Self-Explanation & Reflections on Metaphysics

What questions did you set out to answer during the unit?

Last year I started asking my classes to reflect on and assess their learning for projects and different units by responding to prompts through Google Forms. The ability to collect and synthesize individual and collective reflection on work and experiences just passed turned out to be particularly valuable, especially when looking back on areas of personal inquiry and narratives beyond the course content itself.

As a point of critical reflection between Philosophy 12‘s metaphysics and epistemology units, the responses to a variety of questions about learning offer an example by which to explore the Self Explanation Principle in Multimedia Learning in action. Chi and Wylie present prompted Self-Explanation Principle as

a constructive or generative learning activity that facilitates deep and robust learning by encouraging students to make inferences using the learning materials, identify previously held misconceptions, and repair mental models.

In supporting collaborative inquiry such self-explanation offers the opportunity for learners to define the terms of their learning, and examine the process of discovering what Freire called the “generative theme”:

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.

The nature of the metaphysics unit in particular lends itself to this discussion, and as respondents synthesize various aspects of their learning by defining their particular inquiries, they are fulfilling the first aspect of self-explicative learning: to make inferences using a variety of learning materials.

Where the form’s questions could do a better job, I feel, is in seeking to identify previously held misconceptions and repair mental models. While the questions do ask students to reflect upon the processes which led them to success in aspects of the unit, this before-and-after conception of understanding on the topic is not addressed.

Below you will find these personal reflections, as well as further feedback on the Metaphysics unit in Philosophy 12.

What were the main questions you set out to answer during the course of the unit?

What is actual being? How does consciousness work in terms of “self”?

Does “normal” exist? How can you measure normal? Who decides what is normal? Why do we prefer to have a standard of normal? Do we choose to be a certain way (free will) or are we normal as a result of hard determinism?

My main question that I set out to answer during this unit was: what is, what are, and what is nothing?

I didn’t have any specific questions I wanted answered, rather I set out in search of greater knowledge hoping that would uncover the right questions.

What are ideas? (As an extension, what Mapping dialogueis a number?) Where do ideas exist? Are ideas dependent on human thought? What is human knowledge? Is it objective or subjective?

I continued to be curious about why people strive to the furthest extent to obtain happiness.

What is the purpose of our existence? What is the true self?

How others perceive things and how it’s different for everyone.

Do animals share the same consciousness as humans? How do you define consciousness? Is consciousness linked to intelligence?

What is happiness? How do we achieve happiness? Is happiness our purpose?

Do animals have intelligence equal to humans? Should intelligent animals be viewed as equivalent beings to humans? Do animals (orcas, dolphins, etc) have a high level of consciousness and self-awareness?

Can we ever factually prove another beings existence? What is consciousness?

During which assignment do you feel you produced your best work?

What are you proud of in the work highlighted above? 

During the discussions I felt I participated well, especially during the thought experiment and the final metaphysics discussion (making connections). I felt I listened well to what others had to say and added my input when I felt the need to do so.

I think that during class I am able to contribute useful information to help further discussions, and help others and myself understand concepts better. If I cannot contribute in that way i sometimes like to play devils advocate and suggest something that I know will spark conversation or argument among classmates. this works especially well during ethical debates.

I feel that I did contribute to the class discussions by stepping up and moderating, as well as drawing lines to connect our topics together. That was the first time I have pseudo-moderated a discussion. There’s a first for everything.

The work that I wrote on the post for me was my better writing. I was able to put my thoughts into understandable words, unlike the class discussion where it was confusing for me to put words together due to so many other questions that have been asked. Metaphysicians

I think that my blog post gave a good amount of background and information, and then logically followed an argument to a reasonable conclusion.

I am proud of my participation in class discussions as I feel like I can often bring out a different view contrary to the beliefs in the class that are helpful in bringing about a better understanding of the material. I do so in a non-confrontational manner to invoke further questions, and to better the understanding of the topic at hand. As well, I feel like I can vocalize thoughts that other people may have trouble conveying.

Just bringing a new angle to class discussions. Trying to make sense of what we were talking about and maybe bring it down to an easier level of understanding. Also to simplify things we were talking about so they weren’t so daunting.

The reason I’m so proud of this blog post is because a spent a large amount of time researching my topic. I watched countless videos that allowed me to expand the knowledge I had. This helped me understand different viewpoints and created a more clear path to help me reach a satisfying answer to my question.

I am really proud of myself for fully summing up what I’ve learned in the past few weeks from this class while simultaneously expressing how I perceive life.

I am proud of this work because it comes from the thoughts within me that do not get to see the light of day very often.

I am proud that I was able to expand my ideas in my second blog post and make as much progress in my thoughts and ideas as I did. Though I did not come to a definite answer, I feel that some of the new questions I created are more beneficial than any answer I could have come to.

During which assignment do you feel you created work you would like to improve?

How would you go about improving your work highlighted in the previous question?

Next time, I would pick a broader topic to research and narrowing in as I go along with the second blogpost. As well, I would better formulate my question so it’s actually answerable.

Putting time and effort in the forms of blog posts, reviewing classmates posts, commenting, and research and posting of my own blog posts.

I think it’s important to share some insights to those who have related topics for a greater class discussion outcome. Therefore I should spend more time on others’ blog posts and comment based on my thoughts.

While most of my comments on Metaphysiciansclassmates’ posts were of good quality, I would have liked to gone more in-depth on some of them.

For others, I failed to respond to replies to my comments, something else that could have furthered my learning. I can improve on this in the future my taking more time when writing and responding to comments, treating them more like mini blog posts in their own right.

I wish that I had explained my ideas more. I felt that I gave a broad overview of my experiences in metaphysics, but did not give enough specific examples.

I could probably contribute to class discussions a bit more. I should also read more of the assigned readings and other unassigned readings so that I have a better grasp on the concepts, that way I can provide more insight throughout the discussion and more in the beginning of the discussions because it usually takes a while into the conversation for me to say anything.

I just wish I had taken more time to dive deeper into my topic.

I think I definitely needed to comment more, not less, and to have more effective comments. E.g. I needed to address the post more directly rather than modifying it in my mind as to create some sort of push back. I also need to read the posts more frequently, rather than relying too much on class discussions.

I will participate more in class discussions, put in my own thoughts to have them questioned or supported and built upon or build on or question someone else’s ideas or things they bring to discussions.

I can improve my participation in class discussions by coming to class with meaningful ideas and questions to share with the class. In addition, I can also try to think more quickly so that I can share a point before the conversation moves past the topic that I want to contribute to.

I had a lot of very good ideas and intentions behind my second blog post, but I was only able to capture snippets of them. If I had taken the time to structure, support, and find the right words to explain my post I believe I could have made it much more effective and meaningful.

Really taking the time to comment and reflect on others ideas and concepts so I can not only help them get a different perspective, but help myself understand more. Take more time out of a day to look at what people are posting.

I would have a more definite topic which I could talk about in more depth. I felt that I had little valuable evidence in my first post that helps me to prove my point. I also ended up disagreeing with this post in my second metaphysics blog post, so constancy would have been better.

I would like to be able to participate more during class discussions and really let my ideas be known to my peers. I will definitely be trying to speak up more during our next unit on Epistemology.

At the time I wasn’t very sure of the topic I wanted to pursue in Metaphysics. As a result, my first blog post did not really have as strong of a purpose as I would have liked. Instead, it touched vaguely on small aspects of free will. I definitely should have spent more time thinking about what I wanted to do.

I think I need to work on being more confident in my responses and comments to others. I often feel that if I leave a comment on someone’s blog post that they might be offended by what I have to say. I can work on this by typing what I have to say and posting it without thinking twice about it because I know that I would appreciate the constructive criticism.

Engagement with the unit

If you could keep one or more aspects of the Metaphysics Unit, what would it / they be?

I loved the group discussions we had on the topic. It was very a very effective way to help us understand the topic. It would also help us view different points of view about the topic and helped me personally expand my knowledge of metaphysics. It was easy, quick and effective. I could connect with each one of my classmates as they would share their thoughts on something, then we as a class would easily be able to interpret the topic and understand it much easier than if we were to look up the topic on our own.

I would keep the group discussions. They were very affective and I had achieved a greater understanding of others’ point of view.

I love thinking about how we could better our own understanding of ourselves. The thinking of existence, like solipsism and thinking about existence and how nothing can exist without something else.

I would keep the large class discussion that allows clarity and a path into the minds of people who created the blog posts.

I like the small group discussions, some large group discussions, and when we did the simulation. The small group discussions are good for people to share their ideas and really get into detail whereas the large group discussions are good for everyone to get their ideas out there.

I really enjoyed the discussions we had in this unit. They were very smooth and the amount of engagement the class exemplified was quite high compared to previous experiences. I feel as though this aspect of the unit worked very well, and is essential in making metaphysics more clear.

I really enjoy class discussions as opposed to independent study, I feel that concepts are much easier to understand when they can be portrayed by different people, or explained by different minds. Kelsey’s activity was fantastic.

The connecting of our topics. Although each class will have different ways of connecting them, I think that the act of doing so was very helpful in getting everyone as engaged as possible.

The freedom in choosing what you want to study is great.

I always like class discussions. Collaborating with others and working things out as a class seem to produce the best results. It helps to get different ideas and others helping you to better understand a topic.

I enjoyed our last classroom activity where we connected everyone’s different topics together. It was nice to be able to hear about peoples topics in person and to be able to have small debates with the class on different topics.

One aspect that I would keep regarding the unit is the way that me mapped our individual ideas together into one big picture. To me, it seemed a good method of connecting all of our individual points of study and giving each of us a greater view of the unit as a whole.

I would change it so we had more structured group discussions, as I remember when we were consolidating our ideas we spent half the class just deciding on /how/ to talk rather than actually talking about things. Although the experience itself was learning in managing people, I feel like the actual learning of philosophy was not effective.

I enjoyed the fact that the ideas we researched were so diverse, because I felt like people were more engaged when they could choose what they wanted to research. Personally, despite the fact that my topic was somewhat different to others’, I still enjoyed looking into it, possibly because it was so obscure. As well, the diagram of how all of metaphysics tied together in so many ways helped, because we got to see connections between things that we wouldn’t have expected, like perception and animal consciousness. I also enjoyed the chance to discuss my topics in larger groups before we discussed with the entire class, because small conversations with groups of three or four tend to run out of steam quickly, while talking with seven or eight people can go on for much longer and provoke more interesting opinions.

I would keep the large group discussions because I think that listening and contributing to what others have to say helped challenge my ideas and make it easier to create a path for my thoughts and new ideas. I like working with others because it helps me stay on track when some of my metaphysical questions become overwhelming.

At the beginning of the course, I was very skeptical about the blog. I had never used one before, and am not very technologically savvy. However, especially for this unit, I have found the blog a great way to share my ideas effectively and in an organized fashion. I would like to keep the class discussions where we connect all of our ideas. I think that its really engaging and helpful.

If you could change one or more aspects of the Metaphysics unit, what would it / they be?

More examples/videos involving metaphysical discussions. More ideas could have been fed for the students to ponder rather than us coming up with the limited ideas we had on our own.

Not to focus as much on the blogging aspect.

One aspect that I would change regarding the unit is having more engagements on the blog posts of others. While I did see many good comments on other people’s posts, due to the fact that some people posted late along with other factors reduced the amount of comments.

No class led discussions as I think they go off on tangents and are unproductive.

I’d love to have heard more of what other philosophers have said about metaphysics in class (then possibly discussed that). Just so we could expand beyond the specifics we’re researching and hear from the pros.

The only thing about the class discussions that I would like to improve on would be that during some of our class topics, we wouldn’t let some people finish what they were talking about and then someone else would talk about something interesting to them, and the past speaker would pay less attention because they wanted to focus on what they were still speaking about. That would lead to other problems such as getting off topic and getting somewhat frustrated with each other.

If I could change some aspects of the unit, I would prefer to have a teacher moderator for the discussions, because its easier to have a discussion when everyone doesn’t go off topic.

I would definitely change the amount of support around commenting on blog posts, as it seems that was more of a scattered activity. (It happened sometimes, but did not happen all the time) often conversation, unless mandatory was limited or ineffective online. Perhaps more structure is required in this area.

The only thing I would change is when we figure out who’s work related to others, that we would all split off into smaller groups so that the relatable topics would get even more clarity and the expansion of ideas would be even greater.

A better final showing of what was learned.

Narrow down a couple of topics and post a group blog based on the outcome that the specific group produce.

Probably the mini-group discussions. Those were not very well organized and some instructions were left pretty vague as well.

The only thing I would change about the this metaphysics unit is that I would have liked to have the teacher guide us through it more. Metaphysics is an extremely confusing topic, and I felt as though we needed that extra push from someone with more expertise to give us that head start.

It was almost so vast and mind blowing that I feel maybe we should’ve taken it in in smaller chunks, rather than just diving in and hoping for the best, it’s a very complex unit.

I would change the collaborative note-generation because sometimes it was difficult to see the connections between my topics and the topics of others. I thought that sometimes we went off topic when we were trying to find connections between each others topics. I thought it was most beneficial to choose one of the topics and discuss deeply about it.

However, this could have just be in my case and may have been very beneficial for others.

I would love if there were more student lead activities. I enjoyed leading the class in a thought experiment, and learned a lot from it. I feel my classmates would enjoy organizing and leading their own activity.

During some student mediated large group discussions, it would get a little messy and was sometimes counter productive. For example, during the first day that we tried to connect our metaphysics subtopics during a large class discussion it got a little counter productive when the mediators were trying to figure out the best way to group our topics. I think once our class finds the best way of mediation that could work, student mediation will be very useful but as of right now, we are still a little bit shaky. Maybe during our next class discussion, we can have people vote for our mediator and have the entire class discuss what we want out of our discussion that day. Sort of like setting a goal so we know where to go back to if we went off on an irrelevant subject.

Method of delivery: maybe more discussions that are based on distinctly different topics to start off with so we have a better idea of the concepts we’re supposed to talk about. If I were to change the metaphysics unit, I may have some specific branches of metaphysics to study and a list of philosophers we could use as resources. Additionally, I think that group presentations of concepts was very effective and I would use more of those!

What I would want to change about this unit was to make it less broad. I felt I could have gained more from this unit if I had more specifics to focus on and less information to wade through. There was too much happening in too little time. I felt that everyone was focused on their specific topics and that only in the last discussion were we really able to see the connections between everything.

An Ignite Talk: No handbook for Transcendence

Pic courtesy of Dean Shareski

Pic courtesy of Dean Shareski

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

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

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

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

Then there are more talks.

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

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

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

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

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

No Handbook for Transcendence 


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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

Learning and Metaphysics

What have we learned? How do we know we have?


Now making my third pass at the philosophy 12 course, I have approached this year’s unit on Metaphysics as an opportunity to crystalize the course methods as an expression of the values underpinning it. I’ve learned in the past two years that to embrace a constructivist view of epistemology presents the idea of course design as a confrontation with the paradox at the heart of institutional learning: that schools ought provide learning experiences which students ‘own’ and direct with increasing autonomy and agency as they move through school.

But I’ve also learned that this is no straightforward thing.

Emergence presents a rigorous test:

“…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.”

Osberg and Biesta

On one hand, we must consider the traditional obligations of school: to evaluate and assess its own performance in properly equipping young people with the skills, proficiencies and base knowledges deemed of value to society. But we must also reckon with the contradiction to emergence that is involved in then deciding beforehand what those skills, proficiencies and base knowledges are to be in the first place.

Notably, this contradiction is addressed in part by the critical praxis presented by Paulo Freire, who says that

“…the program content of the problem-posing method – dialogical par excellence – is constituted and organized by the students’ view of the world, where their own generative themes are found. The content thus constantly expands and renews itself. The task of the dialogical teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to “re-present” that universe to the people from whom she or he received it – and “re-present” is not as a lecture, but as a problem.”

The necessity to pursue an emergent view of knowledge becomes especially important in our present times in multicultural Canada (and in the broader sense, in the course’s online sphere). 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.”

And so we must conceive of education differently, perhaps no place moreso than in a class like Philosophy 12 during a unit on Metaphysics, which in a certain sense must be approached as a cultivation and aggregation of diverse subjectivities. While it is apparent in the breadth of the course material, such a focus lends itself admirably to the pursuit of metaphysics.

So in one arc of the class’ discourse, Angela begs the question of endless subjectivity in her post, Whoa, Slow Down

“One fixed answer that is true to everything and everyone is way too easy, but some people can’t seem to accept that there is no answer. At the same time, we also tend to deny that every answer is different for everyone. Why is it that we just can’t accept that?”

While Liam retraces Descartes footsteps:

“…perhaps all of ‘reality’ is simply our minds composing things for us to see, smell, taste, hear, and touch, even though they don’t exist. Perhaps nothing exists, but how could that be? We are here, I am typing this, aren’t I? If I am not, and I do not exist, and nothing exists, then what is allowing me to experience things?”

This search for meaning is arising across a few other posts this week as well, with ventures into solipsism, animal consciousness, and the almighty void of nothingness itself. These questions, as with those posed by Avery with respect to the existence of numbers “Five fingers are material objects and so are five sheep, but does five itself exist materially in the same manner?” – are those surrounding the various subjectivities at the heart of metaphysics: “What is…” and “What is it like…”  And so we find ourselves this week asking ourselves whether what we have gained in knowledge and experience during our study thus far “exists materially in the same manner.”

And if it does, how might we understand its existence? What is it, in other words? And what is it like?

Last year, our encounter with metaphysics was guided by Osberg and Biesta’s suggestion of the “learning object,” who contend that:

“for the process of knowledge production to occur it is necessary to assume that the meaning of a particular ‘knowledge object’ exists in a stable form such that the ‘knowledge object’ can be used like a ‘building block’ in the production of new abstract knowledge objects. This idea, however, is precisely what an emergentist epistemology denies. Because the meaning of any new knowledge ‘emerges’ would be highly specific to the complex system from which is emerged, it follows that no ‘knowledge object’ can retain its meaning in a different situation.”

The creation of such ‘objects of learning’ provides a worthwhile otherwise in the pursuit of an education which lives up to our multicultural ideals, as their construction demands that learners confront the dual questions which drive societal reinvention and human progress, where we ask ourselves, Who am I? and Who are we? Building on the ideas of Michel Foucault, who defined Enlightenment as “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,” school should aspire to such a notion of learning.

Reclaim TALONS

Out Walkin'

While I attempted to introduce the new academic year in a blog post that wound up meandering into too many of my thoughts and feelings on the culmination of BC teachers’ recent strike action, here I intend to share my initial guiding interests and projects setting out into the 2014-15 school year. As I alluded to in my previous post on the dawning of September, I plan to continue my research into citizenship education as concerns digital pedagogy, curricular reform, and broader currents in educational philosophy.

In the last few years, I have become an admirer of Paulo Freire‘s notion of critical pedagogy, and try in my own practice, as well as my classroom constructivism, to create habits surrounding an ongoing praxis of reflection and action for myself and my students. Such a praxis suits the type of citizenship education Gert Biesta and others espouse as central to the emancipatory process introduced by Freire, and also aligns with many of the intentions of pioneers on the open web and in the digital humanities. In my work as an open educator this praxis also revolves between the theoretical concerns of pedagogy and the practical applications of these intentions.

Reclaim TALONS 

One such foray into the practical application of my research interests has me finally setting out on an adventure I have long-anticipated.

Since taking the TALONS communities onto the public web, first with, then and free sites, I have largely pursued a narrative of online learning which focused on the skills and awarenesses required in the digital sphere. Working across these public platforms, my students and I have contemplated digital citizenship and storytelling, as well as had many opportunities to connect our classroom learning with a wider audience than within the school district’s information silos.

Each of these services – Edublogs, Wikispaces, and WordPress, among others – have afforded us the opportunity to dip our toes in the public web without first surmounting the limits of my own technological expertise around how to manage and administer our own classroom spaces and domains.

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 2.42.53 PMBut in the meantime, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know and work with a handful of innovators in higher education who have shown me the relevance of gaining such expertise, both for my own development as an open practitioner, and as an opportunity for the students I work with.

In his 2009 essay, “Personal Cyberinfrastructure,” Gardner Campbell presented an idea Jim Groom, Tim Owens and Martha Burtis have since ran with at the University of Mary Washington:

Suppose that when students matriculate, they are assigned their own web servers — not 1GB folders in the institution’s web space but honest-to-goodness virtualized web servers of the kind available for $7.99 a month from a variety of hosting services, with built-in affordances ranging from database maintenance to web analytics. As part of the first-year orientation, each student would pick a domain name. Over the course of the first year, in a set of lab seminars facilitated by instructional technologists, librarians, and faculty advisors from across the curriculum, students would build out their digital presences in an environment made of the medium of the web itself. They would experiment with server management tools via graphical user interfaces such as cPanel or other commodity equivalents. They would install scripts with one-click installers such as SimpleScripts. They would play with wikis and blogs; they would tinker and begin to assemble a platform to support their publishing, their archiving, their importing and exporting, their internal and external information connections. They would become, in myriad small but important ways, system administrators for their own digital lives.3 In short, students would build a personal cyberinfrastructure, one they would continue to modify and extend throughout their college career — and beyond.

In addition to building technical knowledge and skills required to exercise agency and voice in the post-Gutenberg age, students charged with the creation and maintenance of their own personal cyberinfrastructure would be engaged in learning across the disciplines of “multimodal writing to information science, knowledge management, bibliographic instruction, and social networking.” To read Campbell’s 2009 call for this type of university education strikes me at this stage in my research and interest in the digital humanities and citizenship education as the intersection of the two, and something that ought be explored at the highschool level.

By Campbell’s description, this discussion of a technology-infused education, is everything at the core of popular discussions of digital skills, literacy and citizenship. “If what the professor truly wants is for students to discover and craft their own desires and dreams,” he writes,

a personal cyberinfrastructure provides the opportunity. To get there, students must be effective architects, narrators, curators, and inhabitants of their own digital lives.6 Students with this kind of digital fluency will be well-prepared for creative and responsible leadership in the post-Gutenberg age. Without such fluency, students cannot compete economically or intellectually, and the astonishing promise of the digital medium will never be fully realized.

While Campbell admits that such forays onto the open web wait until students enter college, the intervening years in educational technology have only hastened the need for students to protect and manage their own data. In British Columbia, FOIPPA laws surrounding storage of student-data on locally maintained servers creates the need for many district’s and educators to work within closed or clumsy information management system provided by Pearson or Microsoft, where after spending millions for the software, the rights to the intellectual property of student work is retained by the company.

The same laws might be seen as the impetus for public school students in British Columbia to be educated in owning once and for all their digital selves, as it is in the interest of so-called ‘protection’ of this information that the laws exist in the first place.

Since the University of Mary Washington launched its own riffs on Campbell’s cyberinfrastruture in projects such as Domain of One’s Own and Reclaim Hosting, I’ve often mentioned to Jim Groom that I would love to bring what he and Tim Owens and Martha Burtis have created to the TALONS classroom. For only my own hestiation has it taken this long to bring the project about though, as Jim has been enthusiastic about the prospect from the first. Within a day of sending Jim and Tim an email outlining where I wanted to go with the TALONS data, the class site had migrated to its new domain (

The journey had begun.

In the week since, I’ve also moved the open course Philosophy 12 from its old WordPress digs to a subdomain on the same site (, and will do the same with the school’s open Introduction to Guitar closer to the spring. Tim and I have begun to see if data from the class’ years’ old subject wikispaces will easily migrate to DokuWiki apps residing on the same site (eg., and in the next few weeks the TALONS will be setting up their own blogs as extension of the webspace which they will use to chart their learning over their two years in the program. When they come to graduate from the program, and move into grade eleven and beyond, they will have the opportunity to take their data with them, transfer it to their own domain, and continue in their digital educations.

As the province begins to etch out its vision of personalized learning, I submit what comes of our continued experiments to the discussion of citizenship education in the 21st century.

The Digital Age and Curriculum in British Columbia

I: The Digital Shock & Curricular Reinvention 

“We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capacity in the history of the human race,” declared Clay Shirky in his 2008 tome Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (Shirky, 2008). In the intervening years we have continued to see an emphasis in curricular thought and reform which seeks to realize the potential of a dawning Digital Age. In blog posts and cable news investigations, parent-advisory council meetings and teacher professional development events, academic scholarship and TED Talk distillations, discussions about curriculum struggle toward consensus on what might constitute an education for the 21st Century. Such a time is fraught with both possibility and peril.

Simsek and Simsek describe the Digital Age as a time when “forms of information have changed drastically” (Simsek & Simsek, 2013), so much so that they are capable of inducing a state of shock:

“Information is an integral part of daily life in today’s society in order for individuals to survive against information-related requirements. Production of knowledge requires different skills than those necessary for producing goods. Thus, the concept of shock could be interpreted partly as the feelings of the confusions of people, being aware of not having necessary skills for the new literacies” (p. 127).

In contemplating the nature of shock as might effect curricular reform, it can be helpful to consider Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, wherein she presents the rise of neoliberal capitalism and its champion Milton Friedman’s ideas across the latter half of the twentieth century. Friedman, Klein observes, looked to the onset of crises and shocks as opportunities to radically intervene in the reform process, noting his admission that “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around (Klein, 2008).”

Looking toward the unique challenges presented by the Digital Age, David Perry recommends taking “note of the plasticity of digital forms and the way in which they point toward a new way of working with representation and mediation, that might be called the digital ‘folding’ of reality, whereby one is able to approach culture in a radically new way” (Perry, 2011).

As this ‘folding’ of reality administers structural changes across society, curricular reform lies at the center of digital reinventions of politics, economics, creative expression and collaboration, the natural sciences and perspectives on the nature of life and consciousness itself. However, such broad educational considerations are hardly novel, as Egan noted in 1978 that once started down the path of inquiry into the methodology of education, “there becomes little of educational relevance that can be excluded from the curriculum field” (Egan, 1978). Thus, the regeneration of our curricula to suit the Digital Age is something that ought be carefully engaged to ensure an authentic expression of society’s best intentions for education.

Ralph W. Tyler’s Principles of Curriculum and Instruction outlines a rationale for viewing, analyzing and interpreting an instructional program as an instrument of education. Tyler notes “no single source of information is adequate to provide a basis for wise and comprehensive decisions about the objectives of the school,” (Tyler, 2013), and advocates for a comprehensive discussion of curricular purposes from each of the progressive, essentialist, sociologist, and educational philosopher’s perspectives:

“The progressive emphasizes the importance of studying the child to find out what kinds of interests he has, what problems he encounters, what purposes he has in mind.

“The essentialist, on the other hand, is impressed by the large body of knowledge collected over many thousands of years, the so-called cultural heritage, and emphasizes this as the primary source for deriving objectives.

“[Sociologists] view the school as the agency for helping young people to deal effectively with the critical problems of contemporary life. If they can determine what these contemporary problems are then the objectives of the school are to provide those knowledges, skills, attitudes and the like that will help people deal intelligently with these contemporary problems.

“[Educational philosophers] see the school as aiming essentially at the transmission of the basic values derived by comprehensive philosophic study and hence see in educational philosophy the basic source from which objectives can be derived (p. 4-5)”

This paper seeks to examine the Government of British Columbia’s Education Plan (BCEdPlan) from each of these perspectives with the hopes of furthering discussion of the potential of curricular reform in the Digital Age within the province.

II: Principles of Curriculum and Instruction in the BCEdPlan

In 2012, the British Columbia Ministry of Education began consultations to bring about changes in the province’s K-through-12 curriculum. Guided by the Premier’s Technology Council 2010 report, A Vision for 21st Century Education (Council, 2010), the BCEdPlan was published in 2013 and shares the province’s vision for teaching and learning in the Digital Age, with reforms set to address curricular goals and assessments, graduation requirements, transitions to post-secondary learning, parent-communication, and even the physical time and place of formalized schooling (Government, 2013b). These changes are guided by the EdPlan’s Five Key Elements (p. 5):

  1. Personalized Learning for Every Student
  2. Quality Teaching and Learning
  3. Flexibility and Choice
  4. High Standards
  5. Learning Empowered with Technology

“While a solid knowledge base in the basic skills will be maintained,” the BCEdPlan admits that better preparing students for the future will require greater emphasis on teaching “key competencies like self-reliance, critical thinking, inquiry, creativity, problem solving, innovation, teamwork and collaboration, cross-cultural understanding, and technological literacy” (p. 4).

At the time of this writing, the Ministry of Education has begun posting draft versions of subject and grade curricula from grades kindergarten to nine. The intent of this section of the paper is to investigate the formally published BCEdPlan with the hope that this discussion might lead to a similarly critical analysis of subject curriculum as it comes more clearly into focus.


In its advocacy on behalf of student choice and flexibility, the BCEdPlan may be seen to embrace tenants of the progressive mindset. By looking to develop students’ passions, self-reliance, and personalizing the learning experience of each individual, the focus on role of the child in the schooling process is soundly rooted in progressive principles.

While the BCEdPlan does state its intention to prepare students to “realize their full potential and contribute to the well-being of our province” (p. 5), less well emphasized are the democratic traditions of the progressive movement. The words ‘society,’ and ‘democracy,’ do not appear in the BCEdPlan; however it does state as an objective for further action that “We will work with our education partners to identify the attributes of an educated citizen and how that will be articulated throughout the education program culminating in graduation” (p. 5). Curricular discussions in British Columbia might delve further into the progressive promise of student-centered learning characterized by John Dewey, who warned of the danger that increased personal independence could decrease the social capacity of an individual” (Dewey, 1916):

“In making him more self-reliant, it may make him more self-sufficient; it may lead to aloofness and indifference. It often makes an individual so insensitive in his relations to others as to develop an illusion of being really able to stand and act alone — an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remedial suffering of the world (p. 42).”


Essentialists, meanwhile, may not see their approach as integral to the BCEdPlan, which cites as an operating premise the idea that “The world has changed and it will continue to change, so the way we educate students needs to continually adapt” (p. 5). The impetus for the education revolution in British Columbia and other jurisdictions around the world is an acknowledgement that the Digital Age has so fundamentally changed the nature of society that new skills and knowledge(s) are required for tomorrow’s citizens. And while it may include traditional values and legacies such as cross-cultural understandings and assurances that core knowledge and “basic skills” such as literacy and math will be preserved, the BCEdPlan looks to create and define new skills and proficiencies – e.g. “innovation” and “creativity” – which essentialists may view as components of a much lengthier cultural heritage.

For example, the essentialist may view the advent of new communications technology as an opportunity to apply the lessons of past revolutions in reproduction and collaboration to contemporary curriculum. Providing an education in the background of the relationships between advances in technology and human creativity, for instance, could prove a valuable instructor for young people learning about literacy in the Digital Age. Bruner describes undertaking such a task as learning about “not only the role of tools or language in the emergence of man, but as a necessary precondition for doing so, setting forth the fundamentals of linguistics of the theory of tools” (Bruner, 1966).

It remains to be seen the amount of influence these and other cultural legacies will exert in the pending British Columbia curricula, however the tenor and intent of the BCEdPlan as stated casts its gaze decidedly toward the future, potentially at the expense of the vast cultural learning about the past.


The BCEdPlan adopts a sociological lens in developing curriculum that is part of a broader government agenda to confront the perceived needs of our historical moment. As part of its Jobs Plan (BCJobsPlan), the Government of British Columbia declares that it is “reengineering education and training so that BC students and workers have the skills to be first in line for jobs in a growing economy” (Government, 2013a). Within this broader context, the critical contemporary problems British Columbian curriculum intends to address come into clearer focus, as education is redrawn from the bottom up, in three stages:

  1. A Head Start Learning to Hands-on Learning in Our Schools that will “give [students] an earlier head-start to hands-on learning, so [they’re] ready for the workforce or more advanced training when [they] graduate” (p. 8);
  2. A Shift in Education and Training to Better Match with Jobs in Demand to [maximize] spaces available to provide the programs [students] need to compete successfully in the workforce” (p. 8); and
  3. A Stronger Partnership with Industry and Labour to Deliver Training and Apprenticeships to “better connect [students] with the on-the-job and classroom training [needed] to boost […] skills or achieve certification” (p. 8).

Sociologists may be encouraged by the consideration of such economic metrics to guide the creation of British Columbian curriculum. However, by viewing the BCEdPlan as embedded within the government’s more comprehensive BCJobsPlan[1], they might find the purview of this sociological study to be narrowly focused or to ignore altogether areas of potentially more pressing contemporary importance. “To make the most effective use of our education and training resources,” the BCJobsPlan notes, “we will rely on the best data and […] the most up-to-date labour market information […] to guide government decision-making and to determine spending priorities” (p. 7).

Further sociological study may seek to critically address 21st century problems such as inequality, environmental degradation, or the degree to which our education systems help actualize the democratic ideals enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Canada, 1982) or Multiculturalism Act (Canada, 1988).

Educational Philosophy

While the first of these three lenses might assert different resolute perspectives toward the creation of curricular purposes, the educational philosopher approaches the discussion in the tradition of the humanities, and is thus “committed to the concept of knowledge as interpretation” (Drucker, 2011), as well as the idea:

“That the apprehension of the phenomena of the physical, social, cultural world is through constructed and constitutive acts, not mechanistic or naturalistic realist representations of pre-existing or self-evident information” (par. 7).

Educational philosophers may be critical of the BCEdPlan’s reliance on “the best data and labour market projections” to direct educational resources at the expense of allowing a more broadly constructed view of education’s role in democracy into the decision-making process, as this data assumes a market-oriented solution to a perceived educative problem. Others may highlight the similarity between this practice and the economic project authored by Milton Friedman in the form of neoliberal capitalism, “the doctrine that market exchange is an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action” (Harvey, 2005).

The educational philosopher may also challenge the symbolic representation and meta-messages about the nature or purpose of education communicated in the language and design of schooling, as Giroux has noted that the “survival-of-the-fittest ethic has replaced any reasonable notion of solidarity, social responsibility and compassion for the other” (Giroux, 2012).

Image by Alan Levine

III: Further Discussion

Analyzed through these various perspectives, the creation of 21st century curriculum in British Columbia can be seen to highlight aspects of both the progressive and sociological perspectives. While each of these lenses could be explored further, a more comprehensive approach to addressing essentialist and philosophical concerns would allow a more broadly constructed view of curriculum in the Digital Age. In implementing its notion of 21st century learning, the government of British Columbia should be especially willing to experiment with new technology in developing a curriculum reflective of the digital medium’s message (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967), lest our collective aspirations for the future be limited unnecessarily by perceived economic realities.

The ‘shock’ of the Digital moment provides an opportunity for both critique and the establishment of new myths surrounding education, the broader enactment of which Michel Foucault described as Enlightenment (Foucault, 1984), or critical ontology, something that should “be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating,” but rather, “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.”

Paulo Freire described a similar sense of enlightenment at the root of an emancipatory critical praxis, whereby “critical percep­tion is embodied in action, [and] a climate of hope and confidence devel­ops which leads men to attempt to overcome the limit-situations” (Freire, 1970). This emancipation constitutes an active citizenship that continues to transform reality, “and as these situations are superseded, new ones will appear, which in turn will evoke new limit-acts” (p. 99).

By applying such critical discourses to the negotiation and expression of societal interests with respect to curriculum, we are presented with one of the unique democratic opportunities presented by the Digital Age itself. Indeed, as Simsek and Simsek point out, “the free flow of information through new technologies is consistent with the requirements of deliberative democracy.” However, as the man largely credited with the developing the World Wide Web, Tim Berniers-Lee, recently noted, “Unless we have an open, neutral internet […] we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture” (Kiss, 2014).

In encountering the Digital Age, educators and those interested in constructing curriculum are well-served by embracing the spirit of the open and interconnected web, and playing what Jim Groom and Brian Lamb call for as “a decisive role in the battle for the future of the web” (Groom, 2014). They write, “It is well within the power of educators” to engage in this struggle, though admit that it “will require an at-times inconvenient commitment to the fundamental principles of openness, ownership, and participation.”

As the Ministry of Education continues to unveil its vision for the future of education in British Columbia, these and other questions, perspectives and concerns raised in the discussion of this paper are presented with the intention of further engaging an ongoing discussion of curricular purpose in the province.

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[1] Where the BCEdPlan runs just under 8 pages, the BCJobsPlan measures just fewer than 50.