Debate Part 2: The Reckoning

In the future there is only verbal warfare

Teachers are passionate by nature. How else could one explain the desire to seal oneself in a room with 30 small children for eight hours a day with nothing but whiteboard markers for self defense? My point is that educators have strongly held beliefs that sustain them through the tantrums, phone calls, spills, and general chaos that is the average day in a classroom. This was on full display during our second debate. It was lively, or as Amaya put it, “Spicy.” What stirred up so much passion? Come with me as we explore the harrowing jabs, and tactical counter punches that were topics 3 and 4.

Source: “Food fight.” by Free the Image is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Topic 3: Should we teach skills that can easily be accomplished by technology?

Let it go

The Arguments of the Agree Side

  • The skills of tomorrow are unknowable so classroom time is best spent teaching students how to process and synthesize information, thus improving their ability face the world as it evolves around them.
  • Teachers should focus on instilling certain traits in their students: a disposition toward lifelong learning, healthy skepticism, high level problem solving skills, and curiosity.
  • Learning should center around the student rather than the teacher. Top down prescriptive skill delivery is outmoded and outdated in today’s society.

Old but gold

The Arguments of the Disagree Side

  • The world has not moved beyond the necessity of basic skills; the work world prizes accuracy and precision in areas such as written communication.
  • Technology has not reached the point where it can reliably replace the skills of the individual.
  • Teaching basic skills has various positive knock on effects for learners (fine motor skills and coordination).

What does the research say?

In their article Mason et al. (2019) state that with regards to education “Some systems persist while others become obsolete.” This immediately begs two questions: are skills like cursive writing obsolete, and if they are why do they still persist? The authors offer clues to the latter by arguing that stagnant pedagogy results from organizational cultures in schools that don’t promote change. This leads to an institutional inertia, or a tendency to do things the way they’ve always been done. Thus deprecated skills are taught not because they still have intrinsic value, but because it is easier than changing one’s practice. This tendency to hold onto the past was wryly observed by Ethan Dickens in his TEDx lecture. As a young adult he couldn’t believe that he was still carrying 50lbs of textbooks from class to class in a digital age that had long since rendered physical texts outmoded. This tendency of education to lag far behind the pace of technology was echoed by David MiddleBeck. He pointed out that the gap between those who create technology and the public that depends on it has widened at an alarming rate. He explained that education needs to embrace technology to personalize learning instead of relying on direct instruction that dates back to the industrial revolution.

There is however another side to this argument. As Pan et al. (2019) point out basic skills such as spelling don’t matter, until they do. As they point out job recruiters prize spelling and writing skills using them as a sieve to separate prospective candidates. Furthermore they state that recent reviews of academic literature affirm the efficacy of explicit spelling instruction. Writers such as Berger (2017) note that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss basic skills as promising technologies have come and gone in the past. Abandoning basic skills such as cursive writing without knowing if it will be permanently supplanted is in his opinion, premature.

One of the articles entitled “Mathematics deficit: Why do Canadian students still struggle in math?” was not, in my opinion, credible for the purpose of this discussion. The sources quoted within it represent private for profit tutoring organizations with a vested interest in recruiting clients. Their criticisms of schools are thus tainted as they have a strong economic incentive to paint a bleak picture of the state of public education.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. Education is not a zero sum game: we can still teach students basic skills while adequately preparing students for the future. The important consideration is the allotment of time, teachers need to be responsive to the individual needs of their students, but a day has only so many hours. I am comfortable with students learning their times tables if they are a means to an end, and not an end in and of themselves. Through pattern recognition, problem solving and inquiry they can employ said skills to further advance their learning.

Topic 4: Educators have a responsibility to use technology and social media to promote social justice.

With Great Power comes great Responsibility

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt

The Arguments of the Agree side

  • Teaching is not a neutral act; by failing to address social issues with students teachers are tacitly supporting the status quo and its power structures.
  • Teachers need to model and expose their students to pro-social behaviour (including activism).
  • Technology plays a critical role in disseminating social justice messages due to its prevalence and ability to connect and organize groups of people.

The Arguments of the Disagree side

  • Social media activism divorced from real world action is performative at best and harmful at its worst.
  • Teachers must walk a fine line between their personal and professional lives. Their actions online may have serious consequences and repercussions.
  • Objectivity and the appearance of relative neutrality allows students of various backgrounds to express their views and feel welcome within the classroom. Many teachers fear indoctrinating their students with their own ideas and beliefs.
  • Teachers are facing many demands in the classroom, social media activism is just another onerous requirement being placed upon them.

What does the research say?

In his TEDx lecture on the role technology plays in promoting social justice George Hofstetter (2019) describes how young people of colour have a “target on their backs” and must be extremely cautious in the way they move and behave in the world. His interest in technology gave him an outlet to confront the societal inequities he experienced by allowing him to network with subject area and experts in the fields of policing, policy making, and technology. Hofstetter (2019) is critical of public education and believes that it stifles creativity and “dismantles the idea of critical thinking.” He sees technology as instrumental in dismantling the influence of white supremacy in society. As Liang et al. (2010) observed educators need to utilize platforms that students are already familiar with. Thus it is critical that teachers use social media to spread social justice messages.

Confronting racial bias and discrimination through technology is also a central theme of Angela Watson’s podcast Some Things a Teacher Shouldn’t be Neutral About. Watson (2019) argues that it is impossible for educators to divorce real life experiences with racism and exclusion from their context and treat them as intellectual debates, as she notes when a student is the target of discrimination everything becomes personal and neutrality does not exist.  Whiteness allows many teachers the privilege of distancing themselves from these types of experiences. She states that educators with white privilege have a responsibility to use it to advocate for students who do not, the status quo is schools is both racist and biased and must be confronted by teachers.

Not all authors share in this enthusiasm. As Ashley Reid and Katie Sehl (2020) note there are many considerations one should consider before taking to social media. They argue that “genuine social media activism is supported by concrete actions, donations, and measurable commitments to change.” People can see through inauthentic behaviour and the consequences for deception can be severe. On the opposite end of the spectrum even sincere advocacy can have unintended consequences. According to Navindra Persaud 42% of educators were finding it more difficult to discuss politics with their students. In her view teachers fear sharing their political views due to pushback from parents. Madeline Will expands upon this stating that teachers not only fear alienating parents, but their students and coworkers as well. “They don’t want to hurt their relationships with parents, students, or colleagues who might have different beliefs than they do” she stated.

I believe the main sticking point in this debate lies in a single word: responsibility. By making social media activism a requirement we might inadvertently rob it of its authenticity. I would hate to see the passion for advocacy die as it becomes just another task that teachers have to perform. Passion, in my opinion, does not belong on a checklist to be evaluated. I think that mandatory social media activism also places some of my colleagues and I in an awkward positions. There has been a great deal of discussion in school divisions regarding work intensification and the effect it is having on mental health. This presupposes that all teachers are comfortable advocating on the very public forum that is the internet. There are other ways to be an ally in which you are not necessarily front and center. The Internet is not renown for being a place of sensible measured discussion. Will school divisions be prepared to defend their staff online if things get out of hand?

6 thoughts on “Debate Part 2: The Reckoning

  1. Hey Matt,
    I liked the way you have explained the both sides of both debates and also the research part. I know it gets frustrating when we are expected to be part of somthing on social platforms, which we don’t believe in personally. And many of us does that as we are not in a position to quit our job for that very thing alone. Teachers are already under pressure and this adds on to it. I too feel that there are more ways to participate in activisim rather than just posting online.

  2. Hey Matt. I always enjoy reading your posts. You’ve got an engaging writing style, so thank you!

    You point out the research on not being too quick to retire teaching basic skills such as spelling and cursive writing due to the fact that society is not universally ready for this across the board. It makes me think about the disparity in the way we teach and assess in elementary school versus in post-secondary institutions. Sometimes I feel like we are selling our students short with outcome-based assessments and the minimal use of percentages in assessment. If we are graded this way later in life, when the stakes are much higher, why are we doing it differently now? Sometimes it feels like trying to teach a kid to ride a bike without training wheels from the start. I suppose some might do fine… Anyway, I also think basic skills can’t be scrapped and a more balanced approach is the best plan for helping students be successful in today’s world.

  3. Hey Matt, very thorough summary of the two debates. Well done!

    First of all – I love the image of the two birds fighting over food… interesting choice!

    Second, your introduction to the amount of time in both a school day and year in regards to teaching basics vs. not is a good point. What gets prioritized and what doesn’t, and why! Does it depend on how many years you have been teaching? What subjects/grades you teach? Yes, teachers are passionate folk, but when and why do teachers choose to not change their practice?

    Finally, your thoughts on the whether social media activism is a requirement is interesting. I do agree with you that when things become required they go to the check list and then lose value. But I also look to the debate statement, which includes “technology”. Could technology not be a multitude of things? Emails? Websites? Where students could be taught how to write emails to government officials, or find websites that are credible… Just more thoughts to add!

  4. I would also say that more than the word “responsibility” also comes with the term “social media”. Do I think teachers have a responsibility to talk about social justice in their classrooms? Of course, I do, in fact, it is within our curriculums time and time again across the grades. However, do I think that teachers need to take that to social media in order to be activists? Nope. Not a chance. I think that authentic activism can happen in a variety of ways. When we prescribe how one should be an activist, then that’s something that I have a problem with. In today’s world, social media is not the end-all, be-all way to make a change.

  5. Hey Matt!
    I really enjoyed your post again this week. To answer your question at the end, it is hard to conclude anything but no on most occasions, especially if the advocacy falls outside of what official school division policy might be. While I think divisions want to support their staff (in most instances), often times their first priority is to protect the interests and reputation of the division (this is the same for any other company or industry). As well, I also appreciate how you brought up the word passion. I know many teachers have and do stick their necks out for things that they believe in, even if they might not have the support of their employer. Individuals like this, are in my opinion the drivers of significant and meaningful social change, putting their interests second. It would be both unfair, inorganic, and unuseful to make this sort of thing mandatory – most things of meanining or value must take place organically.

  6. Gerchew’s Blah posts
    Debate #2- technology has lead to a more equitable society- I disagree
    Jun 26
    Article One: A social media weapon for good. The attacks highlighted in this article and the students speaking out on social media is evident that there are greater problems for youth. They are speaking out on social media. This reflects a strong voice for the youth involved in this attack. It also speaks to the injustice of people in the world, from terror attacks, mental health terrorist attacks. This article also highlights the gaping holes and missing solutions to effectively address these fundamental issues.
    These articles were an interesting view of Technology and the need for restructuring, greater vision and solutions to create an equitable situation for all.

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