I’ve challenged some of my colleagues to take the 23 Things challenge to become more invested in online learning this summer. This website includes a 10-week game plan for learning some online learning and presenting methods that are useful for teachers, and that are appropriate activities for the age group we teach. There are other 23 Things lists out there, I know, but this is the one that we’ve chosen to work with, and that I’ve decided to complete.
The previous entries in this series are here:
This week’s discussion is supposed to be about learning to work with images online, primarily using Flickr. Flickr is a photosharing site run by Yahoo! I don’t know the site’s history, but it’s reasonably family-friendly, and it’s pretty easy to be a generic user of the site; I’ve been a pro member for years, and I’ve had an account since February 2007. My user name there is Anselm23.
And this is my first:
I think it’s funny that I’ve used my site to take pictures of architecture and art and my current artistic projects for nearly all of the six years I’ve been using Flickr. And that I’ve been posting pictures here as a way of linking between this blog and that photo-stream nearly that long. It’s part of the way I’ve helped establish an identity for myself on the web — being heavily involved in two websites has, in a way, made it easier to find me (So has Twitter, for that matter, although Facebook has reliably provided me with more traffic even though Facebook is most unreliable about sharing my links to Flickr and to this blog than either of the other two sites. Argh!)
But one of my tasks for this week is to find a photo on Flickr that I want to blog about which isn’t mine. This is somewhat harder, but fortunately I know some search-fu, and I have a sense of what I want to talk about, and that’s the way that we as teachers can help students understand their world by providing them with strong access to metaphor and imagery through the actual use of images that support metaphor.
Some of you are going, “Huh??”
Here’s the image I’m blogging about: It’s a black swan. The economics writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called The Black Swan, about the effect of the highly improbable upon economics.
Hundreds of years ago, it was impossible to imagine black swans in Europe. Swans were white; it was part of the definition of the bird, almost. Then (I think) European explorers in Australia found black swans, real black swans. Their discovery was a minor sensation in Europe as lots of theories about biology needed revision.
But the thing that Taleb pointed out, is that the black swans were always there. They’d been living and breeding and so on in Australia for centuries before Europeans encountered them. They caused a sensation in Europe because knowledge had to be revised — but to anyone who really knew how the world worked, it was possible to imagine black swans, and to exploit that knowledge to advantage.
And this, I think, is one of the things that so upsets many teachers. For decades now, teachers have either ignored the internet, or used it in limited ways. It was always there, but it was difficult to use for knowledge-gathering, complicated, required a knowledge of programming, etc. There were obstacles to using it in school, and challenges to authority that it could cause. But it was still there, still growing, still active, still empowering people outside of schools. The development of this technology was moving on, regardless of what we in schools did about it, or used it for.
And the development of the Web has been primarily social — Facebook for social networks, LinkedIn for professional networks, Flickr for sharing photographs, DeviantArt for sharing illustrations and imagery, SoundCloud and Napster for music (albeit with enormous copyright challenges), and so on. Meanwhile, schools have become increasingly anti-social: No cellphones in school, no Facebook in school, limited access to the web through filtering technology, and so on. The more integrated the Web becomes, the less integrated schools become.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t places where the networks shouldn’t end. But there have to be compelling reasons for keeping the networks out of our schools, and currently I’m not sure that there are. “We need to keep kids focused on the content!” can be a rallying cry, but when photographs of Lexington Green and the Colosseum and Latin inscriptions and geometry problems and algebra solutions and mathematical art and chemical models of DNA are available online as images, I think it’s unforgivable that we as teachers don’t often know how to perform these searches — or that we’re so focused on correcting homework and developing grades that we don’t have the time to learn how to find and use these resources.
The other side of it is that this data stream is overwhelming. Black Swans undid a lot of biological theory in the 1700s; and this fire-hose of data about the world is capable of overwhelming the school system we have. As never before, kids can look at more photographs than the textbook or school library provides, and the built-in brain software we carry around in our heads is 70,000 years older at least than the software for reading and writing. When we teach kids to use this technology effectively — to search, to find, to analyze and to understand — we make them a hundred times more effective learners, because we’re teaching them to use the networks that effectively surround them every day to pull information to them, rather than passively receive it. And that’s awesome.