When will our political leadership understand New Media?

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The players in this latest example of not adapting to the world we live in are Shirley Sherrod, Andrew Breitbart, and the White House. Sound bytes and video bytes are a fact of life in this world of digital “new media,” and those reporting the news and running the country need to step back and try to understand the pros and cons of what digital media means. Many years ago, a corporate marketing executive told me, “Believe everything you hear, but trust no one.” Perhaps this is good advice in the digital world. Sherrod’s speech is below:

Out of context, it would be easy to draw numerous conclusions regarding Sherrod’s motives. In context, Sherrod is trying to tell a story that has a happy ending, but some of her remarks set her up for the  kind of treatment she received by those with an agenda. Still, the context of the story is critical, and it is that narrative that becomes corrupt when clips and bytes are extracted from the actual storyline. The press and political candidates have done this for years in interviews, extracting sound bytes that might serve a specific purpose when viewed or heard out of context. But today, when you hear the actual testimony of the speaker, rather than reading it, the words come to life in a way that text cannot match. Sherrod did say she did not give the white farmer the full measure of her jurisdiction because she thought about all the blacks who had suffered on farms, but the rest of the narrative is about what she learned from the visceral response she felt when approached by the white farmer.

Our political leadership has to reinvent the manner in which they interpret the media, and never take anything they hear or see in the media at face value. Otherwise, politics will be transformed into a series of divisive witch hunts rather than a mission to achieve some kind of political consensus.

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When Failure is Prized Above Success – Jamie McKenzie

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When I read or hear about educational practices that result from No Child Left Behind (NCLB), I thank my lucky stars that I have the privilege of teaching in a school where children are the focus rather than working in the business of education where the profitability (read success) of a school is measured. I also appreciate the fact that my students elect, and must be admitted, to attend my school (Choate Rosemary Hall), and I mourn those public school kids who are being held to a standard that has nothing to do with them. Jamie McKenzie wrote in 2006:

NCLB is another example of leadership blinded by ideology.

Driven by a few simple notions, the NCLB/Helter-Skelter scheme has been more about failure than reform. Convinced that fear, punishment and failure would bring about a great educational Renaissance especially when combined with school choice and privatization, right wingers have imposed a Stalinist regime on public schools that has as its chief accomplishment the affixing of failure labels on schools. Instead of improving the performance of students and narrowing gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged populations, the program has failed. Test results are flat. The gap remains. The nature of schooling has coarsened and the curriculum has narrowed. NCLB is full of sound and fury lacking in achievement.

It would make more sense to this blogger if the negativity of NCLB was recast in a more positive light by testing every child when they enter school to establish a baseline from which they might grow. Every student would be measured based on the progress made against the personal baseline. Schools would be evaluated based on the aggregate progress made by their students rather than their progress against an abstract goal that does not reflect the abilities of the students in those schools.

One wonders whether those who designed NCLB were aware of IQ, of the impact of emotional issues on academic achievement, the impact of poor nutrition on learning, and the impact of not speaking and reading at home on literacy skills. There is nothing wrong with setting goals and striving to achieve those goals; it is part of the psyche of youth. But all goals must be attainable or they will result in frustration, and ultimately, failure. When our students are winners, when they believe they can achieve realistic goals, our culture and society wins as well.

Collaborative Learning & Noisy Idiots

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As I place the finishing touches on a workshop called Web 2.0 Tools for Teachers and Librarians to be held at the Taft Educational Center next week, I wonder whether educators are buying into the notion that kids will learn more by interacting with others than individually. The notion of individual learning, one that is held sacred by higher education, assumes that subject matter experts are the only respected and credentialed sources of information. I remember my third grade teacher telling me that if I learned enough about my birthplace, Brooklyn, NY, I would become an expert on the subject, and people would hold me in high esteem whenever the subject of Brooklyn emerged. Still, for most of us, I wonder if scholars provide the answers to the bulk of our questions. For most K-12 students and the rest of the world, knowledge exists everywhere, and is not simply the province of the academic ivory tower. Thus, it is our responsibility as teachers to provide as many conduits to the sharers of that knowledge as we can.

Alternatively, there are risks associated with learning in groups, particularly cyber groups, in which you may not know or trust the participating individuals. Jim Surowiecki talked about the potential foibles of such groups in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Now David Weinberger points to new research by Catherine White in his blog. Weinberger includes the key statement of White’s first chapter: “we overestimate the value of diversity in conversations; conversations require vast amounts of homogeneity and can only tolerate a smidgeon of diversity.”

What would Surowiecki say about homogeneity in groups? White calls those who create diversity Noisy Idiots. Conventional wisdom tells us that diversity is the key to learning in groups. Now we are hearing that diversity must be limited and closely monitored if a group is to be effective. What does this mean for collaborative learning in cyberspace, where we could hardly evaluate those in the group? I agree that not every group of people is well-suited to solve a problem (Surowiecki writes about this), but I wonder whether diversity is the key negative characteristic.

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