Blindspots, blindsight, and internal contradictions #edchat #teched

I think my blind spot analysis about educational ICT perspectives and practices might be correct. Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald have just published, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. We all have physiological blind spots in the retina of each eye. This is a region called the scotomoa, where there are no light-sensitive cells. Without light sensitive cells, light arriving in this region has to path to the visual processing areas of our brains. We are capable of perceiving our blind spot by conducting simple experiments.

What our eyes can’t see, the brain fills in, drawing on previous experiences to build up an accurate picture. Our brains do not rely solely on what is shown to the eyes in order to ‘see’, it constructs a complex prediction, continuously anticipating what we will see, hear, or feel, next. If parts of our expected experience are obstructed, we will still have a precise ‘view’ of experience as our brain draws on other inputs to come up with a best ‘guess’ of what is there. What we are capable of perceiving visually as a physiological process is augmented by what we are capable of perceiving psychologically as a cognitive process.

Additionally, another form of blindness, called blindsight, involves damage to the brain’s visual cortex. Patients with this condition are unable to perceive visual objects consciously, but they are able to reach out and grasp an object behaviourly. This phenomena is possible because there are subcortical retina-to-brain pathways in operation that can guide visual behaviour, even though the brain is not conscious of ‘seeing’ the object.

Banaji and Greenwald’s research focuses on another type of blindspot, one that contains a large set of hidden biases. The hidden-bias blindspot operates in a similar way to the physiological blind spot – because the brain fills in missing information with expectations, we can be unaware of our hidden biases, just as we are unaware of the retinal scotoma. Hidden-bias blindspots also share the features of blindsight. Hidden biases are capable of guiding our behaviour without our being conscious of either the gap in our perception, nor the ‘filling in’ of biased expectations occurring in our brains.

Banaji and Greenwald write about hidden biases encountered in our cultural environments. Their work focuses on the ways hidden bias operates as a blindspot and blindsight toward members of particular social groups. We remain oblivious to the influence of hidden bias because we are not skilled in detecting its activity, we are not skilled at identifying preferences our brains may harbour that we are not consciously aware of.

I have been working in the field of digital technology and education since 2003. I continued to confront a baffling array of paradoxes in educational perspectives and practices regarding the use of digital technology. Most recently, I analyzed the ICTI Performance Standards from the Ministry of Education of British Columbia. The Information and Communication Technologies Integration Performance Standards are intended to support teacher and students as they use technology to enhance learning across the curriculum. However, what I found were troubling indicators of internal contradictions structured into the standards.

Even the Overview statement contains a contradiction, “The Information and Communications Technology Integration Performance Standards, Grades 5 to 10 (ICTI), are intended to support teachers and students as they use technology to enhance learning across the curriculum.” The contradiction I find in this statement is combining the ideas of “Information and Communications Technology Integration Performance Standards” and the idea of “…use technology to enhance learning across the curriculum.”

Why do I find these statements contradictory and confusing? I suggest the seeming coherence of these statements can be attributed to a form of blindsight when it comes to learning and technology in educational institutions. First, according to ecological philosophical approaches to learning, and the infinite ways ICT can be used to enrich, enable and enhance learning, and the pedagogy of student-centered, personalized, inquiry-based learning, and the innovative uses of ICT these philosophical, pedagogical and curricular approaches would entail, the idea that there could be a pre-set group of ICTI Performance Standards would be antithetical to these efforts. Thus, the term, “ICTI Performance Standards” conflates antithetical educational concepts as if they seamlessly cohere.

Second, the phrase, “…support teachers and students as they use technology to enhance learning across the curriculum” appears to seamlessly cohere, when, in practice, these ideas are incompatible. Is it true that ICTI Performance Standards would support teachers and students? If you examine the standards, you find 12 tasks assigned to two grade groups (gr. 5 – 7, gr. 8 – 10). The delineation of these tasks, given the breadth and depth of possibilities for learning with, and through, ICT has an oppositional effect, limiting, rather than supporting, teachers and students in their learning. Do these standards “enhance learning across the curriculum”? Once again, expectations of coherence bely the reality of the complexity of learning, ICT, and curriculum. For example, what constitutes enhancing learning? According to the standards, the production of a digital form of a hard copy school report, would be considered ‘exceeding expectations’. What constitutes ‘curriculum’? Are we simply using digital technologies in an effort to improve learning existing curriculum? On what basis would that effort be rationalized? How is learning significantly enhanced if a student is expected to learn, and reproduce, pre-determined curricular content? When we consider the cognitive, cultural and technological dimensions of our involvements with ICT, it would seem this phrase is leaving out significant, and necessary examinations of what it means to be learning in an educational institution, how teachers’ roles are changing in those educational institutions, what students are bringing to the classroom, and what are important, relevant issues and topics to study in 21st century Canada.

I understand that educators everywhere are struggling with these questions and the future of the work of educational institutions in a knowledge society and information economy. I do not think the hard-working educators who compiled the ICTI Performance Standards for the Ministry of Education intended to create an organizational structure of nested internal contradictions. I suggest the field of education suffers from its own form of institutional bias blindspots and blindsight when it comes to digital technologies. This would make sense, because the field of education continues to attempt to integrate technological ‘tools’ rather than evolve educational technological cultures. Perhaps we can start by considering technological innovation in the field of education as a disposition, a complex array of perspectives and practices, rather than a concrete set of skills, devices, and software applications.

We are facing a systemic crisis in the field of education, as teachers contemplate their roles as educators, as administrators consider the organizational structures of their schools, as the Ministry of Education attempts to adopt 21st century competencies, and as students question and choose their educational investments. If we, as a field, are unable to perceive our persistent and debilitating institutional bias about the cognitive, cultural, and technological significance of digital technologies, the field is going to change, but the current practitioners are going to be disconnected from the real spaces where learning is taking place.

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