Apathy & Oligarchy in the Public Sphere

Democracy

Photo courtesy of Filippo Minelli.

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

Two forces at work in North American society at the outset of the 21st century present a troubling prospect for those considering the citizenship education of Canadian youth in an era of digital shock: those of apathy and oligarchy. Research into both the perceived and actual influence of individuals on the political process reveals a body politic that is, even if motivated to effect political change, ill-inspired to participate in the process of electoral politics (Howe, 2007). In the era of the Occupy Wall Street movement (Calhoun, 2013), carbon divestment campaigns at major North American universities (McKibben, 2013), and public demonstrations against austerity measures implemented across Europe (Della Porta, 2015), young people demonstrate signs of being politically engaged and do act in political ways (MacKinnon, Pitre, & Watling, 2007, p. 5). However, in North American contexts, these trends fail to affect significant political change due to downward voting trends and the rise of an influential financial and media elite.

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 (Howe, 2007, p. 5) cites a characterization of the nation’s youth as “political dropouts,” building on the dour findings of Ottilia Chareka and Alan Sears (2015) 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” (p. 521). The paper notes that despite being politically inactive when it comes to voting habits, young Canadians are more inclined toward other forms of political engagement – political rallies, demonstrations, or public awareness campaigns and petitions – that offer encouraging signs that positive change may be possible. McKinnon, Pitre, and Watling (2007) similarly observe that “youth have tended to reframe engagement in more individual and less institutional terms” (p. iii), which may create a more engaged voting block as the millennial generation comes of age.

In the meantime however, available data presents a troubling landscape. Drawing on Election Canada Studies (1997, 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008), Blais and Loewen (2011) note that “[voter] turnout decline is a long-term phenomenon” and “that this trend is not unique to Canada” (p. 13). The authors observe that “At least two-thirds of new voters would cast a ballot in the 1960s; by 2004 it was about one third” (p. 12), and explore different possibilities leading to such a declining interest in voting, ranging from gender, to marital status, to socioeconomic class and religious affiliation, finding inconclusive data to support a case that any of these factors in isolation could prove the cause of the trend. Similarly, the political contexts affecting youth attitudes toward the democratic process – the tone of campaigns or partisan advertising, the competitiveness of electoral contests, or narrow interests represented by national political parties – fail to yield a singular cause of disenchantment among youth voters. However, “There is ample evidence that the attitudes and values of recent generations are different from those of their predecessors and that this change is in good part responsible for the recent turnout decline” (p. 18).

This disinterest in the franchise of voting itself threatens to amplify the trend Gilens and Page (2014) identify in the United States wherein the political economy has been transformed into (or returned to) an oligarchy, where “mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence” (p. 565). “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests,” they write, “they generally lose” (p. 576). While many are quick to champion the levelling or democratisation that digital tools have brought the global public sphere (see subsequent sections of Literature Review), recent trends in the privatisation of educational resources (Ball, Thrupp, & Forsey, 2010), the revelation of corporate cooperation with government surveillance (Lee, 2013), and the strident defense of private intellectual property that might otherwise benefit the common good (May, 2013) are less inspiring.

Habermas (1991) describes the rise of the period leading to the establishment of our modern democratic institutions as having created the bourgeois public sphere, where “for the first time in history, individuals and groups could shape public opinion, giving direct expression to their needs and interests while influencing political practice” (Kellner, 2000, p. 263). However, the course of Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1991) charts “the path from a public critically reflecting on its culture to one that merely consumes it” (p. 175), which aptly describes the findings of the previous paragraph. Kellner notes, however, that “Habermas offered tentative proposals to revitalize the public sphere by setting ‘in motion a critical process of public communication through the very organizations that mediatize it (1989a, p. 232)” (p. 65), a sentiment which underlies the motivation for this project to explore the role that the experimentation with and the discovery of one’s voice within digital spaces might play in the citizenship development of young people, as well as the reclamation of the public sphere.

Indeed, a 2007 synthesis report of the Canadian Policy Research Networks series of papers, entitled “Charting the Course for Youth Civic and Political Participation,” cites schools, “and, more precisely, civics or citizenship education – both in content and pedagogy – as being both a significant cause of and solution for declining political knowledge and skills” (MacKinnon et al., 2007, p. 15). The authors note that “educational institutions, governments, political parties, politicians, the community sector and youth themselves” must collectively engage in the process of citizenship learning, a dynamic process which is not simply an act of “transferring knowledge from one generation to another – rather, it is about embracing youth as co-creators and partners in renewing civil and democratic life in Canada” (p. vi). In concert with the critical framework for citizenship learning outlined here, the report stresses that,

As young people reflect on their civic and political roles, it is clear that many of them must first find their own identity as a Canadian[.] They need opportunities to practice being a citizen – through discussion and debate, at home, in schools and in their own and broader communities. (p. vi)

References

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.

On motivating the Difficult Student

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

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

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

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

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

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

But here I am.

I continue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Teaching and Learning

Diagrams by David Warlick

Diagrams by David Warlick

A few of us from the #Tiegrad group met up on Sunday morning to talk about all sorts of things: project updates, questions, and frustrations, the nature of personalized learning and education in the ‘open,’ and the unique moment each of us finds ourselves in: presently at the intersection between teacher and learner. Even Valerie Irvine, formally our leader in this process, is working out just what instruction might mean or entail in this open, personalized context.

The particular community of practice we have assembled in our aggregated blog posts, Twitter hashtag, and Blue Jeans video conferences is facilitating just the sort of learning experience around which many of our learning project inquiries revolve. The course ‘content’ is our own personally relevant and autonomous field research and reflection, all of which is aggregated in a supportive community of public inquiry.

But it is through the reflection on the process of learning itself that we may each have the most to learn as we seek to discover ways to provide this same type of empowering education in our own classrooms, and turn our own theories into practice.

Epistemology Groups

EdCamp style discussion groups in #Philosophy12

For me, the skills attending to student “ownership” of learning are essential elements in the ongoing creation and maintenance of a democratic society. A classroom in which students rely on a teacher to singularly construct the learning environment, content matter, manner of delivery, and means of assessment is providing an education in citizenship that instills a democratic helplessness.

In the wake of the unfolding Senate scandal playing out in the midst of Stephen Harper’s majority mandate, I asked my Philosophy 12 class what they thought about any of it: Mike Duffy’s explosive Senate addresses, the Prime Minister’s evolving take on the story’s finer points, or the state of the country in general.

“What’s it like to be young people in Canada today?”

To which a few offered brief responses before the room settled on the consensus that politics and democracy were concerns that would involve them ‘later.’ For the time being, each remain a vague and opaque streak of ‘adult business.’

I don’t think I’m alone in finding the sentiment troubling. But I am grateful to Gert Biesta, who explores the origins of this perspective in his paper, “Understanding Young People’s Citizenship Learning in Everyday Life: The Role of Contexts, Relationships and Dispositions,” where he explains that “Young people learn from the opportunities for action, participation and reflection that are afforded by the practices and communities in their everyday lives.”

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12

Discussable Object notes in #Philosophy12

And so despite being taught about government, our legal system, and the history of our inherited democracy, there is an implicit message in the context of our educational institutions that is presenting an exclusive version of democracy, rather than an inclusive and participatory incarnation “since It fails to recognize that young people always already participate in social life and that their lives are always already implicated in the wider social, economic, cultural and political order (see Smith et al, 2005; Faulks, 2006).”

Biesta writes 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.”

It is within this view and experience of the world that effective citizenship education must situate itself in the lives of young people if it seeks to be successful. Here, I am reminded of Paulo Freire:

“…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.”

But this is not the way it has been.

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12

Discussable Object Creation.

Students have been taught what is required that they know before graduation or articulation, and have performed the required tasks to demonstrate such knowledge. The range of choices and human interactions has been limited to a dynamic between teacher and students as separate, but identical relationships, and between students mostly as a counterculture within the institution. Nowhere emphasized is the importance of collaborative decision making, the negotiation of disagreement, or the skills required to bring about either.

Contemplating an epidemic of democratic apathy in the western world, and as our municipal, federal and world leaders growing ever more brazen in continued experiments of unchecked abuses of power, I think about the necessity of educating students to engage in educational discourse which:

“is based on finding agreement, welcoming different points of view, identifying the common good in the myriad of competing self-interests, searching for synthesis and consensus, promoting solidarity, and ultimately improving community life (Schugurensky).”

In his essay, “Transformative Learning and Transformative Politics,” Daniel Schugurensky describes a process of learning which “requires the presence of different viewpoints (especially those that challenge prevailing norms) and must allow (even encourage) the expression of dissent.” He quotes Henry Giroux (2001), who writes:

“The struggle over politics and democracy is inextricably linked to creating public spheres where individuals can be educated as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities, and knowledge they need not only to actually perform as autonomous political agents, but also to believe that such struggles are worth taking up.”

This type of experiential learning may help to create what Edmund O’Sullivan (1999:252) called “A new civic culture in which a sense of community and place are the basic empowering infrastructures for more extended involvement in wider communities of participation.”

It could even be seen to encompass the premise Bonnie Stewart recognizes as the potential for open online courses to help create such “new civic cultures”:

“The capacity for networked interaction may itself be subject to network effects and, therefore, scale and encourage a digital literacies ethos of distributed expertise, increased peer-to-peer participation, collaboration, and knowledge generation.”

But it is an idea that goes back to John Dewey as part of the essential elements in democratic social construction:

“This transmission occurs by means of communication of habits of doing, thinking, and feeling from the older to the younger. Without this communication of ideals, hopes, expectations, standards, opinions, from those members of society who are passing out of the group life to those who are coming into it, social life could not survive.”

It is something I think the #Tiegrad folks have particular insight into at this moment, perhaps, as we find ourselves both teachers and students reflecting on our experiences as each.

If we are to, as Freire compels us, to “reconcile the teacher-student contradiction,” we are entering educative waters indeed.

“…totally uncharted territory.”

#IntroGuitar Performance Day

Something that I haven’t given as much blog attention here as I would have liked so far this semester is the vibrant community that has sprung up around our school’s Introduction to Guitar class. Having had students post their work regularly to a wiki site in past years, I wanted to incorporate some of the design lessons I learned in #Philosophy12 and create a site that could function as a hub of creation, collaboration, and community that would serve not only our school’s face-to-face guitar students, but also offer wayfinding musicians on the open web a place to play, learn, and offer their own expertise to one another.

Alan Levine nailed it with this description:

…it is not a class that teaches guitar but one where you can learn guitar.

And while I think the course has always functioned this way as a ‘closed’ system (even though we have shared our exploits on Youtube, #ds106radio, and other places), the energy and inspiration that our open online participants have so far brought to the class has increased the creative combustibility of the group by several orders of magnitude. There are folks in Japan, Ontario, Australia, Singapore, and even Ontario-azona strumming along with #IntroGuitar lessons and assignments, sharing stories of their instruments, their struggles (and triumphs) of playing music, and making meaningful musical connections with the face-to-face students who meet daily in our school’s choir room through videos, blog comments, and listening to performances in class.

One such connection that has been working its way through the course community began as a poem shared by a student of Jabiz Raisdana, in Singapore.

Having made some trans-oceanic songs written with Jabiz over the years, I opened up a Google Document and began sanding the poems edges and syllables with some chords and a basic melody. I recorded this so that folks could follow up with what I had made out of Michelle’s orginal poem, and posted the works on Twitter and the #IntroGuitar blog.

Over the weekend, Nathan John Moes continued to work with the chords and Michelle’s lyrics and added this version of the song that has been stuck in my head since Sunday night.

Take a listen. Seriously, wow.

Which all would have been amazing, right? A poem gets posted late at night (I might be adding that piece to the narrative…) on a student blog in Singapore, and a week later it’s spawned a song that has been amended, added to, and recorded by a few teachers in British Columbia.

But this ball is still rolling, still bouncing.

Coming full circle, Jabiz spent this past Saturday morning recording a new incarnation of the song (version III now, if you were counting), and so did Colin Jagoe, in Ontario.

Of his work putting the song and the recording together, Colin said:

...this is totally uncharted territory for me.

Totally uncharted territory, for a guy who isn’t even getting a grade or credit for the course and – beyond that – has been playing guitar for more than ten years.

And yet still, the ball bounces, and rolls. This morning Leslie joined the party all the way from Lima, Peru, Camrose, Alberta, offering the fifth (!) incarnation of the poem accompanied by her ukelele.

But this is likely not the end of this particular story, with chapters, verses and tomes yet to be discovered.

Maybe by you?

Update: 

Back in Singapore, Keri-Lee Beasley has added some stellar vocal harmonies to Nathan’s track. Check it out:

The Confederation Discussions

Confederation discussions

This past week, the TALONS classes have hosted and facilitated half-hour long activities and discussions that have been focused on an exploration of historical contexts and details of Canadian Confederation, as well as an attempt to cultivate the recently discussed Dispositions of Democratic Discussion

After an initial introduction to the Victorian era in the Canadian colonies, the unit’s focus on dialogue and discussion came about through lengthy collective reflections about each TALONS class’ strengths and areas requiring growth in oral participation and facilitation.

Major themes arising from these goal-setting sessions addressed:

  • Generating momentum at the beginning of a unit / week / class meeting: using hook-questions, soliciting initial opinions, and establishing a pace that invites broad participation and thinking.
  • Show people that their responses are relevant and valued within the discussion:
    • Make connections, follow up, refer to visual notes; demonstrate an appreciation of ideas.
  • Isolating the key issue, taking what has been said, and synthesizing the main question, issue, or key idea.
  • Guiding the discussion or lecture with questions and participant-responses, and discovering what types of questions or comments offer the most substance?
    • Conversation-starters,
    • Connections to past (or future) discussion points,
    • Inducing conversation, laughter, ease and comfort.
    • Allowing for quad/small group chats.
    • Posing questions generated within the moment.
    • Providing or soliciting visual notes.
  • Framing the topic or issue within the group’s existing understanding.
  • Involving the reluctant speaker by experimenting with the questions being asked, the format of the discussion, or style of engagement and individual participation.

On Monday there will be a traditional exam on the topics covered, and reflection assignments intended to synthesize personal and group learning about the skills and dispositions required for fruitful constructivist learning; it seemed appropriate to attempt to summarize my own observations of the unit.

Stars: Hospitality, Participation & Humility 

Each of the different discussions, debates and activities that the quads arranged found unique avenues toward involving a broader range of their classmates in a negotiation of understanding of the topics.

The different role-plays, mock-Parliaments, and small-group discussions created diverse entry-points and opportunities for quieter individuals to engage with their own thinking, that of their peers, and the new comprehension of the topics that came out of the process. The group’s and individuals presenting material or discussion points on the various topics were consistently humble in their own interpretation of the facts, and were quick to invite multiple perspectives into the conversation.

Wishes: Deliberation, Mindfulness & Hope

Going forward, for my part I would like to focus on building on cultivating greater mindfulness and deliberation by exploring the different ways that individuals can document and share their individual understanding (beyond classroom dialogue) in the hope that our time spent in discussion can go beyond the initial concepts to ask more philosophical, or related questions on the topics covered.

I think this synthesis of ideas beyond basic understanding will ask for a more consistently mindful approach to the class’ collective goals. This will require not only that discussion-participants raise the intensity and attentiveness of their own engagement with their ideas and one another, but that our moderators and classroom leaders are able to recognize and articulate the group’s learning intentions with clarity, and provide the modeling and facilitation to bring these goals about.

Artifacts of Process

The Digital Imagination

Notes on @GardnerCampbell's talk, Teaching, Learning & the Digital Imagination

We’ve been talking a lot in Socials lately about how to realize the potential of discussion in the TALONS classroom. As we attempt to engage with the salient meaning of Canadian Confederation, we are talking about democracy, engagement, and the synthesis of diverse ideas. In addition to Aman compiling a list of strategies to confront obstacles from shyness to a lack of basic understanding of the topic on the class blog, Jess took to her own site to share advice that came up during our class debriefing:

While I, myself dislike mind maps and being assigned to take notes, I enjoy writing down things. Little epiphanies I’ve had from the last two years are literally written all over my pieces of note paper and for me this is the most effective way of learning. Yes, I can admittedly say that if I’m given free reign on a lined sheet of paper while people are talking, I may not listen to the entire conversation and yes, I may spend 25% of the class trying to finally figure out how to perfectly draw a human head, but I do listen.

The way this had been phrased during the afternoon conversation was as a goal for each participant in the class’ conversations to create an Artifact of Process: a drawing, a list, a learning statement; a question, a tweet, or a blog post. Something I have been particularly better at this year (so far) has been in keeping a coherent daybook of lesson plans, to-do lists, brainstorms and notes on various talks, Youtube sessions, and Philosophy assignments.

In their own way, they are their own sort of visual art.

Making the Learning Visible: TALONS on the American Revolution

Initial Questions about the American Revolution
Questions after reading homework from 2011

As part reflection on a statement made during the introductory session of Alec Couros#ETMOOC, and part synthesis of the TALONS introductory blogging and commenting on the American Revolution, I wanted to highlight some of the recent dialogue and discussion going on in the TALONS classroom these last few days.

Someone noted during the first #ETMOOC meeting that part of open learning revolved around making the learning visible, and I think a major contributing factor to the success of the TALONS blogging community is an evolving ability to present and share individual and collective learning. But something I have come to appreciate lately is how this knowledge has grown alongside an ability to meta-cognate, and build upon the lessons of networking norms explored by the last few years’ classes.

Old and Bold
Image edit and Interview synthesis by #Talons Yilin, Hayley, Max and Kyler

Now three full years into the class experiment in conducting and presenting our learning on the public web, the community has cultivated an understory of class discussion as the architecture of the initial thinking and conversation allows it to be visible and accessible as it is being created, but also indefinitely into the future

Since we first began experimenting with the form, the TALONS have each maintained an individual blog with EduBlogs, which the class has subscribed to (comments as well) using Google Reader. Every year, links and archives of posts from each of our units of study accumulate across our subject Wikispaces, Delicious bookmarks, and these blogs to become the fodder and foundation of the next year’s learners, and it is striking to see what is possible as these years have begun to accumulate.

The class began this last week with the assigned readings of a host of 2011 American Revolution posts, and a few questions:

More Questions about the American Revolution

    • What is the author’s main idea, or thesis in the post? 
    • How do they support this claim?
    • Who are the key figures / what are the main events discussed?
    • What conclusions about the American Revolution does the post give you? 
    • What questions about the American Revolution does the post give you? 
This led to many new questions, which then erupted in a weekend’s blog posts and commenting.

 

TALONS grade nine Alyssa highlights the Seven Years War as a key ingredient in the outset of the Revolution:

 

Over the course of thirteen years, the American revolution raged on between the British, and the American colonists.  But what were the reasons that brought on one of–or even the most–important revolution? What could could set flame to such a fire that a nation could split in two?

To discover this, we must trace back to the where the first larger scales of disruptions of peace started, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, in 1763. Just twelve years later, the American revolution officially started in 1775.

Picking up where the thread, Sierra does an eloquent job of creating context beyond the Seven Years War to reveal the colonies as anger and violence bound to boil over:

After the Seven years War, the British Empire was markedly fatigued, as the war had, among other things, caused great financial hardships to Britain. This meant that Britain was relying more and more on America, raising taxes to compensate for the splurge. They began enforcing new laws, such as the Navigation Act, prohibiting colonists from shipping and trading with countries other than Britain. Then they began implementing taxes, such as the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Townshend Act, taxing everything from printed materials, to lead, pain, and tea.

This angered some of the American colonists, and the propaganda began. Britain began sending over troops, to prevent violent protests, and in 1768, four thousand redcoats landed in Massachusetts to help maintain order. However, despite this, in 1770, on March 5th a rebellious group of American colonists clashed with British troops. Five colonists died in the confrontation, and the event became known as the Boston Massacre.

Following the horror of the Boston Massacre, Owen explains how a revolution about human dignity and democracy is still often seen to revolve around tea:

Nearly all the taxing acts were either reduced or completely dropped, proving that the British still had some leniency to the colonies, which the colonists did not appreciate completely. Wealthier men and others who relied on illegal trade were especially displeased with the taxes on goods as it would eat into their profits. Tea was the only trade item that was left taxed and was sold by the East Indian Trade Company at low prices. Of course, the rich and greedy men who sold smuggled tea could not afford to lose competition. Men like Samuel Adams were essentially so jealous that they organized a raid on the Boston trading ships that saw all tea content dumped into the harbor.

But there are other conversations, and other threads being pulled, with conversations on Monday afternoon exploring ideas of unity, hypocrisy and the nature of historical mythology and symbolism during and since the Revolution.

Marie’s post, Equality? has at present gathered an impressive 21 comments. Among them such insights and questions as the ones Kim addresses here;

Something I have to add is that women in America were fighting for their rights in the American Revolution, and they did win back some rights that should have belonged to them from the very beginning. Do you feel that the American Revolution opened the door for female rights in the future, or do you feel that no change was made (impacting the rights of women)?

Kim’s own entry came in the form of a fictionalized letter from an anonymous woman during the revolution:

As the war began to grow, so did the group of ours efforts, along with women across the country.  We spun thousands upon thousands of yards of yarn, stitched hundreds of clothing items, and took our time knitting far too many stockings for the American men in battle.  We fought to be able to fill the shortage of workers in jobs that were usually occupied by men, but were then left empty during the war, and we won the battle. I took on three jobs during that time: a blacksmith, a ship builder, and a writer.

Many people were not aware that women had made a difference, and had done anything other than sitting at their home raising a family.  Women clothed the armies, signed the petitions, and wrote the books. You would not be able to hear about the war today through the original documents and encyclopedias, if it werent for the dedicated women writers. Through these small actions that we took during this rough time, we opened the door for female rights to come.

Another grade ten, Bronwyn casts her gaze on the men at the center of the struggle to forge a way out of the war with Britain:

After the war, there was much social, political, and economic disorder. It was a country of thirteen governments, each trying to help itself at the cost of the others. Nine states had their own navy and each state had its own army.  Without changing their political and governing system, America was on the road towards anarchy. The saviours of the new independent country were people like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who worked endlessly to convince a sceptical nation of the concept of unification. Finally, a form of working democracy was created. However, it took them thirteen years of unrest and negotiation to create this government.  Thirteen Years.  Was America’s new governing system a system eight years of fighting and killing and then thirteen years of internal unrest? This is not a question I can really answer, but what I can say is that people’s quest for the perfect government and democracy came with a hefty price and most people believe that it was worth every penny.

And these are only a few. Each of the fifty six TALONS published an initial reflection on the American Revolution this weekend, and three times I have scanned through more than 100 comments in my Google Reader. The class spilled and consumed some 50,000 digital words on different aspects of the American Revolution: themes, opinions, interpretations, relations to current events and personal experience.

Not only is the conversation becoming a sort of living textbook, but it is creating an ecological succession beneath the canopy of the blogging forest that has been established over the last few years. “The learning,” that nebulous, individual struggle for understanding that we negotiate with one another, is visible now and for all of the future TALONS (not to mention anyone else who finds their way into the old-growth forest of now-more than 100 individual TALONS blogs that are still online).

I hope that visitors and residence alike take away that this sort of sharing of ideas and conversation can be a powerful and authentic means of discovery. Like Jabiz says,

…blogging is contagious. As the plants begin to grow, they shield and guide and support the younger saplings. Suddenly we find ourselves in a thriving eco-system of ideas. So I will till the soil, add fertilizer when needed, consider the amount of water every seed will need. I will find sunlight or shade as needed for every fragile sapling. I will wait patiently and stare at what appears to be barren soil. But like every successful gardener I have faith and I have patience. I will wait for every seed to grow.

This year’s individual TALONS blogs can be subscribed to as a bundle by clicking this link. The comment thread is syndicated here

You can keep up with the class’ collective online space, Defying Normality, which was graciously highlighted on the excellent site, Comments4Kids, today, or follow our adventures on Flickr.

On Notable Nights

It is always quite the task to put one’s finger on just what it is that happens at Night of the Notables. Even as they have added up over the years, and the alumni that return to the event are now three and four years into university, I still come home struggling to contextualize and make meaning of just what I saw tonight.

I was involved in bringing the evening to fruition, sure; in some ways integrally. But in some ways, I feel as though the TALONS teachers might be more custodians and caretakers of these traditions and ritual rites of passage. I think this perspective is what the alumni come to share in, to some degree; there is a connection to the people on stage who might be five or six years younger, but have stepped through – or are stepping through – this doorway, and who know what it is to be transformed.

The new alumni, the grade elevens, sit behind the current grade ten notables, their former younger classmates, with their grade twelve TALONS classmates over their shoulders. There is an epicenter that radiates from the stage, where the grade tens on stage, or in the front row, and this year’s grade nines are in the second. And the MPR (our school’s multi-use, theater / cafeteria space) is changed during the speeches into a cradle for the grade tens whose turn it is this year to be great.

In the last two years, the (separate morning and afternoon) classes have each performed fourteen interwoven dramatic monologues in their characters as eminent people, an astonishing feat to behold, where one after another, they break free of tableaus and from seats in the audience (descending the stairs after beginning from the balcony), holding the audience in their palm of their hand for two minutes, and then passing the ball to the next.

They finish one another’s sentences, answer mimed cell phone calls between speakers, and pass one another letters as transitions, together creating something that is honest, magical, and their own. 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.

To those TALONS this year: my hat is off to you. You rose so naturally to the challenge set before you, furnished with those you had wagered with yourselves, and looked us dead in the eyes from the stage, transformed before us. As I said to a group of notables a few years ago – some of whom were in the room tonight: “You will know success in this life for what tonight has taught you about the personal nature of success, the irrationality of fear, and the necessity of friendship.”

Teachers and Ritual Power

Notable class of 2012

Andrew B. Watt struck me appropriately on the Sunday night before Night of the Notables with a post – you would do well to read in its entirety here – that makes a great many points that each are deserving of attention and reflection. But there are a few that I want to highlight here.

 I had an unexpected bonus conversation with my friend C.T. today, which revolved around some of my favorite topics: magic and the ability to change consciousness; the passion for creating art; the mysteries of saints; and the power of teachers.  During this last part of the conversation, we segued to a discussion of the challenge that some teachers put forward — which is that, in an effort to advance their own work and career and power, they wind up trampling on the capacities and capabilities of their students. Indeed, the teachers reap the rewards of the students’ labor, and the students take on the negative consequences of the teacher’s own bad work.

I’ve long admired Andrew’s blogging and the breadth of knowledge and opinions he brings to a range of mutual topics of passion like history, politics, teaching, philosophy, as well as an often fearless interrogation of his practice. He was one of the first people whose blog I subscribed to, and someone who I’ve kept in loose touch with online over the past four years, reading one another’s blogs, offering the odd comment, and feeling sometimes like he’s a colleague who merely works down the hall (if that hallway reached Connecticut). 

This year we discovered that we shared a birthday, and Andrew spent it tweeting me pictures and commentary from the Metropolitan Museum in New York City while I hosted a barbecue in my Port Moody backyard.

Andrew B. Watt is all kinds of awesome, if you didn’t already know.

And so the point that Andrew’s raising is something that I consider seriously, and one I’ve considered alongside Klout scores and notions of celebrity in the era of the blogged classroom. But he takes it a level (or several) deeper:

We were talking about it in a magical/spiritual context. We’d both read a book recently in which a magical society’s inner circle of adepts was teaching rituals to their outer members which made the members feel powerful, but was in fact transferring power to the adepts… and shifting a lack-of-power onto the the students… not merely lack-of-power, but in fact negative-power.  A learned helplessness.

This is something that I think my TALONS colleagues and I are constantly in negotiation with: trying to figure out where to draw the line between at various times leading, supporting, facilitating, or merely observing the learning in our classroom, and interjecting ourselves too much into the process. If the outright goal isn’t to graduate participants in the program capable of owning their own goals and the action required to attain them, it is to at least introduce them to the ways in which such ownership can be attained.

This involves the difficult notion of ‘letting go,’ of occasionally allowing kids to fail, and then to frame these experiences as opportunities for future growth.

As much as parents or teacher/facilitators can position themselves to aid in the learner’s success, in the end the impetus for success rests in their hands. School should be about the creation of opportunities for students to realize and seize their own opportunities, and I look forward to the pillars of the TALONS program as treasured rituals of passage in the life cycle of the class: the Fall Retreat, Night of the Notables, cultural outings, the Adventure Trip, In Depth.

There is the artifice of tradition, and the singularity of the present moment in time, crystalized between the held gazes of the current participants.

But Andrew frames the question in an interesting way to consider:

 One of the things that magical teachers do (which exoteric/ordinary teachers like myself and many of my readers do not do) is give their students rituals to perform for their empowerment and spiritual growth.  C.T. had attended a workshop in which one of the presenters pointed out that some of these rituals do what they say they do — they empower the performers of the rituals so that they experience spiritual growth.  But, C.T. said that the presenter also warned about the opposite — rituals that disempower those who perform them, such that they think they’ve made spiritual progress, but in fact they have actually inflated their egos and empowered the teacher who has given them nothing of real value.  Meanwhile, the teacher gains power from the ritual performed — they get a toehold in the mental and emotional framework of the student, and the student is more inclined to treat further ‘empowerments’ as worthwhile and valuable, even as they are disempowered to seek further growth elsewhere.  Insidious.

Only mildly crushed by the prospect of not being considered a ‘magical’ teacher, I am keenly interested to think about how to bring about rituals that ’empower the performers of the ritual so that they experience spiritual growth,’ how to put the choice to act – or not – in the learner’s hands and see what meaning they can make of the experience.

How is it that we go about creating learning that is magical and transformative?

Whether growth is spiritual, intellectual, social, or emotional is, if the experience is crafted just right, up to the participant in the moment itself; where the teacher should find themselves in all of this a precarious balance, I think, and indeed, “one of those deep imponderables that can really roil the soul of a teacher and make them question the validity of their career.”

And perhaps, it is the one deep imponderable that drives all of the others.