssey or Jane Eyre with my Freshmen, or Hamlet or Pride and Prejudice with my Juniors.
When describing her six months of living in a house with three teenagers and no electronic devices, Susan Maushart frequently incorporated her favorite writer, especially when considering the pros and cons of solitary thought and reflection. "By isolating himself at Walden Pond, Thoreau hadn't run away from his life. He'd run toward it." (15) Douglas Rushkoff muses that he could have written one book, or
. . . dozens of articles, hundreds of blog posts and thousands of Tweets . . . Here I am writing opera when people are listening to singles. And taking the time to write or read a whole book on the phenomenon does draw a line in the sand. It means we can stop the onslaught of demands on our attention; we can create a safe space for uninterrupted contemplation; we can give each moment the value it deserves and no more; we can tolerate uncertainty and resist the temptation to draw connections and conclusions before we are ready. . . For just as we can pause, we can also un-pause. (265)
My goal for my English classes this coming year is to create and to maintain Rushkoff's "safe space for uninterrupted contemplation." (265)
In fact, most of my experts did not favor retreating back to the 20th century's less pervasive technology, but rather desired moderation. Wolf cites Edward Tenner's concern about "whether Google promotes a form of information illiteracy and whether there may be unintended negative consequences of such a mode of learning. It would be a shame if brilliant technology were to end up threatening the kind of intellect that produced it." (22) Wolf herself decides
"We do not need to choose between two modes of communication; rather, we must be vigilant not to lose the profound generativity of the reading brain, as we add new dimensions to our intellectual repertoire." (23)
Gee offers a 21st century view of the old "decoding" (reading) and "encoding" (writing) terminology from when I started to teach in the 1970's.
Children today will have to read" (consume) and "Write" (produce) with a whole suite of technologies, including texts, digital tools, and social media of different forms often used in complex combinations with each other. The point is not to keep digital and social media away from kids early, but to build on experiences with these media to create a pathway toward higher-order and complex thinking, skills, talk and texts, just as we want to do with books. (201)
. . . You have to be able to read like a writer (asking how the book is written, why it is written that way, and how it might have been written otherwise), read with critical questions in mind that make you suspend belief in what the book says until you have thought deeply and widely about the matter, and you need to engage in your own writing. Since digital media and social media are (like books) ways of making and taking meaning, the same thing is true for them. (203)
I chuckled self-consciously when Nimz and Michel reminded me of how much humans are creatures of habit with their story of the teacher still using her overhead projector with transparencies, even though she had more high tech equipment available. They suggest taking
"a step or two out of your comfort zone . . . Exceed the limits of your programming. Rebuild and reboot." (139) I have tried to do so this summer, and am eager to meet my new students this fall, with both iPads and old-fashioned books in hand, and want to create both Rushkoff's "safe space" for close reading, class discussion and note taking, but also extend these long-time priorities into the digital media with the iPads being a link with note-taking, sharing and collaborating with their classmates, to construct a larger, permanent archive of their understanding of literature and themselves.
Graphic # 2: (Dunn)
Nine Wrong And 8 Right Ways Students Should Use Technology
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