Wednesday, December 6, 2017

How Evil is Tech? A Response.


I believe in the power of technology to connect people, to empower people to be creative, and to open doors to opportunities that would otherwise be closed. This does not mean that there aren't mistakes that people can make with technology. I have made it my mission and my work to educate people so they can know the difference and use technology to make real positive change in their lives. Unfortunately, in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, David Brooks focuses only on the mistakes and boldly states:

"Some now believe tech is like the tobacco industry — corporations that make billions of dollars peddling a destructive addiction. Some believe it is like the N.F.L. — something millions of people love, but which everybody knows leaves a trail of human wreckage in its wake."

Brooks starts his argument by talking about teenagers. He references data from Jean Twenge, to whom I responded in this recent post, showing that teens on social media are less likely to "hang out with friends, date, and work." He failed to recognized data that demonstrates today's teens are actually more healthy than their parents were as teens. The Center for Disease Control recently found, and Vox.com reported, that today's teenagers are 46% less likely to binge drink and 21% less likely to have tried alcohol at all than 20 years ago. The percentage of teens who smoke cigarettes is down from 34.8% twenty years ago to 10.8% today. Teen pregnancy rates are also dropping. In many ways, perhaps due to more options for how to connect with their peers using social media, teens actually feel less compelled to engaged in risky behaviors. We are looking a new pattern of teen social behavior. New does not necessarily mean worse. In many ways, these new patterns are healthier.

The second concern expressed is the "compulsion loops" that capitalize on "dopamine surges" with social media use. The research behind this phenomenon is the basis for much of my recent work – as a blogger and speaker – for educators, students, and parents. Brooks argues that media companies like Facebook and Snapchat use what they know about our biological responses to certain stimuli to increase their profits. There is plenty of research from UCLA, Harvard, and more that demonstrates how posting about oneself on social media and getting likes and comments help with those "dopamine surges". Just as parents faced the reality of helping their children learn healthy nutritional balance with the increased popularity of fast food in the late 20th century, today's parents and teachers must help their children understand this research and learn how to balance healthy intake and production of media in an era of media-overload.

The third proffer in the op-ed is that tech companies produce and sell "technologies [that] are extremely useful for the tasks and pleasures that require shallower forms of consciousness, but they often crowd out and destroy the deeper forms of consciousness people need to thrive." When Brooks makes this assertion, he fails to recognize that the users of technology are the ones in control of whether they are using "shallower" or "deeper" forms of consciousness. Technology itself it not evil or good. Technology creators and users determine whether they will create and use tech tools toward positive and active purposes. These uses include connecting with far away colleagues/friends/family, collaborating on a movie/infographic/digital artwork, building momentum for a social movement, and more. Does this mean that those creators and users will not make mistakes at times or indulge in some of those "shallower" activities? Of course not. Just as we indulge in a bowl of ice cream or a glass of wine, it is permissible to indulge occasionally in a game of Clash of Clans or a scroll through an Instagram feed. It is up to us to share our positive digital products far and wide, and to own up to our mistakes so that we can learn from them and use technology better moving forward.

Brooks closes saying that he wants tech to "pitch itself" with "realism" and "humility." He says, "Imagine if instead of claiming to offer us the best things in life, tech merely saw itself as providing efficiency devices. Its innovations can save us time on lower-level tasks so we can get offline and there experience the best things in life." I certainly agree that offline time engaging in hands on, in-person, nature-filled experiences is an essential part of being human. Tech can never offer us those things. In fact, tech is incapable of "pitching itself" to us at all. It's creators can, but remember that those creators are also users. Blaming the tech itself is not helpful or useful. It is step back from taking personal responsibility for our behaviors and encouraging our children to do the same. We need to shift mindset away from blaming the tech, step up, and take action toward living healthy, positive, productive, full lives in a tech-rich world.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The "Good Kid": Compliant or Engaged?

It's interesting when I hear teachers describe a student as "a good kid". I was that good kid in school. And, unfortunately, I definitely described some of my former students that way earlier in my career.

But what do we mean when we say "good kid"?

A good kid completes school work without many complaints. A good kid never breaks school rules. A good kid studies hard and carries out assignments to the best of her/his ability. A good kid is quiet when appropriate and participates when appropriate in class.

So, when we say that a student is a "good kid" we are actually describing someone who is compliant. A teacher with compliant students is able to get through each school day rather smoothly. But, from the student perspective, is using the path of least resistance actually the best way to learn?


Instead, we should encourage our children to be engaged at school. The Glossary of Education Reform explains student engagement in this way:


Inquisitive, Interested, Inspired.

These three descriptors – inquisitive, interested, inspired – are the defining elements of student engagement. In order for student to be engaged, they must be curious about their topic and task (INQUISITIVE). They must be wondering what the answers are and where they can find them (INTERESTED). They must believe that finding those answers and sharing them with others will make an impact (INSPIRED).

A student who is quietly completing instructions provided by a teacher and contributing to a peaceful silent classroom might be engaged. But she also might be merely complying.

A student who participates in class activities and games, often filled with music and fast-paced rewards, might enjoy playing the game. But it is not guaranteed that he is invested and engaged in his learning.

A student who turns in a high quality final project might have been engaged throughout the process. But she might have been merely complying through each step.

How can we tell the difference?

Students who are compliant:

  • are quiet or are vocal and obedient.
  • never (ever) question the lesson or asks questions the teacher doesn't anticipate.
  • when faced with a mistake, the student worries about the impact on his/her grade.

Students who are engaged:

  • are eager. Sometimes this manifests as quiet and busy. Other times it manifests with vocal and even disruptive questions.
  • wonder out loud about the facts and ideas they are being asked to learn. They are inherently curious.
  • when faced with a mistake, the student redoubles effort toward the goal or adjusts – not dilutes – the goal accordingly.

How can we make the difference?

The answer is student choice and voice. These terms have become buzzwords and, for many, have lost their meaning. Still we should ask our learners questions like:

  • What do YOU want to research?
  • What do YOU need to be successful?
  • What story do YOU want to tell?
  • What do YOU want to make?
  • How do YOU want to show what you've learned?

When teachers ask their students these questions, students are often ready to share their ideas. Some students have been ready their whole lives and the ideas will explode. Others will be hesitant because they've become accustomed to a compliant school culture. These learners will want to know the formula or recipe for success. Resist. Respond to their questions with the questions above. Stir the curiosity and engagement inside of them.

As parents, teachers, coaches, and administrators we can rise to this occasion. We can show the learners we care for – whether they are our students or our own children – that we want them to be curious and engaged, not obedient and compliant. Engagement is the key to deep learning and active citizenship.

I don't want anyone to describe my daughters or my students as "compliant." What is easier is not always better. When it comes to the children I care for, whether they are family or students, I'd much prefer adjectives like "engaged" and "curious."

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Getting Real About the Teen Depression-Cyberbullying Connection

A couple of months ago I wrote a response to a psychologist's theory that smart phones are responsible for the increase in teen depression and anxiety. The overemphasis on screen technology as a root cause for the increase of major depressive episodes among teens and young adults is not new. The most popular articles about this topic found online, like this recent one from Time, will continue to confirm that screens are the problem because it is an easy answer and soothes adults who are not sure how to manage the tech use of the adolescents and teens in their lives. There is not doubt, the stories of individual teens they tell in those articles are touching and concerning.


According to the Mayo Clinic, the true causes of teen depression are:

  • biological chemistry
  • hormones
  • inherited traits
  • early childhood trauma
  • learned patterns of negative thinking

Surely some of the learned patterns of negative thinking can stem from some interactions students have online, especially cyberbullying. While cyberbullying is a phenomenon educators and parents need to help their children understand and overcome, its prevalence should not be overestimated. In fact, a recent survey shows that most bullying is verbal and the vast majority is in person.


This information is not meant to minimize the traumatic impact cyberbullying can have. (There is help available. My favorite resources are ConnectSafely's Parent's Guide to Cyberbullying and Parent, Educator & Youth Guide to LGBTQ Cyberbullying.) It is meant to provide a realistic understanding of the myriad of causes of teen depression and anxiety. Even if we were able to eradicate cyberbullying among children and adults, the major causes of teen depression would still exist. It's time to stop blaming devices and apps and start addressing the true root causes more holistically.


You can follow Jocelyn Brewer on Instagram at @diginutrition.


The well-being of the teens and adolescents in your life depends on your awareness of ALL potential causes of depression and anxiety. In addition to the Mayo Clinic webpage hyperlinked earlier, I also recommend the National Institute of Mental Health. Read them, build your awareness, and be careful to avoid simple explanations – like blaming cell phones and social media – for the rise in teen depression and anxiety. Raising and educating healthy children is challenging, complicated, and incredible rewarding.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Are curriculum specialists in edtech denial?

As an educator who has built my career during the 21st Century, I've found that my fellow education professionals often classify themselves in one of two categories:
  1. Specialize in curriculum (often in one specific subject area)
  2. Specialize in technology (either as part of IT or integration)
This is a mistake.

Curriculum is the what, education technology (aka edtech) is the how. They have to be developed together in order for a student's learning experience to be engaging, effective, and relevant.


Edtech Defined

Recently I was asked to define edtech. Here is how I responded:
"Education technology – or edtech – is the study and practice of effective teaching and learning processes and strategies that incorporate devices, apps, programs, and media. Edtech can be used in traditional classrooms, at home, and as part of learning in almost any setting."

My definition encompasses more than devices and apps. Because we put the word "education" in front of "technology" we are giving the term greater meaning. Education is not made up of tools. Rather, education is made up of research-based, interpersonal, creative instructional practice and the teachers and students who participate in that practice. Teachers who seek to make their instructional practice a best practice in today's world seek to incorporate technology devices, programs, and resources.

While it is appropriate for an educator to specialize in a particular curriculum area – like early childhood, middle level humanities, studio art, or advanced chemistry – it is inappropriate for any of these specialists to brush off edtech as if it is not something needed in their classroom. Effective teaching practice incorporates the tools and skills that students are already using and will need to learn for the future. These include accessing, analyzing, and interpreting digital resources. They also include communicating, creating, and sharing using digital tools and programs.

This does not mean that students should not be writing with pencil and paper, reading physical books, creating with materials like scissors, wood, string, glue, and paint. But they should be using edtech seamlessly as they plan, design, organize, analyze, and share their learning with these items.

As with other education concepts – such as common assessments and standards-based grading –edtech can be practiced properly or it can be practice poorly. For instance, when fill-in-the-blank worksheets are distributed as digital PDFs instead of on paper, teachers should not be surprised if their students succumb to the temptation to navigate away from the PDF to other media on their device. Mere substitution of digital for paper is an example of poorly practiced edtech. Learning what constitutes effective edtech is essential.

Effective


  • Edtech is effective when it allows students to access information, collaborate with others, and create in ways that were previously impossible. 
  • Edtech is effective when it is use in concert with face-to-face social environments and non-digital resources. 


Not Effective


  • Edtech is not effective when it is used as a substitute for a great teacher who cares to get to know her students and build positive educational relationships with them. 
  • Edtech is not effective when a paper worksheet is merely traded for a PDF and and hardcover is merely traded for an ebook.

Often educators enter the classroom with a passion for their subject matter specialty and for working with children. The most effective educators constantly seek to learn more about their subject matter AND about how to best teach the children they serve. Edtech must be a part of that professional learning and a part of every classroom.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Breaking my Blogging Dry Spell

The people I live and work closely with know that I've been neglecting this blog for nearly 2 months. But there's more to it than that. Because I haven't been writing, I haven't been processing my professional thoughts and experiences in the same way. For years this blog has been the place I go to sort out and express my professional thinking, and I'm back.


How it happened

Just after my last post, there was a sudden change that happened at my school. What the change was does not matter in this context, but it did turn my understanding of my place and my role there upside down for a while. It took a lot of mental energy for me to develop new understandings and I was honestly a bit unsure of myself during that time. I was afraid to share here.

A realization

Now I realize that I should have blogged about a lot of that. Like many education bloggers, the topics of my posts are often inspired by experiences that I have every day at school. I do not write specifically about students or teachers without their permission, but I do share my research and ideas based on my work with them. During the last 2 months, I've done a LOT of research and thinking. The act of writing pushes me to organize and interpret that research and thinking into strategies that I can use and share here.

By failing to go through the writing process during that transition, I was failing myself.

Forgiving myself

I was probably ready to start writing a couple of weeks ago, but restarting was harder than I expected: What should my re-entry post be about? Was anything I was currently working on or thinking about interesting enough to share with other educators? The first post of my return had to about something important in order to be worthy, right?

Now that I read those questions typed out plainly on my screen, I can't even believe I let myself think those things. Those are precisely the questions of self-doubt that I'm often telling my colleagues to avoid as they venture into blogging. Educators who are willing to take the time to write about their professional work and share it with others are committing an act of generosity, inspiration, and selflessness. Your colleagues around the country and around the world learn more from you than you realize.

I have 3 or 4 more blog posts outlined in the notes app on my iPhone. I pledge the write them over the next few weeks and share them here. No more self doubt. No more perceived writer's block.

When you go through a similar time in your professional life, I hope you can remember this post and forgive yourself sooner than I did. Educators everywhere need your ideas and work so that they can grow and become better. Don't hold back.

Monday, September 18, 2017

LGBTQ Cyberbullying: Real Data and Real Advice

While I am a fierce advocate for free speech online, I'm also an educator who works every day in my own school community – and by writing on this blog – to spread awareness among students and teachers about how to practice positive and helpful digital citizenship online. Since my passion and my work bring me back to cyberbullying quite often, it has become clear that certain groups of young people are targeted more often than others.


This data makes it clear that our students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are particularly vulnerable to bullying, discrimination, and abuse. The way we use digital tools to communicate also makes them vulnerable to cyberbullying.

This is why my work with ConnectSafely.org is so important to me. While I can make an immediate impact in my school by working with our teachers and students everyday, it is my hope that some of my contributions to ConnectSafely can have a broader impact nationwide. I'm proud of our new guide.


Specifically, you can look for advice and expertise on:
  • The benefits and risks of online interactions for LGBTQ youth.
  • How parents can support their children before, during, and after they experience cyberbullying.
  • The importance of sustained positive school culture to support students.
  • TONS of action items and resources to help schools figure out what to do next.
  • A review of legal protections and case law.
  • A section specifically directed at children and teens to help them learn to protect themselves from and cope with cyberbullying if necessary.
Not ready to read the whole guide just yet? Check out the Top 5 Questions to kickstart your thinking and the Resources Page to learn more about organizations and materials available to you beyond our guide. When you do read the guide, feel free to comment and let us know what you think, how you're planning to use it, and share your story to help bring more power and positivity to the online world for all youth.

Monday, September 11, 2017

When is learning truly authentic?

It is not uncommon for educators to bristle a bit when asked whether they engage students in "authentic" learning. Without providing more context for the term, some might think they are being accused of developing and delivering lessons that are not genuine, or are fake. In education, authenticity means much more than genuine over fake. According to the Buck Institute for Education:
In education, the concept has to do with how “real-world” the learning or the task is. Authenticity increases student motivation and learning. A project can be authentic in several ways, often in combination. It can have an authentic context, such as when students solve problems like those faced by people in the world outside of school (e.g., entrepreneurs developing a business plan, engineers designing a bridge, or advisors to the President recommending policy). It can involve the use of real-world processes, tasks and tools, and performance standards, such as when students plan an experimental investigation or use digital editing software to produce videos approaching professional quality. It can have a real impact on others, such as when students address a need in their school or community (e.g., designing and building a school garden, improving a community park, helping local immigrants) or create something that will be used or experienced by others. Finally, a project can have personal authenticity when it speaks to students’ own concerns, interests, cultures, identities, and issues in their lives.
Upon gaining better understanding of what authentic learning is, most teachers buy in immediately. They recognize that students will be more invested and engaged in their own learning if they see the tasks and content as authentic. Many educators, however, need examples to help them get started with creating authenticity in their own project and lesson plans.


Melissa Greenwood, editor at SmartBrief, recently asked me for examples of authentic learning at my school, St. John's Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts. Here is my response:
At St. John’s Prep, students often use such tools as Adobe Spark, iMovie and Notability to create clean, professional-quality media. Their quote graphics, videos, animations and infographics are clean and beautiful and demonstrate content mastery. By creating the digital products they see adults sharing online, they are more invested in learning. What makes these authentic creations even more exciting is that they are encouraged to share them beyond our classrooms. Our digital portfolio program gives our students that chance to share their work broadly if they wish. But perhaps even more important, through the portfolio process, they have the chance to reflect on what they've learned and why they are proud of their creations. Their authentic learning experience is twofold: They will create what adult professionals create, and they will get to share their graphics, videos, designs and writing with the world beyond our school if they choose.
The resulting article brought together four unique stories of authentic learning from teachers all across the country. My three co-contributors are certainly educators I admire: Sydney Chaffee, the 2017 Teacher of the Year; Alice Chen, a brilliant and well-known technology coach; and Bryan Christopher, a journalism teacher and Teacher Voice Fellow. Click the image below to read the full article. Share these examples with your colleagues and encourage them to add more authentic learning to their lessons and projects this year.



How do you bring authentic learning to the students in your classroom. How do you support teachers who are looking to add authentic learning to their lessons and projects? Comment below! The more examples we share, the more our students will benefit.