sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘public schools’ Category

twinning injustice, one social structure at a time

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 2, 2010

My sister, who just finished absolutely destroying her first year of law school, recently announced an interest in pursuing criminal prosecution. Once I overcame my instant misreading of her announcement (don’t blame me; I’m not a morning person), I figured out pretty quickly that my twin sister and I are pursuing vocations that spring from the same moral impulse. To wit: I must serve and defend people who have suffered or will suffer at the hands of others.

It’s just the name–prosecution–that throws us off, makes us think prosecutors are out to punish the bad guys. In certain respects, of course, that’s exactly what prosecutors do–that’s exactly the power we confer to them. But the public interest in punishing the bad guys is an outgrowth of a deeper public impulse: To maintain the social order, to protect our citizens from injustice and victimization, to fight for the good guys.

Protecting people from injustice and victimization. Fighting for the good guys. That’s pretty much what I like to think I’m doing, too, by working in the service of working class kids and kids who are deeply undervalued and underserved by a system that is not designed to help them. I work in defense of those kids. And another way to frame that work is to say that I am a public prosecutor, building a case against a system that’s criminally unjust, criminally cruel.

But here’s where I think Laura and I part company: I believe we need to demolish the social order. I believe that the public education system is deeply, perhaps fatally, flawed, especially for poor kids and minorities, and I believe we need to work to tear it down. That’s the wheel I’m throwing my shoulder against.

Though we haven’t explicitly talked about this, I’m pretty sure my sister believes the criminal justice system is similarly deeply, deeply flawed (see here, here, here, and here)–but it seems to me that her stance is something like “this is the best system we have right now, the only system we have, so we need to use it to protect the innocents and the victims.”

I’m all, fuck the Man and the horse he rode in on! And my sister’s all, yyyeah that’s nice but lookit all these victims who need protecting and defense right now. And I’m all, Yes! And let’s muster up an army made up of those victims and march with them right to the gates of hell if that’s what it takes! And my sister’s all, um, okayyy but this woman was raped and that guy’s son was murdered and this woman was stabbed by her partner and what if we put aside the anger and try to take care of the people who need us right now?

Details, details, right? Laura and I agree that the world is all effed up, and we agree that we are therefore bound to the work of un-effing up things. The rest is just planning.

Advertisements

Posted in crime, education, human rights, law, politics, public schools, racism, twins | 1 Comment »

how Jim Gee and I soothe our guilty consciences

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 8, 2010

In the video below of a presentation to the Education Writers Association 2010 Annual Conference, Jim Gee says this about how to introduce innovative ideas into education:

There’s a choice of strategies here…. One strategy is: Let’s take our innovations to the center of the school system and spread them as fast and quickly as we can. People believe that this current school system as it is will just co-opt those innovations and make them … just better ways to do the old thing. Another strategy is: Let’s make these innovative learning and assessment tools and put them at the margins, in places that will tolerate innovation, and then show it works. Now if you think about it, in technology outside of schools, going to the margins first and then to the center–that’s always been the way innovation happens. The only place we’ve ever tried to keep putting the new thing right in the center at once is in schooling, and it’s never worked. What i would love to see is that we hive of some of the (Race to the Top) money for a national center that would trial these new assessments, show they work in places that tolerate innovation, and then spread them there, just the way you would want if we have to keep coal and oil–let’s at least have something trying out new forms of energy, so that we’re ready for these markets but also we can prove they work. if we don’t do that, we’re just gonna get a better mousetrap.

I absolutely agree with the sentiments in the quote above, except for the BP oil spill. Let’s say there’s some innovative energy research going on in the margins, ready to prove it works and to take over where coal and oil left off. That’s fantastic, and it doesn’t do a single goddamned thing to help the birds, the fish, the sea mammals, the tourist industry, the ecosystem, the fisheries, and the human residents of the Gulf Coast. Those are simply casualties, not a single thing we can do to help them now no matter what awesome innovative fuel source we finally embrace, no matter how much more quickly we may embrace a cleaner fuel source as a result. Even if tomorrow’s birds are safe from Big Oil, today’s birds are drowning right in front of us.

Working at the margins of education is a fantastic way to innovate and offer useful evidence that innovations work. I fully support this approach–but not at the expense of the kids who exist at the center of our education system today. Yes, the school system can and does and maybe always will co-opt any innovation we try to introduce. But that doesn’t excuse us from trying anyway. That doesn’t give us license to give up on today’s children, even if it keeps tomorrow’s children safe.

And of course this isn’t what Jim Gee wants to do, anyway. But the Jim Gees of the world who urge us to work at the margin live in symbiosis with the Jenna McWilliamses of the world who believe we must also work from the center, where–ironically–the most marginalized kids in education commonly reside. I can’t innovate as much as I’d like from the center, maybe I can’t help tomorrow’s marginalized kids as much as I’d like either.  And Jim Gee can’t help today’s marginalized kids as much as he’d probably like from the edges. So we need each other, if for nothing else than to assuage our guilty consciences for being unable to do more of what we know must be done.

I should probably also note that Jim Gee is one of my absolute all-time heroes, so I hope he’s not mad at me for this post.

This video also stars Daniel Schwartz, who I believe is one of the smartest guys thinking about assessment and learning these days. I had the great luck to attend an assessment working group with him and a big crew of assessment-focused researchers, and I was amazed and blown away by just about everything he said.

In a recent publication, Choice-Based Assessments in a Digital Age (.pdf), Schwartz and his co-author Dylan Arena make this argument:

Educational assessment is a normative endeavor: The ideal assessment both reflects and reinforces educational goals that society deems valuable. A fundamental goal of education is to prepare students to act independently in the world—which is to say, to make good choices. It follows that an ideal assessment would measure how well we are preparing students to do so.

I can’t remember when I’ve agreed more emphatically with the introductory sentence of a scholarly article about education.

Here’s the video, which is well worth a watch.

Posted in academia, assessment, education, Jim Gee, journalism, learning sciences, public schools, schools, teaching, technologies, video games | Leave a Comment »

a call for businesses to boycott the Bloomington Herald-Times

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 28, 2010

Tonight will mark the last commencement ceremony for Aurora Alternative High School, whose doors will shut at the end of this school year after 15 years of serving the Bloomington, IN, community.

The Bloomington Herald-Times ran a nice short article about Aurora this morning, which I’m posting in a separate post. I’m posting it here instead of directing you to the article because the Herald-Times has stuck its online content behind a paywall, a decision I oppose deeply. The paywall seems even more wrongheaded and socially irresponsible during times of community crisis, as in, for example, when an economic recession paired with terribly short-sighted and heinously pro-rich tax laws force local school boards to make excruciating decisions about which programs to cut.

The publisher of the Herald-Times, Mayer Maloney, has stood firmly behind the paywall decision from its inception, arguing that it guarantees advertisers’ access to local readers who, because they live in the community, are far more likely to purchase the goods and services being advertised.

Let’s analyze this stance. First, the paywall is not an effort to recruit local readers; it’s an effort to keep non-local readers out. Which means that what happens in Bloomington stays in Bloomington, since the vast majority of readers live or work in the region.

Second, the economic value of a local newspaper is directly related to its community value, and community value is directly related to the newspaper’s penetration into the community it serves. As I’ve mentioned before, the Herald-Times is pretty much the only game in town, which perhaps explains why Maloney feels justified in prioritizing the paper’s value to advertisers over its value to community members. But eventually, I believe this approach will fail the Herald-Times. It’s inevitable that one of the following will happen: Another news outlet will provide good (or good enough) local reporting that will be made freely available to all community members; or, in the absence of another quality news source, a community whose primary news source is sequestered behind a paywall will be a community to whom local news matters less and less. Maloney has said that subscription rates have been steady since the inception of the paywall, and this may be so; but it won’t be so forever.

And even if business remains good at the Herald-Times, this doesn’t justify the social irresponsibility of making news available only to those who are willing to pay. Especially during times of crisis–and let’s not mistake this time for anything less than crisis–access to local news is essential for an engaged, politically active community.

If the Herald-Times refuses to stand down from its short-sighted position on news paywalls, then I call for local businesses to boycott the paper for the good of the community these businesses serve. If the Herald-Times will not heed the needs of its community members, then perhaps it will listen to the groups whose interests do seem to matter.

Posted in journalism, politics, public schools, recession | 11 Comments »

principles for ethical educational research

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 15, 2010

I’ve been thinking lately about the burden of speaking for others.

Because I’m an educational researcher, and speaking for others is the heart of what we do. We walk into a classroom, watch some things happen for a little while, then make decisions about which stories are worth telling, and how, and why, and to whom. And this is precisely what we’re supposed to do. This is precisely why we head into the classroom in the first place: to tell stories about what learning looks like.

But it can be such a heavy burden, this speaking for others. You know the burden is heavy when the simplest challenge is finding a way to represent what happened in a way that everybody would agree is reasonable and accurate. But that’s not where our responsibility ends, because no research findings are politically or socially neutral. Every representation of research is an articulation of a belief system; it’s an expression of a worldview; it’s a document that leads people to act in ways that can help or hurt the populations we hope to represent.

And the burden gets heavier for researchers working with marginalized, oppressed, or disenfranchised populations, since speaking for these groups can so easily fall into a reproduction of the oppression that rains down on them from all around. Paulo Freire warns us against the “false charity” that so often comes from members of dominant groups who wish to help the oppressed:

False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands–whether of individuals or entire peoples–need to be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.

It seems to me that false charity emerges when a person becomes too confident that she knows and understands the needs and interests of the oppressed groups she hopes to represent. False charity can therefore look like an awful lot of things: Research focusing on vocational education for poor kids. (Why would we dare to assume working class kids wouldn’t want to go to college?) Research showing working class kids are capable of doing college-level work. (Using college readiness as our measure of ‘success’ allows policymakers to continue to make decisions that assume that college readiness is the most important goal, thereby continuing to marginalize kids for whom college is neither desired nor possible.) Research documenting the learning trajectories of immigrant students. (We’re at a cultural point at which nearly anything that’s said about immigrants, especially in America, can be twisted to hurt the very populations it’s intended to help.)

I’ve been working in a small alternative high school populated primarily by lower class and working-class kids. I’ve seen miracles happen in this school for many of its students, and I’ve met graduates of the school who talk about their time in the school as the most powerful and important educational experience of their lives. Sitting in a classroom in this school, or walking down its halls, or talking to its students, reminds me of how powerfully transformative an education can be. I wish you could all spend a day at this school. You would walk out joyful, hopeful and optimistic about the future of our children. You would walk out with a renewed faith in human beings.

But you won’t get the chance to visit this school, because the school board decided to shut it down. I probably don’t need to tell you that I think this is a mistake. I further believe that the decision to close this school was motivated by a deep cultural prejudice against poor kids. We don’t often say it out loud, but we hold a cultural belief that a child’s value is largely determined by the likelihood that she will go to college; our culture is embarrassed by its children who are poor, who live in rented houses or youth shelters or foster care, who are not college-bound. Our society is built on the backs of these kids; we need their labor to keep our society running–and this need only embarrasses us all the more.

It’s the job of researchers who work with marginalized populations to represent their research in a way that not only serves the best interests of those populations but also helps to rewrite the cultural narrative that keeps these populations oppressed. It’s not easy work, simple work, or quick work, but it’s necessary work.

With these things in mind, I want to offer a set of principles for educational research that I hope can help guide researchers in our work with marginalized populations–and maybe our work with all sorts of learning populations.

1. We exist in the service of the communities we work for. I have to believe that when we forget this, it’s on accident. But we must never, ever forget that our work should first of all support the needs and interests of both the learners and the educators working inside of our chosen learning communities. This means that we have to actually talk to the learners and educators to find out what they want, and we have to take them at their word and not, for example, guess that if they knew more about the world they’d want something different.

2. We exist to serve the needs and interests of the communities we work for. It is not our job to decide whether a community’s interests are good or right; it’s only our job to work in service of those interests. If a researcher can’t get behind the stated needs and interests of the members of her chosen research community, then she needs to find another community to research.

3. It’s our job to represent our work in ways that support ethical decisions by policymakers and external stakeholders. Educational researchers serve as an important bridge between learning communities and policymakers who make decisions about the futures of those communities. One of our most essential roles is to represent research findings in a way that is clear and useful to policymakers while also representing to those policymakers findings that support the needs and interests of the communities we serve. I’m not saying this is easy. I’m just saying it’s essential.

4. All educational research is social activism, and all educational researchers are social activists. There is no such thing as politically neutral educational research. Let me say that again: There is no such thing as politically neutral educational research. All statements of research findings are statements of a belief system about the role of education, and all researchers must therefore do research that both aligns with and serves to articulate that belief system. Further, all researchers must make their belief system clear, to themselves, to the communities they work for, and to policymakers who make decisions about those communities. They must always ensure that their belief system aligns with the needs and interests of the communities they work for, and if there is a conflict then the community’s interests always trump the belief system of its researchers. If the ethical conflict is irreconcilable, then the researcher must find another community to represent.

Here I want to crib a quote from Jim Gee, who laid out his own set of principles for ethical human behavior in his book Social Linguistics and Literacies. After describing these principles, he made this declaration:

I would claim that all human beings would, provided they understood them, accept these conceptual principles. Thus, failing to live up to them, they would, for consistency’s sake, have to morally condemn their own behavior. However, I readily admit that, should you produce people who, understanding these principles, denied them, or acted as though they did, I would not give up the principles. Rather, I would withhold the term ‘human’, in its honorific, not biological, sense, from such people.

This declaration was made in the second edition of Gee’s book; if you own the third edition, don’t bother looking for the quote–for reasons that are unclear to me, he removed it and instead simply asserts that we really shouldn’t bother trying to change the minds of people who disagree with these ethical principles. I want to call for a return to the stronger language. Given the incredibly high stakes of public education in America, we don’t have time for politeness. We’re in a fight for the very lives of the students we serve, and it may be that too much politeness is what got us here in the first place.

Posted in bigotry, education, human rights, Jim Gee, politics, public schools, schools, social justice, teaching | 4 Comments »

notes on being the chainsaw you wish to see in the world: Closing remarks for the AERA 2010 annual meeting

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 6, 2010

I just got back from my first trip to the annual meeting of AERA, the American Educational Research Association. AERA is apparently the biggest educational research conference in America. I had a fantastic time (highlight: I got to have dinner with Jim Gee!) and my presentation went well (highlight: I argued with the panel’s discussant over why thinking about gender inequity isn’t enough if you’re not also thinking about class inequity!), and I don’t think I made too much of a fool out of myself.

I really enjoyed my first trip to this conference, though when I got home I learned from others that there are significant challenges to be made about the structure, format, and ethos of AERA. I am coming around to that way of thinking and will post my thoughts on this soon.
For now, though, I want to share with you the paper I had to writereallyfast when I got back from the conference. It’s a final paper for a course on computational technologies, and because I was thinking about AERA, social justice, and why the conference’s biggest events mostly featured staid, mainstream thinkers, I decided to write the paper as closing remarks for the conference. I am sure that once the AERA organizers read my closing remarks, they will invite me to deliver next year’s closing remarks in person. I am also available to deliver opening remarks and keynote addresses.

Notes on being the chainsaw you wish to see in the world: On a critical computational literacy agenda for a time of great urgency
Closing Remarks for the AERA Annual Meeting
Jenna McWilliams, Indiana University
May 4, 2010

I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak this evening, at the close of this year’s annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

I want to talk to you tonight about the nature of urgency.

Because urgency characterizes the work we do, doesn’t it? The education of our children—our efforts to prepare them to join in on this beautiful and necessary project of naming and claiming the world—it is certainly a matter of the deepest urgency. Even more so because of the war being waged over the bodies and minds of our children.

It’s a war whose contours are deeply familiar to many of us—more so the longer we have been a part of this struggle over education. Certainly the issues we’re fighting over have limned the edges of our educational imagination for generations: How do we know what kids know? How can we prepare them for success in their academic, vocational, and life pursuits? What should schools look like, and how can we fill our schools up with qualified teachers who can do their jobs well? No matter what else, then, at least we’re continuing to ask at least some of the right questions.

Yet a deeper than normal sense of urgency has characterized this year’s annual meeting. It was a “hark ye yet again” sort of urgency: We stood, once again, on a knife’s edge, waiting for word of legislative decisions to be passed down from the policymakers—among whom there are very few educational researchers—to the researchers—among whom there are very few policymakers.

And what sorts of decisions were we waiting to hear on? The same sorts we’ve been wringing our hands over for a decade or more: Decisions over the standardization of education. Development of a proposed set of Common Core Standards whose content seemed painfully anemic to many of us. We’re waiting to learn whether teacher pay will be linked to student performance on standardized tests. Massive budget cuts leading to termination of teachers and programs—these certainly feel familiar to us, though the scope of these cuts and the potential consequences of these decisions seem to loom larger than ever before. The decision by the Texas Department of Education to pervert and politicize its K-12 curriculum by removing references to historical events and even terminology that might offend members of the political Right-—the specifics are new, but the story feels familiar.

A call to action was paired with the clanging of the alarm bells. Ernest Morrell told us that he had counseled his kids to prepare presentations that not only described their work and achievements but that also included a call to action. “I told them, ’Don’t let them leave this room without marching orders’,” he said. “We need to do better. AERA needs to do better.”

He’s right, of course. And I plan to heed Ernest’s advice and not let you leave this room without your marching orders. But first I want to explore the edges of this new urgency, explain why critical computational literacy is part and parcel of the urgency of this moment, and explain exactly what I mean by the term.

There are at least two reasons for the acuteness of the urgency that has characterized this year’s AERA conference. The first is that many of us had hoped for something more, something better, something more honorable from the Obama administration. After eight years living in a political wasteland, many of us felt a glee all out of proportion with reality upon hearing Barack Obama’s position on educational issues. We felt hope. Even a warm half cup of water can feel like a long, tall drink when you’ve just walked out of a desert.

It’s a long revolution, you know. And if Obama authorizes something that looks very much like No Child Left Behind, and if he mandates merit pay based on student performance on standardized tests, and if the recent changes made by the religious right to the Texas state history curriculum stand, and if school board nationwide continue to make terrible, terrible decisions about how to cut costs, and if we see the largest teacher layoff in our history and class sizes creep up to 40 students per room and if computers get taken over by test prep programs and remedial tutoring systems, well, we’ll do our best to live to fight another day. The other day, I listened to Jim Gee talking about his deep anger at the people who run our education system. But he also said something we should all take to heart: “I’ll fight them until I’m dead,” he said. Let’s embrace this position. If they want to claim the hearts and minds of our children, let’s make it so they do it over our cold, dead bodies.

Let’s not let ourselves begin to believe that the stakes are any lower than they actually are. This is the second reason for the urgency this year: There is the very real prospect that the decisions we make within our educational system will get taken up by education departments across the globe. Around 30 of us attended an early-morning session called “Perspectives From the Margins: Globalization, Decolonization, and Liberation.” The discussants, Michael Apple and Dave Stovall, spoke with great eloquence about the nature of this urgency. You’ll forgive me for secretly recording and then transcribing a piece of each of their talks here.

Michael Apple, responding to a powerful presentation on rural science education by researcher Jeong-Hee Kim and teacher-researcher Deb Abernathy, spoke of the far-reaching implications of the local decisions we make:

As we sit here, I have people visiting me from China. They are here to study No Child Left Behind, and they are here to study performance pay. All of the decisions we make that that principal and Deb and you are struggling against are not just struggles in the United States, they are truly global—so that the decisions we make impact not just the kids in the rural areas of the United State, but the rural areas of the people who are invisible, the same people who deconstruct our computers.

Dave Stovall, from the University of Illinois in Chicago, underscored the need to think of the global implications of the policy decisions that intersect within the realm of education:

Arizona is Texas is Greece is Palestine is where we are. This day and time is serious. When a person in Texas cannot say the world capitalism in a public school, we live in serious times. When a person in Arizona can be taken out of a classroom at five years old, to never return, we live in serious times. When we can rationalize in the state of Illinois and city of Chicago that having 5 grams of heroin on a person accounts for attempted murder, we’re living in different times. When we can talk about in Palestine that young folks have now been deemed the most violent threat to the Israeli state, we’re living in different times. And now, how do we engage and interrupt those narratives based again on the work we do?

These times are different and serious, and talking about critical computational literacy may make me look a little like Nero with his fiddle. But critical computational literacy, or indeed its paucity in our education system, is the dry kindling that keeps Rome burning.

I’ll explain why. Let’s talk for a minute about another Apple, the electronics company Apple Corp. The year 2010 marked the release of Apple’s iPad, a tablet computer designed as a multipurpose information and communication tool. Despite mixed reviews of its usability and features, records show an estimated 500,000 units sold between pre-orders and purchases in the first week after the iPad’s release.

This has been accompanied by a push for consideration of the iPad’s utility for education, especially higher education, with schools working to develop technical support for iPad use on campus and at least one university, Seton Hall, promising to provide all incoming freshmen with iPads along with Macbooks. One question—-how might the iPad transform education?-—has been the topic of conversation for months.

“The iPad,” crowed Neil Offen in the Herald-Sune (2010), “could be more than just another way to check your e-mail or play video games. It has the potential to change the way teachers teach and students learn.”

Certainly, these conversations reflect a positive shift in attitudes about what comprises literacy in the 21st Century. If you attended the fantastic symposium on Sunday called “Leveraging What We Know: A Literacy Agenda for the 21st Century,” you heard from the panelists a powerfully persuasive argument that “literacy” is no longer simple facility with print media. Indeed, facility with print media may still be necessary, but it’s no longer sufficient. As the emergence of the iPad, the Kindle, and similar literacy tools make evident, the notion of “text” has become more aligned with Jay Lemke’s (2006) description of “multimedia constellations”—loose groupings of hypermediated, multimodal texts that exist “not just in the imagination of literary theorists, but in simple everyday fact” (pg. 4). Add to this the ongoing contestation of the tools we use to access and navigate those constellations of social information, and the urgency of a need to shift how we approach literacy becomes increasingly obvious.

As anyone who works in the literacy classroom knows, this is by no means a simple task. This task is complicated even further by the dark side of this new rhetoric about literacy: There’s a technological determinism hiding in there, an attitude that suggests an educational edition of Brave New Worldism. Offen’s celebration of the iPad aligns with the approach of Jeremy Roschelle and his colleagues (2000), who a decade ago trumpeted the transformative potential of a range of new technologies. In explaining that “certain computer-based applications can enhance learning for students at various achievement levels,” they offer descriptions of
promising applications for improving how and what children learn. The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ are separated because not only can technology help children learn things better, it also can help them learn better things” (pg. 78, emphasis mine).

More recently, the media scholar Henry Jenkins (2006) described the increasingly multimodal nature of narratives and texts as “convergence culture.” As corporate and private interests, beliefs, and values increasingly interact through cheaper, more powerful and more ubiquitous new technologies, Jenkins argues, our culture is increasingly defined by the collision of media platforms, political ideologies, and personal affinities. Jenkins celebrates the emergence of this media convergence, arguing that “(i)n the world of media convergence, every important story gets told, every brand gets sold, and every consumer gets courted across multiple media platforms” (pg. 3).

Brave new world, indeed. But there is reason to wear a raincoat to this pool party, as a cursory examination of the developing “Apple culture” of electronics confirms. The iPad, celebrated as a revolution in personal computing, communication, and productivity—and marketed as an essential educational tool—is a tool with an agenda. The agenda is evident in Apple’s decision to block the educational visual programming software Scratch: Though Apple executives have claimed that applications like Scratch may cause the iPad to crash, others argue that the true motivation behind this decision is to block a tool that supports media production. The Scratch application allows users to build new applications for the iPad, which Bruckman (2010) suggests goes far beyond Apple’s unstated interest in designing its products primarily for media consumption.

There is no closest competitor to the iPad, so users who want to leverage the convenience, coolness, and computing power of this product must resign themselves to the tool Apple provides. Similarly, as Apple develops its growing monopoly in entertainment (iPods), communications (iPhone), and portable computing (Macbook), Apple increasingly has the power to decide what stories to tell, and why, and how.

Now let’s go back to the other Apple, Michael Apple, who argues quite convincingly about the colonization of the space of the media by the political right wing (2006). We have, he argues, politicians deciding what we pay attention to, and we have corporations deciding how we pay attention to it. This makes the need for critical computational literacy even more important than ever before. Perhaps it’s more important than anything else, though I’ll leave that to the historians to decide.

What is this thing I’m calling “critical computational literacy”? Since I’m almost the only person using this term, I want to start by defining it. It has its roots in computational literacy, which in itself bears defining. Andy diSessa (2001) cautions us against confusing computational literacy with “computer literacy,” which he describes as being able to do things like turning on your computer and operating many of its programs. His definition of computational literacy, he explains, makes computer literacy look “microscopic” in comparison (p. 5). For him, computational literacy is a “material intelligence” that is “achieved cooperatively with external materials” (p. 6).

This is a good start in defining computational literacy but probably still not enough. And please do remember that I will not let you leave this room without marching orders; and if I want you to know what to do, I have to finish up the definition. Let’s add to diSessa’s definition a bit of the abstraction angle given to us by Jeanette Wing (2008), who shifts the focus slightly to what she labels “computational thinking.” She describes this as

a kind of analytical thinking. It shares with mathematical thinking in the general ways in which we might approach solving a problem. It shares with engineering thinking in the general ways in which we might approach designing and evaluating a large, complex system that operates within the constraints of the real world. It shares with scientific thinking in the general ways in which we might approach understanding computability, intelligence, the mind and human behaviour. (pg. 3716)

For Wing, the essential component of computational thinking is working with abstraction, and she argues that an education in computational thinking integrates the “mental tool” (capacity for working with multiple layers of abstraction) with the “metal tool” (the technologies that support engagement with complex, abstract systems).

So. We have diSessa’s “material intelligence” paired with Wing’s “computational thinking”—a fair enough definition for my purposes. But what does it look like? That is, how do we know computational literacy when we see it?

The answer is: it depends. Though we have some nice examples that can help make visible what this version of computational literacy might look like. Kylie Peppler and Yasmin Kafai (2007), who by the way have a new book out on their work with the Computer Clubhouse project (you can buy a copy up at the book fair), offer instructive examples of children working with Scratch. Jorge and Kaylee, their two case studies, are learners who make creative use of a range of tools to build projects that extend, as far as their energy and time will allow, the boundaries of what is possible to make through a simple visual programming language. Bruce Sherin, Andy diSessa, and David Hammer (1993) give an example of their work with Dynaturtle to advance a theory of “design as a learning activity”; in their example, learners work with the Boxer programming language to concretize abstract thought.

Certainly, these are excellent examples of computational literacy in action. But I would like to humbly suggest that we broaden our understanding of this term far beyond the edges of programming. Computational literacy might also be a form of textual or visual literacy, as learners develop facility with basic html code and web design. It might be the ability to tinker—to actually, physically tinker, with the hardware of their electronics equipment. This is something that’s typically frowned upon, you know. Open up your Macbook or your iPhone and your warranty is automatically null and void. This is not an accident; this is part of the black box approach of electronics design that I described earlier.

Which leads me to the “critical” component of computational literacy. This is no time for mindless tinkering; we are faced with a war whose terms have been defined for us by members of the political Right, and whose battles take place through tools and technologies whose uses have been defined for us by corporate interests. Resistance is essential. In the past, those who resisted the agendas of software designers and developers were considered geeks and freaks; they were labeled “hackers” and relegated to the cultural fringes (Kelty 2008). Since then, we have seen an explosion in access to and affordability of new technologies, and the migration to digitally mediated communication is near-absolute. The penetration of these technologies among young people is most striking: (include statistics). Suddenly, the principles that make up the “hacker ethos” (Levy, 1984) take on new significance for all. Suddenly, principles that drove a small subset of our culture seem more like universal principles that might guide cultural takeup of new technologies:

  • Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total.
  • All information should be free.
  • Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not criteria such as degrees, age, race, sex, or position.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change your life for the better. (Levy 1984)

If these principles seem overtly ideological, overtly libertarian, that’s because they are. And I’m aware that in embracing these principles I run the risk of alienating a fairly significant swath of my audience. But there’s no time for gentleness. This is no time to hedge. I believe, as Michael Apple and Dave Stovall and Rich Ayers and others have argued persuasively and enthusiastically, that we are fighting to retrieve the rhetoric of education from the very brink. It’s impossible to fight a political agenda with an apolitical approach. We must fight now for our very future.

That’s the why. Now I’d like to tackle the how. If we want our kids to emerge from their schooling experience with the mindset of critical computational literacy, we need to first focus on supporting development of critical computational literacy in our teachers. They, too, are subject to all of the pressures I listed earlier, and add to the mix at least one more: They are subject to the kind of rhetoric that Larry Cuban (1986) reminds us has characterized talk of bringing new technologies into the classroom since at least the middle of the 20th century. As he researched the role of technologies like radio, film, and television in schools, he described the challenges of even parsing textual evidence of technologies’ role:

Television was hurled at teachers. The technology and its initial applications to the classroom were conceived, planned, and adopted by nonteachers, just as radio and film had captured the imaginations of an earlier generation of reformers interested in improving instructional productivity…. Reformers had an itch and they got teachers to scratch it for them. (p. 36)

This certainly hearkens, does it not, of the exhortation of Jeremy Roschelle and his colleagues? I repeat:

promising applications for improving how and what children learn. The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ are separated because not only can technology help children learn things better, it also can help them learn better things.

Teachers are also faced with administrators who say things like these quotes, taken from various online conversations about the possible role of the iPad in education.

I absolutely feel the iPad will revolutionize education. I am speaking as an educator here. All it needs are a few good apps to accomplish this feat.

Tablets will change education this year and in the future because they align neatly with the goals and purposes of education in a digital age.

And finally, the incredibly problematic:

As an educational administrator for the last eleven years, and principal of an elementary school for the past seven…after spending three clock hours on the iPad, it is clearly a game changer for education.

Three hours. Three hours, and this administrator is certain that this, more than any previous technology, will transform learning as we know it. Pity the teachers working at his school, and let’s hope that when the iPad gets hurled at them they know how to duck.

We must prepare teachers to resist. We must prepare them to make smart, sound decisions about how to use technologies in the classroom and stand tall in the face of outside pressures not only from political and corporate interests but from well-meaning administrators and policymakers as well. There is a growing body of evidence that familiarity with new tools is—just like print literacy—necessary but not sufficient for teachers in this respect.

There is evidence, however, that experience with new technologies when paired with work in pedagogical applications of those technologies can lead to better decision-making in the classroom. I recommend the following three-part battle plan:

First, we need to start building a background course in new media theory and computational thinking into our teacher education programs. My home institution, Indiana University, requires exactly one technology course, and you can see from the description that it does its best to train pre-service teachers in the use of PowerPoint in the classroom:

W 200 Using Computers in Education (1-3 cr.)Develops proficiency in computer applications and classroom software; teaches principles and specific ideas about appropriate, responsible, and ethical use to make teaching and learning more effective; promotes critical abilities, skills, and self-confidence for ongoing professional development.

Fortunately, we can easily swap this course out for one that focuses on critical computational literacy, since the course as designed has little practical use for new teachers.

Second, we need to construct pedagogy workshops that stretch from pre-service to early in-service teachers. These would be designed to support lesson development within a specific domain, so that all English teachers would work together, all Math teachers, all Science teachers, and so on. This could stretch into the early years of a teacher’s service and support the development of a robust working theory of learning and instruction.

Finally, we might consider instituting ongoing collaborative lesson study so that newer teachers can collaborate with veteran teachers across disciplines. I offer this suggestion based on my experience working in exactly this environment over the last year. In this project, teachers meet monthly to discuss their curricula and to share ideas and plan for future collaborative projects. They find it intensely powerful and incredibly useful as they work to integrate computational technologies into their classrooms.

I’m near the end of my talk and would like to finish with a final set of marching orders. If we want to see true transformation, we need first to tend our own gardens. Too often—far, far too far too often—we educational researchers treat teachers as incidental to our interventions. At the risk of seeming like an Apple fanboy, I return once again to the words of Michael Apple, who argued brilliantly this week that it’s time to rethink how we position teachers in our work. We say we want theory to filter down to the “level” of practice; the language of levels, Apple says, is both disingenuous and dangerous. Let’s tip that ladder sideways, he urges us, and he is absolutely correct. We live and work in the service of students first, and teachers second. We should not forget this. We should take care to speak accordingly.

These are your marching orders: To bring the message of critical computational literacy and collaboration during this time of great urgency back to your home institutions, to the sites where you work, to the place where you work shoulder to shoulder with other researchers, practitioners, and students. I urge you to stand and to speak, loudly, and with as much eloquence as you can muster, about the issues of greatest urgency to you. This is no time to speak softly. This is no time to avoid offense. In times of great urgency, it’s not enough to be the change we wish to see in the world; we need to be the chainsaws that we wish to see in the world. That is what I hope you will do when you leave this convention center. Thank you.

References
Apple, M.W. (2006). Educating the “right” way: Markets, standards, God, and inequality. New York: Routledge.
Bruckman, A (2010, April 15). iPhone application censorship (blog post). The next bison: Social computing and culture. Retrieved at http://nextbison.wordpress.com/2010/04/15/iphone-application-censorship/.
Carnoy, M. (2008, August 1). McCain and Obama’s educational policies: Nine things you need to know. The Huffington Post. Retrieved at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/martin-carnoy/mccain-and-obamas-educati_b_116246.html.
Carter, D. (2010, April 5). Developers seek to link iPad with education. eSchool News. Retrieved from http://www.eschoolnews.com/2010/04/05/ipad-app-store-has-wide-selection-of-education-options/.
Cuban, L. (1986). Teachers and machines. New York: Teachers College Press.
diSessa, A. A. (2000). Changing minds : Computers, learning, and literacy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kelty, C. (2008). Two bits: The cultural significance of free software. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Kolakowski, N. (2010). Apple iPad, iPhone Expected to Boost Quarterly Numbers. eWeek, April 18, 2010. Retrieved at http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Desktops-and-Notebooks/Apple-iPad-iPhone-Expected-to-Boost-Quarterly-Numbers-825932/.
Korn, M. (2010). iPad Struggles at Some Colleges. Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2010. Retrieved at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703594404575192330930646778.html?mod=WSJ_Tech_LEFTTopNews.
Lemke, J. (2006). Toward Critical Multimedia Literacy: Technology, research, and politics. In M.C. McKenna et al. (Eds.), International handbook of literacy and technology: Volume II. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc. (3-14).
Levy, S 1984. Hackers: Heroes of the computer revolution. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.
McCrae, B. (2010, Jan. 27). Measuring the iPad’s potential for education. T|H|E Journal. Retrieved from http://thejournal.com/articles/2010/01/27/measuring-the-ipads-potential-for-education.aspx.
New York Times (2010, March 17). Editorial: Mr. Obama and No Child Left Behind. New York Times Editorial Page. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/18/opinion/18thu1.html.
Offen, N. (2010, Jan. 28). The iPad and education. The Herald-Sun. Retrieved from http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/5680899/article-The-iPad—education?instance=main_article.
PBS (2010, Jan. 7). How will the iPad change education? PBS TeacherLine Blog. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/teacherline/blog/2010/01/how-will-the-ipad-change-education/.
Peppler, K. A., & Kafai, Y. B. (2007). From SuperGoo to Scratch: exploring creative digital media production in informal learning. Learning, Media and Technology, 32(2), 149-166.
Roschelle, J. M., Pea, R. D., Hoadley, C. M., Gordin, D. N., & Means, B. M. (2000). Changing how and what children learn in school with computer-based technologies. The future of children, 10(2), 76–101.
Sherin, B., DiSessa, A. A., & Hammer, D. M. (1993). Dynaturtle revisited: Learning physics through collaborative design of a computer model. Interactive Learning Environments, 3(2), 91-118.
Smith, E. (2010, April 16). The Texas Curriculum Massacre. Newsweek. Retrieved at http://www.newsweek.com/id/236585.
Wing, J. M. (2008). Computational thinking and thinking about computing. Philosophical Transactions A, 366(1881), 3717-3717.

 

**Update, 5/6/10, 1:09 p.m.: I have changed this post slightly to remove an unfair attack against a presenter at this year’s AERA Annual Meeting. He points out in the comments section below that my attack was unfair, and I agree and have adjusted the post accordingly.

Posted in academia, computational literacy, conferences, convergence culture, education, graduate school, Henry Jenkins, Jim Gee, Joshua Danish, President Obama, public schools, schools, teaching, Twitter | 7 Comments »

as goes Detroit…

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 22, 2010

file under: if you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention.

I knew the recession had hit Michigan, my home state, harder than it’s hit any other place in the country; I knew this because I’ve been following the news and because my family lives in Metropolitan Detroit. But my recent trip to Michigan reminded me of just how bad things have gotten.

This is not the Michigan I remember. It’s not just that some stores are boarded up and some houses are sitting empty; entire clusters of stores point their vacant windows toward passing traffic. (The cars are heavily American; the bumper stickers declare support for this or that union; there is pride, after all, for what little it’s worth these days.) Priced to sell! the For Sale signs declare. Will build to suit. It’s not one or two houses that have been emptied out; it’s neighborhoods that have begun to empty, the streets peppered with brown-lawned lots and swinging realtors’ signs.

Recession in Detroit doesn’t only look like this:

 It also looks like this:

And like this, as captured by a Michigan resident running a blog called Sub-Urban Decay:

The word “decimated” literally means “reduced by ten percent.” Decimated, therefore, doesn’t begin to capture the blight tearing through metro Detroit.

Because it’s not just the economy that’s imploding. Detroit Public Schools is on record as the lowest performing urban school district in the country. The graduation rate across DPS hovers at 58%, and the district’s Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, recently announced planned closures of 45 schools in the district, for a total of 140 closed schools in the last five years. That’s over half the district. And by the way, Bobb was brought in because state law requires it when a district fails to meet basic fiscal responsibility guidelines.

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, you may be aware, resigned his post in 2007 upon pleading guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice. He was also, among other things, the target of a scandal involving Tamara Greene, a stripper who performed at the mayoral residence and was later shot and killed in an as-yet unsolved case and a civil lawsuit in which Kilpatrick was accused of retaliating against the police officers in charge of the murder investigation. Because this is Detroit, leaving the Manoogian Mansion in disgrace is not the end of your story: Recently, new details have emerged about an FBI corruption investigation involving both Kilpatrick and his father.

Detroit isn’t the only city in Michigan, but in many ways it’s the most important one. As it goes, so goes the state. And it’s going to hell these days even faster than ever.

You want, as you watch the empty buildings flash past, as you hear the stories of families getting their water shut off and people talking about both the need and the utter impossibility of securing a second job in this floundering economy, as you watch the kids boarding their schoolbus in the morning, their parents slowly spreading off toward their cars, their bikes, their houses, you want to identify the simple cause of decay and you want to locate the simple solution. There are some things we know now that we didn’t know before: It’s not necessarily good to treat home ownership as a god-given, universal right. Lending practices should be more rigorous, and banks must be held to vastly higher standards than they have historically been. Credit card companies are largely evil, with a tiny dollop of forced generosity tossed in by the federal government.

But let’s say we take care of all that, and still we watch as 3 out of every 5 kids drop out of high school, and still we watch as people who are doing everything they’re told to do–working a full time job, paying their bills on time, making a budget and sticking to it–still find themselves realizing they’ll never have enough money to retire, still find themselves making tough decisions like whether to set that extra 50 dollars aside at the end of the month for their child’s college fund or to use it to pay the credit card bill.

Let’s say we change the worst laws: We get some honest to goodness health care reform (hooray!), we hold the auto industry’s feet to the fire, we boot the Kwame Kilpatricks. But the problems is that these are patches pasted hastily across a blown-out tire. Politics, local or national, is about as corrupt in this country as can be, and the recent Supreme Court decision knocking down campaign finance laws will only make matters worse. Our economy relies on a few staple industries, puts all its economic eggs in one or two baskets, and then when the bottom of the basket falls out we’re all surprised when we have nothing to eat for breakfast. And you don’t have to be half paying attention to the health care debate to see how much this country hates poor people and minorities, especially its black and Latino population.

It’s shameful, and it leaves me feeling deflated and defeated. What use is there fighting against such powerful bigotry and self-protectionism? How can we turn a current so powerful it sweeps us all downstream?

Yet we do keep trying, I suppose. We take hope in the victories, even the small ones and especially the large ones like yesterday’s historic vote mandating health care for all. It’s a far from perfect bill, diluted down by special interests and the bigotry of conservative politicians, but as my friend Rafi says, I guess we need to take care not to let great be the enemy of good.

And, I would add, we need to take care not to mistake “good” for “good enough.”

Posted in bigotry, culture, education, elections, jobs, politics, poverty, President Obama, public schools, racism, rage, recession, schools, social justice | 2 Comments »

devising a model for technology in education: my version of writer’s block

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 2, 2010



I believe the following principles to hold true:

  • Human goals are mediated by, and thenceforth only achieved through, the widespread adoption and use of new technologies.*
  • Human purposes for adopting and making use of new technologies are often highly individualized (though nearly always aligned with an affinity group, even if that group is not explicitly named and even if that group is not comprised of other members of the learning community).
  • While no educational researcher is qualified to articulate achievable goals for another human, the researcher is ethically obligated to support learners in articulating, and achieving, ethical educational goals.
  • The efficacy and success of new technologies can be measured through multiple lenses, among which only one is the achievement of mainstream educational goals as articulated and assessed through traditional, often standardized, measurement tools.

If you (a) know me, (b) follow me on Twitter or a similar social network, or (c) read my blog, you know that being at a loss for something to say just doesn’t happen to me. (On the one hand, this makes me perfectly suited to social media, blogging, and academia; on the other hand, it means I’ll mouth off about the social revolution in nearly any social situation.)

But for weeks now, I’ve been trying to devise a model to represent the role of computational technologies in education. And for weeks, I’ve been failing miserably. Here’s the closest I’ve come:

As you can see, this model is incomplete. I was in the middle of drawing an arrow from that word “technology” to something else when I realized that this model would never, ever do. So I tried to approach modelling from other perspectives. I tried backing my way in, by thinking of technologies metaphorically; I’ve tried presenting technology integration in the form of a decision tree. Which is fine, except that these don’t really work as models.

And I have to come up with a model. I do. Though I don’t often mention this, I’m not actually only a blogger. In real life, I’m a graduate student in Indiana University’s Learning Sciences Program. Because I believe in the value of public intellectual discourse, I’ve chosen to present as much of my coursework as possible on my blog or through other public, persistent and searchable communications platforms.

I will, at some future point, discuss the challenges and benefits of living up to this decision. For now, you guys, I just need to come up with a goddam model that I can live with.

I tried thinking of technologies as sleeping policemen; or, in other words, as objects that mediate our thoughts and actions and that have both intended and unintended consequences. This was a reaction to a set of readings including a chunk of Bonnie Nardi’s and Vicki O’Day’s 1999 book, Information Ecology: Using Technology with Heart; a Burbules & Callister piece from the same year, “The Risky Promises and Promising Risks of New Information Technologies for Education”; and Stahl & Hesse’s 2009 piece, “Practice perspectives in CSCL.” The theme of these writings was: We need to problematize dominant narratives about the role of technologies in education. Burbules & Callister categorize these narratives as follows:

  • computer as panacea (“New technologies will solve everything!”)
  • computer as [neutral] tool (“Technologies have no purpose built into them, and can be used for good or evil!”)
  • computer as [nonneutral] tool (the authors call this “(a) slightly more sophisticated variant” on the “computer as tool perspective”)
  • balanced approach to computer technologies (neither panacea nor tool, but resources with intended and unintended social consequences)

Nardi & O’Day, who basically agree with the categories identified above, argue for the more nuanced approach that they believe emerges when we think of technologies as ecologies, a term which they explain is

intended to evoke an image of biological ecologies with their complex dynamics and diverse species and opportunistic niches for growth. Our purpose in using the ecology metaphor is to foster thought and discussion, to stimulate conversations for action…. [T]he ecology metaphor provides a distinctive, powerful set of organizing properties around which to have conversations. The ecological metaphor suggests several key properties of many environments
in which technology is used.

Which is all fine and dandy, except the argument that precedes and follows the above quote is so tainted by mistrust and despair over the effects of new technologies that it’s hard to imagine that even Nardi and O’Day themselves can believe they’ve presented a balanced analysis. Reading their description of techno-ecologies is kind of like reading a book about prairie dog ecologies prefaced by a sentence like “Jesus Christ I hate those freaking prairie dogs.”

So the description of technologies as sleeping policemen was an effort to step back and describe, with as much detachment as possible for an admitted technorevolutionary like me, the role of technologies in mediating human activity.

But the metaphor doesn’t really have much by way of practical use. What am I going to do, take that model into the classroom and say, well, here’s why your kids aren’t using blogs–as you can see (::points to picture of speed bump::), kids are just driving around the speed bump instead of slowing down….?

This became clear as I jumped into a consideration of so-called “intelligent tutors,” which I described briefly in a previous post. Or, well, the speed bump metaphor might work, but only if we can come up with some agreed-upon end point and also set agreed-upon rules like speed limits and driving routes. But the problem is that even though we might think we all agree on the goals of education, there’s actually tons of discord, both spoken and unspoken. We can’t even all agree that what’s sitting in the middle of that road is actually a speedbump and not, for example, a stop sign. Or a launch ramp.

The Cognitive Tutors described by Kenneth Koedinger and Albert Corbett are a nice example of this. Researchers who embrace these types of learning tools see them as gateways to content mastery. But if you believe, as I do, that the content students are required to master is too often slanted in favor of members of dominant groups and against the typically underprivileged, underserved, and underheard members of our society, then Cognitive Tutors start to look less like gateways and more like gatekeepers. Even the tutoring tools that lead to demonstrable gains on standard assessments, well…ya gotta believe in the tests in order to believe in the gains, right?

So I’m back to this:

A “model,” explains Wikipedia,

is a simplified abstract view of the complex reality. A scientific model represents empirical objects, phenomena, and physical processes in a logical way. Attempts to formalize the principles of the empirical sciences, use an interpretation to model reality, in the same way logicians axiomatize the principles of logic. The aim of these attempts is to construct a formal system for which reality is the only interpretation. The world is an interpretation (or model) of these sciences, only insofar as these sciences are true….

Modelling refers to the process of generating a model as a conceptual representation of some phenomenon. Typically a model will refer only to some aspects of the phenomenon in question, and two models of the same phenomenon may be essentially different, that is in which the difference is more than just a simple renaming. This may be due to differing requirements of the model’s end users or to conceptual or aesthetic differences by the modellers and decisions made during the modelling process. Aesthetic considerations that may influence the structure of a model might be the modeller’s preference for a reduced ontology, preferences regarding probabilistic models vis-a-vis deterministic ones, discrete vs continuous time etc. For this reason users of a model need to understand the model’s original purpose and the assumptions of its validity.

I’m back at the original, simple, incomplete model because I’m not ready to stand in defense of any truth claims that a more complete model might make. Even this incomplete version, though, helps me to start articulating the characteristics of any model representing the role of computational technologies in education. I believe the following principles to hold true:

  • Human goals are mediated by, and thenceforth only achieved through, the widespread adoption and use of new technologies.
  • Human purposes for adopting and making use of new technologies are often highly individualized (though nearly always aligned with an affinity group, even if that group is not explicitly named and even if that group is not comprised of other members of the learning community).
  • While no educational researcher is qualified to articulate achievable goals for another human, the researcher is ethically obligated to support learners in articulating, and achieving, ethical educational goals.
  • The efficacy and success of new technologies can be measured through multiple lenses, among which only one is the achievement of mainstream educational goals as articulated and assessed through traditional, often standardized, measurement tools.

Ok, so what do you think?

*Note: I’m kinda rethinking this one. It reads a little too deterministic to me now, a mere hour or so after I wrote it.

Posted in academia, education, graduate school, lame, obnoxious, patent pending, public schools, schools, social media, social revolution, teaching, technologies | Leave a Comment »