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To Change the Narrative Around Education, We Need More Voices

I spent last week in two vastly different worlds. First, I went to the leading-edge of educational conversations at the SXSWedu conference. Then, I came back to the reality of the other 99.x% (not a precise number).

This was the second time that I attended SXSWedu. It is one of the rare events where I find myself triple-booked and unable to decide between sessions. What I most appreciate is the depth of conversation and the focus on pedagogy, society, and ethics rather than the just technology. However, I think that I walked away from the conference with more questions than answers:

  • How might we create a system of education that values all students - regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation - given the predominately white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant narrative that drives most educational policies?
  • How might we leverage Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning to the benefit of our students while also helping them to understand the social and ethical implications associated with this emerging form of technology?
  • What role do we, as educators, play in a system that must help students to negotiate an increasingly complex society given the rapid influx of new media?
  • What might school look like if we could start with a blank slate and invent something entirely new?

These are the questions that many of us wrestled with; and yet, what worries me most is not the lack of answers but the fact that such a small minority of teachers, leaders, and industry partners entered into the conversation at all. This fear manifested itself as a result of two somewhat controversial speakers: Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and keynote speaker, danah boyd.

The Secretary made the unfortunate decision to neither include educators on her panel about innovation in higher education nor deeply understand her audience. A few minutes into her talk, she projected side-by-side images of a classroom from the "industrial era" and one of today. She then embarked on a discussion of "an inconvenient truth" that our "education system is antiquated." Needless to say, the Twitter backlash has been fast and furious.

If you care to dive into a nuanced conversation about the influence of Industrial-era philosophies, beliefs, and tenets on the organizational culture of American schools, I would suggest David Tyack and Larry Cuban's 1995 book Tinkering Towards Utopia, Audrey Watters' The Invented History of "The Factory Model of Education", as well as Dr. Ashley Berner's recent TEDx talk about the need for educational pluralism. However, as I watched the tweets, I realized that the real problem lay not in the claims but in the representation of the backlash. What percentage of the total population of teachers is on Twitter? How many educators do not consider the perpetuation of traditional practices to be a problem? In other words, what about the reactions of the other 99% not in the room?

The same revelation occurred as I listened to danah boyd's keynote. I would strongly recommend watching it as she raises critical points that all of us need to consider with regards to how we help our students navigate their media landscape. However, much like the Secretary, she also elicited quite a bit of backlash on Twitter with her comment that media literacy serves as an insufficient panacea for the challenges confronting society in the face of technology.

Professor Renee Hobbs, founder and director of the Media Education Lab, wrote a compelling response. First, she challenges boyd's claims of media literacy as part of the problem by detailing recent progress both domestically and abroad. Next, she questions why boyd used media literacy "as a straw man to trivialize and knock down" instead of challenging the technological platforms that fuel the problem. Finally, Hobbs issued a call-to-action in response to the somewhat dark keynote. She insisted that, as educators, we need to help students view the future of education, society, and democracy through a more optimistic lens. I am sure that more responses will be posted, and more debates will ensue, but who will be the participants?

Twenty-four hours after returning from SXSWedu, I travelled to a public middle school in an urban area to deliver a two-hour professional development workshop.  Approximately 70% of the student population qualifies as economically disadvantaged; 60% of the students are ESL; 85% of students could be described as high need. Student achievement data from 2016 revealed that the students scored well below the state average and slightly below the district average. As I walked through the building, I realized that time had stood still. In this school, I found the images from Secretary DeVos. I did not see the flexible learning spaces, the students empowered to explore authentic learning contexts, or the sense of community tweeted out just a few days earlier. Instead, I observed what everyone at SXSWedu sought to transform.

Professional development on a Friday is brutal even in the best of circumstances, and that afternoon was far from the ideal. I could tell that the group of educators cared deeply about their students, and this post is in no way intended to poorly represent their intentions. However, I cannot envision the same conversations from SXSWedu occurring in this context.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I have more questions than answers. Secretary DeVos, danah boyd, and Professor Hobbs all raised critical points that need to be deeply and thoughtfully considered. My underlying question, though, is how do we bring the remaining 99% into the conversation?

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