Week 2- “Education & Change” and the American High School

Introduction

Two ideas in this week’s reading particularly stuck with me, not because the notions are necessarily new, but because of how they were elaborated, placed in the context of our course work, and how they then framed my reflections on my high school experiences.  These ideas certainly, then, have implications for our work as professional educators as well.  Those ideas are schools as places of initiation and education as a “process by which a culture transmits itself across the generations” (p. 12).  However, the notion of education as transmitter becomes a different matter altogether as Waks makes the distinction between education and schooling, at which point one sees schooling as transmitting itself across generations en lieu of education — or at the very least, alongside it.  

My High School According to Waks

The high school I attended consistently ranked among the top public districts in the state.  In

IHHS Crest
Image: RHSAPTS

the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, it was the epitome of the suburban district delivering a “conventional curriculum-based schooling” (p.11) for the mostly college-bound upper middle-class students it served.  About a dozen years out from the first rumblings of the Internet (back when it was a proper noun), the faculty and curriculum of my high school absolutely set a path for a “‘particular way of becoming a person-in-society'”(p. 12) .  It transmitted the college prep culture across the generations from the Postwar/GI Bill years of the Greatest Generation through  the Vietnam years of the Baby Boomers to those of us in Generation X.   However, the society my high school sought to initiate me into would no longer exist by the time I graduated from college.

Summer term of the Western State Normal School (1912)
Image: By Western State Normal School (Kalamazoo, Mich.), via Wikimedia Commons

The predictable and orderly “rules of governing…that build up around all of the significant aspects of life in society” (p. 28)  my high school teachers were preparing us for were not those of the social, networked, collaborative, knowledge economy in which we currently live.  As an educator, I can look back now and see quite clearly the assumptions our teachers made about who we would be as adults reflected in what they taught us and how they taught it to us.  They initiated us to be professionals and business people, specifically working in New York City, mostly in high rises, offices and cubicles.  Aside from the occasional think/pair/share exercise, I can’t recall a single small-group-activity-to-large-group-shareout I ever experienced in four years of high school classroom learning.  Yet I do remember an entire lesson dedicated to learning how to do the “subway fold” with a newspaper.  (This is a particular kind of large-scale origami that with a specific set of folds, flips and turns allows one to read a broadsheet newspaper on a crowded train without the paper ever taking up more space than a trade paperback.  I even remember the class being instructed to turn to the business section to start the fold and then our teacher coming to each of our desks to watch us demonstrate the fold as an individual performance assessment.)  Talk about initiation.

My high school was also the perfect example of mass schooling that habituated us “to the norms of industrial life rather than academic learning” (p. 40).  The only exceptions to that would be my “egg-crated” French classes and “extracurricular” theater program. I can point to real learning from those experiences. Still, if I had to estimate, I’d say my high school learning consisted of 25% education and 75% schooling.  It really wasn’t until college that I can begin identifying multiple courses that exposed me to much more new knowledge and understandings than I can count — even if it was done within a hierarchical model.  But from my high school experiences, I can write well and I can still speak, read, and write French.  I can present in front of audiences of all sizes.  I can fold a newspaper like nobody’s business.  But math stumps me both conceptually and practically.  When it came to math I wish I had been allowed to “build up [an] active capability sufficient to perform with enjoyment in activities and share in their values” — and for me, this entailed different methods than were consistently employed throughout my K-12 experience.  Given my deep fascination with language, what if I had been encouraged to explore math as another language with its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax rather than as mere formulae known by “rote learning unconnected to performance” (p. 30)?  I imagine I would have had a very different experience of math then and far less anxiety about it today.

Waks’s 7 characteristics of the hierarchical/industrial/factory model (p. 38) map directly to my high school.  So too were we examples of Sizer’s point that the architecture and grammar of contemporary schooling have changed so little in the past 100+ years and we were so stuck in that way of schooling that college as the next step after high school wasn’t even conceived of as optional (p. 39).  In my family, the question was never, “Are you going to college after high school?”  In my family, the questions were, “Which four-year college will you attend?” and “Will you attend close to home and commute, or will you go away to college and live on campus?”  As a teenager, I was barely even aware of my astounding economic luck to have those as my options, never mind understand the underlying assumptions.

The Sticky Framing Question

I keep returning to the question of the ways in which my high school was a success or a failure in terms of Waks’s beliefs.  In terms of how it functioned as an institution that “introduce[d] order and predictability [and] consist[ed] of rules governing the practices that build up around all of the significant aspects of life in society” (p. 28) — such as life and society still were in the early 1980’s — I would say it was successful.  Where it failed was in the administration’s and faculty’s ability to see what was coming just five years down the pike, adapt to it, and prepare us accordingly as best they could.  Admittedly, a nearly impossible order given the architecture of schooling.   So they schooled all of us such that we could attend college and then take our place in a stable, lifelong, white-collar career with a single company that would then provide the benefits we need through retirement — just as our parents and grandparents had experienced.  It makes me laugh even to type that today.  For Gen X, those work and societal scenarios were already obsolete by the time we graduated college.  And that meant years of struggle, doubt, and misbelief about our own success when, by the age of 28, we were already on to our second or third job placement.  Sadly, those outdated notions were only reinforced by the older generations who questioned our ability to hold a job and admonished us to “settle down” and “make a decision” about what to do with our lives.  My high school and the educators who staffed it did not recognize that “social, political, religious and economic institutions work together in an interdependent institutional order” and that several of those were about to change “in fundamental ways [and that education] must adapt” (p. 28).  That was so at the dawn of the information age and it is so again as a Civilization 2.0 reveals itself through a truly global, collaborative society connected through the digital, networked devices that  billions of people carry in their pockets.  Nearly every institution has been impacted by the internet and information and communication technology — particularly our social, political and economic institutions.  Yet our educational institutions have been slow “to give”.

Conclusion

Reflecting on this week’s readings through these framing questions has left me a bit dispirited.  Heidi Hayes Jacobs is fond of asking teachers, “What year are you preparing your students for?”  From my high school experiences as a student and the evidence I see as a teacher and consultant now 30 years on, the answer —  at least in urban schools — more often than not is indeed the 1990’s. Society has changed several times over in the years since I was in high school, and yet too many of our schools chug along in the same, centuries-old, outmoded paradigm.  Still, Waks helps us remain optimistic. “Mass secondary education is an accident that turned into an institution.  As we re-imagine education in the Internet age, remember that today’s system is an unshapely human invention that today’s humans can replace by another invention better suited for our times” (p.21).  That’s encouraging, even if it is a long road ahead.


Waks, L. J. (2016). Education 2.0: The learningweb revolution and the transformation of the school. New York, NY: Routledge.


Link to Framing Questions

Week 9-Digital Citizenship

When is it better not to know something?  What does it say about you when you truly believe ignorance really is bliss?  How instructive is it to know the extent of your digital tattoo?

Spinning Beach ball

This week’s assignment caused me more anxiety than any other moment in this master’s journey to date.  I did not want to know with certainty what information about me was publicly available for the clicking.  That’s because I understand the economic model that underpins the internet. Increasingly, it is becoming less about the free, democratic flow of information and more about the delivery of consumers to retailers via advertising.  And the algorithm and cookie technologies web sites use to collect my information is, for all intents and purposes, out of my control.  So I hold my nose and, like most everyone else, tick the “I accept the Terms of Use” check box then click OK.  I know I am giving my information away — with every Google search, with every opening of a map app, with every purchase I make online.  It’s frustrating because if we want to use the internet with any kind of reasonable ease, we are faced with these choiceless choices.  So in the face of such choicelessness, I didn’t want to know the precise details of what information is out there about me.

Yes, ok, if someone really wants to find me they can find me in that some of the information is public record (or I myself have volunteered).  However, it’s the ease with which the information can be found these days.  It is so much easier and potentially more likely that we will experience the social hacking of our lives by triangulating public information in order to gain access to more sensitive parts of our lives.  (This is one of the hardest identity theft concepts I keep trying to impress on my septuagenarian parents and in-laws!)  Having to live in a constant state of vigilance about such things as we now do is the digital version of low-level PTSD.

In this TED Talk, Juan Enriquez leads with physical tattoos, which made me realize one significant difference between them and the digital variety: Whether good or bad decisions, a body tattoo is a choice we make.  However, many of our digital tattoos are choices made by others that we must live with.

Nevertheless, I thought a bit about Nicole’s admonition that in an online, networked age, we need to have some searchable presence.  It offered a palliative — or at lease a beneficial trade-off.  Accepting that some of our credibility is tied not just to the nature of our digital tattoo, but to its very existence, deepens my roots as a digital resident.  I, too, am not hiding anything.  I took to heart advice I heard way back in the ’90’s:  “If you’d be embarrassed to have your grandmother read it, see it, or hear it, don’t post it.”  So, I was not worried about finding anything unseemly or compromising.  (Color me boring.  Or old.)   If someone wants to use their time rummaging through all my personal information, and spend about $30 to access all of it, have at it.  There’s nothing prurient to see if prurience is what they’re looking for.  And that feels good to know.

Easter Eggs

Still, how accurate it all was was unnerving!  Every town I’ve lived in, names of my family members, universities I’ve attended, our home purchase price and tax info, my social media profiles, all there. I found tweets of mine embedded in the blogs of complete strangers — one from the Cubs’ victory and another on the SCOTUS marriage equality decision.  I even found my Twitter and Instagram accounts listed among the “most active” on a blog tracking the MLB playoffs.  Who knew??  But the discovery traveling the farthest from out of nowhere was a June 2014 church newsletter.  Apparently, my mother put my name in for the month’s birthday prayers and it got posted on the church web site which no one knew anything about until this week.  Talk about having no way of knowing how and from where your information will show up online!

 

 

Other surprises included differing search results depending on the search engine and browser used.  Finding different results between search engines was less surprising, given differences in algorithms. However, I did not expect the differences between browsers.  I’m curious about why that would be.

Ones & Zeroes

The internet and social media are platforms, facilitators, amplifiers.  Like everything humans create, they are extensions of us — our good, our bad and our in between.  Sadly, many choose to use social media to amplify the basest elements of human nature.  But I believe as Nicole does that “the internet can do amazing things.  It’s not all negative.”  I love the idea that “your online presence gives you a great opportunity to use social media for good.”  As well the idea of using it for creative purposes, making online “interest portfolios” to use as models for professional use and CV’s.  But I’d like to soapbox a minute against the idea of our digital tattoos as “personal brands”.  I have to admit to wanting to scream every time I hear this term or am queried about my own.  “Personal brands” represents the commodification, the marketing of individuals.  This trend may result from a downside of social media, perhaps because they too are blends of written or aural text and visual images — the very elements upon which branding relies.  But companies have brands.  Services have brands.  Products have brands.  Cattle have brands.  Which is fine for huge entities that need to be recognized quickly, compressing concepts and information into a single graphic or seconds on radio or TV.

But I resist what to me comes off as the hipster social media-driven fad and pretentiousness of “personal brands”.  People have reputations, interests, integrity.  And for people, that is what their digital tattoo represents.   Never Seconds and @thebenevolentone3 are not Payne’s and Konner Suave’s brands.  They are extensions of their curiosity, their empathy for and kindness towards others.  Which now, thanks to the astonishing power of social media, nearly every human on the planet can witness.   These digital platforms are perfectly suited to explain, demonstrate, exhibit, connect the incredible complexities that make up us human beings.  And in so doing, make people and society better for it.  So why in the world would we ever settle for reducing people like Martha and Konnor to the something as crass as a brand?  [Climbs down off soapbox.]

Launchpad?

Whether, what, and how this information should be taught to students obviously depends on the age of the students and the complexities and goals of what is being taught.  What if we thought about it like we do sex ed (where schools or parents still teach sex ed!)?  Usually, the basics are taught before puberty.  Then instruction becomes more nuanced as children mature through middle and high school.  When it comes to digital tattoos, parents and computer teachers should both be involved.  However, as much as I believe most of this instruction should be coming from home, at this moment in history, I doubt most parents have the depth of knowledge themselves to do it effectively.

As for when we should start, I would say just prior to the age where their getting their own devices or accounts.  Perhaps elementary teachers start with demonstrating the kinds of information that can be found online through activities with Fakebook & Twister .  Students could examine examples and non-examples from which they discuss possible consequences for each.  Adolescents, though, can conduct  limited searches guided by their teachers.   However, regardless of who teaches about digital tattoos and when, just dis-covering of what information can be found online is not enough.  Parents and teachers both need to press kids to answer, “So what?  Why is this important to know?”  That’s where the understanding and consequences lie.

Shutting Down…

In the end, I’d say it was beneficial to push through the anxiety.  I have a sense of the size and shape of my digital tattoo.  Maybe someday I’ll pay that $30 on Spokeo to unlock my full profile.  In the meantime, it’s good to know that I’ve made wise choices about my own postings.  It feels good to know that in a very limited way I’ve contributed some thoughtful, creative elements to the internet and social media.  And I’ve made good choices when it comes to friends since I didn’t find myself compromised by any of their social media choices either.  Am I as blissful now as I was when I woke up Monday given my loss of ignorance?  Let’s call it a break-even.

 

New Tabs:
"'Right to Be Forgotten' Online Could Spread" (New York Times) - In an effort to counter some of the possible stigma from digital tattoos, the EU defined the "right to be forgotten".

Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives by David Eagleman- A wonderful book that imagines 40 different possibilities for the afterlife through 2-page vignettes. Several are a bit cyberpunkesque.  These two excerpts have haunted me for the exact reasons we're considering this week.