The impact of conformity in education

In 2009 I was fortunate enough to be part of a conversation that led to “preparing for the post-digital era”. This week we all got asked to do a ten years later reflection, and, as I’m at an NSF funded retreat (at Biosphere 2!) talking about equity in STEM education, i thought it made sense to try and use the postdigital as a tool to interrogate equity and education.

Let’s start here. Social media isn’t a jerk.

I wish I could send a smack-upside-the-head to ten-years-ago-dave. When things like Twitter were still places of positive connection and occasional porn sites jumping your hashtag, we had this idea that the connection between people was somehow going to be different. We told everyone to join twitter if they wanted to be smarter, better, taller! 10-years-ago-dave didn’t understand that it was inevitable that the rest of the human experience was going to impact those spaces. Twitter was full of people in 2009 and full of more people now in 2019.

Here’s the thing… it’s not like we didn’t know the world was full of jerks. If you’d asked 2009-dave if there were jerks everywhere, he would have nodded sagely. This is why I can’t believe that he didn’t see 2014-twitter as an inevitable outcome. In 2014 the jerks found twitter. Or, at least, they found out how to use twitter in a way that allowed them to show they were jerks. They yelled at people. They abused people. People were harmed. It is still happening. They have made the internet very unsafe for many people. They were mean to people because they were different. They attacked people who weren’t totally dedicated to the privilege of the jerks. People seem to do that from a desire for power and attention. They also do it to find a sense of belonging with others who share a desire for power and attention. That desire didn’t materialize in 2014.

In my work I always say that technology reinforces pedagogy. The technology here amplifies the jerk… it doesn’t make the jerk. More importantly, the technology ISN’T the jerk. And when we see ‘social media’ as a thing, in and of itself, rather than a just a way people platform themselves – no different than the speaker platform at hide park – we miss the solutions. Our technologies are good ways to find a jerk, but the solution to that is to deal with the jerk, not the technology.

So. Social media is not a thing that needs to be fixed. People connecting with people is a thing. Jerks are a thing. Jerks are not a digital problem. Jerks are a real-world problem that has been around for a long time. We need to get past the digital and fix our real-world jerk problem. And, as we go along, we have to think about how our systems help create those jerks.

Part two – we actually can negotiate a new social contract

A thousand years ago, steel encased thugs with sharpened crowbars (swords) were wandering around the countryside in Europe punching cows. I’m not joking. They were jerks. They were literally punching cows, as well as stealing people’s stuff and, all too often, killing random, innocent people. The church, not usually the benevolent actor in medieval history tales, had an idea. They created the Peace and Truce of God movement. Local clergy would make a pile of all the saints relics they could find and try and get knights together to swear to this new social contract. Saints relics were the brand that enforced that change. The peace of god was an attempt to try and protect people (clergy were particularly singled out as people who needed protection) but it extended to property and livestock. The truce of god was an attempt to have days that violence was off limits. Sundays. Holidays.

Technology (horse + sword + armor + castle) had create a societal problem that needed to be addressed. A thousand years later you can see the impact of the PTG in our culture. They actually looked at something that was a side effect of a technology and went out and renegotiated a social contract to get it done. It actually worked. It took 2 or 3 hundred years… but it you look at what words like polite, or proper actually came to mean in that society, lots of it can be traced back to that original (admittedly self-interested) work by the church.

The church is no longer the societal institution threatened by free-roving jerks who’ve slipped the bonds of the old social contract. Democracy is, to what extent we have it.

And we need a pro-social web dammit. And we need to make it.

I honestly think that our education system can be that brand that allows us to make this change. Our education system, however, is often kind of a jerk. That education system is a systemic structure that teaches us to believe in power over people.

Deciding what knowledge someone needs is an exercise is having power over someone. Assessment, particularly, is grounded in power structures. Learning as its been traditionally perceived by our culture is a sorting process. Whether it is the way in which we separate the ‘expert’ and the novice through degree granting methods or the bell curve which either secretly of overtly lives under our % system, it is the way by which we apply different class markers to people. It is a ‘we-making’ process and it is, like all we-making processes, a ‘them-making’ process. We are literate. We have a PhD. We are the teacher. We are an A student. All of these things exclude the people who are not part of the ‘we’ belonging.

Those expectation are… not equitable. They privilege a certain background. They privilege a certain kind of thinking… or knowing. In a sense, our education system is a training ground for the privileges of conformity. A conformity that is certainly easier for many, and a conformity that is totally inaccessible to many. It teaches people that conformity to power is what belonging looks like.

So lets go back to our social media jerk. Jerks go online to exercise their power by attacking people for not conforming to their sense of belonging. The louder they yell… the more they run in a pack… the more they attract people to their conformity group and the more firmly they exclude the them that don’t conform. This is the system of power that our schools represent.

I’m not saying that our schools necessarily make jerks… what I’m saying is that the ways on which knowing is negotiated in our schools supports this way of negotiating truth. If you have power, you can be right. If you have power, you can decide who’s right. Also… there are things that are RIGHT and learning things about the world is about trying to find the right answer.

We need our schools to replicate models of inclusivity and equity that are not about the imposition of conformity. That means that we accept people the way they come in the door, and we help them come up with answers that belong to them.

Do different technologies have different affordances that allow jerks to be more jerk-like? Sure. But that post-digital lens asks us to look beyond the “twitter is a cesspool” argument. When we identify the technology and not the people beyond we missed the systemic cultural practices that are helping to shape the people who are the bad actors on those platforms.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

2 thoughts on “The impact of conformity in education”

  1. Really interesting post Dave. I have been thinking a lot about Twitter lately. Like Stewart Riddle, I have concerns about you describe as the ‘rise of the jerks’. Yet, as you touch upon, there are still good people able to connect on Twitter. For some the answer is owning your own domain, while for others it is decentralised networks. However, Ian Guest challenged me with three questions:

    What would happen (for you) if Twitter’s ‘fail whale’ reappeared tomorrow and suddenly Twitter was gone?
    What if you deactivated your original account and started afresh? Knowing what you know and bearing in mind what you wrote in this post, how would you do things differently, if at all? Is ‘making Twitter great again’ within your capacity?
    If Twitter is broken beyond repair and neither Mastodon nor micro.blog quite cut it, if you had the wherewithall, what would you design as a replacement? What would it need to have or be able to do?

    Along with your focus on working with people and problems, you have left me wondering what next. I wonder if post-digital is a time of ‘informed consent‘? Or maybe George Seimens suggests it is about ‘being’ skills?? Or maybe the ‘answer’ is having this conversation in the first place? Surely it is only through conversation that we are able to throw off the yoke of digital dogma? I feel that this is what Douglas Rushkoff’s book Team Human attempts.

    Also on: Read Write Collect

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