So after spending a great couple of days exploring Monterey and the Salinas Valley area, yesterday started with a keynote (blogged in amazing detail by the estimable Jenny Levine) and ended with a white knuckle landing into a windy, rainy Philadelphia just before midnight. (Good to be home.)
But here is the moment that has my stomach roiling (aside from the nasty “snack” the airline gave out): at the end of my presentation, a woman in the audience related the problem with blogs at her school. “The kids are posting questions and answers to tests in between periods so kids later in the day know what’s coming. What do we do about that?” My first response was “sounds pretty inventive to me.” And I know that some people took that as being flip. But I was being serious. What a great use of the technology, not from an ethical sense, certainly, but from a collaboration and information sense. This is the new reality of a Read/Write world where knowledge is accessible, number one, and knowledge is shared instead of being kept closeted, number two. These kids are finding ways to share the information they need to be successful at what they are doing. Isn’t that something we should cheer? (Am I in trouble yet?)
On the plane home, I kept thinking about that teacher’s question, about how absolutely relevant and important it was, and how absolutely abhorrent most educators will find the answer. And I wished I’d asked this question in return: How much of what is on that test could those kids potentially find on the Internet anyway? How many of the answers or ideas are already a part of the “sum of all knowledge” that the Web is becoming? And why, if the answers are already out here, are we asking our students to give them back to us on an exam? I can understand why we used do this, back in the days when the answers were difficult to find. But today? Instead, why aren’t we asking them to first show us they can find the answers on their own, and, second, show us that they understand what those answers mean in terms of their own experience an in the context of what we are trying to teach? Shouldn’t we hear what they are saying, that in a world where the answers to the test are easily accessible that the test becomes irrelevant? (And by the way, I’m not saying that all tests are irrelevant in every instance.)
For a long time now, I’ve been thinking (agonizing?) about what this new landscape means in terms of plagiarism and cheating and ethical use. And I have arrived at the point where it’s just so clear to me that it’s not the kids that need to change. It’s us. We have to redefine what those things mean, because the old definitions just are not reasonable any longer. And please hear me when I say that I’m not advocating that we accept cheating or copying as the way of the world and not work to prevent it. But I am saying that we need to drastically shift our approach to dealing with it. Blocking blogs or Websites or Google is not the answer. Asking kids to take tests to see if they have memorized material that they can now find on the Web is not the answer. Making two or three or four versions of the test is not the answer.
The answer, I think, lies in teaching our students how to correctly and ethically borrow the ideas and work of others and in demanding that they not just use them but make those ideas their own. That they take the ideas we have tried to teach them and connect them to and show us that they can teach it to someone else with their own spin on it, their own remix. It’s so funny that it’s taken me until now to truly start to understand what Lawrence Lessig has been preaching about remix, over a year since I first heard it. It’s how learning happens in our own lives. We take the knowledge we need when we need it, apply it to our own circumstance, and learn from the result. We need to say to kids “here is what is important to know, but to learn from it, you need to take it and make it your own, not just tell it back to me. Find your own meaning, your own relevance. Make connections outside of these four walls, because you can and you should and you will. This is what bloggers do (at least the ones who are blogging.) And this remix is neither plagiarism or thin thinking. It’s the process of learning in a world where, as Lessig says, everything we do with digital content involves producing a copy. This is a profound change from the closed, paper laden classrooms most of us still live in.
And, I’ll continue to incessantly beat the drum for educators becoming effective models for how to use all of this information effectively and ethically. Just as we can’t teach kids to read well unless we read well, or to write well unless we write well, we won’t be able to teach them how to deal with what’s ahead if we don’t start figuring it out and doing it well ourselves.
So I’m all worked up, and I’m feeling seriously hesitant about putting all of this out there, because I know this is a very, very disruptive line of thinking. Oy.
But if I don’t, what am I going to learn?
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