Course Design and Narrative Discovery

Image courtesy of Michael Kreil on Flickr.

Now at the mid-point of my third pass at our open online Philosophy 12 course, I am finding different ways to bring about the salient outcomes which have arisen in the last few years. This is both a result of having observed and noted the successes and difficulty senior students have had with various concepts or ideas, as well as an improved familiarity with the connections and construction of meaning throughout the various units that constitute the course.

In just over four months, facilitating a highschool course which moves from the introduction of philosophy as a historical concept to logic, to metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics and social political philosophy is a daunting process if each of these topics is viewed in isolation. Each of my first two turns with the course saw the units as individual spokes in a wheel that loosely surrounded the study and – as the etymologists remind us – the love of knowledge. However, toward the conclusion of last year’s course, I began to see the narrative arc of our study play out in such a way that has allowed me to facilitate the course in what I hope is a more effective means ofImage courtesy of Ken Douglas on Flickr. providing intellectual growth for enrolled students, and open online participants this time out.

What follows is an attempt to synthesize this emergent narrative.

Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry

Beginning with an introductory unit on Philosophical Inquiry, participants are asked to respond to the question, What is PhilosophyHere, we discuss the nature of exploring wisdom, knowledge, and our relationship with our experience. Each participant’s What is Philosophy assignment is shared with the group and posted to the blog, and will eventually serve as an initial snapshot against which later ‘check ins’ (in the form of a mid-term, and final presentation) will be measured and reflected upon.

Logic

In logic, Philosophy 12 participants are introduced to the structure of basic syllogisms and logical fallacies, and are asked to introduce and evaluate examples of arguments in popular or political discourse, or even their own lives. Having each arrived at slightly different subjective responses to the question What is Philosophy? and What is wisdom? logic arrives as the (still biased) instrument by which such subjectivities might be shared or debated among different perspectives.

Scientific Philosophy

Building on the biases uncovered in even our application of rigorous and rational logic, the class sets out to examine the different lenses by which philosophers have approached the nature of scientific objectivity, generally working toward a debate around the topic, Is Science Objective

Which generally works toward the consensus that no, no it is not.

Pic courtesy of Paul Frankenstein on Flickr.

Metaphysics

Where the course waters deepen quickly is with the onset of metaphysics, where the ‘first question of philosophy’ is addressed: namely, What is? Here the first three minor units culminate in an attempt to discuss an ultimately subjective topic within the confines of philosophical discourse. Fundamental questions about the composition and nature of reality are met with the rigors of applying a personal course of philosophical inquiry, an introduction to the logical underpinnings of various metaphysical themes and concepts, and the flimsy nature of what we might hold to be objective.

Metaphysical Inquiries

This unit in particular has evolved dramatically over the three iterations of the course. Beginning in the first cycle as a series of Pecha Kucha presentations on notable metaphysicians and how their ideas have contributed to our collective understanding of existence, the second cohort’s metaphysical study tackled a more constructivist approach and led to last year’s experiments with the Metaphysical Object.

This year the unit struck a balance between the highly structured and more open-ended, perhaps, as participants engaged in a collaborative inquiry of various interests and curiosities about metaphysics.

Epistemology

Having uncovered a personal course of inquiry, developed the means of formulating an argument, the nature of what can be known, and what there is (and then the question of what it might be like), epistemology provides another opportunity to synthesize learning from the previous units. Here the class was aided for the second year in submitting reflections on their learning through a Google Form which gathered not only personal evaluations and feedback on the unit plan and organization, but also generated insight into how the group might proceed as a collective into our next unit.

Image courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig on Flickr.

Epistemology proceeds naturally from metaphysics, in this regard, and this semester presented the opportunity for participants to reflect back on their initial thoughts on philosophy, as well as the units since. In the reflection upon the learning conducted in metaphysics, this and last year’s cohorts have seen the onset of epistemology as a point when the class truly begins to create their unique collective narrative as they set out to build upon personal and group learning from the prior unit.

This approach delivers the prospect of the unit on knowledge itself as an opportunity for exploration and expression of how the group thinks about their own learning and development as individuals within a wider culture. There is a lot of reflection on the purpose of schooling that is created from outside, and the freedom to create purpose within those expectations from our classroom, and these talks are consistently inspiring and humbling to be privy to. (The second iteration of the course conducted many of these talks as live Philosophers Cafes as Google Hangouts.)

Coinciding roughly with the middle of term, the Epistemology unit this year served as an opportunity for participants to synthesize their thinking about their own knowledge, not only on the topic itself but their journey of discovery in the course since the beginning of the semester.

The assignment’s purpose is outlined below:

  • To state and support a proposition of personal knowledge;
  • To synthesize and reflect on course topics explore thus far:
    • Philosophical Inquiry
    • Logic
    • Scientific Philosophy
    • Metaphysics
  • To integrate existing epistemological ideas into a unique personal theory.
These Personal Theories of Knowledge have been collected here:

At this point in the course, we have answered the following questions:

  • Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry: How do we / how have others engaged in the process of philosophical inquiry? What is philosophy?
  • Logic: How do we / how have others communicated, represented, and argued to support their propositions? Is it possible to formally discuss questions which may not have answers?
  • Scientific Philosophy: Can science objectively interpret the natural world? Our inner worlds? How best should science be utilized by society, given its limitations?
  • Metaphysics: What is reality/consciousness/the self/experience? What is it like? How can we / how have others imparted, described or represented the answers to these questions?
  • Epistemology: What do I/we know? How do we know it? How do we know that we know it? What is knowledge? How is it created, shared, or replaced with new knowledge?

We are left with the culminating units on Aesthetics, as well as Ethics and Social & Political Philosophy, the latter two of which I am toying with the idea of merging into a single study on Justice, as it appears to be a concept uniting both ethical philosophy, and the political.

Having hopefully discovered working answers to the questions up to this point, we are left with the issues of:

  • Aesthetics, and the nature of feeling, and beauty, and aspirational experiences; as well as
  • Ethics, and the resultant question of all which have preceded it thus far: what is a good life? Given what we know, and how we know it, about our shared and individual experience of life within the limitations of this knowledge, how best are we to spend our lives? Which leads naturally to
  • Social & Political Philosophy, which is the theorizing of a workable system to represent the collective voice of a society or community with regards to these ethical questions about how we ought live.

And while I’ve taught this course quite similarly these last three years, the nuances of the story it is telling it continue to emerge over time as different hands and voices come to share their experience with the topics, and one another. In an embedded reflection of the course’s narrative arc and themes, perhaps this has been the purpose all along.

Reflection, Self-Explanation & Citizenship

MA Doodles

Analogue Notetaking

Reflection vs. Self-Explanation

One of the questions asked by a #TieGrad classmate during my presentation on the Self-Explanation principle was whether there was all-too-much difference between the practice of self-explaining and a more general reflective process. And while I might be more inclined to leave the definitive boundary-setting to those more versed in the theory, something that drew me to investigating the principle in the first place was the apparent overlap with many of my own practices revolving around critical reflection and pedagogy.

There does indeed appear to much overlap between the practice of guided reflection, the creation of objects of learning, and an ongoing critical praxis.

The benefits of guided self-explanation touted by the chapter in Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning involve the following:

  • Repair mental models,
  • Identify previously held misconceptions,
  • and Make inferences between learning materials.

Further, studies have shown that

“When students are explicitly asked to make connections between sources of information while self-explaining, they are better able to integrate the information to form a more complete mental model.”

Self-Explanation & Citizenship

Slide20As I’ve described in other posts this semester, such a framework for learning suits the ongoing themes in my own theory and practice as related to critical pedagogy and citizenship learning, as it serves to provide a personalized outlet for meaning-making in a complex learning environment. Such a process seems poised to deliver the lessons requisite for students to continue lifelong learning beyond the school or institution and become contributing members of a just society.

Such a conception of democratic society is the same one introduced by John Dewey, nearly 100 years ago. Among a great many contributions to progressive education, Dewey prescribed schools (and curriculum) as the means by which the younger generation could become enculturated to the traditions, concepts and proficiencies society deems necessary for its continued survival and progress, as well as laboratories where young people could rehearse the formation of their own communities and societies, based on their own emergent values and principles.

This notion, that each individual has a role to play in society and that schools’ function is to aid in the full participation of each citizen, relies to a certain degree on the ability of students to become lifelong learners capable of enacting an ongoing critical praxis. The education of the self as a unique agent in society is a process that does not end upon graduation, and in fact demands an even greater ability to synthesize complex learning uniquely presenting itself to each member of the broader community upon entering the so-called ‘real world.’

That guided self-explanation might help enrich learning in a complex environment, and is most effective when used to support challenging, engaging, cognitively complex learning, presents such a principle as uniquely positioned to help K12 students develop a necessary skillset in the realm of citizenship education.

The Process behind the Product

The idea of narrating one’s work has more and more become central to my focus in crafting assignments and units that reflect a focus on process over product, even when a project or opportunity presents itself with a resolute product as finale. While each member of the community or classroom may pursue a unique pathway in their own learning, a few common, simple goals can help align collective efforts toward diverse, individual learning outcomes.

An example of this type of learning design is the TALONS Eminent Person Study, a traditional gifted students’ program “Hero Project” wherein each of the TALONS adopts a notable individual who has attained ’eminence’ in their chosen field, and prepares a research study on their life and achievements. There are several general expectations for each during the course of the project:

  • Introductory Blog PostSlide14
  • Library Field Study
  • Expert Interview
  • Document of Learning
  • Learning Center
  • Night of the Notables Reflection
  • Bibloggrapy

And yet within these individual assignments, there is the latitude for each to pursue an aspect of personal learning, whether related to Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals, areas of passion or curiosity beyond the scope of Ministry curricula, or themes emerging within the unique community of learners. So while each of the above assignments is a marked component of the study, the unit’s assessment is weighted toward the insight and autonomy expressed in the blogged reflections and documents of learning created and shared throughout the process.

Eminent Evaluation 2014

Further, these open-ended reflections are supplemented by guided self-explanation prompts in the form of a summative evaluation via Google Form. Here, the TALONS are asked to reflect upon their own process of learning throughout the project – how they measured up to their initial goals, what led them to success, or how they would improve various aspects of their work – as well as summarize and state what they felt constituted the grand takeaways from the monthlong odyssey.

Here, the process of guided self-explanation is enacted to (ideally) synthesize diverse threads of individual learning, which will in time radiate into the collective themes of the community.

In reflecting on what made her speech this year her best work in the project, Alison noted,

First of all, this year I wrote my speech draft much earlier than the due date compared to last year. Due to this fact, I was able to receive a lot of great feedback from my peers during the writing process, which then allowed me to improve my speech even further. Once my draft was written, I was lucky that I had a lot of time to rehearse my speech. One step that led my speech to success during this stage was that I didn’t just rehearse the words, I also rehearsed body language and movement, and the use of the stage. Although I can’t accurately judge what I did on stage due to my nerves, through the feedback I received from peers, guests, and alumni I can think that I was one of my better works.

But beyond these questions of process, which are of great value from the standpoint of identifying and correcting previously held misconceptions or mental models (prized by the self-explanative educator, we are told), it is the parts of the survey which prompt students’ thinking about the synthesis of personal or collective themes which shine light on the particular nuances between the product-oriented outcomes.

What will you (or do you want to) remember about this project?

One thing that I would like to take away from the project, in addition to all that I learned about [my Eminent Person], is how closely the class supported each other in their own studies, specifically in the grade 10 speeches. Although Eminent is a very personal project, I enjoyed the process in which we came together to somehow connect our eminent people into one, collective sequence of performances. It allowed us to be aware not only of our own learning, but of the learning happening around us, and how it related to the common goals of the group. Seeing all of our speeches come to life on stage was also very validating for the work that we put in together.

I think I’ll remember a lot of the little moments. I think I’ll remember the moments of support backstage and in our huddle as well as moments of joy like when I was on stage and after when we were all running down the halls.

I will remember the experiences that I had to express my learning of my eminent person. For me personally, it was the first time I had gone to a university library to find serious sources. It was very interesting to see the endless amount of books. It was also fascinating to see the university lifestyle, and to think that I may be there in a few years. Another part that I will remember about this project is the learning centers. I thought that it was  fairly similar to a science fair, I was, for the most part, wrong. It was similar to a science fair in that there were stations, but different because of how we were encouraged to have an interactive element. Usually, people might have pictures or models, but we got to speak to the people, and have them experience our project more in-depth. I enjoyed these parts of the project.

I will always remember the freedom with this project. The outline for this project can easily be altered, and I feel that this leads to a more passionate project with students who are willing to learn about something they enjoy or care about. I had the choice of being whoever I found eminent and that is something I will always remember about Eminent Person Study.

Is Constructivism Possible?

A question I have been exploring in the past year has been whether or not constructivism is possible within institutional learning. We are torn, in schools, between the dual purpose of Dewey’s initial calls for democratic instruction, and teaching what society deems ‘required’ skills, facts, or habits, and creating a space for unique individual subjectivities to emerge within educative spaces. The contradiction which arises within institutional learning settings surrounds the notion that for truly unique subjectivities to be brought about, the perceived ‘objectivity’ of the instructor/facilitator/learning outcomes often unnecessarily limits these possibilities.

This relates to an oft-quoted edict of Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta on this blog, that

“if educators wish to encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom, then the meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence.”

It is a difficult thought to wrap one’s head around, but one which is central to the aim of multicultural societies, where to foster broad diversity within a pluralist democracy citizens of countries such as Canada are tasked with

“[promoting] the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.”

Indeed, Osberg and Biesta write that

“In contemporary multicultural societies, the difficulty with education as planned enculturation lies in the question of who decides what or whose culture should be promoted through education. The problem of ‘educational enculturation’ is therefore of considerable concern to theorists grappling with the issues raised by multiculturalism.

“If we hold that meaning is emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ‘ground’ it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic. In other words the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the aims of education, traditionally conceived.”

Thus while still nevertheless prompted to respond to the pre-defined outcomes of a project such as the Eminent Person Study, the TALONS are hopefully still yet encouraged to construct their own subjective perceptions of themselves within the learning experience. And so in answer to the following question, we find a multiplicity of responses:

If you had to describe your learning during the Eminent Person Study in one word, what would it be? 

If you had to describe your learning during the Eminent Person Study in one word, what would it be?

#Eminent2014 in Motion

Slide13

The passage of autumn into winter in the TALONS classroom is marked by the arrival of the Eminent Person Study and culminating Night of the Notables. And while there is a great deal of tradition and meaning transmitted down through years to the current group of students undertaking the project, the chain of cultural transmission is captured in the chorus of individual goals, reflections in progress, and documents of learning blogged as the project unfolds.

While everyone fulfills the same few tenants of the study, the learning that takes place – collectively and individually – is largely a personal affair, one that is handed down from year to year in links and digital portfolios. And as the individual lessons of the study accumulate, so does the culture at the heart of the TALONS classroom congregate in RSS and digital artifacts.

Thus we can look back in the Notable class of 2009 astride our own, with Saskia’s learning center, one which still resonates today:

I left out postcards for people to write to Zahra Kazemi’s son: Stephan Kazemi. These I made from her photographs as a reference to the postcards she herself created (mentioned above). I wanted them addressed to her son for several reasons. By having people write about what they thought of Zahra Kazemi, I was honouring his mother and his own struggle to find justice for her. At the same time, it also showed him just how much his help made a difference to my project. Eleven people ended up writing postcards and I hope that when Stephan Kazemi receives them, they will make him very happy.

The sentiments of Raiya, a year later, looking back on her turn under the lights, echoes in this the fall of 2014:

Night of the Notables left me awestruck, amazed, and inspired. I realized that all my pre-N.O.T.N. stress was well worth the great moments that came with it. For me, some of the more memorable moments of the night were the ten minutes we were all getting a pep talk from Mr. J, the five minutes we were all singing the same familiar notes of “Don’t Stop Believing”, and those three seconds of dead silence after your speech, followed by the thunderous cheers from your classmates. The energy from that night will stick with us our entire life.

The TALONS newly departed, too, leave their thoughts to frame this year’s experience:

Slide11I always get the most peculiar tickling sensation in my tummy after late nights with TALONS. I don’t know if it’s those shooting stars or the fact that these late nights are way past my bedtime, but it’s always a rather homey feeling that curls around my chest when we join hands, all tired and warm from the long day.

But each of these predecessors merely sets the stage for the voices that are lent to this chorus across the TALONS blogs this fall. Newly migrated to a new domain – talons43.ca – each of the blogs is collected and syndicates in a steady feed of interviews, and speech drafts, and learning center floorplans. The results represent a new generation’s perspective on a timeless aspect of the program, which by changing stays the same.

And so this year we’ve been able to travel with Julia to SFU, and glimpse the individual learning on a field trip to a local university:

Before events happen, I usually have this weird distorted vision of20141030_101631 (1)what will happen. On this trip, I had some educational expectations and such. Something I really wanted to get as much as I could of was experience. Experiences are as valuable as any research, and going to an environment I hope to return to as a university student, I hoped to absorb as much as possible. Some aspects of the buildings themselves were how they were all made of cement. It made for a quite gloomy yet professional feel, and looked quite impressive from a distance. It would feel great to walk across the serene pond, down the massive steps, and graduate. There was also a pyramid in a clearing that could only be the pyramid of life, and I questioned it no further. Experiences demand to be felt, and I was entranced.

We’re introduced to fellow grade nine Emma M’s look back on her speech, and see the evolution of the draft(s) that brought her there:

Oh eminent speeches.

I have written many speeches, however I always stress about them and slightly go crazy yet end up finishing with flying colours. People say I’m a good public speaker, and I think that I’m good at it, just when I get up to speak I don’t know if it’s nerves or adrenaline running through my veins. As well, once I finish the speech I don’t speak for a while because all I’m thinking is “Wow, I just did that.”

Sensing the permanence of the blogged reflection, by taking stock of her grade nine speech Nazlie offers some advice to her future self:

I presented my speech on monday, which I am really proud of myself for. I’m usually not the best with public speaking, but I feel like I did pretty well and I am less nervous to present in front of groups of people, especially the classroom. I think I have a pretty good technique for staying calm whilst presenting now, which is something extremely useful that I have gotten out of this project so far. However, I have miserably failed to follow through with my goal of time management, I left my speech to be written on the last weekend before I presented. Personally this wasn’t a big problem for the outcome of my speech, but I still believe it would’ve been more efficient for me to have written at least some of it the weekend before. I literally spent 2 weeks brainstorming and then ended up doing something completely different from what I brainstormed. So, Future me, who will probably look back at this post a year from now and feel terribly embarrassed, PLEASE brain storm and do some speech writing on the same day, preferably 3 weeks before NOTN, so then you won’t have to spend all day on Sunday and Saturday before the big day writing your speech based off of brainstorm-notes and then end up realizing, on the 3rd speech you’ve rewritten, that there is a way better POV to use. Please.

While attending to her own project, grade ten Jessica takes the opportunity to shine some light on Nazlie’s speech, as well:

SFU trip with TALONS

I also want to comment on Nazlie’s project. I recently heard her speech on the woman who runs Rookie. It blew me away. During her speech, she didn’t ever really move, using no body language to aid her, however it worked in her favour. I believe this is because her speech was formed as a letter to her eminent person and letters are not often associated with body movement. She caught my eye because she spoke with such passion in a way that was relatable, and because she was talking about body images and the affects society have on us.

But as the project marches on, Alison takes a moment to forecast her goals for Night of the Notables:

Compared to last year, my learning center is not so complex and it occupies more space. Also, visitors will have to directly converse with me for information about my person rather than reading off a board or by looking at pictures. Although the idea may be more simple, I think I will be equally or even more busy than last year, but I look forward to it! I hope that this learning center idea will be successful and entertaining on the night of while showing the true eminence of Niccolo Paganini to the guests!

While Lyle shares his interview progress with the Reddit community:

If you recall from last year, my interview requests crashed, burned, asked me to tell their wives they loved her, and then convulsed wildly until their vital signs were zero. I believe this was because I was overly optimistic about securing an interview with my person himself and so did a pretty half-hearted job of seeking interviews from anyone else. In short, I was fishing with a line instead of a net.

This year however, my interview request was fired out to a potential audience of almost 60, 000 people, all who are knowledgeable or at least interested in graffiti. Where did I find such an audience?

Reddit!

Joanna shares her successful interview attempt, as well as her results:

So this year, I was extremely lucky to get an interview on my first try, with none other than Margaret Sanger’s grandson, Alexander Sanger, who also happens to be the Chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council.

Talking with Mr. Sanger has really made me feel like I know Margaret Sanger a bit better- questions such as the one I asked about her personality are really going to help me be in character on Night of the Notables, and being able to see this woman from a family members point of view gave me quite a bit of insight on her private life. I also got the chance to learn about some of her lesser known beliefs, and this knowledge prompted me to look into her accomplishments outside of the legalization of contraceptives.

While her sister shares another draft of her speech speech draft, along with the following caveat

The first thing I did for my speech was pretty much a free-write. The free-write is below. I will be posting my speech draft #2, which will actually have a semblance of organization, in a different blog post. The transitions are in bold because I had already decided where I wanted to start and end, so those are parts that won’t change much. You’ll be able to tell that they don’t fit with the free-write, because they were created separately.

Emma F in turn sketches out the broad strokes of her turn as Frida Kahlo:

Although I have chosen not to illustrate a specific ‘snapshot’ moment or event in my speech, I have instead decided to address the concept Frida’s balance of surrealism and reality within her paintings. Although many have labelled her as a surrealist painter, she has incorporated so intimately the realities of her suffering in her work, which makes it difficult to dismiss her paintings as purely imaginative of dream-like. Of course it is necessary to acknowledge that there is a spectrum of realism within her paintings, from her most literal reprentations of people and still life to her most extravagant otherworldy images, but both polar opposites hold meaning and relevance in her life. Thus the ‘surreal’ paintings that she created still were rooted in the very real aspects of her experience.

And Jenny anticipates the Big Night:

Today the grade ten afternoons did a run through of our speeches. The result made me ecstatic! Our. Speeches. Will. Be. Awesome. Glorious. Magnificent. Superb. Spectacular. Terrific… etc. etc.

By Wednesday night, another cohort of grade tens will have passed across the stage which marks their true arrival as the program’s seniors. One of the TALONS pillars will have passed into recent history to be filed among the notables that have gone before, all to act as prelude for the grade nines who will inherit the honour next year.

Social Science and Catching Light

Webs

The other night in #tiegrad we found ourselves discussing the different paths of the graduate student in the so-called ‘hard’ and more social sciences. Our instructor – while extremely reluctant to paint with a broad brush, so leave the pitchforks where they are – noted that the ‘hard’ or natural sciences tend to direct their students’ reading and research toward the topic or question to be examined, whereas the social sciences (and perhaps education especially) encourage students to engage this process for themselves, charting their own course toward a unique research question.

Naturally there will be exceptions to either case, but the observation raised for me a tension in epistemology we have been looking at in Philosophy 12 this semester, between knowledge which can be discovered and knowledge that is created.

Again offering something of an oversimplification, the (applied) mathematician strives to explain the natural world by introducing theorems which correspond to observable phenomena. Engaged with Plato’s world of things, the classical “hard” scientist similarly seeks to discover knowledge about the world outside of the mind. While a total objectivity may be elusive, the general type of knowledge sought in these disciplines is viewed with a more objective air, in which case the tendency for graduate students – themselves looking to create knew knowledge in these fields with the publication of theses and dissertations – to be guided up to the edge of the gap needing to be crossed before being let loose on their own studies.

The social scientist, whose own subjectivity is impossible to separate from the phenomena being studied, attempts to bring an unbiased and unique eye to their field of research, and thus may benefit from supervising professors who are reluctant to guide ‘too much.’ Knowledge about poetry and history or economics and education cannot be considered neutral, and as such may be more willing to see its field of understanding as knowledge (or meaning) created rather than discovered. 

Now, this is all as I have tried to qualify a grossly oversimplified and binary view of a philosophy of science that may not hold much water beyond the sense of understanding it grants me for the moment. But the idea presented itself in a few-weeks old post from Alan Levine, who likes to take pictures:

But I’d been thinking about something I probably operate at a more instinctual level, from experience with the camera, there is a feeling when I am in certain places, or noticing the way light is highlighting vividly, or when it is absent, or when shadows and light have interplay. I cannot pinpoint it, but its a gut feeling in those moments that there is interesting light at work. And that means I then amplify my awareness and look more intently as to where I might find it.

You see, most of photography is done by figuring out how to remove most of what you see, that is composition by cropping out with just the camera view finder.

The idea of “composition by cropping” speaks to (my crude interpretation of) the social-scientist’s endeavour, to interpret a signal in the noise, something potentially made all the more difficult by the advent of “social scholarship,” which Kris Shaffer describes in a recent post:

But for me lately, Twitter has more specific problems. The signal-to-noise ratio is far from optimal: it’s becoming harder to sift through the stream to find the really good stuff. The trolls are also multiplying — even within communities that have for many years been quite amicable places to inhabit. Harassment and threats are headlining. And users are discovering the horror of trying to report (and have removed) illicit and violent materials that victimize children.[…]

Maybe this is just the world. Maybe wherever people are, both the best and the worst will come out. Maybe we were lucky for a few years as social-media-inclined academics breathed the fresh air of the “open” Web 2.0, while the trollish members of the academic breed fought their last vitriolic battles on email listservs. Now that the trolls found Twitter, and Twitter wants (needs) to monetize us all, the party’s over. I hope not, but maybe that’s just how it is.

I don’t want to discount the rest of the argument Kris makes, or drastically repurpose his words here for my own ends, as I find myself sympathetic to not only his sentiments but his solution, to write “in more open, more user-controlled domains, as well as in critiquing the corporate tools that we do make use of.”

But I do want to return to Alan’s idea of cropping, and catching light:

I have been noodling if there is a similar process at work when swimming among the firehose of information in a space like Connected Courses or the whole damn web in general. Is there a sense you get when just scanning, of something like “good” or “interesting” light in photography that takes you to interesting ideas?

Is it a clever title? a turn of a phrase? a provocative link? a vague link that does not indicate where it goes? The familiarity of the source url or the curiousness of it? What are the suggestions in the flow that help you clue in to what tends to be more interesting than not?

Because, I conjecture, if you can hone your senses for seeing nuanced suggestions of good/worthy/intriguing ideas out there in the information flow, you can get much more out of it than just getting soaked.

While I’ll leave it to the physicists to argue with their own supervisors about what their lit reviews need contain, I think this approach is what makes our grad work in education so equally baffling and beautiful. What is true of photography is also true of meaning made and knowledge constructed. To return once more to Alan’s post:

the approach of thinking about my photo approach, and then thinking about it again in reflection works as a process to refine my ideas. It’s not a matter of being “right” on a subject or touting your book/article/etc, it’s about a practice of the mind.

Because apart from the discovery of nature, the pursuit of mind is indeed a process to be engaged, and engaged again, in solitude and company.

Then engaged again.

On the Run

Start

On Saturday I ran my first race in more than ten years, finishing third in the Coast Mountain Trail Series‘ 13 kilometer Run Ridge Run between Sasamat and Buntzen Lakes in Anmore, BC. Having explored the trails of Bert Flinn Park above Burrard Inlet during the last year, I stumbled onto the CMTS a few weeks ago when a hike above the Sea to Sky Gondola coincided with the inaugural Sky Pilot Race in September. And after floating the idea to my recent running buddy, R (who ran his first marathon last spring), we signed up to compete in the shorter of the two courses being run Thanksgiving weekend (the other being a 25km tour of the Diez Vista Trail in addition to the ridge-line connecting the two lakes).

KM3

Having grown up on tracks and cross-country courses since I was eleven, I rode an athletic scholarship to Arkansas when I was seventeen. Down south I enjoyed a few successes, briefly holding my school’s 800m record, and was a member of a few national and conference champion relay and cross-country teams. Eventually though I ‘retired’ on the heels (or, shins, rather) of successive seasons ruined by injuries, and threw myself headlong into my academic studies, fortunately earning a scholarship there that allowed me to finish school in Arkansas and discover the path(s) that would lead me into teaching, outdoor education, and the intersecting life’s passions that have sustained me in the years since.

Since graduating in 2004, I hardly thought about running. And if I did think about it, or even found myself on an odd streak of jogging on the paths around the inlet near my house, I hardly thought of racing.

When my track and field days had been petering out, I struggled to find motivation to work my way out of injuries that had severely limited my capacity and potential as an ‘elite’ athlete. Having once been at least good, if not great, I had very little interest in fighting my way through the middle of the pack, and as I began to excel in my studies, my desire to compete slowly waned. And while I’ve generally remained an active person – hiking, participating in intramurals, biking to work and the like – I’ve remained apart from organized competition, leaving it in my ‘former’ life until only recently.

About a year ago I started running again, heading up the narrow trails above my house into the forests on Heritage Mountain. Beginning at a few kilometers, I started supplementing these jaunts in the woods with sessions at a spinning studio where I met local endurance-athletes, started to push myself beyond mere aerobic exercise, and began to talk about racing again.

I became reacquainted with the satisfaction of tired legs, the zen-like trance of the anaerobic threshold, and the no man’s land beyond what I knew was within my grasp.

With this all making its way about my mind on those runs, and increasingly in between, it was only a matter of time before I toed the start-line of a footrace once more. Because while I’ve done a lot of things in the time since I left the sport, many of which have opened my eyes, challenged me beyond words, or led me to new personal achievements or experiences, nowhere is the essence of a personal challenge more literally waged than in a race.

Snow Run

And if a race, why not a grueling tour of the local watershed?

Why not put the trouble of travel by foot to the rigors of the British Columbian coast?

Dirt, and granite.

Slippery cedar roots climbing incomprehensible inclines.

R and I paid our entry fees and scouted the course a few weeks before race weekend with equal parts excitement and giddy fear that the experiment might go horribly awry, that we would be sandbagged by the hills, or wind up wrestling one another to not shuffle in dead last. On a second trial of the course, a week before the Big Day, we became more familiar with the rigors of the Run Ridge Run, and talked about where we would conserve our energy, where we would try to push the pace, a race plan we followed almost exactly – if a lot faster than we bargained for – on Saturday.

Run Ridge Run Data

With the excitement of the start and the rush of the departing crowd, our first three kilometers (all relatively flat along the shoreline of Sasamat Lake) were more than a minute faster (each) than in our trials on the course. We bid our time heading up the ridge road, and then steeply up the single track section of trail leading up to the water station, drafting on the pace set by a runner in the 25k race. Cresting the hill, we recovered and descended briskly to Buntzen Lake, where we were able to log a few quick kilometers along the road before heading straight back up the mountain.

This ascent had been the concern of my pre-race anxieties, much due to our run the week before on the course where I soundly ‘bonked’ on the climb after a hard week of training on the Bert Flinn trails. But with a mostly restful week leading into the race, my legs were burning, but still able to meet the challenge of the steep and technical climbing over roots and rock back up to the ridge.

“That’s the ball game,” R said when we were (*almost) back to the water station atop the trail returning into the finish, where we pressed the pace against our knees and the soft single-track descending the ridge. Mist was hanging in the trees and beginning to glow with sunshine poking through the clouds.

Plaque

Not having seen anyone since we left our 25k companion on our way up the hill initially, we couldn’t tell where we were in the pack, but were pleasantly surprised to hear that we had arrived within a few minutes of the 13k winner, and come in third and fourth separated by only a few seconds.

In addition to the third place plaque and a pair of DryMax socks, I was also unofficially awarded “first place in the rocking beard division” by the MC.

Having arrived and warmed up in teeming rain, I drove home in the sunshine hooked (again) on racing.

Back to School(s): Part I

Salad Roll / Tentative Deal Day

Having only spent a few Septembers free of my varied back-to-schools, I have difficulty not viewing fall as the start of a new year. Rested and inspired following summer break, September has become a time of renewal, setting goals, and staking out the terms and terrain by which the academic year will unfold. As I’ve been able to fold my professional pursuits within my personal endeavours and interests these last few years, I’ve increasingly looked to the dawn of autumn as an inspiring time.

Relieved as I may be to have returned to school this last week following the longest strike in British Columbian schools’ history, there is something that makes this September’s embrace somewhat awkward.Labour Days

Forced, even.

Until just last week, teachers in BC’s daily reality concerned a struggle for what many of us see as our part contribution toward realizing democracy’s noble aspirations. Faced with a government that has repeatedly shown disrespect and disregard for the purpose and mandate of public education, the majority of my 40,000 colleagues across the province and I were committed to standing up for not only our own rights to education, but those of our students, present and future.

And while the thought of it made me sick to my stomach, I was committed to standing on the street in front of our school as long as it was going to take to preserve those rights.

For eight weeks this summer, and for two into the new school year, the government’s proposed contracts contained strips (or at least threats, depending on the lawyer at hand) to legal victories which have cost the teachers’ union significantly, both in its finances and its standing with the public. For more than a decade, the combat of the BC Liberals and the BC Teachers’ Federation has revolved around the constitutional violations of a contract ripped up in 2002. While repeatedly admonished in the courts, the government has consistently and blithely thumbed its nose at the law and the province’s public schools, increasing funding to private “independent” schools, duplicating legislated language already deemed to be outside the law by the Supreme Court, and even diverting school funding during the strike for parents to seek out ‘other educational opportunities’ such as online courses or private education.

Not Your Family

As was noted in several conversations I’ve had in recent months, in the current government we faced “a totally different animal than ever before,” and there was no telling to what depths Premier Christy Clarke and Education Minister Peter Fassbender might sink in attempting to extract a victory by attrition to win back cases they’d soundly lost in the province’s highest court (twice). There was little reason to expect that part of the Liberals’ agenda included keeping public schools closed, and teachers’ families going without income, into October.

But I am proud to have been part of such a tribe as teachers who looked at such a set of circumstances and agreed to stand firm in our resolve to resist such a government. I’m glad to have fought alongside my school staff to make the best of a bad situation, to bring each other food, and emblazon T-shirts with our simplest of battle cries, and to share in one another’s company, and solidarity.

I’m proud to know the parents, and students, and members of our community that recognized the stand we were taking, and the toll it was taking on us, and helped us out: who wrote letters, and organized sit-ins, and brought us food and coffee on the picket line.

We believe in Public Education

And I’m proud to say that as a result of our shared efforts there was an end to the strike that protected our court victories, and even won several concessions for our elementary colleagues and TOCs in the province.

But between the official ending of the strike and the starting up of school this pride and sense of victory has soured some, as we have returned to school with these as the most meagre of victories. Victories which are so minute, in the grand terms of the struggle, that I am filled with a sense of anger at the blindness of government that would so unnecessarily lead the province’s public school system through such a protracted crisis.

For what?

To return to classes which are still too big, and getting bigger.

To reenter schools where our librarians are picking up blocks to teach, and our administrators are finding their way back into classrooms so students have courses to take.

Where our foods and shop classes are swelling, and our district continues to find ways out of its millions-of-dollars-a-year budgetary shortfall by amending class size limits or asking teachers to shoulder an ever-laden burden.

So as much as we have returned to work, we have also merely changed the venue of a fight against a government that stretches back more than twelve years. Where past Septembers have taken my aims and interests into blogs, and open courses, and trips into the British Columbian wild, I am compelled to continue the fight of our strike now in our day to day work as teachers. To this end I’ve taken on the role of (one of) our staff union representative(s), and hope that this new perspective on our profession allows me further opportunities to fold my personal and professional ambitions into a modeled teaching persona that is of pedagogical value in my classrooms, as well as the local community our school serves.

Setting out in the construction of my Masters of Education project, I plan to continue this year in exploring notions of citizenship education, both as a component of experiential education as well as in my work and advocacy as an open educator. Elements of this exploration touch upon curriculum, philosophy of education, and the advent of the Digital Age, and it is my hope to refine these strands of thought around ongoing projects in my fall and spring classes which I will describe in greater depth in a second installment of Back to School(s).

Summer Book Project: Narcissus & Goldmund

Image courtesy of Solomon Says

I first read Narcissus and Goldmund ten years ago this February – finishing it at 11:33pm on February 16th, 2004 (the inscription in the back cover tells me). It’s likely that I was at my house on Barbara Circle, in Little Rock, an idyllic three bedroom where I spent my senior year of college. It’s possible that I was traveling somewhere with our track team, laying in the back of a team bus taking us north to the indoor tracks of the midwest, or biding time in a hotel or at one of our early season meets.

The note in the back of the book only gives the date and time.

I’d already read some Hermann Hesse by then – Siddhartha and Steppenwolfto be sure, perhaps even Demien (which I purchased at Little Rock’s fabulous Lorenzen & Co Booksellers). But after ten years, Narcissus and Goldmund has stuck out, somehow: there was something about this parable that effected the twenty-three year old me greatly. Delving into the passion at the heart of artistic expression, I recall the book presenting some sacred devotion to life, love and connection that however subtly contributed to the momentum of my post-collegiate years.

This past July, as I began thinking about these youthful books and first (re)read On the RoadI coupled Narcissus and Goldmund into a short list that I thought might capture the transformation that Literature had wrought on my young mind and life. The list included (or has grown to include):

Through On the Road I was heartened to discover in the text that neither of us had aged so terribly that the experience made me cringe. True, there was sadness where before I may have seen lust or excitement, fear where before there had been confidence. But alongside what Kerouac had to say to me at thirty two rang loud and clear the message he had for the younger Bryan, and it was a lesson I’m still grateful to have been taught.

With Hesse I had a similarly passionate relationship as a younger man, reading nearly everything I could get my hands on between the ages of twenty and twenty-five: Steppenwolf, Demien, Rosshalde, Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund (The Glass Bead Game site on my shelf, a treat to myself for some future date when I can read a “new” book by a favourite long-deceased author). Each of them is dog-eared and wildly underlined; the’ve been lent to friends and frequently to students (especially a yellow and yellowing copy of Demien that is currently on a vacation with one of the TALONS alumni). Concerned as so many of his stories and characters are with discovering one’s passion, voice and place in the world, he is what I consider to be an essential voice for wandering youth.

But I’ve long held Narcissus and Goldmund somewhere above his other works – more profound, more lasting, or all encompassing. I’m not sure what, exactly, and so I sat down this February, somewhat coincidentally to see what all the fuss had been about all those years ago.

As in most of Hesse, there is the ring of a Jungian call to pursue one’s heroic calling in life that Narcissus presents his younger pupil Goldmund as he counsels him away from life at the seminary:

“Natures of your kind, with strong, delicate senses, the soul-oriented, the dreamers, poets, lovers are almost always superior to us creatures of the mind. You take your being from your mothers. You live fully; you were endowed with the strength of love, the ability to feel.”

Goldmund’s sensitivity is aesthetic, where Narcissus’ is logical, and the novel makes a case for the superiority of the former as we follow Goldmund away from school to bathe in the personal riddles of time and the nature of the self on a pilgrimage that may be characterized as spiritual without being religious.

There is an exaltation of mystery here that I no-doubt found inspiring as a fifth year senior looking ahead at graduation.

“Oh how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pong, the eye of a person or of a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all; but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning like Father Anselm or wise like Abbot Daniel, and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening.”

In the spring of 2004, I was on the verge of graduating from university. I had lived in Arkansas for most of five years, beginning when I was scarcely 18, and the life I had established for myself in the south would soon be over and in many ways irretrievable. While this is true in some ways of all experience, leaving Little Rock brought with it the additional mourning that most of my friends from that time would be returning to their own home countries and cities across the States, and whether I was conscious of it at the time or not, I was comforted through Goldmund’s experience of death bringing his life into a crystalline focus:

“He thought that he, that all men, trickled away, changing constantly, until they finally dissolved, while their artist-created images remained unchangeably the same.

“He thought that fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all things of the mind. We fear death, we shudder at life’s instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something that lasts longer than we do.”

Indeed, a journal entry from the afternoon of February 12th, 2004 – that was written on a charter bus taking our track and field team north to compete at an indoor meet the University of Iowa – is freckled with Hesse quotes, and captures a purely preserved expression of my mind at the time:

“We are in a western-looking saddle of the country, with sparse snow around the trees that flank farmers’ fields. It feels like Wyoming, the sun-bleached yellow terrain, mountainous as we run down the ancient Ozarks. Dirt roads and barns abound, as do the hawks riding updrafts against the dusty foothills, bullet holes against the blue sky.

“It is a place that lends itself to a trip through one’s mental landscape, and easy to become lost in your thoughts up here, and as we ascend a ridge-winding two-lane highway and climb above a soil-rich rolling valley – Marshall Welcomes You, the sign says – something says to me, Merritt, BC, and in a flash I see British Columbia. It is fleeting though and only a moment before the small-town churches and Missouri mom-and-pops begin to dominate the scenery, and Canada is an infinite ride away into the North.

“Home is both a million miles away and yet somehow coming closer than I care to have it. Anyone who cares to read these words will traipse through these last few dozen pages and tire of the time I have devoted to the loss and remorse the idea of leaving Arkansas has brought me. But it is something which weighs mightily upon me.”

As with Kerouac earlier this year, I am happy to find in the rereading of Narcissus and Goldmund that my younger self was fortunate to encounter an author and a companion such as Hesse. Goldmund confronts his own existential nausea with a devotion to applying his aesthetic sensitivities – as both the cause of Goldmund’s inspiration as much as it is his torment – to art that was able to capture “the solemn feeling of a rare and great experience which he might perhaps know one more time in the course of his life or which might remain unique.”

With so many of my own life experiences nearing an end, my anxiety was given solace in attempting to live with what Hesse called:

“A deep reverence, a great earnestness, and at the time a secret fear of the moment when this high, unique experience would be over, classified, swallowed by the routine of days.”

Reverence alone, Goldmund realizes, is not enough, however.

“In order to create a work like this, one had not only to carry images in one’s soul; one also had to have inexpressibly trained, practiced hands. Perhaps it was after all worthwhile to place one’s entire life at the service of art, at the expense of freedom and broad experience, if only in order to be able once to make something this beautiful, something that had not only been experienced and envisioned and received in love, but also executed to the last detail with absolute mastery. It was an important question.”

It is, and it’s one of many pieces of the book that struck me in 2014 as much as in 2004. Almost thirty three, I’m no longer looking out on adulthood as the Void Beyond University so much as I am poised between the path I’ve created of it thus far, and the possibilities it holds into the future. Ten years on from both Hesse and graduation, I have accumulated a good many of the life moments and experiences that will have cumulatively determined who I was in this life. And while my interpretation of the wrestling with that question may have shifted, it feels central to feelings about my self and life today as much as ever.

Like Goldmund, I have remained “in his dreams or his thought-filled moments of rest, overlooking a flowering or wilting valley, […] all eyes an artist.” With him I have “longed desperately to halt the gracefully drifting nonsense of life with [my] mind and transform it into sense,” though of late this has taken on a more intellectual aim than artistic.

Toward the end of the book, Narcissus directs me to consider the merits of complementing this pursuit with more art, and heart:

“Our thinking is a constant process of converting things to abstractions, a looking away from the sensory, an attempt to construct a purely spiritual world. Whereas you take the least constant, the most mortal things to your heart, and in their very mortality show the meaning of the world. You don’t look away from the world; you give yourself to it, and by your sacrifice to it raise it to the highest, a parable of eternity. We thinkers try to come closer to God by pulling the mask away from His face. You come closer to Him by loving His creation and re-creating it. Both are human endeavors, and necessarily imperfect, but art is more innocent.”

Because just as the more academic or reflective posts on this site are records of ideas and expressions of an evolving self, there are emotions and realizations captured in these aged books of both Hermann Hesse and my own ink that light the way to an understanding that yet eludes meaning, an exaltation of

“How mysterious this life [is,] how deep and muddy its waters [run], yet how clear and noble what emerge[s] from them.”

On motivating the Difficult Student

Brooke’s challenge post brought something to mind I’ve been struggling with myself in EDCI 335 this semester:

“In the coursework this term, and in my work, [I] feel like content and ideas are flying into my head, being held in temporary holding long enough to process it into a semi-reasonable response, and quickly vacating for the next piece.”

Having been curating a personal course of study online and in my classes informally now going on five years, the weekly demands of my Learning Design course have often felt like derivations from a larger arc of learning I am actively synthesizing in discussions, posts and reflection in the classroom and beyond it. While recognizing the benefit of encountering influence and dialogue outside my general sphere of inquiry, I have frequently struggled to successfully integrate the intended outcomes of the course with my own existing narrative of personal learning coming into this term.

My design posts, both on this blog and in our silo’d discussion boards have often only seemed loosely bound by the central thread at their centre – me. Generally I have made what feel like scattershot responses to questions and debates I am not meaningfully connected to, or are housed in terminology or semantic distinctions that I often have seen as problematic in my own thinking, and are interrelated only in so much as they correspond to a textbook whose author cautioned me that I “might not the target audience” for it.

It’s not that I don’t think there is value in exploring this conflict. Indeed, these epistemological and linguistic concepts of learning are aspects of any topic that I find interesting. Whether arts, politics or education, the construction and transformation of different epochs or paradigms cut to the heart of my foundational beliefs about life and learning, and are where my own philosophical values align with both my professional and personal learning intentions.

But as our units have progressed and each begun anew with the assertion of various contentious assumptions about learning and knowledge, I have felt constrained by the compulsion to reexamine these same premises in each new argument before presenting what would be my own interpretation of the topic or questions associated with it. This perceived distance from our covered topics have made me a poor contributor to the class’ various discussion threads and conversations and have left  me feeling generally that “Design Thinking” and I can just agree to disagree.

But here I am.

I continue.

Because I need the marks for this week’s assignment, and next week’s, and last’s.

Because I need to get a grade in this course that will allow me to continue in the next phase of my studies.

And because I’m driven by the fear that I will have not answered the question sufficiently, or might in exploring my own perspective on the topic be seen to be missing the point of the exercise entirely.

In and of themselves, these are grim motivational forces, it’s true. And at times they have brought about unfavourable turns of my student profile.

From an early age, I have possessed an anti-authoritarian streak that rejects anything that doesn’t yield personal relevance or connection before I can engage in it meaningfully. Similar to the gifted students I work with these days, I want to know why we’re doing this – whatever it is – before I can commit to doing it. And I want to ask questions about the meaning or the relevance of the activity itself often much more than I am ever willing to “just jump through the hoop” and meet the task head on.

But what might have seemed at younger ages as defiance or oppositional behaviour, I’ve come to believe is part of the spirit and tradition of intellectual and philosophical thought. In attempting to align a sense of my own epistemology with existing values of pedagogy, I feel only more firm in myself and confident to pursue and create such personal courses of study, even when it might not be the path of least resistance.

At thirty two I’ve come to feel more confident in my seventeen-year-old decision to include a satirical essay with my high school Graduation Portfolio that initially earned me a failing grade back in grade twelve. Responding to one of the topics, “How has your education prepared you for the future?” I took the opportunity to [sarcasm] graciously thank the school system for the opportunity to participate in the fledgling Career and Personal Planning curriculum [/sarcasm] in an essay that caught the eye of the teacher in charge of signing off on our portfolios. When my parents later demonstrated to an administrator that the teacher’s reaction to the essay had unfairly biased him toward the rest of my portfolio, I was issued a 50% and allowed to graduate on time in the end.

But I’ve been fascinated by this whole process ever since, and even more so now that I teach: why in the school’s opinion was it more important for me to be obedient, in that case, than to exercise my critical thinking?

And why did my school not look to engage me as a learner, rather than seeking first to punish me?

I can only assume that without my parents’ potential to embarrass the teacher and the school over the whole scenario, I would have been forced to comply with the their wishes and then either not graduate or submit a placative assignment. And while it’s not indicative of the entirety of schooling, and perhaps unfair to extrapolate based on a unique experience, the memory (evidently) guides me these days as both a teacher and a student.

As many teachers do, perhaps, I try to create learning opportunities that I would have seen as meaningful and thus benefitted from as a learner when I was a student. And the dual role created by Learning Design this semester has been eye opening as I reflect on my learning as a student when I’m  caught between the oft-quoted maxim that we should “never let education interfere with learning,” and the knowledge that there are certain responsibilities to be placated within institutionalized learning.

Somewhere between the chaotic wandering of rhizomatic learning and replicative-education there is a balance to be struck, isn’t there?

Or from circumstance to circumstance, will one always win out over the other?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking this semester about what motivates me to learn, and a lot of time thinking about what triggers these instances where my motivation wanes. I’ve been thinking about how our institutions are set up to deliver on their mandate to produce beneficial skill-sets and competencies in younger generations, as well as nurture a lifelong love of learning in each of them.

And I wonder if these two aims might be at odds with one another, somehow?

How do we engage in organic learning, learning that is propelled by the individual within the (perceived) contexts of its collectives, and yet which fulfills these external, institutional measures as well?

The teachers who have been able to connect to my ‘difficult’ student are hopefully the ones I embody in my teaching these days. From elementary school, to university, to teacher-training and the informal spaces along the way, these teachers have been able to frame opportunities for learning as personally relevant and meaningful to me, and have acted as mediators between me as an individual and larger institutional requirements, contextualizing these experiences in terms that arouse my own motivation to engage and grow with them.

If the work of teachers is ultimately relational, and relies uniquely on our abilities of empathy and creativity, this is where much of it resides.

Remixes, CRAAP Tests and Collaborative Unit Planning

Twitter as Citizenship Learning

For my EDCI: 335 class, Learning Design, I’ve thus far been addressing our discussion tasks and various thought exercises to my work with #IntroGuitar – especially as the class has been revised and relaunched for this new semester. But it feels as though there is also a lot going on in the TALONS Socials classes that has presented an avenue to manifest a lot of the theory underlying my term project in last semester’s EDCI 338, as well as aspects of our learning in EDCI 335.

As we have embarked on Socials 9 this year (our two-year class alternates between years of Socials 9 and 10), I have approached the spring semester in TALONS attempting to practice collaborative assignment and unit planning, offering opportunities in individual inquiry, media literacy created as an implicit expression of citizenship learning. With #IntroGuitar effectively “launched” for the time being, my planning focus has shifted to the beginning of socials 9, and the dawn of the modern era.

Remixing the Great Book of Knowledge

Over the past few weeks, we started with the source material of Kirby Ferguson‘s “Everything is a Remix” and CBC Ideas‘ The Great Book of Knowledge and set about discussing “the greatest knowledge revolution in human history ([which] began in our lifetime).” Pertinent as a connection to Gutenburg’s role in fostering the social conditions that brought about the Enlightenment period as well as to our present informational context, The Great Book of Knowledge presents the advent of Wikipedia as a manifestation of an emergent, socially created Truth. It seemed an apt place to begin talking about the advent of the bourgeois public sphere, and the creation of modern democracy.

From the hour long episode, each of the TALONS classes was left to organize and delineate the various themes and key ideas presented in the show. During each of these class discussions, I pledged not to talk unless necessary to clarify a technical aspect of information or procedure. In the vacuum created by eliminating the teacher’s voice, various individuals rose to the occasion to help bring about and represent the group’s thinking.

Momentum built slowly in either class’ discussion, with notes emerging on the board, and votes being taken to determine the show’s key themes and concepts.

Once the episode had been divided into as many segments as there were groups in the class, each ‘quad’ (group of four TALONS) was tasked with the creation of an audio remix that expressed the theme or thesis of their selected section. Each class brainstormed and supplied their own criteria for the assignment, and set about experimenting with the classroom technology – iPads, personal computers, Snowball Microphones.

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 8.04.35 PM

As a finale, the finished remixes were presented on K12 web radio station 105 the Hive live as a debut broadcast from the TALONS classroom. Class members took on the duties of slotting the remixes into an order reflecting their content, preparing copy and questions to read as MC/hosts, learning to navigate the broadcasting software and attending to the group’s various social media. With a few hiccups (network connectivity, a tripped extension cord), both morning and afternoon classes made auspicious debuts in presenting the live broadcasts, and archived their work on the class blog.

We even received a note from the producer of The Great Book of Knowledge, the CBC’s Philip Coulter:

Hey talented TALONS people!

I heard some of the remixes you posted on Soundcloud of The Great Book of Knowledge. They were terrific! Really imaginative work- you had a great feel for the ideas behind the programme and for how to take those ideas to another level, which is what remix is all about, and you obviously get it.

You’re lucky to be in such a great programme, and from a little cruising around your site its obvious that you’re doing really interesting work. Keep it up with creating things that no-one ever thought of before- thats called Art, and that brings us a better world!

Philip Coulter

Producer, The Great Book of Knowledge “Ideas” CBC Radio

CRAAP Testing the English Civil War

This week we have moved into a different sort of crowd-sourced media literacy, emulating Jim Groom and Paul Bond‘s Internet Course at the University of Mary Washington, and CRAAP Testing resources on the English Civil War.

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 5.01.52 PM

After applying the CRAAP Test to a reading that I supplied, we collected various resources and materials using a Google Form that was published in a wiki page dedicated to the activity. Next, each of the sources was evaluated and highlighted to indicate Good to Go (green), If you have time (yellow) or No Go (red).

In examining the resources Purpose(s), I provided the classes with the government’s prescribed learning outcomes for Socials 9, and asked which resources best fit the following tasks:

Students will: 

  • analyze factors that contribute to revolution and conflict
  • analyze the contributions of the English, French and American Revolutions in the development of democratic concepts
  • evaluate the changing nature of law and its relation to social conditions of the times

Collaborative Unit Planning 

Building on the questions raised by elements of the CRAAP Testing exercise, as well as the minimally guided dissection of The Great Book of Knowledge episode, collaborative unit planning has become a forum for developing the Ministry of Education’s “Applications of Social Studies,” wherein 

It is expected that students will: 

  • identify and clarify a problem, an issue or an inquiry
  • select and summarize information from primary and secondary print and non-print sources, including electronic courses
  • defend a position on a controversial issue after considering a variety of perspectives
  • co-operatively plan, implement, and assess a course of action that addresses the problem, issue or inquiry initially identified

Each of the morning and afternoon TALONS have pursued slightly different courses of action this week, as they have made their way through discussions about projects and readings, generating criteria and a two-week schedule (that will take us to Spring Break). In addition to addressing many aspects of the TALONS leadership curriculum in the spring semester – In-Depth Studies, Adventure Trips, and the culmination of an yearlong (and for the grade tens, a two-yearlong) exercise in community building – this approach is an extension of the reading and thinking I did last semester on developing an emergent curriculum.

Gert Biesta and Deborah Osberg describe a curriculum of emergence as one where:

“…knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object’ that can be transferred from one place to the next. Knowledge is understood, rather, to ‘emerge’ as we, as human beings, participate in the world. Knowledge, in other words, does not exist except in participatory actions.”

Having had the opportunity to experiment with the concept last semester in Philosophy 12, I am getting more and more comfortable with the idea that

“…to encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom, then the meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence.”

On Memorable Learning

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Whether working with the TALONS, philosophers, or the #IntroGuitar community, I am fortunate to get to spend a good deal of time planning lessons and thinking of learning experiences that are not only ‘memorable,’ but hopefully also: personal, meaningful and – optimally – transformative. I would agree with a definition that sees learning as Jeanne Ellis Ormrod describes it:

“A long-term change in mental representations and associations due to experience[.]”

The theoretical approaches that I bring to this view of learning are largely inspired by constructivism and sociocultural theory, as well as the networked processes at the heart of connectivism. Defined in this week’s EDCI 335 reading, constructivists:

suggest that people create (rather than absorb) knowledge from observations and experiences.

More and more I have come to see both the ‘hidden curriculum‘ and the provincially required curriculum as bound to Foucault’s vision of Enlightenment, which should not be considered:

a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

I’ve come to think that memorable learning resides in such “experiments with the possibility” of going beyond our limits, when we are able to experience transgression of our boundaries and the potential and peril that such risk-taking involves.

Last spring I reflected on the work of:

Gregory Bateson, [who] describes these learning opportunities as “breaches in the contextual structure,” whereby individuals gain an understanding of the process involved in implementing “corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made.”

This sort of “third order” thinking is driven by a confrontation with “systemic contradictions in experience” (this is taken from University of Virginia prof Eric Bredo); to the outdoor educator, this double bind is represented by the necessity of learning to provide both the freedom to explore, as well as the structure and guidance that creates safe opportunities for growth.

Gardner Campbell points out that learning in this capacity puts participants – teachers and students and parents alike – to vulnerability. “It puts the self at risk,” he says. “The questions become explosive,” and “involve “the kinds of risks that learners, at their best, will be willing to take.”

It is a vision of learning that I think goes beyond the mass concerns of institutional education obsessed with accountability, but speaks to John Dewey’s dual intentions for public schooling:

    • To transmit the facts, dispositions and cultural heritage society considers to be of value; and
    • To raise a younger generation with the skills, persistence and ingenuity to transcend our historical moment.

In addition to being encultured to the traditions of our society’s ideals, meaningful, memorable learning is what Richard Dixon meant when he told me that

“Every class is just another opportunity for young people to practice forming communities.”

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The British Columbian outdoors have lent themselves admirably to this task:

We walked out into the woods and within minutes were greeted in our silences by the persistent hooting of an owl presiding over the camp for the duration of our solo. Scattered across the forest floor, in a blackness that enveloped all but the distant moon shining off the lake below, the owl rang its voice across the treetops, cradling us all. When I called out finally for the solo to end, seconds swelled and stretched in silence as no one wanted the moment to be gone.

Our ambition as TALONS facilitators is often to nurture these individual worlds, where everything needed for survival, or even thriving, is brought along in backpacks and the people assembled in a given place. Enjoying the peace of sitting in the woods at night alone, a serenity connected to the most basic of human fears of loneliness, made possible in the company of trusted peers.

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As have the annual rituals provided by annual TALONS events and adventures, when the (two grade 9/10 cohorts) each set about “creating something that is honest, magical, and their own.” On a night like the annual Night of the Notables, for instance:  

There is prolonged  thunderous applause. Standing ovations.  In all, it is quite a thing to see happen. Truly. Even if it is hard to say just what it is that happened up there on that stage and in the halls of our school tonight.

Because just as it feels a little bit my own, how I take in the night’s triumph against the backdrop of those that have preceded it, how everyone in the room experiences the evening is measured against their own sense of the vulnerability felt by those in the present ‘hot seat.’ From the college kids in the back to the grade nines sitting in the second row (to the teacher grinning in the balcony), everyone in the TALONS orbit has gathered to give it up for those whose task it is this year to set aside their fears, come together as a group, and dare to do something exceptional.

Something exceptional, like forming a band and playing your first gig just after locker cleanout on one of the last days of the school year:

On the last day of class, many of the Bears made a point of hanging around for a few minutes to take pictures with one another, shake my hands and otherwise linger in the magical atmosphere the guitar classroom had been transformed into by their efforts.

“This class was more than a class,” one of the young men who was graduating told me on his way out the door. “Just what it was, I’m not sure. But it was pretty great.”

Or teaching fellow singers in a Cuban fine arts school the English pronunciations in their new choral number:

What each of these learning opportunities have in common, I think, is that they put the student/learner at the center of the experience, where their individual perception of themselves or their world is expanded somehow. They perform feats not thought possible beforehand, or experience “breaches in the weave of contextual structure”:

  • Swimming in the ocean before breakfast,
  • Capping a night by first experiencing bioluminescence, or
  • Learning what part they can best contribute to a group.

Those are the sorts of things that lead to long-term changes in mental representations and associations. 

That is learning.