Web Literacy Across the Curriculum

We’re still teaching history using only print texts even as kids are being historicized online by Holocaust deniers and Lost-Causers. We’re teaching science in an era when online anti-vaxxers gain traction by using scientific language to deceive and intimidate. 

Sam Wineburg, The internet is sowing mass confusion. We must rethink how we teach kids every subject.

Couple good pieces out — one by Sam Wineburg, and an interesting response (expansion?) by Larry Cuban. The point, at least as I read it? Misinformation on the web is not really a subject — or, in any case, not only a subject. The web, after all, is an environment, a domain in which most professional, scholarly, and civic skills are practiced. Yet the structure of how we teach most subjects treats the web as either an afterthought, or worse, as a forbidden land.

If you know me and know this blog, this issue has been my obsession since before this blog was launched in 2007. Back in 2009 I dubbed the practice of ignoring the web as a target domain as “Abstinence-only Web Education“:

…what [the term] expresses [is] my utter shock that when talking to some otherwise intelligent adults about the fact that we are not educating our students to be critical consumers of web content, or to use networks to solve problems, etc — my utter shock that often as not the response to this problem is “Well, if students would just stop getting information from the web and go back to books, this whole problem would go away.”

Now I do believe that reading more books and less web is usually a good decision as part of a broader strategy. But most of what students will do in their professional and civic lives will involve the web.

My younger daughter, for example, is presenting to the school board tonight about how the integrated arts and academics magnet program she is in supports various educational objectives. When trying to understand what those objectives mean — from critical thinking to collaboration — she is not reading a textbook or going to a library. She is consulting the web.

And I am writing this at work as part of being in an informal professional development community, and you are reading it to maybe help you with your job.

These issues seem a million miles away from Pizzagate and blogs that tell you that sea ice is increasing and climate change is really a hoax. But they turn out to be adjacent. What happens if my daughter’s search for critical thinking lands on one of the recently politicized redefinitions of that term, which she ends up presenting to the school board? And you’re here at this blog, trusting me — but there are of course other blogs and articles that are written by people in the employ of ed tech firms, and those by people that have zero experience in the domain on which they write. Giving your attention to those sites may actually make you worse at what you do, or lead to your manipulation by corporate forces of which you are unaware.

Or maybe not! Maybe you’re good at all this.

Still, I keep coming back to that part of Dewey’s School and Society where he talks about the problem of transmission of knowledge in a post-agrarian society. In the first lecture in that work, Dewey talks about the way in which industrialization has rendered the processes of production opaque. In an agrarian society, he notes, “the entire industrial process stood revealed, from the production on the farm of the raw materials, till the finished article was actually put to use.” In such a world a youngster could simply observe, and see what competent practice looked like. To understand where things came from was to understand one’s household, and not much pedagogical artifice was required. With the introduction of complex, specialized and opaque systems, however, there was no opportunity to learn by looking over a parents shoulder, and so a more designed approach was required.

Two things occur to me re-reading that. The first is not necessarily a new media literacy insight. But that networked opacity we deal with — the complex network of actors and algorithms that lead to a piece of information or propaganda being displayed on your screen — is a very similar problem. There’s a part of that lecture where Dewey talks about how students that investigate the production of clothing walk through domains of physics, history, geography, engineering, and economics due to the complex set of historical, geographical, and other factors that have determined the way in which clothing gets made. The point he makes is that you can organize the curriculum around clothing, and the disciplines become meaningful.

I’m not proposing to do a complete retread of Dewey’s progressive education in 2019. We’ve learned a lot since Dewey about how people learn; that’s good and we should use that. But narrowly, what Dewey saw in clothing in 1899 I see in web literacy today. Here is a going social concern that combines sociology, psychology, history, engineering, algorithms, math, political science and so on. You don’t have to adopt unmodified Deweyism to see the opportunities there for integrative education. Elucidate the circumstances of production for this thing students are using most of their waking life. If you’re a high school or an integrative first-year program put together a year on it, and try it out.

The second point is on skills. Dewey noted that when professional knowledge moved out of farms and into factories and offices children lost the ability to observe competence in action. Work — and the skills associated with it — became hidden.

That’s still true today, but there’s another angle on this. Even in offices our skills are quite hidden because of the ways that this work evades third-party observation. Where there is an artifact of work — equations, code, writing, etc., a co-worker can ask “hey, why are you doing that in that way?” And where more ephemeral processes are public — soft skills exercised in a meeting for example — they can also be learned.

But web skills have the double whammy of leaving very little trace, and of being intensely private. And this makes transmission and improvement of these skills much more difficult, and creates a situation where there is a lot of hidden need. More on that in a later post.

2 thoughts on “Web Literacy Across the Curriculum

  1. I still see abstinence-only education in both K-12 and higher ed. It is often quiet.
    Very fine use of Dewey.
    On the privacy of web skills: what about showing our work, sharing our methods with web tools as we use them?

  2. A student in a face-to-face course asked me if “potty” comes from pottery, which Greeks used to make some toilets. I didn’t know, so I went to our local library website, pulled up the Oxford English Dictionary, searched for “potty” and found it is a 20th century term. Wineburg’s work on history education, along with Freire’s notion learning together inform my let’s find that together moment. Minor, yet I hope others do as Bryant suggest, “showing our work.”

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