MEd Introduction: Personal & Critical Approaches

Objectivity by Sol LeWitt

From Flickr user Sol LeWitt

This post is part of a serialized collection of chapters composing my recently completed Master’s of Education degree at the University of Victoria. You can access the other chapters on this site here, and access a pdf of the completed paper on the University of Victoria library space here

“The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality.” (Nabokov, 1980, p. 251)

In these the early decades of the 21st century, discussions about education are often concerned with a cultural transformation being wrought by the advent of the Internet and a plethora of revolutionary digital communications technologies. Analogous paradigm shifts observed as the digital age has impacted human relationships in economics, popular culture, and academic research have similarly challenged schools to prepare young people to lend their voice to a global dialogue. This digital age makes possible new realizations of pluralism and democracy, where the means and ability to present and communicate an individual narrative and perspective invites all citizens into a collective authorship. If the collaborative power of the World Wide Web threatens the ability of an elite minority to define shared narratives – such as the influence of corporate interests or the State itself – the development of participatory literacies presents emancipatory possibilities for each member of society to become reflected in a shared identity.

While these changes can be and often are touted as revolutionary and inspiring, this era of unprecedented communicative potential on a global scale has been accompanied by rapidly expanding trends toward political and economic alienation and fragmentation, making schools susceptible to replicating inequalities prevalent in wider society. To address this problem, this project explores the potential for citizenship curriculum in the 21st century to provide young people with experiential lessons in transforming themselves as individuals, contributing to the continued transformation of their surrounding societies, and developing greater individual agency in the shaping of a collective identity.

Through this, the project is guided by the following questions:

  • Does open discourse influence young people’s sense of voice and agency in the shaping of collective identities?
  • Can digital tools and open pedagogy provide a means of realizing emergent curriculum for citizenship in the 21st century?

In an attempt to honour the pluralist spirit of collective authorship, the project is framed by an approach to learning that includes personal as well as critical foundations. Although research and professional learning has inspired the process-oriented conception of citizenship learning described here, life experiences and personal pursuits dating back to my adolescence reveal a similar theme of individual transformation that is explored in the introduction to the project. Whether in an adolescence spent training and racing in competitive track and field, university years spent trying to craft the perfect sentence, or as an adult striving to embody lifelong learning, my personal and academic ambitions have consistently been oriented toward transcendence. This introduction outlines the manner in which these life experiences have come together to form the particular lens applied to my academic study of teaching and learning.

References

Lit Review Twitter Essay

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This is the sort of thing that might otherwise be relegated to an aggregated Storify or series of screenshots. But as this afternoon’s series of Tweets was intended to partially sketch out the main ideas in what will be a much larger – Master’s thesis-sized – work, expanding on some of these points seems well-suited to a longer look here on the blog.

While not generally considered the forum to share and discuss more substantial themes or ideas, I’ve noticed more and more of the people I follow using part of the natural functioning of Twitter to follow through with some of their longer-form thinking.

One of the pioneer’s of the form, Jeet Heer published a spin on one of his essays in the Globe and Mail last fall, noting this popular conception:

6. With strict 140-character limit & cacophony of competing voices, Twitter seems like worst place to write an essay.

7. To critics, a Twitter essay is like life-size replica of the Eiffel Tower made from chopsticks: perverse enterprise.

But he went on to enumerate the ways in which Twitter might be the perfect venue for such thinking:

14. With a properly focused topic, a set of tweets allows you to ruminate on a subject, to circle around it: to make an essay.

15. An essay in original French meaning of term is a trial, an attempt, an endeavour: a provisional thought about something.

16. At the very root of the essay form is its experimental and makeshift nature. An essay isn’t a definitive judgment but a first survey.

17. The ephemeral nature of Twitter gives it a natural affinity with the interim and ad hoc nature of the essay form.

18. A Twitter essay isn’t really an argument; it’s the skeleton of an argument.

19. Tweets are snowflake sentences: They crystallize, have some fleeting beauty and disappear.

20. To write snowflake sentences is liberating: They don’t have to have the finality of the printed word.

21. Fugitive thoughts quickly captured.

This last point may perfectly characterize the difficulty of attempting to synthesize what has been more than a year of wide reading on a variety of loosely interrelated topics, bound together in many ways only by my own ability to connect them (if this is truly the purpose of academic study): to begin to write about these readings and plot our next steps forward as a grad cohort, we are engaged in the pursuit of such fugitive thoughts. 

As an exercise in collecting my thinking on a year’s work, I set out to form the basis of my thesis in a few posts:

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 3.47.05 PMWhile the ‘elevator pitch’ for the thesis begins in a few different places – critical pedagogy, Enlightenment thinking, or youth voter apathy – these ideas became today’s point of origin, and together might constitute something of an introduction to what I hope will serve as a research project.

It might begin something like this:

Citizenship in a pluralist democracy requires the cultivation of skills and dispositions that allow for an ongoing constructivism of more and more diverse perspectives within a collective identity. Multiculturalism is the natural extension of emergent epistemologies which draw on both critical and transformative pedagogies. 

There are a number of scholars’ work who have led me to the drafting of such a sentiment, chief among them Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta, Paulo Friere, and Gregory Bateson.

Osberg and Biesta’s inquiry into whether a truly emergent epistemology could be possible in schools has concerned a great deal of linked text published to this blog in recent years:

Paulo Freire also figured largely – as he tends to – in my ongoing research into a pedagogy that might help bring about such an emergent constructivism:

And each of these threads culminates in the transcendent quality which Michel Foucault places in Enlightenment itself, which he called a “critique of what we are” and an “experiment” with going beyond the limits “imposed on us,” bringing about the paradigm shift which resets Freire’s critical praxis. Gregory Bateson (and Daniel Schugurensky) exnten this thinking and discuss the political and cultural necessity of working toward transformation as an ongoing process.

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Here we might continue in an academic voice:

However, the public institutions charged with producing and maintaining a citizenry that values emergence, and practices critical transformation are caught in something of a paradox as they intend to produce something which necessarily must be composed out of a fluid and ever-changing constituency. 

Not only are schools tasked with cultivating a curriculum which orients itself toward the production of that citizenry, but the broader socio/political/economic culture must be constantly reevaluating and defining just what that citizenship itself is seen to represent.

As institutions, they are faced with the reality of developing targets; yet a certain amount of recognizing aims within an emergent system means drawing the target around the shot that has been taken. 

Within a Canadian context, a multicultural constitution creates the (apparently) unresolvable tension between inviting and encouraging greater and greater diversity along with the generation of unifying symbols and experiences. A multicultural nation is one that is perpetually becoming, making the notion of citizenship (not to mention the form and function of the institutions charged with imbuing the younger generation with a sense of that citizenship) elusive.

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To confront this inherent tension Sigal Ben-Porath presents a notion of citizenship as “shared fate,” which “seeks to weave the historical, political and social ties among members of the nation into a form of affiliation that would sustain their shared political project.”

Again:

Ben-Porath describes “citizenship as shared fate” as a form of critical citizenship within which “the vision of the nation as a stable, bound and tangible group” might be overcome. For Ben-Porath, civic learning for citizenship as shared fate includes acquiring:

  • Knowledge of fellow citizens,
  • Skills to interact with them, and
  • Attitudes that can facilitate shared civic action.

Such a conception of civic learning echoes the emancipatory praxis of Paulo Freire, for whom the ability to “transform one’s reality” was paramount in realizing freedom from oppression. 

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In terms of researching answers to these questions, I am fortunate to work with three different groups of young people that cover a broad spectrum of our school’s high school experience. Between our grade nine/ten gifted cohorts learning in a district-funded program and with access to a unique curriculum and ample classroom technology, a senior-level Philosophy 12 course that has functioned as an open online course now for more than three years, and the grades 9-12 elective #IntroGuitar course, public digital spaces and social media support various processes related to civics learning and students’ honing of their own conception of their individual and collective citizenship.

I am curious to see how these questions might be explored within and around these communities of practice – among students, teachers, and potentially parents or open online participants who are brought into the fray. As well, I am excited at the possibility such a collective inquiry might offer the creation of a lasting forum of autonomous voices coming together in the shared space of the public web.

Teaching in the Patriarchy

PATRIARCHAL EDUCATION 2014

Image courtesy of Christopher Dombres

Even as we might strive to discuss Herstory and the silencing of minority voices in our curriculum, it is startlingly easy to perpetuate and recreate the same inequalities we strive to combat in our work as educators. While we may have the best of intentions in our explicit messages about the nature of equality and justice in our classrooms, each of us brings myriad complexities of unconscious privilege and inequality into our work with young people just by way of inhabiting a culture which is composed of them.

For instance, I am a thirty three year old, caucasian, Canadian male, living in an affluent suburb of one of the world’s most livable cities. I work with gifted youngsters in a program that gets them out of doors and into the curriculum in ways that are intended to engage their voice and agency in a responsive and authentic learning community. And I was even in a similar program back in my own highschool days before riding an athletic scholarship to the states, where I competed in the NCAA.

All of which is to say that I can acknowledge that nearly everything about my life presents a near perfect model of white male privilege.

My whole life has offered a continual reassurance that my voice and contributions were worthwhile and valued by others; that my opinion and interpretation of events can be offered with authority and will be respectfully received has been reinforced at nearly every juncture in my life, which doesn’t necessarily make me a self-centered egomaniac, but  does remind me to be aware that not everyone has been on the receiving end of a lifetime of attaboys for a range of choices and behaviours that have vacillated between the stellar and foolhardy as much as anyone.

Such an acknowledgement is a first step in addressing the myriad inequalities from which I have (and continue to) benefit, but then only begins an exploration of the ways in which I reproduce and witness the perpetuation of these inequalities in my countless daily interactions with students, teachers, and the culture beyond my school.In my travels

As when the hands that invariably leap up to offer opinions in class discussions are those that are white / upper-class / extroverted / etc…

As when a colleague asks an administrator why they haven’t hired any young goodlookin’ contract teachers this year or last…

As when an established teacher monopolizes the agenda at a union or staff meeting with their interpretation of “What’s in our interest” without seeking to represent the views of younger teachers or colleagues from minority populations…

That we are swimming in layers of unrecognized privilege and yet exist as the stewards of a system which organizes itself around meritocratic principles presents a contradiction our public schools ought confront in an effort to prepare young people to better realize the values of multicultural democracy that truly

“promote[s] 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[s] them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.”

Moving beyond the acknowledgement of this contradiction, however, is where such affluent experiences and classrooms such as mine struggle to create more equal and democratic experiences. Observing and reacting to overt manifestations of discrimination is something that comforts us, as do signs of solidarity such as awareness campaigns like the Anti-Bullying Day or Me to We Fundraising initiatives.

But these efforts are largely organized by privileged kids in privileged schools: do they really bring us any closer to creating a truly inclusive society?

Or do they further alienate and separate the haves from the have nots (whatever those possessions may be)?

Leveraging our collective privilege to ‘rescue’ those who are disadvantaged by systemic oppression is a hollow aim unless our gaze is fixed upon a critical view of the sources of our own advantages, and we seek and strive to make these advantages visible to others who would unknowingly perpetuate them to the detriment of others.

What this means is difficult for many of us who enjoy various privilege to envision; but what it does not mean is retreating into silence.

It doesn’t mean that the kids whose hands shoot up at the beginning of a class discussion need to sit on them.

It doesn’t mean the principal isn’t allowed to share a joke with a colleague.

And it doesn’t mean that those of us who don’t mind speaking our minds at staff or union meetings ought not take those opportunities to cultivate dialogue with our peers.

But it does mean recognizing that some of these activities and modes of participation – by which success and membership in our communities are judged – are easier for some of us than others, and that this ease has little or nothing to do with any of our respective effort or merit. By extension this means that the ability to include marginalized voices in our collective discussions demands that we employ these privileges in the greater inclusion of others in them, and toward the elimination of barriers that keep others from that “full and equitable participation.”

Which in the very first place involves listening, rather than speaking. Hearing what life is like, and how the existence of our privileges effects others.

But we need not take what we hear as personal idictments: after all, if we did nothing to earn the privileges that have led to our successes and power, we likely are not conscious participants in the oppression of others.

However, we become agents of injustice if in gaining an awareness of our own privilege and good fortune, we do nothing to increase the justice and opportunity afforded others.

Citizenship in Global Space: Convergences and Departures

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Education for Global Citizenship

“…increasing calls for educational provision to develop a more global orientation.” 

Mark Priestly, Gert Biesta, Gren Mannion and Hamish Ross (2010) introduce a network of policy drivers in the UK including departments of education, NGOs and political groups calling for schools to “equip children and young people with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will make them more aware of, and more engaged with, global issues and phenomena.” However, they note that “the reach of this global curricular trend has been largely homogenous within the UK and elsewhere,” a statement supported by recent British Columbia Ministry of Education Focus on Learning Forum: Rising to the Global Challenge.

Given this reality, the authors set out to define just what is meant by “Global Citizenship.” This discussion introduces two sets of inquiries:

  1. What is ‘global’ about global citizenship? What are the origins of this view, and how are these origins converging in our particular historical moment? Also, what are the implications of such convergences?
  2. How do we differentiate between Citizenship and Global Citizenship? “What kind of notion of citizenship is assumed in or promoted by the idea of global citizenship?”

In sketching out these various conceptions of what is meant by ‘global’ and ‘citizenship,’ the authors highlight distinct tensions between promoting citizenship as a competence (outcome) or as a social practice (process), as well as the distinction between citizenship as a social membership or political affiliation. And by looking at three sub-fields of education as points of convergence, these tensions and intersections are shown to represent areas of further discussion in educational policy discourses surrounding education for global citizenship, as each “appears to allow diverse meanings to converge while subordinating some aspects of the constituent meanings.”

Environmental, Development, and Citizenship Education

The authors present the lineages of environmental, development and citizenship education as the theoretical forbearers to our present press toward education for global citizenship. These lineages are raised for discussion with the caveat that “as each of the three traditions arrives and accepts or resists education for global citizenship, there are concerns, losses and points of departure” to consider.

Environmental Education

The history of environmental education “binds it to a struggle for the well-being of the planet that is essentially a global sense of responsibility and camaraderie with world populations. ” However, problematically environmental education is vulnerable to efforts of ‘greenwashing,’ or initiatives that allocate “significantly more money or time… advertising being ‘green,’ than is actually spent on environmentally sound practices.” As the authors point out, environmental education “is a highly attractive concept that is likely to appeal to even opposed interest groups.

As these themes are co-opted, education for global citizenship risks succumbing to “taken-for-granted assumptions that development implies in a Western [neoliberal] economic view,” and the potential to

“essentially [present] education as an instrument for the conservation of the environment, which is reduced to the status of resource for economic development, itself seen as an essential precondition and goal for societal development” (Sauve and Berryman, 2005 p. 230).

Thus we see that environmental education presents the possibility for education for global citizenship to “extend citizens’ rights across time, space, generation and species,” as well as the peril of an attempt to “close the circle” of discourse to exort a particular manifestation of neoliberal citizenship: commodification.

Development Education

Development education provides “a pedagogical reaction to the developmental state of the world society [that works] within the normative premise of overcoming inequality by being oriented towards a model of global justice.” Along with striving to teach competencies “for life in a society” emphasizing an uncertain future, and increased complexity, development education incorporates aspects of sustainability education and a perspective on global justice that may provide a meaningful point of departure which could be meaningfully synthesized by education for global citizenship.

By recognizing an essential relationship between global citizenship and development policies and constructs, governments, NGOs and others might seek to define a justice-oriented citizenship of global activism.

Citizenship Education

Globalization has compelled a response of “global citizenship” that might enable justice or promote a sense of duty and responsibility toward fellow citizens of the planet, even those who may be far away. In this view, the private sphere (in habits of consumption, for instance) becomes political in the manner of the public, as injustice relates to sustainability and democracy.

However, the risk exists that such consensus-driven notions of what is right and how best to achieve it will be difficult to arrive at, as well as the possibility that an emphasis on the private sphere and a voluntary duty to “do the right thing” will leave a western public sphere to continue unchecked. There is also the tendency for “global citizenship” to focus on the creation of a competitive workforce and contribute to economic growth.

Considerations and Concerns

A primary concern in looking at this type of global citizenship is the ever-present threat of meandering into hegemony, as

“it could be argued that the official take on the curricular global turn is, in fact, a localized feature of modern western countries that perhaps seeks to transcend and occlude other alternative local (non-global or anti-globalization) perspectives.”

The authors implore those who would promote such an idea of global citizenship to

“look closer and more critically to see if it is functioning as an ideological concept that travels well, but is working (sometimes inadvertently, but sometimes deliberately) as a tool of western modern imperialism; to homogenize and prescribe goals, thereby reducing ‘the conceptual space for self-determination, autonomy, and alternative ways of thinking'” (Jickling and Wals 2008).

This critical inquiry into global citizenship ought explore various dimensions of citizenship, and ask what sort of citizen education should be developing.

Would education for global citizenship promote a more social, or political citizenship? Is such community responsibility and cohesion driven by unity and common character, obedience and patriotism? Or a more democratic quality that seeks to govern expressions of our diverse perspectives?

Might we see the education of the global citizen as a set of competences or outcomes, or as a praxis of behaviours oriented toward an ever-evolving set of values and goals?

And if we are to find that we would like to proceed in this more democratic, process-oriented vein, we must seriously consider the question of whether such citizenship experiences are even possible within the school or institutional setting.

A Critical Citizenship

For their part, the authors suggest that education for global citizenship demands the development of an ongoing critical citizenship as opposed to one that would be seen as more compliance-based, noting that “more critical practices of education for global citizenship may serve to counter hegemonic views of globalization and narrow social conceptions of citizenship.”

Pedagogy for the Oppressor: Cease to do Evil, then Learn to do Good

Image courtesy of SFU.ca

In an essay collected in Rethinking Freire: Globalization and the Environmental CrisisDerek Rasmussen introduces Paulo Freire and those who would introduce his critical praxis to victims of oppression in foreign countries as “rescuers” attempting “to ameliorate the conditions of the oppressed.”

This is, Rasmussen admits, “certainly a worthy aim.” However, the blind spot in this well-intentioned practice is the fact that “rescuers often seem oblivious to the possibility of stemming the oppression of others in the first place,” and he introduces the problem of such foreign interventions of critical pedagogy as lacking if they do not address the fact that that which many westerners seek to rescue the rest of the world from, we in fact cause. For western conceptions of “progress” to be realized, social organizations not based in the same economic or social paradigm as our own must be disintegrated.

This, Rasmussen offers, is a problem at the heart of Freire’s emancipatory pedagogy, as “the two main life-preservers that the rescuers offer the world are education and economy.”

“What the rescuers view as tools of salvation, the rest of the world experiences as the things that cast them further adrift.”

And so before we can do good, we ought inquire as to how we might first cease to do evil.

Rasmussen cites The Great Transformation, wherein Karl Polanyi presents the modern nation-state and market society as part of a paradigm in which four guiding principles reign to create what Rasmussen calls the “disembedded economy”:

  • Land Ownership
  • Labour
  • Money
  • Corporations

“These fictions,” he writes, “dissolved society’s roots; dissolved essential connections between people and between people and place.” As the enclosure society and economy took hold in Europe with the fall of feudalism, it created the largest mass-migration in history as people clamoured for land, labour and opportunities to survive which had become (remained) the property of elites. This migration led to the same induced scarcity of enclosure across the colonized world, and continues unabated today as the IMF and World Bank, along with western governments’ commitment to foreign aid are tied to national goals of economic growth and the exploitation of natural resources.

Thus, in an effort to ‘free’ the oppressed majorities of globalized capitalism, Freirians of the west arrive in the developing world with a mission Rasmussen describes glibly as:

“Now we will train you to master alpha-numeric symbols in order to make money (from us) in order to get access to the land (we took from you) in order to buy the essentials of life.”

Troublingly, Freire’s critical pedagogy is tied to literacy as the primary means of engaging with the struggle against oppression, arguing that “human existence is not silent.” This perspective not only limits the scope of human knowledge in ways that discredit many indigenous ways of knowing, wisdom and heritage, but even goes so far as to build to the Euro-centric notion that cultures who focus “almost totally on survival lack a sense of life on a more historic plane.”

Freire warns that the non-literate may be “so close to the natural world that they feel more part of this world than the transformers of the world,” resulting in “almost a state of non-being,” unable to become “fully human.”

Such a cautionary reading of Freire will no doubt strike those of us who have read even introductory notes on the place within a local environment many indigenous populations envision themselves. Rasmussen notes that the “Nunavummiut do not experience this closeness to the natural world as less than human or merely human, but as more-than-human.”

Against such a worldview is Freire’s orthodoxy cast as a co-conspirator and, indeed, oppressor.

“Freire had no quarrel with the Euro-American civilization that spread the ideology of literacy, the civilization that spread the notion of language as non-silent, the notion of knowledge as print-based product, the notion of education as the means of knowledge-production.”

A crucial step such a praxis leaps past, Rasmussen offers, is the act of taking inventory of the “‘poisons’ that dissolve rooted societies in the first place.”

This needn’t necessarily mean that we throw Freire out with the bathwater; but it may require a significant re-positioning of the critical praxis, and this must begin at home, in the mind of the oppressor themselves. “As long as our way of life is causing most of the problems that the rest of the world has to deal with,” he writes. “The best thing we can do is deal with our own way of life.”

“Let us not presume to do good until we have ceased to do evil. This ought to be the essence of a pedagogy for the oppressor – first, cease to do evil. Next, study our own behaviour.”

Identifying a Research Problem

Research Query

Identifying a research problem consists of specifying an issue to study, developing a justification for studying it, and suggesting the importance of the study for select audiences that will read the report. 

John W. Creswell

While it acknowledges that “Participating in elections is the essential starting point of any democratic system,” Elections Canada’s own working paper on the Electoral Participation of Young Canadians cites a characterization of the nation’s youth as “political dropouts,” building on the depressing findings of Ottilia Chareka and Alan Sears, that even though

“Youth understand voting as a key element of democratic governance, a hard won democratic right, and a duty of democratic citizenship […], most indicate they do not plan to vote because voting does not make a difference.”

Additionally, the perils of such a disinterest threaten the creation of a trend Gilens and Page have identified in the United States as having transformed the country [back] into an oligarchy, wherein “mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Taken together the two ideas present the nexus of an area of research my recent work and experience lead me to consider, as it offers a unique insight into a vital phenomenon. As the author of the Elections Canada working paper, Paul Howe observes that “a lower voting level among the young could simply represent an increase in the number of intermittent non-voters and/or a decrease in the incidence of voting among young, intermittent non-voters.”MA Doodles

He adds,

“The notion that today’s young people need particular support and encouragement to take up the habit of voting is an important one. To better understand these processes, further research focusing on political socialization dynamics in late adolescence (when young people are approaching or reaching voting age) would be valuable.”

In the last many months, I have considered the problem of my upcoming graduate inquiry as an opportunity to explore this application of public education, sensing the intersection (though perhaps collision would be more appropriate) of Canada’s democratic traditions with the lauded Digital Age and the school curriculum itself. Working as I have (and continue to) with various unique cohorts in blended digital and face-to-face environments, as well as beyond formal instruction in a variety of informal or extra-curricular settings, my spheres of interaction with young people presents what Howe describes as an area for future research:

“Conducting research in the high school setting has the advantage of providing access to all segments of youth society, including the most marginalized, indifferent and/or disaffected, who often cannot be effectively targeted once they have left school.”

Something I’ve quoted often as a guiding principle in my work over the last many years is Gert Biesta’s notion that

“Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught.”

In his graduate work [highlighted recently on CBC’s IdeasDavid Moscrop highlights a problem in applying the workings of the “lizard brain” to the complexities of modern democracy: “It’s about messaging and name familiarity. And it reflects our MA Doodlesown vulnerability to being manipulated — which is why attack ads work and sound bites work.” Such a revelation echoes Habermas, who described a degraded public sphere as one co-opted by media and political elites who manipulate public opinion to their own ends.

In confronting this emerging civic reality, my own interest in curriculum adjoins the prospect of critical pedagogy as a means of instilling young people with an emancipatory praxis that allows them to enact and create their own freedom. This tradition of scholarship includes the likes of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, as well as Michel Foucault and Gregory Bateson, but also recent the recent theorizing of Stephen Downes, Bonnie Stewart, Jesse Stommel and Gardner Campbell.

Following from Freire, a critical perspective on one’s “generative theme” is central to an emancipatory education:

“To investigate the generative theme is to investigate the people’s thinking about reality an people’s action upon reality, which is their praxis. For precisely this reason, the methodology proposed requires that the investigators and the people (who would normally be considered objects of that investigation) should act as co-investigators. The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics, the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

When broadened to include the evolution of the public sphere presented by the burgeoning Digital Age, the means by which these themes and power-relationships are forged has expanded beyond traditional print and broadcast media to include a panoply of personal publishing technologies that continues to mediate power relationships in new and daunting ways. It is a time fraught with both possibility and peril.

So we can see that as Gardner Campbell posits the creation of personal cyberinfrastructure, Audrey Watters wonders about the peril of bringing our face-to-face cultural inequalities online:

“What percentage of education technologists are men? What percentage of “education technology leaders” are men? What percentage of education technology consultants? What percentage of those on the education technology speaking circuit? What percentage of education CIOs and CTOs; what percentage of ed-tech CEOs?

“Again: How do these bodies — in turn, their privileges, ideologies, expectations, values — influence our education technologies?”

In my work with young people I strive to create learning opportunities meant to instill a reflective critical praxis emblematic of the type of citizenship engagement necessary for democracy to exist. Many of these learning opportunities are conducted in a blended digital and face-to-face environment, and utilize open digital practices intended to leverage the participatory practices essential to both the success of the web, as well as democracy itself.

MA Doodles

In two cohorts of identified gifted learners in the Coquitlam School District’s T.A.L.O.N.S. Program, each of our 56 students charts the course of their development in an experiential, interdisciplinary learning environment through an individual blog, and a variety of digital artifacts shared and archived across a class-wide network of posts.

For the last three years, I have taught a Philosophy 12 class which has operated as an open online course for non-credit participants that have variously contributed to the course community by submitting their own assignments, offering feedback or dialogue in the form of comments on the course site, or by extending the reach of the class’ discussions on social media.

In each of these communities, the creation of learning artifacts on class sites provides the current students the opportunity for reflection and synthesis of their learning, as well as a lasting example of socially documented inquiry for future cohorts, and those beyond the community itself on the open web. This principle comes into clearer relief in an Introduction to Guitar 11 course I’ve taught for several years that has evolved over time to provide an opportunity for open online participants to join and contribute to and learn along with a class of musical beginners. It is, in the words of open online stalwart Alan Levine “not a class that teaches guitar, but one where you can learn guitar.”

By examining the generative themes brought about through the reflective practices afforded in these various learning spaces, I am hopeful that my inquiry might offer a meaningful contribution to the body of knowledge concerning young people’s emergent sense of their own citizenship and agency in our democracy.

Blog as Prologue

Evening Meeting

Upon completing my undergraduate education, I toyed briefly with the idea of heading directly into my Master’s, though at the time it would have likely been in American literature or an MFA program in fiction writing than the course I’m currently following. Then again during my course work to obtain my teaching certificate, I considered accepting the invitation of one of my professor’s to pursue a doctorate in Fine Arts Education.

However, apart from the timing and other opportunities that kept me from continuing my studies at either of these junctures, I knew in the back of my mind that I would be best suited to continue my formal education if I were able to bring a crystallized vision of why my studies would be of value – to me or anyone else. Ever charmed by a holistic philosophy, I often do my best work when that work can intersect with personal passions, causes and ambitions.

My graduate studies would organically come to pass as my theories and practices – in life as well as work – came more clearly into focus and alignment with one another, as I am confident to say that they have of late.

This process, almost in its entirety, has evolved and emerged in some two hundred and seventy posts which find themselves in the pages of this site. In striving to define my own minute corner of the universe, my hope all along has been to register my perspective among the collective narratives of the communities to which I belong.

Back in 2009, I began this site by asking What is School’s Job? and invoked a Nabakov quote that has inspired me to explore and document my own perspective in the posts since, as well as my burgeoning graduate degree:

Indeed, this subjective life is so strong that it makes an empty and broken shell of the so-called objective existence.  The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality

Whether in blogged reflections, artistic challenges, or academic work, it is contributing to this conception of greater human knowledge and objectivity that continues to inspire me to push publish, and share my thinking with a wider audience. In the intervening years since that initial post, I’ve come to have a clearer sense of where my perspectives on educational theory and practice might best be put in the service of our shared educational reality, and have been doubly inspired by my initial graduate studies to expand my perspectives on each.

In considering the intersection of cultural epistemologies, ethics and social and political philosophy that constitute curriculum studies, I have come to focus on aspects of learning design and student ownership and engagement with learning through the lens of citizenship education. However, even as these interests have sprawled in the last several years, I have been driven to see them coalesce around the type of “simplicity of cause” that Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses, wherein “There is at the surface infinite variety of things; at the centre there is simplicity of cause.”

In documenting and reflecting upon outdoor education, collaborative inquiry, classroom discussion, digital media or learning through the arts, I’ve found these complexities to be grounded in the view that democratic freedom depends on a broadly engaged citizenry. Such a broadly engaged citizenry demands that schools provide students with experiences in constructing their individual and collective perspectives on community, thereby learning to better contribute as individuals to those communities.

Such a focus provides an ample platform to go about forming a problem statement for my Master’s research, as well as directing a question toward addressing it in future posts and papers. However, while each new representation of these questions, theories or experiences contains the potential for what yet may come, it stands among the prior formulations of itself, and in these multitudes is contained the essence of my thinking.

As a jumping-off point as I set out to synthesize my own thinking on citizenship education, it is important to consider the course of experiences which have brought me here. And by briefly tracing this arc of narrative learning, I hope to bring the larger themes of my own research and experience to bear on the discussion going forward.

Back in 2010, replying to a staff email thread at my school on the nuisances of cell phones, I argued for the citizenship benefits to technology in the classroom:

“It is not a matter of banning cell phones, or even giving them a constant working purpose in our classrooms (such that they are not idle and hence a distraction, or even to meet students “on their turf”), but rather, a focus on raising learners – and to continue in Broadbent’s vain: citizens – that exist within the emerging fluidity of the 24/7 social media cycle, and yet are empowered by its capabilities to unite, and connect, rather than cowed by its vapid and addictive lesser qualities.”

Reflecting on the merits of outdoor education a year later, I highlighted the ability of experiential learning in the woods “to provide experiential lessons in:

  • Realizing that we are a community.
  • Experiencing our place in the (local) natural world.
  • Learning self-reliance and accountability.
  • Living in the moment.”

While I wouldn’t be reading the paper for three more years, it is interesting to see the intersection of many of the notions expressed in this post with Daniel Shugurensky’s ideas about citizenship learning which

“generate[s] public spaces of social interaction in which discourse is based on finding agreement, welcoming different points of view, identifying the common good in a myriad of competing self-interests, searching for synthesis and consensus, promoting solidarity, and ultimately improving community life.”

In 2012, the opportunity to engage in my own community of practice at the Unplug’d event in Algonquin Park provided an opportunity to engage in my own experiential learning about the creation of an educational culture indivisible from the shared perspectives of a community of individuals.

On Saturday afternoon, my editing group of Donna Fry, Marci Duncan, and Gail Lovely sat on yoga mats in the upstairs studio of Points North, and I played them the opening verses of the song. We had saved the song for our last edit, and had spent the day  up until that point contextualizing the meaning of each of our letters through the stories we had told one another and our emerging reflections on what the experience was teaching us. Jowi Taylor was gracious enough to let me enlist the powers of Voyageur in the composition, and he joined us for a conversation about authenticity, and truth, and the role of music, metaphors, and symbols in our collective storytelling while I sat cross-legged with the guitar in my lap.

Like each of the songs I played on Thursday night, “Carrying Stones” turned out to be a collaboration, like all art and stories are, really. Jowi and Voyageur gave me most of the words in the third verse.

Building on my Unplug’d experiences, the work I was doing in my own classroom(s) became more and more oriented toward an aspect of digital citizenship I have come to see as an area of potential when looking at technology in learning: openness.

“whether it’s blogs, wikis, podcasts or campfires; videos, GIFs, or walks in the woods, the story of human progress, and knowledge, is about learning to adapt to these “breaches in the weave of contextual structure,” something that the Internet has brought us in spades. That we should be using it to capitalize on the greatest capacities we possess – creativity and self-expression, community-building and collaboration – seems the most genuine of purposes for classroom learning to take on, and something I’ve found in educational opportunities that thrive because of an attitude of openness.”

It is this ethos of openness and participation where I see my areas of focus and scholarship being of value, as my work in a variety of learning environments has offered a glimpse of enthusiastic cohorts of young people exploring and reflecting upon unique courses of study. As Simsek and Simsek note, the “democratic values needed for the citizenship are not different for new literacies. Many democratic values could be acquired by new literacies.” In fact, they point out that “New literacies are prerequisites for digital citizenship.”

Whether in the gifted cohort I team-teach in Coquitlam, the open-online Philosophy or Guitar courses I facilitate, or broader contributions I have offered to the digital and face-to-face experiences of my students and colleagues, I feel uniquely poised to chart a course of personal and collective development of ideas about citizenship in my corner of the world. And it is here that I would like to begin my Master’s research.

In future posts, I plan to chart and document the evolution of this scholarship as an extension of the prologue offered here.

Rising to meet the Eminent Speech

Eminent Speech Evaluation

Almost without fail, the Eminent Person Speech reigns supreme as the element of the annual project that produces – in the estimation of teachers, peers, and self-assessment – the highest quality work. While there are inevitably remarkable pieces of work contributed to various aspects of the study, whether in Night of the Notables learning centers, interview coups, or blogged representations of learning, and in grade nine or ten, the Eminent Speech rises above.

This year, when polled on the During which assignment do you feel you created your best work?aspect of the study during which they produced their best work, a full 60% of respondents (at the time of this writing, constituting about 85% of the two classes) highlighted their efforts to craft their speech.

Added to this insight, a follow up question asks the TALONS to “describe the process that led to the success highlighted in the previous question,” allowing the process leading to this highly successful aspect of the study to come more clearly into light.

A surprise finding? The best work is the result of tireless effort.

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Prepare, prepare, prepare

A grade ten describes their preparations:

I made sure to write my speech early on so that I had plenty of time to practice it. I practiced it until I knew it inside and out, so that I could recite it no matter what was going on. And having done that, when it was finally my turn to present, I wasn’t nervous at all.

Another thing that really helped was that a lot of the other tens took time to read my speech and help me edit it in the early stages. They guided me to what lines were a little awkward and how to fix my body motions.

Another ten offers the following:

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.

A grade nine dissects their drafting process further:

When I was writing, I didn’t limit my thoughts, writing down everything I wanted to include in the speech. By doing this, my speech originally was actually fifteen minutes long. I then took the time, with the help of my mom, to cut down the speech, take out details that weren’t needed, and rephrase events. I think that by writing down every single thought and event that occurred within the period of time the speech was focusing on, I was able to make the speech more thorough and interesting.

As does this one:

I believe it was the drafting process that led me to success on my eminent speech. I did a drafting process where I started writing, then got a better idea of what I wanted to say, and then I would start over. I did this until I didn’t quite start over, but edited previous parts until I was satisfied by the whole thing.

While this grade nine shares the evolution at the heart of his character’s metamorphosis:

During the process of writing the speech, I made a list of points that I wanted to include. After the first draft, I was struck with the idea of the extended metaphor of the caterpillar. I then wrote the second draft, taking the components of the first and smoothing it out. Finally, I edited and revised my speech to create more fluidity.

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Overcoming Fear

For many TALONS, the prospect of delivering an eminent address, whether in the classroom as the grade nines are asked, or on stage with the grade tens on Night of the Notables, is a daunting challenge. As Jerry Seinfeld humourously notes, for many of us public speaking is more popularly feared than death, meaning that “to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

A grade nine offers this reflection on overcoming a longstanding fear:

I believe my speech was my best work because it was the one I exceeded my own expectations the most in. I used to be quite an abhorrent public speaker, always getting overly nervous, shaking, mumbling, and having a monotone; but in this speech I was able to overcome my nervousness and actually deliver it satisfactorily.

The key to overcoming this anxiety? Revision, feedback, and support:

“I think my speech content was pretty good, considering that it went through six drafts and many, many people gave me feedback.”

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In another question, the same TALONS learner reflects on the contributions of a patient parent:

“My dad, along with giving me feedback on many of speech drafts, put up with me reciting my speech over and over in the days leading up to November 24th. Without his patience with me, giving me feedback and listening intently during the many, many times I recited my speech to him, I wouldn’t have had nearly as good a speech as I did. He gave me important pointers, such as where I started rushing, and he gave me confidence. With that confidence, I was able to deliver my speech well.”

A grade ten reflects on the input of a sibling:

“My brother contributed with helping me write my speech. Before I had written a draft that I was happy with I had written about five different speeches. But I hated them all because I didn’t think I was getting my main message across to the audience, namely that we shouldn’t stop because something is hard to do, that we should keep going until it becomes easy to do.

“One day I went to talk with my brother about my speech and how I wanted the audience to feel, and he suggested that I go for something powerful and try to address what [my eminent person] goes through as daily obstacles. This advice really helped me take a second look at how I was writing my speech and which side of [them] I wanted to show. Without my brother I wouldn’t have been able to re-think my speech and really focus on what was imported.”

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Another deals with overcoming a primal fear:

“Probably everyone out there knows that I do not like speeches, so even the fact that I did mine made me extremely happy.

“The writing process was extremely difficult. After changing perspectives three times and either going way over or way under the time limit, I was close to admitting defeat. Finally, I was happy with a fifth draft of my third perspective change. I was very happy with my written speech, but then came the delivery.

“Presenting my speech was probably the most nerve wracking five minutes of my life, but with the help of my friends, I managed to get through it. Before my speech started, I gave myself some goals and guidelines to follow. I reminded myself that, having not done many speeches in my life, this was not going to turn out perfect, so instead of worrying about that, I would focus on eye contact and pacing.

“My biggest goal was to come off as confident and though I’m sure more people knew how nervous I was, I believe that I was able to reach this goal (well, at least to some extent). While I’m still not ready to perform speeches without any hesitation, I’m glad I got this opportunity to face my fears.”

In responding to another question, a grade ten offers a similar account of working through the fear of performing at Night of the Notables:

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

“I want to, and will remember the fact that I was able to manage my anxiety regarding the presentation of my speech on the Night of the Notables. I have never liked drama and performing arts, which is somewhat contradictory when you take my commitment and love of [competitive] piping into account. I can will myself to march calmly towards thousands of spectators, flashing cameras and judges at the world championships. Yet, when I have to deliver a two-minute speech to a hundred supportive and encouraging people I’m a wreck. When I perform with my band, I have a safety net; I have never needed it but I know it’s there. When I speak or play by myself, even if it’s exponentially easier than what I do with my band I doubt myself.

“I don’t give speeches in front of large audiences often, but I compete in solo piping competitions often and I have come to recognize the progression and stages of my anxiety. I have been working on becoming more comfortable in these situations for over a year and I think the Eminent Address was an important milestone for me. I was extremely nervous a few days before the night, but I was able to tell myself, ‘You always feel this way before something like this,’ and ‘Imagine how you will feel on December 4th’ and I was able to control my anxiety and give a speech I was happy with.”

Together, we are strong

Perhaps the theme running beneath all of this wild success though is the support and community that is taking shape in the TALONS room by late November, where each member of the class is learning that they are here to test themselves, and hold one another up above their prior expectations. Parents who get to see what the program is ‘all about’ for the first time at Night of the Notables often remark at how exceptional the grade ten addresses are – “I feel totally inadequate now,” the parent of an alumni told me this year – and wonder how it is their children and their peers have been so transformed.

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What they don’t know, or what cannot be seen, is what is often taking place behind the curtain, in those moments before the show, when greatness waits out on the stage under the lights to be seized.

Reflecting on this moment, a grade ten shares a glimpse of what community looks like:

“There was one moment when we were behind the stage, floating around and whispering encouragement to our peers. The atmosphere had become quiet and focused, as it was a couple of minutes until showtime. I was learning against a wall, breathing deeply.

“Our first speaker looked a bit nervous and was sitting against the wall next to the curtains. Someone, I can’t remember who, whispered something about the Superman pose, and how it was supposed to increase confidence and make you less stressed. So the majority of our class assumed this pose, and stood there in silence for about a minute. I remember looking at us and thinking that we were superheroes. Not just our first speaker, who looked relieved to have something to take his mind off the upcoming stress, but everyone standing there.

“We shared that moment behind the stage, trusting one another to make the night wonderful, and feeling that trust back in the tight, long-held hugs and the same emotions on everyone’s face. It was a really special experience.”

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?