Defeating the Algorithm With Conversation

A recent article in The Atlantic titled “How to Put Out Democracy’s Dumpster Fire” is a deep dive into the role of social media and technology on how we exchange ideas in our society. The authors propose some alternatives to our current conversations “ruled by algorithms that are designed to capture attention, harvest data, and sell advertising”. 

During my time hosting bi-monthly conversations on Skilled.Space, I am becoming more and more convinced that this platform can play an essential role in defeating these algorithms. I’d like to offer a summary of how I view the value of these “conversations that propel”.

The Value of Openly Sharing Ideas

One primary means of leveling up our conversations is allowing for an open sharing of our experiences without fear of judgment. This past week a teacher shared their concerns about a new statewide computer science requirement. They were worried that by standardizing these classes they would lose the autonomy they currently have in grading their after-school computer elective. This opened up a dialogue about how they use a feedback-centered assessment model and if this can be incorporated into the new program as it is formalized in our schools. 

They were not being judged for not having the answers or that they were confused about best practices. Fellow educators offered their own experiences and shared their own fears about dealing with similar situations. Ideas were openly discussed and considered. Resources were shared and offered freely as a potential source of information.

These are not the types of responses that data-driven social media algorithms prioritize. In those cases discourse that is incendiary and divisive takes the attention trophy. People jockey for position to tout their opinions and solutions. Collective efficacy is forgotten, only to be replaced by individual braggadocio.

I appreciate the openness that this new generation of platforms offers. There is a diminished sense of having to share to impress. The focus is on sharing to learn. By being vulnerable to our own worries and fears we invite productive input. The ability for the group to develop their ideas actually relies on the sincerity of the users. 

The Value of Openly Questioning Systems

A number of rhetorical questions were exchanged as we dug deeper into trying to understand the role of assessment in supporting student voice and agency. These questions were not presented with the hope of being answered at the moment, but rather to spur deeper thought.

“How are districts/schools/states supporting changes in assessment models?” someone asked.

This is a difficult question to tackle. It demands a broad inquiry that would require years of research and analysis. But by simply proposing the question to the group we all had to pause. We had to thoroughly reflect on how exactly our schools can support changes in assessment within our learning communities. There was no need to respond to this question as if it were a threat. 

In our current attention-driven correspondences we view anything that questions the systems we are a part of as a critique of our very selves. But here no one felt the need to defend their role as a district administrator or school principal. We are all aware that the system needs fixing. We were comfortable allowing each other the space to pose questions that invite us to consider how to enact change.

The Value of Openly Offering Resources

The ability to openly share resources lays at the heart of productive dialogue. Knowing that you are engaged in a collective effort to learn and grow makes the procurement of the resources you suggest even more important.

When a link is shared or an article is suggested, it is not to demonstrate a superior understanding of a topic, but to help us better understand what is being discussed. The attention-capture construct creates a dynamic where the most bombastic headline wins. Content and quality are replaced with the allure of clickbait and dissension.

In our conversation, someone shared an in-depth article from the Washington Post titled “A Crusade to End Grading in High Schools”. This allowed for future reading and additional investigation on the topic of assessment.

The person who shared the article contributed their own thoughts on the topic. They communicated their own struggle to introduce radical change with nuance and articulation. This article wasn’t a prop to be used in some scheme to outwit the other people present. It was an offering freely given to those who were interested.

The Value of Openly Examining Oneself 

Ego dissolution is not an experience to be had publicly in our influencer social media culture. To admit defeat is to surely surrender to a potential “victor” in the conversation. Fortunately, this is not true in a conversation that is focused on propulsion rather than deceleration.

Throughout our discussion, I started to see the possibility that we don’t have all the answers. I came back to the original reason we gathered–to empower our students as changemakers.

Have we imagined that it could be the current students in our classrooms to be the ones to enter the education field and finally defeat the dragon of grade-based assessment? Is it possible that the current crop of young teachers starting new careers will be the voices of dissent?

Are we selfless enough to admit that it might be the high-energy multi-taskers of today that are the ones who will enact this change which for us only seems to be a utopian edu-fantasy?

I hope so.

The willingness to concede to the idea that we don’t have all the answers is an anathema to our current social media platforms. Rarely will the comment section in our newsfeed end with “sounds like none of us are sure, let’s move on”. The very levers being programmed by the engineers of these platforms have been set to dissuade this outcome. 

Like a panicked swimmer caught in a raging riptide, we are being manipulated to rage against the dying light. Is it possible Dylan Thomas had it wrong? Maybe it’s time we let go and surrender. Stay calm and resist fighting against the current. Swim parallel to the shore to get out of the rip. Calmer waters await outside the pull of the current.

Conversations that Propel

I have always been a first adopter, I am most comfortable trying new things. And I will admit that sometimes anything new appears to be a panacea for the problems that I tend to observe. But I also keep an open mind and keep showing up. I hold each space I enter as an opportunity for open conversation in order to learn and grow. 

Are other social media platforms providing space to learn and grow? Yes. I’ve made very deep and substantial connections on Twitter. I’ve viewed insightful videos on YouTube. Instagram has introduced me to thought leaders and quotes that have fundamentally shifted how I see the world. But I have only felt my practice truly propel through the conversations I’ve had on Skilled.Space. 

It’s still early in this transformation in how we communicate via technology. New problems are emerging every day and new solutions are being set up to address them. I get excited when I feel I’ve tapped into something new. The potential of these new spaces gives me hope. In these spaces, I actually feel part of the democratic exchange of ideas that we all value as being the essence of the American experiment.

I hope that you too are inspired by the things I’ve experienced. I see value in openly sharing ideas, questioning systems, offering resources, and examining oneself as an alternative to the closed systems of communication proliferating across the internet. I am sure if you disagree you will let me know. Come join me in a Skilled.Space and let’s have a conversation about it.