Thursday, October 15, 2009

Schools, Tools and Other Such Things

Tyack (1974) shows that the one, best system, as founded by the social engineers for education in the mid to late 1800s was the factory model, in which education became a function, not a cause. The function was to create modern workers for an industrialized society. The self-sufficient household and village was becoming an interdependent, specialized municipality. The larger, more crowded cities demanded regulatory institutions, such as police, health service, and education. Educational leaders used data (such as standardized tests) to promote the creation of bureaucracies to regulate and assess schools, based on efficiency references from the military, factory, and railroad. This lead to the creation and use of textbooks, grade levels, and multiple forms of data collection, including attendance and test scores. The purpose of education became only marginally about knowledge acquisition. Instead, it was used to teach the control of body, promote competition, enforce order/discipline, train workers, and impose a common culture in a diverse population.

In general, teachers are slow adopters of new technology, unless the technology improves a specific, teacher identified problem and the technology is flexible, versatile and portable and supports teacher authority. However,Cuban (1986) states, there are many other reasons given for the slow adoption of technology (specifically of radio, TV and film) such as: the lack of accessibility and reliability of the technology: authoritative mandates to use the technology, often by non-educators; the conflicting demands of the teaching environment; and a traditional culture of teaching that is reinforced by experience. Teachers who willingly adopt new technologies tend to do it not because of the technology itself, but because they may have non-traditional philosophies of education, use the technology to solve a specific problem, or have different expectations of the educational process. After looking at the failure to adopt radio, TV, and film technologies, Cuban moves on to questioning the implementation of computers in schools. He posits that more fundamental questions need to be asked when implementing a technology into schools such as: What is the nature of teaching and learning? What is the purpose of teaching and learning? How do people learn and teachers teach? Without asking these questions, the question of how or why a technology is or is not adopted in schools is very one-dimensional. As, Latour seems to indicate, we can not study people without studying the interactions of humans and non-humans.

Although schools tends to be an individual task, we need to take a broader view of how the school impacts and reflects the larger society. Dewey (1900)`confirms Tyack's later conclusion that schools at the turn of the century had reflected the industrialization of America. Dewey traces the education of the home/farm/village, which tended to be cooperative, necessary, and intrinsically motivating to the urban schools of competition, inauthentic subjects, and extrinsic motivation. Even the introduction of manual training in schools, which mimics home education, according to Dewey, shows that the “real” education has been supplanted by schooling. Dewey then describes his ideal school based on the study and investigation of occupations, which supports an integration of history, science and social understanding in an authentic and constructivist manner.

Since the theme of these readings is “School as a Tool” I read each of the authors with that in mind. Since no single tool can do everything for everyone, and is dependent on context and purpose, these authors try to define or explain how school can be a tool to achieve certain purposes. The purpose of the tool influences the design of the tool, but the design of the tool also influences the use of the tool. Since the tool is in constant use, it would be difficult to radically change it (as in, a moving part is hard to fix). Therefore, the current (traditional) forms of schooling tend to be the dominant method, rather than a radical transformation like Dewey envisioned or the adoption of new technology (and resultant revolution), as Cuban describes.

Cuban, L. (1986). Teachers and machines: The classroom use of technology since 1920. New York: Teachers College Press.
Dewey, J. (1900). The school and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Tyack, DB (1974). The one best system. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Cognition and Tool Use

“A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing.” – Emo Philips

In tracing the development of the modern mind, Donald and Shaffer/Kaput highlight the major cognitive transformations which allowed for new ways of remembering, retrieving and ultimately, defining human culture. What makes humans unique from animals is the ability to represent ideas through symbols or other representations. These symbols can be creatively designed, voluntarily retrieved and, taught, often through imitation. The whole body can be used to represent an idea or event, either remembered or created. In addition, human ability to speak allows for faster and more efficient transference of information, but isn't the only form of communication available. This allowed for things like tool making and expression of the past to be taught, which included the need to remember. However, this, in turn, created more complexity in social life, as longer memory was needed to coordinate daily and communal life. Therefore external memory forms were needed, such as graphic representations and text. This then forced the human brain to develop more abstract ways of thinking, remembering, and recalling information. However, Shaffer/Kaput argue further that the computer allows for much deeper cognition, as it performs lower level processing (so the person doesn't have to), which allows the person to focus more on the representation of thinking, not just the process of thinking.

Donald states, “This suggests that high levels of literacy skill may entail considerable costs, as indeed has been suggested by literature comparing the cognitive competences of oral cultures with those of literate. Oral memory and visual imagery are often listed among the skills that may have been traded off against literacy.” (p.746) My question – Is this truly a cognitive difference or is it a socially created difference? In other words – nature vs nurture?

I also find it a little ironic that Donald uses the metaphor of the human brain as a computational machine with external memory and processing capabilities, whereas Turkle is playing down the computational and processing capabilities of the computer in order to highlight the human-like abilities of simulation and interaction within computer.

Which leads to Turkle's discussion of identity in the age of the internet. She believes that the computer has gone beyond just being a tool or mirror of humans, but rather a place people go to create new identities and communities. As this is happening, the space between “real” life and virtual life is slowly diminishing. Many Multi-User Domains(MUD) users believe their virtual lives are as real and important as their “real” lives. From the earliest paper and dice games like Dungeons and Dragons, MUD allow people to be more than players; they become authors, who can create an identical persona or wildly different one. And, with anonymity, they can try out several different identities. “Windows have become a powerful metaphor for thinking about the self as a multiple, distributed system” (p. 14). These identities are formed by choice and my the identity inflicted on the user by the environment and other users – which makes it fluid and constantly changing. At times, it is difficult to see the difference between a person created character or a machine created character. The form and function of the computer has and is changing rapidly, and with it, brings a sense of “instability of meanings and the lack of universal and knowable truths” (p. 18)

At one time, people with multiple personalities were consider to be possessed my demons or mentally ill. However, Turkle sites that some MUD users who have multiple characters, often with extremely different personalities and goals. Is this self-medication of sorts for people who feel splintered by modern life? Or, does acting out these lives make if more difficult to accept “real” life? Will it become the norm to have a real life and multiple cyberlives? And those who choose not to partake, will they be the ones considered mentally ill?

“Mathematics is not about calculations . . . [it] is about understanding a problem, representing it in an external processing system and being able to use the information produced . . . in a meaningful way.” (Shaffer/Kaput, p. 111). For as much as computers are accepted at home, I am still amazed at the arguments and recriminations for using calculators in the math classroom and audio books in English. How can we help people see that this isn't just taking shortcuts, but just the tools that they are, which allow students to think more deeply about topics, rather than focus on basic skills?

Donald, M., (1993). Precis of Origins of the Modern Mind with multiple reviews and author's response. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16:4, pp. 737-91
Shaffer, D., & Kaput, J. (1999). Mathematics and virtual culture: An evolutionary perspective on technology and mathematics education. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 37, 97–119.
Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster

Monday, October 05, 2009

Intersection of Tools and Culture

Pea (2004 ) believes that intelligence is not an individual, solitary thing – though in our modern society, we try to measure it as such. Instead, proposes Pea, intelligence/knowledge is multiple and distributed across people and environments. In using intelligence, humans have desires (4 types), in which they create and use tools to achieve these desires. Each tool has accordances – that is the “perceives and actual properties of the ting, primarily those functional properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used”(p. 51). The tools can also be said to be “intelligent” itself, as the tool defines its purpose and the task. But, as tools become accepted, the intelligence within is less evident. Tools can amplify human intelligence, but Pea posits that they are more reorganizers of mental functioning – that people change what they do, not just how they do it. However, education seems to be unaware of this, and continues to adopt technologies without considering the trade-offs, or does not adopt the tool, even though it is part of everyday life.

Postman (1993) has a lot to say, but it basically boils down to this – all technologies have both blessings and burdens. Too often, people either fully embrace or fully reject a technology. In doing so, the complex relationship of the cultural, social and systematic change borne from the technology is not fully examined.

Illich (1973) proposes a new society – one that he names a convivial society, in which the tools people use allow for autonomy and creative interactions between people and their environments. In doing so, three values would be protected; survival, justice, and self-defined work. In our current society, too often, people become slaves to the tools – whether it is an institution (like school) or a machine (like an airplane). In our modern society, the use of industrial tools has spawned a world-wide homogenization of culture, in which people are trying to fit in. (ie – schools look about the same, factories look about the same). “A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others” (p.21). He goes on to define tools as “ all rationally designed devices, by they artifacts or rules, codes or operators, and to distinguish all these planned and engineered instrumentalities from other things such as basic food or implements, which in a given culture are not deemed to be subject to rationalization” (p. 22). He believes that hand tools, those that adapt a person's metabolic energy to a specific tacks, tend to be more convivial, as almost anyone can use for his/her own purposes, as compared to power tools, which often subsume the users to a mere operator. However, manipulative tools (those in which create gaps between have/have not) can not be fully abolished, instead, a balance between manipulative and empowering tools is necessary. Which leads to the definition of work (satisfying, creative and independent), labor (doing for the benefit of a master/exploitive), operative ( earned through consumption and privileged experience). In modern society, technological progress tends to widen the gap between rich and poor. Often the “progress” is only for individual gain, not societal good. And, in doing so, deprives the majority of further independence, self-worth, and efficacy.

Johnson (1988) argues that as we delegate more of human activity to tools/technology, the general public tends to humanize the technologies and apply human characteristics to them. If a person's perception is their reality, then non-human technologies, designated as human, must be an important factor in society, and by extension, in sociology.

It seems to me that Illich (1973) is suggesting that specialized knowledge has little place in his convivial society, as we should be able to heal ourselves etc. I struggle to imagine his ideal convivial society in the context of our modern technologies and societal demands – would it even be possible? Which, is maybe his point – we would have to have a radical revolution in order for this to happen. I couldn't help but think of Stephan King's The Stand while reading. When 75% of the world's population dies, how do the survivors re-engineer society when many of the specialists are dead? Well, new people become specialists, but with more of a focus of committees. (That on the “good” side – the bad side is just a dictator.) Postman's (1993) predictions are scarily accurate in many cases. What frustrates me is that he warns, but doesn't have alternatives. Though, Illich's alternative seems unrealistic, at least he has a vision. Pea (2004) begins to indicate the implications of a new definition of intelligence on education.


Illich, I. (1973). Tools for Conviviality. New York: Harper and Row.
Johnson, J (aka Latour, B.) (1988). Mixing humans and nonhumans together: the sociology of
a door-closer. Social Problems, Vol. 35 No.3, pp.298-310.
Pea, R. D. (2004) Practices of distributed intelligences and designs for education. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed Cognitions. (pp. 88-110).
Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. NewYork: Vintage Books.