Tag: USA

Weeknote 30/2013

This week I’ve been:

I’ve also been planning, talking, drinking, dancing, playing, and sharing. I’m just getting over my jetlag as the only route that worked was NCL-AMS-DTW-PWM! Next week I’m putting the next phases of my work in Mozilla into motion before heading off for a long weekend to visit relatives and Legoland.

The USA: a New Literacies desert?

This is is the very first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis; I’ll be returning to this soon.

The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at http://dougbelshaw.com/thesis (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at http://dougbelshaw.com/blog)


The United States of America (USA) is a large and diverse country. Its approach to New Literacies reflects this, with work carrying on apace in almost every area. In a similar way to the ‘literacy wars’ in Australia taking up most of the space for debate, so in the USA almost everything relating to schools has been framed in the past decade by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This was signed in 2001 by then-President George W. Bush and, ostensibly, aimed at setting high standards increasing the number of measurable outcomes for schools. These outcomes are tied to funding.

There have been many outspoken criticisms of NCLB and, indeed, President Obama announced in early 2011 that NCLB shall be replaced (Obama, 2011). Chapter C Part D of the NCLB Act is entitled ‘Enhancing Education Through Technology’ (EETT) and has as its primary goal improving student achievement through the use of technology. A secondary goal is:

To assist every student in crossing the digital divide by ensuring that every student is technologically literate by the time the student finishes the eighth grade, regardless of the student’s race, ethnicity, gender, family income, geographic location, or disability. (US Department of Education, 2001)

What is meant by ‘digital divide’ is not made explicit nor what it would mean for students to be ‘technologically literate’.

Given the federal nature of the USA, some states have different policies relating to technology than others. More forward-thinking states such as California have drafted policies dealing explicitly with New Literacies, citing the European Union as a “leader in digital literacy” (CETF, 2008, p.11). California’s ICT Digital Literacy Framework defines ICT Literacy as

using digital technology, communications tools and/or networks, to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, create and communicate information in order to function in a knowledge society. (CETF, 2008, p.5)

The verbs from ‘access’ through to ‘communicate’ form a kind of taxonomy which, the authors of the framework claim, is common to existing national and international frameworks. What the Californian framework certainly does have in common with other countries is a focus upon competition and the economy. The role of individuals in a ‘21st century citizenry’ for example is to “Apply digital literacy skills to access health, e-government, banking and to support healthy environment [sic]” (CETF, 2008, p.14).

Given the federal nature of the education system in the USA there are many and varied definitions New Literacies. President Obama, for example, proclaimed October 2009 to be ‘National Information Literacy Awareness Month’ beginning his proclamation with these words:

Every day, we are inundated with vast amounts of information. A 24-hour news cycle and thousands of global television and radio networks, coupled with an immense array of  online resources, have challenged our long-held perceptions of  information management. Rather than merely possessing data, we must also learn the skills necessary to acquire, collate, and evaluate information for any situation. This new type of literacy also requires competency with communication technologies, including computers and mobile devices that can help in our day-to-day decisionmaking. National Information Literacy Awareness Month highlights the need for all Americans to be adept in the skills necessary to effectively navigate the Information Age. (Obama, 2009)

It is clear from this statement that the higher echelons for educational policy-making in the USA believe the use of technology to be only part of a wider ‘information literacy’. Given that Professor Henry Jenkins, John Seeley Brown and other well-known educators and thinkers in the USA are increasingly focusing upon Digital (Media) Literacy, there is seeming a disconnect between research, practice and policy.

Given this vacuum at the national policy level, individuals, groups, and organisations have stepped in to promote various visions of New Literacies. Marc Prensky, promoter of the digital natives/immigrant dichotomy we shall discuss in Chapter 5, has claimed that ‘Programming is the New Literacy’ (Prensky, 2008) whilst the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a corporate responsibility initiative from organisations such as AOL, Cisco, Microsoft and Apple, in partnership with the US Department of Education.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has representatives of everyone from Lego to the American Association of School Librarians on its Strategic Council and sees its mission as serving as “a catalyst to position 21st century readiness at the center of US K12 education by building collaborative partnerships among education, business, community and government leaders” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2004). Importantly, the Partnership has ascertained each state’s 21st century ‘readiness’ as well as putting together a cohesive framework, including information literacy, media literacy and ICT literacy, for adoption by educational institutions. However, they also talk of ‘health literacy,’ ‘financial literacy’ and even ‘entrepreneurial literacy’ – without defining any of these terms. It is clear that these terms are being used within a wide context of their ‘four Cs’ of “critical thinking and problem solving; communication, collaboration; and creativity and innovation” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2004).

Given this confusing landscape and the lack of a clear ‘steer’ from national government on New Literacies, states have sought to define their own curricula and assessment tools. New York City’s (NYC) Education Department, for example, have taken the American Association of School Librarians’ Standards for the 21st Century Learner (AASL, no date) and developed it into an ‘Information Fluency Continuum’. This defines the information literacy standards that students should develop by Grades 2, 5, 8 and 12 and are coupled with information literacy benchmark skills assessments for each Grade level.

Due to the standards-based, testing culture in US schools, NYC’s approach is understandable. They have adopted the publication of an authoritative body who, in turn, have reacted to an environment created by US educational policy in the wake of NCLB. Such an environment stresses the importance of being ‘information literate’ and focuses on the traditional basics but, perhaps, at the expense of a cohesive programme for New Literacies.


You don’t ‘build’ better teachers.

Teachers are not robots. You can’t add new modules, reprogram them, or expect them to work regardless of context. These seem to be facts completely alien to Elizabeth Green, writing in an article for the New York Times which appeared in March 2010. It genuinely surprised me that she’d actually set foot in a classroom, never mind being a ‘fellow of education’ at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Whatever that means.

It’s far from a logically-structured article. But an article doesn’t have to be logical to be dangerous – the Daily Mail is proof of that. To summarise, Green seems to be advocating, through a clumsy juxtaposition of quotations and roundabout argumentation that:

  1. Teaching is a science that can be taught.
  2. We need ‘better’ teachers (and the only way to measure this is through student test scores)
  3. Doug Lemov is awesome because he published a book highlighting basic teaching techniques.
  4. Money is probably the most important factor in recruiting better teachers.
  5. Classroom management and specialist knowledge are key to teaching.

Number five is obvious and the other four are obviously wrong: teaching is more art than science, teaching and learning are about much more than examinations, Lemov is just another author, and no-one goes into (nor would go into) teaching for the money.

Simply writing a misguided article isn’t dangerous. It’s dangerous when the author confuses and conflates several different issues to create an ambiguity in the sixth way defined by William Empson:

An ambiguity of the sixth type occurs when a statement says nothing, by tautology, by contradiction, or by irrelevant statements; so that the reader is forced to invent statements of his own and they are liable to conflict with one another. (Seven Types of Ambiguity, p.176)

By neglecting to state explicitly what makes a ‘good’ teacher, Green fosters an ambiguity that, by the end of the article, she seemingly wants you to resolve by believing in the following howlers:

  • She criticises “proponents of No Child Left Behind” for seeing “standardised testing as the solution” but later quotes with approval findings that show “the top 5 percent of teachers” being able to “impart a year and a half’s worth of learning to students in one year, as judged by standardised tests.” (my emphasis)
  • By constructing a narrative (through the juxtaposition of third-party quotations) the article seems to show that paying teachers more leads to an improved ‘calibre’ of teacher. Measured by? “Standardised test scores”. These quotations, it becomes evident by the end of the article, merely mask the author’s opinion.
  • Green snipes at constructivism, “a theory of learning that emphasises the importance of students’ taking ownership of their own work above all else”. No it doesn’t. Do your homework.
  • She assumes that there is one way to be a ‘good’ teacher, that this is unchanging, and that it is independent of context. Quoting with approval Lemov’s assertion that classroom management is as “learnable as playing a guitar”, Green turns on the hyperbole (in what quickly turns into a puff-piece for Lemov and his book) with phrases such as “he pointed to the screen, their eyes raced after his finger.”

Usually I would ignore this as just another article written by another just another American in just another country. However, it would seem that the even-more-dangerous Michael Gove, a man against whom I tactically voted, is determined to bring the education system in the UK to its knees by a slavish aping of the worst parts of the American education system.

I despair.

The difference between ‘crowdsourcing’ and being lazy.

Crowd

Image CC BY-NC-SA Samuel Stroube @ Flickr

I don’t usually get involved with things explicitly concerned with education in the USA. But there’s been one issue recently that prompted me to reflect on a wider concern: the difference between ‘crowd-sourcing’ and just being lazy.*

In fact, it’s more than being lazy. It’s taking a concept and twisting it for your own ends to look like you’re doing something you’re not. It’s an attempted shortcut to being seen as ‘innovative’. It’s bandwagon-jumping instead of hitchhiking. 🙁

The current Wikipedia definition of ‘crowdsourcing’:

Crowdsourcing is a distributed problem-solving and production model. Problems are broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Users—also known as the crowd—typically form into online communities, and the crowd submits solutions. The crowd also sorts through the solutions, finding the best ones.

When done well, the results can be outstanding. Take, for example, The Guardian‘s decision to open up and make available the 700,000 documents involved in the UK MP expenses scandal. They received over 20,000 responses highlighting irregularities.

However, crowdsourcing is something that can be done very badly and for the wrong reasons. Take, for example ISTE’s decision to ‘crowdsource’ the Keynote speech for its 2010 conference. On the face of it, and for those involved with ISTE, the idea must look cutting-edge and innovative. It’s got a Digg-like voting system for proposals and has created a buzz about the conference on Twitter and blogs. However, although it looks as if it’s ’empowering’ people, it’s actually doing the opposite.

As Miguel Guhlin points out,

…I’m tired of hitching my carriage behind some writer’s idea of what could be in business but is designed for education since they’re the chosen keynoter. While research may say something, the fact is, research has been speaking up for years in school change and reform…and you know what? People aren’t listening.

Go and read Miguel’s post in full, but to summarize it briefly here, he says that expecting a keynote to change things at the coalface means putting faith in the following process:

  1. Educators go away and learn how to use a tool to the extent that it becomes part of their practice.
  2. The tool is appropriate to use within the context of their school and educators are free to use it as they wish.
  3. Educators are able to get their school leadership onboard and stay at the institution long enough to make a difference.
  4. Parents offer little or no resistence to flattening the walls of the classroom through the use of Web 2.0 tools.

Put in that way, it’s clear that ISTE’s decision is far from revolutionary. As Miguel states, it’s time for a ‘radical reboot’ in national and interational approaches to innovation in education. Isn’t it ironic that we use a lecture format to encourage teachers to be innovative and move away from such a format? 😉

So if you’re a leader and are looking to be innovative, please do look about you to see what others are doing. But once you’ve done that, go back and think about what the objectives of your organization/business/conference/whatever actually are. Then see if the process/innovation/tool that you’ve come across is appropriate. Ask yourself if you’re going through the process/using the tool for the right reasons.

Do you know of any other examples of thinly-disguised laziness?

* That thinking was started by reading Charles Leadbeater’s We-Think: mass innovation, not mass production (my review forthcoming)

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