Interest as an Alternative to Attention in the Digital Age

New uses for old words–or perhaps more accurately, old words bestowed with greater significance and meaning–have accompanied the rise of the networked world. Reputation is one. Attention is another, and is one heralded by the fairly clairvoyant futurist Howard Rheingold. He even includes “attention” as one of the four essential media literacies (h/t Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning). The Britannica Blog has a really interesting series of posts on multitasking, seen as attention’s opposite, with a number of different perspectives on attention in modern life.

Sketchy notes

There is no question that teachers must compete with connected laptops for students’ attention, and therefore the attention argument is often used to support the idea that school needs to be fun, use video games, and leverage digital media or become irrelevant. I call this the “Keeping Up With Disneyland” argument in honor of a strategy devised by a museum I used to work at, which, after some management changes, saw Disneyland as their biggest competitor. By grabbing at pieces of students’ attention with activities that approximate what students do for fun, we can inject something that looks like learning.

I’m certainly not against a little fun in school; even “father of modern education” John Amos Comenius, laying out the Fifth Principle of his Didactica Magna in the 17th century, wrote:

The method of instruction should lighten the drudgery of learning, that there be nothing to hinder the scholars or deter them from making progress with their studies.

I get the sense, however, that the “Keeping Up With Disneyland” argument is used to promote an efficiency model of education through fun “hooks” at the expense of thoughtful and meaningful learning. While the use of video games and online social networks in education may be meaningful in that they connect with students’ lived experiences, does this use also necessarily expand, as Hans-Georg Gadamer refers to it, students’ “horizon of understanding“?

Rheingold himself advocates for attention to be developed as a skill, a literacy. Focused attention is necessary sometimes, so shutting out other distractions is an important skill to learn. Rheingold brings in the literacy aspect in terms of learning when to focus attention and when to multitask. This middle ground approach is compelling.

Reviewing the comments to Howard Rheingold’s defense of the middle ground on the Brittanica blog, I found some great commentary by anthropologist Michael Wesch:

What really interests me here though is not whether or not people can be more or less effective in such environments, but how our sense of our selves and our relations to others is changing in this process. This is not just an information problem/opportunity. As hinted throughout this debate, but not fully explored, is the fact that it is a relationship problem/opportunity. As Gergen noted in 1991, “the traditional individual is thrust into an ever-widening array of relationships … one grows anguished over the violation of one’s sense of identity” (1991:17).

In a hyper-connected world, we now find ourselves in multiple conversations at once, both real and virtual, and are often putting forth different masks, faces, identities, and selves in each one.
As interesting as the multi-tasking discussion is, it becomes especially interesting to me to consider the idea that we might also be “multi-selfing” as we bounce between our e-mails, tweets, texts, status updates, etc.

The connection between what we do with our attention and who we are and how we relate to the world is an even more compelling mode of inquiry for education and educators, I believe, than the literacy/efficiency model. UNESCO’s report Learning: The Treasure Within lists the notoriously vague, oh-so-important, yet perpetually neglected “Learning to Be” as one of the Four Pillars of Learning.

As an alternative to the notion of attention, then, educators may want to refocus on the idea of “interest.” In considering this concept, I look to psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm and his book The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology (1968). He named interest as one of the “humane experiences” for humanized technology, and he recognized that the term “interest” has experienced a “deterioration of meaning.” Fromm explored the concept deeply:

“Interest” comes from the Latin inter-esse, that is, “to be in-between.” If I am interested, I must transcend my ego, be open to the world, and jump into it. Interest is based on activeness. It is the relatively constant attitude which permits one at any moment to grasp intellectually as well as emotionally and sensuously the world outside.

Learning and teaching take on deeper meanings when an emphasis is placed on “interest” rather than “attention.” For example, the Teaching for Understanding framework places a premium on teacher interest. As Fromm put it, “[t]he interested person becomes interesting to others because interest has an infectious quality which awakens interest in those who cannot initiate it without help.”

Fromm recognizes the connection between our interest and our sense of self. He recognizes that the “object” of interesting may take on many forms (“persons, plants, animals, ideas, social structures”) depending on the individual; in education, often the object of interest is guided or set by the curriculum. For Fromm, in the end it is not the object of interest which matters, however:

Nevertheless the objects are secondary. Interest is an all-pervading attitude and form of relatedness to the world, and one might define it in a very broad sense as the interest of the living person in all that is alive and grows.

A focus on “attention” creates an environment of efficiency and economy as the task of learning competes with a range of distraction. A lack of attention is due to a lack of skill on either the part of the teacher or the students. Attention is “within” the student, or something that a student “has.”

Viewed through the concept of interest, however, teachers and students are counted as part of “all that is alive and grows,” free to relate to each other through interest, that which they find in-between.

21st Century Skills, Thinking, and the Network

In my last post on 21st Century Skills, I made the rather polemical and irreverent claim that thoughtfulness “flies in the face of 21st Century Skills.” Needless to say, critiquing a framework in this way when it is often connected with “critical thinking skills” by both friend and foe, this statement requires a little explanation.

Much of the rhetoric around adopting the 21st Century Skills in education, very similar to the rhetoric around adopting the use of technology in education, is predicated on a do-or-die or do-or-become-irrelevant idea. The world will leave you behind if you are not doing things with technology or teaching (or developing curriculum) the 21st Century Skills way. Kids are using technology. Business is using technology. The world is uncertain, so we must use technology and teach our children 21st Century Skills to make sure we are are on top. Because if we don’t, somebody else will be better prepared, more creative, more productive.

The following video, prepared in response to anthropologist Michael Wesch’s A Vision of Students Today, illustrates how easily global economic competition can become conflated with education, teaching, and learning:

At around the two minute mark, one boy holds a placard which reads “By the year 2016 the largest English speaking country” followed by a girl holding a placard which reads “will be China!” In my humble opinion, the rhetoric of fear can be dangerous–we are forced to act to maintain our place in the economic world without really thinking about what the ramifications are. The antidote to this fear–as well as to the drop-out problem–offered in the video is the use of technology and the application of 21st Century Skills. This instinct, to keep up and compete with technology in order to stay on top, seems entirely “natural”… until we stop and think about it, and really consider where the fear is coming from and what our options are.

Manuel Castells, in his sweeping The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture trilogy on the emerging networked world, insists that we must take information and communication technologies seriously. He’s right, we must. But taking technologies seriously means careful thinking and deliberation, not necessarily just going with the flow. A thoughtful position is difficult to maintain, as Castells deftly points out that the global network of information and capital will bypass and cut out any individual, organization, or region which does not add value to the network. We don’t want to be left behind, but at the same time it is within our reach to curb the self-reinforcing logic of the network. Bill Wasik, author of And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, ends his book with echoes of Hannah Arendt’s reference to Cato:

We cannot unplug the machine, nor would we want to; but we must rewire it to serve us, rather than the other way around. And for that, we must learn how to partially unplug ourselves.

The Ups and Downs of 21st Century Skills

Times Out Of Joint

In his 1935 essay “The Teacher and His World,” John Dewey wrote,

The sum of the matter is that the times are out of joint, and that teachers cannot escape even if they would, some responsibility for a share in putting them right.

While John Dewey may have been writing in the earlier half of the 20th century–at a time when the US was in the slow and painful process of recovering from the Great Depression–he may as well have been writing about our times–with economic fear and anxieties, a rapidly changing workplace, and technologies which have helped to foster a global network facilitating the flow of information and capital–in the beginning of the 21st century. The idea of a set of 21st Century Skills, regularly discussed in the blogosphere and reported on in both the educational and mass news media, can be thought of as an attempt to address some of the fears, anxieties, and uncertainties surrounding this changing world through education.

This is especially true among the educational technology community, which has by and large embraced the idea of the 21st Century Skills in its various forms. As the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), the leading organization advocating for this approach to education, is largely comprised of a partnership of technology and media companies and corporations (plus ASCD and NEA and a few others), much of the emphasis of the 21st Century Skills framework is based on using and engaging with media and technology for educational purposes in interesting, collaborative, and creative ways. Although the P21’s framework is not the only one (c.f., pp. 15-20 of Friesen and Jardine’s report, 21st Century Learning and Learners, for a fairly comprehensive overview of the various approaches to 21st century skills), it is by far the most referenced, has made the most headway in policy terms, and is generally what is referred to when “21st Century Skills” is invoked generically.

The Partnership’s 21st Century Skills

The P21’s take is fairly complete, and is represented in the nice rainbow graphic below of the “Student Outcomes,” which are “…the skills, knowledge and expertise students should master to succeed in work and life in the 21st century.” Of note is the emphasis on interdisciplinary literacies (although for some strange reason, “Environmental Literacies” have not been fully developed–could this be on purpose?), innovative and creative thinking and collaboration, business and financial acumen, and, for lack of a better term, project management skills. These are all crucial in order to succeed in what Richard Florida describes as the creative class, or what Robert Reich more soberly calls symbolic analytic professions.

Student outcomes of the 21st century as envisioned by P21

Student outcomes of the 21st century as envisioned by P21

Critiques of 21st Century Skills

Statler and WaldorfAs with many frameworks, P21’s 21 Century Skills have also been the target of criticism from the blogosphere. There are many ways to slice these critiques. Melanie McBride has an interesting critique and suggestions based on (socioeconomic) class distinctions and identity politics. Tom Hoffman critiques the idea of separating knowledge from skills, as well as favoring white-collar jobs. Hoffman, and others including Jamie MacKenzie, Alfie Kohn, and Core Knowledge, are concerned over the fact that business is setting the educational agenda.

I would agree on this last point, and it points to a disturbing cultural trend all around. Hannah Arendt foreshadowed this critique in her masterfully insightful book The Human Condition. Framing her argument in terms of the rise of society and the social realm (as opposed to the pluralistic and political ideal of the public realm) she writes: “…in a relatively short time the new social realm transformed all modern communities into societies of laborers and jobholders…” (p. 46). The 21st Century Skills focus more on competition and productivity rather than a focus on helping children become good, just and whole people. While many of the critical thinking skills described in the 21st Century Skills are important and worthwhile, there is still many missing, such as listening, caring, reflecting, and conserving.

By far, however, most of the criticisms emanate from the Core Knowledge Foundation (CK), headed by E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch. The argument that they present has been picked up, repeated, and turned into a talking point. It is the standard critique of progressive education, that “skills” are elevated above “knowledge.”

Fair enough, and part of my own critique of P21’s 21st Century Skills also includes some aspects of this. Friesen and Jardine, who are Canadian and not at all attached to the Core Knowledge Foundation, critique what they call the emphasis on “generic skills” in 21st Century Skills. They instead call for a focus on “living disciplines of knowledge,” in which curriculum is cast as a “landscape” and teachers and students take on responsibilities for nurturing the knowledge with which they are engaging:

This idea of a landscape in which one learns to work and dwell, within which the relatedness and interdependence of those things which the field sustains are essential to their well being, in which one’s actions are those of obligation to and care for that well-being, in which others have come before us and work has already been done–these matters define how knowledge is in fact organized in the world.

“Setting-Right” The World

I find the take of Core Knowledge (CK), in contrast with Friesen and Jardine, to be a reductionist approach to knowledge and knowing: I am uncomfortable with the idea that “core knowledge” can be collected, anthologized, standardized, and tested without losing something. I also find that CK’s approach to lack any Socratic “critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions,” which Martha Nussbaum in her book Cultivating Humanity holds up as one of three capacities for cultivating a humanistic citizenship through education. In a sense, CK’s approach closes off the hermeneutic circle so that new meanings cannot be gleaned or constructed.

Winslow Homer's "Country School, 1871"CK’s approach can also tend to a romanticism of the past, such as Dr. Ravitch’s post on 19th Century Skills. While I appreciate Dr. Ravitch’s historical perspective–that many things we value and should bring to new generations about what it means to be human have been around for awhile–I find that she is, quoting Jason Jones of The Daily Show, “hearkening back to a simple, more fictional time.”

What is missing in CK’s approach is what Hannah Arendt, a sharp and thoughtful critic of progressive education, refers to as a “setting-right” of the world. By “the world,” Arendt is referring to the world of human understanding, learning, and works, which is, she rightly asserts, well worth the effort to adopt a sense of “…conservatism, in the sense of conservation.” She writes further in her essay “The Crisis in Education”:

Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation…. To preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants it must be constantly set right anew. The problem is simply to educate in such a way that a setting-right remains actually possible, even though it can, of course, never be assured. Our hope always hangs on the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old, can dictate how it will look. Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world… (pp. 192-193)

Larry Cuban points out that teachers in their own right are often “conservative,” in that they make incremental rather than fundamental changes in their actual day-to-day practices. In the case of P21’s 21st Century Skills, this may be the right thing to do. Some questions arise: Do teachers resist those fundamental changes because of the critiques listed above, or is it another example of what Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley refer to as “adaptive presentism,” a way for teachers to deal with the deluge of change and reform which bombards them from outside the classroom? Do teachers adopt P21’s 21st Century Skills because they think it is the best way to teach their students about the world, and to prepare them for their place in it?

Alfie Kohn has admitted that teachers often use “21st Century Skills” as a way to talk about ‘relatively sophisticated intellectual activity – the sort that includes critical thinking, creativity, and learning about ideas “in a context and for a purpose”….’ And one teacher has really made 21st Century Skills her own.

These questions and concerns highlight another theme which permeates much of Hannah Arendt’s work, which I have drawn heavily upon in this post, that of the need for thoughtfulness. She ends The Human Condition with a passage from Cato: Numquam se plus agere quam nihil cum ageret, numquam minus solum esse quam cum solus esset–“Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.” This passage flies in the face of the 21st Century Skills, but her famous thesis around the banality of evil, that evil arises from thoughtlessness and “spreads like a fungus on the surface,” requires deep thinking and consideration. So to with the 21st Century Skills, and the pressing need for considering where they come from and for what ends.

I end with another passage from Dewey’s “The Teacher and His World,” and while Arendt and Dewey disagreed on much, on the necessity of thoughtfulness they seem to concur:

The question is whether they [teachers] are doing so blindly, evasively, or intelligently and courageously. If a teacher is conservative… at all events let him do it intelligently, after a study of the situation and a conscious choice made on the basis of intelligent study. The same thing holds for the liberal and the radical.

The Crowd in the Classroom and the Guide on the Side

Two related posts came across my RSS reader esthis morning, both written by scholars connected the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

David Weinberger writes about how a Google Image search for “Michelle Obama” brings up a clearly racist image as the first result in a post entitled When the crowd is racist at Google. He writes that he is torn by this as he recognizes that,

On the one hand, Google is taking a principled stand by not inserting its own political/cultural views into its engine. It’s also avoiding an endless squabble if it were to start hand-manipulating the results.

On the other, he recognizes that Google’s search algorithm for ranking results, which is based on links and clicks, must be flawed to provide such an unnecessary and not useful result as the first one in the list. In the end, however, he “…admire(s) Google’s consistency and transparency about it.”

danah boyd, who is also with Microsoft Research down Mass Ave from Harvard, wrote about her experiences as speaker at the Web 2.0 Expo. Unable to see her (real, not virtual) audience and unable to find her rhythm, a live Twitter feed projected behind her turned ugly, even objectifying her as a sexual object, until the conference organizers decided to shut it down. This, in turn, caused even more of a buzz in the audience. She found that many in the audience was not able to concentrate on the thought-provoking comments she was bringing them, but instead focusing on the crude comments scrolling by in huge letters behind her.

These two cases highlight that, as a society at large, we still have plenty to work on when it comes to racism and sexism. But it also raises some questions in the realm of education. I have in the past critiqued online social networks in education, such as Facebook and Myspace, from a specific angle. As I stated in that post, it’s not that these technologies should be ignored or denied in education, but instead treated seriously, carefully, and with plenty of thought. The same goes for the use of “crowd-powered” communications tools such as Twitter or search tools like Google (albeit acknowledging the underlying logic of the mysterious algorithm).

Much of the pedagogical approaches in the technology in education movement tends towards the progressive end of things as heralded by John Dewey, although much of what can be found there is probably more consistent with Thomas Kilpatrick’s project method. These approaches favor a child-centered approach, allowing learners to explore what interests them, in ways that are engaging, hands-on, and creative. Yay to all that. Seriously.

What can happen–and does happen occasionally–is that the “Guide on the Side not Sage on the Stage” approach degenerates into a more complete backgrounding of the teacher, as the teacher trusts the technology to foster the exploration and dialogue and trusts the students to carry on as they will. Of course there are many teachers who are very well-informed as to the purposes and very skilled in the methods of progressive education and do it very well. But it can also turn to the shallow and unthinking use of technology in the classroom, allowing little room for learning or growth.

But besides the cognitive aspects, there is another potential path. Hannah Arendt, in her essay “The Crisis in Education,” provides a powerful critique of progressive education (not just of progressive education, but much of her critique can be found touching upon the underlying assumptions of progressive education). I will be delving into these critiques in more detail in a later post centered around an exploration of the much-discussed 21st Century Skills (I promised Dr. Shirley I would), but suffice it to say, as a self-described “political theorist,” Arendt was concerned with questions of authority.

The first assumption of progressive education she highlights, which has been easily translated into the “Guide on the Side” language used to justify the use of information and communication technologies in the classroom, is “…that there exist a child’s world and a society formed among children that are autonomous and must insofar as possible be left to them to govern.” Now, Arendt assigns terms such as “world” and “society” with very specific meanings. I won’t get into them right now. But this is where she sees one of the dangers of this child-centered autonomy in the quest for a durable and pluralistic world:

Therefore by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority. In any case the result is that the children have been so to speak banished from the world of grown-ups. They are either thrown back upon themselves or handed over to the tyranny of their own group, against which, because of its numerical superiority, they cannot rebel, with which, because they are children, they cannot reason, and out of which they cannot flee…

Of course, this seems a bit dire. And the reports of David and danah point to the fact that the world of adults–or rather, the society of adults–is not always a paragon of reason and an expression of plurality.

But, this reminds us of the necessary role of the teacher, more than just the nominal role of “Guide on the Side.” The teacher brings with her wisdom, judgment, and experience. With the use of technology in education, these attributes are more than just “critical digital literacy skills.” So, let’s celebrate the teacher and acknowledge her authority in the face of her dual responsibilities: to her students, and to the world she brings them.

And before I am criticized for knocking progressive education, I am realizing that one of my emerging goals as an educator and a scholar is to help save progressive education–and I use the term loosely–from itself. Progressive education has a great deal to offer, but when it is reduced to slogans it loses its power and tends to present the world as a wholly malleable object without roots or history where the current and fleeting needs of making a living in it–or better yet, competing in it–trumps all. Education is so much more than that, and we owe it to our world and to our children to resist such a way out.

Surrounded by Meaning

The exploration of meaning in education is something that is very near and dear to my heart, especially as we, as a culture, move further and further into the realm of things. I can’t say it much better than Dorothy in her most recent Cat and Girl comic strip:


I can’t get enough of Cat and Girl, and its intellectual goodness…