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 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.

Teachers and Students as Nodes on Online Social Networks

Tomaz Lasic has an interesting post on teachers banned from contacting their students over online social networking sites in Queensland, Australia. I sympathize with his argument that education is an inherently social activity and that online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are ways to encourage this social mode of learning. I agree that “banning” much of anything (without first putting in place some guidelines) is probably not the best way to explore what the potentialities of something are, for better or for worse.

He does note the “other side,” however, that keeping kids safe from “online predators and abusers” (most of whom are not teachers) is very important. I think that positioning one’s argument against such an extreme is usually counterproductive.

In my view, there are much more immediate and subtle effects of using social networking sites to communicate with students, blurring the boundaries between “teacher” and “friend” and out-of-school and in-school learning. Reading Axel Brun’s commentary on Trying to Remain Faceless on Facebook and Social Networks on Ning: A Sensible Alternative to Facebook (Dr. Brun hails, ironically, from Queensland) and Anton Steinpilz’s Thesis #3 in Paradise Tossed: Three Theses on the Impossibility of Future Progress are some takes on this idea. Not that I think that there shouldn’t be some overlap between “teacher” and “friend,” but it’s more complicated than Facebook makes it out to be.

But my argument can best be put by danah boyd, who warns us of a combination of technological utopianism and determinism which is so easy to slip into:

…[W]hen we introduce technology in an educational setting, we often mistakenly assume that students will embrace the technology in the same way that we do. This never works out and can cause unexpected strife. Take social network sites as an example. You use this for professional networking; teens use it to socialize with their peers. Putting Facebook or MySpace into the classroom can create a severe cognitive collision as teens try to work out the shift in contexts. Most problematically, when teens are forced to navigate Friending in an educational setting, painful dramas occur because who you’re polite to in school may be very different than who you socialize with at home. Using technology that ruptures social norms in the classroom can be socially and educationally harmful.

Her post, some thoughts on technophilia, is not long, and well worth the read for anyone who is concerned about education, technology, and students. If educators are insistent on using online social networks–and there are some good reasons to do so–I wonder if following Axel Burns’ advice is the way to go, setting up a Ning, or better yet, a Moodle on the school network (if such an option is available), dedicated to the class or a specific project, maintaining stricter boundaries between school work (and yes, it is, in so many ways, work) and friendships.

Digging Wells in Jerusalem

If it just so happens that you have not cleared this blog from your RSS stream, this is not a mistake: after some consideration, I have decided to dust off and restart the Smelly Knowledge blog. If you just happen to stumble upon this for the first time, I bid you welcome.

View of a banner from the Gap over Jerusalem which reads hello Jerusalem!

The Gap and I moved into Jerusalem about the same time.

I was once accused of being an “academic” — and over time, that prescient “Anymouse” became correct in their assumptions. I am now a third year doctoral student in the Curriculum and Instruction program in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College in the Science and Technology Education Program. For the 2009-2010 academic year, my wife was named a Mandel Jerusalem Fellow. We packed up our life, our house, and two children and are now living in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem, Israel.

While here in Israel for the fall semester, I am lucky enough to participate in an independent study with Dr. Dennis Shirley. He and I are treating this independent study as a way for me to expand my base in educational philosophy and social research. My hope is that I will become a part of the conversation around developing a humanistic approach to science and technology education and curriculum, so I will be reading through a good deal of work in philosophy and the human sciences. I am now using this blog–in part–to sort through what I am reading, and to develop a better conception of what a “humanistic approach to science and technology education and curriculum” actually means. I will be taking cues from James Donnelly and Glen Aikenhead, but I hope to infuse an approach with the works of the thinkers I am most interested in–such as Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Isaiah Berlin, Martin Buber, Erich Fromme, and Steven Jay Gould, among many others–as well as direct some more attention to technology in education.

I have little doubt that these thinkers could have foreseen the ways that science and technology have become a part of our society and our educational system, and most of these thinkers are not considered “educational thinkers” (even though most–if not all–wrote about education). Following the lead of the story of Isaac in Genesis, I will dig these wells and sources of wisdom anew, mining their depths and exploring their possibilities for these times. This is quite a fitting metaphor for a year in Jerusalem.

As luck would have it, we are renting our apartment from Professor Emeritus of Jewish Education Michael Rosenak. His shelves are full of wonderful books, so I will be drawing from his library for my independent study as well as the occasional foray into other areas. Of course, I will be interacting with more than books–I am setting up meetings with educational faculty members here in Israel, and my conversations with them will be part of this sense-making process.

Lastly, I will occasionally write a post about the balagan that is life in Israel. Israel rarely fails to surprise me despite the steady march of globalization and what some might call the inevitable rise of a “flat world.” Of course, these posts will be from an entirely American in Israel perspective rather than the studied emic perspective of an anthropologist. It is often frustrating, but almost always illuminating, as I negotiate the linguistic and cultural landscape. (I lived in Israel for two years about 10 years ago, but have lost much of my ability to speak Hebrew at a functional level–as of yet, my brain is just not operating in real time.)

Cloverleaf Map of the world with Jerusalem at the center

A Cloverleaf Map of the world with Jerusalem at the center. Not to be used for actual navigation.