Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Determined Futures, Russian Interference, and Prescribed Lessons at School

I Think (M.A. Reilly, 2009)

Like you, I too have been following Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russian influence of the presidential election of 2016. After the indictments last week of 13 Russian operatives for interfering in the election and the recent charge Mueller filed against Alex Van Der Zwaan, a lawyer, for lying to investigators about his interaction with former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates, new questions have arisen regarding the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia. What I mostly wonder about, beyond the possibility that President Trump, Vice President Pence and their coterie of advisers committed treason is why did the Russian interference work?  It's interesting that little seems to be made of this. Why did so many US citizens believe the false stories generated by Russian operatives? What allowed them to be so susceptible to these lies?

For the last thirty years I have worked in education in the United States. I have taught across the K-12 span and later taught in graduate school and I have seen significant changes with regard to who owns learning and what constitutes thought. The insistence on measuring language arts and mathematics learning through high stakes tests for the last thirty-two years has allowed for greater and greater allegiance to prescribed programs and other “teacher-proof”materials. These practices have generated less and less thinking by teachers and children and more and more following.

In the article, "Restoring Points of Potentiality: Sideshadowing in Elementary Classrooms" (The Reading Teacher, 63(4)), I wrote about the intellectual peril of determined futures. The article focuses on the sanctioned learning of Robertio in a grade 3 suburban elementary classroom--one I had been working with as a researcher and an external consultant. In lieu of an actual curriculum, teachers at this school were directed by the superintendent and principal to cobble together lessons from a reading basal and a professional text about backward design. Marge Tamberson's lessons were delivered so that youngsters would name prescribed answers that aligned with the answers in the teacher's edition. Attaining right answers was the measure of success.

"In many classrooms, like Tamberson’s, time functions like a string of moments unwound by the teacher for students to follow, bead by bead, to determined outcomes. Here, time is understood as points of actuality—not potentiality. Thus, classroom events and sanctioned learning outcomes are foreshadowed. Foreshadowing, Bernstein (1994) wrote, relies on logic that “must always value the present, not for itself, but as the harbinger of an already determined future” (p. 2). The scripted literacy program Tamberson was given to “enact” foreshadows the determined future for students and teachers, making less likely the occasion for students to learn from their own experiences" (p. 298).

It is this unwinding action that most interests me now as I think of the allure of fake news that by its design must posit a determined future in lieu of possibility. Like many of Tamberson’s third graders, adults influenced by the Russian propaganda, followed seeds to a prescribed outcome: Hillary Clinton was a criminal and was not to be trusted with the presidency at any cost. It's that any cost, that allowed so many to select third party candidates like Jill Stein or even the GOP candidate, Donald Trump. It gave voters not inclined to vote for the rather amoral Trump,  permission to do so. Clinton in some of these fake news accounts was connected with a false conspiracy theory that "claimed that the [John Peodesta's] emails contained coded messages referring to human trafficking and connecting several U.S. restaurants and high-ranking officials of the Democratic Party with an alleged child-sex ring" (from here). Although ridiculous and discredited, many believed these lies to be truth and established the false claim that Hillary Clinton was involved in child abuse. On Facebook, "a large number of the posts on Heart of Texas went after Clinton directly, like this one with a manipulated image showing her shaking hands with 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and referring to her as a 'lying murderer and criminal' (from here). At Trump rallies, chants such as "lock her up" were also used on the fake news accounts by Russia.  These pages showed Clinton behind bars, citing she was a criminal and should be locked up. What these believed lies opened was permission to select a  other candidates given the false accounts that would lead one to believe that Clinton was treasonous and amoral.

To be clear, I am not suggesting here a causal relationship between education and the susceptibility of masses of people to believe manufactured news, but I do wonder if there might be a correlation. what happens when year after year, children learn to follow, rather than think?  Imagine now that Marge Tamberson's teaching which involved following prescribed lessons to determined outcomes was not a novel situation but rather the norm. What happens to how one thinks when getting the "right" answers is rewarded, whereas more novel and/or inaccurate attempts at thinking are punished?  Our desire to be right may well be undermining our need to think. What happens to the quality of thought when students watch teachers year after year mime the language of some other as they read from prescribed curricula? What do these actions teach? What exactly is being learned in such daily exercises?  What is being modeled about thought and thinking?

I'm curious what you think about this.

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