We Need SOLE: American Adults Failing Modern Literacy Standards

A new OECD report comparing American adults’ mathematical and technological literacy indicates that we do not stack up well against our global competitors.

The following chart was taken from the report and shows that American adults are not prepared to lead the way in creativity or innovation during the 21st century due to below average proficiency in mathematics and  problem solving employing technological solutions.

The implications are vast. According to the report:

“The median hourly wage of workers who can make complex inferences and evaluate subtle truth claims or arguments in written texts is more than 60% higher than for workers who can, at best, read relatively short texts to locate a single piece of information. Those with low literacy skills are also more than twice as likely to be unemployed.”

For anyone who has spent time in an American classroom over the last 20 years, the information contained in this report is old news. With the increase in administrative requirements and quantitative methods of assessment, our overall ability to educate American children and promote adult literacy has fallen by the wayside. Instead we have opted for a two-tiered education system.

On the elite tier we have private day schools with student-teacher ratios of less than 15:1 where qualitative models of curriculum development, student led learning and holistic projects are the norm. In this system students produce portfolios/projects to show competency across a wide range of subject areas. They are guided by teachers who have diverse backgrounds in mathematics, literature, science and the arts to create meaningful learning experiences that cannot be easily measured on standardized tests. Nevertheless, these students generally outperform their counterparts on traditional measures of learning too.  Their ACT and SAT scores are significantly higher that those educated in steerage classrooms, the feed lots of contemporary education.   When students raised on the day school model enter college, they are ready to engage in research, pursue creative ideas, and occasionally, as the dot com era shows, start global companies that can change the world.

On the steerage tier small schools have teacher-student ratios of 25:1 in elementary school generally increasing to 35-40:1 by high school. As Sir Ken Robinson notes in his TED Talk students are turned into low-level clerical workers and spend years repeating the same redundant base literacy skills learned in elementary school throughout grades 7-12.  They take fragmented classes that last 45 minutes or less in large groups where student-teacher interaction is minimized. If students are lucky enough to encounter a creative teacher who can build assignments around projects/portfolios, they are very fortunate.

When students finish up in the steerage tier system, only 10-20% are ready to tackle even the most basic college assignments. A stunning 60% will require remediation in math and reading when they enter college. Still, many will manage to complete a bachelor’s degree and will earn significantly more than their counterparts who do not choose college and are not at all prepared for adult life.

Enter the SOLE Project:

The OECD report also shows that older adults have a significant knowledge gap in problem solving with technology versus their younger counterparts within a particular country.  Certainly the gap is attributable to the rapid advance of technology over the last 30 years.  While younger adults ages 25-34 have grown up on the web, their older counterparts ages 55+ have had to gradually adapt to an increasingly technological environment. The skill gap is significant and has dire implications for the economic well-being of both the Baby Boomer Generation (B. 1946-1964) and Generation X (B. 1965-1985).  Adults in both groups lacking technological skills have few options to participate in the 21st century economy and earn a living wage.

The solution to this problem is not to send older adults for retraining in the same dead schools that created the present situation. The American university is collapsing at the undergraduate level due to the deprofessionalization of academic teaching and the growth of administrative bloat. Neither community colleges nor overpriced for-profit vocational training can adequately address the skills gap. We need SOLE, if we are to prevent American adults from falling into dire poverty as  employment opportunities for low skill workers disappear.

SOLE stands for “self organized learning environment.” Learning environments based on the SOLE philosophy are needs based and student driven.  The SOLE philosophy is equally applicable for K-16 models too, but the entrenched interests that promote steerage tier practices are resistant to change and unlikely to loosen their grip given the profitability of the standardized assessment testing methods currently in place under NCLB.  At present only the wealthy enjoy the choice of enrolling their children in innovative day school environments or traditional rote learning academies.  For the rest, the steerage tier is the only option available.  Thus, for the survivors of third class education, we can offer a more engaging model with SOLE that allows the learners to investigate questions that are interesting and relevant for their lives.  Community based SOLE projects are needed if we are to increase skills in our neediest adult populations.

Some of the key characteristics of a SOLE environment are as follows:

  1. The learning environment is open and oriented toward problem-solving;
  2. Learners determine the methodologies and practices used to both investigate and propose ways to address the question at hand;
  3. Teachers are optional; SOLE environments are based on student led learning communities with teachers in the role of posing interesting questions for individuals/teams.  While teacher led environments may be more efficient, especially for those who are learning to use technology, the “grandmother” method seems to work equally as well to promote proficiency level skills.

Check out Sugata Mitra’s talk on SOLE environments from TED.com:

The Phenomenology of Fragmentation, Part II

…Antidotes in Mindfulness

Robert Wright offers solace to those who still hold to the value of meditative thinking and the romantic notion of unplugging from the technological world of communication. In two separate articles for the New York Times Wright explores the value of insight meditation and credits its insistence on silent meditation for helping him to observe his reactions to the ecstasy of communication.

Like many meditation retreats, this one emphasized “mindfulness,” which involves a calm focus on the present moment — much the kind of focus that is said to be endangered by the infinite regress of distractions and disruptions brought to us by digital technology. And this awareness of the moment includes awareness of your internal states; you’re supposed to carefully examine your thoughts, your feelings, your reactions. So when you come back from a retreat and plug your newly mindful mind into the grid, the subtle sources of the grid’s power seem more salient.(Minding the Grid, NYT accessed on 9/7/2010)

Carr, Heidegger, and Wright have all done us a service in pointing to the difficulty of unplugging from the grid to engage our more meditative sides in deep reflective thought.  The dark underbelly that no one mentions is that we voluntarily choose the grid over meditative thought because it helps us to satisfy the hollow demands of the Protestant work ethic and reifies our ego with a sense of importance.  Contemporary business practice in the United States holds that someone with a strong work ethic is constantly busy and never sleeps. People complain about working 60+ hours a week even in times of a deep recession.

I contend that we choose to fragment our consciousness by plugging in because it reinforces the narrative that we are important people with plenty of requests for our time and opinions. Being constantly plugged in reifies our sense of self and tells us that we are productive citizens even if we can’t think too deeply about the implications of our fragmented productivity.  The “false productivity” of multitasking ensures we will do many things, but perhaps none of them well.  For a sample of the anti-multitasking research see Ron Ashkenas’ “To Multitask Effectively, Focus on Value, Not Volume.”(Harvard Business Review, September 10, 2009) Ashkenas notes a study that “found that multitaskers were actually quite ineffective at managing information, maintaining attention, and getting results.  Compared to study participants who did things one task at a time, they were mediocre.” Nevertheless false productivity and fragmentation of conscious attention have a great payoff: both activities make us feel better about ourselves.

The phone that constantly buzzes with an arriving text message reaches out to tell us we are important and that someone cares what we are doing.  This is far more intuitively appealing than deep meditative thinking which can reveal the hollowness of these interactions and their inability to enhance our happiness or satisfaction with personal relationships.  On the other hand, contemplative thinking, or meditative thinking, forces us to confront these uncomfortable issues head on which explains why so many people are uncomfortable with silence throughout the day.  Silent cars and homes are filled with multiple distractions ranging from television to YouTube in an effort to bombard us with the trivial and direct us away from the significant facets of human existence that have the potential to increase our satisfaction.

Becoming a fully realized human being means understanding what we value and why.  In the Socratic sense, it means leading an examined life, one that consciously engages us in activities we find meaningful and relationships we value.   Deep meditative thinking requires us to confront our real lives (RL) and admit that there is some contradiction between our idealized notions of a contemplative lifestyle and the realities of an always-on cell phone that demands attention for the most banal of text messages.  We choose fragmentation because it helps consciousness avoid the unpleasant discordance between what we say we want versus what we actually do with our lives.  No one wants to admit that they spend all of their free time tracking Twitter followers or updating friends on Facebook about the latest family vacation, but both serve as busywork distractions from the reality that meaning and satisfaction cannot be derived in a world of ubiquitous presence.  It is only by unplugging from the 24/7 culture that we can critically look at its unreasonable demands.

On a phenomenological level everyday realities demand that consciousness live in a series of fragmented moments often unconnected by anything other than their rapid succession and ability to disrupt whatever thought stream is currently in progress.  Perhaps the type of the Vipassana meditation advanced by Thich Nhat Hahn can be of help here: when a text message arrives or e-mail bell chimes, we can stop just for a second or two to note our reaction to the disruption itself by thinking silently “disruption.”  In that second we can take the time to decide whether or not we want to give in and cede the meditative contemplation of “disruption” for the more banal content of the arriving message.  With some practice, by noting these spaces in-between, the buzz and the grab for the phone, we can recover a sense of meditative presence even in the realm of fragmented information flows.

To conclude, it is neither the computer nor the cell phone, nor even the Protestant work ethic that can pull us away from a mindful existence.  Rather it is our own choice to surrender control to the demands of constant interruption and assaults on mindful contemplation of the now.  Each time we give in, each time we surrender, we may be damaging the brain’s neuroplasticity and our ability to live deeply in the present in exchange for empty realities that will fade only to be forgotten by dusk or the coming daylight.  We are not unwilling victims of some informational bomb, but rather willing participants in the dismantling of our ability to creatively connect with both our own thoughts and those of the people in our presence.  We exchange the now for the “future” in hopes that the next piece of information will bring some peace or reassurance that we matter, but alas we are fooled each time by the call of the banal,  striking out to pull us away from those ideas that could really change the world.  The answer: tune in, drop out, unplug and practice mindfulness.  It is our only hope for seeing the present as it is and not as we wish it to be.

For more information on Vipassana/mindfulness techniques, see:

Links & References:

Carr, Nicoloas.  The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W. W. Norton & Company (June 7, 2010)

Heidegger, Martin. Memorial Address.  Originally published in Discourse on Thinking.  Accessed @ http://friends-of-wisdom.com/readings/Heidegger1955.pdf on September 7, 2010.

Peluso, Robert. “Minds at stake in debate over power of Internet”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sunday, August 08, 2010.

Wright, Robert.  “Mind the grid”.  The New York Times, August 31, 2010, 9:00 PM.

The Phenomenology of Fragmentation…Antidotes in Mindfulness Part I

There is much sturm und drang over  the neurological impact of using ubiquitous technologies (e.g., Facebook, texting, web surfing).  Two recent articles, the first by Robert Peluso, “Minds at stake in debate over power of Internet, and the second, Robert Wright’s “Mind the grid” have inspired the following meditation on the phenomenology of fragmentation.  This post argues that the fragmentation of consciousness induced by technology represents, neither a new development nor a conspiratorial threat against our attention spans, but rather is an accelerated continuation of trends that began in the 1950s as Americans switched to the screen from the radio.  I also suggest that there is a “payoff” for the totally distracted that manifests as a boost to the ego.  Hence, in the presence of this reward, we are reluctant to give up our technological interruptions because they make us feel more important. One possible antidote for distraction is a dose of mindfulness.

The new threat of fragmentation stems from the ability of information flows to reach us in places that were formerly “off the grid.”   When there are no places to retreat and think deeply, we lose our ability to do so, not because we are plugged in, but because we do not unplug and rehearse creative thinking consciously in its own space.  I begin with the authors who have inspired me and then propose corrective measures drawn from Wright’s NYT article and the power of insight meditation or vipassana.

Robert Peluso does an excellent job of summarizing the zeitgesit in his review of two representative texts,”Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age,” by Clay Shirkey (Penguin Press) and “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” by Nicholas Carr (Norton). While the first text points to the advantages of the collective acts of creativity, the second warns of a darker consequence for our ability to “dwell in thinking” in a Heideggerian sense. It is here, on the dark side, that we begin.  Summarizing Carr’s case, Peluso writes: “Rallying data from neuroscience, psychology, media and literacy studies and more, he [Carr] lays out a wide-ranging and disturbing case for the deleterious effect of what he calls “intellectual technology” — computers, the Internet, social media and the like — on our ability to think, concentrate, remember, and contemplate. Ultimately, the author worries that technology is compromising our ability to be fully realized human beings.” Though valid, this is an old argument that reappears each time a neurological study confirms the reality that we are distracting ourselves to our own detriment.  In short, Carr is recycling Heidegger’s discourse on the possibility for meditative thinking in a world filled with calculative thought.

Over half a century earlier in the late 1950s, Heidegger matches Carr’s lamentations on the speed of information bombardment.

This calculation is the mark of all thinking that plans and investigates. Such thinking remains calculation even if it neither works with numbers nor uses an adding machine or computer. Calculative thinking computes. It computes ever new, ever more promising and at the same time more economical possibilities. Calculative thinking races from one prospect to the next.  Calculative thinking never stops, never collects itself. Calculative thinking is not meditative thinking, not thinking which contemplates the meaning which reigns in everything that is.(Memorial Address, Discourse on Thinking, p. 46)

My point: communications technologies have been quickening the pace of information flows for quite some time, yet each new turn has the possibility of reaching into spaces that were formerly private, the spaces where creativity and innovation have time to grow and take root.  The difference between the late 50s and the present concerns the interactive capacity of new technologies to engage us in a game of trivial pursuits where we do nothing but interact for the sake of communication itself.  Baudrillard calls this phenomenon the “the ecstasy of communication,” information flows that self-perpetuate, link, repeat and retransmit the same data many times in a feedback loop without increasing our understanding of anything substantial.

Again, Peluso provides a helpful summary of Carr’s case: “Our ability to scan and assess data may have accelerated, but only by compromising the focused, “deep” mental work that builds meaning. Or in his own trenchant phrase, ’The smarter the software, the dimmer the user.’”(Peluso, Carr)  Distractions, fragmentations and multi-tasking are nothing new.  Television may be the first visual distractor guiding us away from the moment, but surely radio fulfilled some of our entertainments needs previously.  Socrates castigates the poets and musicians for leading audiences away from deep considerations about virtue and meaning.  Perhaps this is why Heidegger flees to the Black Forest to dwell in thinking and why we engage romantic notions of contemplative spaces “off the grid” to unplug.  It is possible that, in part, the environmental movement owes the information revolution for the back to nature crowds who made Earth Day possible in the 1970s and beyond.  However, I contend that these romantic fantasies remain empty love songs, an ode to thinking we have consciously abandoned in favor of the shallow benefits derived from calculative thinking.

In 1955, long before the information age, Heidegger documents the same trend:

There are, then, two kinds of thinking, each justified and needed in its own way : calculative thinking and meditative thinking.  This meditative thinking is what we have in mind when we say that contemporary man is in flight-from-thinking.  Yet you may protest : mere meditative thinking finds itself floating unaware above reality. It loses touch. It is worthless for dealing with current business. It profits nothing in carrying out practical affairs

And you may say, finally, re: meditative thinking, persevering meditation, is “the reach of ordinary understanding. In this excuse only this much is true, meditative thinking does not just happen by itself any more than does calculative thinking.  At times it requires a greater effort. It demands more practice. It is in need of even more delicate care than any other genuine craft. But it must also be able to bide its time, to await as does the farmer, whether the seed will come up and ripen. (Memorial Address, Discourse on Thinking, p. 46-47)

Though Heidegger does not have the benefit of neuroplasticity studies to back up his claims, he does frame the issue in much in the same way as Carr. Other higher education articles question whether the humanities can survive the 21st century given that the type of calculative thinking valued by business is routinely chosen by students in contrast to deeper subjects in the humanities.  We should instead ask ourselves why we choose the calculative over the meditative rather than pretending we are forced to do so in response to the bombardment of information flows.  Hence, in Part II of this discussion, I contend that we choose fragmentation because it offers instant gratification and an immediate ego payoff.  The antidote to counter distraction would seem to be creating a meditative space in our everyday existence.

Part II explores Wright’s insights and the benefits of mindfulness practice…

Links & References:

Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. New York, NY: SEMIOTEXTE FOREIGN AGENTS SERIES, 1988.

Carr, Nicoloas.  The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W. W. Norton & Company (June 7, 2010)

Heidegger, Martin. Memorial Address.  Originally published in Discourse on Thinking.  Accessed @ http://friends-of-wisdom.com/readings/Heidegger1955.pdf on September 7, 2010.

Peluso, Robert. “Minds at stake in debate over power of Internet”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sunday, August 08, 2010.

Wright, Robert.  “Mind the grid”.  The New York Times, August 31, 2010, 9:00 PM.