30 December 2016

The Challenge of Information Democracy

Folio Corporation LogoIn the 1990s I was a co-founder at Folio Corporation, an electronic publishing software company. Correlating with the growth of the internet we produced tools that let average individuals publish their content and search for the information they needed in vast pools. Such tools are common today but it was cutting edge at the time.

"Information Democracy" was the term we used to describe the concept. In previous generations, a select few were able to publish their words to a sizable audience. Likewise, only business leaders and rulers of countries could afford the research staff necessary to stay well-informed. We produced a video featuring James Earl Jones and held conferences anticipating the how greater access to media would spread liberty, increase productivity, and support a more moral society.

We weren't alone in our optimism. In Life After Television George Gilder wrote, "Television is not vulgar because people are vulgar; it is vulgar because people are similar in their prurient interests and sharply differentiated in their civilized concerns." Ever the optimist, Gilder anticipated that greater diversity of media channels would result in a gradual elevation of quality and subject matter.

We have, indeed, achieved a world where any organization can publish to the whole world, where individual citizens can create TV channels on YouTube, and where average researchers have better resources than national leaders had a generation ago. Unfortunately, unfettered access to media hasn't resulted in the utopia many of us expected. Today's challenge is distinguishing reliable information from deliberate deceit and the whole spectrum between.

Unreliable Information

The recent presidential election brought the issue of fake news to the the media's attention. It will probably take years to sort the origin and impact. One source seems to be entrepreneurial Macedonian teenagers making money with fake news sites and Google AdSense. The Washington Post claims it was a coordinated Russian effort to destabilize American democracy.

The Pizzagate episode offers a warning sign of how fake information can provoke violent response. In terms of death toll, Andrew Wakefield's fradulent MMR Vaccine paper was worse. Despite millions of dollars invested in follow-on studies and publicity campaigns, the anti-vaccine movement has contributed to thousands of illnesses and numerous childhood deaths.

In recent decades, most newspapers and magazines have reduced or eliminated their fact-checking departments. Fact-checking of this sort is a cost-center and with declining revenues due to internet media, publishers have sought to reduce costs. The decline in ante hoc (before publication) fact checking has been matched by a growth in post hoc efforts like FactCheck, and PolitiFact as well as fact-checking pages at major news publications. Post hoc fact checking builds a revenue center out of the effort by sensationalizing politician's and other publication's mistakes. The unfortunate result is that post hoc fact checking is selective, biased, and missed or ignored by those who prefer to believe an inaccurate story.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) named "Post-Truth" as it's word of the year for 2016. Their definition is "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." The OED editors acknowledge that "post-truth" conditions aren't new; only that use of the term increased rapidly in 2016 year in the context of the U.S. Presidential Election and the U.K. Brexit vote.

I prefer the term "Confirmation Bias", defined as "The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories. In extreme cases, conspiracy theorists tend to reject any evidence contrary to their opinion as part of the conspiracy while considering all evidence in support of their opinion as true and factual.

Information Democracy

2 by 2 matrix. Horizontal dimension is Access to Publish Media with left being Exclusive and right being Open. Vertical dimension is Trust in Media with top being High and bottom being Low. Upper-left quadrant labeled Information Hegemony. Upper-right, Information Democracy. Lower-Left, Propaganda. Lower-Right, Information Anarchy.

It's time to resort to that old standby - the 2x2 matrix. In the latter half of the 20th century, prior to the advent of the internet and world-wide web, U.S. society was in a state of high media trust but all publishing flowed through a relatively small set of media outlets. Opinion polls identified Walter Cronkite as "the most trusted man in America." This state of high trust and exclusive access is the upper-left quadrant, "Information Hegemony."

We optimists of the 1990s expected free access to media to provoke a shift to Information Democracy. Likewise, we anticipated that totalitarian states would be forced from state-controlled media to an information democracy model.

We didn't understand the importance of trust systems in that shift. As access was generalized, and economic forces pushed media to a more sensationalist orientation, trust declined and we have ended up with Information Anarchy. It's hard to say whether this is superior to the more trustworthy but also restricted hegemony that preceded our day. But this state isn't unprecedented. In 19th and early 20th centuries, there were a greater variety of newspapers and magazines each with strong biases and little distinction between fiction and fact. Journalistic objectivity as a value didn't become prominent until the mid-20th Century.

Tools for Discerning Truth

At present, the main tool most citizens use to judge media is whether a story matches their existing world view and opinions. Confirmation bias turns out to be a pretty good tool so long as one's world view is somewhat close to truth. And, of course, everyone thinks that their biases are the "true" ones. The problem is that when one relies exclusively on confirmation bias, they don't have a tool for correcting their biases - for getting closer to what's really true.

Trust is our second-best tool for judging content. It's also an excellent tool for correcting ones own biases. That's why the decline of trust, and the concurrent decline of trustworthiness, is such a problem today. The sensationalism of most media outlets concentrates on confirmation bias as a way to gain audience. Careful readers have to seek trustworthy journalists rather than organizations - at least until the trend turns.

Critical thinking isn't so much a tool as a discipline. It's something that our schools can and should teach and it's incorporated into good quality language curricula. As students are taught critical thinking they are taught to recognize and use good-quality arguments, to measure the credibility of facts based on origins and citations, and to compare and contrast writings from multiple authors.

Taking Personal Responsibility

I'm afraid that profit motive will prevent the media industry from solving this problem for us. Rather, we need to take individual responsibility for recognizing and tuning our own biases. We must bring the language of critical thinking into our vocabulary; asking about sources, seeking contrasting points of view, looking for supporting evidence, checking the logic of arguments, and discounting emotional appeals.

Clay Johnson wrote in The Information Diet, "The pattern here is simple: seek to get information directly from the sources, and when the information requires you to act, interact directly with those sources. An over-reliance on third party sources for information and action reduces your ability to know the truth about what's happening, and dilutes your ability to cause change." (Page 140)

The Information Age has given us unprecedented access to the original sources. We can take advantage of that. Institutions will follow the people, not the other way around.

10 November 2016

What I Would Tell Donald Trump about Education

I never thought Donald Trump would survive the first primary much less gain the nomination. By the time we reached the general election I gave up making predictions because, where Trump is concerned, I was always wrong. I don't expect this post to ever make it to the Trump transition team. But I could be wrong about that as well. Regardless, I hope it will help some of you in the community.

The Trump Policy Page on Education is pretty spare. During the campaigns, Trump spoke very little about education policy. In the primaries he made a few anti-Common Core remarks that seemed requisite of all Republican candidates. But those quotes date back to February. Mike Pence has been a strong advocate for school choice and that's reflected in the policy page. Their goal is to "provide school choice to every one of the 11 million school aged children living in poverty."

On the prospect that Trump's education strategy is still nascent, here's what I would tell him if I were asked:

Leave Standards to the States

The No Child Left Behind act required states to set educational achievement standards and measure the degree to which students meet those standards. It's successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed in December 2015 with broad bipartisan support. ESSA maintains the emphasis on standards and accountability while returning responsibility to states to decide how to address underperforming schools.

Contrary to popular belief, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are not a federal mandate. They were created in a state-led cooperative effort with support from private foundations. The Obama Administration's, Race to the Top grants encouraged adoption of common standards among states without specifying any particular set. Those grants have mostly expired and there is no continuing federal support for the CCSS.

So, for Trump to eliminate the Common Core or to substitute other standards in their place would constitute more federal meddling in education, not less. Leave the development of standards to the states. Some will choose to collaborate on the CCSS, others will go their own way. We're in the third year of Common Core deployment. Within one or two more years we'll know whether it's been effective.

Ensure Title I Funds Really Benefit Economically Disadvantaged Students

This is a gnarly problem loaded with unintended consequences. Title I of ESSA (which is the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) provides extra funding to schools and districts with a high proportion of children from low-income families. The goal is to close the achievement gap by offering more resources to schools that serve children with greater needs.

Unfortunately, as Marguerite Roza observed in Educational Economics the greater the distance between funding decisions and the students, the less effective they are at achieving the intended result. All too often, Title I funds are balanced by other funds being directed toward more mainstream schools and the most challenged schools remain with the fewest funds.

The Trump Campaign's proposal is to have specific money allocated to each economically disadvantaged child and for that money to move with the child to whatever school they choose. It's a promising strategy because it ties the funding decisions directly to the child but the concept won't work if there aren't good quality schools available for parents and their children to choose from.

Base Strategic Initiatives on Reliable Evidence

The theory behind the No Child Left Behind Act was to measure success and incentivize improvement. It's an approach that has worked in other domains but education has proven to be more challenging. That's because we still don't have a good model for effectively educating all students, at scale while preserving initiative, creativity, the arts, and joy.

We're making progress. And there's a growing body of evidence supporting some key strategies. They include:

Choose a Secretary of Education Who Understands the Landscape

Education doesn't need another shakeup right now. There are a lot of experiments underway that will yield great insights into what works. Some of these are at statewide scale like the competency-based New Hampshire High School Transformation or the Rhode Island Education Action Plan. Others are at district or school scale. We are rapidly learning what works and US Ed can shine a light on successful programs.

The Secretary of Education should have an optimistic outlook for US Education. They should have spoken at iNACOL, Educause, and SXSWEdu. They should know the education leaders at the Gates, Hewlett, and Dell foundations. Most of all, they have a humble attitude about the challenges ahead and the limited but important role of the federal government in US education.

26 February 2016

"Growth Mindset" is the Buzzword of 2016 - and That's a Good Thing

I first encountered the Growth Mindset nearly ten years ago in a New York Magazine article titled "How Not to Talk to Your Kids". The central point of the article was that when a child succeeds at a task, it makes a big difference whether you praise them for their effort or praise them for their talent or ability. Praising a child for their effort is associated with a growth mindset. It fosters children's belief that they can overcome obstacles and increase their mental capacity.

The article I read was based on the research of Dr. Carol Dweck. There is a large and growing body of evidence showing that students with a growth mindset achieve more and overcome challenges more consistently. It's also supported by contemporary research in psychology and neurology. "The brain is like a muscle." is a common metaphor, "Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter." Indeed, continuing research shows that IQ is malleable and can be increased.

In recent years, both anecdotal and rigorous evidence for Growth Mindset has increased with books, school programs, and parental training programs. Mindset Works is an advocacy organization dedicate to the concept. The result is an explosion of Growth Mindset interest in late 2015 and 2016.

And here are some recent examples:

Risk of a Buzzword

Growth Mindset is based on solid evidence and sound psychology. But as the buzzword starts trending we risk failure and discreditation of the idea due to enthusiastic but misguided efforts. A colleague recently worried that growth mindset might fall victim to the Self-Esteem fad of the 1990s. To be sure, the right kind of praise is connected with growth mindset. But equally important are fostering the determination to overcome obstacles and the safety to fail.

Some years ago I had the privilege of being a chaperone when my children's school competed in the Utah Shakespearian Festival. It was a small school and the drama team was composed of the majority of the high school - grades 9 through 12. I watched in amazement as these average kids rehearsed dramatic scenes, choreographed their own dance pieces, and performed a breathtakingly creative ensemble scene from Much Ado About Nothing. In the sweepstakes, they took second place against much larger and better-equipped schools. I chatted with teachers and other parents about what qualities enabled our school to perform so well without cherry-picking the best drama students for the team. We decided that an important factor is the emotional safety students had at the school. The cultural climate enabled students to take risks and regularly fail with minimal fear of ridicule. The courage to step out and take risks is especially important in the performing arts. Years later I found corroborating evidence in Brene Brown's research on vulnerability

Growth Mindset has as much or more to do with proper response to failure as it has to do with proper praise for success. Like a scientist performing experiments, students should be encouraged to treat failures as opportunities to learn and gain insight. Indeed, study of a failure can yield new understanding whereas success simply confirms existing knowledge.

Learning Mindsets

The Raikes Foundation considers a broader concept of "Learning Mindsets". This includes growth mindset and adds other skills that help students "actively participate, work through problems, think critically, and approach learning with energy and enthusiasm." Andy Calkins calls this "Agency." Of these skills; which include grit, determination, self-advocacy, and confidence; growth mindset seems to be getting the attention in 2016. If people study the concept and implement it well, that will be a good thing!