Monday, February 20, 2017

Is Credibility Going Extinct?

I teach a research methods class and lately we’ve been struggling with finding and identifying quality sources. Last week I asked the class “how do You evaluate the credibility of an online source, what is the first thing you look for?” I wasn't trying to get the "right" answer, I wanted to know what they really think about. 

The response, “if it seems to make sense and sound right.”

That answer is so true and so wrong. I posed this question in class after finding that a student had inadvertently used web advertisement as a source for a paper we are working on. I'm not poking fun, or trying to make the student sound stupid-- judge for yourself, here is the link, it probably doesn't contain any misleading or wrong information. It totally makes sense and sounds right. But the content is generated by marketers, and that matters. The quality of information matters. Otherwise, we wouldn't be talking about...

...Fake News?

It’s hard to tell what's genuine anymore, but even more frustrating to know that so many of my friends and fellow Americans are consuming a steady diet of junk information without the ability to know that it’s killing us.

The standard for credibility has become simple—If I agree with it and it fits my world view it is credible.  Don’t believe me? Try this. Imagine you'd opened this post to read the following headline and story:


Figure 1
High tech brain scans (see figure 1) clearly show the effect of exercise on the brain. The brain on the right, pre-exercise, is efficiently processing information and expending much less energy than the brain on the right. This brain is prepped for learning and ready to engage. If you see the brain on the right, energy is already being depleted in most regions leaving little room for additional cognitive activity. The increase in activity is consistent with a brain that is using excessive amounts of energy to process the most basic cognitive tasks. Whenever we get children up and actively moving about, we overtax their brains (especially note the energy used in the left hemisphere language processing centers), and expecting them to engage with their reading lesson becomes instead an exercise of inefficiency.

What’s the takeaway from this? GET THOSE KIDS IN THEIR SEAT—recess is killing them.

Do you believe this? Why not? 

Probably because you didn’t agree with the premise and wrote it off from the start.

  • Did it concern you that the source of this information is just some high school Psychology teacher who writes stuff? 
  • Was it questionable that I didn’t provide any references to actual research that suggests these conclusions? (on that note, does the fact that I just used the term suggest instead of prove mean anything?
  • Is there any good reason to take at face value the words that you read on a blog? 
  • Is it possible that I’m just using an image to create an illusion of credibility?
All of those answers should be yes, but if I wrote a post about how exercise increases synaptic potential in the learning pathways of the brain and activates the reward centers of the limbic system making students more eager and capable of learning, you just might have thought I was smarter than I really am. You might even believe that all of those claims are right.

(By the way, the fine folks at Neurobollocks have done afine job debunking this image and I partially stole the idea for the paragraph above from them)

Why is this a Big Deal?

It doesn’t matter that much if exercise helps kids learn or not. It’s just good for them and no one has to be sold on the negative aspects of sitting still for a prolonged period of time.  

Why use a brain scan that you don’t understand? You didn’t learn anything from it, it is just being used as a blunt tool to make a point.

People interested in wielding power, boosting their public persona, or sometimes just bullying people who don’t agree with them peddle in passing along graphs, data, and charts they don’t understand the meaning behind. They tweet pithy quotes that offer no substantial advances in dialogue and understanding. On the contrary, they shut down reasonable conversations and create dichotomous situations that pit one side against the other and serve as fodder for demeaning those who don’t agree.

It doesn’t surprise me that politics and government are beginning to function this way. We’ve been doing it in education since we discovered blogging and social media. 

We live in a new era and parsing the distinctions between fact and fiction are more important than ever. In this new world, "opinions and attitudes" seek information and research to build credibility and authority. "Facts and curiosity" seek information and research to build knowledge and advance our understanding. As educators, we should be taking the lead on this one.

Monday, February 13, 2017

So We Find Ourselves Here

I was just a child when Reagan took shots at the Federal Department of Education, and suggested that it should be abolished. In the years since I’ve seen many conservative politicians chastised for suggesting the same. 

To be honest, I usually agreed with them. 

Education is the responsibility of the states. Federalism and divided power makes our nation strong and provides a context for change without sacrificing stability. Even as a teacher, when I saw budget pie charts with such a tiny slice of revenue for our district coming from the federal government I would wonder why we even accept their money in exchange for spending even more of ours to meet federal mandates and requirements. Especially after No Child Left Behind became the law of the land.

But now that I’m older, even with a Trump administration at the helm, I’m not so sure that I was right.

We have a history in the United States. Some people don’t believe education is a right. Some people don’t understand that giving everyone an equal chance isn’t an equal chance when the starting line is so much further ahead for some than it is for others. And when resources get low, it’s easiest to shortchange the neediest among us.

I’ve heard people, related to me by blood, still alive today, express the belief that integrating schools is at the root of our countries' trouble today.

It’s not the law of the land, but the birth certificate of our nation proclaims that all men were created equal, and endowed with the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Education may not be a right of birth, but it is one of the few routes at our disposal to live up to the promise of our Declaration.

That could be reason enough to value the Federal Department of Education. It can provide the oversight to make sure that our varied systems of education in the United States are living up to the promise to give a fair shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all of the children that come through our doors.

If I am right, and that is the most valuable reason for its existence, then I am concerned that with Betsy Devos at the head its only value may be lost. But I am hopeful. In her first speech as secretary, she promised to listen. She promised to serve every child. She even made a joke about bears. The news over the weekend about the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act website doesn't bode well, but for now, we'll do what we do and what we've done. 

Face every child that comes before us today, and give them the best that we have.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Has Innovation Jumped the Shark?

That cultural reference shouldn’t need to be explained, but just in case:

The moment many would argue that
"Happy Days" became irrelevant

We’ve written about jumping the shark at the Underground before, and some would even say that we ourselves jumped that proverbial shark long ago. So in a sense, perhaps we’ve outlived our relevance. But you know what hasn’t?

The 3.5mm jack. This item has been around since before Fonzie literally jumped the shark, taking the obnoxious noise of the “on the shoulder boombox” out of the neighborhood and putting the music in our ears through the Walkman and countless knock offs that would follow.

The jack never changed, but we began to use it in different ways. Unlike coaxial cables, various other a/v cordage, that simple single plug jack accommodated headphones and computer speakers, it connected personal devices to larger systems for audio, and it even became a source for individuals and small businesses to collect credit card payments without the expensive equipment.

Now Apple wants to crush it. And they’ll do it because they’ve found the language to convince us.

Using language such as “courage” and “ancient” we’re once again being divided into the two camps of innovators and luddites. Did courage drive this decision, or was it just good business sense? If it makes more money for us, do it. And just because a technology has served us since the 1960’s, do we write it off as obsolete as a result?

Even on the Today show, hosts weighed in on their opinions with Matt Lauer in the middle emphasizing the dichotomy between the “progressive” and “traditionalist” sitting on either side of him.

A friend and colleague recently shared an article on Twitter and asked for thoughts. “Screens in Schools are a Billion Dollar Hoax.” And, just like discussion over the 3.5mm jack, we’re no longer talking about reality, we’re framing the reality to suit our ideals. So what are we dealing with in education? Is it an ancient system that we need to have the courage to destroy, or are the innovators just hoodwinking all of us to advance their agenda?

Let me be so bold as to tell the truth.

Children need to sit and listen. They need to follow directions. They need structure and order. They need to learn how to do hard things and realize that life is not always fun. They need to learn the consequences of their actions. They need to know that some things are off limits. They need to put away their phones and screens.

Children need to move and create. They need to figure out things on their own. They need freedom and room for spontaneity. They need to have fun and relax. They need a break. The need to have dreams and support in pursuing them. They need to use technology to enhance what they’re doing and even do things that aren’t possible without it.

Don’t try to sell me any philosophy that doesn’t address both of these. They don’t contradict. It’s what good teachers do, and it is what students appreciate. If not now, later.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Olympics, The Donald, and Non-Complementary Behavior: Three thoughts to start your year.

Some of you are back, others will be soon. Here at the Underground, school starts next Tuesday so once again It's Go Time! I've had a little time to think over the summer, and here's what's buzzing around my brain as this year begins.

The Olympics

While watching this year, my oldest son asked, "Do you think we'll ever stop breaking world records?" In sports that require equipment (golf, tennis, etc.) there's no question that improvements in equipment enhance the performance of the game. But why do we run faster today? Look at his image from the New York Times:

It compares Usain Bolt to the fastest men in the world since 1896. I don't think it's just the shoes. I told my son that when I was a child, the things athletes are doing in the American Ninja Warrior competitions were unimaginable, like superheroes. It's not just physical, the Flynn Effect is the well documented increase of I.Q. over the last century. 

For us, that means that we can't dismiss the human potential that we're entrusted with every day. We spend so much time in awe of the progression of technology that it is easy to forget that it is the human that drives progress in our world, and this is the most important element of our classroom. So this year, I won't stress so much about how to be innovative and novel as much as trying to answer the question: "How do I help students that are smarter, faster, and stronger continue the road to human improvement independently and collectively?"

The Donald

I'm so glad that I don't have to teach US Government this year. How did we get here? Most of America will make a decision this year by voting for the person they dislike the least. -- if this election isn't an argument for greater support for Social Studies education in the United States I'm not sure what is. For some voters, he is a middle finger to the establishment. He has a base of support that will not waver even if he were to,"stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody" . Certainly it doesn't apply to all voters, but it does apply to all of those who believe that they've been left behind, who believe there is no longer a place for them at the table. This leads me even more so this year to ask myself: "How do I make sure that my students know they have a place at the table in my classroom?"

Non-Complementary Behavior

Thanks to a recent episode of Invisibilia, this term is making the internet rounds. I won't rehash the concept, but basically, it's human nature to react to one another in reciprocal ways. Repay kindness with kindness, spite with spite. Another element is dominance and submission-- we tend to react to dominance with submission and vice-versa. The podcast describes several tense situations that were de-escalated through the use of "non-complementary behavior." For example, a victim offering an armed robber the invitation to sit and join him for a glass of wine. 

That's my final thought as this year begins. "When does the situation call for me to pause before reacting in the normal way, and consider the impact of a non-complementary response?"

Have a great school year.