The Question of Authority…

Juggling in the Airport
Hmmmm!  Is this what we’re doing?  …Juggling in the airport?

The other day, I was working at the North Carolina School Library Media Association conference in Winston-Salem.  There are basically two school library conferences in this state.  In the Fall, it’s the NCSLMA conference, and in the Spring we have the NCAECT.  The NCSLMA is usually more book-based, and the NCAECT is oriented toward technology.  I present more often at the technology conference and am challenged more often by attendees of the book conference — and last week’s event was no exception.

I was demonstrating Vicki Davis’ wiki site, where her students contribute and organize the content that they will use to study for their tests — how she use to say, “You write me a report about word processing, and you write me a report about quantum computing.”  And now she says, “You write the chapter on word processing, and you write the chapter on quantum computing.”  It’s one of those suggestions that usually gets heads nodding and pencils wiggling at tech conferences.

But on that day, a woman on the second row, with graphite gray hair and gritted teeth, raised her hand and asked, “But what about authority?”  I think I answered the question well.  I said something like, “The point of Vicki’s practice is to make the students learners, who are learning from the network of the classroom.  We’re trying to move from a learning environment where we teach children how to be taught, and instead, help them learn to teach themselves.” 

Then I threw in, “We live in a time of rapid change, where the answers to the tests will be changing during the lifetimes of our children.  It has become more important how we learn, and less important what we learn.”  This seemed to ring true with most of the inhabitants of that room, but the questioner’s jaws never appeared to relax.

I know now, that although I still believe what I said, I also trivialized the question.  That nothing has really happened to authority.  The basis for belief has not vanished.  It remains important to be able to justify what we write, say, and do — to be able to provide evidence of its accuracy, reliability, validity, and its appropriateness in terms of the goals we’re trying to achieve.

What’s changed is that the responsibility for authority has shifted.  The responsibility rests less with the teacher and more with the learner.  “In your chapter about quantum computing, it is critical that you site the sources, include a bibliography, and also include information about why this scientist’s perspective on subatomic processors is important to know.” 

The skills involved in being an information gatekeeper are no longer exclusively those of the librarian or the teacher.  They are now personal skills — and they are basic literacy skills.

13 thoughts on “The Question of Authority…”

  1. David,

    This point is timely for me as I have met with teachers who asked similar questions about allowing students to create material that other students will use for preparation for assessment. What you say regarding authority is 100% true, however, what you neglect to point out is that teachers do this all of the time in lectures and notes, meaning, how how many teachers have you seen cite their sources on lecture notes? How many cite the pictures they use in a PowerPoint lecture?

    Modeling the demonstration of authority and citing of sources is become extremely important to the learning process.

  2. I was delighted to note that my sons’ school, while still being firmly entrenched in 1.0 methodologies, was insisting on referencing for a piece of coursework to be submitted for their integrated humanities course. I was less delighted to discover that the teacher was under the impression that a bibliography is a list of words and their definitions, while a list of publications used/referenced was known as “an appendices” (sic). When I explained to my son that either (a) he had misunderstood the teacher or (b) the teacher was mistaken, he said, “I believe you, Mom, because you know a lot about this stuff, but I’d better do it this way so that I can get good marks for the assignment.”

    Learning to the test, much?

    1. I definitely remember bringing two versions of papers to class – one that seemed to be what the teacher asked for, and one that seemed to be correct. Before handing it in, I’d have to ask the teacher to clarify before I could turn in the one that would get the better grade.

  3. David,

    After reading your blog through a couple of times and struggling with these ideas of change and authority, I ran across 2 other blogs that really fit the point.

    George Seimens posted an interesting Connectivism blog on “changing, but not becoming” at

    Then, I also read the Learning is Messy blog on a Thanksgiving project at Here is a quote, “As part of our study of the colonies we spent time delving into the first Thanksgiving. For the last week we focused on using multiple sources in research, so we used books, documentary video, and the internet to find out what they REALLY ate at the first Thanksgiving. Based on our research we put on as authentic a Thanksgiving/Harvest Festival as we could.” The kids themselves became the new authority. I thought this was appropriate based on your comment, “to be able to provide evidence of its accuracy, reliability, validity, and its appropriateness in terms of the goals we’re trying to achieve.” Here, the key word for me is “appropriateness.”

  4. It’s always been a good idea to validate source material, look for multiple sources, and use primary sources. That should be the norm everywhere, not just when using technology.

    The risk for many in charge is that it seemingly undermines the authrority of the teacher and textbook as the only authority. Those in charge also have to trust teachers to help students understand this power and respect the process– a far cry from scripted instruction.

    And we have to be firm that this is appropriate at all times, for all kinds of learning, not just every once in a while.

  5. David,

    I think this question illustrates the struggle with the sea change going on that is well-reflected in Wikinomics.

    I was rereading the book this afternoon and pondering this whole power shift.

    I agree with you in the importance of authority and for students having the skill of discernment.

    On the other hand, we set up authorities that are false(witness books like Lies My History Teacher Told Me), etc. but have been passed down because they are custom.

    There was a great quote in Wikinomics, attributed to Technorati’s founder, Celik. ‘Something really interesting happens when you trust your customers.. . . They trust you.’

    I think the same applies to our students. We have to trust in their ability to develop wisdom, to contribute meaningfully, and to dig deeper. And we have to help them get there.

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