School Politics

Participation Inequality 90 9 1

Image courtesy of Christopher Allen on Flickr.

It is a common sentiment that schools ought be apolitical spaces, despite the fact that in policy, curriculum, and objectives they cannot help but exist in political reality. In the resultant power dynamic that confronts us as professionals, even reluctant teachers engage in a struggle for agency and voice in working for what we believe are the best interests of our students. As union members and public employees, our contract negotiations, and evolving role in society is regularly part of the broader political dialogue that surrounds schools, whether in our neighbourhoods, newspapers, broadcast media or holiday dinners.

Our efforts to work alongside our colleagues and cultivate the spaces of public education take on political dimensions in other ways beyond the classroom, as well. As the Canadian Multicultural Act puts forth, our pluralist democracy is only realized through “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.”

However, even while we are each ensured this right as citizens of Canada (a right reinforced by the collective bargaining power to resist provided with our union membership), the structural inequalities present in society manifest themselves in our classrooms, and are similarly recreated among school and district staffs.  Intersectional privileges and marginalization lead to working environments which have largely been established (and continue to be maintained and administrated) by those who have been the beneficiaries of the system as it exists.

Administrators and trustees, board office employees and superintendents, department heads, increasingly essential Parent Advisory Council leadership, union representatives and other decision-making committees in a school or district tend to skew toward those who share a collection of unearned privileges: they are disproportionally male, often white, and possess a particular confidence and conversational / social capital. Among those who are not male, or caucasian, there is often a shared economic class (even among teachers, who share a pay scale but emerge from relatively diverse economic backgrounds), or level of education. Recent immigrants are at a disadvantage in acquiring these attributes (which can be acquired), and can be delayed in attaining positions of influence or power; as in all aspects of social life, those who are not comfortable or confident vocal participants in larger groups are underrepresented in the collected culture.

At this disempowered end of this spectrum of influence we generally see an over-representation of the young, new Canadians, visible minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, people with more challenging social-economic backgrounds, and women.

And yet, the Multicultural Act promises not only a national aspiration toward “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society,” but demands that Canada “assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.” We are not merely assured this right as citizens and educators in Canada, but also challenged to continually strive to expand the circle of participants in our emergent national narrative.

It may be easy to see that this ought be our intention as teachers orienting our schools and classrooms toward citizenship, and providing a democratic education; however it is important to consider the role we each play in cultivating the public school space as one which seeks to eradicate the inequalities which prevent “all participants” from contributing to “all aspects” of community life and identity.

Fortunately, there are many avenues and opportunities for these inclusive dialogues to take place, and which ought be embraced by those looking to work toward social justice in our schools, for our colleagues as much as our students: professional development, collaborative decision making, departmental, committees, union volunteerism, and social planning groups offer official channels for discussion and dialogue that includes the possibility of all voices. Beyond these our hallways and staff rooms, intramural pitches of competition and picket lines offer an informal space of interaction that can foster collegiality and consensus that enables our capacity to collaborate as professionals.

Across these settings there are inevitably those whose voices are heard above the rest, and we needn’t take anything away from those possessing the ability to influence; but we are not practicing democracy if we do not work to correct a system of interaction in which many are disproportionally voiceless.

Lit Review Twitter Essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21. Fugitive thoughts quickly captured.

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

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

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

It might begin something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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Here we might continue in an academic voice:

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

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

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

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

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

Again:

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching in the Patriarchy

PATRIARCHAL EDUCATION 2014

Image courtesy of Christopher Dombres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“promote[s] the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist[s] them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education for Citizenship as Shared Fate

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A theme in liberal democracy which presents a challenge for citizenship education is the tension created between recognizing difference and diversity in society alongside the development of a shared cultural foundation. This tension has been highlighted on numerous occasions on this blog in the citing of work by Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta, who note that “In contemporary multicultural societies, the difficulty with education as planned enculturation lies in the question of who decides what or whose culture should be promoted through education.”

They write:

“If we hold that meaning is emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ‘ground’ it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic. In other words the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the aims of education, traditionally conceived.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Ben-Porath, civic learning for citizenship as shared fate includes acquiring:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He continues:

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

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

Here, shared fate:

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

Blog as Prologue

Evening Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Moments happen quickly, and changes come slowly.”

Summer school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than one hundred years ago, Montessori wished

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

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

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

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

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

must be of the strictest rigor.

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

On Open Learning Environments

Sweden’s Vittra School (Image from Edudemic.com)

When looking to explore the panoply of 21st century incarnations of education, I am often compelled to seek out a tangible unifying force at work which might correspond within a larger context of society as it is being influenced by the digital technology revolution.

As the web has increased in its capacity for open sharing and collaboration, it has inverted power-structures and business models that have failed to meet authentically the potentialities of the emerging digital age. Where we can see outdated business-practices in the music and film threatening those industries’ continued existence in the age of file sharing online and the advent of remix culture in aps and Macintosh Arts on devices around the world, educational institutions should seek to embrace the 21st century as an opportunity to help cultivate educational value in the communities they serve. In attempting to identify this through-line within the lens of imagining future learning environments, I find inspiring the conception of a scholastic experience whose foundational purpose is to aid in the removal of the boundaries and walls which exist in our institutions.

The literal and perceived ‘walls’ of school largely extend from a bureaucracy established to serve a different conception of knowledge and schooling than exists today. We separate students by age and grade, divide classes by time (with bells!), segregate our subjects in different areas of our buildings, and detach much of the experience of learning about a variety of topics from applying or rejoicing in the value the labour of their learning contributes to the community. If we look at the manifestation of 21st century principles at work in enterprises like Wikipedia – where the values of connection, openness, and collaboration have made the peer-edited encyclopedia a global storehouse of emergent knowledge – schools would be well advised to adopt similar ethos in creating tomorrow’s schools.

While the information revolution might be in the process of changing cataclysmically the manner in which we go about learning informally as much as formally, the spirit of connection, openness and collaboration presents the possibility of a one room school house for the 21st century, where the physical barriers in our schools – walls, separate subjects, age groupings – dissolve along with the larger boundaries we imagine construct our schools.

John Willinsky talks about how “the democratic culture of [our] country is dependent on the educational quality of our civic lives,” which I would like to apply to a conception of schooling wherein the cultivation of this ‘educative civic life’ is nurtured and maintained by the learning activities carried out by the students themselves. This notion of learning has been nurtured in my own practice through the open-education movement and pioneers such as Stephen Downes, Jim Groom and Gardner Campbell, who have worked to develop the architecture of open online courses. In opening their courses and institutional learning communities to the wider web, and reflecting on and reforming their work publicly, they have created courses which function as just this sort of societally enriching education.

In sketching out the design principles underlying effective self-organizing networks, Stephen Downes describes how “human neural networks, student educational experiences, the cities, ecosystems and anything else you want to create a network out of work better if they satisfy the following four criteria”:

Autonomy, the individuals in the network makes their own decisions.

Diversity, being one isn’t about being the same. Let me repeat. Being one isn’t about being the same. Being a Valencian isn’t about being the same, being a pine tree isn’t about being the same, being a doctor isn’t about being the same. Diversity, in fact, is what makes being doctors possible.

Interactivity, the knowledge created by a network is created by the interaction between its members and, as we would say, is emergent from its members and is not simply the propagation of one person’s opinion to another, to another, to another, to another. Everybody contributes together to make knowledge.

[…]

Finally, openness, because networks cannot work if they are closed. Networks cannot work if there are barriers to communication, if there are barriers to entry, if only some kind of messages are allowed.

Something I’ve been thinking about in my last few posts has been the possibility and potential for our schools to embrace these more open principals while fulfilling their institutional responsibilities. As much as we might wish (or philosophically rationalize) that education to take on this more free-range (or what Jim might call feral) approach, there is tension here between an intrinsic inspiration – that emanating from individual learners – and and the extrinsic obligations of institutional requirements. But in exploring the boundary between these opposing forces, there is much to be learned about which assumptions about learning we can retain, and which we might discard.

Jim Groom‘s recent Internet Course at the University of Mary Washington, which he has been teaching with Paul Bond, has offered an example in striking a new balance in course planning, execution, and assessment:

What was somewhat unique about this particular test was that the students designed it. The questions for the test were based on the four panels discussions they ran over the first half of the semester. These panels were student-led, driven by the research they did in the first couple of weeks on specific topics such as internet historyhow it workscreation/consumption, and intellectual property.

Given the students have been framing the curriculum and discussions for the class thus far, it only made sense to have them create the midterm. The result was pretty remarkable. The test is impressive, and it reminded me a bit of what happened with assignments in ds106. What’s more, the feedback students gave Paul and I on the test was interesting–almost to a student they found it both difficult and useful in forcing them to re-engage and clarify what we discussed during each of the panels.

Gardner Campbell recently captured the web’s role in bringing about some of what these first two have described here by highlighting the role of recursion and syndication in learning:

Web syndication really does think about the web as a vast database, and each site on the web as potentially a dynamic, curated representation or slice of that database. But the database is itself constantly refreshed because the web that feeds the database of the web is the web of human curiosity, expression, and meaning-making.

Education as a constantly refreshing database. A web of human curiosity, expression, and meaning-making. Idyllic, utopian even. What might such principles lead to in the K12 classroom, though?

Enter Sweden’s Vittra School, which brings us back to the initial idea of division and barriers in the classroom:

The principles of the Vittra School revolve around the breakdown of physical and metaphorical class divisions as a fundamental step to promoting intellectual curiosity, self-confidence, and communally responsible behavior. Therefore, in Vittra’s custom-built Stockholm location, spaces are only loosely defined by permeable borders and large, abstract landmarks. As the architects explained, “instead of classical divisions with chairs and tables, a giant iceberg for example serves as cinema, platform, and room for relaxation, and sets the frame for many different types of learning,” while “flexible laboratories make it possible to work hands-on with themes and projects.”

Whether our schools feel compelled or pushed to pursue these (r)evolutions is something only time will reveal. But there is an ecosystem of knowledge and learning that is enabled by the advent of the web that schools would do well to embrace if they are to grow meaningfully into the 21st century.

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

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.