Friday, August 24, 2007

Awkward Teenage Blues*

* (Night Moves by Bob Seger)

Next spring marks my thirteenth year with learning technology, a milestone of sorts. Since I never was Bar Mitzvahed, this particular accomplishment would remain unnoticed by me except for a few other happenings. Last week we were on family holiday in San Antonio (some of my in-laws live there) and we spent more time in group activity than we normally do at home. So I got to think a bit about my boys, their learning and their social interactions. The older one is just about to turn 15 and the younger is 13, ages where a lot of things are taking shape. Reflecting on that definitely was part of it. The other thing is that I finished reading Middlesex while I was down there. The rest of them went to Schlitterbahn for a romp on the water slides (and a lot of waiting in endless lines for the opportunity thereto) and mercifully they let me stay behind (amazing what you can get away with given a leg injury). So I sat in one of my in-law’s la-z-boys and read more than half the book before they returned home, with some regret that the reading experience had to end. I don’t know why I fail to do this at home on the weekends, but I rarely do spend the time that way, sitting in the recliner reading a novel. It was great for me down there in Texas. Somehow what I read tied into what I was thinking about with my kids – the protagonist in Middlesex goes through an extraordinary amount of awkwardness, much during the teenage years. And it occurred to me that perhaps there were some lessons for learning technology as well, so…

Obviously, there are many dimensions to my post title. I’m going to try to steer clear of the ones directly related to hormonal change and how to manage that. (Thirty plus years later, I still have no clue on that one.) My focus, instead, is on the intellectual transition from kid to adult, some of the stumbling blocks with that, issues I’m more comfortable writing about. I may have been aware of where my kids fit on the curve right along but their teenage blues became more obvious to me last week, as did the connection between that and their school learning. Here are some examples.

For at least some kids, their behavior is different sitting at the adult table as compared to when they are playing with their friends. Some kids filter a lot in their conversations with adults. Others talk pretty much the same whether with their friends or with adults. Part of becoming adult is learning how much to filter. There is no manual to read to master the lesson. It is a lesson learned from the school of hard knocks. Kids don’t get it right at the outset. Some people never do. Just to be clear though, when I say filter I’m not talking about suppressing free speech or advocating for children-should-be-seen-but-not-heard. I mean eliminating excessive scatological references, or understanding well enough that details of video games that the adults have never played are likely not to hold their interest, or simply putting in some effort during conversation as to whether others are making some connection to the topic.

There is a literature on first born and second born differences, and while I’m not well acquainted with the formal research, I’ve chatted with enough parents who make the point that I shouldn’t be surprised to see some of this show up in my own kids. In my view, one of them filters way too much, at least when he is around me, while the other filters not nearly enough. The one who filters a lot achieves this by not talking much at all rather than by trying to steer the conversation to safe harbors. The one who doesn’t filter enough does try to steer the conversation – to his own favorite topics, regardless of whether those are appropriate or of interest to others. Think about how these behaviors might manifest a few years hence, when these guys are in college. Let’s play a little matching game. Consider the characterization of one type of student as presented by Ken Bain, who when confronted with experimental evidence that contradicts his world view chooses instead to ignore the evidence. Consider a different type of student who aims to please the instructor by trying to produce answers that the instructor is “looking for.” Can you match my kids’ approach to filtering to these idealized student types? I can.

A different aspect of becoming an adult is mastering the know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em choice, especially in situations of conflict. None of us want to be arguing all the time, yet each of us wants to be able to press our case on occasion and make sure we’re not taken advantage of. How does one achieve the right balance on this? From my parent’s eye view, kids figure out an approach to resolving this question by treating one of those needs as a paramount and the other as secondary – which gives us either great negotiators or Miss Congeniality, but not something in between. It has to be unsatisfying to the kids on occasion because that presumed secondary need sometimes becomes prominent, a definite source of awkwardness, but what to do when that happens? I’ve written about the Miss Congeniality types, especially focusing on very bright students in this category, in my post Killing The Puppy. I’m guessing that most instructors tend to think of the great negotiator types as those who haggle about grades, but I wonder if the behavior manifests in other ways in the classroom. That is something to ponder.

Yet a different part of becoming an adult is learning to fulfill their end of the bargain on an implicit contract, which requires a certain sense of stick-to-it-ness as well as an understanding how to assess those agreements that are important to honor. Here too there is a tradeoff of a kind that kids might not realize they make, but they do. The question is how many commitments to take on. Those who feel they must honor those they do take on are likely to limit the set of commitments. Then they may find there are interesting things to engage in, but they are missing out. The opposite extreme is no bowl of cherries either. When you take on more commitments than you can fulfill you’re apt to disappoint people you like and respect. As I’ve recently been guilty of the latter sin, let me use that as a way to segue into the connection with Middlesex.

During my convalescence after my leg injury and surgery, I was mostly at home and spent a good deal of time by myself. I was able to be online so could engage in some interaction that way, but after a while I became extremely desirous of having face to face conversation with folks from campus. So, in a lark, I sent an email to some colleagues inviting them out to the house for some conversation.

Gail Hawisher, Director of the Center for Writing Studies here, was kind enough to take me up on my offer. I met Gail very early on in my uptake of learning technology and over time we’ve become good colleagues, but I’m not one to host folks at home and so having her come to visit was a rare treat. As I recall, we had a really wonderful conversation entirely unrelated to work.

Gail came bearing a gift. (If you guessed that was a box of chocolates you should stay after school to clean the erasers.) Not surprisingly for someone who teaches writing and with whom my connection is about writing and writing online, she brought a book, Middlesex. It’s not a book I would have chosen on my own. My choices in fiction tend toward the plebian, once in a while venturing into the classics, and I need some external direction to get me onto something else that is valuable but outside my usual sphere.

In the quid pro quo of university exchange, I had made an implicit commitment to read that book. And, after all, it was a Pulitzer Prize winner with quite an original story line. So why shouldn’t I want to read it? Further, I had time on my hands while convalescing and that would seem like a perfect opportunity to do just what I ended up doing in San Antonio, though I was still experiencing some significant pain then and wasn’t sure I could concentrate sufficiently to get a lot out of the reading.

I did try. On a couple of trips Middlesex was my airplane reading. (Planes and airports are where I read most of the fiction that I do absorb.) It was ok but it didn’t leave me with the feeling I usually have when I’m hooked – if I don’t finish the book on the trip then my down time immediately after is spent reading the rest of the book. With Middlesex, though, I put it aside. I don’t know why I couldn’t get into it and I don’t really think it was my leg problems. I felt like a sluggo. I owed Gail but that imperative wasn’t strong enough. For some reason I needed to declare “I’m on vacation” in order to put in the time to get into the book. I should do that more often.

There has been much written about Middlesex, for example this Salon review that is reasonably close to my reaction to the book and this rather unfavorable review in the New York Review of Books. So I will content myself here to talk about how I made a connection between the awkward teenage blues and the book, since featuring hermaphroditism conjures up other ideas that make the connection less apparent.

The Friday before we went to Texas I was tasked to take the boys to the barber for a haircut. The place we take them gives me the willies; I won’t get my own hair cut there. All the guys doing the hair cutting have very closely cropped hair themselves. Any style where the hair flops over seems out of their league. As it turned out that afternoon after we were seated and waiting for our turn, in walks a blond hair guy probably in his early or mid twenties who had shoulder length hair. I normally don’t look at the other patrons, whether in this barber shop or other waiting rooms, but this guy seemed so out of place it was hard not to. And since one of my kids got done just when the other one got started I had some time to watch this guy in the barber chair talking to the rather incredulous barber about what haircut the long hair would get. He said he wanted it real short – cut it all off. He had come to the right place, but the whole thing seemed extremely unusual.

The following Monday with the rest of them off at the Water Park, I’m reading about Cal, née Calliope, taking the symbolic step of getting his very long hair cut short to make the transition from girl to boy. I couldn’t help but make the connection. It seemed like a sign. (Though I did almost immediately recall Stephen Jay Gould writing about Kahneman and Tversky and that we humans are really not good at probabilities; we create absurd rationalizations for what turns out to be mere coincidence.) Anyway, once the haircut connection was made it was rather straightforward for me to think of much of Middlesex as a commentary on the awkward teenage blues. And because of the symbolism of the haircut, I began to think that teenagers especially, but perhaps all of us to some extent, believe in a “quantum theory of social interactions” meaning that we’re all capable of radical changes in our behavior on occasion but to achieve that we must go through some initiating rite, in this case the haircut. What could be more radical than switching from a girl to a boy?

Armed with the dual metaphor of awkward teenage blues and quantum theory of social interactions I started asking myself whether it could be applied to our profession. Actually, that’s a bit inaccurate. I assumed it could be applied. My lifeblood is that almost any decent metaphor can be applied, if only one looks in the right place. It’s coming up with the decent metaphor that’s the hard part and in this case it was ready made. So I began my search on applying the metaphor and it didn’t take long to find a target – our communication about what we know and what we’ve learned recently regarding how effective use of technology affects learning. I think learning technologists as a whole are at that awkward teenage blues stage with regard to communication. Below I will explain why.

But first, here is an aside. You, dear reader, who’ve reached this point in the post might well be asking, “Lanny, I’ve gotten this far in and now you’re just starting in on your commentary. Why the meandering style? Why not something else more direct, something shorter overall?” In response I note first that creativity is getting a lot of attention as of late and I’m well aware of that. I want to make some contribution in promoting creativity, albeit small, and my thought is that one obvious way is to make formative thinking explicit. We may not be used to that sort of writing in Higher Ed. None of my formal economics papers take this approach. They explicate the idea and illustrate why it is important. They don’t give a whit about how the idea originated. My blog posts are the opposite. The origin of the ideas is always an important concern. And the reality is that the process is one of jumping around, finding connection between things that might not seem related. Bringing that out in the open produces a meandering effect. So there.

I paused for several days writing this post, getting to the point where I could start my commentary but not producing it. I wasn’t comfortable because I intended to write something critical and I didn’t have a way to counterbalance the criticism. Last night I watched Joel Klein on Charlie Rose, having TiVo’d the interview from the previous evening. It’s an interesting segment for many reasons and I’m glad I watched it. And it provided me with some needed relief because it set a baseline for what adult communication about learning issues should be like. You don’t have to agree with what Klein said, I disagreed with him on several points particularly on how he was ready to discard more senior teachers who have lost their sense of purpose (short term this might make sense but long term the approach will be self-defeating), but you have to admire how he made the case.

Klein rested much of his argument on having good teachers (and good principals) and allocating them not to the best schools but rather to more challenging situations. The basic point was straightforward, simple, and hence easy to understand. Everything else he said got built off that basic idea. He introduced the basic idea with some fanfare, dismissing some other possible contenders – class size, extending the school day – and emphasized the research that argues supposedly poor students can perform well if they are put into a good learning situation and have good teachers. He gave a definition for what makes a good teacher – empathy for the student, an ability to communicate, and subject matter expertise. And in the process of the overall conversation, where much of the discussion was about getting accountability into the system and making it more professional, he talked about a learning technology – a teacher portfolio system – but as an instrument towards his higher level ends, not as a thing in itself.

Klein has spent a substantial amount of his professional career in the public eye and he is quite an effective advocate, whether for the public school system in New York or for the plaintiff in the Microsoft Case. Some readers might feel it unfair to use him as the standard bearer for effective communication about learning technology. Do we need all that public presence ahead of time before we make the case? I hope not. But we need his method, as highlighted in the previous paragraph. Mostly, we’re not getting that. Instead we get muddle.

Technology plays the role of champion in much of this writing. It is true that in addition to its role as instrument, technology sometimes plays the role of the haircut in Middlesex, as a signpost of quantum change in behavior. But technology implementation is other than the change in behavior itself and technology implementation likely isn’t the fundamental cause of the change. Further, while we in learning technology probably need the quantum theory to keep us going, skeptical outsiders require something else. They need an argument or a set of arguments to engage their skepticism. But on that we are mostly silent. Think of what the silence conveys. Ask whether it speaks more loudly than the explicit writing and what that writing signifies.

Here as some examples meant to illustrate the point. There is nothing special about this particular selection, other than I’ve read these pieces recently. I don’t know the authors and have no grudge against them. The pieces themselves I believe to be representative of a larger genre. They are not isolated cases.

Consider this piece by Barbara Cambridge from the second issue of the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. It was an invited article and derives from a presentation the author made at the University of Singapore. To me, it reads like a tour guide through the various aspects of new approaches to learning with technology. Sometimes it is important to get a lay of the land. But usually that’s for the already committed, who are looking for detail. For others less initiated something more conceptual is preferred. This piece fails that test.

Cambridge starts out with a lesson from a second grader, who announces that others should be interested in how she learns. Cambridge follows up with an assertion that learning about how we learn is one of the most important things we can do, it will sustain us through the complexities of rapid technological development we’re apt to experience in the next several decades, and in the process creates the impression that learning how we learn is either a universal or at worst is mostly universal but perhaps with some aspects that are idiosyncratic to the individual.

Then she moves on to talk about robots and computer agents and how the emerging presence of both will modify how we communicate and function. In order for us to thrive in this environment we need adaptability – learning to learn skills will be paramount. Fine. It seems the case has been made. But then, when we return to learning to learn, the focus is on learning to learn within a discipline, in this case math, and we’re told that within discipline expertise is requisite to design environments that elicit a learning to learn approach and to evaluate whether these environments are effective. This seems a direct contradiction to the earlier argument. Either learning to learn within a discipline is in part illustrative of more general learning to learn, in which case the math experts might actually take something from generalists and not simply look from a within discipline perspective, or its not, in which case why should the rest of us be interested in it at all?

Then a jump shift to talk about portals, another shift to talk about The Social Life of Information, which brings us back not to learning to learn but rather to computer robots; then on to information literacy, followed by “lifewide learning” which means bringing in aspects of all experience whether in or out of the classroom, and ultimately ePortfolios. It is asserted without argument that ePortfolios are a good way, perhaps the preferred way, to get students to reflect on their learning. There is no mention of other perhaps lighter weight ways of getting students to be meta cognitive on occasion, nor is there any mention that too much meta cognition might hamper learning by doing. Evidence is presented about some work done at Clemson in Psychology, some work within a course based on a pretest/posttest approach and other work comparing Freshmen performance to Senior performance in design of their ePortfolios. While I applaud taking a longitudinal approach, there does not seem to be any mention that the measured growth could be attributed to other causes. Further, the evidence itself, e.g., “The introductory lab portfolios were significantly lower in hierarchical value than the senior lab portfolios with means of 2.1 and 3.2 respectively,” gives the reader no insight at all into the students’ understanding of psychology nor to their powers of meta cognition.

I don’t take issue with the underlying work that Cambridge writes about. My problem is with her rhetorical style in trying to bring these efforts together. The cheer leading may work in a face to face presentation. But even there, and let me remind of the Charlie Rose interview with Joel Klein, one can introduce a hierarchical approach to the argument where all other points are subsidiary to a primary point and can be derived from it and such a hierarchical approach is much more effective to make the case because the listener/reader can better understand how things are tied together. Not insisting on such a hierarchical style is an error in judgment in my view, an error created by not fully understanding the needs of the audience.

Let me briefly turn to another piece, this one from Campus Technology, a ViewPoint piece based on proceedings from their annual conference. (Go to the end of the article and click through to the full text of Randy Jackson’s presentation, which should bring up a pdf file.) This one is about classroom technology and promoting good pedagogy in the classroom. Unlike the Cambridge piece, it does adhere to a good hierarchical structure, with the core idea to promote interactivity and active learning for the students. But of the two examples to illustrate the point, the first focuses on podcasting – where is the interactivity in that? Indeed, in the piece itself Jackson says, “Nevertheless, students report that these recordings help them catch up when they miss class and are a good resource for homework and exams.” That’s right in terms of the benefit of podcasting, but interactivity is nowhere to be seen. Further, the article begins by saying that early efforts with classroom technology were facility driven (that’s definitely true) but that more current efforts that are pedagogically driven require a different approach to the AV. I didn’t get that from the piece, however, unless I’m missing something. Both the podcasting and the other example, audience response systems (those do hit the mark on interactivity) seem to be enabled on top of the typical AV facility install.

Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds but it is also a characteristic of a well thought through hierarchically based presentation. Inconsistencies make it harder for the audience to follow and make the main point seem less convincing.

Let me wrap up this already too long post. The awkward teenage blues are not forever. It’s one phase in a longer development. My kids will grow up; they’ll go to college, with any luck they’ll mature in their perspective and become well functioning adults. This is not a lead pipe cinch, but I can be pretty confident about the outcome. Growing up is a normal part of life. I’m less confident about the profession. While we’re adolescent in the way we communicate, the folks doing the communication are already fully grown adults. As Joel Klein noted, there is a tendency for long time insiders to become settled in their ways. I took Klein to task for not considering approaches to rekindle the flame in these people. That he’s not yet doing this suggests it’s hard to accomplish. Clearly the first step is to establish the need for rekindling in the eyes of these folks. My post is really aimed at posing this question. Do others within the profession see this need as well?

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