Monday, November 5, 2007

Risk


In his classic and prescient book Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey has an essay entitled "Industrial Tourism and the National Parks," in which he waxes eloquent—often hilariously so—on the mission of the National Park Service, which was established in 1916 "not only to administer the parks but to 'provide for the enjoyment of same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.'" The problem, he points out, is that the two imperatives are at least to some extent mutually contradictory:
This appropriately ambiguous language, employed long before the onslaught of the automobile, has been understood in various and often opposing ways ever since. The Park Service, like any other big organization, includes factions and factions. The Developers, the dominant faction, place their emphasis on the words 'provide for the enjoyment.' The Preservers, a minority but also strong, emphasize the words 'leave them unimpaired.'
Abbey's essay explores the dynamics and implications of the conflict between the developers and the preservers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he winds up plopping firmly down on the side of the preservers. In one of my favorite passages, and one which I can't resist quoting here, although it is of only tangential relevance to what is to follow, Abbey indulges himself in the rhetorical pleasures of generating the kind of list I have recently written in praise of:

Once we outlaw the motors and stop the road-building and force the multitudes back on their feet, the people will need leaders. A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for Godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches—that is the right and privilege of any free American. But the rest, the majority, most of them new to the out-of-doors, will need and welcome assistance, instruction, and guidance. Many will not know how to saddle a horse, read a topographical map, follow a trail over slickrock, memorize landmarks, build a fire in rain, treat snakebite, rappel down a cliff, glissade down a glacier, read a compass, find water under sand, load a burro, splint a broken bone, bury a body, patch a rubber boat, portage a waterfall, survive a blizzard, avoid lightning, cook a porcupine, comfort a girl during a thunderstorm, predict the weather, dodge falling rock, climb out of a box canyon, or pour piss out of a boot.
That, he argues, is what park rangers are for: to assist these people. You cannot, Abbey suggests, protect people from their own inclinations, nor from their incompetencies. Nor, he implies, should you want to.

All of which is by way of longwinded introduction to what I really wanted to write about, and which I had in fact already begun writing about when the Abbey analogy began seeping down the stalactites of my brain, and from there through my fingers into Googledocs and ultimately, Dear Reader, for better or for worse, to you. I've been thinking about this for a while, and my concern is both local and global. I'll start with my own school, which, for reasons which for reasons which will become apparent later I am not going to name.

Our school president has a phrase he often drops into his conversations about the mission of our school. He says that we aspire to be "a private school with a public purpose." This aspiration seems to me to be a plausible and laudible. And to the extent to which we are able, given the formidable intellectual and physical resources available at the school, to experiment with and develop best practices, it seems pretty obvious to me that as a school with a public purpose that we should share our successes publicly.

However, our school, as a private school, in all the various senses of that word, is also justifiably concerned with, well, privacy, with security, with student safety. While it might be nice for us to, say, archive podcasts of exemplary classes and make them available online, there are issues, there are concerns, there are policies in place. For example, our school, like many others, has a policy that prohibits students from using their names (at least their full names: aliases and first names are allowed) online. One of the reasons that you do not see me use the school's name very much on this blog (if it is a matter of interest to you, you can view it in my profile, a link to which is in the sidebar) is that we have an at least one administrator whose job description includes monitoring all mentions of the school online, and I don't want to make her job more arduous or problematical, nor do I want to give the impression that the school endorses or supports what I write here. Furthermore, there is this sense that I have, this hunch, never exactly communicated out loud but nevertheless in the air, that to the extent that I am going to be blogging at all, the powers that be would feel ever so slightly more comfortable if I just spoke for myself and kept the school out of it. So that's generally what I try to do.

But. But but. But but but: back to square one: if we are "a private school with a public purpose,: shouldn't we be sharing our work publicly? There was a humorous demonstration of the dilemma recently when Doug Belshaw decided on his blog to share a video about a day in his life as a teacher. Which was a cool idea and certainly of interest to me as a teacher halfway across the world. So I'm watching this video, which takes us up to the point where he arrives at school, and he goes into the classroom, and then the screen goes black and he says, "Unfortunately I can't show you me teaching, and that's because of child protection issues: you can't put any image of a child online unless their parents have signed something in blood or, I dunno, done some sort of dance around the school, so no, I can't show you me teaching, which is a real shame, so you just have to imagine kids working and an entire questioning environment and me trying to get them to use ICT and trying to teach them 21st century skills. It's a shame, but that's life."

So here's our dilemma: how do we share what we do well, and what works for us, when we are constrained from actually showing it? I could easily write, and have in fact written, at length about various teaching practices more or less in the abstract. I have shown examples of student work with the names occluded or aliased. That works to some degree. But if you really want to see what goes on in my classroom, you would need to do more than "imagine kids working." You would need to see my kids at work.

Why should we not be able to show kids in classrooms? I pick up the local paper and see photographs of student athletes and scholarship and spelling bee winners all the time: identified by photograph and full name and school and grade. Perhaps every one of the people depicted has had a release form signed by the parents. Even so, if those people were identified and approached by predators or kidnappers or persons of evil intent, how exactly would the signature on the release form protect them? I have to assume that any parent who is not entirely irresponsible must have counseled his/her children not to take candy from strangers, not to respond to unsolicited inquiries from unknown people, not to strike up email or online relationships with people they have no reason to trust. How exactly is allowing Doug Belshaw to see my students working, or me to see his, configured as a "child protection issue"? If I were a predator and I were looking for a target, would it any harder for me to spend fifty cents on my local paper, find a name, and go from there, than to go online and search classrooms worldwide for revealing information about someone to whom I would then... do what? Show up at school and announce my presence? Go to a particular teacher's classroom door and stand outside, hoping to be inconspicuous, until my target came out, and then offer him/her a ride in my car? I'm not trying to be flip here; I just don't get it. Realistically speaking, a student is much more at risk, by many orders of magnitude, to be attacked on the street walking home from school or doing a paper route (both of these things did in fact happen to children of mine when they were in school) than to be approached by some stranger who has seen a video of them on a school web site.

We can't make ourselves invisible. It's magical thinking. (It's certainly not the only instance: magical thinking arose when one crazy person put a bomb in his shoe, as a result of which every traveler in every airport in the world now has to take off his shoes; meanwhile, tests at various airports about the accuracy of screeners in detecting phony bombs brought into airports by U.S. agents showed failure rates ranging from a scary and depressing 20% to a hair-raisingly appalling 75% at LAX. We have spent billions of dollars in attempt to make ourselves more safe. Does anybody out there feel more safe now than you did, say, ten years ago? What are we doing? Anyone who really wants to commit an act of terrorism is not going to go about it the same way that the last guy did. He's not going to doing what you have prepared against him doing. He's going to come up with something nobody has thought of yet.) What is the point of having our schools linked to a global communications network if we are going to deny our students—and our teachers—access to it?

The great advantage of internet access from an educational point of view is that it allows students and teachers to access a much greater amount of information much more easily than at any time in the past. Likewise, it offers students and teachers a much wider audience for whatever it is we produce: writing, photography, art, music, video. Web sites and blogs and wikis allow students, teachers, and schools to share and celebrate best work and best practices. The internet has the power to be a transformative tool which encourages knowledge creation by students and the raising of professional standards by teachers.

The great disadvantage of internet access from an educational point of view is that it allows students and teachers to access a great deal of data that does not really qualify as information, including data that is skewed or flat-out wrong, as well as bad writing, bad photography, bad art, bad music, and bad video, including, most obviously, violence and pornography. Web sites and blogs and wikis allow propagandists and psychopaths to share and celebrate their obsessions.

The solution to the problem of risk is not to shut off access. Students who want to access what is bad on the internet will find ways to do so, on their own time. Students who are looking for trouble will find it, as they always have, and will, with any luck, learn something from that encounter. You cannot protect people from their own inclinations, nor from their incompetencies. What we need is not a set of restrictions on what can be seen, but an emphasis on teaching students how to make wise decisions about what kinds of content to access or post, and what kinds of trouble to steer away from.

Similarly, the solution to the problem of child protection is not to prevent images of children from appearing on school web sites. We have so much to learn from one another, and so many successes to share, and the technological tools to do so are in our hands. We need to use those tools to share and celebrate what we do well, so that we help the next generation of students and teachers to know and understand the risks, and the benefits, of communication and collaboration.

7 comments:

Doug Noon said...

I really liked the Abbey quote. I remember reading that book long ago, and it stands as one of my all time favorites. In fact, this post makes me think it might be time to read it again.

The privacy part, though, is a tricky thing. I can think of a number of reasons why someone might not want their kid's image to be plastered all over God-knows-where. For one, some people are just trying to maintain a low profile for personal reasons. And even if it's nothing more than that, it seems to me that they should have that option.

If we were allowed to involve people in "research" unwillingly - for a public purpose or any other purpose, no matter how seemingly harmless, where would we begin to draw the ethical line? Lots of academic internal review board ink has been spilled over this question.

I actually thought you were going somewhere else with the quote about the venturesome minority. (John Muir, for example) It seems to me that we can do a lot, just writing, and that the expressive work can be handled in such a way that identities are masked. I'm thinking of this now, in fact, because I've begun to want to write more directly and specifically about what happens inside the classroom cloister.

I agree with you that it's an important subject. How to creatively and ethically communicate that, though, is a challenge.

Kassissieh said...

Bruce,

If it's of any help to you, my school also wrestles with this desire to show students at work without inflaming parents' protective instincts. We feel that we can make this activity visible to the public without showing a lot of student names, so we have pages and pages of photos without names. This is especially true for special programs such as outdoor ed, robotics, and events such as blackberry picking and the rummage sale. Regrettably, we don't have enough explanatory text to accompany the photos, but that's more an issue of people's lack of time/inclination than parental concerns. We do provide all families with "opt-out" forms, in case they do not want their child's photo to appear online at all. Most often, it is families who already live very public lives due to their choices of profession that opt out. A lot of information we publish is not necessarily photographic. The division newsletters, curriculum map, and classroom web sites are examples of mostly text-based content that provides an authentic window into teaching and learning here.

Though not entirely public, the launch of a school intranet web site has really helped us share the students' work more broadly and without having to jump through a bunch of hoops. No, it's not public, but students, teachers, and parents are all able to post content to our intranet without any review or moderation. The public doesn't get to see this content, but I observed that parents didn't know 90% of what was happening in the classroom, either.

Two success factors: a critical mass of teachers and staff firmly committed to the idea of publishing student work widely, and a head of school who helps us keep a rational perspective on issues of student privacy and parent concern. I don't know that we are even ahead of your school in this regard, but we are certainly better off than many other schools I know.

Where do you think that opportunities exist to make positive strides on this issue?

Bruce Schauble said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Schauble said...

Doug: True, all of what you say. I do understand, as a parent and as a teacher, the inclination to want to stay under the radar, to "maintain a low profile for personal reasons." And I certainly would not want to engage people in research unwillingly. But I can imagine a video of a class and there might be clips of students commenting on a book or working collaboratively on a wiki or something of that nature, and I can't quite get my mind around how those images, if made available online, would represent a threat to those students. I'd want to let the students know what the video was for, and where it would be available, and let the parents know, and if there were someone who was actively unwilling, let them opt out. But I'm concerned about the institutions and advocacy groups whose first thought about using student images is "We can't do that."

As far as where I was going with it, this was a weird post for me. I was sort of feeling my way along the whole time I was writing it, over a week or so, and it kept moving around on me. Even as I reread it now, it feels a little herky-jerky and half-baked. Sigh.

Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. I really enjoyed your post on thick description and am reading the Geertz essay now.

Kassissieh: Thanks for your comments as well. We are right now experimenting with Moodle as one phase of an in-house communication system: you can't log on without a school id, so access to what is published is delimited, and can be easily delimited further to just people in a particular class or group. We also have an in-house portal system which requires a school login as well. So communication within the system actually works well. I'm not complaining about my school, for sure. I'm surrounded by thoughtful people who are trying to steer a path through a thicket of challanges.

I didn't, and don't, pretend to have a clear set of answers for how to steer that craft. My post began as a set of notes to myself trying to sort out my own conflicted feelings. But I do think that making positive strides will have something to do with attempting to assess the risks with some degree of objectivity, and with communicating with others inside and outside of the community about our policies and procedures. Which seems pretty much like what your school is doing.


- B

Doug Belshaw said...

Doug Noon makes a good point about people perhaps not wanting to have themselves splashed all over the Internet. My wife's one of those people - although interestingly, she loves Facebook...

I think there needs to be a balance. Just as recently in the UK no-one was taking students out on school trips due to the fear of litigation, so the current hysteria r.e. images/videos on the Internet is absurd. We shouldn't be streaming classroom activities via uStream or whatever, but I do think that we should have the option to be able to (with consent) put up videos of teachers teaching and learners learning. :-)

Bruce Schauble said...

My son sent along this example of an entertaining and thought-provoking list, from one of his favorite books, Heinlein's Notebooks of Lazarus Long:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Doug Noon said...

What a great list! And a perfect conclusion.