The simpler things seem, the more complicated they become

The single best machine to measure trust is a human being. We haven’t figured out a metric that works better than our own sort of, like, ‘There’s something fishy about you’.
– Simon Sinek

The dehumanizing I referenced yesterday at the conclusion of my blog is a commonplace in modern society. Its most recognizable manifestation is heard in the common complaint that we are, as individuals, too often treated as numbers or that the system (whatever system you might choose as an example) doesn’t deal with us personally. In the latter instance, all you need recall is the last time you phoned any organization and were treated to a variety of voice prompts that may have, if you persisted long enough, led finally to a live responder. Increasingly, though, as the technology advances, it is entirely possible to conduct your business without ever actually conversing with anyone. I suspect we don’t take much time thinking about the pros and cons of such a system, other than to complain, perhaps, about how annoying it is. But then, why should we? Irritating sometimes? Yes. Reason for a crusade against automation? Hardly.

I mention this, however, as an example of how we have come to accept technology as a complement to virtually every activity we undertake as human beings. I received a Fitbit for Christmas so now I can monitor my physical activity. I can know how many steps I walked, how “active” I was (beyond simply walking), check my sleep patterns, link to other apps, and monitor food intake and calories consumed. I’m sure it does other things of which I am unaware.

Some thirty-five years or so ago, I remember having moved in the middle of a strike by some union or other from the phone company. I ended up without a phone for the better part of six months. If anyone wanted to contact me, or me them, a real effort had to be made. I actually enjoyed the sense of freedom that seemed to be a consequence of being so “offline” if you will.

These days, I am very familiar with cellphone anxiety (if it isn’t a recognized condition, give it a while). It can strike me when I’ve gone out, regardless of the reason, and forgotten my phone at home. I’ve seen it at work in others on any number of occasions. If anxiety is related in any way to frequency of use, then young people are in greatest danger of infection. Who has not been privy to a room full of teens and twenties where virtually everyone is, in some way, attached to his/her phone, even if involved in conversation or some other activity?

I no longer need to use a key in my car; if I want to watch a show, I have any number of avenues that will allow me to watch it whenever I feel like it; if I’m traveling, a physical map – if I even have one – is there exclusively as a back-up to my GPS; I don’t have to remember an appointment – I simply enter it in my phone and make sure I set an alert. Add anything that occurs to you – by way of technological innovation – that has significantly changed the way you live your life.

While much discussion could be had over the positive or negative elements of all, or any one, of these changes, whatever they might be, I am more interested in what I believe is the “meta-message” (to coin a term) that arises from the growing predominance of technological advance in public consciousness over the last fifty years or so. While naysayers exist, the dominant conclusion that is trumpeted again and again – whether through news outlets, corporate entities, governments, individuals or some other means – is that technology is GOOD.

And I’m not suggesting for a moment that it is bad. What concerns me, however, is the application of that meta-message, “technology is good”, to areas where it should be viewed somewhat more critically. From the outset, I have wanted to use this blog to argue for the realization/recognition that few things are simple. By making so many of the commonplace features of daily activity “simple”, “simple” has a tendency to become a value in itself. Technology, in its application, aims to simplify tasks, to lessen the need for human activity or thought. No need to remember a phone number: put it in your phone. Televisions without a remote control? I’m not sure if you even CAN change a channel on a TV these days without one.

If technology can provide increasingly successful simplification of onerous tasks, it becomes all the more likely that we, as a society, would accept the idea that technology can be employed to “improve” pretty much anything. Our acceptance of that notion is all the more understandable when just such a claim is made by the “experts”, regardless of the field in which they are working. The result of this process is the “techno-faith” I’ve tried to outline in earlier blogs.

And this is where “techno-faith” and education collide. When we use our cellphones, we rarely stop to ponder – if we ever do – how they work. They work and such is the nature of modernity. If we think about it for even a moment, though, I’m sure we can summon at least a smidgen of awe over what it is we are able to do. From virtually anywhere in the world, I can be in contact with anyone else who has a phone on him/her (providing I have the number) no matter where he/she is in the world. The people who design such things understand how it all works, but we don’t have to bother ourselves with such matters.

When it is an object such as a phone that we are concerned with, our faith in the technologists and the developed technology seems justified. Today’s phones are better than those from even 2 or 3 years ago (maybe even 6 months ago). But what happens in schools if an idea takes root that we can treat children in the same manner as any other “thing” that we would hope to make “better”? In the peculiar doublethink of modern educational theory, we talk about embracing diversity even as we strive to develop “tools” (the system’s word, not mine) that – should the technology of delivery/instruction be perfected – will lead to near-uniform “outcomes.”

The “experts” in education want you to have the same faith in the system they say they are building (fixing, tweaking, creating, modifying, reforming – choose your participle) that we are asked to have in Apple as it releases its latest iPhone. In this instance, Apple alone has credibility.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said it best . . .

Every reform, however necessary, will by weak minds be carried to an excess, that itself will need reforming.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge

educational reform
To this point, I’ve tried to avoid education as a topic on this blog, primarily because of my fear that if I start, I’ll consign myself to it exclusively. That being said, I cannot deny the role that education has played in so many facets of my life. Professionally, I spent 28 years teaching English language and literature at three high schools in southern New Brunswick. I became involved in provincial politics out of a desire to potentially influence educational policy. While I do not feel I made much progress in that regard, I do believe the experience helped me to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of the dilemma facing education in New Brunswick and elsewhere. More on that later.

If teaching was a vocation, then my own education has long been a parallel avocation although, connotatively, that might suggest something of lesser importance. Perhaps a better way to put it would be, simply, that education – and the growth inherent in its pursuit, regardless of the form that pursuit might take – has been my passion, professionally and personally, in one way or another for most of my life.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. I grew up with an aunt and a grandmother who always had something on the go, my grandmother having read all of Dickens (she would tell me) when she was young, even though she had only attended school to the end of grade 8. And it’s not that the reading material around me was exclusively highbrow or especially intellectual; it was simply that reading was as much a part of the fabric of everyday as eating and sleeping. It’s what people DID.

Certain books had to be read on the sly. I still remember being in my bedroom, underneath the sheets with a flashlight, reading The Exorcist. I couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 at the time and, strict Catholic household that mine was, a book on such a subject would not have been tolerated. All I really remember is that the novel managed to “creep me out” as they say. Realistically, I can’t even offer an opinion of its quality. All I know is that I felt compelled to read it and it doesn’t haunt me today so it couldn’t have been all bad. I suspect it falls quite nicely into that category of reading I continue to pursue even now: books that I read and forget for the most part within a few days or a week of reading them. I’m a firm believer in the value of both books and visual media that serve as diversion. My grade 8 and 9 English teacher, Miss Petersen, if she could hear me saying such a thing, would be delivering her most severe “tut-tut” I’m sure. Anyone who had her might remember her admonition: “Don’t read good books – life is too short for that; read only the best”.

ed reform idol
While I appreciate the sentiment, I’m afraid Miss Petersen and I will have to agree to disagree on this one. While I’ve been diverting myself through the years, I’ve also been reading more than my fair share of serious literature as well as any number of volumes on virtually any subject that happens to grab my attention. I think of myself as persistently curious: just about anything can pique my interest every once in a while. Beyond literature, I’ve had an abiding interest in history, biography, physics, politics, theology, and art, especially, but I’m liable to wander into anything given the right circumstances.

Why this reminiscence, you might ask. I offer myself as a product of a system of education that has fallen into serious disrepute over the last few decades. For that matter, I offer an entire generation of my age, as well as generations older than mine as examples of what the supposedly disreputable system of education from times past managed to achieve. However much the dominance of personal technological innovation has intruded on modern life within the last twenty years, the foundations for that advance were laid by those raised in an educational system currently and persistently under attack. Strange, isn’t it, that within educational circles, the very notion of wisdom accumulated from experience is virtually absent? “Enduring” has become virtually synonymous with antiquated and the lone defensible hallmark of all that is good is “change”.

Almost from the onset of my career in teaching, the clarion call has been for reform of a system that is repeatedly characterized as rigid, “teacher-centred” as opposed to “child-centred”, archaic and out of touch with the modern world, and increasingly irrelevant. In an effort to counter these purported failings, I have watched our school system be subjected to a litany of reforms almost universally disparaged by anyone immediately involved in the day-to-day work of actually teaching young people in a classroom. The defenders and promoters of reform have been (and continue to be), for the most part, individuals who long ago left classrooms behind (if they ever practiced in one at all) for the world of educational theory, wherever you might find it, whether in the university; the School District, Dept of Education or corporate boardroom; or the halls of educational “policy”, wherever you might find such policy formulated.

education apple
My contention (and I’m really only following in the footsteps of others who have said the same before me) is that most current reforms are the product of what might best be called “junk” science, a science that is given whatever credence it has by virtue of its ability to confirm a predominant ideology. Sadly, the change that is being pursued, regardless of the current manifestation (“current” because change in education is a constant, a statement that should strike you as inherently paradoxical), is universally directed by someone’s idea of what a “good outcome” would be, both for the individual and the for the system at large. Modern educational theory and its attempted application in schools is, perhaps, the most vivid proof of the old adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. (to be continued)