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.