As if anything ends

This week I read around the Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” portal. You can read about its methodology and see the project’s credits here.

I started with this article: “National Security Inc.” On page 10, the article describes the work of Ken Pohill, an employee of General Dynamics, a defense contractor serving multiple roles in the United States intelligence community. Ken is watching a “white truck moving across his computer monitor” – and “the truck [is] in Afghanistan.”

To do this, he clicked his computer mouse. Up popped a picture of the truck driver’s house, with notes about visitors. Another click. Up popped infrared video of the vehicle. Click: Analysis of an object thrown from the driver’s side. Click: U-2 imagery. Click: A history of the truck’s movement. Click. A Google Earth map of friendly forces. Click: A chat box with everyone else following the truck, too.

I may be horribly naive, but I was astounded.

How do we teach this at school? How do we help students translate their affinity for technology and proficiency with certain tools into the skills needs to synthesize those tools – or to create new ones – for gathering, analyzing, and producing content? For self-expression? How do we provide rich problem sets for student work? How do we help them prepare for the development, implementation, and use of tool sets that provide for synchronous human and mechanized observation, collection, correlation, and evaluation?

And how do we do this in the humanities? In schools and classes as we know them? As we imagine them?

This project – this repository of journalistic and democratic investigation – has convinced me like never before that we need to provide digital equity.

Students deserve to know what’s possible for them; they also deserve to know what their government, its competitors, and private industry can do in terms of observing their habits and controlling the information that reaches them.

Part of preserving our checks and balances is knowing what needs to be checked and balanced.

I see this one kid working a computer with a USB keyboard tethered to it. He has a browser open to the information he has to learn. He has composing software open in another window. He has his notes with my feedback on them in front of him on a piece of paper. He’s using everything he sees to write some fairly chilling music about Kristallnacht.

I see another kid working on a game about smashing through the Berlin Wall. He has his programming and drawing windows open. He has image searches running on Berlin, East German soldiers, and 3D models of sledgehammers. He has another window open showing him feedback from his classmates on earlier drafts of the game, posted on a private network.

I see a third kid skipping between tabs to watch video, read news reports, look up players’ stats, and blog on the sport he loves.

I remember these kids and I think: Is it enough? What am I teaching them? Am I teaching them how to think? To produce? To consume? To create or to re-arrange? Am I teaching them for today’s world or their own?

I remember these kids and I ask myself: How can we help our peers get access to the technology we are so fortunate to have? How can we approximate a set-up like Ken’s for students and their learning? For their passions?

I know General Dynamics values Ken Pohill for his ability to analyze and synthesize what he sees, but what he sees, while orchestrated by humans, is entirely mediated by technology. I also know that Ken works with other people onsite, but I imagine that they talk a lot about what they see on their screens. Somewhere else other people are talking about how to orchestrate it even better with new technology.

How do we help kids see the world as it happens? How do we help them see the code behind our world? The people behind the code? How do we help kids see themselves using these tools for the kind of greater good that obviates defense?

How do we use authentic, germane, realtime data and commentary about learning to analyze our teaching?

Look at Ken. Now back at standardized tests. Now back at Ken.

Why are we teaching as if anything ends?

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