Friday, July 12, 2013


Literacy's Paradigm Shifts: Let's Roll

"Each paradigm will be shown to satisfy more or less the criteria that it dictates for itself and to fall short of a few of those dictated by its opponent." Thomas S. Kuhn

Updated October 1, 2014

Society finds ways to make certain models rather self-perpetuating because of the advantages they provide. A common approach to the idea of literacy is one of those models. Our schools teach a particular kind of literacy, text literacy, as one of the fundamental life skills because of its general importance to informed citizenship in a democracy, economic productivity and its value for every career path.

Consequently the formula emerged for text literacy education to begin early and last long because of the perception about how long it takes to teach its use to a high level. But like all models, paradigms, recipes and formulas of our culture, it is important to periodically ask some pointed questions about their use. In fact there are 3 other areas critical for human development that are largely eclipsed by it. It is beneficial then to put text in the context of the four thinking cultures of homo sapien experience as represented by the graph at the top of this posting. Let's explore.

At the base of human thinking, the purple cone, the evolution of the hand and its creative potential led the evolution of other key elements such as our brain, heel and shoulder. Anyone smirking at the skills of stone age thinkers should first try and hammer an arrowhead out of stone, an action that developed areas of the brain later colonized as our language centers. After millions of years of development, the acceleration rate picked up with oral culture, the yellow cone, (the very ideas of subject, verb, direct object) emerged from the foundations laid by work with the hand. Written culture, the green cone, followed from speech, leading to an exponential increase of words for potential use in speech. Cyberspace development, the orange cones, followed, taking mere decades to achieve global usage of some 10 forms of digital literacy. One of those forms, digitally driven construction of objects using sensors and robotics technology, the makerspace movement, has taken off in just the last couple of years. Each development not only led us forward, but reached back to expand the range of possibility for the prior stages. This brief overview needs some greater expansion starting with the present.

Cyberspace Culture

In fact, the degree of cultural change in recent history as well as predictive thinking for the near future is a bit staggering, a claim which deserves a quick review. In 1948 researchers at Bell Labs invented the transistor, the heart of the hardware of the computer revolution, and of greater importance, the concept of a bit, which established the foundation for software, for all information and directions for computers. With these developments, the age of cyberspace began, the topmost orange cones of the info graphic at the top.

The potential and the power of these ideas developed slowly yet exponentially. More recently the bit, the 1 or zero of computer design, is now seen by physicists and biologists as a fundamental element of all aspects of life and the universe  (Gleick, 2011), which itself can be seen as dependent on information for development. Because of the expense of bringing computing ideas into general use, for some twenty years a relatively small number of computers were only available to large businesses and to governments. Yet advancements continually shrank the size and price until in 1975 the first personal computer appeared, the 1 to 4K RAM Altair 8800 (Altair 8800, 2013); this was soon followed by a stream of different models of personal computers of which led to an explosion of ever expanding capacity.

For years, many researchers were challenged to find short term or long term value in integrating personal computers into any organization. Now the economy depends on them. Almost 40 years later, a Nielson study in March 2012 showed that over 61%, a rapidly growing majority of Americans, carry a sophisticated Internet capable smartphone computer, a number near 80% for the young adult, early career population, 18-35 years of age (Wasserman, 2013). By 2017, trends indicate that many countries will be well over 90% (Rooney, 2013) of their population. And smartphones are just one of the ways our population accesses the Web. That is, having "anytime" personal access to a computing device is common everywhere (with the exception of public schools). During this time span, the quantity of information expanded over ten-thousand fold and the percentage of the world's information went from much less than 1% digital to well over 93% of the world's recorded knowledge in digital multimedia format today (Houghton, 2013). The word google, as in "google that" became a standard word, a verb, in the Oxford English dictionary in 2006 (Schwartz, 2006). This was a logical response to the 5 billion a day Google search avalanche in 2012 (Google Annual Search Statistics, 2013) for answers to so many questions. Looking back over the extensive change for this digital era, the theme song might be titled, "Surprise! Can you Handle it?"

At the same time the Net became a rich social environment for sharing questions that are forming and not yet answered; Facebook claims over 1 billion members, with a 23% growth in the last 12 months (Associated Press, 2013). From an economic perspective, my conversations with entrepreneurs from around the state would indicate that the majority of profit and nonprofit startups include digital technology as an important element of their startup idea and company operation; it is also widely understood that entrepreneurship skills and the social settings that they require are the greatest source of new jobs.

Finally, for this brief discussion, the current meaning of literacy can be judged by the common composition and use of different types of media information on the Web and the Net, that is, cyberspace. In just the last ten years the evidence of the Web shows that the meaning of literacy in our rich social setting has exploded manyfold for the creation of many types of composition and communication. These compositions are also central to ongoing developments in science, technology, engineering, art and math. Though common on the Web, schools do not teach them and are generally not prepared to teach them; curriculum state guidelines do not include them and schools too often do not have the resources to teach them even when teachers are seeking to gain the needed expertise. Consequently, a breakaway literacy movement has simply bypassed formal schooling and worked to meet this need through personal and community learning networks (PLN/CLN) scattered across the Net.

 These compositions make up a wide ranging digital palette for digital composition (image on left): interactive text, audio, still images, video, animation, 3D design, robotics/sensors, coding (computer programming), interaction, and online teaming (Houghton, 2011).

Yet the newer and growing part of the economy is highly dependent on exploiting these media by forming businesses that understand them and can compose solutions to the problems the digital setting is raising, the portion of the population Richard Florida's extensive writings over several years have been addressing in regards to the "rise of the creative class" (2002, 2005, 2010). To date rather isolated educational areas have forged ahead with one-to-one technology settings. These schools have provided the hardware capacity but not the full digital palette curriculum of what so many have created in cyberspace. They include the state of Maine and a small percentage of school districts in North Carolina which would include Green County and Mooresville, home of the national superintendent of the year for 2013 (AASA, 2013). This much explosive cultural development is well documented and readily observable.

However, if you thought that the developments of this 6.5 decade time span were amazing, fasten your seatbelt. There is a parallel to the last 40 years of this period that is just beginning which suggests even greater and this time more readily visible change is upon us. The personal computer revolution is about to repeat itself in a new skin, metamorphisizing from the virtual to the physical.

The Makerspace Branch

Just as 1975 was a critical watershed year in moving from widespread corporate and government use of computing technology to personal computing technology, so was 2005 a critical watershed year for  a different yet related set of technologies, makerspace. 3D printers were the first to gain widespread recognition. Introduced to the world in 1980 and patented by 3D systems, 3D printing gained widespread industrial and government use for specialized manufacturing purposes. The first personal (and self-replicating) personal 3D printer became publicly available in 2005 (RepRap, 2013), cheaper in actual price, let alone inflation adjusted price, of the first Apple computer in 1978. Googling "3D printing" provides millions of hits, with numerous and still growing numbers of articles in newspapers, television and magazines.

Though 3D printing "for the rest of us" is a significant development, this particular technology is too narrow a frame of reference. 3D printing should be seen as the poster-child for the broader concept of makerspace and digital fabrication, which are not so widely known. Digital fabrication includes laser cutters and other computer controlled 'make-it' technology (Anderson, 2012; Gershenfeld, 2005; Lipsum & Kurman, 2013; Martinez & Stager, 2013). Think of the current moment as parallel to the garage startup era of Steve Jobs (Apple) and Bill Gates (Microsoft) in the 1970's personal computing initiative. Today, as I write this, in similar public club workshops in cities across North Carolina, and literally now around the world, teams of people are gathering to study, explore and use, build and design 3D printers and then using them, along with other digital fabrication devices, to compose and create things. What kind of things? Look around you at any single thing; the odds are that someone has produced, is producing or is considering the creation of a digital file of that 3-dimensional object so that a digital fabrication device or sequence of devices can reproduce it, in infinite customized variations for whatever personal needs come to mind.

Beyond the everyday items around us, engineers are working on scaling up these digital fabrication devices to build engines, houses and office buildings and medical researchers are working downward in size to nanoscale medical devices. But the mere shaping of material is but one leg of the emerging digital fabrication stool. Inserted within the digital fabrication of any object will be the insertion of an endless variety of technology; think of it as inserting a tiny fingernail sized chip into your aquarium pump, a chip which already contains the equivalent of a 1975 Apple II+ computer yet includes modern wireless communication capacity and the potential for an endless variety of sensors. The third leg of the fab stool will be the software used internally and collectively in creating a swarm effect of our objects in communication with their owner and with each other on the owner's behalf (Wasik, 2013).

Digital fabrication will further accent the need for ability to compose with robotics/sensors, computer programming and interactive design and integrate these new tools and skills with the rest of the digital palette. Given the digital foundation already in place in our culture, this digital fabrication revolution is going to develop at a much faster pace, doing in years what took the computer revolution decades. Our personal composition reach consequently now includes both the world of ideas and the world of things. The promise of this development is that residents of cyberspace will go from problem to idea to solutions that will include the manufacture of any needed items, manufacturing that will take place in your personal desktop or nearby store, depending on the size of the object needed.

As public schools in the last 40 years largely missed student level impact of the personal computer revolution, will the yawning gap between schools and digital culture grow even further with the digital manufacturing revolution now upon us? If the first industrial revolution of the 1800's is any measure, the 21st century industrial revolution will provide significant opportunity for those prepared to seize it.

Today's kindergartener has 13 years in the public school system. Starting today, what can these children and their parents expect as an outcome years from now in preparation for the digital computing as well as the coming digital manufacturing revolution? What is in place? On what hook can educators hang their beginner hats and then advance from there? The North Carolina legislature passed legislation in 2013 requiring the Department of Public Instruction to develop new vocational education initiatives. Will they be able to see that digital fabrication knowledge is as important to the college bound as those not so inclined?

No one can work towards something that they are not aware of, and no one excels in the current literacies during this time of rapid cultural change without early and lengthy exposure to ever more knowledge about them and their changes. Schools need a starting place, a platform on which to attempt to build and keep up with the digital fabrication train that is preparing to leave the station as well as catch up with the former digital computing revolution and its already well exercised digital palette. One option neatly combines elements of the digital computing revolution with the digital fabrication revolution and with the movement towards greater STEM Education. That digital palette option is robotics, and through organizations such as FIRST and PLTW, participants have found effective connections with primary, intermediate, middle and high school students.

Watching a classroom of robots roll through student designed problem solving routines is a site to behold. Of the available curriculum options, none has better preparation and educational resources for much of the public school age population than the Lego robotics kits which have been central to the wildly successful FIRST Lego League competitions for 4th through 8th graders, though competitors are emerging.

Robotic devices by their digital nature can synthesize and integrate with the entire digital palette and provide a ready gateway to digital fabrication thinking. Most critically they provide an attractive way to introduce the heart of the computer revolution and the current digital economy (Rushkoff, 2011), computer programming, a topic unfortunately still a foreign reject from almost every K-12 scope and sequence chart. To program robotic devices to solve problems is to think and plan in 3 dimensions from interlocking gears to general movement (a particular forte of human intelligence and human hands). The Lego Robots come with sound recognition and audio generation capacity and their design and animation provide compelling viewing for still image and video composition. They come with a number of environmental interaction sensors with libraries of add-on sensors that are readily available. The Lego curriculum and the competitive robotics scene has also made team based engineering a fundamental social skill, which then contributes to aspects of online teaming for coordinating many team developments. Unfortunately, no current school content area including the STEM or STEAM agenda is yet prepared to own the full range of digital literacy that also includes computer programming and robotics, nor apparently wants to own it. Finding a curriculum home will be one more "bootstrap" operation for cyberspace revolutionaries.

Though they will appear and more will be done, scientific studies will really not prove the effectiveness of robotics or other digital curriculum any more than they have for the instructional technologies that preceded it; Clark (1983) established that point decades ago. But that perspective totally misses the point. Instead something more profound and much deeper has occurred and continues to develop. This is perhaps better understood by stepping back and looking at historical parallels to our present, to the last radical change in our forms of expression, shifting from oral culture to written culture in ancient Greece. Would it have made sense to seek a study in Plato's lifetime on the effectiveness of writing curriculum for advancing the prior oral culture of the day? Plato's own teacher/mentor, Socrates, was an opponent of writing and literacy. There was no arguing with the prior cultural paradigm of the then dominant Greek oral culture; as noted by both Havelock and Ong, the oral culture was its own unique and different state of consciousness (Gleick, 2011; McLuhan, 1969).

As then, educators today must simply use their good judgment in seeing charging opportunity when it presents itself as with Plato in 450 B.C. Plato did not wait until he had the approval and proof from Socrates and his educational system; he simply walked beyond the present moment of his culture and into the use of the new medium of the alphabet and writing, a new cultural competence that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Would that one of our students could do so well with their new media; Alfred North Whitehead has noted that all Western philosophy since Plato's time can be seen as a series of footnotes to Plato's work (Whitehead, 1979). New components are formed in one era that when mixed become something entirely different, leading to new culture which can lead to significant new advancements. Thought of another way, by studying the elements of hydrogen and oxygen by themselves it is not possible to see that when they combine something radically different emerges; something with a property that was not there before, water. In Plato's time, multiple developments led not to water, but writing and then because of the advantages of writing for thinking and problem solving there was no going back. A new powerful culture and a new state of consciousness emerged.

In order to see the way forward, it is useful to see the way backwards.

Rethinking the Graph

As an example of the significant expansion of tools for thinking and problem solving provided by the shift from the oral paradigm to the text writing paradigm, oral cultures  (the yellow cone in the graph on the right) average a vocabulary of a few thousand words. Today, written language (green cone), on which our reading and writing skills evolve, is at 1 million words and growing in just the English language (Gleick, 2011).

The chart of exploding conic graphs and the authors writing about the transition periods gives visual expression to this multi-step series of explosions across the expressive capacities to compose in human history, each a very lengthy volcanic explosion first measured in millennia, triggering yet another and even more powerful explosion. Human culture has skipped, hopped and built across the stone age, oral culture, written culture and now cyberspace culture. But this graphic is not just about a quantitative change, of simply having more; it is also significantly qualitative, a transition in state of consciousness for which there is not scientific measurement and proof (Pirsig, 1974). Each new paradigm created its own culture.

The straight expanding lines of the conic sections in the chart above however lack the long narrow slower developmental phase followed by the explosive nature of these cultural formations. In each age, accelerators appear to light sudden expansions. In the age of writing and text, two accelerants that exponentially extended the power of text were the printing press in the 1400's (Eisenstein, 1980) and then the industrial revolution's invention of ever faster printing presses that led to cheap paperback books, beginning with the "dime novels" of the 1860's and later the nickel weeklies which vastly increased readership. That is, Gutenberg's explosion led to an even greater explosion when it was empowered by the industrial age.

The shape of such cultural developments might be better expressed as a stem with a large exploding flower head.

The actual shape of each cones above would be better expressed by the geometries found in Reugels's high speed photos of water drop splash art (2012), used metaphorically in the graphic on the left.

The idea of applying the model of changes in a water drop to other phenomena is a nonlinear phenomena subject to intense research.  Abstracted mathematical models have found novel application to everything from industrial settings (Korobkin, Ockendon, & Thoroddsen, 2013) to cancer growth (Guiot, Delsanto & Deisboeck, 2007). Here they are suggested as a model of evolutionary layered literacy and corresponding cultural change. Thomas and others (2005) have coined the term transliteracy to confront the need created by this broader view of literacy, the need to teach and use all literacy layers from all time, past and future, without prejudice.

The rapid flowering of each culture of literacy in the above charts after a long period of development produced the seeds or foundation of the next. It should also be emphasized that in each transition to a new state of development represented by the different colored phases in the graphs above, a new culture and a new level of consciousness builds around it. Each new stage carries the past forward, integrating much but definitely not all of the prior paradigm into the next. These gradual developments over a long period of time build the foundations for explosive leaps of progress. This idea about a series of explosions in thinking tools and cultural development bears comparison with the punctuated equilibrium models of linguists using long time scales for language histories (Dixon, 2002; Atkinson, Quentin, et al., 2008) and a similar pattern of growth  in the extremely long timelines of the fossil record by biologists Eldredge and Gould (1972).

Darwin's idea of biological evolution through subtle variation then selection is a well established principle of science. However, this concept is inadequate to explain current developments in human culture. The evolution of tools, of technology, of technology applied to learning (educational technology) is led by the creative ability of the brain to use significant variation to combine and modify prior technologies to create something new. Some call this combinatorial evolution. It is this latter form of evolution that has led to the exponential changes now present at many levels in today's culture, changes that so challenge an educational system to keep up, let alone lead it.

Proof of the values of a new form of expression  translated backwards into what the older paradigm knows is an enormous challenge as there is no common means of expression across the transition boundary; the new paradigm was invented because of the inability of the prior state of mind to express the new ideas. Cultural groups have a very hard time communicating across these transitions, with the first generation or so being immigrants to the new state of consciousness able to do this partially, then later generations born into the new paradigm require much effort to see the world through the prism of the prior culture's paradigm. Though there is not an equally simple measure of comparison as vocabulary words, I would claim that the rich range of composition tools of the digital palette now nourishing the knowledge explosion provides many times the expressive generating capacity of our text vocabulary. The point of a many-sided digital palette (interactive text, audio, still images, video, animation, 3D design, robotics/sensors, computer programming, interaction, and online teaming) that is accenting robotics curriculum is not to justify itself in advancing prior curriculum from a prior paradigm, though it will, but to advance its own knowledge in order to advance the next generation of thinkers.

The connection between robotics composition and 3D printing in particular and digital fabrication in general is less visible, but also compelling. With each advance in robotics design skill comes increasing need for customization and unique part replacement. Digital fabrication devices, that is personal manufacturing facilities that fit on desktops, are a natural extension of the 3D thinking and activities that robotics design curriculum facilitate. That such devices are relevant to our younger citizens may seem surprising, but signs of children and adolescents that are becoming part of a digital fabrication community through centers and workshops can be readily found by googling "hacker scouts", "DIY community", "maker studios", "maker faires" and related terms.

This leaves us with some rather practical operational questions for educational decision makers and parents about preparation for the cyberspace age. To the question of when, when you are already decades late, the answer is to start now. To the question of where to start, the answer is that there is an age appropriate opening for participation at any age level with any element of the digital palette and cyberspace. Just as educators learned by developing curriculum for text literacy, the sooner our students begin developing the wide ranging skills, the better. Story telling with picture books begins before the age of one but no one is expected them to read at that age. That is, beginning digital palette literacy in elementary schools and earlier is just as important as getting an early lead on reading and writing.

Many of the current leaders of cyberspace would not be leading if it had depended on just the education of their public schools. For example, the Google founders received their primary grade foundations for engineering in Montessori schools ("the hand is the foundation of man's intelligence") and in digitally intensive home settings. With similar opportunity a graduate of our local Smoky Mountain High School took an idea onward to build a digitally focused company of hundreds of employees over a handful of years, then sold it to begin another. The new and growing economy is being built by a rather narrow subset of the current population because the exposure to such knowledge has had to transmit outside of the scope of public schools.

Literacy has always been important, but the means for composing and problem solving need to be seen as having been transformed, again and again. A new paradigm takes time, knowledge and a social setting to succeed; however, the pace of change is providing precious little time for the preparation of our next generation of leaders and careers. Both Toffler's Future Shock (1970) and Rushkoff's Present Shock (2013) can be seen as describing the turbulence in working through this paradigm transition. This turbulence may be similar to the wild vibrations that jet travel had to overcome as it learned to cross the speed of sound barrier; it is worth noting that much greater calm appears once the sound barrier is breached. Just as Plato had to be willing to wring out the new possibilities of a new system of expression to reach new milestones, so does our current generation of thinkers and teachers.

A new rich range of possibilities for thinking and problem solving are at hand, a range the revitalizes all the paradigms that preceded it. The future paradigm is here now; the new consciousness is just not widely distributed.

Let's roll.


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