Monday, July 1, 2013

The box of rocks problem. An excerpt from the ISTE talk I've never given.

It's ISTE time.  Audrey Watters already did her ISTE takedown here, wherein she discusses the bad corporate taste ISTE leaves in your mouth.  I joined in the fun on twitter (@DavidSalmanson).  I have my own ISTE stories to tell.  When I first started getting into ed tech in a big way, I applied to present at ISTE a couple of times.  My proposals were for papers that were pretty much like the over one dozen papers I've given at professional conferences elsewhere.  They identified problems and offered solutions.  They were academic in tone and interdisciplinary in outlook, but modified somewhat to reach an audience that might not be as steeped in theory as I am.  Most of all, these papers were critical.  In academia, being critical (or giving criticism) is a good thing.  You identify the strengths and weaknesses of an argument with the goal of making it better.  Collectively, scholars work to replace weak ideas with stronger ones, improve old theories, and create new ones.  We develop new analytic techniques or apply old ones in new ways.  This is what I thought I was supposed to be doing.  But after years of failed proposals, and after finally attending ISTE when it was here in Philadelphia, I finally realized what I was doing wrong.  ISTE isn't about criticism, it's about selling, specifically selling technology or at least a view point about technology.  Evgeny Morozov calls it "solutionism,"  I call it "technofuturism".  Whatever.  The point is, ISTE is not good at taking a critical stance towards tech ed.  They're boosters.   Since it's ISTE time, I'm posting a section of one of the talks I never got to give below.  It's what a critical take on tech ed looks like, an approach I like to call technoskepticism.

The Box of Rocks Problem

Back in the 1990s, I spent my summers working for an outstanding outdoor education organization based in New Mexico.  The organization, Cottonwood Gulch has been doing outdoor ed since 1926.  Over that time, they've collected for museums, run archeological digs, and hired a bunch of grad students in various fields who went on to national prominence.  The camp tries to get students from ages 10-18 to engage with the wilderness through the best scientific and humanistic practices.  Over the years, they've amassed huge collections of animals and plants, and most importantly for this story, rocks.  The camp museum had scores of samples of rocks collected over the years.  Igneous rocks and metamorphic rocks.  Minerals of every type that were found in the Southwest.  Each sample is identified with it's type and the location where it was collected.  Each year the collection was lovingly displayed before the camp season started and then carefully stored when it ended.  And then one summer, I showed up to staff training and walked into the museum and there were almost no rocks.  The museum curator, a crusty chain-smoking retired science teacher from Indiana, was wiping down the shelves where the rocks should be.  "Where are the rest of the rocks" I asked him.  "Well," he replied drawing deeply on his Parliament Light, "they're being used for erosion control up by the staff cabins."

I was baffled.  Surely this was heresy.  Decades worth of work had gone into making that collection.  "But why?" I asked.

"Because every fifteen years or so, we start over.  Kids have collected just about all the rocks they are going to find out here and it's frustrating for a new geologist to bring his find back to the museum to discover that we already have a sample.  This way, a camper can have the chance to make a new discovery."

And then I understood some important things.  First, that what drives self-directed learning is the joy of discovery, being under the illusion that you are the first person to think that thought, have that insight, add that rock to the collection.  Second, that this has to be age appropriate.  It's unrealistic for most kids to make a legitimate scientific discovery, but it's quite possible for kids to make discoveries for themselves (sometimes we call this inquiry based learning).  Third, sometimes you have to take the discoveries other people have made and throw them out so that kids can discover something for themselves.  You need to take the curated collection, and make it a box of rocks. 

In the internet age, when "everything is available online" it's increasingly hard for students to get that joy of discovery.  If your class documents everything it does and puts it on the web, you are going to run out of interesting insights pretty darn quickly.  There's only so many ways a fourth grader can look at the Civil War before you run out of things they can wrap their heads around.

So how do you know what you should and should not put on the web permanently?  Here are some guidelines:

Is it easily extendable?   Posting a project that has lots of new data coming in all the time is a good
use of the web.  For example, collecting pollution data from a stream year after year allows you to create a database that enables you to do more with the data each student collects by comparing it to previous weeks, months, and years.

Can others use this productively?  Oral histories are a nice example of this (and one I'll be using in my upcoming talk this fall on wikis for the New England History Teachers Association).  Oral histories are valuable documents that researchers can use.  Putting them into archive.org and other searchable databases enables people beyond your classroom to use the materials.

Are there finite answers to this?  If the answer is yes, it doesn't belong on the web permanently.  Most math proofs and essays don't belong on the web permanently (although a class Haiku site might be okay).  There's nothing worse than feeling like you've solved a very difficult problem and that you are the first one to do it that way and then realize lots of other people have done it the exact same way.

I'm going to leave you with one final anecdote.  A few years later, I worked with a camper who was a teenage geologist.  Note how I wrote that. Not a teenager interested in geology.  A teenage geologist.  The kid presented at academic conferences and corresponded with professors in the field. He had the equivalent of a BA in geology or maybe an MA.  He found stuff that other people missed.  We arranged special trips for him to collect samples of carnotite and uraninite on private land for his personal collection.  He desperately wanted some pitchblende.  Those are all radioactive minerals, by the way, so this kid was hardcore.  He didn't need the museum to be turned into a box of rocks.   The world was his collection and he was going to label each and every inch of it.  And that's a great project.  But it's his project.  If we inspires a few other people to help him out, great.  Our goal as educators isn't to create those projects.  Our goal is to help each student find a project that is theirs.  And sometimes that means taking our carefully curated collections of knowledge, and turning them into a box of rocks.  

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