Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On Wente's "It Girl" Article

It's curious that Margaret Wente is so clear about the errors Klein commits in her new book, when it appears from Wente's article today, "The It Girl of climate change doesn't get it," that she's looked at "every interview, excerpt and review," but hasn't actually read the book.  It reminds me of a film buff I know who refused to see Atom Egoyan's beautiful film Exotica because it was just about strippers.  As if.

I'm only on chapter 4, and I'm convinced Wente's concerns are unfounded.  She claims Klein ignores "elementary facts" about China and India's role in GHG emissions, but a cursory look at the index of the book reveals a column of page references under the headings of 'China' and 'India.'  Klein clarifies that we've outsourced our emissions when we outsourced our factories.  I think she gets it.

Klein's not suggesting we just cut emissions growth in the US and Canada, rather she calls for a change worldwide:  "Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us" (22).  And that's just in the introduction to the book.

The big difference between this movement and the Occupy movement, is that we've been offered a clear and possible solution that can be put in place if people worldwide can convince leaders this is vital to our survival.  Yes, that's a big 'if,' but because it's difficult doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted march after march after march.

I question Wente's insistence that, yet again, this can't possibly make sense or work or help anything.   I wonder if it's a matter, as Klein suggests, that "it is always easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered" (37).  But we do have to "grow up," as Wente says, not to see that "climate change is a complex and fiendishly hard problem" as Wente suggests, but instead to see that we have a real choice to make, that we can take this path towards radically decreasing emissions worldwide even though it's going to be hard. It's not the fun choice in the short term, but it's the only choice that gives us a long term.

As Leonardo Dicaprio said at the UN today, we're looking at climate change as a fiction, but we're seeing undeniable evidence of climate change every week that's decades ahead of scientific projections. This disaster has grown beyond individuals and now requires industries taking large-scale action.  We must end the free ride that industrial polluters have been given. It's not just achievable, but good economic policy.  This is not a partisan debate, but a human one.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

On Naomi Klein's Climate Change Battle

Suzanne DeChillo/
The New York Times
So far, I've just dipped into This Changes Everything, but the introduction alone is a compelling read.  I made my way through Shock Doctrine several summers ago, and it broadened how I think of the world.  This should be an interesting trip where even the Nature Conservancy doesn't escape scrutiny.

A review by Drew Nelles in today's Globe & Mail summarizes some of her ideas, and raises a contradictory message found in the book:   "If capitalism itself is the problem, what does Klein mean when she writes that '[t]here is plenty of room to make profit in a zero-carbon economy'...." I think it just shows how deeply we're into the mindset of capitalism, and that we need to be given a bone.  It's too hard to alter the entire ideology, so some remnants remain to get us involved.  Many people are still hoping to stop the burning of fossil fuels without affecting our lives too dramatically - and I wonder if it's possible to do, as Klein seems to suggest here, or if it's just the only message that people will accept at this point - enough to also accept that "oil companies will have to be forced, through popular pressure and legislative action, to let themselves die - to become as fossilized as the long-dead life forms they suck from the Earth" (Nelles).

Klein can also be seen in a Democracy Now interview last Thursday where she explains some of the ideas in the book.  (She's a much better writer than a speaker, though, so I edited out the "yeah, well"s from the the following bit of the transcript.)

She explains the two tactics necessary to our survival, championing Germany as the model for improvement:
I think two things need to happen at once, and this is what the German experience shows us. You need to have bold national policies, like you need to have feed-in tariffs. You need to have clear goals—how much of your grid is going to switch to renewable energy, by what time. You need to have the right incentives in place. I think what Germany shows, too, is [the flaws with thinking] that it’s a big problem, so we need only big solutions, and [arguing] in favor of nuclear power and industrial agriculture. But actually, what Germany shows is that the fastest transition we’re seeing anywhere in the world is happening through a multiplication of small-scale solutions, with well-designed, smart national policies. But that’s not enough. You also need to say no to the fossil fuel companies. So we need to close those carbon frontiers, right? We need to have clear no-go zones—no drilling in the Arctic, no new tar sands, and wind down the tar sands. We need to enshrine these fracking moratoriums into law. We need to turn the moratoriums into bans, and we need to expand them. So, it’s the yes, on the one hand; it’s the no, on the other hand.  
...in my country, in Canada, I think there’s a really clear connection with respecting indigenous land rights, because some of the largest...pools of carbon are under the lands of some of the poorest people on the planet, and much of it is under indigenous land. So, there are tremendous fights being waged by indigenous people around the world to keep the drillers out of the Amazon, to slow down the tar sands. But one of the most important things that needs to happen is that the benefits of this new economy ... the people who have been hurt the most, who have been on the front lines of the extractive economy and have got the worst deal in the unequal exchange powered by fossil fuels, need to be first in line to benefit, so that there are real options beyond just extractive economies, because people are being asked to choose between having running water and having an extractive project in their backyard which will potentially poison their water. That’s a nonchoice. People need better choices than that.
  We'll see how the march goes tomorrow.  I'll be in Toronto in a thunderstorm.  It offers some pathetic fallacy for the TV crews - one way or another.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Disruption Critiqued

I showed  Disruption to my grade 10 civics class.  Some liked it okay, but many thought it was long and boring.  "They could have done all that in a fraction of the time."  So the movie didn't get to the youth of the day the way the directors hoped it would.  I asked them what the message was that they heard, a better way to make it heard by more people, and how to actually change things.

Some hadn't really understood how CO2 works as a greenhouse gas, so that visual with the sun's rays was important to include.  They understood that we've known about all this for a long time, and nobody in the room openly questioned that it's largely due to burning fossil fuels.  They got the three big tipping points because that's scary, and they heard that it's all going to affect us in 30-40 years if nothing changes now.  I explained the concept of lobby groups, and they offered that "politicians are just puppets of the corporations."  Some thought that we needed scientists to work on solutions, but others countered that we have the solutions, we just don't have the political will to use them.  It seems they more or less have their heads around how things work and what needs to happen.

And they really get that consumers could change everything if we could just get our act together, which wasn't really part of the film.

So how to get all that information in a film that works to get students to act?

They said it has to have a celebrity and/or be funny.  A bunch of unfamiliar talking heads doesn't cut it.  It has to be more entertaining.  Get Matt Stone and Trey Parker to do something similar to the bit on US history they included in Bowling for Columbine.  It has to inspire us to work towards solutions.  And, most importantly, it has to be SHORT.  Fifty minutes is way too long.  Ten minutes might be acceptable, but anything more than that will lead people to zone out.  Aim for four minutes.

Then we talked about what will make the march effective.

People have to know why they're there.  If a bunch of people are just there for a party, it makes the whole thing look bad.  It's good if a few people get arrested doing something peaceful because it shows how important this is to them, and it shows that we have a real problem with our system.  There needs to be cameras, publicity, and the news there.  We need lots of people - enough to convince the government that the survival of people has to matter more than profits.  And we need a few strong leaders to rise up with a message for everyone that's clear, do-able, and visible.

We compared the OWS and the Civil Rights Movements.  OWS was amazing, but it just went away.  There were no leaders that anyone can name or remember.  And there wasn't a memorable message for them beyond, "It sucks that some people are so rich while others are starving."  What worked for the civil rights movement is that the fight was about, in part, laws that could be openly broken by the public in protest of the injustice of the system.  Ordinary people could sit in the wrong place on a bus, or use the wrong water fountain, or dare to enrol at the wrong school.  With OWS, people could move their money out of banks and into credit unions, but nobody notices when that happens.  I did just that, but largely from my living room.  We can't easily see how many subversives are on board, so it's hard to maintain the stamina necessary to keep the struggle moving.

And we talked about what makes this issue particularly tricky:  that the very people protesting are part of the world using the most fossil fuels per person.  We need legislation that prevents us from enjoying our comfortable lives as much as we currently do or hope to do in the future.  A few set up an us vs them scenario with the very wealthy - that it's all because some rich people have a few homes and travel everywhere.  I kept bringing it back home, that it's not just about the few wealthy people living in excess, but it's because of us, the very many who confuse luxuries with necessities and drive everywhere.  There's no escaping the fact that what we need is to change the way we live either by force or choice or necessity.  I'm still really hoping we can do it by choice.

What can we do to make it clear we're on-board is to avoid the use of fossil fuels openly:  Make solar panelled knapsacks cool so everyone starts charging their phones without taking from the grid.  Make it cool to bike, bus, and walk everywhere.  Teach class all day with the lights off.  Use every square inch of both sides of paper before letting it hit the recycling box. These seem inconsequential, but they make it clear to the culture what's important.  Some cities and countries are getting there, so it's definitely possible.  We just need to make it inescapable.

And go to a march on Sunday to make it clear to governments that this is a top priority issue.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

People's Climate March Update

"If you don't fight for what you want, then you deserve what you get." - Disruption

The People's Climate March is in one week.  The 50-minute film, Disruption, is a motivating force to inspire people to hit the streets.  If you can't make NYC on Sunday (busses leaving from Toronto might be full), then there are small events in most cities (info for Waterloo here and Toronto here).  Klein's book comes out on Tuesday - just in time for people to read it on that 12 hour bus ride!

Here's the movie, with my notes from the movie below - an amalgamation of the many ideas presented:

"DISRUPTION" - a film by KELLY NYKS & JARED P. SCOTT from Watch Disruption on Vimeo.

"The biggest successes happen when people leave their homes and get out into the streets."

Climate change isn't a new science - we've known about it for over 150 years.
In 1849 John Tyndall was the first to notice that we're adding too much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as we evaporate coal mines into the air.  Then in 1958, Charles Keeling found a way to measure the CO2.  Way back in 1988 James Hansen, of NASA, clarified that climate change is happening right now, and it spurred on an act to decrease fossil fuel use, the creation of the IPCC, and widespread media interest, but then it all fell apart.  The summit in 1992 provoked only non-binding agreements, and Kyoto wasn't ratified and then was later abandoned by the U.S.  In 2009, at the Copenhagen 15 summit, there were riots as people came to the realization that no leader is coming to save us.

It's beyond clear at this point that releasing so much CO2 into the atmosphere is affecting weather systems worldwide.  We need to leave fossil fuels in the ground if we hope to survive, but the fossil fuel lobby has access to the political class.  It's a monopoly controlled by big carbon polluters.  Half the pentagon's budget is set aside to help oil producers.

There's an inequity issue here as well as the poorest areas suffer first and the worst.  The idea of "sacrifice zones" - that there are places we don't think matter as much - is inherently racist.

If we hit a feedback loop - a tipping point where greenhouse gases will dramatically increase exponentially - then things could be beyond hope.  There are three of concern: If the arctic ice caps melt, they'll no longer mirror back sunlight which will cause more melting and even less reflection.  If they melt, they'll also release methane which will increase the greenhouse gas effect, which will cause more melting.  And most frightening, ocean acidification (from excessive CO2 in the water) could kill the plankton which creates about four times as much oxygen for the world as rain forests.  If we hit a feedback loop, we're screwed.

Why don't we act?  We have a finite pool of worry, and tend to respond first to things that feel urgent.  We need the issue to become emotional to us instead of just factual in order to be provoked into action.    Instead of trying to scrape the bottom of the barrel (fracking), we need to show restraint.  Our reality is grave, but we can avoid slipping into depression about it by working to change the system.  A march is a tool to deepen the movement.

And my thoughts on this:

We need a march along the lines of the civil rights movement in which there were many small but public acts that moved people to march, and in which a few strong speakers rose up with a plan of action.  The OWS movement died out without a strong message of action carrying on beyond the days of protest.  And it's not enough to just keep fossil fuels in the ground, we need to manage resources much more stringently (trees and fish especially), protect large areas of wilderness to promote biodiversity and continue to re-wild parcels of land, keep toxins away from water sources, regulate toxins using the precautionary principle, eat less meat, prevent further population growth, and convince the world to buy fewer luxury items (tons of clothes, cars, bigger homes, tech toys....).  It's not impossible to do, but it will change our lifestyles.  We need strong voices to carry this message everywhere, clearly and loudly and continuously until the political will is found to actually make the changes necessary.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

AER Strategies

Margaret Wente recently wrote about a teacher, Lynden Dorval, who was fired for giving students zeros when they didn't complete assignments.  Fellow teachers argued his case:  "They told the tribunal that when there are no consequences, a disturbing number of students – quelle surprise! – don’t do the work."  She clarifies the policy rationale:
[Ken Connor] believes “student behaviour” is entirely different from “student achievement,” and should not be lumped in with it. Therefore, students should not be marked down for late work, skipped assignments, absence, missed exams or even cheating. Instead of punishing a student by lowering their grade, schools should “apply other consequences.” 
If Alberta's policy is similar to my region's AER policies*, then this part is somewhat accurate. But then Wente suggests students need to be permitted to fail.  I agree completely - but that's a different issue.  The no-zero policy doesn't prevent teachers from failing students; it suggests, in part, that teachers shouldn't average in a zero to their other marks in such a way that it gives a skewed idea of the student's ability to master the curriculum.  So if Johnny gets 90s on 5 assignments, but misses one, his mark should likely be in the 90s, not the 70s.  We've been encouraged to assess students' most consistent and most recent marks for years - now it's more than just encouragement.  Yet it's still not cut and dried.  That final grade is always up to the professional judgment of the teacher.

I'm not sure of all the ins and outs of Dorval's case, but I suspect it's not the policy that was the problem as much as, perhaps, a dictatorial implementation of every suggestion with a scrutinizing focus on the letter of the law rather than the spirit.

The no-zero policy provokes teachers to leave a door open for students to complete work that, previously, they might have just skipped.  If we keep the goal in mind, its purpose is to prevent students from just accepting a zero rather than doing the work.  But if the knowledge that the work is still expected doesn't motivate a student to do the work, then failure could be imminent.

I don't love all of the AER ideas, but we have to find a way to make them work in our classrooms.  Over the past year, through many discussions with teachers, I've found ways to understand and implement the new policies by focusing on the rationale for each idea rather than viewing the ideas as hard-and-fast rules.  Here's what I came up with, so far, in terms of strategies that could be effective in my particular school, but my ideas could change again after another year of implementation.  I'll post this here regardless in case it helps someone get their head around the policy while also recognizing that it might provoke some debate.

We'll keep trying.

The Spirit of the AER:

Transparency. Equity. Mark integrity.

• Make sure your lessons, projects, and tests directly connect to the curriculum.
 • Let students (and their parents) know exactly how they’ll be evaluated ahead of time (weighting and rubrics). Clarify your success criteria.
• Let students know specifically what they should expect to learn in each class (or sequence of classes), and then track a variety of pieces of evidence that students are learning including observations of each student (process work, presentations, problem solving process, group skills, listening and speaking skills…) and your conversations with each student (class discussions, journals, online forums, conferences, follow-up questions…). (See page 15.)
• Offer additional supports and accommodations where needed. Read students’ IEPs early on. Also accommodate special circumstances in such a way that it doesn’t affect the integrity of the course.
• Offer lots of specific feedback on student work as immediately as possible. It is “imperative to provide students with opportunities to act on the feedback being provided” (14).
• Use a final evaluation (worth 30%) that’s made up of two or three components (13).
• At the end, after calculating a mark based on student products, observations, and conversations to get a numerical grade, go further to consider if that number is, in your professional judgment, the truest reflection of the degree to which the student demonstrated an ability to master the curriculum: limited (50s), some (60s), considerable (70s), or thorough (80s-90s). Marks will likely change significantly only for students who neglected to, or were unable to, complete part of the course.

Common Concerns:

The Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting Handbook is a bit vague, but that’s for our benefit. It allows for a variety of teaching practices. Yet it can be a frustrating puzzle to determine the best way to implement the requirements. Potential solutions follow:

If we can’t give marks for formative work, then fewer students will actually do the work.

* The burgeoning practice of marking work but not telling students that you’re not including it, goes against the goal of transparency. But, since we should ensure that students’ final marks are a true reflection of their ability, and formative work is sometimes a truer reflection than the final product, students should be made aware that those marks could be considered in the final evaluation.
 * There is some overlap between formative and summative work, which offers a grey area open to interpretation. You may include in your evaluation any work that summarizes student learning at a given point in time, which could be something that occurs at the end of a single lesson.
 * Instead of giving marks for process work, give marks for refinement of ideas. Students can be expected to do the rough work or practice work, and then must show that they read your comments and incorporated them into the final product. Without getting the comments on the process work, they won’t be able to get marks for refinement.
* The curriculum for your course might include process work as an overall expectation, so it may be appropriate to include this process work as an essential learning for your course.

If we can’t take off late marks, students will hand it all in at the end of the semester.

* Marks should reflect ability, not work habits in as far as it’s possible to separate the two (9).
* It's recommended that a missed assignment lead to students getting a different assignment and/or negotiating a new deadline, but, for students with a tendency towards idleness, this could precipitate an on-going practice of re-negotiating due dates or expecting a variation on the original assignment instead of encouraging them to develop better work habits and finishing the work by the original due date.  There needs to be a bigger "or else" to motivate students who are more challenging.
* If an assignment isn’t completed by the due date, call home and the guidance counselor immediately and arrange for the student to complete it in student success during his/her MSIP period.  This works for many students, but isn't effective if the student generally skips MSIP and/or isn't affected by parental pressure, or for whom parental response is akin to, "I just don't know what to do with him/her."
* We are permitted to have a cut-off date (42). For some courses, if the cut-off date is at the end of the semester, students might miss the benefits of doing the work during the unit, so a cut off date near the end of each unit is preferable. To prepare them for university or college, the cut-off date could be on the actual due date, and then students are responsible for asking for an extension in advance of that date if necessary. However, of course extenuating circumstances must be examined on a case-by-case basis.
* If an assignment isn’t completed by the cut-off date, use your professional judgment to decide if  the student should get an "I" (grades 9-10) or 35% (grades 11-12) in the course or if the student showed significant competence in the essential learnings on other assignments and/or the final evaluation to be able to pass the course without that assignment.
 * If students miss an assignment, it means they have fewer opportunities to show they are proficient in the course material.

We can have a cut-off date after which the assignment will not be accepted, but isn’t the punishment for not doing the work, doing the work?

* The implication of the last bit is that it’s not possible to pass someone who was unable to show achievement in one unit (or essential learning) of the course, but that’s listed specifically as one strategy used to promote student responsibility (40). If students miss the assignment and test for the unit, then they still have the final evaluation to show their ability to understand that section, and then achievement charts might show that their proficiency in the unit was limited. It might mean setting up marks by the unit (or essential learnings) rather than by the assignments and tests if that isn’t already the same thing.
* Some students have on their IEP a need for fewer assignments to demonstrate a skill. They may be given fewer assignments as long as all the essential learnings are still demonstrated by the end of the semester.
 * To get the credit, the work should be completed, but it might not happen during the semester. Once the semester ends, the student is no longer your responsibility (unless you get him/her in your class again).

If we’re using “Incomplete” instead of “Zero”, how do we get a numerical mark at the end?

* We’re not to give zeros to students for two reasons: to clarify that the work is still expected, and to clarify that we’re looking at the work they actually completed to determine their final mark: “assigning a mark of zero places a judgment on unseen work” (18). So don’t allow work habits to skew the final marks, which should be indicating student ability. But if a student’s ability can’t be seen accurately because of the lack of work completed, then that will end up being reflected in the final grade.
 * At the end, incompletes can be turned into zeros long enough to calculate a grade used as a starting point for a final mark, BUT then we must ensure that the numerical grade is an accurate reflection of the student’s actual ability in the course.
 * If an assignment is missed, and some proficiency is shown on that part of the final evaluation, the mark for that essential learning can be determined by deciding to what degree the student mastered that part of the course. If s/he only did the work on the final, without doing the assignment to show competency in that essential learning, it’s likely the mark – for that part of the curriculum – will be limited.

But work habits are part of a student’s ability to do the work.

* Zeros and late marks shouldn’t give a false impression of ability, BUT the AER policy recognizes that work habits are entwined with ability to a certain extent as evidenced by the beginning of this line (italics mine): “To the extent possible…the evaluation of learning skills and work habits…should not be considered in the determination of a student’s grades” (9). Most students with poor work habits will see this reflected in their level of achievement.

How am I supposed to keep track of student ability during discussions?

* Tic sheets on the seating plan that are turned into a mark every few weeks can help. Then students can be made aware of their level of competent discussion regularly. Discussion should take several forms possibly including, for instance, on-line forums or exit cards.

My course is separated into units that aren’t the same as the way the essential learnings are divided in the curriculum guidelines. How do I show which essential learnings a student missed?

* A bit more work at the beginning – and just once per course – can make things much easier at the end:
* On the course outline or on a separate page given early on, take the time and trouble to connect specific essential learnings with tests and assignments. Alternatively, indicate the essential learning on the top of each assignment or test.
* Clearly tie all your rubrics to essential learnings from the curriculum.

There seem to be two (or more) kinds of courses with different challenges:

1. The essential learnings are assessed repeatedly throughout each unit and at the end.
 * In these cases it makes sense to have more marks assigned to later units to better indicate the students’ abilities at the end of the course.
 * One missing assignment won’t affect the ability of the student to show proficiency in the essential learnings, but the final mark may reflect the effects of a diminished level of practice.

2. The essential learnings are significantly different from unit to unit, and are only repeated at the very end.
 * It can be harder to develop numerous ways to determine proficiency in each essential learning.
 * Once the unit is over, and the cut-off date has passed, the student only has the final evaluation to show proficiency on any essential learning missed during the term.

I’m supposed to make a package of work for the student to complete in Student Success after the course is done, but that student is no longer on my caseload (for grades 9 and 10 only).

* Save one of each summative assignment or test with the essential learning indicated on it in case a student is allowed to complete it the follow semester instead of re-doing the course.
 * There needs to be a process in place in which teachers deliver missing work to Student Success as they hand in the Loss of Credit forms at the end of the semester because, legally, we shouldn’t be asked to do work for a student that’s no longer on our lists.


* This is the closest link I could find to the AER, which used to be easily accessible online.  The link on the board website is dead.  Hopefully it's just a temporary glitch.

Monday, September 1, 2014

On Alone Time

Three articles caught my attention, two juxtaposed on a page of the Globe and Mail Saturday, and one forwarded along on Kinsella’s blog. Doug Saunders wrote about the blur between work and leisure, Jacob Berkowitz about solo camping, and Michael Finkel about a man who lived alone in the woods for almost 30 years.

The articles spoke to me because I’m terrified of boredom. I finally finished the last project I have for my house – a waterfall and total backyard garden and studio – and already I’m a little anxious about what’s next. Now there’s just regular maintenance to do, which is tedious and takes a lot more effort to get to. I’m always more motivated to clean when the place is a disaster than when it just needs some tidying, so I tend to leave things go. A big mess is more satisfying, and I love a good project. I’ve got lots of energy that could be used for good somewhere, but, despite my offers to build people’s decks or sheds or paint rooms, I can’t seem to make that happen. There’s always Habitat for Humanity. That’ll be my plan come June. But it’s curious how much it weighs on me.

Saunders discusses the shift in our time in just the last hundred years to include spare time and the corresponding rise of boredom. “Historians have searched centuries of literature and found that being bored was not something anyone described until the Industrial Revolution came along.” But, now that we’re getting used to leisure time, things are shifting again as wired-in jobs become 24/7. Maybe it’s just as well.  Dare I say, maybe too much leisure time is a problem.

Berkowitz shares a study done in which people are left alone in a room for 15 minutes with nothing – no cell phones even – nothing but a device they could use to shock themselves. Almost half of the people shocked themselves rather than do nothing. Doing nothing is hard.

And getting somewhere alone now can take substantial effort.

We recently sold a piece of land up north – a beautiful property that I loved, but that was - I discovered - just too remote. We couldn’t go places or see people there. I thought I’d love the solitude, but, after just a few days, it made me antsy. I can only stare at the lake for so long before I need a change of scenery.

That brings me to the hermit in the woods who is my age and lived completely alone for decades, until he got caught stealing food. Now he’s dwindling in jail. He spoke of an intense need for solitude, but he could spend months (months!) watching a mushroom grow on a tree:
“Solitude did increase my perception. But here's the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn't even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”
Boredom is likely a part of the reason people drink and do drugs and fight and hook up randomly. Just something – anything – is better than a void. Is it the case that, since this is a new phenomenon we just haven’t adjusted yet (or well), or is it the case that it’s human nature to find solitary time difficult? Unlike cats, who can stare out a window for days, people must be fed more significant stimuli. There are always people – gurus, monks, masters of their domains – who are able to sit doing nothing, but maybe that’s the exception to be admired from afar rather than emulated.

So my question is, is a love of stillness something to work towards, or something deviant to shun. Or is it just a case of ‘to each their own’?  It bothers me not being able to do something as simple as sitting still, and instead feeling tossed about by the need for constant activity. When I felt myself needing coffee to manage the morning, I quit it cold turkey. It’s harder to just sit.

According to Carr’s book, technology could be a factor in re-wiring our brains to need increasing stimuli. We’re losing our ability to be content. Now we need to be entertained - not just a few times a year, but constantly.  I can be writing, mid-sentence, and find myself checking facebook to cope with the space it takes me to choose a better word. Quiet thought is…. scary? or … painful? I’m not sure, but it’s definitely unwanted. And some students are loathe to put away their phones for the duration of a lesson – even if the lesson is interactive. A moment’s break in the action needs to be filled.

My little studio doesn’t pick up the house wi-fi. At first it was upsetting, and I started googling repeaters to solve the problem, but, after reading Carr’s book, I think I’ll leave it like that. I think it’s not a problem, but a solution. I can write read and write and think out back, then come in to transfer to a blog whatever bits I think might be readable by someone else.  And maybe I'll develop a means to accept the quiet without the interwebs interfering.

But this has been a problem long before technology. Our time with ourselves is difficult. Curious.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

I love Nicholas Carr's book. There are lots of studies and science mixed with many stories and asides and discussions of philosophers and other great thinkers. It reminded me of reading a Bill Bryson book. You get the facts painlessly. And it presents a strong argument for keeping kids (and everyone) off-line when they work, but I'm still unlikely to  convince them to actually turn off facebook.  Reading the bare bones here doesn’t do it justice, but here’s what I don’t want to forget about my memory:

The Medium is the Message

He quotes McLuhan from 1964 – "The electric technology is within the gates, and we are numb, deaf, blind and mute about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology, on and through which the American way of life was formed” (2).  When we change technologies or tools of any kind, there are gains and losses.  It changes the way we work.  Nietzsche's style of writing changed noticeably between pen and paper and the new-fangled typewriter: “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts” (19).  But we forget about the losses and just notice the gains.

When information is presented to us, how it's presented makes a difference, but we get carried away by the content and don’t notice the effect the method of presentation has on us. In class, I've watched students glaze over at power points like old-schoolers used to with video strips waiting for the next ‘bing’ from the record to indicate a changing slide. When they present, they often use technology as a crutch - putting their entire presentation on slides, and they lose the class in the process. But the same kids can be captured by chalk and talk – a much maligned teaching method today - as it allows greater movement of the presenter back and forth through the room as people share thoughts and responses, and student ideas make it on the board as much as my own. They shift from looking at the me to one another to the board and their notes to glean the basics for later review rather than focusing on a stagnant screen at the front. Well, it works better for me anyway.

Our Dwindling Attention Spans

The more we use the web, the more we have to fight to stay focused on longer texts. It’s shortening our attention spans as we skim and scroll causing a decay of of faculties for reading and concentrating. I've noticed how students looking at a webpage will immediately scroll down even if vital information is right at the top. They're looking for a heading to jump out at them or a video to click on. They have to be told to stop and actually read the words on the screen.

One study found that professors of English literature are now struggling to get students to read an entire book. Their students just look at study notes online then miss the nuances of the text, and, more importantly, they don’t learn how to notice patterns of metaphors and motifs, how to do deep reading, but only learn how to summarize other writers’ analysis. Cutting corners is nothing new, but it's surprising to read that lit students won't read books.

Brain Physiology:  We Become What We Think

The most interesting part of the book is how our brains work to take in information. There's been a lot written about this lately - that the brain is affected by our environment. It's not as stable as we once thought.

"Though different regions are associated with different mental functions, the cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. They’re flexible. They change with experience, circumstance, and need” (29). The brain gets accustomed to our typical activities and changes when they stop or when new activities start: “neurons seem to ‘want’ to receive input….When their usual input disappears, they start responding to the next best thing” (29).

The brain reorganizes itself after an accident or loss of function of any body part, but also after change in lifestyle. William James figured this out in Principles of Psychology:  “nervous tissues…seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity…either outward forces or inward tensions can, from one hour to another, turn that structure into something different from what it was” (21).  Leon Dumont used an analogy to explain: “Flowing water hollows out a channel for itself which grows broader and deeper; and when it later flows again, it follows the path traced by itself before. Just so, the impressions of outer objects fashion for themselves more and more appropriate paths in the nervous system, and these vital paths recur under similar external stimulation, even if they have been interrupted for some time” (21).

An experiment was conducted on London cab drivers long before GPS, back when they had to have the entire city memorized. They developed an enlargement of the posterior hippocampus of their brain and a shrinking of anterior hippocampus from the constant spatial processing required to navigate intricate road system. Their brain adapted to suit how it was being used.

Something really fascinating to me is that imagining has the same effect. Researchers taught a short piano melody to people without any piano knowledge. Half the group practiced the piece for two hours a day, and the other half only imagined practicing without actually touching the keys. There were identical changes to the brain. It reminded me of what I do when I’m about to do something new, like build roof rafters or a waterfall. I say I have to stare at it a few days before I can start, but really I'm walking myself through the process in my head repeatedly, apparently until my brain’s learned how to do it.
“As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit…the chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed. Once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain…’we long to keep it activated.’ That’s the way the brain fine-tunes its operations. Routine activities are carried out ever more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away” (34).
This explains why I can do dishes so much faster than my kids – and why they should be practicing dishes regularly.

This can also explain one aspect of mental afflictions like depression and OCD – “The more a sufferer concentrates on his symptoms, the deeper those symptoms are etched into his neural circuits” (35), with implication for addictions as well.

But our brain circuits can weaken or dissolve with neglect:
“If we stop exercising our mental skills…we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead….the possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains. That doesn’t mean that we can’t, with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we’ve lost. What is does mean is that the vital paths in our brains become…the paths of least resistance” (35). “What we’re not doing when we’re online also has neurological consequences. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together....The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones” (120).
Carr adds a fascinating history of the written word. Socrates wasn't a fan of writing: “Far better than a word written in the ‘water’ of ink is ‘an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner’ through spoken discourse” (55). Socrates recognized that a “dependence on the technology of the alphabet will alter a person’s mind….writing threatens to make us shallower thinkers…preventing us from achieving the intellectual depth that leads to wisdom and true happiness" (55).

McLuhan counters, “The achievements of the Western world, it is obvious, are testimony to the tremendous values of literacy....the written word liberated knowledge from the bounds of individual memory and freed language from the rhythmical and formulaic structures requires to support memorization and recitation" (57).  But as great an achievement as writing is, as useful as it is, there is something lost when we no longer have our brains remember and hold ideas within to debate them. The underlying question of this entire book is, Is it worth the loss?

The invention of the book altered how we think: “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object…They had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cue to another…applying greater ‘top-down control’ over their attention” (64). This ability represents a “strange anomaly in the history of our psychological development” (64).

As with imagining activities, one study found that brain activity while reading a story is similar to brain activity while doing the actions being described: “brain regions that are activated often ‘mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities….The reader becomes the book'” (74).  This makes me wonder what happens to the brain when people read a lot of violent books. It's not to suggest that reading about it necessarily makes us want to do it, but will it make us better at fighting just because we've read about it...or, perhaps, better at sex if that's our reading preference?

The Shift to Screens

In the U.S., adults aged 25-34 average 35 hours of TV a week and less than an hour a week of reading (87). And there's a difference between reading on-line and reading print material as "we are plugged into an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies’" (91):
“A page of online text viewed through a computer screen may seem similar to a page of printed text. But scrolling or clicking through a Web document involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning the pages of a book or a magazine....It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it" (92).  
This has already influenced how magazines are writing articles to accommodate shorter attention spans: “Rolling Stone, once known for publishing sprawling, adventurous features by writers like Hunter S. Thompson, now eschews such works, offering readers a jumble of short articles and reviews....Most popular magazines have come to be ‘filled with color, oversized headlines, graphics, photos, and pull quotes’" (94).

He warns that technology encourages and rewards shallow reading. Some see technology as only bringing benefits, but we have to be wary of the costs:
“No doubt the connectivity and other features of e-books will bring new delights and diversions…But the cost will be a further weakening, if not a final severing, of the intimate intellectual attachment between the lone writer and the lone reader. The practice of deep reading that became popular in the wake of Gutenberg’s invention, in which ‘the quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind,’ will continue to fade, in all likelihood becoming the province of a small and dwindling elite” (108).

“Some thinkers welcome the eclipse of the book and the literary mind it fostered. In a recent address to a group of teachers, Mark Federman, an education researcher at the University of Toronto, argued that literacy, as we’ve traditionally understood it, “is now nothing but a quaint notion, an aesthetic form that is an irrelevant to the real questions and issues of pedagogy today as is recited poetry – clearly not devoid of value, but equally no longer the structuring force of society.’ The time has come, he said, for teachers and students alike to abandon the ‘linear, hierarchical’ world of the book and enter the Web’s ‘world of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity’ – a world in which ’the greatest skill’ involves ‘discovering emergent meaning among contexts that are continually in flux” (111).

“In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestows on us. We have cast our lot with the juggler” (114).
The distractions offered on-line add to the shallow-reading effect. This makes me reconsider all the links and images I make the effort to include in each post:
“But the extensive activity in the brains of surfers also points to why deep reading and other acts of sustained concentration become so difficult online. The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices, while also processing a multiplicity of fleeting sensory stimuli, requires constant mental coordination and decision-making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information. Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptive to use – our brains are quick – but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it’s repeated frequently” (122). 
“Difficulties in developing an understanding of a subject or a concept appear to be ‘heavily determined by working memory load,’…and the more complex the material we’re tying to learn, the greater the penalty exacted by an overloaded mind…two of the most important [sources of cognitive overload] are ‘extraneous problem solving’ and ‘divided attention.’ Those also happen to be two of the central features of the Net as an informational medium" (125). 
“Just as the pioneers of hypertext once believed that links would provide a richer learning experience for readers, many educators also assumed that multimedia, or ‘rich media,’ as it’s sometimes called, would deepen comprehension and strengthen learning. The more inputs, the better. But this assumption, long accepted without much evidence, has also been contradicted by research. The division of attention demanded by multimedia further strains our cognitive abilities, diminishing our learning and weakening our understanding. When it comes to supplying the mind with the stuff of thought, more can be less” (129).
In one study half of the participants had a text-only passage to read, and the other half had the text passage with relevant audiovisual material.  When they were tested on the information, not only did the text-only group do better on the test, they found the material to be more interesting, educational, understandable, and more enjoyable. Multimedia: “would seem to limit, rather than enhance, information acquisition” (130).

In another study, they had students listen to a lecture. One half could surf web during lecture to look up relevant information, and the other half had to keep their laptops shut. Surfers performed “poorer on immediate measures of memory for the to-be-learned content. It didn't matter, moreover, whether they surfed information related to the lecture or completely unrelated content – they all performed poorly” (131).

A final study had students watch CNN. One group watched an anchor with info-graphics on the screen and textural news crawling along the bottom, while the other group watched the anchor without graphics and a news crawl. The multimedia version remembered significantly fewer facts as “this multimessage format exceeded viewers’ attentional capacity” (131).

We're encouraged in schools to be cutting edge with our tech use. Teachers are praised for using any new program. Even if it's just a switch from Powerpoint to Prezi, it's lauded as revolutionary. New is celebrated as better with little exploration of studies showing otherwise. We're so worried about being the best, about getting the most kids to achieve on standardized tests, really, that we're jumping at anything shiny that comes our way in hopes it will be the magic bullet that finally motivates the more challenging students. Carr further cautions,
“The Internet, however, wasn’t built by educators to optimize learning. It presents information not in a carefully balanced way but as a concentration-fragmenting mishmash. The Net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention” (131). “In addition to flooding our working memory with information, the juggling imposes what brain scientists call ‘switching costs’ on our cognition. Every time we shift our attention, our brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources…Switching between two tasks short-circuited their understanding: they got the job done, but they lost its meaning” (133). “The near continuous stream of new information pumped out by the Web also plays to our natural tendency to ‘vastly overvalue what happens to us right now’….We crave the new even when we know that ‘the new is more often trivial than essential’” (134).  "There are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense” (137). 
“The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.’ You become…more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought….As we gain more experience in rapidly shifting our attention, we may ‘overcome some of the inefficiencies’ inherent in multitasking…but except in rare circumstances, you can train until you’re blue in the face and you’d never be as good as if you just focused on one thing at a time. What we’re doing when we multitask is learning to be skillful at a superficial level. The Roman philosopher Seneca may have put it best two thousand years ago: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere....The Net is making us smarter…only if we define intelligence by the Net’s own standards…if we think about the depth of our thought rather than just its speed – we have to come to a different and considerably darker conclusion” (141).
Reading scored fell between 1992 and 2005: “Literary reading aptitude suffered the largest decline, dropping twelve percent” (146).

On Memorization:  The brain is a muscle, not a filing cabinet.

When I was a kid, I could tell you any of my friends' phone numbers by heart.  Now I can barely remember my own.  I don't need to know phone numbers anymore because they're all programmed into my phone, but is the work computers are doing making our brains lazier?  Should we try to remember things just for the sake of working out our brains?

Erasmus thought that “memorizing was far more than a means of storage. It was the first step in a process of synthesis, a process that led to a deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading” (179). Tech writer, Don Tapscott, disagrees. “Now that we can look up anything ‘with a click on Google…memorizing long passages or historical facts’ is obsolete. Memorization is ‘a waste of time’” (181).

To the Ancient Greeks, “memory was a goddess: Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses" (181). “The shift in our view of memory is yet another manifestation of our acceptance of the metaphor that portrays the brain as a computer…storing bits of data in fixed locations and serving them up as inputs to the brain’s calculations, then offloading that storage capacity to the Web is not just possible but…liberating….The analogy has a simplicity that makes it compelling….But…it’s wrong" (182). The brain isn’t a filing cabinet; it’s a muscle. Using it over and over doesn’t fill it until it can take no more, but quite the opposite – it strengthens it to take in more information.

So every year when I just throw up my hands at the idea of remembering 90 students’ names in a few days, and hope the students will be forgiving of my aging brain, I’ve simply gotten sucked into a vicious cycle that prompted me to give up on myself far too soon. I have problems remembering names because I typically don’t remember them, so I don’t try, so I never do. Kind of sounds like a Winnie the Pooh poem or an admonishment from Yoda. The implication here is that if I actually work on remembering people’s names instead of assuming that’s just something I can’t do, then I’ll actually develop the ability to remember them better for the next set of classes. It’s why, every year when I rent a mini-van for a trip to a cottage with my family, I start the journey a bit of a nervous wreck, but over the week the van seems to grow smaller and more manageable until I’m parallel parking the sucker by the end. (Just kidding – at the end of the week I still search for pull-through parking spots.) It's nothing revelatory to say that practicing improves ability, yet we don't tend to think this way about using our memory.

Getting information from short-term to long-term requires “an hour or so for memories to become hard, or 'consolidated,' in the brain. Short-term memories don’t become long-term memories immediately, and the process of their consolidation is delicate. Any disruption, whether a jab to the head or a simple distraction, can seep the nascent memories from the mind” (184). "The more times an experience is repeated, the longer the memory of the experience lasts…Not only did the concentration of neurotransmitters in synapses change, altering the strength of the existing connections between neurons, but the neurons grew entirely new synaptic terminals" (185). These terminals increase the more memories are formed, and then decrease again when they’re allowed to fade, but these don’t completely decrease to former numbers. “The fact that, even after a memory is forgotten, the number of synapses remains a bit higher than it had been originally helps explain why it’s easier to learn something a second time” (185). This is why many teacher tell students to go over their notes regularly. It actually helps.

Computers vs Brains: Some benefits of being alive.
“While an artificial brain absorbs information and immediately saves it in its memory, the human brain continues to process information long after it is received, and the quality of memories depends on how the information is processed. Biological memory is alive. Computer memory is not....Those who celebrate the ‘outsourcing’ of memory to the Web have been misled by a metaphor. They overlook the fundamentally organic nature of biological memory…Once we bring an explicit long-term memory back into working memory, it becomes a short-term memory again. When we reconsolidate it, it gains a new set of connections – a new context….Biological memory is in a perpetual state of renewal....In contrast to working memory, with its constrained capacity, long-term memory expands and contracts with almost unlimited elasticity, thanks to the brain’s ability to grow and prune synaptic terminals and continually adjust the strength of synaptic connections” (192).
Web advocates think, “In freeing us from the work of remembering, it’s said, the Web allows us to devote more time to creative thought. But the parallel is flawed….The Web…places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources form our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas….The Web is a technology of forgetfulness" (193).

The ramifications of the brain's plasticity is that reading on-line, in a distracted way, can have an effect on our ability to read and think:
"The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started. And, thanks once again to the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted – to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we’re away from our computers" (194).
Marshall McLuhan “elucidated the ways our technologies at once strengthen and sap us…. our tools end up ‘numbing’ whatever part of our body they ‘amplify.' When we extend some part of ourselves artificially, we also distance ourselves from the amplified part and its natural functions" (210).

In a study they had two groups trying to solve a puzzle. One group had helpful software, the other group didn't. In the early stages, the helped group made correct moves more quickly, but as they proceeded, the other group increased their skill with the puzzle more rapidly. Learning a task with little help wires our brain to know how to learn that type of task, so it becomes easier to later improve on our initial learning. The group with software help didn’t do the initial learning, so they couldn’t advance as easily. “As we ‘externalize’ problem solving and other cognitive chores to our computers, we reduce our brain’s ability ‘to build stable knowledge structures’...that can later ‘be applied in new situations’” (216).

The Need for Nature
“A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper…They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distractions. The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control their mind” (219).  
In yet another study: one group walked through a park, the other walked on city streets, and then both took a cognitive test. The park group did significantly better. Even cooler, it works just by looking at pictures of nature or even imagining nature scenes!  “The people who looked at pictures of nature scenes were able to exert substantially stronger control over their attention, while those who looked at city scenes showed no improvement in their attentiveness” (220). This makes a case for designing our classrooms with bits of nature all around or taking the kids outside to learn.

The Emotional Effect

The brain doesn't just run our intellectual requirements, but also determines our emotional reactions.    “It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion” (220).
“…the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions. ‘For some kinds of thoughts, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection” (221).
Carr's final caution:  “…as we grow more accustomed to and dependent on our computers we will be tempted to entrust to them ‘ tasks that demand wisdom.’ And once we do that, there will be no turning back” (224).

Chomsky's Forward to Albert's Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism

In full:   (The book is here.)

"Throughout much of the world there is growing resistance to the severe harm that has resulted from the neoliberal policies of the past generation. Latin America has progressed farthest in overthrowing this harsh regime, in recent years largely freeing itself from the grip of Western imperial domination for the first time and beginning to confront some of its severe internal problems, though many remain, as revealed recently by the mass protests in Brazil. These protests are joined by many others throughout the world, responding to local attacks on elementary rights and sometimes challenging dominant institutions and seeking to develop alternatives, escaping their fetters. They join in the effort to “realize hope,” to build a better world, to develop structures and relationships that are essential to overcoming class, gender, racial, power, and other hierarchies that relegate the many to subordination and that allow the few to dominate. But how should these hopes be realized? That question has to be posed clearly, and answered to the extent that we can.

The task is fraught with risk. One can envision too much and in so doing exceed what anyone can now reasonably assert, an act of hubris that might close off rather than enrich creative initiatives and, even worse, usurp the rightful role of future citizens in determining their own lives and relations. However well-motivated, such blueprinting would threaten coercion rather than facilitate liberation.

Alternatively, one can praise values we all share but say too little about how they might be actualized and about the kinds of institutional features that would allow people to manage their own lives with dignity, solidarity, and equity. Realizing Hope, and I am now referring to the book, not the endeavor, carefully navigates this minefield of possible dangers. It aims to provide a worthy and viable vision that is much needed in the current climate of resistance, one that can inform, inspire, and generate shared programs without going beyond what we can sensibly envision and crossing the line to authoritarian prescription. It investigates a wide range of issues, including economy and polity, kinship and culture, international relations and ecology, and even journalism, science, and education, among other topics. It seeks to provide an outline for a wide-ranging exploration of long-term aims of resistance that will provide essential tools for movements seeking to bend the arc of history towards justice, to adapt Martin Luther King’s famous phrase.

It is surely necessary to resist oppression and pursue liberation — and also to advance towards realizing hope by gaining clarity about our objectives and constructing paths to attain them."