Check me out on the IB Community Blog!

Now I know that I’ve made it as a DP teacher. I am quoted in the official IB community blog. (Yes it’s although way down in the 10th paragraph. Behind my friends Joel and Dennis, but hey it’s something. Dennis definitely had the best quotes though).

This is one of many posts that are coming out about the Digital Society course that I am helping to develop. In fact I have been very remiss in keeping up the blog due to all my free mental time working on this super exciting project!  Go read it!

Excerpts:

“Shadrach Pilip-Florea, Middle Years Programme (MYP) and DP Humanities Teacher at Riverstone International School, Idaho, US, agrees. “In today’s world, where the collective knowledge of human experience is increasingly just one Google search away, knowing the right questions to ask has never been more important,” he says.

“Observation and curiosity are the starting points of critical thinking. The classic six Ws – who, what, where, when, why, how – are accessible to students at any age and these questions form the basis of any informed investigation and analysis. In humanities, students are often asked to analyse the value of a particular source. They explore not only what is being said, but why and how as well as where and when. If students begin investigating these basic questions and following the implications of their answers they can begin to uncover complex ideas and patterns.”

In the DP information technology in a global society (ITGS) course, he asks students to design their own digital utopia, with the one caveat being they have to be real-world technologies. Part of this assignment is also to formulate strategic policies to govern technology. For example, when students present their utopias to the class, Pilip-Florea will add a twist: students listening to the presentations have to come up with a way to use those same technologies and policies to make a dystopia.

“Technology fundamentally changes our social interactions and it can be put to positive or negative uses, and unless we consider all potential implications as we design, regulate and use digital technologies we might just find ourselves in a dystopia of our own making,” he says.

Pilip-Florea believes that empathy is probably the single most valuable lesson a student can learn to inform critical thinking. Empathy and imagination are crucial for understanding the shortcomings and ramifications of digital models. “Even more importantly, they are the skills we need to innovate. To use those models to build a better world,” he says”

And here is a post where I wrote up more about the digital utopia project  (with some great student links.)

Interview Preparation

I actually had prepared quite a bit more for this though. I was sent a few questions to prepare ahead of time and composed some answers I thought I would go ahead and save those answers for posterity and post them below here.  Hopefully I will get a chance to write up some of these other projects in more detail someday.

1. How do teachers and schools encourage the skills of critical thinking, which will be needed more than ever in an age of fake news and media overload?

Writer James Thurber once declared that “it is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”  In today’s world, where the collective knowledge of human experience is increasingly just one google search away, knowing the right questions to ask has never been more important. Teaching students the critical thinking skills necessary to ask the right questions is perhaps the most important skill we can teach our students.  

Observation and curiosity are the starting points of critical thinking. The classic 6 Ws—who, what, where, when, why, how—are accessible to students at any age and these questions form the basis of any informed investigation and analysis. In the humanities, students are often asked to analyze the value of a particular source. They explore not only what is being said, but why and how as well as where and when. If students begin investigating these basic questions and following the implications of their answers they can begin to uncover complex ideas and patterns. This practice mirrors the scientific method, which also begins with observation and looks to identify patterns. Students begin to explore reasons and find evidence, which is essential for separating out good argument from sophistry.

Observation is limited by one’s perspective and training. One of my favorite stories for students is the Ancient Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant. In the story a group of blind men are confronted with an animal they have never encountered before: an elephant. Each of the men investigate by going up and touching a different part of the elephant then they form their own conclusion. The man who touches the leg concludes an elephant is a tree truck, while the man who touches the tail believes it must be is a rope, the man who touches the tusk believes the elephant to be a spear, and onwards. Students often laugh at the silly images but the story helps them grasp the limits of each individual perspective.

Empathy, the act of stepping outside of ourselves to understand another’s perspective, is probably the single most valuable lesson a student can learn to inform and prompt critical thinking.  We traditionally think of empathy only in the context of social elations, but it is useful skill for any inquiry.  To empathize is to see from a new perspective, which allows richer and fuller investigate and insight. It builds imagination and cognitive flexibility. 

When asked to explain how he conceived of the Theory of Relativity Einstein explained that he began with a thought experiment with a question: What would the world look like to a passing ray of light? From that thought experiment he reasoned out relativity.  Numerous studies have show that reading literature builds our empathic understanding. As Einstein shows imagination is a crucial tool to new understanding. In my view empathy and imagination are essential to critical thinking skills.

Effective critical thinking requires a strong toolkit of logical reasoning skills—deductive and inductive reasoning, conceptual analysis, evidence-based approaches, etc.—as well as a healthy and reflective skepticism.  In my view reflective skepticism is what separates critical thinking from thinking.  Most schools do well in teaching basic thinking skills and neglect logic. For example almost all students get a grounding in numeracy, but not as many teach students that mathematics has underlying assumptions that inform its analysis.  There are implicit assumptions at every step of an analysis, and a good critical thinker recognizes that there is a chance an assumption is wrong somewhere.  

Understanding the limits of our own judgement is perhaps the most difficult critical thinking skill to teach. This is where the practice of constant reflection is so important. What is another way of looking at this problem? Are we valuing the right evidence? How do know? How would someone from another perspective view this? What are our assumptions? This constant socratic questioning, reflecting on our evidence and reasoning, is the heart of critical thinking. 

2. How important is studying humanities and social science in making sure students have the skills to analyse data as well as work out the best ways to harness digital technologies in society? 

Steve Jobs the founder of Apple provocatively stated that “Computer science is a liberal art.” Jobs argued that everyone can and should understand computing technology in order to harness it in our own lives. Digital technologies are the mediums through which we learn, work, and express ourselves; all of us need to understand them.

Our technological use is changing our economies, social relations, norms, and even our democratic elections. The pace is accelerating. Algorithms now shape decisions on everything from social media feeds to stock market purchases.  These are creating a slew of new social concerns from tech addition, loneliness, growing economic inequality, social segregation, and onwards. Digital technologies inherently promote some outcomes at the expense of others. Most obviously the interests of the companies that build them, but there are lots of other ramifications, many of which are unforeseen.

We need to remember that digital technologies are magical. They are tools designed by and for human society. We need to be cognizant that they have social values embedded into the codes, systems, and platforms. We need to understand how these technologies work if we want to use them to shape our world ourselves.

Today our machines collect and store unprecedented amounts of data about our us. Every step we take, youtube video we watch, or ‘like’ button we press are logged in a server somewhere.  Technology companies use this data to build profitable predictive models of ourselves.  Many fear governments will gain access taking away our civil liberties. The digital revolution can’t be understood outside of the social contexts in which it exists.

Social scientists salivate at the allure of this ‘big data’ and its potential for answering many big questions.  Whole new fields like digital humanities and  network science are springing up utilize these new quantitive tools to better study society. Society is a notoriously difficult subject to study. We humans are complicated political animals and social phenomena almost always have multiple factors rarely fit into our neat disciplinary categories. Ethical and privacy concerns keep social scientists from being able to set up clean controlled experiments to test out hypotheses.  Big data offers the potential to overcome these obstacles. Certainly companies are using it for their purposes.

However, without knowing what the right questions even the best data set is worthless. Social scientists often invoke the so-called “streetlight effect,” as a warning to scholars. The Streetlight effect effect takes its name from a story of a man looking for his lost keys at night. A policeman stops to help him and asks him where he lost his keys and he replies “in the park,” the policeman is confused and asks why are you looking on the street and the man replies that that is where the light is.  The allegorical story serves as a warning to scholars: data by itself is not enough to provide the answers. 

With the explosion of “big data”, it is simply statistical chance that many intriguing correlations will result, but determining and proving casualty requires more than large data sets and algorithmic analysis tools. It will require understanding the right questions to ask, accounting for other possible factors, and crucially imagining new hypotheses. A broad interdisciplinary understanding of social sciences gives one the ability to apply different theoretical lenses to problems for new insights. 

Early twentieth century semantician Alfred Korzybski famously declared that “the map is not the territory.” he was referring to language, whose representation of the world is not to be confused with reality itself.  Korzybski’s dictum is even more salient with the digital.  Digital systems are approximations of reality, and there is inevitably something lost in the approximations required for digitalization. 

Empathy and imagination, skills developed through the humanities, are crucial for understanding the shortcomings and ramifications of those digital models. Even more importantly though they are the skills we need to innovate. To use those models to build a better world.

3. Could you give me a couple of examples of how teaching in an interdisciplinary way (in the IB programmes) can help do this?

Here are some possible examples:

___________

One of my favorite class projects in teaching humanities is to have students play the classic video game Civilization. Students play as a historical civilization, deciding where to found cities, what technologies to research, and how to interact with other civilizations. Each of the civilizations have some unique attributes based on the historical cultures. The game is of course a very rough approximation of reality that attempts to model real economic and historical outcomes based on social science understandings—modified, of course, to enhance game play. It is an incredibly addictive game that students love playing. 

Students research the real civilizations at the same time and we discuss the modeling vs. the reality. As a summative activity we attempt to model a historical phenomena and develop our own classroom game to play. This year we did Greek City-states battling for control of the Aegean. This is practicing agent based modeling to better understand and simulate real world phenomena. It is also a lot of fun. 

I think one of the most important learning lessons of playing the game is just how important feedback loops are in systems. A very small different at the beginning of the game, in for example geography, population, or technology will grow over time and lead to large disparities by the end of the game. We need to be aware that these feedback loops are in the real world as well and they often have similar outcome.  As the year progresses from time to time we return to feedback loops, for example when we cover European Imperialism or contemporary globalization. 

________

When teaching IBDP ITGS as a final comprehensive review project students design their own digital utopia. They are encouraged to be as imaginative as possible and design a utopia with digital technologies, with the one caveat being they have to be real world technologies. Part of this assignment is also to formulate strategic policies to govern technology. It’s really incredible to see what they come up with using existing technologies. 

Our society today is undergoing an unprecedented transfer of control from humans to automated expert systems, algorithms, robots, machining learning, AI, etc. What will the repercussions of these decisions be? What world do we want?   What is the right balance between privacy, security, and convenience?  How do we set policies that encourage the innovation and creativity needed to encourage new industries while also protecting the rights of creators and users. These are questions for all of of society and require input from each of us.

When students present their Utopias to the class I add a twist. Students listening to the presentations have to come up with a way that those same technologies and policies to make a dystopia.  This is a great review project but its an even better exercise of technologists Melvin Kranzberg’s first law: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”  Technology fundamentally changes our social interactions and it can be put to positive or negative uses and unless we consider all potential implications as we design, regulate, and use digital technologies we might just find ourselves in a dystopia of our own making.

___________

At Riverstone we recently created a MYP joint Math/Humanities inquiry based project where students investigate a social phenomena through a statistical analysis of publicly available data sets. After learning the math we explore sample social science papers that use tools like linear regression to make claims, then students work in small groups to try and find their own trends using Government, NGO, or business data sets like the US government census data, the UN, OCED, etc. It’s particularly fun to find correlations where there is no obvious causation. We are hoping next year to experiment with machine learning tools and see what happens.

_______________

A few years ago I had a student who was wanted to do a project on cyber-bullying. She researched it extensively and then designed a student survey to gather more information specific to the student’s experience. She then used this information and created a presentation she gave to the student body.  Afterwords advisories continued the conversation. She galvanized a school wide discussion, not just about cyberbullying but about social media usage and communication as a whole. The MYP personal project is such a great opportunity for students to explore their interests and bring those findings to the community.

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