Monday, November 30, 2009

Belief to Behavior and the clash of Social Media

I have been giving myself migraines lately trying to figure out how traditional institutions of learning can be married with new emerging networked forms of learning such as those apparent in Personal Learning Networks (PLNs). On the surface this seems like it should not be an issue. Both largely serve the same objective. Both exist with the intent of trying to promote learning and improve the lives of their patrons. However, on closer inspection, a fundamental quality of these learning environemnts places them at odds with one another in a rather disruptive way.

The clash that exists at the core of both educational approaches, I believe, runs deeper than just the education world and embodies and infects all aspects of our world effected by a new world paradigm. This new world paradigm encapsulates what lies at the heart of what we have all come to identify as social media, web 2.0, wisdom of crowds, grass-roots endeavors, the "cult of the amateur," participatory politics, user-created content, etc. We are seeing the effects of this clash today most noticeably in two realms: media and religion. Church attendance and membership is at an all-time low and traditional media outlets are quickly going under. The pinch these groups feel is evident in how much they are lobbying congress to pass anti-net neutrality legislation and how in recent years right wing evangelical agenda has been on the front lines of politics. These are hot button issues because the status quo in both these fields has been upset. The same is true in education. For the past few years we have been fed a line about social media tools in school as being dangerous for kids. Schools were quick to ban or limit the use of these tools by students. Teachers have felt the pinch too. Louisiana recently enacted a new state law that moves teacher use of the social web within the jurisdiction of their k-12 employers.

What is the common denominator for these three great institutions (the church, traditional media, and schools)? What is the common denominator of endeavors that fall within this new world paradigm? Last week I saw a TED Talk by Devdutt Pattanaik called, East vs west -- the myths that mystify that I feel answers this question. In this talk Dr. Pattanaik discusses how the fundamental belief structures between east and west cultures clash. He illustrates this with a simple story about Alexander the Great meeting a gymnosophist, "When they met, the gymnosophist asked what Alexander the Great was doing. To which he replied, 'I am conquering the world. What are you doing?' 'I am experiencing nothingness,' replied the gymnosophist." Neither could see the point in the others endeavor because the denominator for Alexander's life was One and the denominator for the gymnosophist's life was Many. This fundamental element of belief informed everything about how both individuals interpreted these actions.

In this talk Dr. Pattanaik shows this slide that I think explains it all. It explains the clash between the world views of the gymnosophist and Alexander the Great, and it explains the clash between new and old world paradigms we are seeing played out right now.

Today, I read two posts by Ira Socol, Crossing America: An Education, and The Colonialism of Michelle Rhee or TFA v BoA that bring to our attention that this sort of clash is nothing new. Ira serves up some examples of how we have disastrously addressed this conflict in the past which should serve as a warning to reactionaries and policy makers to be careful how they deal with this new conflict. In these posts two distinct conflicts similar in their relationship to the "belief to behavior" equation are discussed: racial integration and the effect of environment on learner background. Here are some excerpts:

"When you leave Michigan and head west, first entering "The Prairie" in Illinois, the world begins to change, and thus, so do the ways in which people see, hear, think, and learn."

"And the inherent "truth" of that creates one of the great fallacies of our current educational debate. Yes, there is only one right way to add 2+2 or spell "tomorrow," but there are hundreds or thousands of ways to perceive both "2+2" and "tomorrow," and as many different ways to learn about both."

"This lack of appreciation of cultural and physical environment on the process of education makes our teachers and our political leaders look like fools. And it results in diplomatic and schoolroom disaster."


"Impoverished minority kids need to learn "to be white" as Rhee insists. They must learn how to speak the English, and behave in the way, that will get them hired...'Wait,' I said, 'still colonialism, still the powdered wigs for Nigerians and Indians so they could become Brits.' And, I added, there's a counter-narrative, an anti-colonial narrative.'"

"This counter-narrative suggests that we need not force minority students to learn to march and chant (KIPP), we need not "just" give them white role models to copy (Teach for America), we need not deny them the creative education all children deserve (Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Paul Vallas, Arne Duncan). Rather, we can help them take control of their communities and their lives within the context of their own culture."

The belief system that governs the institutions effected by current change and the systems of the west Ira describes all have one thing in common. They all are built upon a belief system that requires a top-down hierarchy, a denominator of One. When that system clashed with antithetical structures in the past it was usually disastrous. Can we find a way to marry the new world paradigm with the old or are we doomed to repeat this kind of battle? Can systems rooted in bottom-up hierarchies meet those with top-down hierarchies half way? Can they coexist? Is there a way to lend credit to networked learning learning experiences without causing the demise of traditional institutions of learning? Is school doomed to suffer the same fate as the newspaper or will PLN's always aspire to be "school-like" only to fall short of ever being able to reach that goal? I still have no answers, just more informed questions.

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