#PLA2016: Sherry Turkle and the Power of Conversation

Turkle notes  pla 2016

This morning at PLA, I heard Sherry Turkle speak on her current research into conversation, a continuation of her work on exploring what happens to people mediated by, through and with technology.  It was a useful talk – lots of stuff worth remembering in there.  

I was struck by her emphasis on empathy and intimacy, and I share her concern about people building robots to replace people without considering what’s getting replaced1 . Technology isn’t a replacement for empathy, intimacy, or conversation, she says, and I agree. 

Some hurried thoughts on the talk, written in between morning sessions, are below.

Writing Is Conversation, Too

At the beginning of her talk, Turkle setup a dichotomy of email versus face to face conversation. She used an example of office hours where students come to visit versus her students’ preference to write, and receive, “perfect emails.” I didn’t care for the example, though I understood what she was trying to say – that the edited and perfect life is a preference for many, that anything but our best polished self isn’t worth sharing or communicating. It felt like she was dissing writing.

The problem was that I don’t think she allowed for the possibility that writing, via email or text or pen and ink or any other format IS a conversation tool.  A darn good one.

There’s a reason to pause while constructing a thought, either as a sentence or as a spoken statement – and the delivery of one’s self, in intimate and empathy building ways, is just as valid when done via a letter, a postcard, an email, a text, or whatever instead of a face to face conversation. Intimacy and empathy can certainly be fostered via written exchanges.

The need for people to be people with each other isn’t about the modality of our interaction – it’s about the intentionality we put into it. And, of course she knows and believes this, otherwise she wouldn’t write books – the only way to spread her message would be face to face, a return to a pre-literate culture. And I don’t think that’s consistent with her messages, essential messages, at all.

I want teachers and students and library people and pretty much everybody to spend more time thinking about what’s on their mind, and writing/speaking/typing it in some way to someone else. But I don’t want folks to confuse the method of delivery of a message with the value of the message itself.  Email isn’t evil – but it can be used to send plenty of evil. Texts aren’t the devil – but the devil sure knows how to text. You get the idea. And can extend the idea to any place where writing can be shared among people. The platforms aren’t necessary the problem – it’s what we do – and don’t do – with them that matters2

One point I’ve missed mentioning is the notion of the edited life versus the messy life. The messy bits, she argued, are where learning and love and intimacy and empathy happen. She’s right about that – but I’d push to say that plenty of the messy can and does happen not face to face but via writing and other ways of communicating. I hope she allows for that in her thinking, and that we will allow for that in the learning experiences and spaces we create for ourselves and others. I’ve often referred to this space as “first draft thinking.” I want folks to share their early drafts often, and I think this is one reason why. There’s power in the rawness of the early thinking. We learn from the pushback that happens after we start saying things.

Technology Isn’t The Problem with Attention and Empathy – Mindlessness Is

A recurring theme of Turkle’s talk was that phones and folks’ use of them were somehow causing the problem of loss of empathy.  That’s not quite right. It’s the mindlessness of phone and technology use that causes the loss of our personness. We need to not respond mindlessly to that – but to be intentional about how we engage with technology. So don’t blame the phone, and don’t ban the phone. (A common school reaction.) Instead, work to build ways to help people manage their technology, and to pause and allow time for reflection about how, when and where to use it. 

If you’ve a quiet area that’s intended for reflection, perhaps a shoebox on the table for temporary device storage is a good idea. A local fast food restaurant makes quarantine boxes available for devices at their restaurant. I think they call them “family time” boxes, intended for device storage during the meal. That’s a killer idea, one that I will implement at my house for dinner time soon.

We Have To Be Intentional About What We Want to Be/Make/Experience

It’s not enough to be less mindless – we have to be more mindful. 

A bigger theme of her talk is that we have to be mindful and intentional about what we want our worlds to look like, and how we want to be in them. There’s a place for solitude, she argued, in helping us to figure that out. We have to know ourselves in order to be able to share those selves with others. Yep. She says the best line in her book is: “Technology can make us forget what we know about life.” And I mostly agree – but I’d push a bit and say that one of the big problems with the way that we interact with each other is that we don’t take time to consider what we actually DO know about life, or what we want to know more about. 

And we certainly, at least in formal learning situations, are far too quick to decide for others what they know about life, and what that means for them. We’ve got to look after each other better. 

After hearing this talk, I’m certainly off to get a copy of her latest book. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you’ve gotten into it already. Tell me about it in the comments. 

  1. I also wonder if the replacement, if it’s “good enough,” can actually lead to more empathy and intimacy for people – but that’s a different blog post. Likely about Turing tests. []
  2. That’s not to say that the way we build these platforms isn’t important, too, but again, that’s a different post. []
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On Agency, and #whyIwrite

Earlier this evening, I had a conversation with a colleague who is thinking hard, very hard, about how to teach and perpetuate SEL1 principles in classrooms in deep and meaningful ways for children.

We ended up talking because I pushed a bit to ask that, as she creates resources to be used widely by Very Important People, she consider the importance of including teachers and the grown ups in schools.

If teachers and administrators don’t experience care and concern in the habits and practices of their work, I cannot fathom how they will be able to perpetuate those same habits and practices of care and concern with and for the children that they serve.

Our charge in the conversation was to generate some ideas about how to “operationalize social and emotional learning.” An important charge. So she needs to advocate and articulate discreet and specific actions, habits and practices that will lead to greater care, concern and recognition of the children in learning institutions.

As is often the case in such work, it’s difficult to turn theory, even the best ones, into actionable habits and practices in plain language. And when you don’t spell out the specifics, then wide dissemination of practice that leads to significant change is, well, difficult, to say the least.

We talked for a long while, and shared stories and ideas and experiences of how we want students and teachers to feel safe and looked after, but also about agency, a key term that’s emerging for her as essential in moving forward the idea that social and emotional learning practices must happen at school. It’s essential in my work, too. So I pushed for the conversation.

I’m not sure that I was helpful, but as Toby Ziegler reminded us once, sometimes, you’ve gotta preach to the choir – because that’s how you get them to sing.

Because it was productive and fertile and rich2 , I was ruminating over the conversation and the charge. And figured it’d be worth taking a moment to try to tease out some of the specifics that came up, and that maybe, just maybe, would help move her work forward. So I took to my notebook and made a list of the habits and practices I wanted to remember:
agency notes 1
agency notes 2
You probably can’t read my writing, but I’ll come back to this list at some point to take it further if I’m able.

Agency isn’t something you can give to someone else3. It isn’t something you can demand, require or mandate. It’s something, like a flower or a good relationship, that you can work to create the essential conditions for, and if you’re lucky, you might can watch blossom.

You can invite folks to engage. You can ask them to try. But you can’t force something to grow. You can’t mandate love. You can only work to create the essential conditions under which it could grow.

If anyone ever says they can “give” you or yours agency, then they’re mistaken.

But helping to build spaces where people can flourish is quite a delightful way to get to contribute to the rich tapestry of human experience. And such a great use of one’s potential.

And, as today is the National Day on Writing, it’s worth jotting some of these thoughts down. Because, friends, here’s the thing:

I want my schools and libraries, and my children’s schools and libraries, and your schools and libraries, to be places where everyone feels safe to explore and wonder and dream and play. I want the learning environments we create for teachers and students and everyone that might enter them to feel exciting and joyous and wondrous and safe.

I want the tech that I develop, implement and support to work to support people, and not the other way around. I want the fights to be clean and respectful and focused on building things and people up, instead of tearing anyone or anything down.

I don’t know if love and care, if genuine respect for young people, can scale. But I sure want to try. I want to work on that. And, at least in some small way, that’s what I am fortunate to get to try to do.

That’s why I get up in the morning. That’s why I go to work. That’s why I write.

And I want you to want that, too.

  1. That’s Social Emotional Learning, of course.  []
  2. Three words, as you might’ve noticed, that mean the same thing. []
  3. As I’ve said before. []
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“A Way of Caring”

Two things from today that intersected in a useful way:

Early this morning, a teammate noticed another group at the library had a big pile of work on their hands.  She asked my permission to help them.  Because the person who used to sit in my seat at the library valued keeping teams separate.  Their work is their work.  Ours is different.  That was the old message.

My teammate’s desire, when she saw a need, was to help fill it.  She wanted to make sure I was okay with that.

Boy, was I.

I encouraged her to always help someone on our big team, the entire library team, when she saw somewhere she could contribute.1

Also earlier today, Zac wrote a bit about what it means to be someone’s teacher after they finish your class.  Here’s the important piece:

That’s a world I want to live in, and it’s what I want to model. I want my students to know I’ll be here. I want them to see that as a way of caring for those around them.

As I grow into my new role as a manager of the work of others, that’s what I want, too – not to direct too much, or dictatorially, but to be someone who walks a walk that suggests that it matters more that we’re helpful, kind and considerate, rather than we’re the best team of the teams.

I don’t much care how many email hacks you know, or what browser extensions you’ve mastered, so long as you’re trying every day to be a kind and compassionate person.

Tech is simple compared to that.

Today, I started an email migration project, moving from one platform to another.  It’s going pretty well. But the work I’m proudest of this week is when my teammate knew that I’d be okay with helping, and that I’d give her permission to care.

 

  1. Her heart already pulled her there.  It’s too bad a former supervisor interfered with that inclination. []
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In a Moment of Transition, A Challenge to Myself

When I left my last job, and the team of great people I got to call friends and colleagues, I left behind a note for them as the best possible way I could say some of what I wanted to end our professional relationship with.  Much of that note was for them, and has no place online, but some of the letter, a bit of “last advice,” was as much for me moving into my new position as it was for them staying on to do what I used to.  And I don’t want to forget what I said.  It was, for me, a challenge to myself.  

Transitions are special moments, moments where we seem to be granted a bit of pause, a bit less to do, and the opportunity to think deeply about what’s happened, and what’s yet to be.  The yet to be bit here is important.  Transitions are also special because there’s no set way to do the new things that are to come.  Habits don’t yet exist.  So I wanted some words by which to guide the new habit formation I’ve been doing for the last three weeks now, and hope to be fiddling with for the next several months.  Here’s what I suggested they remember to do and be, and here’s what I hoped for myself as I moved forward, too:

What follows is a little bit directed at you, but it’s also a reminder for me as I head into my next thing.  

Consider this my last request – if a departing colleague gets one.  It’s pretty simple, and it’s somebody else’s line, but it’s this:

Be excellent to each other.  In all you do.

By “excellent” I mean kind.  Fair.  Honest.  Open.  Patient.  Gentle.  Firm.  Hold each other to high standards.  Be brave.  Take turns being brave.  Help each other be brave when you can’t be yourselves.  Be tenacious.  When something matters, make sure it matters.   And when it doesn’t, please let it go, gracefully.  Serve one another, in big things and little things.  Especially little things – they’re practice for the big ones.  

By “each other” I mean, well, each other.  But I also mean everyone you come into contact with.  Especially the folks we serve.  I am guilty of being too quick to judge sometimes.  Some ideas won’t have merit.  Some products aren’t good for children.  But be big enough to be excellent to anyone who offers something your way.  

Basically, be the amazing teachers I know you to be. To all people and in all situations.  That’s what I wanted from this team when it was just me.  And then two.  Then three.  Now six.  And we’ve done pretty good so far.  I’ve stumbled.  We’ve all stumbled.  There are stumbles ahead.  But when we’re at our best, we’re excellent to each other.  If I’ve such a thing as a legacy here, I’d want it to be that.  

I don’t much care, in the grandest scheme of things, about technology chops.  Or about spreadsheets, TPS reports, or the odd other deliverables that can and often should get made in the course of one’s work.  If the being excellent happens, then the rest will come along. 
 
So my challenge to myself, as I dig deeper into my new work, is to do my best to be excellent to everybody I come across.  It’s a mighty challenge, one I’ll fail at often, but one worth taking a big swing at.  
And all my new habits, I hope, are aimed in that direction.
 
There’s more to say about my new role and my new work, and the incredible people I’m serving now, but that’s another post.  

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Where’s Your Refrigerator?

A couple of years ago, when I was doing some regular work for an area art museum, my daughter, Ani, asked me if, on our next trip to visit the museum, it’d be okay if we took along some of her artwork to show the museum.

That was a tricky conversation we had to have then, about who gets to decide what hangs in museums for other folks to look at.  But it wasn’t hard for me to suggest to her that we can make our own display spaces whenever and wherever we have something we’re proud of, something we want other people to see.  And we have them at our house – the piano wire stretched along the back of our playroom, for one.  There’s always a fresh clothespin or two there for hanging the next made thing.  Our refrigerator is another, frequent home to excellently made things by our children.

Museums have, for the most part, embraced the idea that the stuff that visitors make or create is valuable.  They even have fancy names for it – “User Contributed Content” I’ve heard some of my museum-y friends call it.  But the stuff that the visitors make is not often given the same prominence of place as the stuff that the museum selected to hang.  That’s okay.  It’s their space.

What isn’t okay, at least to me, is how many students and grownups I meet who would say they don’t have anything to share, or to hang up for folks to look at because they’re proud of how they made it, or what it looked like when they finished.  They’re not making stuff.  And the stuff that they make by accident isn’t something they’re proud of.

IMG 7699

We should all have a refrigerator and a handful of magnets around and available for us to use to display our next creation.  We should all be creating regularly enough that we know we’ll have a “next creation.”  And it should be easy for us to find and see and respond to the refrigerators of the people we care the most about.

This blog turns ten years old right around now – I’m not sure of the exact date.  Since I started it, it’s been my fridge of sorts for posting stuff I’ve been wondering or thinking about, and some of the stuff I was proud of or wanted to share.  I go through different periods of activity here – I’ll write regularly for a while, then drift away for a bit.  Some of what I’m most proud of doesn’t make it here, because it shouldn’t be shared widely, or I don’t want it on the Internet, but plenty of it does.  And having the blog reminds me that I CAN share stuff, even if I don’t.

Even when I’m not writing here, though, I am thinking about what I might make next, and I know that I can create and make things whenever I’d like to.  That’s something that I don’t think plenty of capable people have – the knowledge that they’ll be making something in the future that I’ll want to share.  Even when I’m my most frustrated, I carry that little bit of hope, the hope that I’m not done yet, and there’s more that I can contribute.

“How can we make sure that everybody carries hope like that?” is something I’m wondering about as I start the second decade of my life as a blogger.

What’s on your fridge right now?  What’ll you put there next?  And where are the fridges that we need for sharing the stuff that won’t fit in other places?

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Investing Meaning, Clarifying Objectives, and Remembering Care

No one has come out openly for the smashing of television receivers, teaching machines, or even computers, but there is an uneasy feeling among some educators that technology is dehumanizing education.  There is conversion that the student is becoming a programmed robot; that decision making in matters of school management, methodology, and even curriculum, is slipping into the hands in impersonalized computer-programmers; and that the ever-widening, ever more rapid flood of electronic, photography, magnetic, automated instructional systems is turning the teacher into a button pusher.  

The business of education is to invest experience with meaning and organize it in a way which will expand the individual’s capacity for further learning.  Developments in educational technology are amplifying and accelerating this process.  

The significant effect has been to force both teachers and learners to clarify their objectives and methods, and assume more, not less, responsibility in the search for leaning in a world of ambiguity, change and stress.  

The sophistication and proliferation of machines, and more carefully designed media programs offer no hope at all to those who believe that someday man’s thinking will be done for him.  

“Machines, Media, and Learning,” Robert W. Wagner, Educational Leadership, March 1966

I came across the above passage while I was searching through some old EL back issues this weekend.  My original quest was to find older articles on writing instruction.  Then I slipped into looking for past articles about technological developments.1 I love the two purposes for education and teachers therein – the business of education being to invest experience with meaning and the idea that teachers and learners should clarify their objectives and methods.

Let’s be intentional.  Good reminder, and one I incorporated into a talk I gave today to my colleagues regarding what we should be focusing on now that we’ve distributed iPads to our middle school students.  The tablets by themselves won’t change a thing about instruction.  But they’ll give us some new opportunities and options.  Let’s be intentional about what we do with them.2

Tonight, as I reviewed Audrey’s keynote on “Ed Tech’s Monsters,” I found a third purpose that seems connected to the first two.  Or I liked it because Audrey and I share a fascination with the revolutions of the past and how similar they are to the revolutions of today, particularly in the “there’s never been anything like this”-ness of them that turns out to be repeated over and over and over.

Her added purpose was, and I’m taking this a bit out of context – you should really read her entire talk:

To be clear, my nod to the Luddites or to Frankenstein isn’t about rejecting technology; but it is about rejecting exploitation. It is about rejecting an uncritical and unexamined belief in progress. The problem isn’t that science gives us monsters, it’s that we have pretended like it is truth and divorced from responsibility, from love, from politics, from care. The problem isn’t that science gives us monsters, it’s that it does not, despite its insistence, give us “the answer.” 

And that is problem with ed-tech’s monsters. That is the problem with teaching machines.

In order to automate education, must we see knowledge in a certain way, as certain: atomistic, programmable, deliverable, hierarchical, fixed, measurable, non-negotiable? In order to automate that knowledge, what happens to care?

I wonder about love and care and their place in teaching and learning.  I wonder about how we make sure to invest experiences with meaning and create capacity for further learning.  I want teachers and students both to think hard – very, very hard – about their objectives and the way they approach them.

As I’m beginning a new school year with plenty of new challenges, one of which is my struggle of late to document and reflect upon my experiences, I feel like these are worthy purposes to ponder a bit right now.

So that’s what I’m doing.

  1. Found some fascinating pieces on the need for audio-visual staff in schools in the 1940s. []
  2. We’ve, of course, been down the “this new thing will change everything” rhetoric before.  And before.  But nothing much changes.  We incorporate the new technology into some old (often bad, but sometimes good) habits.  Then hope for the next thing. Let’s stop hoping and start doing. []
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A Little Bit of Modeling. A Whole Lot of Love.

I taught a class tonight and made it home just in time for bedtime.  I’d been looking forward to stories – and expected my daughters to be on their way up to bed.  But what I found instead was that Ani was already in bed and tucked in.  She wasn’t feeling super well and had retired early.  

Without packing her lunch.  Which meant it was going to be my job.  

But I found out that the lunch wasn’t made because I caught Teagan, her younger sister, already in the process of packing two lunches.  Without any prompting or complaining, she was helping out.  Just to be nice.

That, though, wasn’t what floored me.  I watched Teagan grab a Sharpie and begin to mark up the sandwich bag she had just filled full of sliced peppers, a staple vegetable in our school lunches.  Immediately, I told her that she needed to show her mother what she had done.  

She did this1:

Teagan Loves Ani

 

I can’t tell you how proud I was.  But I can tell you that I never told her, explicitly, that the way you help someone feel better is to write them a note.  That was something we modeled for her by slipping notes her way from time to time.  

You can’t teach love, so much, by way of demanding it or requiring it or lecturing on its finer points.  You’ve got to model it.  You’ve got to live it, or at least try to, and let the lesson come through a little bit on its own, as we trust that our children, or students, or colleagues, pay attention.  

Tonight’s scribbled notes2 were a fine reminder that, even when an example isn’t perfect, plenty of times the message still gets across.  

And I wonder where and how I could be modeling love better, myself.3  

  1. It’s maybe a bit hard to read – but it says “I love yuo (sic) Ani! (Heart) Teagan”. []
  2. She wrote a similar message on the pizza in another sandwich bag, too. []
  3. Later, Teagan chose Peter Reynolds’ The Dot as her story for the night.  Love notes to sisters and that book were the one-two punch of love for me tonight.  If you haven’t read that book, oh, you really should. []
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Would You Please Say Something Nice?

After the announcement last week, and carrying on into today, I’ve gotten such nice messages from people, many I know, several I do not, saying the nicest things about me. It’s been pretty nice.  Really nice.  Wonderfully . . . you get the idea.

I wonder why we don’t always take the time to say nice things to other folks whenever we feel them, rather than waiting for a social cue like a big announcement or award or life event.

And then I saw this video, and realized that he said what I want to say pretty well:

It’s Thanksgiving Eve here in these United States.  Thanksgiving is certainly a time for being grateful and remembering to honor the people we are thankful for.  So would you do something for me this weekend?  Won’t take but five minutes, tops.  Take a second to think about someone for whom you are thankful, or proud of, or excited to know, and write them a short note, email, tweet, status update, or any other message, and let them know.  Be sincere, and be specific, but take the moment.

It’s so worth doing.  And so easy to forget to do.  Go ahead.  I’ll save this corn dog for you for when you get done.

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A 500-Year Flood (of Gratitude.)

It’s quit raining in Fort Collins at the moment, after three days of continual drizzle and sometimes pounding rain.  Last night, a patched hole in my roof began to drip a bit of water into the house.  That’s nothing.

The town where I work right now, though?  It’s cut in half by the river that’s blown its banks across the town.  Two other communities in the district where I serve are cut off from the rest of the world as all the roads that could get you in or out of there are no longer available for travel, or are simply gone.  And to the south, in Denver, more and more reports of flooding and evacuation.  They’re calling it, in Longmont, a 500-year flood event.

But it’s not raining here right now, and tomorrow my children will head to school, as they have a pretty normal day.

Across Twitter and Facebook and the eavesdropping police scanner app I promised that I wouldn’t download or turn on, I’m seeing/hearing/checking in on lots of folks who are having terrible evenings.  Homes flooded.  Families separated.  Water seeping into places water just doesn’t usually go.

And there’s pretty much nothing I can do tonight from my reasonably dry home not so far away from the communities and students and teachers I serve.  Save for listening and watching and cheering on the bus drivers and support staff and police, fire, and community leaders who are digging in and helping out as best they can.

Being helpless isn’t something I’m all that good at.

So let me say this, as I’m wringing my hands in helplessness and thinking of how to help down the line:  If you’re in the thick of it tonight, and bringing comfort, or blankets, or warm snacks to those without; if you’re driving a borrowed bus around the drowning streets of a Colorado town, taking families to safety, or reuniting them; if you’re coordinating shelters, or support, or just passing information along as a way of making sure it’s out there; if you’re helping right now; if you’re doing what you can,

well, then.

Thank you.

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