Twitter’s #Edchat

I participated in Twitter’s #Edchat tonight.  I’m AndrewBWatt on Twitter; feel free to look me up there.  We were talking about differentiated instruction.

In looking through my tweets and quickly-favorited notes from colleagues all over America and the world, though, I can’t help thinking about how many challenges it sounds like my profession is facing.

Take the term under instruction tonight: Differentiated Instruction. Several dozen (a couple hundred?) teachers didn’t even seem to agree on a definition for the terminology, or how to recognize when it was occurring.

Twenty-first century teaching is messy, apparently.

Other professions, like newspaper journalists and lawyers, usually have a pretty specialized vocabulary for discussing their work and aspects of their activities.  This dialect of the language — this cant — is full of shorthand to describe the process of working in that profession.  Yet when that professionalized and specialized language begins to break down, it’s time to notice that a catabolic process is at work.

Catabolism, from the Greek words for “throwing down”, is usually used to describe the process by which organisms break down complex molecules into smaller and simpler parts, usually accompanied by the release of energy.   It’s also used by historians to describe the process by which societies collapse in stages from the most advanced forms to less complex and more sustainable forms.

We watched this begin with newspapers five or seven years ago. They got thinner, they added color, their price went up.  Newspapers played with formats that they hadn’t changed in decades.  The number of mistakes, errors and retractions went up. A lot of people went into newspapers because it seemed like the field of newspapers was changing, and it was going to be exciting to be in the business.

Yeah. Because the business was changing.  Like, ending-changing.

RSS made it possible for newspaper content to be disaggregated from the plan and format that its editors chose.  Blogs challenged the supremacy of a stable of carefully selected writers.  Flickr and Twitter, while they haven’t replaced the staff photographer and beat reporter, have challenged their dominance.  Challenges to copyright, and the sheer copyability of digital text, have meant that anything, once published online, can be pirated and reworked much more easily than ever before.

Newspapers were no longer in full ownership of their content or the process of creating that content (this is temporarily assuming that they ever had it, which is by no means certain).

Watching my colleagues chat with each other tonight, and joining in, I’m increasingly convinced that schools are going to start to disaggregate in the next twenty years.  Maybe in the next ten. Or the next five.  It may be that someday soon, one of Shelly Blake-Plock’s Latin students would find my explanation of the passive perfect subjunctive more clear than his (I doubt it, but it’s possible).  There’s no reason for that student to confine herself only to Shelly’s explanation, when mine will serve her better.  This is true even though she’s in Baltimore and I’m in Connecticut. Similarly, Shelly may be a more effective explicator of the procedural rules of the ancient Roman Senate than I am (which is not only possible, but even likely).  In which case, my students may prefer to go to his explanation than to mine.

But the beauty/ugliness of this is that we’re engaged in the process of digitally capturing content right now.  Let’s say I put up a little video of the passive perfect subjunctive on YouTube, or, or any one of a number of tech websites.  It only gets forty or fifty views over the next twenty years, but for the student who needs it, it’s absolutely vital (yeah, right).  Meanwhile, Shelly’s video on Senate procedure gets hundreds of views over the next twenty years.

But each of us only produces the relevant video once.  Now it belongs to the data cloud, and by extension to almost anyone on Earth who needs it — for as long as the data storage format is preserved and maintained in new readers.

And it means that fewer and fewer students will come directly to Shelly for Senate procedural rules.  Because he’s already answered that question.  No one will come to me for my subjunctive explanation, because I’ve already answered that one, too.  And gradually there will be more and more of these explanations available — hyperlinked, searchable, useful, correct, and massively parallel.

This last point is critical.  If I’m in class with a dozen students, I can only explain Senate procedural rules so many ways before I exhaust my imagination.  Only ten students “get it” when I explain it.  But the two who don’t “get it” have Shelly’s explanation, and the explanations of every classicist who ever tries to answer the question digitally.  All those explanations will be linked to each other with a set of keywords, eventually, and the most useful ones will gradually rise closer to the top of the search rankings.

How many of ‘my’ students will need to show up for class at that point?  What will be the point?  My friend Dave Gray believes that “face time” is tremendously valuable — far too valuable to waste on me lecturing you in the hopes that you will get some point of order that can be learned on an ad-hoc basis as needed from the database-that-is-the-Internet. AND that can be learned at any time, on a Just-In-Time, Need-To-Know schedule.

Disaggregation in this context means that “I” will have many, many more students than I have now.  Yet more and more of ‘my’ students will not come to me. They will come to content I’ve created and shared — and if that content exists in a free environment, or in a place and position where someone else draws revenue from it but doesn’t share it with me… then I will be out of work.  Because my school won’t have the revenue stream to pay me, because there won’t be any students arriving for school in the traditional sense.

It’s a catch-22.  If I don’t create digital content for learning, it’s hard to prove my 21st century chops, or empower my students on this new threshold of learning.  If I do create digital content, I’m gradually putting myself out of a job, by digitizing the information I’ve spent decades assimilating into my brain, and making it available to anyone for free-ish.

This is likely to be a non-linear event, or more likely a series of non-linear events, and not particularly predictable…. a Black Swan of sudden change.  Yet there will arrive a day in the not-particularly-distant future when it will become clear that kids can learn more, and more effectively, using online tools, than in the dysfunctional school in their community to which they are assigned.

Indeed, the only people who are even going to be stuck in the schools are those who can’t afford to buy (or be philanthropically granted) into the digital revolution.  Given the growing ubiquity of cellphones, and their increasing power, I’m not confident that this group will be large enough to employ the current numbers of teachers laboring in American schools.  Or wealthy enough, in their physically-disaggregated state, to pay for our services in a local way.

We’re on the cusp of a revolution.  And it may not be exclusive to the field of education — the last major technological shift in learning, from manuscript to printed books, coincided with the Thirty Years’ War.

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  1. There are some things that can’t easily be put into permanent and concrete statements. Maybe they will be someday. The whys and wherefores… The charisma of and effective teacher. Nevertheless, time to start looking into creating some content and booking speaking engagements, while maintaining a permaculture garden. Still not recognized by spellcheck. The patterns that develop as you age and learn, that you use inside your mind… Meta practice and meta information these require the leading of an accomplished mind, and can be warped in many ways… Not that the public schools support that in any explicit way, but how could they, they haven’t got the words to define them, let alone transmit them…

  2. Such a very informative post. From the battle of media towards the learning curve, it felt complete. May be long but says a lot. There are some writing camps and workshops that teach kids to write creatively. As a point of view, having the best of both worlds and learning method, may it be the actual schooling and online still sounds reasonable. A kid can’t decide in this day and age what he or she really is and is going to be when they grow up. With both methods, they can always be formed to have been educated in more fields and find out from there what career path to take.

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