Sunday, July 18, 2010

Web 2.0 Has Infiltrated Culture: Teachers Must Be Literate Guides

My school has sent me to a special two-week training in Sacramento. I am learning about Waldorf education at Rudolf Steiner College. Nearly everything I am studying jibes beautifully with what I believe kids need. Steiner’s developmental models are brilliant, intuitive, and spiritual. I will be a better, more conscious teacher because of this training. That being said, I am concerned that some Waldorf advocates demonstrate a certain inflexibility about change and growth.

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, presented a very complex set of theories that informed his approach to teaching. His writings around Anthoposophy, a kind of metaphysics which he invented, are very complex. I usually consider myself a pretty competent student, but I have struggled miserably through everything of his I’ve read. Even my father-in-law, a historian who is currently translating Freud from German, couldn’t figure out much of Steiner’s philosophical writings. For some Waldorf advocates, it is probably easier to just accept certain ideas of Steiner’s at face value, because the many practical applications to Waldorf education make such good intuitive sense. Indeed, I would like accept at face value what I can’t piece together about Steiner’s deeper theories because so much of what does make sense, makes such good sense. However, the risk in this approach is the loss of a self-critical eye. Within the Waldorf world, I believe such default acceptance of ideas has led to a certain inflexibility, or rigidity of methodology and content.

In particular, it seems to me that many of the Waldorf scholars and trainers are conspicuously neo-Luddite in their views. They eschew technology and media, a position which emerges from a beautiful set of values and goals around the development of the child’s imaginative capacities, but which I am convinced puts them deeply at odds with the thrust of the 21st Century world and culture. Granted, that thrust is not always a good thing, perhaps more often than not it is problematic. Indeed, some offspring of information technology have the destructive potential of a tsunami, but we ignore such waves at our great peril.

As teachers, we are working with children who will not enter the world eschewing technology –not if they want to be a part of the world, conscious in the world, active in the world, alive in the world, and relevant to the world. The implications of technology have penetrated that deeply into our social fabric. And there can be no selective mutism when discussing the Information Revolution’s role in education. I see that many adults who live in the world today with very little connection to technology become quite disenfranchised. School teachers in general -whether Waldorf trained or not- are usually less technologically literate than their students. Still, teachers have the unique gifts of adult perspective and discernment, and are able to spot trends and identify issues that the children can't see. We teachers have a huge responsibility to speak the language of technology, which is increasingly dominating the language of youth. As I tried to bring this up during one of our class presentations here at Steiner College, I realized that my Waldorf trainers themselves did not really speak the language of technology sufficiently to examine the deeper issues and to discuss what is actually at stake for children when we don’t serve as articulate and informed advisors around issues of technology. I’m not referring to the debate about whether we teach kids how to surf the net. I’m talking about how to exist as an awake person in a world where unconscious, junk-food communication can often rule the day. To teach about healthy eating, we have to study nutrition and physiology. We can’t simply ignore the issue of food, or tell our students, “don’t eat what everyone else is eating because it’s bad stuff.” We have to know what is out there, how it might be abusive to our systems, or how it might heal us. Much of technology is a miracle, a gift. But unless we know the finer details, we teachers can’t disaggregate the gifts from the curses, nor be of service to our students as they navigate this information world. The Waldorf trainers don’t seem literate in the current issues regarding such things as social media, trending, the Long Tail, bookmarking sites, mashups, first adopters, Wikis, social software, aggregators, RSS readers, etc. Without this language, they can’t really have a substantive conversation about why we teachers might have to know this stuff. If we don’t really understand what the technology is, we simply can’t discuss what children need to know about that world, and what aspects of that knowledge requires a teacher’s direction and guidance. It doesn’t work to dismiss it all, to avoid it all. My Waldorf trainers seem to think of 'media' as limited to television, movies, advertising, computers, or the ‘internet.’ Clearly, these are the visible products of technology but they don't point to the more subtle 'software' of the Information Revolution which is actually reprogramming the human social animal from the inside out. What I’m talking about is, at a minimum, developing a working knowledge of Web 2.0, which Wiktionary defines as, “the second generation of the World Wide Web, especially the movement away from static webpages to dynamic and shareable content and social networking.”

When the internet first arrived, it mainly facilitated quick communication (email) and rapid access to information (websites). Web 2.0, which is a term to frame the 'new web,' concerns not just how information is presented and accessed, but more importantly how users can now interface with both content and with other users.

These new ways of connecting through social networking are changing the very fabric of human communication, interpersonal interaction, and culture itself. We are in the midst of a revolution in social connectedness, in the nature of human communication, in the structure of interpersonal relations. Web 2.0 is especially powerful because it is subtle and invisible, like the software code that runs a complex machine. It effects our lives when we're logged on and when we're logged off. It has captured our imagination, hijacked much of our waking thought, and has now infiltrated the organic processes that generate culture and propel cultural change.

The implications and impacts of Web 2.0 have accompanied the dawning of this 21st century, a time when humanity is in the midst of achieving new levels of consciousness and awareness. For several decades now, human cultures have witnessed the upending of inequitable social systems and a flowering of deeper human values. We are at what Joanna Macy and David Korten have called The Great Turning, a time of immensely positive changes in human development. And these changes couldn’t come a moment too soon, because the very sustainability of our planetary ecosystems, our living biosphere is now at stake. So in the midst of this vast change in human consciousness, we see that technology has not only come along for the ride, but it appears to be an active partner in this process of cultural evolution.

Although the information revolution is shaking many things up, the implications will be largely invisible to people who are not paying attention. Teachers must be lucid, informed, articulate, and thoughtful in how they guide students through this world. We teachers, as older ‘digital immigrants’ who were not born with this language swirling around us, must attempt to learn the intricacies of the digital world as it is emerging or we will certainly fail to provide adequate direction and guidance to our students. What is happening in Web 2.0 may be more impactful on human beings than all the previous media combined. “Media” no longer refers simply to a set of images that bounce against our consciousness, seek to manipulate our buying habits, or sabotage our imaginative capacities. The new social media are uprooting traditional and ancient forms of interpersonal communication and human interaction. Web 2.0 is restructuring culture from the inside out. Where this revolution facilitates The Great Turning, the awakening of human consciousness, we must support it, direct it, and retool where necessary. But where Web 2.0 undermines human decency, disrupts fair discourse, or erodes healthy relations, we must remain vigilant, savvy, ever watchful, and willing to intervene. To safely guide and appropriately encourage our students, to be of service to them in this emerging world, we must be functionally literate (if not fluent) in the more subtle aspects of Web 2.0. This is our clear responsibility as teachers, and our mandate as mentors of 21st century youth.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for articulating this really important distinction and conversation.