Thursday, April 4, 2013

Competing for their Hearts and Minds -- #Digcit Thoughts from a RoadTrip Vacation

My wife and I are taking the family on one of those road trips that seem to be a necessary  rite of passage of raising-a-young-family that no one can explain. This post is a collection of reflections made on the journey -- Because you can take the #edtech geek out of the school, but you can't take the school out of the #edtech geek.

Different Tools, Different Data, Different Results
On day three of our journey, we are planning on driving from Atlanta, GA to Raleigh, NC. My wife has been referring to the 4.5 hr journey for a few days, but when talking to our relative in NC, she says it is closer to six hours. She says "But mapquest said it was 4 and a half."

I pull out my Nexus 7 and ask Google Now for a map to Raleigh: Six hours and 15 minutes.

My wife (annoyed): "But why would it change? I Googled it just a few days ago!"
Me (in interesting-conversation-about-tech-mode when I should have been in husband-consoling-wife-who-has-had-her-plans-derailed-mode): I thought you said you had used Mapquest?
Wife (now annoyed at me): I used something. Why would they be different?

...and while i could think of all sorts of reasons for differences including accuracy of routes, real-time information (those cool Google cars), differing calculation methods, real-time traffic or construction updates (not to mention any number of human error issues), I had picked up on the fact that this was NOT the conversation my vacation planner and mother of my children wanted to have...but it got me thinking.

The Information Conundrum
Waze Crowd-sourced mapping
What my wife experienced  is an increasingly common occurrence  People in stop-and-go traffic who pull up
a traditional GPS will often be frustrated by a red (slow) traffic line, but little information. But if that same person is using an app called WAZE, they can get minute-by-minute updates from real users, including the guy 2 miles ahead saying "they have the semi off the road now. traffic should start moving any minute." And while mapping and travel seem to be one of the easy highlights (Apple's early foray's into maps was well-documented as one of the companies few but often entertaining stumbles), there are a number of areas where we are beginning to see this issue arise for our students.

The internet houses websites and blogs galore which at first glance can appear to have valid information. However, as the ease of creating and distributing information has increased, we have not had a corresponding rise in our capacity as humans to filter through this information and distinguish bad information from good. And this is not just a situation created by the rise of the blogosphere.

Billboards and Displays of Competing World Views
As we are travelling down the highway on the way to Raleigh, I see a billboard that shows a caveman fighting/running from an old-style Tyrannosaurus Rex (you can tell older depictions from the positioning of the tail. If it drags on the ground Godzilla-style, its based on older anthropological models). It is an advertisement for a Creationist Museum - a concept I am familiar with due to our proximity to one in Kentucky -- I just didn't realize that they had franchised.

The newest creation museum advertising eliminates the "controversy"
in favor of the draw of Dinosaurs. Thunder lizards are cool.
There are currently 16 Creationist Museums. These museums are typically privately funded with a

combination of models, animatronic displays, professionally produced videos and interactive activities typical of the modern museum experience. In fact, the many of the museums get high reviews from visitors and have been featured as tourist destination highlights. What is noteworthy about these museums is that the exhibits are based on young-earth/creationism interpretations of the origin of life and the planet.
The "Come Meet Your Relatives" sign outside the
Mammal wing of the Museum of Natural History

Either the Earth is 4.54 Billion years old or it's 6,000 years old. Relativism, while popular as a moral stance (that will be a rant for another day), is not as easily applied to geology.

But thousands of people a year visit these museums that cost millions of dollars in order to learn from what National Center for Science Education director Eugene Scott called " the Creationist Disneyland". The discussion that ensued in the car-ride ranged from young-earth positions, to carbon dating, to evolution and catholic teaching. It led to one of our daughters pointing out the number of evolution references made at the Smithsonian Museum for Natural History (although the Gem displays were the biggest hit).

The point here is not good science vs. bad science. (see the original #savethedinosaurs post for some of that). There are two highly funded competing world views fueled by scientific method, research, religion, morality and money that are vying for the eyes, hearts, and minds of our students.

  • What are the specific skills that students need to develop in order to function in this world of competing information and data?
  • Regardless of the status of the Common Core and its corporate sponsored testing offspring, what should schools be doing to put in place the development of these skills and habits-of-mind? 
  • At what age do our students have to develop the capacity to use their skills and capacity for rational thought to determine which of these world views they will subscribe to and follow?

#Edtech, #Digcit, and #BYOT -- Identifying the Essential Skills
1. Claim and Analysis: Students must be able to find factual claims within a piece of writing, be it a tweet, Facebook vanity card, news article, or research paper. They should be able to identify and evaluate the supporting evidence (or in most cases lack thereof) which supports the claim.

Practically Applied: We use the student newspaper. Preliminary questions we ask are:

  • Do you trust this source? 
  • What reasons do you have in-source for this trust? 
  • What reasons do you have beyond the source for this trust?

2. Identifying Assumptions: World views are loaded with assumptions of truth. Identifying these assumptions and treating them as claims that can also be analyzed for support is a key activity in the high-data, conflicting conclusion modern age. The process of uncovering assumptions can be difficult to teach/learn, in part because human brains use assumptions to process data efficiently in the best of situations (and with all of the data produced in the world today, it is NOT the best of situations.

Practically Applied: Use a series of regressive questions as part of the research process when students are beginning to identify primary research questions and problems:

  • What is the problem that you have identified?
  • Why is that a problem?
  • What information do you need to formulate a solution?
  • What sources can provide that information?
  • Are there experts in the area who believe that it is not a problem?
  • What are their reasons for believing it is not a problem?

3. Closed Systems of Information, Silo Thinking, and Confirmation Bias: The goals of hardware, software, and information providers in the modern business-oriented world is lock-in. This is the tendency to go to the same well for information and solutions. Again, this is an aspect of human nature - habits help solve recurring problems efficiently. Thus, Google wants you to constantly go to its website for the answer. Apple and Amazon are both creating stores of information and data access so that you never have to go to the Big-G for an answer. Fox, MSNBC, CNN are all competing for your eyeballs, your homepage, your attention and your trust. As you spend more time within one system, you find that the answers reinforce eachother on two levels: All of the answers seem to tie together, painting a coherent view of reality and all indications then seem that this source of information is a good source to rely upon in the future.

Practically Applied: Teach social media as a tool and not a distraction. Students should be working from a young age to a) question the reliability of information sources and b) build a system of information sources that intentionally have multiple viewpoints, biases, and information.

An early social network activity we use is to identify social media sources within a student's personal network. Count the number of friends, relatives, celebrities, news sources. Then rank those sources along different perspectives such as politics (conservative/liberal, Big/Small government), religious perspective, value of formal education, etc. Many of our students find that they are likely to have a network that feeds their own pre-existing world view and that the ideas presented are strikingly similar across social media.

4. Variety of Tools and Sources. An unanticipated side-effect of the 1:1 BYOT implementation at the school is the in-depth discussions about methodology, whether it is for creating a presentation or finding information. In a world where each student brings a device and the device is the choice of the family/student, there are a lot of tools in each classroom. Students begin to discuss and share problem-solving strategies naturally and teachers can foster this sharing with directed activities.

Practically Applied: Focus on process over product. Have students keep a process journal as part of each major assignment. Use the journal as a part of reflective and sharing activities. As different conclusions are reached, the student's become better equipped to un-pack how they reached a specific answer and why that answer was different from the conclusion of another member of the class.

On Reflection
None of these applications are easy and very few of them can be answered with a click or a filled-in bubble.We have found that the amount of time we spend on individual projects grows as we add in time to use regressive questioning in the beginning and time to pair-and-share process reflections in the drafting stage of papers and presentations.

But this is a part of the answer to the issue of information overload and over-reliance on data-without-depth.

Our call as educators is to helps student identify not just the correct answers to the questions on a test but the underlying systems that produced those questions-and-answers in the first place. Corporations  governments, and organizations are all to willing to have reliable consumers and followers.

We should accept nothing less than independent thinkers.
Our children deserve it.

More than just a consumer and political pawn