Dina Strasser Keynote Speaking Notes, 2011 THV Summer Institute

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Dina Strasser Keynote Speaking Notes, 2011 THV Summer Institute

  1. 1. Would The Lorax or FDR Tweet?Thoughts on Technology and Place-Based EducationJuly, 2011Speaking Notes and ReferencesMy name is Dina Strasser; I am a seventh grade English educator upstate in Henrietta, NY, which is outside of Rochester; a few years ago I began a teaching blog called The Line which got some attention and resulted in some of the most enriching professional relationships I have. One of those resulted in an article published in Teacher Magazine on line where I and a digital friend named Bill Ferriter wrestled with the critical use of technology in the classroom, which then resulted in the invitation to speak here. So before I even begin I must thank Debi Duke for extending that invitation, and for wading through the gazillion emails we have sent back and forth setting this up…and I want to say what a privilege it is to be here and share our thoughts together as educators on this topic. The honoring and enrichment of educators as true professionals is inestimably important, particularly in the current cultural climate, and I am humbled to be a part of that today. This is me; I think I’m three in this picture, in my backyard in Albany, New York. The Hudson was no more than a twenty minute walk from my front door. And if you look closely around my mouth you can see that I have loved the environment and place from a very early age for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the earth is a tasty snack. Fast forward to 2007. A colleague down the hall made a bet with me, challenging me to start a teaching blog. I laughed at him. "Who on earth," I asked him incredulously, "would be interested in what I had to say?" But I decided to take a shot. Two years later, to my total shock, my blog was receiving hundreds of hits a month; I had started a Twitter and a Facebook account; and I had acquired the crown jewel of technophilia, a smartphone. Things were going very smoothly with me and technology until one night that fall.My daughter, who was seven at the time, asked me to read a book to her before she went to bed-- this was a nightly ritual. I was in the middle of drafting a post, checking my feeds, and surfing through other education blogs. I said to her-- I remember this ver batim-- "No problem, sweetie. Hang on a second." You probably know what happened next. The next time I looked up, it was 10:30 PM-- two and a half hours later. She had fallen asleep waiting for me to finish. And as a mother, I had a hard time getting to sleep that night. I don't mean to imply here that this “scary time suck neglect your kids experience” is the defining interaction that we, or our students, have with technology-- it doesn't have to be.But it was the impetus for me to start thinking much more critically about how technology affects us, our world, and the classroom. That's what we’ll be exploring together today -- my journey as an educator to understand the impact of technology on my teaching.I’m a crunchie-granola girl by nature, as well, so I have some native interest in issues of place and place-based education. My take on this today will be primarily an environmental one, but it doesn’t have to be, and later I’d love for us to have some conversation about how non-environmental place-based-ed intersects with technology. Overall, though, I want to approach this topic with you not as an expert—I’m not—but as just another teacher, trying to figure all of this out. What I’d like to do next is describe what I discovered as I started to investigate the influence of technology on learning and teaching. I’m going to do this by talking about assumptions—seven assumptions about technology. These are either assumptions that I had myself, or that I have seen in colleagues, or they are assumptions that technology has about us. Here’s the first one. Assumption: Technology is social media. (Technology is electronic.)This was my first unexamined assumption, because, as you remember, the scary time suck experience I had with my daughter was entirely based in social media. And when my administrators, trainers, coaches and so on use the term “technology,” they too actually mean electronic and often social media. And, as it turned out, this assumption of mine is wrong. Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010) , defines four types of technologies (p.44): SENSORY—tech which increases the power of our senses, like a microscope. PHYSICAL—this is tech which extends our physical capabilities, like fighter jets;NATURAL—technology which allows us to manipulate natural resources;And lastly, INTELLECTUAL technology, which extends the capabilities of our minds.So if we go back to this picture here of when I was three, this was 1975 or so. The personal computer and the Internet hadn’t even been invented yet. But there is technology in this picture. As a matter of fact, except for a very short time at the beginning of our evolution, human beings have never existed without technology, and we have always wrestled with the place it should have in our society. So I learned very quickly that if you’re going to engage in a conversation with anyone about the effects of technology, you need to first ask yourself: what kind of technology are we discussing?Here’s the next assumption that I made.Technology is a neutral tool. It is just a tool. We use it; it doesn’t use or change us. I believed this until I studied the work of Neil Postman. Neil Postman was a media theorist and cultural critic who worked at New York University until his death in 2003. I met him ten years earlier as an undergrad at Nazareth College, where I studied. He was a chain-smoker with a deep growling voice, a very kind man who had a way of really pushing your thinking. He was a student of Marshall McLuhan, who very famously said “The medium is the message.” In a fascinating and provocative speech called “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change” (1998), Postman wrote this.“…all technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost. Now, this may seem to be a rather obvious idea, but you would be surprised at how many people believe that new technologies are unmixed blessings.”What does technology give, and what does it take away? This is the question we have to ask of every tool we choose to use in a classroom.Nick Carr puts it another way: “Every intellectual technology embodies an intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work” (2010, p.45).Now, let’s look at two assumptions that reflect the intellectual ethic of the Internet. What are the Internet’s unspoken assumptions about the ways our minds work? Multi-tasking is an efficient way to handle information.True or not true? Not true. To prove this point, I’m going to run you through a task that was designed by Daniel Simons, a cognitive scientist at the U of Illinois. The theory goes that our brains are wired so that we only actually have so much energy to devote to attention and memory, and when we allocate all that energy to a certain task, our attention to other things is compromised (Simons, 2007).What does this mean? Well, the good news is that most of us can successfully concentrate on one task at a time. The bad news is that we cannot multitask well. This is corroborated in study after study.Researchers at Stanford who were studying the phenomenon of multitasking in 2009 found that “people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.” The head researcher put it this way: “They're suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them” (Gorlick, 2009).And yet this is what the intellectual ethic of the Internet, mobile technology, Windows and many social media is saying is “the way to do things,” even though, to put it the way my seventh graders would, we as human beings empirically stink at multi-tasking. And what are the implications of this research for our students? By uncritically encouraging the use of intellectual technology in our classrooms, are we in fact contributing to our students’ inability to concentrate fully and deeply on one thing? Here’s a second statement of the intellectual ethic of the Internet. The more information we have, the more we learn, and the better decisions we make.The Internet is predicated upon the assumption that we need as much information about a given topic as we can get, as quickly as possible.True or not true? Not true. There’s a lot of research to back up this claim, but I’m going to talk about something called the Strawberry Jam Experiment. Back in the 1980’s, Consumer Reports tested a bunch of commercial strawberry jams to see which one was the best. They were scored on 16 different characteristics, like fruitiness, spreadability. The scores were totaled, and ranked. A few years later, a psychologist at University of Virginia named Timothy Wilson replicated this taste test with undergrad students, and found that their rankings matched the Consumer Reports rankings extremely closely. So it seems at least for the purpose of this experiment that American humans had a generalizable sense of what good jam is. But then Dr. Wilson did something different. He repeated the test with a different group of students, but as they tasted the jams he asked the kids to explain their choices, precisely in terms of the sixteen characteristics, in a series of detailed questionnaires. And all of this new data and new analysis “warped” their judgement of the jam. The correlation to the Consumer Reports rankings “plummeted.” Dr. Wilson theorized that the questionnaires caused the second group of students to overthink their choices, which then actually led them to make poorer decisions (Lehrer 2009, p. 141-143).This idea is called cognitive overload. It’s when the brain’s circuits are flooded with information, and this actually ends up paralyzing us (Adomavicius, Dimoka, Gupta, & Pavlou, 2009).It’s my conviction from talking to people that cognitive overload is actually a very common occurrence, especially in the digital age.Again, what are the implications for this in the classroom? Perhaps it’s not the best idea to simply set our kids free on the Internet—or even on Wikipedia—without thinking very carefully about how to manage that information with them. Let’s look very briefly at three more assumptions about technology and learning, and see if they’re worth their salt. Technology, particularly intellectual technology, increases learning automatically by increasing engagement.True or not true? Both. Maryanne Wolfe, who is a literacy expert out of Tufts University, worries that our children are distracted from deeper levels of reading by the immediacy of the information presented to them on the Internet (2007, p.224-226).In order to survive as animals, the theory goes, we needed to be able to shift our attention “rapidly and involuntarily” through differing sets of “raw sensory input” (Conner, Egeth and Yantis, 2004).This is something our brain still prefers to do, as well. But instead of filling those attention shifts with sensory data, more often than not we’re filling them with full-blown tasks—tasks, as we’ve seen, that we then do badly. So if you’ve ever heard someone describe the experience of surfing the Web or engaging in social media as “addictive,” this might explain why.In addition, the more we subject the brain to this kind of stimulation, the more the neural pathways that support it reinforce themselves. The ability of the brain to rewire itself in this way is called plasticity—the brain is plastic. And we’ve only recently discovered just how plastic our brains are. We used to think our brains were hard, like rocks. Maryann Wolfe, Nick Carr and others worry that this plasticity is actually rewiring our brains so that we lose some exceptionally important neural skills that we have also developed over time: the first of which is the ability to spend sustained periods of time concentrating and thinking deeply—for example, when you are reading a book (Wolfe 2007, p.224; Carr 2010, p. 141).The second neural skill we might be losing is memory. Just this past week researchers at Columbia University published a study that indicates that the more we rely on the ability to find information on the ‘Net, the less we actually remember the information itself-- “The Google Effect” (Sparrow, Liu, & Wegner, 2011).So in otherwords, we need to be very, very careful in equating engagement with learning. But here’s a video where the director of this actual research speaks. I love it because she takes a more positive spin on her own research. Perhaps the strongest voice on the positive side of online engagement as learning is danah boyd, who has made her career studying the practices of teens on line; in those spaces—gaming sites, fan fiction sites-- she has found strong evidence of creativity, critical thinking, and the ability of teens to teach each other very complex skills in a supportive and warm way (boyd 2007). So, does intellectual technology increase engagement, which increases learning? Maybe, maybe not. It very much depends upon your learning goals; the tech you choose to use; and how you choose to fit that tech to your learning goal. The only way to do this well is to get familiar with the brain-based research that impacts education, and think deeply and critically about all aspects of the technology you are working with. Here’s another assumption you might have heard about technology. Technology divorces us from our connection to the environment (place).True or not true? Both. This is one of the concerns of Richard Louv – he is the author of Last Child in the Woods (2005), one of the gurus of place and environmental based education, and he likes to share this quote, which he heard while interviewing hundreds of kids about how they play: “I like to play indoors because that’s where all the electrical outlets are” (p. 10). Which really captures the central problem with technology and the outdoors. The vast majority of technology leaves us dependent upon electricity, which means we have to be near or at least very concerned about some kind of power source. Additionally, when we allocate our attention to any kind of computer interface, we are not leaving all of our senses open to nature. Louv says that this means we are not learning and connecting with the natural world in our fullest capacity (2011 p.11).And believing that we are not fundamentally connected to nature has led to some really problematic stuff in our culture—from being disconnected from the food chain to suburban sprawl to climate change. Now, I am not saying that if we use Facebook, we are responsible for climate change. Or am I? Check out this graphic: “How Green Is your iPhone?” I am attached to my smartphone and my laptop. Yet can we use technology whose production and disposal is fundamentally trashing place, to teach our kids to love place? I think we can; but in the spirit of Neil Postman, we also have to find a way to teach our kids at the same time about the Faustian bargain here; about the darker side of technology, and figure out ways together to address it. We don’t really have a choice about this, in my view; if our kids leave our classrooms pumped up about using their cell phones, but don’t know where those cell phones come from, we’re only doing half our job. Now on the flip side of this is some of the most interesting and thoughtful use of technology to teach place that I have seen. This is the ReaL project, which I am proud to say is directed in part by a colleague of mine, Don Duggan-Haas, who is the Educational Associate at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca. The ReaL Earth System Science is a project of the Paleontological Research Institution and its Museum of the Earth that helps teachers teach Regional and Local Earth system science using an inquiry approach and virtual fieldtrips; with the idea being that later, teachers create real field work for their kids in their own backyards. The project is “grounded in the idea of using the local environment to understand the global environment,” and it’s in the process of developing teacher-friendly geosciences guides to all major regions of the US.This tech also is a great way to begin to address this question: What is place, anyway? Yes, it’s our localities. Absolutely. But our world is deeply interconnected naturally; so much so that you could argue that you can’t teach The Hudson Valley without also teaching about, say, the tides of the Atlantic Ocean. Tech allows us to get a very elegant, very beautiful sense of this interconnectedness. And when I played devil’s advocate with Don, and asked him how virtual field work connects kids strongly to their place—how it helps them love their place, he sent back this quote. "The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself." - Henry MillerDoes technology divorce us from place? In some ways, it really does. It some thoughtful, balanced ways it doesn’t. Again, here’s the broken record message: We must be critical thinkers about all aspects of technology in our classrooms. If our tech provides something essential to our kids, beautiful. If it takes away something essential from our kids, how are we going to balance that out? How are we, as teachers, going to add it back?Here’s the last assumption we’ll look at today. We can have the best of both a “plugged” and an “unplugged” world. Well, we don’t really know this yet. Nick Carr is worried that the re-wiring of our brains is permanent; that what is lost when certain pathways are reinforced is never to be recovered. Neil Postman puts it this way.“Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. I can explain this best by an analogy. What happens if we place a drop of red dye into a beaker of clear water? Do we have clear water plus a spot of red dye? Obviously not. We have a new coloration to every molecule of water. That is what I mean by ecological change. A new medium does not add something; it changes everything. In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe. After television, America was not America plus television. Television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry, and so on. That is why we must be cautious about technological innovation. The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable and largely irreversible" (Postman, 1998). They may be right. That being said, we are clever creatures. The brain in particular is a beautiful thing. Plasticity is a two-way street. The brain is infinitely complex, and we have hundreds of examples in which it rewires itself in the most surprising and flexible of ways. Some doctors are cautiously predicting Gabrielle Gifford’s eventual return to Congress. So what if we, as educators, investigated, studied, and worked for the best of both worlds? Richard Louv calls this a “hybrid mind” (Louv, 2011; Louv, Sobel and Rockwell, 2011). I love this idea. I love the idea that we can have a part to play in helping our students develop hybrid minds. For me, the story ends as it begins: with my kids. One last guessing game. What do these numbers mean? They are, consecutively, the numbers of hours I was in labor with my daughter and two years later, my son. No one knows why my labors happened this way—the pregnancies themselves were totally healthy and uneventful. But after a day and a night with my daughter, and two days and a night with my son, I was tired—the babies were tired—and we all agreed that the safest thing to do was deliver them both by C-section. I went into both these births with some very high expectations about how they were going to proceed, and I was disappointed. Even though the babies were happy and healthy, I felt as if I had failed. It took my good friend Mary to gain me some perspective. She is a history professor in Virginia, and I told her my story; and she said, with complete love and sympathy: Dina. You do know that if you had lived in the 1800’s, you and the babies would probably have died, don’t you?That’s what I remember now when I look at them. My children remind me that I am both critical of, and extremely grateful for, technology. And I think we, as educators, are looking for that balance too. We are looking, in a very real way, for our own hybrid minds: understanding that technology changes us, changes our world, and may not be appropriate or even desirable for some of the things we wish to accomplish as teachers, particularly as teachers of place…while at the same time remembering the unparalleled gifts of technology. I am questioning certain kinds of technology for the sake of my children…but I strive never to forget that other kinds of technology literally may have saved their lives. My wish for you is that as you walk your way though the conference, that you too develop this critical faculty—that you greet the technology you encounter with both a critical and an open mind.<br />“Would The Lorax or FDR Tweet?”: Thoughts on Technology and Place-Based Education<br />Teaching the Hudson Valley Summer Institute, July 2011<br />References <br />Adomavicius, G., Dimoka, A., Gupta, A., & Pavlou, P. (2009). Reducing the Cognitive Overload in Continuous Combinatorial Auctions: Evidence from an fMRI Study. Manuscript in preparation, University of Minnesota.<br />Begley, S. (2011, February 27). I Can’t Think! The Science of Making Decisions. Newsweek.<br />Boyd, D. (2007). Why Youth “Heart” Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning, 119-142.<br />Carr, N. (2010). The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York City, NY: WW Norton.<br />Connor, C. E., Egeth, H. E., & Yantis, S. (2004, October). Visual attention: bottom-up versus top-down. Cognitive Biology, 14, 850-52.<br />Ferriter, W. M., & Garry, A. (2010). Teaching the iGeneration: Five Easy Ways to Introduce Essential Skills With Web 2.0 Tools . Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.<br />Gorlick, A. (2009, August 24). Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows. Stanford Report.<br />Lehrer, J. (2010). How We Decide. NY, NY: Mariner Books.<br />Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.<br />Louv, R. (2011). The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.<br />Louv, R., Sobel, D., & Rockwell, C. (Speakers). (2011, June 20). Richard Louv and Friends on Reimagining Nature Literacy [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.orionmagazine.org/‌index.php/‌audio-video/‌item/‌richard_louv_and_friends_on_reimagining_nature_literacy/<br />Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009, September). Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of America, 106(37).<br />Postman, Neil (1998, March). Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change. <br />Speech presented at Newtech ’98, Denver, CO. <br />Simons, D. J. (2007). Inattentional blindness. Retrieved August 1, 2011, from Scholarpedia database.<br />Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011, July 14). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science Express.<br />Wolfe, M. (2007). Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York, NY: Harper Books.<br />Other Websites:<br />Text of Neil Postman’s “Five Things…”: http://itrs.scu.edu/tshanks/pages/Comm12/12Postman.htm<br />The ReaL Project: http://www.virtualfieldwork.org/<br />The Invisible Gorilla: http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com<br />danah boyd: www.danah.org<br />Bill Ferriter’s blog: http://teacherleaders.typepad.com/the_tempered_radical/<br />Contact Information:<br />Dina Strasser<br />dinaeliz@gmail.com or dstrasser2703@rhnet.org<br />http://theline.edublogs.org<br />c/o Roth Middle School<br />4000 East Henrietta Road<br />Rochester, NY 14467<br />

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