Archive for May, 2011

Digital Natives – An idea to leave out of the box and on a different page

 I admit, and those who know me will readily agree, that I sometimes take things too seriously. I have been known to belabor a point that most people in the room might not care about. Some people find things trivial that I find basic and important establishing principles. Cliche expressions are one thing that, while other people get used to and even filter out over time, sometimes annoy me – the annoyance usually increases instead of decreases over time.

“On the same page,” has no special annoyance to me but nevertheless causes me to curl my toes when I hear it. When used, it is rarely an apt or necessary metaphor.

“Thinking outside the box,” admittedly bothers me more then it should. What box? Why are the ideas inside less valuable then those outside? Why can’t we say, “lets look for original creative solutions?” What is its value?

A third saying, that is becoming more and more annoying and the subject of this post is “digital native(s).” Unlike the others though, I feel that my increasing annoyance is justified; I feel that this blog post is necessary. I find the concept and phrasing of “digital natives” dehumanizing and inaccurate, inherently racist, and devaluing to teachers; I will speak about each point in turn.

Dehumanizing: Every time you label a group of people, even in apparent praise, it is dehumanizing; it is an act of “othering.” No single characteristics can acculturately describe a generation; that includes our current youth. 20% of Canadians currently don’t have the Internet at home. The youth of today, have had a variety of experiences and have vast difference in their understanding and knowledge of digital technologies. To label them all as digital natives, is a dangerous bias / presumption, which may limit the opportunities they are given to explore or develop their understanding in this area.  It will fail to appreciate the disadvantages many of our students have when nagivating digital environments.  Further, it is a slippery slop from: students are X, old people are Y, and poor people are Z; and all the way down to racial epitaphs and other stereotypes and pejorative views.

Inherently racist: The idea that there is necessarily an uncrossable cultural divide between natives and immigrants should be offensive to Canadians. The idea at the heart of this metaphor is that immigrants will always be outsiders, always be awkward in an alien culture, and always be at a disadvantage. This is at least contrary to ideals of Canada, if not blatantly racist. Immigrants are not outsiders; they bring a wealth of new experiences and perspectives. They are fully capable of participation in their adoptive home. They are some of the components of our culture; not outsiders unable to fully comprehend and adapt to it. This particular dichotomy between people comfortable and people struggling needs to be abandoned; we are all learning.  While some people will always be more comfortable with technology then others, do we really need a dehumanizing racist analogy to describe it?.

Devalues teachers: The idea that we (teachers) are outsiders annoys me because it is part of an increasing trend to the education field to devalue teachers. This gives us just one more justification for feelings of inadequacy. It is demotivating and unfair; it labels us and provides us with a justification for out learned helplessness. It is something that we should reject and resent; not something that we should embrace. We can master the digital environment as easily as anyone else. No one had to leave their VCR display to 12:00, it was a choice. It is the same here. Never mind that the digital environment was largely created by our generation; or that apparently we are immigrants to an environment that some of us helped shape; never mind that, but one needs only to consider our advantage. My “digital native” students have only had 13 years to master the digital environment. For 3 of them they were busy wetting their beds. For 2 more years they were learning the basics of language and expression. I have had my faculties (more or less) fully developed for the entire existence of the digital environment. I approached it as an adult and learned it the same way all our “tech experts” did. We need not consider ourselves outsiders in the digital environment.

“Digital natives” is an annoying and offensive metaphor that I hope we reject, apologize for, and replace soon. With the warmer weather I can curl my toes freely in my sandals, but by winter, this phrase is really going to hurt me.


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Deep Understanding and Useful Dissent – At Your Service

 When John Stuart Mill was writing in defense of free speech he concerned himself with both the speaker and the listener. This right is as much about the listeners right to hear as it is about the speakers right to speak. The listener’s interest in the right of free speech is in the development and maintaining of autonomy; if one can not hear dissent or a counter opinion, then one can’t autonomously decide their point of view. If we only get one message, it is much more impacting; this bias can only serve to limit the formation of an original personal and autonomous position. In order to be a critical thinker, synthesizer, or evaluator, you need more then one opinion to work with.

This serves education well as a principle, but it also can serve as a metaphor to our pedagogical discourse. In education, without exploring both sides of an issue, technology, pedagogy or teaching strategy, we cannot develop deep understanding. It is only with deeply understanding the pros and cons of something, that we know when to use it, and equally important, when not to use it. Do we do this enough?

I have recently reviewed and reflected on most of my tweets. @tomwhitby recently expressed regret on Twitter regarding ½ of his tweets which motivated me to review mine. It was a long process and a little boring. The context of many had burned away (they age quite quickly). Fortunately, there are many ways and tools out there to do it besides reading through them all. @Missnoor28 recently tweeted a resource to make a book of your tweets and a resource to make a twitter inforgraphic. @rdlln recently tweeted a resource that posits a psychological profile based on our twitter activity ( As well, there is always the ubiquitous Klout score. Reflection on your Tweets is probably a good idea and can be done in a variety of ways.

While I didn’t regret ½ of them like @tomwhitby I found them kind of critical, even cantankerous at times; however, drawing from John Stuart Mill’s point, and my own ability to forgive / justify my actions, this can be a good thing. I think, I am fairly good at seeing counter points and arguments. I think that I am good at providing the voice of dissent (even if filled with typos and questionable grammar). In the belief that I am right, I offer this space – If you have a technology or pedagogy that you want a counter position for, reply below and I’ll try to construct a counter argument. Hopefully, this dialogue of point and counter point will help us develop deep understanding of educational practices so we can use them in a more sophisticated manner.

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Twitter backchannels in the classroom – Lets talk after

Educational professionals who have discovered Twitter and recognize it as a powerful new (or relatively new) broadcast media are understandably trying to find ways to use it with students for the betterment of their education. We, the education field, are currently between 2 stages: 1) the brainstorm of possible uses; 2) the evaluation of that brainstorm to see which ideas are value additive. I would like to evaluate one idea – the backchannel; a concurrent discussion on Twitter during some other learning event, most likely a presentation or lecture. I think that this is a bad idea and a detriment to student learning.

There are several things the human brain does not do well. It doesn’t have a good intuitive understanding of probability; it has difficulty evaluating competing inductive arguments; and it is not a good multitasker (this is not an exhaustive list of limitations). A tweeting backchannel while listening to a presentation requires multitasking or quick-shifting. While multitasking or the new, slightly re-conceptualized – quick shifting, are supposed to be a hallmark of our students today, it is largely untrue or if true, still detrimental. When you multitask, you divide your cognitive functions between activities. As this does nothing to add to your general ability to think, your power of thinking is divided among the various activities; thus, each one receives less of your focus then if done in sequence. This means that they not done as well as they could have been if done consecutively. If you don’t believe me, go here ( and prove it to your self (notice how the easiest activity, the one you have the most practice at, is the one that you lose on).

With tweeting while listening to a presentation, your attention levels osculates between tweeting and active listening and reduces the mean level of attention for each. As a result, you get less out of the presentation then if it was your only activity. You also get less out of the conversation on Twitter then you would. Tweeting a conversation is more engaging then note-taking – this translates to more distracting in this context. While it may help you process parts of the lecture, you miss parts which will also affect you ability to encode an understanding – it is a at best a zero sum gain.

 A discussion after the presentation has several advantages over tweeting during the conversation. You focus more fully on the presentation and get more out of it. You have a chance to digest the information before you apply it in a conversation. You can participate more actively in a discussion when it is your only activity. Having a discussion later gives you repeated exposure to a topic that aids learning and retention. Having a conversation after a learning activity gives you a chance to consolidate learning, review your learning; and direct and pursue it along different paths – a conversation during a learning event is more likely to stay “closer” to the content and not go as deep on side issues as it is likely progressing and moving to new sub-topics. Tweeting while the learning event is going on, limits your ability to focus on the event and limits your learning; inasmuch as it is less efficient, it is a poor idea.

Another problem with many back channels in education, is they are not contained in protected twitter accounts. With Twitter, one is broadcasting as they tweet. For students who don’t have an intuitive sense of the nature of social networks (persistence, searchability, scalability, and replicability – see Danah Boyd (2010). “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications.” In Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (ed. Zizi Papacharissi), pp. 39-58.) they may write something they later come to regret. The quickness of the medium and the dynamics of a 20-30 person discussion, requires students to write in an unguarded fashion. The immediate context may forgive mistakes of reasoning, understanding or expression but it might be more problematic for find this forgiveness when the messages age taken out of context later. A discussion on race, sexuality, sexual-orientation, ethnic relations, and such are dangerous to our students when their tweets survive the context; anything they are actually learning through will create a record that might not reflect their actual understanding. Part of their learning process, taken as a whole or finished product, may reflect poorly on them with possible consequences later on. Remember tweets are published and permanent – we all know a story where a tweet or email endured beyond a limited or temporary context with serious results. Further for those students who are aware of all this, they might be silenced by this reality.

Many people have suggested that a twitter backchannel will help or may help their most introverted students by giving them a voice. This argument is as old as the internet. I heard it from a communications student in the 1990’s saying that discussions online (in chat rooms and such) provide a level playing field to disadvantaged groups which may have the tendency to be silenced in social dialogue because of preexisting power relationships; it was being pursued for market research groups. It is not unique to Twitter. In fact, in backchannels, where there is a small group and no anonymity, it might not be true at all. If it is true, it as easy to replicate in a moodle discussion after the learning event. This advantage is not unique to Twitter and thus does little to support the idea of backchannels in school hosted on Twitter.

A moodle, or similarly closed network, running a discussion thread after a learning event offers many advantages to a live Twitter backchannel. I think that the backchannel is a bad idea, in its current inception, for Twitter and should be abandoned for other uses.

***note shared this with a colleague who presented an interesting counter point: For a student who is a selective mute, this might be a good way to access a conversation in class. If it works in that case, I think it is well suited for that student, but as a general application, I still think it is a determent. ***


Educational video games?…Huxley and Postman role over in their graves

@missnoor28 is a terrific person to follow on twitter for teachers as she shares an abundance of sources and is always ready to answer a personal request or offer her help.  Last week, she asked me to explain a recent tweet of mine:  “@ginrob_pt I wish we could block twts with key words. I’d block “Educational Video Games” & pretend tht Huxley was wrong #EduJo#EdTech#Edchat#Gaming,” and then she asked me, “What was wrong with educational video games?”

In order to answer her question, I need to discuss Adios Huxley and Neil Postman.  Huxley wrote a dystopia novel entitled “Brave New World” and Neil Postman wrote a book in the 80’s entitled “Amusing Ourselves to Death” Both these books write about the emergence of a culture based on entertainment and about the possible/actual consequences of such a culture.  For a quick explanation of “Brave New World” (and a contrast to “1984”) please refer to this link:  which is a visual presentation of Postman’s forward.  For more information regarding Postman’s point, refer to page 185 in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” in Chapter 10: Teaching as an Amusing Activity.

Both works talk about the consequences of arranging discourse along an entertaining focus; this would also hold true in education.  When students learn through games, the arguments extends, they learn a shadow curriculum that learning is easy, and that learning is fun.  They do not learn that it is fun to learn.  The difference is vast. 

Feeling that it is fun to learn motivates and rewards engagement and effort; it offers a reward for learning; it makes the learning its goal and focus; it makes the struggle of learning worth it.

The video game “learning is fun“ offers surface engagement; it distracts from the learning and offers a fun activity; it trains students to learn effortlessly, but also to be less tolerant of exerting effort to learn.  I think that it was summed up well by the following 2 tweets:

@intrepidteacherJabiz Raisdana    Students become frustrated and bored when they realize even what they love requires hard work. They’re too used to surface engagement.

@davemorinDave Morin     “Gamification is the high fructose corn syrup of engagement.” – Kathy Sierra

As an analogy consider T.V.  Imagine using T.V to provide a language rich environment for your students:  This would seem ideally suited to the educational needs of the student.  They would be provided an almost endless stream of language that they enjoy and that could be tailored to their level and needs; problem with phonemic awareness—Sesame street; problems with sequence – Dora; problem with social rules – Thomas.  T.V. offers a rich variety of experiences presented by the Backyardigans or even the news which brought an entire American generation the experiences of Vietnam, the moon landing, and the Kennedy assassination.  T.V. is a medium that constantly provides attainable data to the viewer and can tolerate a variety of engagement levels.  Would we be comfortable with placing a student in front of a T.V. for even a portion of the day?  I suspect that we wouldn’t, even though teachers use T.V. and movies, not just to entertain, but with the purpose of furthering their student’s education.  Even though, we sometimes view T.V. as a powerful educational strategy, intuitively, and because of the works of such theorists like Neil Postman we know that T.V. is an entertainment medium, not well suited to instruct or to educate.  In fact, we used to blame T.V. for the quality of our students or their motivation, that is, before computers became so prevalent. 

After unpacking this analogy and applying its principles to video games, can someone tell me exactly how video games are advantageous over other modes of learning? Surely they can work (for limited purposes) but is it worth it?  Don’t they train our student to reject struggle?  Are they in a sense bribing our studetns to learn?  Won’t it ultimately back fire like all bribery based incentive systems?

That is a little of what I meant when I posted my earlier tweet.  We should consider what learning with video games undoes-I have, and have not found them worth the cost.

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Nano Fiction

I like doing this with students to work on editing and planning their stories.  With only 6 words to use, students can’t afford to waste one – they can’t afford to use a good word, they have to use the right word.  It also takes an amazing amount of planning to make the nano-fiction vibrant.  To choose the right word, students have to have a clear vision of their story plan (for example: screaming, yelling, pleaded, whispered…all the “said is dead” words demonstrate this).  Because retooling or editing the story isn’t verwhelming at 6 words, I can hold them to the highest standard.  I typically have studetns rewrite (including grade 8 gifted) several times.  Now wordpress will butcher my carefully spaced tables so you will have to reformat them:

Nanofiction fiction


Ernest Hemingway is famous for his economy with the written word. His Sparest work is just six words: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Legend says that Hemingway wrote this poignant line after being bet $10 that he couldn’t write a story of six words or less.

The “Story” doesn’t have a plot, resolution or a back story of its own, but it does show how effectively a few words can deliver emotional impact (and that implied meaning is not limited to poetry).

Taken from Uncle John’s bathroom reader Golden plunger awards)

Other examples of this writing style are (written for Wired magazine):

Steve ignores editor’s word limit and
Steven Meretzky

He read his obituary with confusion.
Steven Meretzky

Please, this is everything, I swear.
Orson Scott Card

Singularity postponed. Datum missing. Query Godoogle?
David Brin

Three to Iraq. One came back.
Graeme Gibson

Nevertheless, he tried a third time.
James P. Blaylock

Easy. Just touch the match to
Ursula K. Le Guin

Will this do (lazy student asked)?
Ken MacLeod

Clones demand rights: second Emancipation Proclamation.
Paul Di Filippo

Criteria for nanofiction – what makes a good one?

Look over the above stories and brainstorm a list of criteria by which they can be judged









share your list with a partner and agree on the 4 most important








Class’s most important








Writingyour own 

Nanofiction is harder than one might think. The one problem, and the reason it is both challenging and useful to students is that your entire idea has to be developed before you start writing.

  1. Think of a complete idea first.

  2. Perhaps a clear setting will help.

  3. A strong or tragic character helps.
  4. Now, six words; one surprise ending.

Now write 4













 Based on your criteria above, judge your stories



Reason (refer to criteria)

Story 1








Story 2








Story 3








Story 4








 Present your best









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Rant – stop saying that!


Well it is rant time:

This may well be my swan song; after this, no one may want to read my blog again (assuming anyone reads this one). I didn’t want to do it; I like being part of discussions online. I didn’t want to write this; but some of you other teachers are making me (might have been better as a number of posts but I need to get this all out now…might go back and develop these points later).

A lot of teachers (and experts) are tweeting to the effect of the following statements:

  1. Schools kill creativity
  2. Teachers shouldn’t provide content to their students because: A—only experts know enough and B—teachers lecture too much and are boring
  3. The curriculum isn’t relevant in student’s lives
  4. Kids know more about tech (are natives) and teachers will never catch up (immigrants -.might need a post of its own….racist?)
  5. Unless tech is used, you’re robbing your students of an education
  6. Kids don’t want to listen to teachers, they want to only find out by themselves
  7. Facts aren’t that important
  8. transmissive lessons don’t work

Taken as a whole, these kind of thoughts serve to undermine teachers and schools, but are they necessarily true?  Are teachers no longer relevent?  Are schools not longer useful?  I need to answer a resounding, “no.”  Teachers still make a difference and none of the above statemends are necessarily true…

It is true that each statement has at least some measure of truth; I know that they have been presented by me as a row of little straw men, but my point is this– if you believe these things are generally true of yourself or your teaching, maybe teaching isn’t for you – you might find another career more rewarding.

 If any of the above list is true of you, then change it! If you don’t think it is true of you or your class, then why do you presume that it is true of others or that in justifies a general statement of indictment?

  1. Does your class kill creativity? Then fix it! Embed opportunities for creativity in your class. It is easy! Teachers have been doing it for ever.
  2. If you don’t know enough to be a good source or are boring to listen to – fix it! Learn you subject matter…be an expert. I sometimes go in with notes; I research into the night; I get back to them if I need to. If you are boring to listen to, then take a public speaking course. People (even students) love to listen to interesting people who know what they are talking about. Go to and prove it on yourself. You can be like that too.
  3. Make the curriculum relevant; teachers have always done that…you can too. Hamlet is about a procrastinating teenager having trouble with his step-father and girl-friend….how hard is that to draw a connection to?
  4. If kids know more about tech then you, then learn it! You were likely an adult when the Internet went public. You had all your faculties (give or take) and skills as it grew…you were there from the beginning. If you missed it, its not because you emigrated. Learn! My kids have only had 12-13 years with the Internet and for 3 of those years, they were wetting their beds. I have had access to the internet for almost 20 non-bed-wetting years. In truth, 2 of my current students can make my head hurt with their abilities; but with the rest, I help them…digital native doesn’t describe a generation and it could easily describe you too (Digital natives might have to be a subject of its own post…they grew up in a language rich environment too – do we still know more that they need to learn?  –this term seems to label teachers as inadequate…remember labelling theory?)
  5. Electronic technology is only one that you need to use with your students. You’re robbing your kids of an education if you don’t teach them the other technologies in their lives. Language, numbers, relationships, civics, law, etc. There is enough for good teachers to focus on for a couple of years and still be valuable…even if they only partially embed electronic technologies – lets not conclude that the only experiences we can create of value are digital ones.
  6. If your kids don’t want to listen to you, then fix your relationship with them. They listen to their friends face-to-face, parents (depending on their age), celebrity icons (even when they meet them face-to-face). If your relationship is broken and students don’t want to listen to you, then fix it or don’t be a teacher any more.
  7. Facts are important and route learning has a very important place in learning. Go learn a new language or some science and prove it to yourself. That is what your kids are doing. All ideas, opinions, arguments and such are reactions to facts. They can’t really have one of value without first knowing (not being able to find) a fact or group of facts. Without facts, anyone can convince them of anything. All that they will be left with is looking for internal inconsistencies. It is hard to know what is wrong, if you don’t know what is correct.
  8. Again, if you can transmit information to kids in a way that they like, engaged in, and learn by, then maybe teaching isn’t for you? Luckily it is easy to fix. Go watch any speaker or lecturer…figure out why they are interesting and then practice their techniques. Not too many kids want to waste time. How long and how much work will it take for them to discover the bell curve? Won’t they be mad it they know you knew it all along? It took the greatest artists in Europe a 100 years to perfect perspective in their work. Transmissive lessons are useful and essential.  If you can’t do them, then maybe you lack the skills to be a good teacher – if so, fix it!

I know that I went off point at times, so let me summarize. Teachers need to stop devaluing themselves and get their pride back – good teachers can be valued for their knowledge and ability to transmit / explain that content. Teachers have value. Schools are an essential institution. Route learning, transmissive instruction, and facts are all essential to your students. You can be a content provider, not just a coach to your students.

I know that people are going to jump all over this (or ignore it)…but really just ask yourself first….do schools and teachers have any value? Do you? Do other teachers? If you answer no to these questions, then why are you a teacher?

Now..hopefully, someone will “take me to school over this” and transmit their opinion for me to learn…


7 Archetypes for entering public disources through social media


Here are 7 strategies that students might adopt when engaging in public discourse through social media tools. I have tried to provide a conceptual framework to help them consider their first steps. I wanted to suggest tools that would be more suitable to a strategy then another but ultimately, I think most social media tools are equally applicable to each strategy (give or take). I’d love some feed back on this – is it clear? Is it somewhat helpful or interesting? Is there an 8th strategy that I have missed?

Archetypes / metaphors

1. Nomad
Description This strategy is used when you find an organization, blog, group, person or the like that you disagree with. Rather then create a site, organization or movement to oppose their message, a nomad goes into their infrastructure / forums to get his or her message across. You might post your disagreement on their website or the like. You can sustain your participation for as long as you like, and try to influence their opinion over time
Advantages Requires less time then other strategies, requires less understanding of web 2.0 tools, takes your message directly to those you disagree with and might change their mind. Also, everyone who reads your message will be interested in the topic and likely to engage you in discussion.
Disadvantages You must be careful – can be considered harassment or trolling if done wrong. You are likely to lose control of your posts, harder to influence target audience because they already have a contrary opinion that is likely based on some understanding. It is also harder to reach larger audience.


2. Wanderer
Description With this strategy, after learning a bit about your issue or topic, you wander about the internet adding comments or arguments to other people’s sites. You try to take advantage of other people’s structures and audiences to spread your point of view. It is like the nomad except that is is less advosarial. You are equally likely to help support people who agree with you as engage in debate those who do not.
Advantages You don’t have to build content or a site. You don’t have to spend time networking to find an audience. You can recycle your comments as you find new public spaces to comment.
Disadvantages Must consistently search for content to comment on. Can’t build your own audience or network. Hard to respond to responses to your comments.


3. Hunter/Gather
Description With this strategy, you build a site (blog, wiki, etc) by gathering and reposting the work of others. By aggregating many contributions to one place, you create a specialized area with many voices regarding your topic. It can create a powerful resource to effect public opinion.
Advantages You learn as you go – adding to your location, also adds to your knowledge. You utilize the expertise of a wide range of people. Content can be added quite quickly.
Disadvantages Some issues with intellectual property rights – be careful to give credit to others. Might be hard to build an audience – how do you get the word out? You might have a variety of opinions and not a clear message – just a lot of related topics.


4. Subsistence Farmer
Description Similar to the hunter gather strategy except you create the majority of the content yourself. This is a good strategy for people with a lot to say.
Advantages You have more control over the content and message. Things can be said exactly as you like. You create a stable platform where people can find unique content and opinions. You create a place where like minded individuals gather.
Disadvantages Takes a long time to write or build enough content to get people interested or to affect their opinions. You have to continue to provide content to keep people interested. It might be hard to gather an audience and network.


5. Co-op farmer
Description This is kind of a combination of the substance farmer and the hunter / Gatherer at first. You provide content and you can collect content from other sources. Eventually, you invite others to contribute original content as well. You may keep some editorial control, but on these kind of sites, people are also looking for freedom to express themselves
Advantages You aggregate audience with others; this helps you get your message or opinions out to more people.
Disadvantages With more people, comes more opinions and perhaps conflict. Also, as the host, you might be held responsible, to a varying degree, for the opinions of those who post on your site.


6. Small business
Description This is very like the subsistence farmer except your goal is to inspire or support action, not just to inform people or affect public opinion. You might advocate changing a behavour, a protest movement, or run a charity
Advantages Sometimes it is easier and more gratifying to see action taken at your suggestion then just trying to educate or influence people’s opinions. With this kind of site, you might more directly see action taken that you have inspired.
Disadvantages Actions can be dangerous if not done carefully. Consequences are often real and tangible; you might be held accountable. Might be more legal considerations – a charity that handles money has legal obligations and the like.


7. Public Company
Description Like the small business except you seek to gather a crowd of like minded individuals to help you run something a little larger
Advantages Aggregates peoples effort and people’s talents to create something larger then you could create on your own. You gain access to the networks and audience of others.
Disadvantages Often hard to get the right people together in the beginning. The bigger something is, the more complicated it will become. More people means more opinions of how things should be done. This type of organization will be hard to control once you start.

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