Monday, July 06, 2015

"Ideas spread because they are good at spreading, not because they are inherently valuable." - Me

Ideas, or "memes," spread because they are good at spreading. That is, there's something about them that makes it easy for them to get passed around.

Think of a virus. The characteristic most important to a virus spreading is that it spreads quickly. Does it ultimately maim or incapacitate or kill its victim? Those things are really secondary to its ability to spread fast before the long-term results kick in, whatever they may be.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

Sometimes ideas spread because they carry some deep and thoughtful meaning. But usually not. Deep and thoughtful ideas take more time and effort to understand and communicate, thereby limiting their virality or spreadability. Deep thinking is almost never the primary narrative, and attempts to make it so usually depend on simplifying it to a point where it can lose some of its most important value.

Simplified ideas, or ones that produce a jolt or a bang or a profit, spread much more easily. We might say, beware of popular ideas.

In education, Pasi Sahlburg calls this GERM: the Global Education Reform Movement. GERM is a virus infecting the nations of the world, one that simplifies education and learning largely to standardization, corporate management models, and test-driven accountability. Bright and shiny ideas that, not unrelatedly, carry the potential for corporate profits, and are the stock and trade of ed tech and Silicon Valley.

Come to think of it, they are the stock and trade of modern industrial culture.

The mark of a mature society is the ability to demand more than superficial thinking, to build deep and powerful secondary narratives. Are we willing to turn away from the barrage of streaming superficiality and instead read and talk about ideas of depth and value? To drill past the easy headlines and ask ourselves hard questions about how and why the world works the way it does right now?

Are we willing to actually help students develop their skills and competencies so that they can face the challenges ahead, instead of pretending that we are preparing most of them for anything other than low, entry-level, service work? Instead of pretending that the ideas being bandied about in most of our conversations on education are actually meaningful, and not just what they are: political sound-bites with no pedagogical pedigree?

Somehow, we must take a stand. Especially in education we must be willing to build those powerful secondary narratives that give us intellectual choices when faced with superficial and viral thinking. If we do not demand more in the education conversation, we doom both our students and ourselves to the sad consequences of viral, surface-level culture.

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