“Kids are Not Motivated” Might Say More About Your School Than the Kids: Educators with a Growth Mindset

I hear it all the time. People talk about disengaged, disinterested, unmotivated learners. “Kids are different than they used to be,” teachers and others explain. I don’t doubt the presence of generational changes, but I’ve visited enough learning communities to know that there are some communities of young people that are rich with engagement and interest. Students are taking ownership for their learning. They are challenging themselves on a regular basis. They enjoy being there. They are still young people. They experience the struggles common to being a developing young person, but the general feel of the community is largely positive.

When I point this out, there are many who want to dismiss my comments by explaining that these are different kinds of young people than the ones at their school. Some kids are just motivated and engaged, and others are not. People attribute it to upbringing, family dynamics, challenges within the community, economic status of families, the education level of parents, and all sorts of other factors. Again, I don’t deny that these factors can and do influence what happens in a school and in the lives of young people. Of course, all of of life’s experiences are formative to some extent, and it is hard to be be interested in learning when your basic needs in life or unmet. However, once those needs are met, even amid less than ideal circumstances in a young person’s life, there are models of incredibly positive learning communities. For those who take the time to 1) explore what is happening the larger education system, 2) who are open to consider the fact that there are models and exemplars from which they can learn, and 3) who recognize that everything is not just a sum of social factors beyond the control of teachers, students, and administrators; there is much that can be done to improve the state of any learning community.

As such, when we say that “kids are not motivated in my classroom” or that “the kids in my school don’t care about learning”, I’d like to suggest that these statements sometimes say as much or more about our schools than about the young people. There are countless factors within our control, and when we focus upon maximizing those things that are indeed within our control, the learning community will be better. It will not happen overnight. It will be hard work. There will be two steps forward and then one (or sometimes two) steps backward. There will be frustrations. There will be bad days and disappointments. Yet, this sort of growth mindset for schools and educators is just as valuable and beneficial as the growth mindset that we talk about as being necessary for students to thrive.

Schools as Incubators of Civility: Beyond Silencing, Ignoring, and Demonizing the Other

The current climate of public and political discourse in the United States continues to trouble me, and I have to wonder what we can do in education to help. Yet, if we are going to do something about a problem, it is necessary to define or at least describe the problem. In this instance, there is more than one issue, but I’m beginning to focus on the nature of discourse and how we treat, think about, and interact with people who have significantly different beliefs and values from our own. My concern is that we are using media, policies, and laws with the goal of power more than truth, understanding, or even justice. I see four especially strong signs that this is indeed the case.

Silence the Other

One sign is that there is a seemingly growing effort to silence those who disagree with us. We want to use laws or whatever other means to make sure that the other person does not even get a chance to speak or respond. There is limited interest in genuine understanding or discourse. We want the other to “shut up and sit down.” We pursue this tactic even if it eats away at the constitutional rights of others, not considering the larger implications. Our focus is to win in the moment.

Ignore the Other

We do whatever we can to ignore the other because we don’t want the media or any significant group of people to hear from the other. Perhaps there is fear that the other will convince people, and since the goal is to “win”, there is sometimes the goal of ignoring toward that end. In fact, some will argue that the other is not even worthy of acknowledgement. “Don’t entertain such stupidity with your attention,” some might argue.

Demonize the Other

Perhaps even more troubling is the growing trend to demonize the other (not even just the position held by the other). By doing this, we also dehumanize the person. We frame the person and the person’s position as intolerant, bigoted, extremist, or whatever other language diminishes the sense that this person should be respected, granted the rights described in the constitution, or even granted treatment of basic human dignity.  We define the other person as a “killer” or “defender of killers.” We do whatever we can to pair the person with the most evil characters that we can think of in past or recent history.

Personal Attacks

This is the norm for political discourse in much of social media today. Issues are not debated as much as people are demeaned, minimized, demonized, and mocked. Sarcasm trumps logical discourse. One liners are sought more than insight. Black and white positions drive people to draw a clear line in the sand, and if you are not on my side of the line, you are an evil person. Sometimes it is direct, but other times it is done subtly. We write or say it with a cool tone so as it make it sound like we are being more objective. I see this in countless media headlines when clearly biased reporters are framing the headlines to represent their ideology and values more than to objectively report on the news.

How Can Schools Help?

Of course, not everyone does these all the time. We each have our good and not so good moments. Yet, the more that these four and related patterns of discourse dominate, the more civility wanes in the public sphere. As such, I contend that schools are a place where we can do something about this. We can explore how to create and nurture forums where we learn to listen to one another, respect the rights of others, learn to separate ideas from people, discover the benefits of dispassionate discourse, examine the use of true critical / logical thinking in exploring contemporary issues, and examine how these less civil tactics risk destroying democratic life and discourse. These are achievable tasks in intentional, small, compassionate learning communities.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could establish a growing number of models in our schools for how the larger world can learn to promote a better and more civil society?

25 Things to Celebrate About the US Education System

I challenge the status quo in education on this blog, in my other writing, and in my podcast. I champion the idea of looking at policies, systems, and technologies as always having both affordances and limitations, and I can sometimes emphasize the limitations over the affordances. So, I thought I’d take a moment to celebrate what is good and getting better in modern education. Are there limitations to the ideas, innovations, and other things in the following list? Yes, because affordances and limitations are always present, not only affordances and limitations, but strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, good and bad. Nonetheless, here are 25 things that I contend are worthy of at least a momentary celebration.

  1. We have a greater variety of school models, philosophies, and approaches than any other country in the world.
  2. Collectively, we know that great education is always about more than sorting and testing.
  3. We know that stages of human development call for different emphases and environments depending upon the developmental stage of a learner.
  4. We generally reject the conviction that a one-size-fits-all education is the way to go, even if we are still struggling to let that conviction permeate what we do and how we do it.
  5. We have an incredible variety of community-based and extracurricular learning opportunities available to people of all ages, especially in our more populated areas.
  6. We have almost 120,000 libraries (9000+ public libraries, 98,000+ school libraries, and others) in our country, representing an incredible tradition of self-education and celebration of knowledge, reading, and research. By the way, this means that we have far more libraries than we do Starbucks stores.
  7. We have a strong and ever-growing movement in open education resources.
  8. We have an incredibly impressive and ever-growing list of educational innovations who are finding ways to share their word and ideas in the digital world, and they are spreading.
  9. Our Universities, think thanks, independent researchers, and others are producing new and amazing insights and knowledge on a weekly basis. In fact, even in Michael Moore’s critical documentary Where to Invade Next, when he asks an educational leader in the renowned Finland school system where they got some of their best ideas, they pointed to research that emerged right here in the United States. There is a constant flow of new and promising education and relevant psychological research that is released, and people are striving to learn from this research, experiment with it, and use it to create better learning communities.
  10. We argue about education. When you stop caring, you stop arguing, so to me, the arguments have a good side to them. Education is something that we care deeply about.
  11. We strive to create a system of education for all children, regardless of demographic. As one example…
  12. While there is room for improvement in these areas, we invest an incredible about of time and resources to provide education that is accessible and beneficial to people with disabilities.
  13. We support and celebrate the right for families to make choices about where and how to education their children, aligned with International Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, at least 12 states even support this with vouchers or funding that helps extend this choice across socio-economic status.
  14. The micro school and small school movement is growing fast and furious, offering us some wonderful examples of compassionate, caring communities of rich and vibrant learning where each learner is known and valued.
  15. The movement around empowering learning voice and agency as part of equipping them for a full, active, and engaged role in society also continues to gain interest and traction.
  16. Adaptive learning software is getting better, and it will be incredibly powerful in a matter of years.
  17. “It is not about the technology” is now spoken in almost educational technology conference keynote in the country, and explanations of what this means are becoming increasingly nuanced, thoughtful, and substantive.
  18. There is a growing wave of awareness and agreement that schools must strive to become places that celebrate and focus upon the love of learning, and that is challenging some of the inhibitors to greatness that have taken hold of our schools.
  19. There is growing interest among educators in moving beyond grade-focused education and classes. The fact that Mark Barnes’s open Facebook group called “Teachers Throwing Out Grades” has well over 8500 followers is a good sign of this.
  20. In terms of higher education, we have over 4000 different schools, each with different emphases, research, majors, and more.
  21. The amount of education and learning opportunities beyond formal schooling has never been greater.
  22. The number of self-organized or grass-roots learning communities around everything from cooking to world peace has never been greater.
  23. We continue to make progress of recognizing learning and accomplishments that extend beyond formal schooling, allowing us to envision new and powerful reputation systems that can increase access, opportunity, and meaningful connectivity between people and organizations.
  24. The interest in global connections is education is at an all-time high, empowered by new technologies and creative teaching and learning applications of those technologies.
  25. While we have much room for improvement, words like curiosity and creativity are far from four letter words. They are generally celebrated and sought after in our best schools.

Yes, we have room to improve in every one of these areas, but sometimes it is also good to pause and celebrate what is going well. What about you? Consider adding your own “celebrations” by posting a comment.

Musings Informed by Danah Boyd’s Keynote About Media Literacy at SXSWEDU

I didn’t make it to SxSWEdu this year, but I enjoyed following the articles, other written reflections, and recordings inspired by or created at the event. Among them, I recently watched the full keynote by Danah Boyd, a candid critique of and insight into the current state of media literacy today. She offered some important insights for our consideration. I’ve put my own twist on a few of them below. Check out the actual keynote for her own words on the subject. I’m sure that she would summarize things differently, but here are some of the points that captured my attention.

  • One can use media literacy and media skills to do both good and harm. As such, it isn’t as simple as checking off on some list of media literacy standards that students are proficient in creating multi-modal messages. Those messages could be in support of a hate crime or cyber-bullying as much as a social good.
  • Simply teaching people to question everything is too simple, and nurturing cynical skeptics of everything that they read/watch/see can be as much of a problem as nurturing people who believe everything that they read/watch/see.
  • The search for “truth” in the digital world is not a simple exercise in a shared or universal set of rules of logic. What each of us perceive as truth is deeply informed by our epistemologies. Our deeply held beliefs and values color what we see, how we see it, and how we interpret it. Our values for ways of discerning knowledge and what is true have an enormous impact as well. This is why three different highly and similarly educated people can listen to the same speech and walk away with three completely different assessments of what was said.[This is my personal aside (not shared from Boyd), but I used to have my graduate students interview a pastor prior to giving a sermon on a Sunday, taking careful notes on the intended message. Then the students had to interview at least five people right after the church service when the sermon was preached. Even in a close-knit faith community where people have many shared beliefs and values, my graduate students consistently discovered a wide array of perceptions, emotional reactions, and interpretations of what people heard in the same sermon.]
  • Our approach to media literacy must be far more thoughtful and nuanced. We must acknowledge affordances and limitations in current efforts, and acknowledge unexpected negative implications for how we approach media literacy in education.
  • A more thoughtful approach to media literacy will help people recognize the role of epistemology as well as the many cognitive biases at work in all of us. Even then, the path is riddled with risks.

Again, these bullet points are informed by Boyd’s keynote, but they certainly have my twist on them. I welcome corrections and clarifications where I might have misrepresented the spirit or letter of Boyd’s keynote.

Regardless, even with this incomplete and flawed summary of five themes that I extracted from her talk, one might anticipate some of the criticisms that Boyd received. Some critics, in my assessment, are so close to media literacy, that it is hard to accept what they perceived as such a harsh critique of the current state of the field/area. I get that, and yet I can relate with Boyd’s position. Over twenty years later, I still recall my first presentation at an educational technology conference. My presentation was a review of the literature on the negative implications of technology in education, and I had a line of software vendors grimacing at me along the back wall of the room. Of course they didn’t like a presentation that might not be good for business, but it was more than that for these critics. They genuinely saw flaws and misrepresentations in what I presented.

The attachment to the field doesn’t discredit the criticisms of such people, but I simply suggest that anyone who has taken the time to survey the current state of media literacy in education and is open to a holistic view of the field is likely to at least see some of the wisdom in Boyd’s comments. One need not agree with every point, the style or tone used in communicating it, or appreciate the selection of illustrations used to explain the points. Yet, some of the larger themes in her keynote were not especially controversial among media scholars, including the many largely more conservative scholars who launched what is now the filed of media ecology, as well as countless philosophers of technology ranging from Heidegger to a more contemporary scholar like Bernard Gendron. I’m also thinking of scholars like Walter Ong, the great Roman Catholic scholar who penned Orality and Literacy, a text that, with no exaggeration, changed my view of the modern world. In fact, some of Boyd’s comments about epistemology were reminiscent of arguments made by great texts in worldview studies, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of religion, and more. They are also largely familiar concepts for those of us with formal training in interpretive methods of research.

I’ve read and benefited from most of what Boyd has published over the years, and I can say with confidence that she would likely be a strong critic of my life work and writing. To be completely candid, I can hardly read anything that she writes without feeling judged, labeled, even disregarded as a scholar and sometimes as a citizen. It takes extra hard work for me to put on my dispassionate scholar hat and glean as much as I can from her excellent research and writing, but it is almost always worth the effort to be sure. Boyd and I approach our work from very different belief systems. Our epistemologies are a stark contrast to each other. She is able to speak and work from a position of greater trust and respect in the most progressive and elite circles. My work, regardless of whether it is aligned with a given agenda, is persistently suspect because of my faith tradition affiliation when it comes to my valued colleagues in more progressive communities. It is also approached with caution from those within the many networks informed by my faith tradition and my equally valued colleagues from conservative and more libertarian lines of thinking. I find great satisfaction (not to mention insight) in doing work that truly bridges or spans these many groups, but I genuinely strive to pursue truth, beauty, and goodness wherever it might be found, regardless of camp or creed.  I’m sure that she faces supporters and skeptics in different ways. Regardless, I see much wisdom in her keynote and appreciate her courage to challenge us with her comments.

As I listened to Boyd’s comments, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the two most troubling books that I’ve read in the last decade. The first was George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. In it, Lakoff essentially offers a playbook for how progressives can defeat and muzzle the voice of conservatives in modern politics and society. He warns against letting the “other side” frame the debate or discussion. I can say with confidence that the book would have troubled me as much or more if it were a conservative writing it as a playbook against progressives. To me, it was a disturbing proposal to objectify and diminish the other, to choose power over a genuine pursuit of understanding or even democracy. The other book was 48 Laws of Power, what some claim as the most requested book in prison libraries. It is essentially a book on the art and alleged science of power and manipulation. Both of these books came off to me as disregarding a genuine humanizing of people who are different from us, including people who hold different beliefs. Power becomes more real and achievable than the pursuit of truth or unity. Both of these books were perhaps so troubling to me because I see the spirit of them at work in American society today. I share my reflection on these books in this article because these same sentiments are rampant in the manifestation and application of media literacy today.

Yet, I will say that I am likely more optimistic about media literacy than Boyd. Or rather, regardless of how elusive it might be, I consider it good and important for us to champion a shared pursuit and cultivation of truth, goodness, and beauty when it comes to media and messages in contemporary culture. I believe in the ability for us to foster communities where people of different faith traditions, belief systems, and epistemologies find ways to live and learn together, honor and support one another, challenge and disagree with one another, and even struggle together toward such classic transcendentals as truth, beauty, and goodness. They grapple to understand each other and the complex multi-modal texts and messages around them. They disagree but don’t simply relegate it all to a matter of personal opinion and preference. They don’t ignore the other as some sort of political or ideological “framing” tactic. They cultivate more nuanced ways of thinking, caring, and sharing with one another.

These are noble pursuits with regard to media literacy today. They are not achievable in some utopian way, but the pursuit is still worthwhile. There are many dangers along the way, but there are just as many dangers in refusing to go on that journey. So, we keep moving, but we do so with caution. We pause often to learn from insights like those shared by Boyd, and we use what we learn to make sense of life and learning in this brilliant, troubling, beautiful, flawed, massive, confusing, fascinating, ever-changing digital world.

Reflecting on that very journey was, after all, the reason for launching this blog well over a decade ago. As it said on the first version of my site, this is “Etale: Musings About Life and Learning in a Digital Age.”