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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Flat" is the new "Global Village"

Way back in the late 1980s, just after I had left the USMC and was working at CMSI, the museum hired a new curator named Joseph Deken. This guy had written a book called "The Electronic Cottage" in which he extolled all the virtues of the dawning computer age. In the book he explained how the world was getting smaller and that people would soon be able to do any number of things right from home or anywhere around the world thanks to the magic of computers and near instant communications. It had been incredibly popular. Now, all of us electronics technicians felt we already knew all of that stuff. We chided him for saying what we had already known for years. He wrote the book in 1983.

Naturally, I don't have perfect memory, and when I was first recollecting all this I incorrectly recollected that the book's title had been, "The Global Village," another term that was common back then. In trying to find the book I uncovered 14,990 books with "the global village" in their title dating back to about 1968. And that is on Amazon alone. So, when I read the glowing reviews of Thomas Friedman's new book, "The World is Flat" I was somewhat nonplussed. It seems odd to me that the phrase "global village" has been written about since at least 1968 and the idea of an "electronic cottage" has been popular since at least 1983, yet the notion that the earth is suddenly flat - again - is inexplicably all the rage.

Why is it that the education community is only just now jumping on this bandwagon? I understand that computers were difficult to come by for schools back in 1968. But postage was cheap, yet only a few teachers helped their students find pen-pals. In 1983 personal computers had been around for about seven years and weren't so terribly expensive as to be out of reach for most schools. Certainly less expensive than the new, oak desk in the superintendent's office. And yet, I didn't see a single computer in a single school until I went to college in 1978. It was an expensive private college and they had a mere two computers, one TRS-80 Model-1 and one Apple II. Why is that? Why has it taken 33 long years since the introduction of the first inexpensive, personal-computer for the education community to finally, really say, "Hey, maybe this is something we should look into."

I'm certainly not going to make any friends when I say that I think the main reason is pure laziness. Laziness and fear of new things. When I was in sixth grade it was a risky and experimental proposition for teachers to ask students to work on projects in groups. They had to hire a special experimental and risk-taking teacher to come in and do that. Woop-de-doo! Education theorists from Vygotsky on had been promoting collaboration as a means to better learning since the 30's. It took teachers till 1966, another 30 some-odd years, to get around to it? Laziness and unwillingness to change, that's what I say.

So, some guy comes along, stealing an old term to coin a new phrase which means something we have known all along and suddenly everyone is interested. So what has Thomas Friedman got that Lev Vygotsky and Joseph Deken didn't have? About all I can figure is that he has a better publicist. I guess I should just be happy that the education community is finally getting the message and working on how they can incorporate these "new ideas" into their curricula. I guess I should see the bright side and say, "Isn't it wonderful that everyone is recognizing that a change needs to be made and are working on figuring out how to do that." But I have to wonder, what is going to happen when it is time for the next big change to be made. Is the education community going to sit around for another 30 years, waiting till another crisis of ineffectiveness is ready to burst in their faces like a festering boil, before they - that would be you, current education students - actually do something about it?

You all claim to want to be teachers. So I would presume that you would want to be effective teachers. Well, that is not going to come easy. You are not going to be able to stick to the same old things that teachers have been doing all along. You can't simply teach to the test so your district can claw their way past the NCLB minimums. You must be willing to innovate and change, every darn day if need be. It shouldn't be only the exceptional teachers like Eliot Wigginton who throw the textbook out the window and ask their students to start a project that eventually grows into "The Firefox Book". It shouldn't be only teachers like Ron Clark who "drink the chocolate milk" of creativity and finally get their students to pay attention. Every single one of you has to be willing to really stick your neck out, even when those around you ridicule you or worse. You must be willing to embrace technology - and not just as a way to distract yourself when you should be paying attention in class. Yes, I see you. Unless you actually plan to become one of those "statistics" who burn out after just a few years, you really have to devote yourselves like you have never been devoted before. You must learn how these kids think. Then you have to learn how to get them to change their thinking. They have been trained all their lives to believe that school is boring. You have to break through that. It takes work and practice and skill and more practice.

I know, I am not going to become a teacher, so many of you may think I have no room to talk. But I am doing my part in the way I can be most effective. Are you? Or are you just surfing Facebook, biding your time till the bell rings?

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

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