Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Disfluencies: the Gold Standard


Photo taken by Principal Poling with her iPad


Wouldn’t you know it!  The kickoff for back to school at EKD had a great turnout of parents and students, the classrooms were packed with enthusiasm, and the welcomes from Principal Poling and from the PTA flashed on the screens.  Then off, on, off and on, more off than on in the rooms I checked.  Although the technology flickered, the show went on.  The featured attraction was still meeting the child’s new teacher, and the classroom teachers adjusted to the tech blip with on-the-spot problem solving—brilliant.  At least I thought so.

The University of Maryland Writing Project collaboration with EKD Elementary School for Integrated Arts & Technology is designed to support the integration of iPads, Promethean Boards, and other digital media into the teaching and learning.  I'm still wondering how others respond when our engagement with technology doesn't feel as smooth as the old paper and pencil or as polished as TV programs.  Were any parents, children, or even teachers bothered that the video feed didn’t play smoothly?  

If so, I see this as a great opportunity to initiate the careful work of building an understanding of technology’s place in today’s education.  The more I play and work with the new media and with the notion of Web 2.0+, the more I believe that we’re being propelled into a different paradigm, one that demands we get in the process of adapting to change, dealing with frustration constructively, and erasing hard lines around who is the teacher, who’s the learner, and what’s the knowledge.  We’ll just have to accept that integrating technology right means working and playing at the edge. 

The place to begin might be with a fresh take on the concept of “disfluencies.”  In traditional education, disfluencies point out children who are failing; they mark low ability in speaking, reading, and writing.  Educators, especially as we innovate with new media, must learn to say both “yes” and “no” to that diagnostic tool.  Disfluencies might mark someone in trouble; they might also distinguish a person who is exactly right on track with engagement at the edge of learning.

If we are going to integrate technology, we’re going to have to take a giant step up because the process of engaging the ever-changing media-scape means that those who succeed are the ones who aren’t addicted to perfection.  They’ll take risks, bumble around, get in the bumpy current, and figure out how to fix it.  They might even like playing in the rapids, the exhilaration, and eventually making it smoother, prettier, and more finished.  We cannot back off, criticize, or even give off bad vibes when our engagement in producing with new media doesn’t immediately coincide with the fluency scores we expected on the old language arts charts.  If we don't step up to a higher-level understanding and enactment of "disfluency," I believe our effort to bring new technology into schools will just turn out to be same-old.

I think we are more addicted to perfection than we realize.  Parents need reassurance that genius isn’t straight As.  Dealing with the testing craze runs past the limits of sanity.  Leadership and authority are going to have a very different feel in a collaborative world; our prospects for peace depend on us adjusting our standards.  When we move to the cutting edge, we won’t look or feel so pretty.  Get over it.

We’re not without models.  Three have landed in my lap recently, and I encourage you to open your awareness to recognize the ones around you.  For practice, try this:
1. Watch the first minute of James Taylor’s “Shed a Little Light.”
2. Then listen to the first minute of his interview at Williams College Commencement  Notice the contrast in fluency.
3. Visit the NPR website for Fresh Air's Terry Gross conversing with Director Wes Anderson.*  Play the audio to hear the disfluencies; the significance comes through most powerfully near the end, at about 37 minutes.  Also look at the transcript where Anderson reveals the metacognitive insight about the nature of intuitive artistry.  For example, responding to Gross’ clear articulation of his thinking, he says:

Yeah. And usually I don't want to - I try - I'm happy to have it described to me later because then I can feel - it sort of gives me a - I like to have a reason afterwards. But when it's happening I want to not be too connected to that. I don't want to be reinforcing my points and making them more clear.

For full effect, listen to the repetitions, sentence frags, vocalized pausing, and other markers of disfluency.  On most measures of school performance, this would receive an F; yet the successful director says that the kind of composing given high marks on most rubrics and test standards would block him from his process in doing good work.  Perhaps those standards can be applied later, but they must not be prematurely imposed or we lose creativity. 

Tolerance for disfluency applies not only in the arts.  Steven Johnson says important innovations “start with a vague, hard-to-describe sense . . . and linger in the shadows of the mind, sometimes for decades” (Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, p. 77).   The Stigma of Genius: Einstein, Consciousness, & Education explores Einstein’s failure in school and the failure of traditional schooling. 

In summary, to move into the new paradigm, I recommend:
1. Experience the vitality at the edge of consciousness enough to fight for it.  We’re going to have to defend “disfluency” if we innovate effectively with technology.  We can do that best when we’re engaging healthy passionate activity that brings the life force more abundantly.
2. Recognize the difficulty that comes in trying to articulate at this place.  The depths of vitality are out past words and yet articulating the experience keeps us in the flow of it.
3. Accept and come to know the “feel” of this process.  (Ira Glass says it may take awhile.) We need to know when "disfluency" is good and when it's not.  "Feel" or "taste" is one key to distinguishing when disfluency goes with a life-affirming experience from when it’s evidence of a confused state.
4. Surround yourself with persons who care about this work/play at the edge.  Nurture the supportive community.
5. Make this kind of learning the professional development model.  It’s about respecting situated knowing, collaboration, and continuous inquiry.  In a number of posts, I’ve shown how our UMdWP work and that of the National Writing Project do this best of anything I've seen in education.

*See NY Review of Books, Wes Anderson's Worlds by Michael Chabon. Adapted from the introduction to The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz, to be published in October 2013 by Abrams Publishers.