Ban pencils!

[highlight]Many of the arguments in this post are already aggregated in the very insigthful #pencilchat, so go there for more knowledge on the perils of pencils.[/highlight]

The Times They Are a-Changin, but not always for the better.

Pencils is the best contemporary example.

Some naive techno-optimists would have you believe, that they’re the only solution to the current so-called “crisis in education”.

This seemingly innocuous tool for writing is really a wolf in sheep’s clothings, and we need to reconsider our current fascination with this dangerous artefact.

But why would we want to deny ourselves the immense pleasures of pencils? Everybody knows that using a pencil is nice, and might even make certain tasks easier and more enjoyable?

Plato - PhaedrusFirst of all, pencils are the anti-thesis to proper intellectual development, as they undermine the need to remember and to develop ideas within oneself. This was  discovered by Plato thousands of years ago, and described with all desirable clarity in Phaedrus:

[blockquote]If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows [/blockquote]

Is there really any credible, solid research proving the often-claimed link between pencils and student learning? How do we know, that pencils are worth the massive initial investment in infrastructure & supplementary training?

[blackbirdpie url=”!/erinneo/status/142481984655081472″]

As stated over on #pencilchat, an ever more outspoken problem lies in the lack of confined use patterns. Who could possibly predict, how students could go about using pencils?

For one thing, they would certainly be writing all kinds of silly notes, passing them around in class and thus removing focus from what’s important – the teacher. In continuation of this, cheating would without a doubt reach staggering heights. How can we properly and exactly measure, grade and categorise our students, if they manage to break our system by working together in devious ways?

[blackbirdpie url=”!/eplybon/status/142616357274517505″]

They might also figure out a way to adopt pencils for even more transgressional purposes, challenging existing social norms, or even distributing revolutionary thoughts and ideas. Entire societies could be overthrown by frantic students, all rallied around the power of the pencil. We need to avoid this and we need to retain control of what’s being written.

Most teachers are wary of pencils, and would rather not adopt this tool. Should we really force them to use something, which has no proven benefits and numerous potential undesirable consequences? Finally, pencils could eventually challenge the position of the teacher. If students could go about writing, doodling and drawing anything, they might even figure out a way to do so without the intervention of teachers.  This is obviously undesirable, because how would we control our students, what they learn, and – more importantly – what they do with what they learn?

I see no other solution than making a clear, nonambiguous statement for everybody to see:

Ban and burn all pencils.


I don’t normally shout (in typing, at least. I am known to noisy in person, though), but I sincerely feel it is appropriate this time around. During the last week, I’ve encountered several related issues, which I don’t fully understand. Or, to be more precise, I understand them, but they worry me a great deal.

Or, to be more precise, I understand them, but they worry me a great deal.

Earlier this week, a quite popular Danish site and forum for people working with media and communication (and hey, who isn’t these days?) known as “Kommunikationsforum” featured an article on Twitter. Despite some very reasonable personal conclusions from the author towards the end the article, it mostly painted a bleak picture based on the very small userbase in little Denmark. Because there are few of us on Twitter, numbers are ridiculously low when looking at traffic generated, and also the general activity level on Twitter (which just reinforces my existing belief, that English is lingua franca in this respect).

My earlier musings ought to make it very clear, why I disagree with a reduction of Twitter to a simple generator of traffic and hits. Not only does this quantitative, metrics-based analysis not say much about the real potential of Twitter, it ends up being just another example of trying to understand one service in the light of, or even worse, as an extension or copy of what came before. This, to me, is certain to lead to misunderstandings and a shallow understanding of, in this case, Twitter.

This brings me to my most recent and eye opening experience (in all its simplicity).

A couple of days ago I participated in a small workshop focusing on the many international (or EU, at least) collaborative projects to improve education. I’m in one of those projects, and I wholly support these initiatives. The day was all fine and good, visited by very passionate and dedicated people, who obviously were all eager to make the famous difference. What struck me as surprising – frightening, even – was one very tiny exercise, where we each had to tell, why we attempt to distribute whatever we learn in our respective projects.

I may not have been entirely clear or persuasive myself, but I do hope that I managed to convey, at least partly, my huge passion and belief in sharing. I don’t mean to do projects for the project itself, just for the involved institutions, or for entirely egoistic purposes. I want to do projects, because I sincerely believe, that they can contribute to a better world – however microscopic this contribution may be. Frankly, if that’s not the purpose, I don’t care.

Several other participants looked at this quite differently. As they said, they share because they must. Because EU (or whoever is funding the project) tells them to.

In the current upshot of talk on motivation, this is clearly extrinsic. We need the idea of sharing to be intrinsic and meaningful to everybody.

I’ll be very quick to point out, that I’m not targeting anyone here. It’s not that these are not good, competent, inspired people with the best of intentions – I am completely convinced, that they are. It is merely a symptom of a challenge, which is to be found everywhere in society.

We need to challenge and change the firmly rooted culture fuelling the perception, that sharing is secondary, tertiary or even completely undesirable altogether. This holds true in education, but also in society in general. I’ve been there several times, but never stop repeating myself on this matter. Sharing does not undermine your own position. Sharing is not like sawing off the branch, on which you yourself are sitting more or less comfortably. On the contrary. By sharing you make yourself relevant, and move into an even more lucrative position of being someone people want to consult in the future.

I don’t have any final solutions (I never do, mostly because I think that’s an illusion; nothing is final at a macroscopic level). I don’t claim to be particularly good at it myself, but I keep trying, keep exploring new and (perhaps) better ways. This is probably also my primary recommendation – don’t fear experimentation. Try different methods, tools and approaches. Mix online with offline, writing, talking, showing. Be a little more ad hoc’ish (anarchistic if you like).

Also, sharing should not be thought of as something we do once the project is over. Don’t wait for the build-up of a large body of work before you start talking about what you’re fiddling with. Think of the process as an open, iterative one with a constant feedback loop influencing decisions and directions. Sharing is just one part of reciprocal relationships, where you talk, other people listen and talk back. It’s not always as simple and well ordered as this – far from.

We really do need this change of culture, and we need more transparency.


Knowing together?

The title might be hopelessly obvious.

After all, most people would probably agree, that learning and knowing always happens in dynamic interaction with our surroundings.

As humans, we are unambiguously social creatures.

This, of course, has repercussions for our individual learning, which is always heavily influenced by the social situation – hence the notion of situated learning.

All right.

During the last couple of weeks, I have become inspired to look at this from a different perspective, namely that of collective intelligence.

One of the reasons was a rather down-to-earth one, as I was working and by Twitter following the progression of the Game Developers Conference in San Fransisco (take a look at Jesper Juuls wordle-illustrations of tweets sent during GDC).

It suddenly struck me, that I would probably have known only a tiny fragment of this were it not for Twitter and the option to follow all sorts of interesting people (whom I – as opposed to Facebook – don’t necessarily know). This way, Twitter keeps me in the loop demanding only a rather modest effort in return. It also allows me low-barrier access to contact and start a dialogue with these people, potentially resulting in new knowledge, ideas, perspectives.

Other examples of contemporary manifestations of collective intelligence instantly came to mind:

  • SNS’ in general
  • Wikipedia and wikis in general
  • World of Warcraft and other games

Doing a bit of rapid research, MIT turned up with their Center for Collective Intelligence, where they attempt to answer the following question:

How can people and computers be connected so that collectively they act more intelligently than any individual, group, or computer has ever done before?

It is not the least bit surprising, that MIT is heavily engaged here. To an ignorant bystander like myself, they sometimes seem omnipresent. Anyway, the center is headed by one Thomas W. Malone, who is so kind as to introduce us to the concept:

In “Harnessing Crowds: Mapping the Genome of Collective Intelligence“, Malone defines collective intelligence as “as groups of individuals doing things collectively that seem intelligent” and he subsequently points to a growth in this field:

But over the past decade, the rise of the Internet has enabled the emergence of surprising new forms of collective intelligence.
Henry Jenkins (image from his blog)

Henry Jenkins (also at MIT) is another well-known figure touching upon this field. Jenkins has devoted much time and work to great things like video games, transmedia storytelling and fan culture, and always in a very insightful and balanced way. He has written a number of posts over at his confessions of an Aca-Fan on collective intelligence, which he  defines in a rather prosaic manner:

The kind of knowledge and understanding that emerges from large groups of people is collective intelligence

Drawing on Pierre Levy, he further elaborates on the subject:

As Levy notes, collective intelligence exploits the potential of network culture to allow many different minds operating in many different contexts to work together to solve problems that are more challenging than any of them could master as individuals. In such a world, he tells us, nobody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what any member knows is available to the group as a whole at a moment’s notice.

In a rather nerdy meta-way, the article on Wikipedia about collective intelligence might be the perfect wrap up of this brief scratch on the surface.

I will surely dive deeper into this anytime soon.

Immensely fascinating stuff (not least when coupled with games, as I will do next)