Sunday, November 11, 2007

Training is not Understanding & Knowledge is not Wisdom

Our district is finally making strides with technolgy. For six years I have languished falling behind the times in geometric progression. Now, we are playing catch-up, and I feel like a dinosaur. Last week I was part of a technology “training.” I don’t think it was training in the traditional sense – because I have not gained an understanding of what I am expected to do as a librarian in an elementary school. What it was - seemed to be a group of people who could potentially become a community of learners and sharers who saw how little they know! It was wonderful to be called together in an exploratory manner.

Like the little girl in the Hobyah story, I was wishing I could call in Little Dog Turpy to go and seek out the Hobyahs and eat them up so that I would not have to live in a world with Hobyahs! Technology feels like a Hobyah, even to someone who welcomes it and has been an advocate for many years. Here is why--

1. It would be less so if the world were full of people who were not afraid that their part of it were disappearing and they had to have something to cling to in order to remain viable. (that includes me---)

Because there are no clearly defined roles in the landscape—I find myself constantly tugged in many directions, and without knowing where I am going, I feel that all of them are equal! One of the things I was hoping for at this training was a bit clearer and more easily expressed understanding of where librarians fit in. I need to grasp more of the whole. What do we want to accomplish with the technology and how do librarians play a helpful role?

2. We are putting powerful tools in hands that may have less conceptual understanding of what is expected than I do. Our district has invested millions of dollars in Safari Montage. AND it will look like we are using technology when in reality we may only be showing video clips.

The heady idea, 15 years ago, that technology would lead to a natural evolution in teaching has not materialized. Until the old model of Sage on the Stage is replaced with the Guide on the Side we will continue to reap few benefits from the technologies we install. Teachers showing clips and projecting onto a screen is not substantially different from projecting on an overhead. It looks different, but it isn’t.

Librarians fit naturally into the guide on the side model, because at least at secondary levels that is pretty much what they do. “Send me your tired frustrated searchers yearning to be free of limited sources....we lift our lamps beside the golden door!" (apologies to Lazarus) We traditionally not only helped people locate information, but help them think about the information they find.” As Sven Birkets pointed out in his Gutenberg Elegies, much of the new technology works well with researching information.

Birkerts helps us see the problems and potentials of technology as if we were standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and looking at the millennia of collected history. He makes the big picture in clear relief against my frenzied and frustrated view in the trenches! He was the first person who gave me the understanding of how different the linear approach of a book is compared to hypertext in which it is easy to follow our own curiosity down the rabbit warren.

Birkerts asks philosophical questions about the means and ends of this new technology. He distinguishes between different kinds of knowledge and learning, and even in the best of hyperworlds where all the documentation is accurate and not driven by its design to sell the user some commodity, there are some important questions to answer. The following quote from Chapter 8 illustrate what I am feeling.

Pertinent here is German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey's distinction between the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften), which seek to explain physical events by subsuming them under causal laws, and the so-called sciences of culture (Geisteswissenschaften), which can only understand events in terms of the intentions and meanings that individuals attach to them.
To the former, it would seem, belong the areas of study more hospitable to the new video and computer procedures. Expanded databases and interactive programs can be viewed as tools, pure and simple. They give access to more information, foster cross-referentiality, and by reducing time and labor allow for greater focus on the essentials of a problem. Indeed, any discipline where knowledge is sought for its application rather than for itself could only profit from the implementation of these technologies. To the natural sciences one might add the fields of language study and law.
But there is a danger with these sexy new options–and the rapture with which believers speak warrants the adjective–that we will simply assume that their uses and potentials extend across the educational spectrum into realms where different kinds of knowledge, and hence learning, are at issue. The realms, that is, of Geisteswissenschaften, which have at their center the humanities.

I am reminded of an essay I read in high school, by Aldous Huxley which changed the way I thought about language. Huxley made the point that embedded in the very language was a cultural understanding. He used the difference between alphabetic languages and languages that incorporate pictographs. In Chinese the word for good uses a pictograph which is a mother cradling her child. There is nuanced meaning there. But in a phonetic language, like English, the letters produce the sounds for 'good’ devoid of any nuance.

As we rush headlong into web 2.0. I need to be thinking deeply about the impact of what we are ALL doing. I need time to learn and process and to reflect. I need to be clear about what it is I want to accomplish and what that accomplishment might look like while I am walking on that path. I need a community to surround me in love and work with me as we struggle together.

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