Category Archives: Commentary

Safety versus Insulation in Discourse and Debate

I was listening to  an episode of The Diane Rehm Show recently, in which  the panelists were discussing free speech, honest debate, and  meaningful discourse on college campuses and the disservice some people   may be doing by actively avoiding    trigger warnings outright instead of confronting them actively and openly. The conversation also discussed the legacy of those who are memorialized in monuments and building names who may have questionable pasts.

I’m ambivalent on the topic, as  I am a deeply-flawed human being  who has a colorful past and who can certainly be offensive. In fact, to my genuine surprise, I was recently branded a “bigot” – granted, by someone who has some sociopolitical values that strike me as inhumane – but rather than saying “no, I’m not!” I have begun seriously questioning the circumstances that led up to that branding and what would have caused that person to react with such vehement verbal violence toward me when I have dedicated myself in many ways to fundamentally opposing bigotry. I’d like to think that generally speaking my words and actions are inconsistent with those of a bigot, but do I not have a moral imperative to  question that assumption, actively and transparently? I feel I must have the self-awareness and presence of mind to  know that I am a flawed person and need to respond to such critique in a prosocial, proactive, thoughtful way.

Thomas Jefferson intellectually and actually achieved something in the late 18th century to create a framework that has given us the necessary tools to uplift, celebrate, and recognize the criticality of diversity, free speech, egalitarianism, and human rights. It is ironic and worth discussing that Jefferson did not practice what he preached. We have some record that he struggle din some ways with this idea, but as one of the commentators said on the show, we should not pretend that “people are a product of their times” is a valid justification when we know there were people during that time that chose to act differently and more consistently with modern evolved understanding of equality. In places during the founding of this country, at the table, there were those who chose to act differently, who articulated that – for example – slavery was a scourge upon our species and should be actively eradicated. It’s worth us seriously questioning decisions to the contrary. Jefferson was certainly not a perfect person  – “Which of us is perfect?” asks DeVito’s Mickey Bergman in Mamet’s Heist –  but do we tear down the Jefferson Memorial?

Heist, (C) Warner Brothers

I don’t have answers in this situation, but I do want to participate in the debate. I want children and college students and the future generation to engage in this debate, because ultimately it’s their call. If symbols and characters and stories that I find benign or relevant, deeply and materially offend the future generation, I hope that they will have serious questions before they tear down elements of my present, but I also recognize that preserving something simply because it is old or a memorial is not worthwhile.

“Trigger warning” is being  abused. It refers to trauma stimulus, a situation or experience that is related, directly or superficially, in the mind of a person with post-traumatic stress. When the traumatized individual smells, for example, an odor directly related to an attack, the traumatized individual may experience  post-traumatic stress. This is a serious situation that deserves our compassion and understanding. However, being bothered by something that irritates or offends you is not the same as experiencing post-traumatic stress.  As educators, we do have some responsibility to raise awareness and help provide safety for individuals who may genuinely need assistance in avoiding unnecessary post-traumatic stress. However, as with all things educational, thoughtful scaffolding is not a barricade between the student   and learning. Students who are offended by racism, for example, as most any thinking person would be, cannot deepen their understandings of the source and nature  of racism without discussing and debating it. In the queer community, I sometimes   see social media admonishments that cisgender or heterosexual bias is a “trigger” followed immediately by raging statements of fury directed at cisgender people and heterosexual people. I sometimes see monotheists announce that bias against their religions are “triggers” for them, followed immediately by raging statements of vitriol directed at other religions or non-believers.

There is a difference, I believe, between building insulating walls around yourself and committing to your own narrow ideology and worldview, and honestly raising awareness about bias, prejudice, and discrimination.

I’m torn. I like controversy; hell I foment it, and I am the last person on the planet that is obsessed with the preservation of the extant on that basis alone. I write actively against that idea in Insurrection.  However, I do think we  academics have  an obligation to promote discourse. Several of the speakers on the Diane Rehm show indicated  that colleges are the ideal places for such significant debate. I cannot help but get a little Insurrectionist / Seditionist here: That’s why liberal arts should be the foundation of the academic tradition. It it insufficient to say at 18 years old, “this is who I am, I know what is right and wrong, and you all must conform to my world view.”

I find that this connects back to the last blog post I made about higher educaiton in which I excoriated the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan for saying “this is not a day care.”  Ironically, I’d wager thathe and I probablya gree that discomfort and discourse and debate are essential for growth and are needed more than ever and that every little offense should not be silenced. I don’t debate  that and if he had simply said that, I wouldn’t have had to take him to task. But that isn’t what he said.  He basically said “go pound salt”  to a kid, “I don’t care that you’re offended, I don’t care that you’re hurt.”

Discourse and debate is good for your growth. We shouldn’t insulate students   from controversy.  But as a good mama bear, he should know that in order for the cub to understand the big wide world, the cub can’t be caged or thrown off the cliff. Oppression and abandonment are extremes of pedagogy as well as cub-raising. These are   unloving acts and not a teacher response. What we say is “why?” What offended you? Why are you offended? What troubles you? What made you uncomfortable? Why? How? What biases exist? What conditions existed? What situations and ideas does this relate to? Let’s have a debate. Let’s have discussion.

President Piper didn’t appear the least bit interested in meaningful and thoughtful discourse about the student’s concern about  the pulpit proselytizing  based on I Corinthians. He didn’t seem the slightest bit inclined to validate the student and instead jumped to chastise and lower him. That is not consistent with the deeper discussion that can lead to better understanding that we’re talking about here. Did the student have a point? Was there a different interpretation? Was the student encouraged to read more? To research the origins of the passage? To analyze and compare? To engage with the original speaker? To develop a defense for the alternative position? Where was the teaching? Where was the learning opportunity? Where was the authentic acknowledgement of that student’s individual perspective as an aspiring scholar and the guidance to make him a more robust thinker?

A loving educator does those things. That’s entirely consistent with the message put forward in the Diane Rehm  episode: Debate, dissent, these are critical to growth.  Serious, meaningful roots in philosophy, pedagogy in my case, debates, discussions, psychology, sociology, reading, literature, art, culture, creating, analyzing… these are essential aspects to understanding the larger sociocultural questions we must face as scholars, as thinkers, as people, as citizens.

I want thoughtful  discourse in the context of safety and love and with the guidance of thoughtful pedagogues and meaningful scaffolding to ensure the best of all worlds, and I am discontent with extremes of abandonment to autodidacticism and autocratic oppression.

An Open Response to E. Piper’s Open Letter

This week, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, Dr. Everett Piper, penned an open letter to students declaring that his university was “not a day care,” and that seems to be the message that the media is running with.

I don’t believe that’s the lesson to be taken away from Dr. Piper’s letter. Instead, re-read the third paragraph of his letter, which I excerpt here from his own blog:

“That feeling of discomfort you have after listening to a sermon is called a conscience. An altar call is supposed to make you feel bad. It is supposed to make you feel guilty. The goal of many a good sermon is to get you to confess your sins—not coddle you in your selfishness. The primary objective of the Church and the Christian faith is your confession, not your self-actualization.” – Dr. Everett Piper

Now, I have not heard the sermon. I’d be interested to, for context, but suffice it to say that if a student in a learning institution feels victimized by what Dr. Piper feels is an intentional and designed enterprise to instill shame, guilt, bad feelings, and confession of wrongdoing – all in the context of “love,” apparently – then I say that student has taken the first step in realizing that such phenomena have no place in learning, teaching, education, or a well-lived life.

I am appalled that a so-called educational leader would actively imply that a core principle of his university is the non-inclusion of self-actualization. Now maybe it’s just me and my liberal arts college commie pinko undergraduate music degree talking, but I believe that a college education is for  exactly that: to provide the environment, skills, inquiry, passion, resources, and opportunities to thrive in mind and ability, and take a critical and significant leap toward self-actualization. I find Dr. Piper’s flip, smug attitude about this student’s legitimate concern – because any student expression of victimization is legitimate, and if scandal after scandal about callous and inactive universities hasn’t taught us that, nothing will – to be entirely out of touch with the purpose of teaching.

Again, I was  privy neither to the student’s lamentation nor to the sermon that prompted it, but Dr. Piper cannot and must not claim to be interested and invested in learning and creating empathy and interpersonal understanding when he makes foolish and inhumane statements like, and I quote,  “Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a ‘safe place.'”

Perhaps a trip back to Educational Psychology 101 – or at OKWU, that’s Psychology of Education and Learning (EDUC 3003) – will help him understand that safety and feelings of belonging are critical foundations of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. One cannot achieve self-actualization without feelings of safety, security, and belonging, and this student clearly doesn’t feel those things at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

Now, I do understand that the scaffolding involved in teaching comes away over time, and eventually students transition from being child learners to adult learners, and I certainly understand that controversy and conflict and failure are desirable characteristics in learning, as I write extensively in my first book on education.  However, those phenomena must occur in a student-centered space that does include compassion, safety, and understanding, lest true development, skill mastery, and indeed even social justice and interpersonal humanity be left behind in favor of brutalization, shame, and harm. Many institutions of learning seem to think it is their job to “toughen up” learners, and I say it is not. I say it is our place to listen and respond as thoughtful academics, and Dr. Piper let a golden opportunity to expand upon that student’s understanding of love sail right over his head.

Perhaps this student, like many others who may feel similarly that their individual learning needs and personal feelings and beliefs DO matter, should consider a less conservative institution that believes its brand of religion is to make you feel bad about yourself.

Not once when I studied at Ithaca College, George Mason University, or the University of Mary Washington, or taught at The George Washington University, did any professor or colleague intentionally attempt to make me feel bad about myself. That nonsense has no place in learning, at any age, at any institution, and Dr. Piper should know better. The fact that he doesn’t is embarrassing to me as a professional educator and should deeply concern any student of his, current or potential. Callous  insolence is not a loving response, and we educators and academics who are deeply concerned with the wellness and learning of the whole of every individual student should brook no such hypocrisy and ignorance as to say, effectively, “you should feel bad about yourself for not being more loving, so figure out how to love or go away.” I’d agree with Dr. Piper: If you want to be taught compassionately, OKWU would not be on my short list with leadership responses like that.

I’d be happy to write you a transfer recommendation, young man.

On the Paris Attacks

Ideology and institutionalism are  the common denominators that unify the suffering, tragedy, and violence that has been imposed upon free-thinking and free-living people throughout the world for as long as any of us can remember. The more adherent a person is to the ideas that they are commanded or coerced to adhere to, the less human that person becomes, and the easier mass violence is to perpetrate.

The surest anti-terrorism agents you have are a liberated, open, accepting, free-thinking mind and a connected, humane, empathetic heart.

Praxis in Practice: Necessary Minimalism in Student Discipline

Adult control of children is not a precept of education. Child freedom, however, is a fundamental precept of teaching and learning. Schools should not assimilate children into a culture of command and control, or demand children conform to traditional adult-imposed expectations of obedience. Instead, schools should consistently empower children and give them the same extraordinary latitude that we would allow any person (regardless of age), while providing age-appropriate scaffolding to protect them and help them make good decisions.

My litmus test for a “rule” is simple: Does it really matter?

“Take your hat off” is a stupid rule in 2015. It’s not a matter of expressing respect aligned to a value shared throughout our culture, and pretending that it is indicates that said pretender is out of touch. “Well, I think it matters,” I hear as a rejoinder. Awesome.

Your personal feelings don’t trump the rights of children or the need for the school to be minimalist in its imposition of behavioral mandates, lest the school culture descend into a system of coercion.

Take an extreme example in the recent assault of a student by a school resource officer in South Carolina. A child who refused to comply with verbal instructions to stand up was tackled to the ground while still in her desk and manhandled like a piece of luggage. Beyond the obvious egregious violation of her personal and physical right to be free from harm at the hands of a violent adult, this situation is troubling to me because of how it started.

She was using her cell phone.

I don’t know how many times I have to say this, but I’m going to keep saying it: stop trying to take these devices away from children. Mandating that a child fork over a personal electronic device is a stupid rule. It’s a stupid rule because it perpetuates teacher-centered, “pay attention to me” teaching methodology. It’s a stupid rule because it says “that device can’t help you learn.” It’s a stupid rule because it says “what I’m doing is so important there’s no possible reason for you not to pay attention to me.” It’s a stupid rule because it says “what I’m doing matters no matter if you don’t think so.”

This latter point is often a point of contention with colleagues. Students don’t learn things that aren’t relevant to them. If the material isn’t relevant, the problem is the design of the instruction, not the child. If we aren’t reaching a kid, engaging a kid, making the material interesting to and relevant to a kid, then I believe fervently and with all my heart that it is incumbent upon us, as educators, to address that with passion, seriousness, and thoughtfulness.

You cannot mandate a kid into learning.

You cannot demand a kid into caring.

You cannot order a kid into wanting.

The fundamental misperception of children as empty vessels who are too incapable, stupid, or ignorant to live their own lives is at the root of the vast majority of problems with the American public school, as I write extensively in “Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children.” Mandating that a child “pay attention” presupposes a tremendous number of pedagogical, neurological, psychological, social, emotional, and individual things about that child and the situation at hand. The idea that every single kid will benefit and learn equally from a specific teacher-led task is absurd and runs contrary to what serious educators understand about children, and yet that is precisely the structure around which the majority of our classrooms are structured.

If a child “checks out” and wants to sit quietly and doodle on the phone, I must ask: Who cares?

I don’t presuppose, in the above scenario, that the child is ignorant or lazy. I want to ask more questions: Does the kid have skill mastery? Is the kid able to acquire skill mastery through another means? Is this typical behavior or a momentary outlier like we all have as people? What assessment vehicle is giving me meaningful information about understanding the child and the child’s learning situation? Has the child been afforded alternative opportunities and have those opportunities catered to the student’s individual learning modality?

The rejoinder that this is somehow “spoonfeeding” or “babying” is silly. Don’t you, as an adult, have certain things you do and don’t like? Certain ways you learn well and certain ways you don’t? Certain subjects that fascinate you and certain subjects that bore the crap out of you? Aren’t there certain skills that you developed in the context of other things that you do want to do, that you didn’t develop as a student when they were taught in a vacuum?

I was never a particularly adept mathematician and had no real passion for the subject, but when it comes to the analysis of student data relevant to a question I want answered or making sure my Star Trek Online starship is putting out maximum damage per second against the Romulans, you can rest assured I will invest extraordinary time and energy in developing my skills. This is a human universal: We only learn things that are relevant to us. We only care about things that matter to us. This may seem  tautological but it’s an important truism about student socioemotional and learning behaviors. As the adults in the situation, our responsibility is not to command respect and demand compliance, but to meaningfully go to where the students are, and develop learning situations that deeply, relevantly, seriously meet the individual needs of each individual child.

Consequently, imposing rules like “put that away” and “take that off” and “sit up straight” and such punitive nonsense is just a waste of our time. Letting that young lady sit quietly and use her phone would have been preferable in every single way to violently assaulting her and causing a massive disruption.

That’s what’s disruptive here: The adult behavior, not the child’s behavior.

Of course, I accept that this fundamental shift from an ideology of coercing to a pedagogy of providing will mean a near-complete redesign of the American public school system.

Hence, the book, and the insurrection to overthrow the status quo and truly revolutionize teaching. Until then, however, we can and must do better, and stop imposing nonsensical and sometimes tyrannical micromanagement upon children in the name of protecting them.

Mama Bear, out.


Early Release: “Insurrection” Available Now



Educator, administrator, and self-styled revolutionary Keith David Reeves has published “Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children” with Information Age Publishing. Inspired by Sir Ken Robinson’s 2010 TED Talk calling for the revolutionizing of the public schools, the work tackles the etiology of America’s misunderstanding of children and the nature of learning and teaching, and the deep social and institutional errors innate to our current school system. Reeves was a music teacher in New York and Virginia prior to becoming an educational technology administrator. He recently keynoted the Connecticut Music Educators Association conference, and is a regular speaker and presenter on the east coast.

From the author:
I truly believe we have reached the apex of the cultural zeitgeist that says “schools aren’t working, and this can’t continue.” Opt-out movements, walk-outs, protests, raised voices, writing and railing of all kind is coming to a head. I hope to provide another strong push, along with my fellow revolutionaries nation-wide, to bring about the kind of changes Sir Ken Robinson talked about in his 2010 TED talk, which in many ways served as the inspiration to take up the arms of words in the form of this work.
Sign up for the mailing list now, and I’ll keep you up-to-date on eBook releases and the launch party.
To all my Brothers and Sisters, my Comrades and Colleagues who fight and strive every day, in the face of incredible odds and opposition, to free, empower, and teach every single individual child, thank you for your support. May this be the last generation to suffer the misperceptions and mistreatments of the antiquated and broken institution of Industrial era schooling.


Praxis in Practice: Big Brother, Where Art Thou?

Technology is not a distraction or a hindrance to learning. It is a tool, like any other “thing,” and any given piece of educational technology can benefit or hinder an individual in any given situation depending on context and use. Sweeping statements about how technology is or isn’t or should or shouldn’t be used presupposes homogeneity among learners. We know this to be fallacious: Every individual learner is different, and every individual brain has unique needs and modalities. Consequently, best practices and good policy errs on the side of freedom and empowerment, not on the side of restriction and limitation. Teachers have different roles than parents, and parents must be active in understanding their children and their needs, but neither the school nor the parent should impose any given “belief” or “ideology” about educational technology upon other families in order to eliminate challenging conversations or mitigate a circumstance for one student by erecting high walls of restriction for all students.

Access to the World Wide Web in and of itself doesn’t mean that students will learn more or learn better. It does, however, mean a fundamental and titanic shift in the nature of life that we are foolish to ignore. Whereas in, say, the early 19th century, rote memorization of facts may well have been the only efficient way to ensure a knowledge base was available to any given individual employing a skill, that is no longer the case. Reference book series, encyclopedias, specialized archives that once were kept behind locked doors, are now available in a moment through a connected personal digital device. The breadth and depth of human knowledge is being made more and more available – from obscure resources curated and cultivated by idiosyncratic specialists to emergent research and intelligence that might never have seen the light of day otherwise – and there is no rational reason to imagine the world will be without this connected access to knowledge in the future.

In short, the nature of human civilization has changed. It happened during your lifetime. It is the nature of what Alvin Toffler called “The Third Wave,” an era of our development a species and globalizing human culture in which information is central in a post-industrialized world. Well, baby, we’re in it, and pretending it isn’t so is part of the reason extant and engrained institutions like schools have been so terribly, indefensibly slow to react and respond. Conservative longing for simpler pre-computer, pre-connected times is useless, in my view, and only serves to lessen our ability to understand and react wisely in rapid times.

Yesterday in conversing with a colleague who, as I did, had taught in significantly socioeconomically-compromised schools, I was reminded that some schools have always “lagged behind” in resources, and may not face the kind of immediate and emergent concerns I face in my work in my current school, which is admittedly affluent and resource-rich. However, from an educational philosophy perspective, I believe that meaningful and constant connectivity is here to say and is a valuable part of human life in 2015, and is universal across nearly all demographics. Denying students access to knowledge is, to me, unkind, unloving, and fool-hardy. Beyond the obvious fact that Kohlberg and other firmly-established theorists give us all the evidence we need to know that teenagers will  want something you tell them they can’t have, it’s also unrealistic and I daresay delusional to think that students should be insulated from the world as it is when it comes to basic functions that are so universally available.

Schools have a legal and ethical responsibility to shield students from certain forms of content, as I’ve written about before. I believe it is also our ethical responsibility to restrict students as little as possible. Denying students freedom and access troubles me to no end, not just philosophically, but pedagogically.

I forget who shared this anecdote (if it was you, remind me!) but a Chemistry teacher once asked xyr students, “How many of these elements on the periodic table do you think you should memorize?” The students discussed, and came up with an answer, and the Chemistry teacher responded: “None. One simple mistake could kill a huge number of people. Never assume. Never memorize. Always, always, always use your reference materials to be sure.” To me, this marvelous and insightful rule of thumb applies to us all: While we may operationalize knowledge that is relevant, because we put it into action regularly, we also drop off knowledge that is irrelevant. This is not to say it may not become relevant again in the future, or that such cycles don’t eventually become second-nature so they can be easily reoperationalized in a very short time – “it’s like riding a bike” – but it is folly to think that humans in 2015 cannot or should not access accurate information digitally. That’s not how the world works anymore.

I can’t underscore this enough: We must stop pretending that the technology of 2015 isn’t here right now. It is here, right now.

I am frustrated by practitioners and caretakers alike who want to erect the highest possible walls to restrict students to explicit tasks without a compelling, child-specific, situation-specific reason. (I refer you back to my previous “Mama Bear” post about knowing full well we need to keep kids safe, so let’s skip that for now and assume that I’m not a nitwit about protecting children from genuine harm!) Technology is not a “distraction.” It’s a tool. If a student is engaging socially during a task, I don’t care. If a student is communicating with others during a project, I don’t care. If a student is accessing information with a personal device in class, I don’t care. None of these things is, in and of itself, problematic. Without context and child-specific information, it is in my view over-broad and over-restrictive to set policy or make sweeping decisions restricting access to connection and knowledge that any reasonable person living in the world should be able to access.

This also has implications for teacher monitoring. A few (thankfully just a few) teachers I’ve talked to have asked, as students come into classrooms with devices, “how can I monitor what they’re doing?” These adults want to know exactly what each kid is doing at any given time. Now, in some cases, this is pedagogically-sound: by being able to see, at a glance, what kids are doing, that practitioner can go to the kids that need individual assistance, and gather realtime formative observation data to assist in teaching. That is an entirely fair use. However, in most cases, I find the teacher says thing like “I want to be sure the kid isn’t screwing around” or “I want the kid to be on task” or “I want to be sure the kid doesn’t deviate from my instructions” or something. That, to me, is freaky as heck. Firstly, it presupposes homogeneity again and assumes that every kid learns the same way at the same time, an artifact of Industrial era factory model schooling, and is the very definition of scholiocentrism. But moreover, it refutes out of hand the idea that a student doesn’t need to do exactly what the teacher might think, with no consideration for (again) context. What if the kid already has skill mastery and wants to extend into something else? What if another kid (in that class, in the next class, or in Khazachstan; makes no difference) is having the same issue and they’re collaboratively investigating a resource? What if the kid’s brain has reached a saturation point and xe needs a mental break from whatever is going on? If the teacher’s response is “that’s not okay,” then I have a problem with that. If the adult’s response is “yeah, but you know they’re not doing that stuff, they’re talking to their friends or whatever,” then I have a problem with that.

If your pedagogy and assessment is such that the kid won’t succeed even if the kid DOES take a moment to straight up chat with friends in class, that, to me, is the real problem. I don’t believe it a healthy or successful orientation to think that adults must corral and coerce students into compliance, or else they’ll naturally run off to the hills and do nothing all day. That, to me, is an unloving and untrusting orientation toward kids. In my experience, if you provide the necessary omnimodal assessment vehicles by which students can readily and constantly understand their progress, and create the active and relevant learning conditions each individual child needs, kids can be given extraordinary latitude in decision-making, and will (with some patience and time and loving support) develop the executive function and operationalized knowledge base to employ their skill mastery. Micromanagement of minute-to-minute behaviors has never been an effective tool in my tool belt for cultivating deep understanding and rich skill mastery for my students, and so like any irrelevant or useless thing, I put it down and don’t use it anymore.

Watching what the kid is doing every minute of the day is never going to be a substitute for empowering the kid to make good choices independently. “Big Brother” mentality mistrusts the individual and says “I know how to be you better than you know how to be you.” That, to me, is irresponsible.

Yes, I understand there may be considerations based on development and age-appropriateness, but “socializing with friends” is not an age-inappropriate situation. Yes, there are legitimate concerns about the balance between privacy for children and the potential for problems, for example bullying or predation, and I take those concerns seriously as a person deeply invested in the welfare of every child. However, it has always been my position that teaching involves ensuring every individual child has learned (not can learn, but has learned), and the only way to do that in the context of connected technology is to teach with it and through it as well as about it, to ensure students – scaffolded for safety and positive development – are able to develop the skills to navigate these experiences healthfully.

In all situations of policy, I want to err on the side “open” versus “closed” (within the confines of the law, of course), and then actively seek to empower students to learn as they learn, make good choices for themselves as individuals, and ensure that the adults around them support those good decisions instead of presuming that their modalities, philosophies, and perspectives on technology are superior and subsequently imposing those ideas writ large. We serve our children better by cutting their bonds than forging them, but we must take care not to cut their connections to others or to the rich and incredible world of information available to them in the process.

There is a significant difference between keeping kids safe and supporting them in their healthy development, and putting them in an artificial, unrealistic petri dish.

P.S. – Stay tuned, as the book should be hitting the shelves any day! Sign up for the mailing list for immediate notification when the links go live!

Hell Is Other #Peeple

Capriciously labeling, ranking, and categorizing people is a nightmare for adults and for children. The powerful negative feelings, thoughts, and psychosocial phenomena associated with being told who you are, being told what you are (or are not) worth, and being publicly branded can lead to anxiety, depression, and even suicide. Doing such a thing once is bad enough, but doing it all the time is downright despicable. I am disgusted as both a person and as a professional educator by ideology that idolizes concrete judgment, self-centered importance without regard for others, regards inductive reasoning as supreme, and fervently believes in the worth of some people and the worthlessness of others. Broadly, this embodies Objectivism, a philosophy madly embraced by the far right and rejected by serious academics and scholars of philosophy, and in short, I find it unhealthy, inhumane, and dangerous, and wherever I detect situations in my work with children and with teachers that involves painting with broad brushes, corralling children into predefined pens, and otherwise treating human beings like statistics or objects, I fight it.

Consequently, you can imagine my wrath and scorn when my colleague Rachel forwarded me Caitlin Dewey’s article from the Post describing Peeple, a new app that lets anyone in the world rank you. As she describes it, it’s basically “Yelp for people”

This is, in short, one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard in my time in education and educational technology.

Firstly, let’s get the big one out of the way: It is not your place to judge me. You might in fact judge me, and you have a right to form private internal judgments me, but it is not your role in society, and certainly it is not your place to publicly proclaim your assessment of me as a person from a throne of authority, and Peeple seeks to coronate any idiot who registers.

Has Peeple learned nothing from Lulu (as Caitlin points out) or RateMyTeacher or other platforms that spike briefly for prurient Mean Girls social terrorism, and then fade to rant-fests and mud-slinging?

From the educator’s perspective, I’m alarmed and infuriated by the brazen ignorance of the founders. One of them as quoted in the article called herself “empathetic” and indicated she wanted to “spread love and positivity” and “operate with thoughtfulness.” There is nothing prosocial, empathetic, loving, or positive about providing a nearly-unfettered platform for shame.

Shaming is a neuropsychologically-destructive act, and Peeple creates a condition for slander and vengeance and meanness as well as unfounded aggrandizement and egoism, by allowing individuals to utilize an oversimplified integer-based evaluation method, rooted in nothing more than baseless evidence-free opinion, to judge others. And yes, I indict it for the same reasons I indict grading in schools that is rooted in similar garbage data.

An example: I know a person who says that person respects me tremendously as an educator. I also know that person loathes me as a person because of our deep disagreement on sociology and politics. In Peeple, that person can claim to know me professionally, and then excoriate me for something that 1. has nothing to do with my work as an educator insofar as my duties are concerned, 2. does in fact have everything to do with my work as an educator insofar as those who agree with me on matters of children, individualism, and pedagogy are concerned, and 3. is absolutely, positively none of anyone else’s business. The conversations I’ve had with that person were had with that person, not in a public forum. Public debate and chatting are different things, with different standards of decorum and format. Peeple does not make any effort to distinguish these phenomena, and rightly so: It’s not for anyone else to say who I am, what I do, or how I do it, based on anything but their own perspective, and that perspective is ONLY valid for that person.

Sycophants and egoists, predators and shamers, scapegoaters and sociopaths, you’ve found yet another pile of grist to grind in Peeple, but I’ll thank you all to leave my grainy goodness out of your mill. I will not be participating in such psychopathy.

Praxis in Practice: Unblock (Nearly) Everything

Adult control is the enemy of a child’s learning.

Unnecessary mechanisms of control forge shackles that chain children together into groups, and herd them into corrals we presuppose for them. This is not empowering children, but is adult control, and adult control is not a desirable characteristic when it comes to authentic child learning. We must, wherever we identify it, seize adult control, drag it kicking and screaming out back, and put it down. We should proactively identify restriction that is not absolutely necessary to protect kids and destroy those constraints.

Blocking an internet-based resource writ large – YouTube is the most common example I hear about from lamenting teachers – in order to prevent access to potentially-troubling material is not an educational technology best practice and it is not mandated under law. To say that such large-scale blocking is “a legal requirement” as I sometimes hear is to fundamentally misunderstand not only ed law and case studies on the subject, but to ignore and indict in the same breath the progressive and thoughtful school systems that have paved the way to empower students who have a keen interest in learning from audiovisual illustrations as they may need.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act is extraordinarily simple: No porn. No bloody gory murder. Nothing that is defined as “obscene” under state statute. Those are three very clear definitions, and the vast majority of content that students are trying to access does not fall into any of those three categories. We should have basic internet filtering to ensure that students cannot access pornography, abject violence, and depictions of obscenity as defined locally, as is our legal charge, and then ensure that pretty much everything else under the sun is available to any kid, anytime, anywhere. Yes, some of this content will be low-quality. Yes, some of this content may be inaccurate, outdated, or incomplete. Yes, some of it may be inflammatory or controversial or downright stupid. That’s YouTube.

That’s also life. I believe we have an ethical responsibility to teach children about the world and to live in the world as it is and may be, not as if we would have it be in a sanitized petri dish. Such sanitizing strikes me not only as disingenuous and perilously close to lying to children, but miseducative.

How on earth are we to teach our cubs what rapids are too fast for them or are simply swift waters they can race upon? How are we to teach our cubs the difference between an empty hive full of yummy honey and an active yellowjacket nest? How are we to teach our cubs the difference between a friendly clawless spotted cat and a deadly leopard, if we do not occasionally aid them in interacting at least at a distance with our basic “mama bear” safeties in place? And how do we scaffold the transition from students who need more support (often earlier in development) to savvy users of complex information systems, if we keep things just as locked down for the 18 year old as the 8 year old?

When we focus on building fences and emergency lights and hazard signs along the sides of runways, we aren’t focusing on teaching kids to fly and empowering them to safely and thoughtfully choose their own flight paths and soar independently. This is not to say that we ought to abandon safety, scaffolding, or care. I recognize clearly that it is important sometimes for adults to act to protect children. It is in the mama bear’s nature to sometimes pull back her cub to prevent catastrophic harm. However, “I will protect you when I must” is very different from “I will control you all the time.”

These kinds of policies reflect non-educator thinking.

There are those that disagree with me, but so rarely are those people teachers, so I find. They are more often than not, in my not-insignificant professional experience in this field, voices of dissent from Luddites, anti-technology naysayers, or people that don’t believe that some resources have a place in learning because they don’t personally benefit from those resources. These attitudes are not rooted in empiricism, research, or experience, but are rather (often unlettered) opinions that have nothing to with setting the best policy we can, to ensure students and teachers are as free as possible and to ensure that they both have the fullest access to the fullest possible range of resources, tools, and techniques for learning, anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

The days of the pre-ordered lesson plan with pre-arranged everyone-together-now technology use for basic substitution and common productivity tasks are behind us. That was a 20th century relic of 19th century pedagogy, and every educational technologist worth a shake of salt knows that.

Individually blacklisting offensive sites is a far more precise and far more liberating way of approaching keeping kids safe than to carte blanche block a resource that has helped children around the world. I do not advocate that we force children to be autodidactic, but we ought not restrict autodidacticism when a child desires it, should not assume that these resources have no value and place in a meaningful teacher-child learning partnership, or restrict autogenic impulsive learning opportunities both within the school and without.

I often speak about love, because as I write in my upcoming book, I believe love to be at the center of learning and teaching. Love desires freedom and empowerment, and rallies against forces that deny these things to those we love. Teachers must love children, actively and meaningfully, in order to teach. Disabling access to information is an intrinsically-unloving act. It is, in my estimation, a terrible and totalitarian form of adult control to keep children in the dark, to shut off access to information, and deny them writ large resources from which they may benefit. Organizations around the country have striven tirelessly to provide connectivity and access to children because we know that knowledge really is power. Empowering students to access information at a moment’s notice for whatever reason, whenever and wherever, can only be helpful, if we truly believe that the way a child learns is more important than the way we teach.

Again: Those that disagree with me on these points usually believe at best that teaching is more important than learning, and at worst that neither really matters, so long as the institution’s control is maintained. This lattermost point is underscored notably in overly-restrictive hardware environments. The Albemarle (Virginia) schools have made their students full administrators of their 1:1 devices. Is it more work for their IT people? Sure thing. One of their higher-ups recently told me that they need to, in a given year, re-image about 50% of their elementary level devices, and about 10% of their high school devices.

So what? We exist to work for kids, not the other way around, and if the devices really are for their benefit… why not empower them? Given that most of the time there’s a problem with a device, we re-image it anyway, what’s the real net loss here, as compared to the massive potential gain?

Again, to love: It is unloving not to trust someone. Love does not assume wrongdoing or incapability.

When I go into a classroom, and students are typing on any device, my presumption is that they are individuals and thinkers who are innately deserving of my respect. I value their brains, I love their minds, I uphold their freedoms, I believe they have a right to learn as they naturally learn, to manage information as they choose, to annotate as the choose… I do not compel them to learn a particular way; I want to empower them to learn how their minds work and to get what they need, which may (and statistically, nearly certainly will) differ greatly from the other students in that learning space.

There are times when it’s best for me as a learner not to take notes at all. There are times when meticulous notes or illustrations of some kind are critical. There are times when simply videotaping is just better for me, and there are certainly times when accessing related information that is relevant and of interest that is helpful to my learning in that moment and enriches my comprehension and skill mastery and passion for the subject at hand, in realtime, in situ, is what’s best for me. And it is no one’s right to tell me I may not learn that way or that my brain must conform to anyone else’s command.

And yes, let’s be honest: Frankly, there are times when what the teacher or instructor or administrator is doing is irrelevant to me. Sometimes I already know the subject or skill cold, sometimes better than xe does. Sometimes I know it’s completely irrelevant for me to know bean one about what’s being discussed, and I find more often than not, so do most of the people in that room. I know how my brain works and in those moments I am absolutely pleased to extend into other things and subjects and interests during that otherwise-wasted time, because I am a thinking person.

I find it incredibly disrespectful to think that I as an adult must be told “put your phones away.” I hate it when this happens in meetings. “Everybody put your devices away. Everybody close your computers.” I shall not, and how dare you ask me to do so in the 21st century. It is arrogant presumption to assume that I am unable to “pay attention” with my device in front of me, let alone that what you are about to do is so flawless that it will completely meet the needs of every person in the room. Get over yourself. I am perfectly capable of running my life and learning what I need in the way that I learn, and rising to the challenges at hand, in the ways that work for me.

Why, then, do we insist upon doing this to children? Are adults by default “smarter” or “wiser” because they’re older? I think serious educators everywhere cannot help but chuckle at the idea, it is so absurd. Children are developing human beings, yes, neuroplastic and constantly changing, but they are human beings nevertheless, and I believe it is as sovereign a right to use any tool at hand to learn as it is to access unfettered resources using that tool.

Do I believe that all children have as full an understanding of their own learning modalities and brain functions as compared to a career professional well versed in the subject? No, certainly not, not the least of which is because I don’t “believe” that “All Children” are or do any one thing. But I do think that I owe it to the child to give them the benefit of the doubt to do what they need to do.

How do I know if they need help? Good assessment, of course. But creating sound assessment methods is not the same as “Johnny put that away” and “Sally close your laptop.” The latter is making a massive assumption about what that individual child needs at that individual moment.

If the child has mastery, it should not – and indeed, I purport that it does not – matter if the child did everything with a pencil and paper or with a smartphone or with a tablet or a computer or an abacus or a barrel of monkeys.

I refuse to presuppose the homogeneity of children’s minds and I have no desire to restrict them from using anything and everything they can to learn. I love them too much to do that to them.

Praxis in Practice: Trust But Verify

With the ubiquity of technology, we educational technologists have learned that monitoring everything every kid does all the time is not only impractical, it’s also unnecessary. You don’t need to know that every single kid is doing the same thing in class, because that doesn’t matter for learning. What matters for learning is what matters for that child’s learning. Consequently, don’t worry about it if a kid is what in the old days one might call “off task.” Instead, focus on meeting the individual needs of every child, as much as you can and with every resource you have, all the time. Then, ensure that the assessment mechanism demonstrates very clearly to all parties involved exactly what skill mastery the child has and in what way. This isn’t a “gotcha;” it’s allowing for all ways of learning and doing – true ontological and pedagogical liberty – while ensuring skill mastery, which is our charge. Trust the kids to do what they need to do, but verify that they’ve done it through effective omnimodal assessment.

Omnimodal assessment allows for any valid skill mastery. (I write about this in my upcoming book, Insurrection.) If a child can satisfactorily demonstrate that the kid has the skill at hand, it really doesn’t matter what the kid is doing while you’re lecturing. The fact of the matter is that even if we accept the most grossly-oversimplified descriptions of neurodiversity – like VAK learning styles – we can roughly estimate that if you’re lecturing, about half of your class (Kinesthestics and hybrids that are non-Auditory) aren’t getting diddly squat out of what you’re doing. Forcing students to conform to your teaching style or thinking modality is damaging to those learners. (Jung described this as the “falsification of type.”) Consequently, who cares if a kid isn’t doing what you would be or want them to be doing, so long a they’re doing what they need to be doing?

This is my focus for my staff, and for my professional speaking and professional development, this fall: Shifting from “how I teach” to “how they learn.”

While the public school has certain legal requirements, those requirements are actually really simple: prevent kids from accessing “obscene” (under Miller) pornographic, or “harmful” (under the Neighborhood Act) content. Tracking what kids are doing online is not an explicit requirement of the Children’s Internet Protection Act. So disenthrall yourself from “pay attention” and “do what you’re supposed to do,” and instead shift to “do what you need to do to learn,” and use effective assessment to determine what works and what doesn’t.

If a kid isn’t learning, what can you do to help that child change xyr behavior and strategy to do so? That, my friends, is progressive pedagogy.