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Best Practice: Think Globally—or Locally?

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Dina Strasser and Bill Ferriter are both middle school teachers and prominent education bloggers—Dina at The Line and Bill at The Tempered Radical. For several years, they’ve carried on a friendly but substantive debate, via the Internet, about whether digital tools and the Web’s powerful ability to connect classrooms to global society detract from or enhance teaching and learning. Dina is an advocate of "localism," while the world is Bill’s (and his students’) oyster.

Both Ferriter and Strasser are members of the Teacher Leaders Network, and we thought it was high time we brought this conversation to a national audience. It’s a longer-than-average article for us, but that’s what winter breaks are for, right?

– John Norton, TLN editor/moderator.

Technology Gets in the Way of What’s Right in Front of Us

By Dina Strasser

Dear Bill,

Teaching can be very accurately characterized as an unending series of tough calls: one triage after another. It’s Monday, and I have 10 minutes to eat lunch and prep my next class. What do I do? It’s fourth period, and my ESL student is struggling with vocabulary, while my student with an emotional disorder is picking a loud fight with his best friend. Who gets my attention?

Or this triage decision, perhaps the one which plagues us most: I have 50 minutes a day with kids, if the fire alarm doesn’t go off. What do I teach?

It’s ironic, and sad, that when I look for understanding and inspiration for these tough calls, I don’t actually think first of any experts in education. Too often, they’re operating in the ether: distracted from, or unaware of, the facts on the school grounds. My EMT, instead, is Paul Farmer.

As director of Partners in Health, one of the most successful medical nonprofits in the world, Dr. Farmer spends every waking hour making triage decisions. He described one in a recent biography by Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains. The worlds in which Paul Farmer operates—Kazakhstan, Rwanda, Haiti—are places where decisions are defined, more or less, by what’s right in front of you. Farmer comments in the case of evacuating a young patient to Boston for surgery:

The bottom line is, why do we intervene as aggressively as we can with that kid and not with another? Because his mother brought him to us and that’s where he was, at our clinic.

And that’s where our kids and their worlds are, too: right in front of us. So what are examples of needs right in front of us, as teachers?

Here is one that came up only this week.

New York is now determining whether to allow hydrofracking—a process of injecting water and chemicals into underground rock formations to create fractures and release natural gas—on our piece of the Marcellus Shale, a large deposit of marine sedimentary rock extending through the Appalachian Basin. The drilling could give many of my families some needed income; that is, if the environmental and health risks don’t outweigh the jobs. The kids who belong to these families may have a hard time wrapping their minds around these issues, though, because none of them really understand what the Marcellus Shale is, or where their water comes from. Too many also don’t know what town they live in, their ZIP code, or how to spell the name of their own street. (I discovered that horrific fact while teaching friendly-letter format.)

When I am confronted, then, with the daily, even hourly, decisions to triage my time, money, and effectiveness for my kids, I tend to go for the needs that are right in front of me. There’s another name for this that floats around environmental and philosophical circles: localness.

Now, Bill, you’re going to tell me that technology doesn’t necessarily demand an either/or choice between the local or the global, and you’re right. E-mail, for example, quickly puts my kids in touch with my principal and garners an authentic response within minutes. The Internet’s denizens research and document local issues of all types. Webpages and wikis can enhance the community of the classroom and open it to wider community circles of families and friends. All true and good.

But I find myself asking the same question of educational technology that author and cultural critic Neil Postman did. Several years before Google and iPods, in 1998, he wrote the following:

All technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. ... Perhaps the best way I can express this idea is to say that the question, "What will a new technology do?" is no more important than the question, "What will a new technology undo?" Indeed, the latter question is more important, precisely because it is asked so infrequently.

So what does technology in the classroom undo for us? Over time, I’ve identified five conceptual places where, when it comes to the local versus the global, technology may undo a lot more than we think.

1) The Shallows. Nicholas Carr’s book, by the same name, explores how the Internet may change the very way we think: substituting inefficient multi-tasking and short bursts of attention for sustained engagement and academic stamina, affecting everything from how kids pay attention in class to whether they can stick with a good novel and think deeply about it. And having the desire and the skill to give deep attention to our surroundings, of course, is the heartbeat of localness.

2) The Sensual Connection. Much of "paying attention" is inextricably linked with a well-developed sense of the physical: our own bodies and their interaction with the environment through the senses. Computers not only overwhelmingly tether us to a small, confined space physically, but strip our senses from five to two. This has major implications not only for how—or if—our students retain information, but also for the most local interaction of all: face-to-face communication. New York University has established seminars for its freshmen to re-teach them how to do this. Amazing, isn’t it?

3) The Energy Issue. Something I rarely see mentioned, but which concerns me deeply, is the increasing shift of our informational and social interactions to technological mediums that rely wholly on the production and use of non-renewable resources, miles from our localities. From the plastics that make up your laptop, to the electricity required to run them, to the fuel used to ship them, to the garbage they create when we junk them, computers are wasteful—and vulnerable. No less an expert on communication than novelist and poet Margaret Atwood says:

Think of what a computer is and what it runs on and what interferes with it. What do you do in an electrical storm? If you're smart you'll unplug it, because one sharp crack of electricity can wipe your whole thing and there goes your life. ... [D]o away with the cheap, available energy supply and … you'll be going through the rubbish heap, looking for discarded printed texts, because guess what? Once they're there, all you need is sunlight.

4) The 19th Century Schoolhouse. But let’s assume for a moment that technology does come out on the right side of the cost-benefit analysis. Is it still something we want to invest in before, say, getting the asbestos out of the walls of our inner-city high schools, or solving the problem of the 1.3 billion dollars teachers spent out of their pockets on basic classroom materials last year? This is what I mean about triaging for the local. What good is a laptop that takes them to the four corners of the world, if I can’t even give my kids pencils?

5) The Crap Detector. Ernest Hemingway said this: "Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him." Neil Postman argued that society’s crap detector should be the schools—the one certain place where children should be taught to examine the world critically. Yet if we suffuse our kids’ educational experience unthinkingly with the very technology they need to think critically about (and are also engaging with for multiple hours a day outside of school), what exactly are we doing to the nation’s crap detector?

In the end, I come back to Paul Farmer. Every teacher out there, I think, is a little bit like Farmer: scrabbling for the best possible outcomes, sometimes with the most meager resources, under very challenging circumstances.

Given the perspectives I’ve outlined above, am I going to spend our precious, rare classroom time and my own resources on anything less than what I am certain the kids need? Am I going to sacrifice opportunities for local citizenship, critical thinking, physical awareness, conservation, and an authentic connection to the building blocks of our very lives, in order to saturate my pedagogy in technological tools as yet unproven in what they give and what they take away?

Tough call, isn’t it.

Yours,
Dina

The Internet is a Tool to Build Democratic Communities

By Bill Ferriter

Dear Dina,

As a guy who has spent the better part of the past few years arguing that today’s students need opportunities to develop global awareness through the use of Web 2.0 tools, the story of your upstate New York tweens struggling to understand the pros and cons of proposals to begin hydrofracking—a natural gas drilling process that has literally destroyed communities—in their own hometown really resonates with me.

After all, struggling in an increasingly complex world, Americans everywhere are making the same kinds of difficult decisions on superheated issues that may or may not pay off in the long run. Sometimes, community awareness is high and our choices are informed and responsible. Most of the time, however, it seems like our neighbors are too rushed to do the kinds of meaningful research necessary to make informed decisions.

Making matters worse, individuals expressing alternate viewpoints on any controversial local environmental, social, political, or economic issue are almost always quickly trampled once intellectual momentum builds behind the cheap propaganda churned out by corporate marketing departments, corrupt-yet-charismatic leaders, or ineffective governments.

It’s almost an unfair fight, isn’t it?

What’s crazy is that people all over the world are fighting the same kinds of local battles. Take two examples shared by Clay Shirky in his newest book Cognitive Surplus (2010), starting in Lahore, Pakistan. Home to over six million people, Lahore is plagued by a weak local government that can’t even guarantee basic services like garbage collection to its people. As a result, the streets of Lahore are filthy, paved with piles of uncollected trash.

For women in Mangalore, India, the local challenge was far more intimidating than rotting garbage. Instead, they were fighting Sri Ram Sene, a fundamentalist religious group that was attacking women who violated their strict beliefs about moral conduct. To be caught in a bar, to dress 'indecently,' or to mix with men of different faiths was to risk nothing short of public humiliation and assault, Shirky tells us. In each of these situations, though, handfuls of local residents decided to take action together—and their efforts to organize started on Facebook.

Lahore’s heroes were three men who started a Facebook group called the Responsible Citizens to recruit friends to join them on Sundays to pick up trash on streets near the public marketplace. Over time, their efforts were noticed by locals who began voluntarily joining the Sunday cleanups. In Mangalore, Nisha Susan started a Facebook group called the Association of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women that grew from 500 to 30,000 members in one week alone.

The Association’s first act—outside of drawing incredible amounts of media attention to the plight of women in Mangalore that landed the Sri Ram Sene leader in police detention and of building the social confidence of a traditionally marginalized group in Indian society—was to send thousands of pink panties to the fundamentalist religious group’s headquarters in a funny protest against extreme beliefs (Shirky, 2010).

Now I know what you’re thinking, Dina: Both of these examples of civic action at the local level could have happened in a world without Facebook. Anyone who lived through the Civil Rights movement and the collective outrage voiced against America’s involvement in Vietnam knows that local action was taking place long before the Internet was available to any of us Regular Joes.

But would they have happened?

Would the three young men behind the Responsible Citizens in Lahore—working in a city defined by social inaction and skepticism towards the government—have been able to quickly find peers willing to give up dozens of Sundays to pick up trash? Or would Nisha Susan—working in a country where social equality continues to elude many women—have been able to round up 30,000 peers in a week to take part in a potentially dangerous stand without access to the Internet?

The answer is probably not. The costs of organizing would have been just too high.

As passionate as any activist is, getting messages to like-minds and coordinating the contributions of dozens of volunteers has always been the barrier to widespread social action. "The difference today," Shirky explains, "is that the Internet is an opportunity machine, a way for small groups to create new opportunities, at lower cost and with less hassle than ever before, and to advertise those opportunities to the largest set of potential participants in history" (Shirky, 2010).

I think you and I can both learn teaching lessons from Lahore and Mangalore. They include:

1. Teaching students to care about their local communities is as essential as ever: Having followed your thoughts for years, Dina, I’m starting to realize that my students really are disconnected from local realities. To borrow the thinking of Tom Huston, they’re living in "glossy, opaque bubbles" trapped by superficial Facebook messages and customized iTunes playlists, guarded against any "jarring intrusions from the greater world beyond."

In the meantime, the very social fabric that once held our communities together—the sense of localness that you hold so dear—has been lost. What good are the kinds of global opportunities to connect, create, and collaborate across international boundaries that I’ve long supported to students who are living in crumbling communities?

If we still care about schooling as a vehicle for developing effective participants in a democratic society, then we’ve got to break the digital bubbles that are swallowing a generation by giving our students real opportunities to take action in their own hometowns.

2. Digital tools can empower anyone—including tweens and teens—to take social action: The good news is that the teens and tweens sitting in our classrooms are still passionate about fairness and social justice, Dina. That’s why my students spent hours and hours of their recess time a few years back studying the genocide happening in Darfur—and have raised well over $2,000 in the past 18 months to loan to entrepreneurs starting new businesses in the developing world.

That means turning them on to the kinds of local issues that are important in their own communities is going to be a breeze. Paired with lessons on elevating voice, persuading with visual images, and using digital tools to create platforms for public expression, they can actually stand on equal footing with adults and make a practical difference—like the Responsible Citizens in Lahore and the Association of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women of Mangalore—in their own lives and the lives of their neighbors.

The best news is that neither of these lessons requires radical action on the part of teachers or radically new behaviors from our students. As Shirky explains, "It’s just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives. Once you get that right, you can change the way people interact with one another in fairly fundamental ways."

And I think we’d both agree that it’s about time for schools to start getting these kinds of things right.

Rock right on, pal.

Bill

What do you think? Is opening your classroom to the world via the Internet a 21st century necessity? Or is it more important to make sure students are fully engaged in their own regions and hometowns? And if you believe there’s a balance, what does that look like?

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