Toward a Critical Citizenship

Estates

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

Within this modern context, it is important to not conceive of curriculum – as with citizenship – as something static. Rather, as a pluralist society demands a citizenry capable of fostering greater and greater inclusivity, a primary concern of schooling and curriculum becomes the practice and realization of social constructivism. Indeed, if young people are to learn to co- create individual and collective identities across social, ethnic, economic, and geographic classes, the development of such critical capacities takes on a singular importance in educating for citizenship as diverse populations seek unity and common purpose despite deep differences. This results in a conception of citizenship that begins to bear emergent properties as the national identity is fluidly forged from an ever-changing sum of its constituent parts. Just as such a view of citizenship presents a contradiction to those looking to inculcate a national identity in its populace, Osberg and Biesta (2008) similarly challenge those looking toward curriculum development to consider that,

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 idea of education, traditionally conceived. Emergent meaning – if it exists – is incompatible with the idea of education as planned enculturation. (p. 317)

Forty years ago, Paulo Freire (1970) met with a similar contradiction in proposing an educational philosophy to supplant what he called the “banking approach” to education, wherein knowledge and meanings are transferred (or deposited) into learners’ thoughts. Viewing such deposits as oppressive limitations upon the realities of the recipient-students, Freire set about describing a critical praxis through which citizens would investigate and re-create their own realities: “To investigate the generative theme,” he wrote, “is to investigate the people’s thinking about reality and people’s action upon reality, which is their praxis,” adding: “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” (p. 87). Freire proposed a methodology very much in line with the emergent view of knowledge described by Osberg and Biesta, where “knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object’ that can be transferred from one place to the next” (p. 313). Rather, such a view holds that knowledge “in other words, does not exist except in our participatory actions” (p. 313). Within an epistemological framework of emergence, curriculum is created as participants engage in their individual and shared inquiries, which together bring about the emergence of knowledge. Freire described a curriculum which “constantly expands and renews itself” as students investigate their generative themes:

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” it not as a lecture, but as a problem. (p. 109)

By resolving the contradiction at the heart of such educative problems, students experience the transformation Gregory Bateson (1972) outlined in his hierarchy of learning, a process of five stages beginning with Learning 0, characterized by “responding to stimuli but making no changes based on experience or information” (Tosey, 2006, p. 6) and leading to Learning IV, which “probably does not occur in any adult living organism on this earth” (p. 3). While Learning IV may be seen to represent the evolution of a species into a genetic descendent, the crux of Bateson’s transformative learning arises in Learning III, which learners encounter “driven by contraries at level II” (p. 3). In presenting Bateson’s hierarchy as a possible framework for transformative learning, Tosey frames this view of Bateson by citing Bredo (1989), observing that “The ‘problem’ to which third-order learning is a ‘solution’ consists of systematic contradictions in experience” (p. 35, as cited in Tosey, 2006, p. 3). It is here that we glimpse the limit-situation described by Freire (see: Chapter 1), and after which the critical praxis is begun again anew.

Reconciling a view of curriculum within such an emergent sense of knowledge presents a similar challenge to the “third-order learning” needed to cultivate an evolving multicultural citizenship, and it is unsurprising to find an orientation toward process-oriented, critical solutions is suggested to best resolve contradictions in each of these domains. Schools striving to prepare young citizens for participation in the democratic process ought consider the fluid state of citizenship in the national sense, and reflect on how this view is represented in the school space. In addition to crafting a curriculum suited to enabling critical and emergent learning, schools in such pluralist democracies “are expected to celebrate the diversity of the student body, but also to minimize it by developing civic capacity and a host of shared dimensions” (Ben‐Porath, 2012, p. 382). Ben-Porath confronts this tension with an “alternative, national membership […] conceptualized here as shared fate – a relational, process-oriented, dynamic affiliation that arises from the cognitive perceptions as well as from the preferences and actions of members” (p. 382).

By conceiving of citizenship as shared fate, schools are able to formulate a curricular response consistent with principles of emergent knowledge and Freire’s critical praxis. Citizenship is no longer a vision of national unity or virtue, but exists as the assemblage of “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” (p. 382).

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 9.13.39 PM

Johnson and Morris (2010) suggest a framework (see table 1) for such critical citizenship education by synthesizing literature concerned with citizenship education, critical pedagogy, and critical thinking “for analysing and comparing curricula which promote forms of critical citizenship” (p. 90). In a table highlighting distinct elements of critical pedagogy on the horizontal-axis, and “Corgan et al.’s (2002, 4) useful definition of citizenship/civics education as ‘the knowledge, skills, values and dispositions of citizens’” (p. 87) across vertical categories, the authors present “a working, flexible model of critical citizenship, open to reinterpretation and adaptation” (p. 90). The authors suggest the base knowledge, skills, values and dispositions in addressing elements of critical pedagogy: the political, social, self, and praxis, creating a point of departure for the unit framework presented here.

References

Teaching to the (Limit) Situation

Korchstag

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

This preoccupation with transcendence has been further nurtured by an acquaintance with critical pedagogy, and Paulo Freire (1970), who described the experimentation with what he referred to as “limit situations” as essential to the realization of human freedom, noting that “because [humans] are aware of themselves and thus of the world—because they are conscious beings— [they] exist in a dialectical relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom” (p. 99). Describing the process, he writes that

As they separate themselves from the world, which they objectify, as they separate themselves from their own activity, as they locate the seat of their decisions in themselves and in their relations with the world and others, people overcome the situations which limit them: the “limit-situations.” (Freire, 1970, p. 99)

If the perpetuation of such an ongoing cycle of transformation becomes the end goal, our aim in turn becomes to build the capacity to maintain this praxis. As the cycle of action and reflection continues, we are inevitably challenged to resolve the conflicts that arise between the world as we feel it ought to be and the world as we find it. In the critical process of learning to confront and overcome these contradictions, people realize their ability to shape their own reality, as “through their continuing praxis, men and women simultaneously create history and become historical-social beings” (Freire, 1970, p. 101). Posed with the challenge of educating young people to develop the critical capacity to sketch out the boundary of themselves in the context of their realities such that they can be transformed, I approach (and pose) the questions in this project with the view that the means and processes at the heart of running, writing, and learning ought be viewed as ends in and of themselves. Immanuel Kant (1993) identified a similar notion in his second formulation of the categorical imperative, compelling humankind to “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means” (p. 30).

Here, I set out to present an institutional educational setting in which curricular goals and outcomes become embedded in the learning experiences intended to bring them about, revealing in the process a curriculum that emerges from expressions of teacher and student learning. As the arrival of the 21st century has introduced a communications revolution that has fundamentally altered the way individuals relate to one another within a truly global community, traditional views of cultural knowledge and citizenship, as well as the pedagogies intended to transmit these values to the next generation, have been challenged to adapt. As responses to these challenges, emergent conceptions of knowledge, citizenship, and pedagogy align to reveal that critical citizenship education must provide experiences in the rehearsal of community-forming and identity expression. Fortunately, the advent of the World Wide Web and the digital age present the possibility of cultivating just this sort of participatory meaning-making, offering rich platforms to supplement the individual learning that cohorts and communities might employ, formally and informally, to define their own contexts of schooling.

References

Lit Review Twitter Essay

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 3.30.41 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21. Fugitive thoughts quickly captured.

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

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

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

It might begin something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 4.56.17 PM

Here we might continue in an academic voice:

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 8.39.58 PM

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

Again:

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 8.49.18 PM

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

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

Identifying a Research Problem

Research Query

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

John W. Creswell

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

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

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

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

He adds,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MA Doodles

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

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

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

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

Assessment for Critical Literacy

This semester’s Socials 9 curriculum was conceived with an intention to cultivate critical literacy, which I have come to define more and more as an ability to develop a praxis of reflection and action to continually discover and define meaning in an increasingly complex system. In learning from curricula, relationships or experience, individuals and societies alike are tasked with reinventing and transforming their reality as necessity and changing circumstances may dictate.

As I have attempted to re-imagine social studies as a venue for citizenship education, each of the TALONS classes have begun the semester with experiments in collaborative assignment and unit planning from the start. In considering our study of the English Civil War, there has been discussion of several questions:

What do we need to know? 

The class began by considering course outcomes and evaluating text and online materials to help guide the discovery of the unit’s main ideas, events and historical personages. Then set about generating criteria, a schedule and daily means by which the agreed-upon content could be learned.

In collecting, distributing and summarizing a range of primary and secondary sources on early 1600s England, What do we need to know was joined by What is there to be known about the topic? And as the readings’ various themes and ideas were identified and organized, the discussion shifted to consider What is important to know about these topics? As well as What do I think about all of this? 

But this was only one aspect of identification and collaboration to engage an agreed-upon problem. This is merely the deconstruction – the breaking into a million little pieces that could then be assembled into coherence anew through each learner/investigator’s reflection and action.

And it introduced a new question (and it’s a mouthful):

How do we know that we know what we’re now supposed to know (now)? 

In terms of reconstructing that knowledge, effective learning should also address the question How do we assess the learning that has taken place? But in considering critical literacy and consciousness, it becomes important that this question in particular is asked in such a way that it continues to be driven by the collaborative acumen and expertise of the group itself, just as the unit has been planned and carried out thus far.

This aspect of assessment is traditionally a means of learning owned and operated by the teacher. But the crux of this type of collaboratively-designed learning, and of the development of a continual praxis of behaviour, teacher and student are each challenged to engage their critical literacy, which may also be described as a kind of empathetic design research.

In their paper, Rethinking Design Thinking: Empathy Supporting InnovationMcDonagh and Thomas describe a process during which,

“as designers use empathy to support their research, ‘design moments’ emerge which provide them with more design-relevant data and supports product innovation.”

Here we see the designer’s role shift to that of a co-investigator, where

“the designer and user engage as collaborators, and together develop knowledge and understanding in order to generate appropriate solutions for real needs.

“Empathetic design research relies on the user being an active and participating partner within the information creation and designing process.”

Design’s quest for innovation begins to find itself within an emerging confluence of educational philosophy. Isn’t this innovation what Gregory Bateson might have described as transformative learning, or what Paulo Freire deemed a ‘limit situation‘?  This “simplicity of cause” comes as an affirmation of the ongoing praxis of co-investigation and co-creation that we might conceive of as critical literacy.

In looking toward assessing the English Civil War unit learning, the critical element arising out of the classes’ progress is the need for learners to acquire habits of mind and relation that make this continual praxis possible. For the TALONS (including myself), we may have found ourselves stalled and struggling to define and enact the required action for the moment. But while it may appear so on the surface, this moment of negative momentum is hardly an insurmountable obstacle. Indeed, it is the moment of tension in which true critical intelligences are asserted.

Critical Literacy in Assessment Methods

So we are confronted with the question, How do we know that we know what we’re supposed to know? It is a question of assessment, and one which is traditionally held at the end of units and courses of study as the sole dominion of the teacher. But such are the assumptions which bind both teachers and students to outdated pedagogies that may have fallen out of step with our stated intentions for learning: the apparent impossibility of imagining another way stops us from even considering it.

For my own part, even in projects and courses during which I have taken pains to co-investigate and instruct alongside my students as much as possible, the means of the learning still arrive at a point where my own voice is heard alone.

I arrive at a mark, and distribute feedback based on rubrics, course standards and report card criteria. And this isn’t to say that there isn’t still a place for this within institutionalized learning; indeed our competency and necessity as learning professionals is in many ways bound to our ability to evaluate and assess student learning.

But without obliterating the role of the teacher altogether, it is still possible to re-imagine the role of teachers in helping students direct not only the initial aspects of a project or course of study, but the means of assessment as well. To adopt the praxis of Freire’s critical consciousness is to confront the inherent difficulty of creating learning institutions where

“knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

While the teacher’s profession still involves the adjudication of academic or institutional success, the creation of a critical consciousness in schools still faces us with what Freire called “the teacher-student contradiction.” However, with the introduction of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bathkin‘s idea of polyphony, Alexander M. Sidorkin cultivates a third path between the ‘either or’:

“Bakhtin’s principle of polyphony offers a radically new way of conciliation of power imbalance within mutuality of relation. According to Bakhtin, an author of the polyphonic novel creates heroes that are fully independent of their creator. The problem of authority imbalance may be misstated; it is the specific kind of monological authority that eliminates mutuality, not authority itself. The polyphonic authority creates mutuality, and only this kind of authority should be used in education.”

On Memorable Learning

Untitled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last spring I reflected on the work of:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled

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

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

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

IMG_0061

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is learning.

On 21st Century Schools

As I’ve explored at some length here, I think of schools today as guided by our mission statements and legal mandates to pursue an ageless ideal of education along the lines of how John Dewey characterized schooling as the act of “preparing students for the adult vocations needed for society to continue to exist.”

The question of whether our current schools / teachers / curriculum are preparing students for the 21st century involves an analysis of the implicit messages communicated by schools about education and whether they are in line with the values of enlightenment and learning: an investigation of what we might call the Hidden Curriculum 

José García and Noah De Lissovoy introduce the idea that “school curriculum at any given point in time can be marked by the cultural, political and economic structure of that particular society.” Building from this premise, they set about defining the momentary economic need addressed by 21st century school curricula:

“Capitalism in its current stage is marked by structural changes in the process of production along with the rise of a global neoliberal political order. This stage is characterized by the transition to a post-Fordist process of production along with the rise of a neoliberal political project to establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites through the crafting of specific political and ideological structures and understandings (Harvey 2005; Wacquant 2012). The school, as an institution within the state, serves to produce the subjects that are required for the novel social conditions of the neoliberal era.”

Garcia and De Lissovoy frame their analysis within a context of precarious employment and financial instability – especially among young people – and “the carceral 1 turn in Neoliberalism.”

“Building from Michael Hardt’s notion of ‘prison time,’ we propose a notion of school time which links preparation and demoralization, as the subjectivity of students is organized as much for exclusion as for incorporation into familiar spaces of labor and citizenship.”

In doing so, they present a hidden curriculum which “lays the groundwork for an orientation of servility in relationship to authority and a condition of precarity in relation to work.”

Driving this evolution of the hidden curriculum, the authors suggest, is the advent of a “post-Fordist regime of production,” wherein labour are:

      • Flexible, mobile and precarious;
      • Highly adaptable to constant innovations in production;
      • Willing to move frequently between jobs;
      • Accepting of the fact that long-term employment is not guaranteed;
      • And able to merge the communicative processes with those formally thought as “production,” or instrumental tasks.

Part of the larger neoliberal political project, the evolution of post-Fordist capitalism has been nurtured by the cultivation of “discourses of efficiency, consumerism, choice and accountability in place of sense of collective responsibility.”

Under neoliberalism,

“Spheres of social activity organized on the basis of notions of the public good or social solidarity are branded as inefficient from this perspective, and neoliberalism demands that they be reorganized according to the bottom-line logic of the market (Klein 2007). The school has been one of the crucial sites of the broad neoliberalism of society (Hursh 2005; Saltman 2005).”

The authors incorporate Michael Hardt‘s (1997) idea of “prison time‘ into the school’s hidden curriculum in considering the course of a school day:

“In [school], the planning ahead of how time will be used, controlled and regimented by power signifies the domination over an individual‘s control of his or her time, and thus his or her freedom and sense of agency. Furthermore, the control and regimentation of time eliminates possibilities for improvisation in daily experiences; nothing is unforeseeable.”

If the schools of the Fordist era of capitalism can be seen adopting the narrative motifs of the factory – with the student the symbolic factory worker – we glimpse a hidden curriculum preparing labour to receive an altogether different induction into the “real world,” one where one’s publicly available education could ensure a stable career and income, mortgage payments and a pension.

As in the unionized factory where the symbolic ‘worker’ will take up his life’s profession, through the hidden curriculum the student is taught to contribute his skills and working life to the larger project of labour as a respected part of capitalistic society.

Compared to the worker being groomed in the schools of the 21st century, we might forgive the many failings of 1950s institutions – racism, sexism, or violence against those outside the white mainstream – for their ability to maintain the intellectual ideals that would create the space for the civil rights movements that fought to create greater human freedom across the capitalistic experience. Today’s students are prepared to enter a world of labour created by the post-Fordist, neoliberal era where, for Hardt, Garcia and De Lissovoy, the societal metaphor at work in schools’ Hidden Curriculum has evolved in kind: “society is no longer a factory, it is a prison.”

“…in neoliberalism, freedom is understood as choice […]. The choices are already prescribed and we express our freedom by choosing from the given options. Life even outside prison has thus become regimented and void of meaning, for we no longer have autonomy to decide what and how to use our time beyond exercising our freedom to consume.”

Gregory Bateson defines the type of learning within such a set of choices as Learning I, where development is achieved through a “correction of errors of choice within a set of alternatives.” 

From Learning 0 to Learning IV, Bateson introduces a Hierarchy of Learning in his book, Steps to an Ecology of MindLearning II, Bateson says, would exist as corrective change in the set of alternatives from which choice is made.”

In Learning II, there might still be a test, or a report card; but participants are invited to be engaged in the process.

“Within this seemingly inescapable reality of domination,” Garcia and De Lissovoy concede, “there are nevertheless moments in which inmates and those outside prison resist the drive of power to control time, in authentic encounters with others and the relationships that arise from such encounters.”

Indeed.

As Bateson’s hierarchy moves to Learning III, we see a glimpse of schooling which encourages a corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made, a truly transformative act of learning that schools are also charged with providing. For the act of learning, and of schooling, is not merely to prepare the required labour for the dictates of an all-powerful market society; it is to prepare the minds and citizenry capable of creating a society, economy and culture that honours the best of what the Project of Enlightenment promises, and critiques the status quo, imagines what could be alongside the asking why things are the way they are, and has the skills to create a meaningful tomorrow.

Through such an education, 21st century schools might realize what Paulo Freire called the creation of:

a critical and dynamic view of the world, [which] strives to unveil reality, unmask its mythicization, and achieve a full realization of the human task: the permanent transformation of reality in favor of the liberation of people.

  1.  Latin: carcer – prison

Eminent Person Study: Documenting Transformative Learning

Screen shot 2013-10-20 at 12.29.44 PM

We began talking about Eminent Person the other day by discussing Gardner Campbell’s quoting of Gregory Bateson’s work, and the idea of:

“…breaches in the weave of contextual structure.”

As I’ve mentioned here many times in the past, many experiential aspects of the TALONS program, and authentic learning wherever it happens for that matter, seek to create “breaches” in each participant’s “contextual structure.” In each bringing past experiences, expectations for ourselves and others, and other “contextual structures” to bear on the learning at hand, when these expectations are exceeded – above, beyond or laterally – we are given a view of the world and our relation to it that didn’t until then exist.

The knowledge of this expanded plane of perception leads us toward the action required to establish it as a new self-evident truth of existence. And we do this as individuals as well as cultures:

  • We see our first live concert and witness the magic of music as something made by people, and go about learning to play the guitar;
  • We watch Chris Hadfield sing with Ed Robertson and a choir in Toronto and know that the world is now this small, this connected;
  • We conduct interviews with experts thousands of miles away, and give speeches, and glimpse in ourselves strengths and talents we didn’t realize we there, and are never quite the same afterwards.

In a way it is impossible to settle for the previous way of imagining the world, and are forever drawn to the expanding horizon. And I think this is where the Eminent Person Study finds its particular stripe of ritual power from every autumn, as the new grade tens settle in to their first major opportunity for individual and collective learning, and the nines learn from their example.

The TALONS alumni often come away with having witnessed something profound:

In a way, I think Night of the Notables, especially the speeches, is the gr. 10 initiation. When I finished that speech and went to sit back down amongst the other gr. 10s, it was like taking my place among the elite. And every time someone came back, they passed the test, I suppose. I saw you all a supportive group being each others’ safety nets.

Having been privileged to be a part of the last seven incarnations of the TALONS Eminent studies, I’ve come to revel in the realization that:

From the college kids in the back to the grade nines sitting in the second row (to the teacher grinning in the balcony), everyone in the TALONS orbit [gathers] to give it up for those whose task it is this year to set aside their fears, come together as a group, and dare to do something exceptional.

The experience is something shared, yet something unique to each of us. And it is this particular aspect of the learning process that I wanted to honour in redesigning the project outline and assigned expectations to focus on the sharing of and in one another’s journeys through the project.

Alumni quotes

Alumni Advice

The project’s goals remain largely the same, but I have tried to have the various assignments move away from presenting a finalized product toward capturing a study in progressBiographical research is intended to be connected to each learner’s personal goals – expressed in blog posts from earlier in the year, or their IEP – and field studies and Night of the Notables postings are designed to become a synthesis of both presentation and reflection of individual learning.

Groups will be formed to facilitate commenting and feedback to help further one another’s inquiries into biography (and autobiography), and it is my hope that these conversations will begin to constitute an assembled ecosystem of narrated learning artifacts. The challenge I am looking to confront specifically this year is emphasizing an ethos of social media sharing and documentation to effectively archive and organize this year’s learning for future reflection and growth.

Because we hope to be transformed positively from this experience, each of us. But if we are to make these journeys, and come to these new perceptions, there is an almost moral obligation to share that wisdom with others who might make the trip themselves, something I’ll be interested to see unfold in the coming weeks.

Generative Themes, Emerging Subjectivity & the Discussable Object

The Map Evolves

Image courtesy of Andy Forgrave

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

Paulo Freire

It has seemed particularly fitting to be developing Philosophy 12‘s Metaphysics unit alongside my recent reading about critical pedagogy, epistemological emergence, and how they are each influencing my existing fascination with Gregory Bateson’s framework for transformative learning. As members of the class each go about discovering the ideas of a prominent metaphysician, I have waited to see how the group might approach the creation of a Discussable Object that will enable an authentic collective reflection of the group’s individual learning.

To Freire, this process of mutual engagement and reflection is central to the social construction of reality, showing a clear instance of the course’s own constructivist philosophy interacting with the course content to point to our emerging task(s):

“…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.”

For my part, I believe that much of this has been set in motion by virtue of the course environment and the unit assignment(s) thus far: to share initial findings on a metaphysical thinker’s life and ideas, isolate and reflect upon what can be interpreted of their “major” questions concerning reality, the self, and points in between, and to engage with peers’ ideas.

In the discussions following from last week’s blog posts, we see Dylan and Aman driving at the heart of one of Freire’s “limit situations:”

“I really like that example that you use, because I think that’s such a great way of thinking of the Will as more of a positive thing. Instead of something that suffocates us, as Schopenhauer would believe, we can view it as something that brings us more joy with the new experiences it could bring us, and just taking the unfulfilled desires as things to learn by. Or maybe we could see it somewhere in between the two?”

“It is with [this] apprehension of the complex of contradictions,” Freire says, “that the second stage of the investigation begins.”

“Always acting as a team, the investigators will select some of these contradictions to develop the codifications to be used in the thematic investigation. Since the codifications (sketches or photographs [or oral descriptions of an existential problem]) are the objects which mediate the decoders in their critical analysis, the preparation of these codifications must be guided by certain principles other than the usual ones for making visual aids.

[…]

“Since they represent existential situations, the codifications should be simple in their complexity and offer various decoding possibilities in order to avoid the brainwashing tendencies of propaganda. Codifications are not slogans; they are cognizable objects, challenges towards which the critical reflection of the decoders should be directed.”

In the coming days, the class will strive to represent these codifications as ‘cognizable objects’ that extend in a “thematic fan” from the contraries at the nucleus of each’s journey into metaphysics. Following from discussions on the blog, as well as the fruits of #PhilsDayOff, the week’s dialogue leading up to the creation of the Discussable Object will seek to employ the concept of emergence on two levels:

“We need emergence on the level of meaning itself, but because meaning is attached to human subjectivity we also (at the same time) need it at the level of human subjectivity. In other words, we need the concept of emergence in a double sense.”

This double sense of emergence is something I feel might be possible within the context of the Discussable Object, as the group’s individual revellations will inform the development of a collective awareness. “Nobody knows whom he reveals when he discloses himself in deed or word,” says Hannah Arendt, adding (by way of Osberg & Biesta):

“Because human subjectivity emerges only when one acts with others who are different (Arendt 1958, Biesta 2006), this means education only takes place where ‘otherness’ – being with others who are different from us – creates such a space. In this sense it is the plurality of the ‘space of emergence’ that educates, not the teacher (Biesta 2006).

Here it feels as though we might be on the verge of a learning opportunity that organically binds the teaching of subject material with an acknowledgement and integration with an ongoing search for the self that “stimulates the appearance of a new perception and the development of new knowledge (Freire).”

Limit Situations, Double Binds & Transformative Learning

Freire & Bateson

Freire & Bateson

Something familiar struck me about a passage I crossed in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed the other day:

Humans, however, because they are aware of themselves and thus of the world—because they are conscious beings—exist in a dialecti­cal relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom. As they separate themselves from the world, which they objectify, as they separate themselves from their own activity, as they locate the seat of their decisions in themselves and in their relations with the world and others, people overcome the situations which limit them: the “limit-situations.”

Gregory Bateson talks about this moment of “transformative learning” (Level III Learning) arising out of the double bind:

“Bateson (1973:276) refers to being `driven to level III by `contraries’ generated at level II’; `The “problem” to which third-order learning is a “solution” consists of systematic contradictions in experience’ (Bredo 1989:35). This matches what we have called elsewhere `dilemmas of participation’ (Tosey et al 2005).”

To Dr. Paul Tosey, confronting the limit-situation is a confrontation with “the significance of metaphor at the root of perception, and the profound potential for learning should such metaphors change.”

I think Freire would have agreed:

Once perceived by individuals as fetters, as obstacles to their liberation, these situations stand out in relief from the background, revealing their true nature as concrete historical dimensions of a given reality. Men and women respond to the challenge with actions which Vieira Pinto calls “limit-acts“: those directed at negating and overcoming, rather than passively ac­cepting, the “given.”

As critical percep­tion is embodied in action, a climate of hope and confidence devel­ops which leads men to attempt to overcome the limit-situations. As reality is transformed and these situations are superseded, new ones will appear, which in turn will evoke new limit-acts.

It is with the creation of the critical perception which is at the heart of progress, and where we may find the essence of the arts. As we move between Bateson’s Levels of Learning, he:

emphasise[s] the significance of the aesthetic in apprehending the patterning between levels; `I have suggested elsewhere… that art is commonly concerned with… bridging the gap between the more or less unconscious premises acquired by Learning II and the more episodic content of consciousness and immediate action’ (1973:279).

Creativity is necessary to participating in Freire’s critical consciousness:

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. Because—in contrast to animals—people can tri-dimensionalize time into the past, the present, and the future, their history, in function of their own creations, develops as a constant process of transformation within which epochal units materialize.

For Freire, we must create a critical consciousness that can apprehend the themes that shape our present “epochal unit,” as well as imagine the conceptions that will allow us to transcend it:

An epoch is characterized by a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values, and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites, striving towards plenitude. The concrete representation of may of these ideas, values, concepts and hopes, as well as the obstacles which impede the people’s full humanization, constitute the themes of that epoch. These themes imply others which are opposing or even antithetical; they also indicate tasks to be carried out and fulfilled. Thus, historical themes are never isolated, independent, disconnected, or static; they are always interacting dialectically with their opposites.

With a number of different – historical, social, political, economic – forces driving local and global communities toward further and further polarization, it is easy to see the consequences of Freire’s “universe of themes in dialectical contradiction” in that:

persons take equally contradictory positions: some work to maintain the structures, others to change them. As antagonism deepens between themes which are the expression of reality, there is a tendency for the themes and for reality itself to be mythicized, establishing a climate of irrationality and sectarianism. This climate threatens to drain the themes of their deeper significance and to deprive them of their characteristically dynamic aspect. In such a  situation, myth-creating irrationality itself becomes a fundamental theme.

The solution perhaps lies in discovering our cultural moment’s “opposing theme,” and cultivating

the critical and dynamic view of the world, [which] strives to unveil reality, unmask its mythicization, and achieve a full realization of the human task: the permanent transformation of reality in favor of the liberation of people.