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.”

Education for Citizenship as Shared Fate

Untitled

A theme in liberal democracy which presents a challenge for citizenship education is the tension created between recognizing difference and diversity in society alongside the development of a shared cultural foundation. This tension has been highlighted on numerous occasions on this blog in the citing of work by Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta, who note 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.”

They write:

“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.”

To address this tension, Sigal Ben-Porath presents the 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.”

This view of citizenship as shared fate seeks to overcome “the vision of the nation as a stable, bound and tangible group,” and recognizes citizenship in

“the visions, practices and processes that make up the civic body through engaging individuals and groups in the continuous process of designing, expressing and interpreting their membership in the nation.”

As individuals share a number of aspects of civic or political life – relation to institutions or organizations, laws, history, language and artistic expression, as well as understanding of the national ethos, symbols or myths – shared fate citizenship seeks to balance tensions between representing diverse values and cultures and developing a shared public sphere. This creates a natural need to cultivate the skills and aptitudes required to participate in it.

This sense of an educative culture echoes John Willinsky, who talks about how “the democratic culture of [our] country is dependent on the educational quality of our civic lives,” and connects back to the central problem of how best to arrange institutional schooling within such a multicultural liberal democracy. Ben-Porath presents shared fate citizenship as “a relational, process-oriented, dynamic affiliation that arises from the cognitive perceptions of members.”

Ben-Porath’s view of citizenship as shared fate is congruent with the democratic ideals for public schooling put forth by John Dewey, who may be seen to elucidate the tension in liberal democratic schooling by seeking institutions which:

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

The idea of a “relational, process-oriented” and “dynamic affiliation” connects similarly to the critical praxis outlined by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressedwhere he outlines the idea that:

It is as transforming and creative beings that humans, in their permanent relations with reality, produce not only material goods— tangible objects—but also social institutions, ideas, and concepts. Through their continuing praxis, men and women simultaneously create history and become historical-social beings.

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.

The goal in this view is to create “schools that build a shared civic sphere as well as rights and well-being of individuals whose experience varies based on their membership in different groups.” However, she is careful to distinguish the more broadly conceived “education for citizenship,” or “citizenship education” from the more skills-oriented or curricular-based “civics education,” as shared fate relies on a more emergent view of citizenship that a particular set of knowledge or skills to be transmitted.

Following Rob Reich’s idea that “schools offer the ideal place to unite citizenry and generate a socially-constructed national model,” Ben-Porath acknowledges this as a challenge for multicultural societies in general and their schools in particular, realizing Osberg and Biesta’s question of whether such an emergent conception of meaning is even possible within an institution which must – on some level – generate ends prior to engaging in the means by which meaning is to be made.

Indeed, the generation of a conception of citizenship as an identity that overrides or seeks to nullify significant differences between minority and majority groups defies a liberal democratic commitment to pluralism.

As a means of confronting this contradiction, shared fate regards citizenship in three ways:

  • The ways in which citizens relate to one another,
  • the ways in which citizens relate to the nation state, and
  • connections citizens make to the national community, institutions and practices.

Thus citizenship education introduces “the evolving social and institutional contexts in which citizens live and develop an understanding of the culture, cognitive, and discursive dimensions of national membership.”

In brief, this could be stated as an ability to learn about learning, itself, or meta-cognition. But it is also an act of collective storytelling, and a process of recognizing our diversity and making sense of a shared history (and identity) together. Such a synthesis of a shared story has both responsive and aspirational qualities, and as such requires “future-oriented development of civic virtues,” as well as attention to “the lives experiences of children.”

Here we see again perhaps the pertinence of Freire, whose critical praxis seeks to acquaint learners with their culture’s generative themes. “To investigate the generative theme,” he writes, “is to investigate the people’s thinking about reality and people’s action upon reality, which is their praxis.”

He continues:

“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.”

For Ben-Porath, citizenship education “seeks forms of attachments, belonging and commitment that would enable children to become positive members of diverse communities of fate.” In liberal democracies, citizens differ in countless ways – political ideology, religious practice, ethnicity, etc – but are bound in an overlapping experience of national laws, institutions, symbols and myths. However, individual views of these common experiences may differ based on unique combinations of contexts.

Here, shared fate:

“aims to recognize differences in values, outlooks, language and preferences while developing institutional and conceptual concepts – particularly civic and political ones – in which different communities can develop ties and shared practices.”

And in this view, education for the benefit of such citizenship serves as an “introduction of and induction into a shared political sphere,” where students develop competence and experience as interpreters and creators of meaning in the national community.

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.

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.

Social Science and Catching Light

Webs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then engaged again.

Learning and Metaphysics

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

#philosodoodles

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.

Emergent Citizenship: Curriculum in the Digital Age

Junedays

“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.” (Mitchell, 2008)

What is curriculum?

Kieran Egan begins his essay, “What is curriculum?” (Egan, 1978) by presenting the idea that schools and curriculum constitute a process by which “children are initiated into particular modes of making sense of their experience and the world about them, and also into a set of norms, knowledge and skills which the society requires for its continuance.” John Dewey presents a similar vision of schools that are “responsible not to transmit and conserve the whole of its existing achievements, but only such as make for a better future of society” (Dewey, 1916):

“It is the office of the school environment to balance the various elements in the social environment, and to see to it that each individual gets an opportunity to escape from the limitations of the social group in which he was born, and to come into living contact with a broader environment.” (p. 20)

Dewey’s description can be seen in congruence with the critical ontology of the self that Michel Foucault described in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” (Foucault, 1984), which should: “be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating”:

“It has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

It is toward this ideal of enlightenment that we might apprehend the spirit of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Canada, 1982), or the Multiculturalism Act (Canada, 1988), which seeks “to promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.” While Egan notes that “one symptom – or perhaps condition – of pluralism is the conflict and argument about what [the] curriculum of initiation should contain,” it should not be controversial to state that the mandate of education includes an introduction to (and the rehearsal of) the requisite skills which promote this “full and equitable participation” in the creation of our collective societal narrative(s) and identity.

This paper attempts to describe the nature of knowledge-creation in the Digital Age, and outline an approach to curriculum and citizenship that embraces an emergent sense of identity and culture.

Emergence in the Digital Age

The modernist conception of citizenship expressed in the Multiculturalism Act aligns neatly with possibilities brought about through the revolution in communication technologies that can be thought of as our Digital Age. Simsek and Simsek characterize the early stages of the Digital Age as a time when “the forms of information have changed drastically” (Simsek & Simsek, 2013):

“Information processing has been transformed from being passive receivers to active information processors, who must engage, construct, respond and act with information.” (p. 127)

“Our emergent digital times,” Nahachewsky and Slomp argue, “challenge the authority of any one author or teacher” (Nahachewsky & Slomp, 2009). However, envisioning a curriculum that might challenge the central authorial role of the teacher presents a number of difficulties, as Osberg and Biesta argue that such an emergent information landscape assumes that “Knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object that can be transferred from one place to the next[i]” (Osberg & Biesta, 2008). The emergent classroom is a place where

“Knowledge is understood, rather, ‘to ‘emerge’ as we as, as human beings, participate in the world.” (p. 313)

This view of knowledge is congruent with Simsek and Simsek’s description of the literacies required to actualize democracy in the digital era, which “differ from the previous ones, mainly due to their operational, interactive and user-based technological characteristics” (p. 129). Here we see that the emergent view of knowledge-construction, which presents a difficulty to institutional learning, may be supported by the advent of digital communications technologies.

Teaching and learning in polyphony

“If we hold that meaning is emergent,” Osberg and Biesta state. “Then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic” (p. 316). Sidorkin admits that “the tragic side of such a situation is that regardless of teachers’ intentions the relationship cannot become equal and truly dialogical” (Sidorkin, 2000). Despite one’s best efforts, the context of organized learning assumes orientation toward certain aforementioned goals and/or outcomes.

Paulo Freire confronted the student-teacher contradiction by prescribing what he called the “problem posing method” of education, whereby curricular content “constantly expands and renews itself” (Freire, 1970):

“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” (p. 122).

However this framework maintains the authority of the teacher to “re-present” the reality of students toward their emancipation and as such is deserving of Bruner’s critique (highlighted by Nahachewsky and Slomp) in that the student becomes a “performing spectator” who “does not invent the world, [but] uses it” (Bruner & Bruner, 2009).

Sidorkin looks beyond this dialogical model toward Bakhtin’s idea of polyphony (Bakhtin & Emerson, 1993), and proposes that “the problem of imbalanced relation is not to be countered with power sharing based on considerations of equality.” Rather, he says, it should be “addressed with polyphony, the principle of engaged co-existence of multiple yet unmerged voices” (Sidorkin, 2000). The literacies attending such curricular intentions can be seen to revolve around the realization of a critical awareness of one’s community, and an ability to articulate a unique perspective within it. And it is here we see the notion of emergence begin to exist in a dual sense, as it arises in a collective narrative of community, but also in the individual’s sense of themselves within that community.

Sidorkin argues that curricular authority in the classroom should aim toward the realization of mutuality in meaning-making, stating “The polyphonic authority creates mutuality, and only this kind of authority should be used in education.”

It is this invitation to mutuality that Nahachewsky and Slomp describe by noting that:

“If students are allowed, through openness in the curriculum and their teachers’ language, to become part of a negotiation, facts then are created and become interpreted understandings shared by teacher and students, rather than transmitted by teachers as predisposed ‘truths’” (Nahachewsky & Slomp, 2009).

The skills and competencies attending such collective meaning-making may well have long been essential to the democratic project, as Simsek and Simsek note that “democratic values needed for citizenship are not different for new literacies.” However, they present the Digital Age as an opportunity to realize further promise of the democratic project:

“Many democratic values could be acquired by new literacies. New literacies are prerequisites for digital citizenship. New literacies increase the availability of relevant and credible information and broaden the capacity of individuals to get, share, compare, and contextualize information by developing new skills” (p. 133).

While they are careful to not describe the revolution in communicative technology as a panacea in an era of anemic political engagement and accountability, the authors do note that such a summary of digital citizenship embraces the value of broad contribution to an emergent, collaborative constructed community. Optimistically, they note, “Digital citizenship could create a more transparent, connected and participatory democratic environment” (p. 132).

Curriculum as Identity

The advent of the Digital Age has led to an increase in the opportunities for individuals to contribute their voice to the type of polyphonic democracy suggested by Freire and Sidorkin. Simsek and Simsek characterize the Digital Age by highlighting the increasing ability and access individuals have to spaces in which they might cultivate a networked, public “identity.”

“Identity in the digital territory is seen as a higher construct of literacies, which enables the citizen to act as a person with culture and independence as well as with critical abilities and democratic values” (Simsek & Simsek, 2013).

When conceived of in this fashion, the society education serves intends to admit all voices in its chorus, and asks that schools provide learning in the conception and expression of individual and pluralist identities. This is a process that unfolds endlessly, as the One and the Many are constantly making each other (Follett, 1919), and it is toward this critical praxis that education must orient the student experience if it is to achieve Freire’s “critical and dynamic view of the world” by which we might realize what he considered the central human objective: “permanent transformation of reality in favor of the liberation of people.” The progress toward this pluralist aim is the stated purpose of the Canadian Constitution, and should guide the continued exploration of curriculum in the Digital Age.

Bakhtin, M. M. M., & Emerson, C. (1993). Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics: U of Minnesota Press.

Bruner, J. S., & Bruner, J. S. (2009). Actual minds, possible worlds: Harvard University Press.

The Constitution Act, 1982 (1982).

Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988).

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.

Egan, K. (1978). What is curriculum? Curriculum Inquiry, 65-72.

Follett, M. P. (1919). Community is a process. The Philosophical Review, 576-588.

Foucault, M. (1984). What is Enlightenment? . In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans. 30th Anniversary Edition ed.): The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

Mitchell, D. (2008). Cloud Atlas: A Novel: Random House LLC.

Nahachewsky, J., & Slomp, D. (2009). Sound and fury: Studied response (s) of curriculum and classroom in digital times. Beyond ‘presentism”: Re-imaginging the historical, personal and social places of curriculum, 139-151.

Osberg, D., & Biesta, G. (2008). The Emergent Curriculum: Navigating a Complex Course between unguided Learning and Planned Enculturation. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(3), 313-328).

Sidorkin, A. M. (2000). Toward a pedagogy of relation.

Simsek, E., & Simsek, A. (2013). New Literacies for Digital Citizenship. Online Submission, 4(3), 126-137.

[i] See Biesta and Burbules (2003), Biesta and Osberg (2007), Cilliers (1998) and Osberg et al. (in press).

“Moments happen quickly, and changes come slowly.”

Summer school

The title of this post, and its contents are synthesis and reflection of my thoughts while reading James Nahachewsky and David Slomp’s book chapter “Sound and Fury: Studied Response(s) of Curriculum and Classroom in Digital Times,” originally published in Beyond ‘Presentism’: Re-Imagining the Historical, Personal, and Social Places of Curriculum (2009).

Similar to Borges‘ introduction, “like all men, he was given bad times in which to live,” we find ourselves in complex times that have yet undeniably coalesced into a present “moment” that might be described as a Digital Age. The arrival of these digital times has arrived with

“a shift in perspective that recently has thrown many modernist educational boundaries and underlying assumptions into doubt – including constructs of learner and teacher, and schooling itself (Gee, 2004; Knobel & Lankshear, 2007). This shift is due, in part to young people’s own fluid, de-territorialized meaning-making afforded by the consumption and, perhaps more importantly, the production of digital texts.”

Nahachewsky and Slomp present the problem of how confronting these new realities of the digital age reveals a contradiction in that “digital texts, as created by young people become sites of action and agency [while] Arguably, brick and mortar classrooms are not.” The language arts, the authors note, are uniquely situated to reveal the particular opportunities such times present the study of pedagogy, as new media arise, changing the relationships between students, teachers, and even broader educative communities beyond our institutions. Using the shift brought to text by the digital age as a corollary, the authors begin to outline a structural transformation that is beginning to be seen in literacy education.

“The spaces of classroom and educational digital texts create complex dialogic ‘contact zones’ (Bakhtin 1981), where we may witness the representation of learner, teacher, and curriculum in interesting, complex, and non-traditional ways.”

Highlighting the example of the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol for Collaboration in Basic Education, Nahachewsky and Slomp note that democratic governments have engaged the collision of the 21st century and its burgeoning technological revolution to provoke discussion around the revolutionizing of curriculum itself, though the section of the paper begins with a quote from Jerome Bruner’s Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (1986):

“Language- can never be neutral, it imposes a point of view not only about the world to which it refers, but toward the use of mind in respect of this world.”

Because while the governments of the western provinces strive toward a collaboratively determined common curriculum that will best prepare young Canadians for the digital and globalized 21st century, “The primary issue the Ministers [of education from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon and the North West Territories] identified in the agreement was the need to optimize the limited resources of the provinces in improving education [emphasis from the original].” The point of view “imposed,” and which frames the narrative of educational reform contextualizes the task as one of necessity rather than aspiration.

One needn’t suggest that fiscal responsibility shouldn’t constitute an aspect of educational discourse; but by beginning from this foundation, the “authors” of our curricular narratives – granted such voice by the democratic processes guiding public policy in Canada – limit the possible iterations of curriculum that might better contribute to education’s guiding purpose(s) than those created solely out of financial necessity. With the broad focus of literacy, the authors summarize the purpose of language learning expressed in the WNCP, which presents literacy as a tool:

“To facilitate thinking, define culture, develop personal identity, build interpersonal relationships, extend experience, facilitate reflection, contribute to a democratic society, construct and convey meanings, and facilitate metacognitive awareness.”

But while even optimists among us might appreciate these strokes of application that these democratic processes have sketched out on our collective behalf, the authors emphasize what is not included in this discussion of education’s future, what is not part of the narrative authored on society’s behalf: “the question, To what end?”

“…to what end do we use language to facilitate thinking or to construct meaning?”

In other words, what is understanding? And what is it for?

The affordances of new media in these digital times has further contributed to the disruption of the narrative of the singular author, a process that has been at work throughout the modernist period and which dates back to the Enlightenment period. Such philosophical movements are congruent with Bruner’s suggestion “that our use of language has a constitutive role in creative social reality and concepts of our selves.” 

To paraphrase Michael Wesch, our digital times present us with the opportunity to witness Marshall McLuhan‘s edict that “we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us,” in real time, largely through the critical study and experimentation with different forms of texts encountered in the language arts classroom. Indeed, Nahachewsky and Slomp point out that “this has important implications for the culture of education and the concepts of self that teachers and students co-construct.”

As the revolution of text online has challenged the notion of a single authorial rendering (even of an original work or act), so too might the digital age present the opportunity to consider the direction and construction of meaning to be a collaborative act between students who are guided in this process by a teacher. However well intended, our present schools are places where

“students are seen as participants who are given a role as ‘performing spectators who play out their canonical roles according to rule when appropriate cues appear.”

Bruner notes further than “this role causes the child to only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it.” However much this framing might offer a shift in perspective to today’s educators, it has been more than one hundred years since Maria Montessori lamented that while “it is true that some pedagogues, led by Rousseau, have given voice to the impracticable principles and vague aspirations for the liberty of the child […], the true concept of liberty is practically unknown to educators.” (Montessori 1912)

More than one hundred years ago, Montessori wished

“to direct the teacher to awaken in him[self], in connection with his own particular field, the school, that scientific spirit which opens the door for him to broader and bigger possibilities. In other words, we wish to awaken in the mind and heart of the educator an interest in natural phenomena to such an extent that, loving nature, he shall understand the anxious and expectant attitude of one who has prepared an experiment and who awaits a revelation from it.”

However as we look to the educative narrative presented in Canada today, we might note the Federal Harper Government’s discussions of scientific discovery have similarly limited its scope to invest “scarce resources” in research that offers a practical return on investment, thus affirming the broader cultural narrative of perpetuating an infinite growth economy as our highest purpose.

As it is in education, the question To what end? is not included in the discussion of why we ought pursue scientific discovery (if not to achieve predicted economic outcomes), and the omission represents an abandoning of principles around which our cultural, social, artistic, political and moral traditions each originate and continue to revolve, those traditions which coalesced and were articulated during the dawn of the era of mass-printed texts.

Following the invention of the printing press, Europe witnessed the transformation of its public sphere(s) (Habermas 1991), with paradigmatic shifts visited upon religion, politics, science, philosophy and the arts. The ability of greater and greater numbers of people to encounter and freely share new ideas delivered a cataclysm upon the singular narratives of public affairs constructed with absolute power by monarchs and churches, and is the overarching arc of justice which guides foundational schools of western philosophical thought to this day. Broadening the base of authorship in the creation of a collective narrative led directly to the transformation of the existent structures of the preceding paradigm.

We might learn from these events, as the advent of our modern, digital technologies presents what may constitute an analogous ‘moment’ of cultural revolution where the discussion of what might be is at least as relevant for discussion as the prospects of what must be. In fact, we have learned much from those who sought to uphold the mantles of chalice and crown throughout the various Enlightenment revolutions employed various arguments to make their case, and should proceed skeptically with those who would tell us what “must be.” With the traditions of scholarship and tools we have acquired in the age of empiricism, the test to establish what “must”…

must be of the strictest rigor.

In the meantime, it is equally important that modern educationists explore and discover what can be, as it is central to the task of creating a fuller perception of nature and humankind which the traditions of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and political philosophy demand of us.

Précis: A Critical Consideration of the New Pedagogy in its Relation to Modern Science

Dr. Montessori in the garden of the school at Via Giusti. Image courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

Maria Montessori presents a critical consideration of the “New Pedagogy” (1912) by discussing the advent and implementation of the “scientific pedagogy” that took root in Italy around the turn of the 20th century. Montessori’s critique focuses on the shortcomings of scientific pedagogy to address the human subjects (and observers) involved in the study of teaching and learning.

In establishing her critique, Montessori finds fault with an overemphasis on the instrumentalization of pedagogy which comes at the expense of a more authentic manifestation of the spirit of learning. This spirit of learning is connected throughout her argument as part of the same pursuit of knowledge that has sustained human progress since the beginning of civilization. She cites examples of rigid student desks and behaviourist means of doling out rewards and punishments as elements of “scientific pedagogy” that run counter to the spirit of discovery that is central to learning.

For a new pedagogy to emerge within this context, Montessori argues that teachers ought to be prepared to engage the act of teaching as one oriented toward “a conquest of liberty” that provides an education in which pupils are seen as future agents of human regeneration. To this end, she proposes educationists elevate the study of pedagogy to that of its own scientific exploration: part of the larger narrative of human progress that is embedded within the histories of science, technology, and the broader humanities, and yet informed by its own unique contexts and possibilities.

Montessori, Maria George, Anne E. (Trans), (1912). The Montessori method: Scientific pedagogy as applied child education in “The Children’s Houses”, with additions and revisions by the author. , (pp. 1-27). New york, NY, US: Frederick A Stokes Company, xlii, 377 pp. doi: 10.1037/13054-001

Curriculum as Black Box

Image from designshack.net

“…a black box is a device, system or object which can be viewed in terms of its input, output and transfer characteristics without any knowledge of its internal workings.”

In conducting an inquiry into curriculum, the black box may prove a useful metaphor to consider possible avenues of discussion or research. In his essay What is Curriculum? (pdf) Kieran Egan introduces Cicero’s use of the Latin curricula “to refer to the temporal space in which we live; to the confines within which things may happen; to the container, as opposed to the contents.” By applying the metaphor of the black box, we can appreciate the discussion of curriculum as being concerned with educational inputs and outputs, and the black box itself representing the individual experience of the learner.

With the advent of Enlightenment philosophy, society began to orientate itself toward the actualization of a pluralism that assumed an infinite diversity of human minds; here we see the shift of inquiry away from inputs and outputs, and toward the nature of the black box itself.

Egan presents this awakening thus:

“traditional curriculum questions about what should be taught can no longer stand as a distinct question in the fact of discoveries about individual differences. Questions of method are unquestionably relevant to curriculum decisions.”

“The difficulty,” he adds, “in admitting the question, how, into curriculum matters is that there becomes little of educational relevance that can be excluded from the curriculum field.”

Indeed. And as we have become subsumed in a preoccupation with how, we have suffered from what Egan calls “a general failure of nerve, of vision, and of direction.”

“To know what the curriculum should contain requires a sense of what the contents are for. If one lacks a clear sense of the purpose of education, then one is deprived an essential means of specifying what the curriculum should contain.”

B.C. launches Skills for Jobs Blueprint to re-engineer education and training

And so we find ourselves surrounded by curricular initiatives that describe at exhaustive length the hows of learning in the 21st century: game-based, play, outdoor, experiential, collaborative, critical thinking, and various apps, hardware, and learning media aggregate to serve a purpose that is discussed as a forgone necessity. Notions of what should be taught are often presented in platitudinous photo-opportunities operating within the premise that the future will so paradigmatically different from the present or past that any discussion of curricular contents can only be looked upon with the most pragmatic or utilitarian perspective.

In building the altar of how, the means of delivering curriculum have become the ends: we have become singularly focused on what education must be in favour of what it might become. 

Egan would agree:

“This manner of stating the problem exemplifies the failure of nerve: it suggests we have no control over the future; we cannot make of it what seems best to us.”

Image from Zcache.com

In considering curriculum as a black box problem, we might be guided by Schroedinger’s cat thought-experiment. Originally conceived to highlight the paradox at the root of quantum mechanics (basically the uncertainty principle), a simplified look at the analogy finds Schroedinger’s cat inside a black box with a vial of poison that will alternatively be delivered, or not, depending on the state of a subatomic particle.

Until the box is opened, there exists potential for either eventuality to exist: that the cat is still alive; or that it has expired. And so until a definitive measurement or observation can be made, the cat might be thought of as being both alive, and dead.

In our own practice and research, ‘opening the black box’ of individual learning experiences is similarly limited and may be seen to require such a dualist response. “Focus on either how or what at the expense of the other,” Egan writes in his conclusion, “is improper.”

He writes:

“Proportion and good sense demand that we turn our attention increasingly to what questions and present strong arguments for or against specific curriculum content.”

In resembling the black box, our discussion of curriculum traverses the knowable entities of inputs and outputs, and seeks to investigate the opaque nature of individual experience. In this inquiry, as soon as measurement and observation are able to record new points of knowledge they unfold into new inquiries toward an ever-retreating horizon.

As a symbol, the black box represents paradoxes that are at the heart of learning and knowledge, and aligns with Egan’s characterization of bringing about authentic curriculum as a struggle to “summon the nerve to believe that we can make the future what we want and better prepare children to deal with it.”