An Ignite Talk: No handbook for Transcendence

Pic courtesy of Dean Shareski

Pic courtesy of Dean Shareski

What a hoot tonight to come share in a blitz of ideas with a room full of #bced folks, convened around food and drink, rallying around a call from Dean Shareski to talk about our passion projects. The atmosphere was loud and fun, thoughtful and provocative, and I’m glad to have dusted off at least an hour’s (or a PhD’s) worth of ideas to cram into a five minute – fifteen second a slide – presentation.

In a bar. With the Canucks game on in the corner. On a mic that seemed poised to drown us in feedback with a step in the wrong direction.

But if that makes the task sound a chore, it really was the perfect setting to dash across way too many ideas in the time allotted: indeed it is the appeal of the Ignite Talk format. There isn’t room for any pontificating, audience interaction, or derivations into the fescue after an interesting anecdote to illustrate a point.

There is just the idea you brought to share. And then it’s gone.

Then there are more talks.

It was great, really, even if I felt rushed, and left stuff out, and probably crushed several different words together trying to get them all out at once.

Anyway, the great thing about giving talks and presentations to groups of plugged in people is that the job is really just to get them curious about the things the presenter has been spending time thinking about / experimenting with / learning. If anyone is so inclined, they can seek out the breadcrumbs that lead to these lessons and insights later on, if they choose.

If they’re not, the talk is over in five minutes.

Tonight I returned to a topic I’ve discussed before in presentations, blog posts, academic papers, and casual conversations and rants going on more than a year now: Citizenship Learning and the Project of Enlightenment. It’s a big topic. Too big, really, for five minutes, but as my opening lines addressed, education is a matter of infinite complexity driven by a simplicity of cause. What’s underneath all that complexity is a simple idea, one that we’re always shaping together: What is school for? Why are we learning?

Here then are my slides and the notes I was working with for those that would like to pursue these ideas in a little more depth. Links to many of the things discussed here – and more… – are in this Google Document. Click on any of the images below to see them bigger.

No Handbook for Transcendence 

Slide01

Emerson wrote that, “At the periphery there is infinite complexity, and at the center, simplicity of cause.” And I like to think that just as our work as educators is infinitely complex, it is driven by a simple cause.

Slide02

When it comes to learning we stand at the intersection of philosophies that constitute what several have deemed the Project of Enlightenment: the cultivation of the self, of knowledge, and society that encompass the study of epistemology, metaphysics and citizenship.

But I wonder whether we honour the traditions that first created the need for institutional learning.

Slide03

I wonder what does constructivism – what emergent subjectivities forming a unique collective voice – really looks like? What if knowledge “does not exist except in our participatory actions”?

Slide04

I wonder what our schools would look like if we embraced the idea that democracy is dependent on the ability of individuals to create public spheres representative of a collective will?

Slide05

Because if this is true, and ‘new ways of knowing ourselves can create new conceptions of the self, and new possibilities for the search for the self itself,’ teachers and learners are forced to rewrite the book daily. The metaphor of the digital campfire, where we share our stories and songs recalls the infinite complexity and simplicity of cause.

Slide06

Fortunately, lots of intelligent people have been talking about this for quite some time, and a theme that emerges describes Enlightenment as the acquisition of knowledge about our boundaries and experimentation with the act of going beyond them.

Slide07

A big part of the reason we put such a high importance on the ability to transcend our selves and our contemporary problems is that it is just this sort of behavior which gave us the modern age.

It’s no accident that we begin to see the end of feudalism, the monopoly of the Catholic church, the emergence of the scientific age, and the artistic renaissance at the same time we start building schools, and parliaments, and the institutions of democracy.

Slide08

Unfortunately for us, where once various media allowed us a free exchange of ideas and the creation of a representative public opinion, Habermas says that the public sphere has been degraded to “spectacle,” frivolity, and “passive consumption.”

Good thing that didn’t happen to us, right Kim Kardashian?

Slide09

Now, the good thing is we’re all about this stuff, in every ‘official’ way possible.

Any one of your district’s mission statements and you’ll find some combination of things Immanuel Kant and Paulo Freire and Michel Foucault would stand up and applaud.

Lifelong learning would by necessity become Foucault’s definition of Enlightenment, wouldn’t it?

Slide10

But if we’re to be creating and preparing tomorrow’s citizens for the job (as opposed to just saying this is what we’re doing), we need to remember a couple of things:

One is that learning about this type of citizenship happens everywhere.

Slide11

Another is that the context in which a thing is learned says more about what is being being taught than the thing itself. So we need to be careful that we don’t devote our thinking to what is to be taught at the expense of thinking about the contexts in which the learning takes place, and the meaning communicated by these contexts.

Slide12

And that might just look like this: Maybe it could espouse openness as a way of operating. It could cultivate habits of mind, rather than contents. And maybe the knowledge created there would be seen to emerge from the sum of its parts.

Slide13

School could become the kind of place that is filled by the will of its participants. A cave they could populate with their own shadows, and made into meaning by the assembled voices of a community of inquiry.

Slide14

Assignments, then, and assessment, and the problem of educational design could become the challenge of providing a platform on which to reflect, and develop one’s voice: something that might be deemed socially documented inquiry.

Slide15

Something like this owes a lot to what Gardner Campbell coined and that Jim Groom and Tim Owens and Martha Burtis have been developing at the University of Mary Washington, with the Domain of One’s Own and Reclaim Hosting, where learners become system administrators of their digital lives.

“Shaping their own cognition, expression and reflection in a digital age…”

Slide16

Because the antidote to the degraded public sphere may just be subverting the system of power through the very same media channels which operate it.

This is our Philosophy classroom, with a worldwide reach. It’s learning not only on the web, but of the web, conceived in the same spirit.

Slide17

Here is our classroom broadcasting live on 105 the Hive, distributed web radio, sharing a remixed episode of CBC’s Ideas with live introductions and interviews with the producers of each remix. Media archivists Tweeted feedback and promoted the event in progress, catching the attention of Philip Coulter at the CBC, who emailed his praise.

Slide18

Here’s what a ‘test’ looks like in an emergent classroom. If you were to get 10 out of 10 on a quiz like this every day, you wouldn’t need the same kind of teacher you have now.

Slide19

Because the trouble with the types of paradigm shifts our continued Enlightenment depends on is that there’s no handbook to transcendence. The wisdom adopted and created by each successive generation is a collaborative act young people need to rehearse and explore with adults engaged in this struggle.

Slide20

That struggle to “generate public spaces of social interaction… based on finding agreement, welcoming different points of view, identifying the common good… searching for synthesis and consensus, promoting solidarity and ultimately improving community life.”

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