The Digital Folk Movement: Is Fear the Enemy?

When Bob Dylan warned that the times were changing in 1964, he was articulating what every generation has been told before and since. In one way or another, the citizens of each era have been warned that they’d better start swimming or they’ll sink like a stone. Revolution was clearly in the air in the sixties, but that was hardly new to civilization. What was new was the folk movement, a modern, cultural mode of expression that demanded and articulated change, that connected people globally, that unnerved parents, and warned that change was coming whether they liked it or not. There would seem to be many similarities between that particular movement and the digital folk movement of the 21st Century. What does it mean for schools, we ask ourselves?

At our school we don’t like to talk about the 21st Century anymore. It’s old news. We can’t be preparing kids for the 21st Century when they already inhabit it and most of them were born in it. (Chances are, the need is more likely to prepare ourselves.) But the problem for schools is that they are frequently charged with sustaining a 19th Century mindset and structures while the rest of the world spins in this maelstrom of change and exponential development without restraint. Here are just 3 examples of things we have always done in schools and need to now stop doing.

Perhaps 5% of students will take advantage of unblocked sites on our school networks to do things we do not want them to do. So we prevent 100% of students from accessing social media sites and websites that might be educational, informative, controversial, and, heaven forbid, thought-provoking. Sure, there are things online that I believe we should protect students from, but let’s be rational and aim to educate, not restrict. Some say, for instance, that smartphones have no place in the classroom because sexting is the new evil of the day, despite that fact that this activity is highly unlikely to happen in schools. As wearable technology becomes the norm, what next: will we ban watches? We should deal with the 5% and open the potential for all of our students to do something amazing.

As a student myself, I always found taking notes to be a tedious activity. The passive nature of the process was alien to the way I learn. The rules of the game were simple for some of my teachers: regurgitate these words to succeed. The notion that teachers were once the knowledge expert in the classroom was a historical reality; it is not a criticism of teachers in the past. Today, teachers have been liberated from the impossible burden of mastering the explosion of knowledge and information at our disposal. Yet, in too many schools today, the Victorian slate that gave way to paper has simply been replaced by expensive technology to do many of the things that have always been done. The activity remains the same in a world in which activities such as note-taking as we knew it – things like every student needing to take individual notes – should be essentially obsolete. We should use technology to create, to design, to push the boundaries of possibilities, not to simply document abundant knowledge (there are apps for that).

Many faculty appraisal systems involve prescribed checklists of pseudo-identifiable skills that must be demonstrated for staged visits in a random cycle determined by an office often disconnected from learning. In most of these systems, good work is not actually good work unless it is documented, accompanied by a meeting to discuss the paperwork, then endorsed with a document of the documentation. School leaders are given an unreasonable number of teachers to “evaluate” so that meaningful dialogue is impossible. Such systems do not improve teaching. We should accept that the professional growth of teachers belongs to teachers and must be centred around ongoing collegial conversations about learning recorded, where necessary, by the teacher.

So, we ask ourselves, what does the digital folk movement mean for schools? The answer, as it was in Dylan’s Greenwich Village, is change. Our simple obligation is to implement the complex changes. If we take the three examples I have cited above, they have, I believe, one thing in common: fear. We are afraid of what students might do if we don’t lock down technology. We are afraid they will not learn if they don’t know what we know. And we are afraid to permit the learning of teachers be liberated from the drudgery of control in case we are held accountable for the few who may not learn. One of my favourite poems, “The People I Grew Up With Were Afraid” by Michael Gorman, contains the line, “On her deathbed, Ena Phelan prayed that her son would cut his hair.” The point is, I think, that our fears are largely irrational, learned, debilitating, life-long unlearners. Like the character in Gorman’s poem, too many school leaders are waiting for the sky to fall.

The way to bridge the gap between the schools we have and the schools we want is by changing habits through the development of a culture of change that is characterised by trust, patience, and a lack of fear. Dylan was right, and always has been: the times they are a changing.