Monday, February 5, 2007

English 2.0

In response to my post entitled "Meandering," Tom Hoffman left a comment in the form of a question: "So... it seems like English 1.0 done well is pretty good. Why do we need a 2.0?" That's a good question, and I'd like to use it as a point of departure for collecting some thoughts on the matter. A lot of this is perhaps obvious, but I still want to take a stab at it:

First of all, when I was using the phrase English 2.0, I was borrowing that usage from the other discussions about Web 2.0 and School 2.0 that have been ongoing in the blogging community for some time, which in turn I assume owe their origin to the practice of software designers to designate significantly revised (and presumably improved) versions of existing software programs. In the conventions of the numbering system, a decimal point change (from, say, 1.5 to 1.6) suggests minor tinkering, but a new number (1.7 to 2.0) indicates a more or less complete overhaul, incorporating perhaps the main features that made the program a success in the first place, but incorporating some sort of major structural or conceptual shifts as well.

It seems to me that English as a discipline, is, like the English language, the internet itself, and schools generally, is constantly evolving in ways that are sometimes so slow as to be almost invisible, but also in ways that are so dramatic that they may require a wholesale reconceptualization of the nature of the discipline. Among the more subtle, gradual shifts that I have witnessed during my teaching career, I would include:

  • the gradual shift from print-based research to internet based research (For example, I used to use Benet's Reader's Encylopedia on a daily basis, and I used to go the the library when I needed information. Now pretty much everything I need to know informationally is available to me at my computer.
  • the parallel shift from oral culture to print-based culture to image-based culture, especially among teens (think first of all of television itself, then of MTV, jumpcutting, picture phones, video games, mySpace, handheld video technology, and so on)
  • the gradual but unmistakable streamlining—not to say "dumbing down"—of public discourse, aided and abetted by People Magazine, US Today, TV news and sound-bite culture, and so on
  • the decline of reading as a combined source of education and amusement among our students
  • the growing irrelevance of 90% of what we wind up doing in English classes to anything that our students might actually know or care about (I just saw "Freedom Writers" this afternoon, and the disconnect between what was going on in that school and what was going on in the lives of the students was the context for everything that happened there, precisely because what Erin Gruwell attempted to do was seen as threatening and dangerous by the school administrators)

These are things we have all seen and experienced and wondered aloud about, and anyone still teaching high school ten years later (which, interestingly, Erin Gruwell is not) has found ways to adjust to and accomodate these realities. But I do also feel that there are now larger, more challenging tectonic shifts taking place. Among them—again, none of this is really news, but it's relevant to the question:

  • the near-ubiquitousness of broadband internet access and the simultaneous proliferation of all kinds of powerful portable technologies—cell phones, laptops (including the much-ballyhooed $150 laptop), PDAs, Blackberries
  • the sudden explosion of powerful, useful, and free (or inexpensive) software tools: search engines, blog engines, wikis, video streaming, web hosting, yada yada yada
  • the flattening of global discourse in response to all of these tools (what I'm typing right now will, if present access patterns hold up, be read on five continents within the next 24 hours)
  • the fact that the range of options our students have for how to spend their time, assuming they have any interest in or access to technology, has grown exponentially while the amount of time has remained constant, with the perhaps predictable result that our students compensate by multitasking

I'm sure you can all think of others. Taken together, these trends have resulted, it might be argued, in a change which is no longer merely one of degree but one of kind. If it's true that the context is changing, and our students are changing, and our tools are changing, then perhaps it is time to stop and think about what English as a course of study might look like if we were to attempt to embrace these changes as opposed to resisting them or dismissing them out of hand. That, to me, is the challange of English 2.0, Web 2.0, School 2.0.

I'm a believer in strategic thinking. I often ask my students to stop and reflect on three questions: where are you now, where are you trying to get to, and how are you going to get there? That sounds like a commonsense paradigm, but I learned it in the early 1990s when I was working with a group of facilitators from Motorola Corporation who were trying to help my public school system adapt to the pressures of change. Motorola had just been through a lengthy and painstaking and ultimately very successful attempt to re-shape themselves from a company known for mediocre television sets to a company that could be a world leader in digital communications. They took those three questions, pushed them hard, and kept coming back to them. Where are we now? and where are we now? and where are we now?

English 1.0 may in fact, when done well, be pretty good. But for how long? Where are we now? What do we know about where we're going? Web 2.0 is giving us some tools. How can we use them to reinvent our discipline and make it better? That's the English 2.0 question.


Tom Hoffman said...

But aren't you just going to end up with "progressive education plus the internet?" I mean, those are two of my favorite things, so I'm ok with that, but can't we cut to the chase?

Bruce Schauble said...

Maybe it is going to be "just" progressive education plus the internet. Or maybe it's going to be something more broad-ranging and more complex. I don't know yet. I'm not writing a book. I don't have a program to sell. I don't have it all in my head ready to be laid out there. The daily blog entries are for me a kind of open notebook, and I'm writing it to try to clarify, mostly for myself, what I'm thinking, and right now I have more questions than answers.

If by cutting to the chase you mean spelling out exactly what a new vision of the discipline would look like, I can't answer that yet. I'm trying to figure it out. I have some hunches, I have some suspicions, I have my classes working on some new things, including blogs and wikis, which I will report on as time permits, and I've got ideas about things I haven't tried yet but will be able to next year when, for the first time, all of the freshmean students in the high school will be arriving in class with laptops. The following year, they'll arrive in my classes as sophs. The conversation we've been having on my campus for the last two years has been about how we're going to use technology to enhance instruction. When we began that discussion, most of us had no idea. Right now, I've got a good sense of some places to start.

I've already written about a number of specific concepts and beliefs that shape my current teaching, and that's been clarifying for me. It is my intention, as I continue working in the context of this blog, to address other specific issues and activities, one or two at a time, as they come up in my teaching or in my thinking. I'm not in a hurry to nail it all down. But as I think of how much has changed in the last five years, even in the last two, I suspect we're on the verge of a whole new way of doing things.

Clay Burell said...

Tom, I'm not sure I understand your "progressive education plus the internet" comment correctly (my haste, not your fault), but the read-write web is transforming reading, writing, and consciousness (sounds grand, but I swear I have evidence galore) in my grade 9 classroom in Korea.

Blogs change "school" reading and writing in one way, but no time to get into that now.

Because I just want to share how another tool--wikis--transform school reading and writing in another way. I'll let my students speak for themselves. I just posted their reflections on their first grade 9-wide wiki "writing-to-learn" project on my blog, here:

I, at least, found their comments shockingly surprising--and almost all for the good.

I really like this blog and its comments. Glad I found it :)

Tom Hoffman said...

Hi Bruce,
Yes, I don't mean to jump down your neck... I'm just wearying of all the "2.0" stuff, and I took it out on you. I just think it is so much more fruitful to focus on how technologies can support what we know to be best practices.