“Follow the Money” to Ferguson

Chris Lehmann challenged us (EduBloggers) last week to join the conversation about the police shooting of an 18 year old African-American man in Ferguson, Missouri and militarized posturing of law enforcement against the resulting protests. To be honest, I was not fully aware of the situation, too focused on getting my daughter ready to return to college and establishing a second residence to be closer to my and my wife’s parents.

I’ll agree wholeheartedly with all of Chris’ sentiments here, here and here, and would expound on them if I could. But, as a white, anglo saxon, protestant, eighth generation American, whose grandfather’s grandfather probably owned slaves, I honestly do not feel worthy to ardently express righteous sympathy with what I would characterize as second Americans. White man’s guilt?

I would like to ask a different question, though – and not as an attempt to distract us from a conversation about the unfulfilled promises (myths) of the American Dream. I ask this alternate question because I believe that there is another struggle happening here, one that possibly goes back to the beginnings of this country.

Looking at the picture to the right, I do not see how anyone could disagree with calling this a militarized police presence. But where did all that military hardware come from? Who bought it? ..and why? ..and Who got paid for it?

If we agree that one reason for learning (being taught) history is to avoid making its mistakes1, then here might be a useful starting question, “What were the historical mistakes that led to the situation of this picture?”

This could go almost anywhere in human history, of course, and why should formal learning experiences be limited (by testable standards)? But that’s a different issue — maybe.

We might, for instance, go no further than a little more than a decade ago, when 19 mostly Saudi Arabian terrorists, attacked the United States at it’s heart, New York City. Those 19 mostly Saudi Arabian men, using our own technology against us, were effective nearly beyond anyone’s imagination.

Our response was to make war in Afghanistan and Iraq and declare war on terror, establishing the Department of Homeland Security.  Although little else happened here, local police forces still find themselves armed for terror both from without and within. ..And you know what they say about a hammer.2

I would suggest that we responsibly and effectively teach history to avoid its mistakes, but also as a guard against having history re-written for us.

I will close here by suggesting that we ask students utilize contemporary literacy skills and do what Deep Throat3 said, “Follow the Money.”


1 A paraphrasing of George Santayana’s quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.Santayana, G. (1905). The life of reason. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15000

2 The Law of the Instrument, or as Abraham Maslow said in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

3 Deep Throat is the pseudonym given to the secret informant who provided information toBob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post in 1972 about the involvement of United States President Richard Nixon‘s administration in what came to be known as the Watergate scandal.











Teacher Shock

Flickr Photo by Noah Darnell Here

Browsing through some blogs the other day, I ran across this one (What are we Doing?) from Mike Meechin, a Florida social studies teacher. Meechin tells of a high school junior in his class, who asked a question, “about the pilgrims (U.S. History early 17th century) using the automobile.”

Now, as a former social studies teacher, I am disappointed that Meechin’s (or anyone’s) students seem to understand so little about geography and history. But I’m not surprised. There are two reasons for this generation’s lack of understanding about their world — in my opinion. First of all, we do not value this kind of knowledge ourselves. Ask most of your adult friends when the automobile was invented. Plus, I do not see how we can so emphasize the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) to the degree that we have, without devaluing, (in) our students eyes, history, geography, and sociology. Social science is one of several essential keys for enabling future prosperity. Yet, scanning through an education journal, while sitting on the tarmac, I ran across an article entitled, “Competing in the Global Economy,” subtitled, “Factors Impacting Science Achievement.” Don’t get me wrong, STEM is critical. But so too is understanding the social, cultural, and historic contexts of the world we are working and playing in.

The second reason gives me even more concern. I’ve often said that I consider myself lucky to have grown up during the golden age of Television. This new and compelling form of communication availed us the power to share ourselves, or worlds, and our stories in ways that had never been possible before. When taking my son to the University of North Texas a few years ago, to audition for their school of music, we took a drive through the country side. There, I was flabbergasted that he did not know what a long horn steer was. He gasped by the sight, and I immediately realized that he never watched Rawhide. I watched TV that, with the exception of Saturday mornings, was geared for a general population, across ages, that was experiencing this phenomena together.

My children have spent their time on Nickelodeon. Don’t get me wrong. I think that Nick has some wonderful and thoughtful programming. But it is still contrived to appeal to children by entertaining them on their terms. Their video games are similarly designed to entertain, and the culture of their social networking is almost entirely evolved out of what children want to do. This, too, is not bad. I have deep respect for what our children have made of today’s information environment. But they have missed so much, and I do not know how to fill this gap.

Because of how our children learn, I do not believe that we can teach it to them. I do not believe that we can or should expect them to learn history, geography, or sociology (or anything else for that mater) by telling them to, or worse yet, “Because it’s going to be on the test.” That worked for us, but I won’t for them.

What they learn well, they learn because it helps them. Knowledge and skills are tools for them, which they learn to use to accomplish goals. Their goals are to reach some level in the video game of the day, or to generate conversation through their social networking. To me, the question should be, “How do we infect these information ecosystems with the knowledge and skills that we know will be essential to their future.

Finally, and this is turning into a long blog because this is a two hour flight, I think that part of the problem is ours. How often do we, as educators, look at what we are teaching, and ask ourselves, “Is this really important?” As Meechin asks, “What are we doing?” How important is it for them to know that precisely where the invention of the automobile and early European settlement of North America fall in relation to each other on a timeline — well 300 years difference is a bit much to swallow.

I remember one instance, in my early days with computers in the classroom, where I asked this question. We were helping our students learn the states of the US, using flash cards. Each card included the name of the state, the geographic outline of the state, and its capital. I asked myself, why should students learn the shapes of the states. Of course it was an association thing to help students remember the states. But there were other things about the states that I thought it was important to learn, and using flash cards seemed an unnecessarily tedious way of doing it. So I wrote a game for our Radio Shack Model III computers.

The game placed a map of the U.S. on the screen — no small task for a TRS-80. Then the learner was informed of the state he was currently in, a commodoty to be delivered, and the state it was to be delivered to. Sitting by each computer was an almanac. Students had to find which state produced the commodoty, and then drive his truck to that state by typing in the name of each state to be driven through to reach the supplyer, spelling each state correctly. Then they drove to the target state. There was a counter running, so your payment for each trip depended on how fast you got there. In no time, the students were working without ever picking up the reference books.

It seemed that using the information as a means for achieving something, was a much better way of learning it, than simply memorizing from flash cards.

The bottom line of this ramble is that students armed with answers about science, technology, engineering, and math will not be able to compete or contribute to a global economy. It will be students who can can observe their environment, understand it, and inventively find ways to participate and contribute.

CreateDebate — Making Arguments

The other day, I received an e-mailed announcement for a new social network.

E-Gads~ Another one!

Picture of CreateDebate Web SiteBut as I read through it I became increasingly intrigued by CreateDebate.  It works like this:

  1. A debate question is introduced by a registered user.
  2. People write compelling arguments supporting one side of the question or the other.
  3. People vote on the arguments, pointing up or pointing down.
  4. The graph to the right indicates the voting on the arguments, rather than a simple yes or no.

Those are the steps that I sent back to founder, Bryan Orme, to check my understanding, and he responded…

Your understanding of the site is correct.  There are a lot more features (embedding evidence, allies/enemies, etc) but you have captured very well the basic essence of CreateDebate.

Here is another blurb from Bryan’s initial e-mail.

CreateDebate is a new social community that launched on April 28, 2008. At the most basic level, CreateDebate is a social tool designed to help groups of people sort through issues, viewpoints, and opinions in an organized manner, so that better decisions can be made. CreateDebate thrives on ideas, discussion and democracy. CreateDebate2008 was developed through a partnership with Vote Smart, the leading nonprofit provider of candidate information, to provide access to abundant, accurate, and relevant candidate information through the CreateDebate platform.

You can read the formal press release at http://www.createdebate.com/about/newsletters.