I posted the following as a comment today to Derrall Garrison‘s blog post “Can an Evolutionist and a Creationist both be part of one’s personal learning network?”

Derrall: I personally think it is great to have opportunities to interface with people that have diverse perspectives and ideas, and to encourage our students to as well. I think such interaction can stretch us and challenge us to think about ideas and topics in new ways and from different vantage points, encouraging our development of critical literacy and critical thinking skills.

I’m glad to hear some feedback on the Ustream preso last week, and I guess I’m not surprised to hear it– I’ve heard this feedback from others sharing PD with teachers and having a presenter talk over a videoconferencing technology as well– when the presenter isn’t live, even teachers feel they have permission or it is more acceptable to talk and not pay attention, where if the person was “live” in the room their interaction would be different. Maybe video discussions like this can be more effective when they are not done with large groups, and rather one on one or one on few? I’m not sure. I think the technologies like VoiceThread which literally empower conversations involving back and forth interchanges between people need to be utilized much more fully for this very reason. It’s hard to sit still and listen to someone drone on for 15 or 30 minutes, even if they are a good speaker. I think we want to encourage our students to not only consume content and ideas, but also CREATE their own and PARTICIPATE in a dialog about the ideas. To that end I think VoiceThread has much more potential than Ustream, which I view as more of an “accommodating” or level 1 technology rather than VoiceThread which can be used in transformative ways to empower qualitatively different sorts of learning interactions, not possible absent the technology.

Of course learning and study often is HARD, and we need to encourage students to work hard to learn and understand material in various forms: chapters in the textbook, videos on the web, etc. Maybe the Ustream presentations could have been more effective as asynchronous videos shared with students on video iPods, which they could watch at home or elsewhere on their own time, and then come to class ready to discuss and debate. I think that sort of blending asynchronous video content with synchronous class discussions and interactions is an area we need to explore much deeper than we have to date in most classrooms.

I’ve seen a few debates on atheism vs deism on YouTube previously, but not many on the creationism vs evolution debate. Again I would encourage students to participate in the discussions and debates, which certainly can (and most likely would have to) extend outside the boundaries of traditional class time. It could be great to analyze the points and positions put forward by different folks, and discuss the relative merits and support (or lack of support) for each one. With continuing dialogs in different states about evolution and ID science curriculum this is certainly still a timely topic.

I would also encourage learners to not assume that everyone involved in a debate on something like evolution fits narrowly into dichotomous camps. Einstein discussed his belief in God as a creator multiple times, but I am not sure his writings make it clear that he’d be entirely on the side of the Intelligent Design folks in debates over evolution. I think a tool like VoiceThread is ideally suited for discussions and debates like this.

The only viable way to help students develop their critical thinking skills, in my view, is to encourage them to engage in extended conversations about issues which are not clearly black and white and involve some controversy. Sometimes in school we present the curriculum as a “here are the facts” sort of proposition, but particularly in the domain of science what we need to encourage is a questioning mind and an outlook which is always critical, searching for evidence.

In terms of the idea that “if everything is miscellaneous, then is truth just another tag in the virtual universe with no more real meaning than the electrons it takes to create the text in displays,” this is a question focusing on relativism and post-modern values. That is certainly a topic worthy of investigation and critical analysis too.

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