A new vision of 21st century education

Rethinking education for the 21st century means challenging the corporatist values and practices that are increasingly dominating schooling, especially the elitist schools that boast of being among the finest educational institutions in the world. These schools typically focus on desired student learning outcomes that emphasize skills and commitments to work effectively and efficiently, collaborate meaningfully and supportively on teams, develop the necessary technical skills and strategies to solve problems (without ever addressing problems that might challenge the status quo, of course) and produce exemplary work, act responsibly and in a supportive manner, etc. all to create students who can compete successfully in a corporatized culture. At first appearance, and if treated unproblematically, who could argue with these skills and commitments?

The problem lies more with the Toyota-production style of schooling that views itself as a high performing, team-oriented learning organization run by progressive experts and new collar leaders touting the latest ‘innovations’ in education (usually conveniently and attractively packaged by major tech and textbook corporations or leading educational entrepreneurs who have been able to corner the market). In turn, the corporate-administrative interests work together to prepare students for roles and responsibilities in corporate and bureaucratic structures through the necessary administrative ordering, rational design, and the extensive and continual prescriptions (reforms) they call for. These are efforts by corporate, state, and administrative ‘experts’ to implement best practices and technocratic solutions in the interests of those below (whether they are teachers, students, or local communities).

These approaches create a hidden curriculum that standardizes in the name of high standards and accountability, allows or encourages corporate influence (“We’re a Google school!”), creates a climate of fear by pruning teachers that don’t ‘fit,’ sweeps aside opposing or alternative views that might challenge those above or frustrate prevailing prescriptions, values the work and knowledge of ‘experts’ over those closest to the work, continues to sort students for the workforce, and lets everyone know they are being inspected and assessed at every turn.

Anyway, I’ve railed at these developments in prior posts so let’s set up alternatives that might move us toward considering a new vision for 21st century education:

The Old 21st      Century Education The New 21st   Century Education
Standards &   accountability -Set by states, distant   organizations (politicians, business community, academics, etc.)

-Standardization (‘everybody on same page at same time’)

-Inspection, monitoring,   surveillance to ensure compliance & accountability

-Set by those closest to the work(communities, teachers, students) through  deliberation

-Variation, diversity,   experimentation encouraged

-Local accountability; voluntary   controls enforced through ongoing deliberation among stakeholders

School climate -Fear (high-stakes,   surveillance)

-Closed; Centralized, Hierarchical, Top-down

-High/intense   competition; ‘winners & losers’; particular capacities valued &   developed

-Corporatist,   administrative

-Exclusive, pruning, sorting   according to narrow range of values

-Trust & respect; community

-Open;  Relational; Decision-making   distributed widely

-Mutuality; all treated as having equal worth; focus on developing wide   range of capacities

-Communal, local,   democratic

-Inclusive, pluralist;   multiple capacities, interests, values

Knowledge -Technocratic-Outside expertise’ &   ‘universal’ standards valued-Best practice &   interventions set by those at top or ‘experts’ -Practical-Logic of daily practice, knowledge of contexts valued-Creativity, initiative,   experimentation, innovation from below valued/supported

I could go on, but this ‘new’ view of 21st century education values and enacts variation over standardization, greater local teacher control, respect for the practical knowledge of teachers over that of educational experts, and on-the ground initiatives and innovations rather than the interventions and prescriptions called for from above. As James Scott notes, this requires a new form of “planning that encourages novel initiatives and contingencies, foreclosing as few options as possible, and that fosters the circulation and contact out of which such initiatives arise.” It restores teacher autonomy, values the judgment of teachers over administrators, and gives responsibility back to individuals and communities to determine the kinds of educational futures they need in the 21st century.

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What is to be done?

As I wrote in the last post, neoliberal market values, modernist assumptions, and government efforts to rationalize, standardize, measure, and control educational practice in the name of accountability significantly limit the ways we view and engage in educational practice at all levels. These underlying values and assumptions have resulted in regimes of accountability, testing, and control over what goes on in classrooms being removed from those closest to the educational process (local communities, teachers, students). The agendas, values, and interests of politicians, business leaders, educational administrators, and bureaucrats have taken precedence over the interests of educators and local communities in determining what is learned, how it is learned, and how it is assessed. It is anti-democratic and ultimately weakens local initiative, self-reliance, and community.

Much of the rhetoric about 21st century education, skills, and classrooms continues to serve narrow instrumental purposes to support economic productivity and growth, business interests, and further corporate and market intrusion into education. An example of this is offered in a recent Rethinking Schools article on the ways EdTPA teacher assessment system by Pearson, Inc. has entered into teacher education. There are other examples (also see this article by Joanne Barkan in Dissent or this article by Kristin Brennan in Sojourners).

The question is what is to be done. What alternatives are there?

As Grace Lee Boggs (1998) notes in Living for Change, “All over the world today we are obviously living in that in-between period of historical time when great numbers of people are aware that they cannot continue in the same old way but are immobilized because they cannot imagine an alternative.” More and more people are realizing that systems we have in place are no longer working and in fact are causing the problems we face. However, Boggs sees this as an opportunity to look at ourselves and reorder our priorities. Boggs envisions possibilities for new forms of grassroots politics in which new ways of thinking and relating to each other can be created in local struggles and actions. She believes that “the struggle to rebuild and control our communities is the wave of the future,” and argues that developing local strategies will transform human consciousness and people’s sense of political and social responsibility.

We need examples of alternatives, where we see local communities and teachers and students resisting corporate and state influence to determine and develop their own forms of education. We need to help each other imagine and create alternative futures. As Boggs notes, this requires people of widely differing views and backgrounds coming together around a vision. This vision must emerge from the ground up, from people doing things for themselves.

Like Boggs, I think this means reordering our priorities or creating new sets of values (or re-establishing older traditions and values) that enable people to develop their own creative potential and the social good. We need 21st century values to undergird 21st century education. In our book, James and I call for practices of relational cosmopolitanism in schools, grounded in a feminist ethics of care, concern, and connection as well as commitments to public deliberation in what Martha Nussbaum (1997) calls “communities of reason.” This is an ethic or set of values based on new relationships to the planet, to each other, to work, to community.

Pankaj Mishra, in his excellent book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, highlights the role of several Asian intellectuals (e.g., Tagore, Liang Qichao, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani) who saw Western-style politics, science, culture, and economics as unhealthily obsessed with material and technological progress and inherently violent and destructive to Asian cultures. This view of the destructiveness of Western modernity is aptly summed up by Mishra’s citation of Zhang Junmai:

The fundamental principles upon which our nation is founded are quietism, as opposed to [Western] activism; spiritual satisfaction, as opposed to the striving for material advantage; a self-sufficient agrarianism, as opposed to profit-seeking mercantilism; and a morally transforming sense of brotherhood rather than racial segregation…

Mishra notes these intellectuals dealt with the existential and cultural threat posed by Western imperialism by re-asserting and applying their own traditions and values to determine what to accept and what to reject from the West. Mishra highlights how these intellectuals responded to the West and we have much to learn from these examples.

We need to consider what values can similarly help us respond to, resist, and reject those forces that are threatening communities everywhere as well as the global community. I also had the opportunity to read Christopher Lasch’s last book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, on the plane ride from the US back to Singapore. Lasch similarly sees the need to re-establish populist civic virtues that emphasize:

  • High standards of personal conduct (e.g., moral courage, honesty, mutual respect and trust, decency, responsibility, workmanship, sobriety, self-improvement);
  • The moral condemnation of excessive wealth, greed, unlimited accumulation, and extreme luxury;
  • Self-criticism and the discipline against self-righteousness;
  • Self-reliance (large-scale production, consumerism, and corporatization and centralization weaken self-reliance and local initiative);
  • Equality and egalitarianism as moral imperatives.

For Lasch,

A public philosophy for the 21st century will have to give more weight to the community than to the right of private decision. It will have to emphasize responsibilities rather than rights. It will have to find a better expression of the community than the welfare state. It will have to limit the scope of the market and the power of corporations without replacing them with a centralized bureaucracy.

Both Lasch and Boggs see the virtues essential to civic life (loyalty, trust, accountability, responsibility, etc.) as best developed in local communities where we are encouraged to make something of ourselves while being willing to impose difficult demands on ourselves and each other (to live satisfying lives). It is in communities that we learn to appreciate the satisfaction that is gained by service to ideals and to others. These communities enable more direct say in setting standards, setting necessary limits, and holding each other accountable in ways that benefit the public good.

In the 21st century we need to rethink and revise our values for the challenges we face. We must do this together, through deliberation in our communities. It is not enough to solely focus on so-called 21st century skills without considering the values that will guide how we want to live our lives, make life on earth sustainable, make moral and spiritual progress, and live according to a sense of justice. We need 21st century standards for justice, truth, mutual respect, community, and the common good. As Alasdair Macintyre notes, moral rules and values have to be understood in new ways in new contexts, with new forms of status, authority, and justification. This is what is really needed for education in the 21st century.

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Old Wine in New Bottles?

James and I recently presented at a conference where 21st century education guru Tony Wagner was one of the keynote speakers. Wagner talks about the need to transform education for the 21st century and highlights seven survival skills schools should be teaching to prepare students for the 21st century:

  • Critical thinking and problems solving
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurship
  • Effective and oral communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination

These are obviously important skills but notice on Wagner’s website that they are “as defined by business leaders.” While I think Wagner’s prescriptions for schools and educators go a long way toward potentially transforming schools, my problem is that much of the rhetoric about 21st century education, 21st century skills, and 21st century classrooms has narrow instrumental purposes to support economic productivity, growth, and competitiveness, business interests, and further corporate and market intrusion into schooling, teaching, and learning. Much of it comes wrapped in the latest forms of technologies attractively packaged (and heavily marketed) for schools, promising a techno-panacea for classrooms and engaged learning. As Justin Reich has noted, many new educational innovations touted as promoting 21st century education “are taking some very old, and in some cases some very tired, ideas in education and putting them in shiny new form factors.”

It makes me wonder in what ways this call is similar to (and different from) calls in the early 1900’s for schools to develop human capital for the new industrial order (to educate an industrious, obedient, and stratified workforce) in the US and elsewhere and the developmental skills formation model in recently developed countries (like Singapore) that emphasizes human capital development for economic growth, with strong state control of educational practice and high stakes standards and assessment. Of course, there’s a large body of scholarly work that has highlighted the persistent conservative, reproductive, instrumental, and ideologically-laden nature of schooling in both its Fordist (industrial) and Post-Fordist (the more recent post-industrial, neo-liberal)  phases. Is there any reason to be surprised that much of the rhetoric for 21st century education comes from the business community hoping to improve the labor force, spur economic productivity, cultivate consumption habits, and increase profit?

Unfortunately, these calls do not go far enough in outlining the kinds of education we need for the 21st century. We don’t need collaboration, adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurship, slick communication skills, and problem solving that further perpetuate systems of economic exploitation (of the natural environment or human labor), dominance and destruction (patriarchal, corporate, militaristic, etc.), mind-numbing entertainment, hucksterism, and misinformation (through various forms of media), or the logic of the market and consumerism that threaten all other values. Some of the best and brightest (i.e., our most entrepreneurial, creative, agile, skilled, etc.) participate in and perpetuate the logics and systems that have created or caused what Martin (2007) calls the mega-problems of the 21st century: global warming, excessive population growth, water shortages, destruction of life in the oceans, mass famine, the spread of deserts, pandemics, extreme poverty, growth of shanty cities, unstoppable global migrations, state and non-state actors with extreme weapons, violent religious extremism, runaway computer intelligence, and cataclysmic war. As James Gee suggests in his recent book, we are an incredibly stupid smart species with tremendous capacity for using our intelligence in ways that are dumb, destructive, and dangerous.

The problem is that these calls continue to be based on assumptions about schooling that are part of the modernist project to intervene, rationalize, standardize, measure, and tame, control, and shape people all in the name of supposed progress and perpetual improvement. Experts, designed interventions, bureaucratic surveillance and regulation, and accountability measures all do their part to ensure proper outcomes are being met. Instead, these measures also tend to promote apathy, withdrawal, lack of spontaneity and, according to James Scott (1998), “diminish the skills, agility, initiative, and morale of their intended beneficiaries.” And much of this seems to come from an education model based on the assumptions and practices of business and political elites.

Sir Ken Robinson’s popular video on changing education paradigms gets at this. The current system of education was designed, conceived, and structured in the intellectual climate of the Enlightenment and the economic context of the Industrial Revolution, both of which emphasized and privileged rationalization (classifying, categorizing, sorting, etc.), standardized mass production, hyper-competition and consumption, the ideal of economic growth and material progress, hierarchical organization, and the supervision, monitoring and regulation of populations (whether in the factory, the prison, the asylum, or school). Robinson argues that the particular assumptions and practices that developed during this period are outmoded for the 21st century. He believes that while this industrial/factory model of education has benefited some, it has caused chaos in many people’s lives. It has led to stupefaction, conformity, standardized curriculum and testing, and a stunted view of teaching and learning. And it is not preparing many people for the 21st century, let alone giving them any stake in determining the kinds of societies or futures they wish to inhabit.

So, what is to be done? This will be the next posting.

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Is It Real?

In an age of doctored photos and videos, it’s a wonder we trust any visual image. Yet, we continue to place great trust in photos as representations of reality. Like eyewitness accounts, videos and photos seem to claim a direct connection to events that happened in real life. We often don’t question the purposes or contexts of photos, such as whether images have been taken out of context and rearranged to produce a different version of reality.

A recent photo of supposed flames coming out of manhole covers on an Omaha, Nebraska street taken after an underground fire cut power in part of the city raised a stir about the photo’s authenticity.

Omaha Manhole Fire Photo

Omaha Manhole Fire Photo

David Carr, in the New York Times (The Media Equation, “Logging off to trace a web photo to its source”) profiled how this photo flooded the web as it was tweeted and re-tweeted, forwarded via email, posted on Facebook and Reddit, blogged, and debated online. As Carr noted there was no name on the image or any text that indicated its origin. He highlights the great lengths that were taken by an Omaha journalist to investigate the photo and uncover that the photo was real but had been taken out of context. The supposed flames in the photo were actually reflections of the street’s lights.

This lack of attribution, the potential to doctor any photo, and the difficulty of tracing the contexts of any particular photo seems to be especially problematic in the digital age. However, as Errol Morris reminds us, “The alteration of photos for propaganda purposes has been with us as long as photography itself; it is not an invention of the digital age.” An excellent collection of photo tampering throughout history can be found at http://www.fourandsix.com/photo-tampering-history/ and TIME’s “Top 10 doctored photos” highlight how photographers have been manipulating images since photography was invented. In Morris’ book, Believing is Seeing, he calls for thinking about whether subjects are posing, to question the intentions of the photographer, and to reconsider the nature of photographic evidence and its relationship to reality.

This work seems even more necessary in the digital age as the ability to doctor or tamper with photos has been “democratized” with easy access to media tools. The digital age also makes it much easier to disseminate doctored images as they can quickly go viral online. This seems to require much more vigilance on the part of viewers. It calls for us to be much more careful and critical consumers of images no matter where they might be found. It requires that we source the photo to find out when, where, by whom, and for what purposes it was taken, read within the photo’s frame to fully analyze the contents of the photo, while also reading outside the frame to fully consider the contexts of its production, dissemination, and reception. The issues related to discerning whether photos are authentic and understanding the range of contexts necessary to fully understand a particular photo requires an understanding of the codes and conventions of visual images.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to adopt a skeptical stance toward all visual images. Slate magazine offers an excellent article titled, “Don’t believe what you see in the papers: The untrustworthiness of news photography,” that is worth a read. The article suggests,

Perhaps, instead, we should judge a news photograph as a collection of purported facts about the world that is accurate if its claims are true and inaccurate if they’re not. But photographers make editorial decisions all the time: where to point the camera, of course, but also how to frame the shot, whether to crop and if so what, how long a shutter speed to use; and all of these can affect the facts a picture presents, without falsifying the image.

So, we need to “check the facts” of any photo we encounter. This can be challenging, as David Carr’s article suggests, but we do need to keep in mind the idea that photos make claims about the world and are the result of decisions made by photographers, subjects, and a host of others involved, and are always susceptible to tampering. Having this in mind means immediately and actively asking certain questions about photos, rather than quickly accept them as “truth.” Avner Segall offers a range of questions that can be used to interrogate representation, the gaze, absences, authority, and intertextuality that can be applied to photos. Modified for reading photographic images, these questions might include:

  • When, where, and why was the photo created?
  • What is the photo purporting to depict?
  • What did the photographer want viewers to understand, believe, or value through this depiction?
  • What contexts may have shaped the taking of this photo? Would there be any particular reason for taking this photo or doctoring it in some way?
  • What gaze or perspective is implied in this text (e.g., ethnocentric; patriarchal; stereotypical; paternalistic; dismissive; romanticized; nationalistic, etc.)?
  • Would those represented in this photo embrace this representation?
  • What is (or whose perspectives are) missing? What may account for these omissions and whose interests may be served by these omissions?
  • What photographic techniques (framing, angles, perspective, location of subjects, etc.) are used to persuade the viewer to accept a particular representation?
  • In what ways is one’s reading of the photo influenced by its particular intertextuality (it’s relationship to other texts)?

Critically reading photos as we would other texts our sources of information is increasingly necessary in the digital age. The Slate article concludes by saying that perhaps “Someday we will approach each photograph we look at with the condign skepticism we bring to each story we read. In the meantime, these useful scandals remind us that we’re complacent and credulous, and that photography is rife with paradoxes, which can’t be solved with hand-waving and apologies.”

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Guest Post by Brady Baildon: Dealing with the Tsunami of Information

In light of recent major news events, it is evident that we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift in how news is both reported and received. In her recent New York Times article, Maureen Dowd describes how we seem to be moving away from the traditional methods of reporting and viewing information (via the evening news and newspapers) and more towards new, electronic means of sending and receiving information (via Twitter, Facebook, texting, etc.). Dowd interviews James Gleick, an author who has been at the forefront of the technological boom, and he describes the distinction between actual news reporting and the instantaneous, furious, and frantic quantities of information that fly through cyber space through mediums like twitter and text messages. According to Dowd and Gleick, actual news reporting requires time to sort through, digest, and interpret sources and information, while Twitter and Internet news is “messy, pointillist, noisy, and often wrong.”

In our age, we seem to favor speed and instant access to information over thoughtfulness and reliability. Maureen Dowd makes an excellent point: if you think back to the Boston Marathon bombing hysteria, did you wait to watch the evening news or wait to read about the events in the newspaper the next day to get your information on the events that transpired? Or were you among the masses that turned to Twitter and online breaking news updates to satisfy your cravings for instant information? I know that, as events unfolded, I continuously refreshed my Twitter timeline and scanned the CNN breaking news ticker in search of any new updates or details.

Along with this immediate access to information, we are also exposed to false reports, fake stories, and inaccuracies. Sometimes, as news and information pours in, we have a hard time keeping everything straight and may blindly believe false stories or fake information without taking the time to actually think about what we are reading, watching, or listening to (i.e. fake Boston Marathon bomber Twitter accounts, fake Boston Marathon charity organizations asking for donations, etc.). What we need to keep in mind, before getting caught up in a whirlwind of tweets, texts, and breaking news updates, is that we must view and digest this information through a critical lens. Although it may be overwhelming, we cannot throw critical thinking out the window when all of this information is flying at us and quickly piling up at our feet. If we want to rely on tweets, texts, and status updates to keep us informed we must ask ourselves some basic questions that are fundamental to critical thinking and evaluating sources. We must ask: where is this information coming from? How was this information acquired? Is this information reliable? Are there any other sources or additional information that supports or confirms this information?

We cannot blindly accept every firsthand account or every piece of information that shows up on our phone and laptop screens; we must check other sources for corroborating information, ask questions, and critically evaluate the information we are presented. If traditional methods of reporting news are going by the wayside, then the responsibility falls on us to act as a journalist or an evening news correspondent and sift through information to make sense of it in a careful, critical, and thoughtful manner.

Quotes I liked from the article:

“‘There’s no perfect trust in cyberspace,” Jim said. “There are not only millions of voices, but millions of masks. You don’t know who’s who.’”

“I was taken with a piece he wrote this week for New York magazine about how the Boston Marathon bombings exposed a new phase in our experience of what David Foster Wallace called Total Noise: “the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective.’”

“Everybody’s talking at once in a hypnotic, hyper din: the cocktail party from hell.”

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On Being Reflexive Readers and Thinkers

We all are biased. To make matters worse, we are largely unaware of our biases and the ways our prior attitudes and beliefs shape our reasoning. The political psychologists, Charles Taber and Milton Lodge, call this motivated reasoning. It means our thinking is guided by our purposes or goals – we try to confirm what we already believe. In other words, we are highly motivated to defend our prior, existing beliefs. These selective attention, exposure, and judgment processes powerfully influence how and what we think.

Several recent books also highlight the range of biases that often guide our thinking. Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, demonstrates how we typically rely on our fast thinking, which is more intuitive and emotional. It results in snap judgments that are typically based on stereotypes and biases. And this is true for even the most expert thinkers among us. As Kahneman notes, we tend to see patterns and causation in randomness; we “see the world as more tidy, simple, predictable, and coherent than it really is” (p. 204). For Kahneman, we don’t pay enough attention to the reliability and accuracy of information and end up with a much simpler view of the world than the data or information we have justifies.

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his book titled The Righteous Mind, makes a similar case. Haidt argues that our intuitions come first and strategic reasoning comes later. According to Haidt, intuition and “groupish righteousness” tend to drive our reasoning and make us blind to our own biases. This is exemplified by the political polarization we see in American culture.

Michael Shermer’s 2011 book, The Believing Brain, also highlights the different ways we form beliefs and then rationalize, justify, and defend them by seeking confirmatory facts and explanations that support them. Among other biases, Shermer outlines the following powerful tendencies in our thinking:

  1. Patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in even meaningless data;
  2. Agenticity: the tendency to infuse random occurrences or complex multi-causal events with human intention and agency;
  3. Confirmation bias: the tendency to seek and find confirmatory evidence to support already existing beliefs;
  4. Hindsight bias: the tendency to make the past fit with our present knowledge.

We might add to this list disconfirmation bias, which means we are quick to criticize, denigrate, and reject ideas that run counter to our existing beliefs.

As these authors note, we have a low tolerance for ambiguity; skepticism and critical thinking is difficult work. Slower, more deliberative, and careful thinking that might check or counter bias is difficult for most of us.

However, the political scientist James Druckman offers some hope for good thinking. He draws on the work of Houston and Fazio (1989) to note that bias can be countered when people are directed to focus on the nature of the judgmental process. This work suggests that motivated reasoning and bias may be reduced when people reflect on their reasoning processes. Druckman argues that the motivation to be accurate can help people more consciously process information in more even-handed ways. Talking about the role of unbiased and critical thinking in democracies, Druckman argues that “citizens should aim to process information consciously and to consider multiple perspectives… In sum, the motivation to be accurate serves as a realistic and flexible standard by which one can evaluate democratic competence.

As educators, it is our responsibility to motivate and guide students to be accurate in their reasoning. We can do so by providing them with clear standards for accurate thinking and by teaching them to use processes of careful and critical reasoning through explicit instruction, modeling, and the use of key questions and procedures to guide their thinking.  We also need to help students become more aware of their biases and tendencies by teaching reflective thinking processes.

In our work, for example, we have proposed reader reflexivity questions to help readers focus on the beliefs, biases, values, and emotions they may bring to particular texts. These guiding questions include:

  • What prior knowledge, personal experiences, and other texts help me make sense of this text?
  • What affects the way I read this text (e.g., prior experiences and learning; my values, opinions, emotions; my background and culture)?
  • What additional thoughts or questions do I have about the text? What additional information is necessary to help me understand the text?
  • How might people from different backgrounds and with different experiences read this text (e.g., from different ethnic, cultural, national, age, gender, political perspectives)?

As students get in the practice of asking these questions they might become more aware of their own thinking and the ways their beliefs and biases shape how they engage with different texts. These questions ask students to slow down and check their thinking, to become more aware of how their own attitudes and beliefs might affect the ways they read and think about new information. Undoubtedly, it will take a lot of guidance and practice to help students become more reflective, and careful, thinkers.

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Elevation

In our book, Social Studies as New Literacies in a Global Society, we introduced two metaphors – excavation and elevation – that we thought were useful for using inquiry in classrooms. When working with information sources or texts of any kind, excavation includes getting students to “dig in” to do careful analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of source content while elevation points to the need for students to consider the broader contexts of the source’s production, dissemination, and consumption.Book image

Elevation helps us see things in relationship to their contexts. As we noted in our earlier post, the contexts of living in the 21st century require that we learn to manage increasing complexity, including complex information sources. We need to be able to understand the circumstances, settings, and conditions that give rise to any particular event, issue, idea, or information source. In terms of education, we need to fully consider what new political, social, economic, and cultural contexts require of us as citizens, workers, teachers, and learners. An elevated view can help us see and better understand the relationships between education and these contexts.

Understanding context, then, is an important aspect of elevation. The Latin root contextus means to join or weave together and it is this connecting of something to the conditions or circumstances that gave rise to it, formed it, or influenced it in certain ways that is important to fully understand whatever it is we are trying to understand. For example, to understand this single photograph of a 22-year old mother and her son living in transitional housing from the New York Times’ The Year in Pictures, requires us to know what was happening “outside” of the photo’s frame by knowing the context in which it was taken – who took it and for what purposes, who the intended audience was, and why it was included in the New York Times’ year in pictures. Connecting or joining together this photograph with why it was taken, how it was used, how and why the subjects in the photo were portrayed in this way are all important to understanding the photograph as a source of information.

Elevation also helps us consider the broader contexts necessary to understand this photograph as an information source. It is important to know something about the economic, social, and political contexts that have resulted in 1.6 million homeless children in the United States. For example, The National Center on Family Homelessness notes that child homelessness increased by 38% during the recession from 2007 to 2010 and that state and national governments have lacked the political will to develop policies that might support these vulnerable children. It requires knowing something about the causes, conditions, and effects of homelessness on young people to fully comprehend this source.

There are other examples that help us consider the role of an elevated view to understand sources of information. In David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works, his insight about creativity is that “context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed.” He goes on to say, “Genius – the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work – seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its contexts. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.” This notion of creativity, as well as its reception, as contextually-driven highlights the importance of an elevated view to understand the range of sources we encounter.

Of course, historians have always sought to contextualize people, events, issues, and sources in particular time periods and social, economic, political, and geographic contexts. Journalists as well try to provide background that helps readers understand what they are reporting. A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis in their New York Times article “Movies in the Obama Age” provide an excellent example of elevation. Their review highlights the connections between popular movies and the political climate in the United States during the Obama presidency. Their thematic guide notes an emphasis on portrayals of leadership and community organizing (e.g., Lincoln, Toy Story 3, The Avengers), the recession (e.g., Arbitrage, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Inside Job, Les Miserables), and even the fear of apocalypse and real-world disaster (e.g., The Book of Eli, Contagion, Cloud Atlas).

This weaving together of movies as information sources with broader political, economic, and social contexts is the kind of elevated view that helps us understand these sources individually as well as together in the ways they might be understood historically. To help young people make sense of the world around them, we need to help them see relationships between what they are studying and other texts, events, issues, people, and contexts that can give them a more complete view. It is an education of relationship and connection to deepen and broaden understanding.

This is difficult work for students, but as educators we can help them learn to make connections. Facing History and Ourselves offers an excellent strategy for helping students make connections between a particular text or source of information they are working with and themselves, other texts, and the world. This “text to self; text to text; text to world” strategy provides a range of prompts that can help students make connection and more meaningfully build knowledge by weaving together what they already know with other information and the world.

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