Citizenship Curriculum as a Response to Digital Shock


Image courtesy of Tom Woodward.

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

As Clay Shirky noted now almost ten years ago, “We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capacity in the history of the human race” (2008, p. 106), prompting many educational stakeholders to encounter a digital age in which “forms of information have changed drastically” (Simsek & Simsek, 2013, p. 127), inducing what may be viewed as a state of shock. They explain:

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

While pervasive across the affected culture, this type of societal confusion represents an opportunity to reform collective enterprises including, but certainly not limited to, monetary policy and public schooling. Naomi Klein notes in The Shock Doctrine (2008) that such ‘shocks’ are opportunities for radical interventions in policy reform, citing the champion of neoliberal capitalism Milton Friedman’s admission that “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around” (p. 166). This holds true as schools look to encounter the shock of producing a curriculum for the digital age, as David Berry highlights “the plasticity of digital forms and the way in which they point toward a new way of working with representation and mediation […] whereby one is able to approach culture in a radically new way” (2011, p. 1).

Educationists and those who would ensure that the educational “ideas that are lying around” in the midst of such a shock ought consider critically the role that curriculum plays in adequately equipping young people to inherit and recreate a society that reflects Canadian pluralist ideals: a skillset and disposition we might broadly encapsulate as “citizenship.” This project outlines a particular conception of citizenship curriculum for the digital age that it might be an “idea lying around” as stakeholders look to reform education in the 21st century. The citizenship proposed here intends to address inequalities inherent in democratic systems by helping bring about the “full and active participation of each member of society” promised by the Multicultural Act of Canada (Canadian Multiculturalism Act, c 24 (4th Supp), 1985), as well as the representation of all members of Canadian society in the ongoing construction of the national identity.

Integral to this conception of citizenship learning is the 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” (Biesta, Lawy, & Kelly, 2009, p. 3).

In looking to design educational opportunities in which young people can experience authentic citizenship learning, curriculum cannot be bound to a static perception of content, skills, or outcomes, but rather must emerge from an exploration of the lives of young people (see: Freire, Osberg, Biesta). As a result, the project considers forces impacting the democratic realities of youth, and looks to allow for the creation of a new narrative of citizenship learning to emerge in the process of the unit framework outlined here.


Running, Writing & Living: to Make the Means the Ends

Throwback Friday

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

As it is with running, so it is with writing, and so it is with life, where the joy to be found in each arises from the practice of the thing itself, rather than from whatever the activities are meant to produce. As ink collects on a page, and aerobic breathing and footsteps echo in the local woods, so too have I come to learn that love and joy accumulate in the daily living of life more than in the pursuit of them as external ends. So long as they are not being done to serve some other purpose, outside of themselves, I generally enjoy and in so doing can succeed in these efforts indefinitely. So it is with running, so with writing, and so it is with life.This approach need not, however, ignore the will to strive, to progress, or advance: to grow. It is merely that once these external motivations become the sole and primary objective of these practices – as opposed to merely a by-product of the experiences – it can become all too easy to lose sight of the joy at the heart of the act (however uncomfortable an encounter with a steep hill or blank page may be) that is essential if we are to continue to progress. By realizing this truth of succeeding in the struggles of running and writing throughout my youth and formative education, I have begun to glimpse how best to meet that other intensely personal, often uncomfortable, and naturally rewarding act of living (and learning) itself.

When it is the most fun, after all, I am running not so that I might gratify some purpose not in and of the run itself; I am running for the enjoyment of that time spent running, and so that I might be able to continue to run: so that the most freeing of natural joys in life is available to me, in body as well as mind. When I am enjoying it the most, I am writing not to reap the eventual fruits of the intellectual or emotional labours of reasoning and introspection; I am writing because it is the process itself which brings me into touch with my thinking about myself and my place in the world. Just as in the physical sense with running, writing is an encounter between the self and the world that cannot be predetermined or coerced into existence in advance. Rather, it is the experience that allows my boundary with the world to be defined. Only once it has been so defined does the possibility that this boundary can be transcended come into being.While setting goals or deadlines to motivate myself from week to week or year to year can be helpful in working toward self-improvement, it is this ongoing encounter with the unknown that can most consistently be trusted to lead the way to continued transformation and ongoing personal growth. The outcome, or end, being pursued, in other words, becomes the continuous realization of the means itself: to be able to interpret emerging contexts and plot new courses of action. In striving to achieve this congruence between ends and means, I am reminded of Foucault’s notion of Enlightenment, which should “be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating,” but rather, “a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (Foucault, 1984, p. 50).

As it is in running, so it is with writing, and so it is with life. And so with life, with learning. In each of these capacities, I have challenged myself to make the means of these pursuits their ends:

  • By running merely to run, asking nothing more of what amounts to tiring, challenging work, I am rewarded with better health and fitness, as well as the ability to continue to test my physical limits into the future.
  • By writing only to write, and letting the words and insights arise (or not) where they may, I retain and hone the craft and habit of exploring and expressing my thoughts and reflections clearly.
  • And by living and learning for its own sake, I continue to seek knowledge and experiences that become wisdom and points for further departures of curiosity into the future.

This realization and focus of my graduate education in curriculum studies has emerged from almost 10 years as an educator, but is grounded in life experience and formative passions of both running and writing that have long-provided me with motivation and means to succeed and progress. Before I was a graduate student immersed in the philosophy of education and learning, I devoted a good deal of time and education to expressing my thoughts in words, earning an honours degree in creative writing and working for my university’s newspaper while I drafted stories and poems and novels in my spare time. I had a poster of Jack Kerouac on my university-bedroom wall, and had become at the age of 20 convinced of the transformative power of the creative arts. Whether in beholding the transcendent enthusiasm of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Allen Ginsberg, or William Wordsworth, my undergraduate education nurtured a profound faith that such creative expressions could fundamentally transform not only people’s individual identities, but society itself. It is this faith that has inspired me to help students develop this type of critical awareness and ability to communicate: to become the sort of person Apple founder Steve Jobs said could “put a dent in the universe” (Jobs & Sheff, 1985).

Even before I changed my major (from Biology to English), I was a scholarship athlete on my university’s track and field team, competing across the southern and midwestern states against the best middle distance runners in the NCAA. I waged a 10-year battle against the 800m, sweating and grinding tenths of a second from my best times every year from the ages of 14 to 22, and lived to test the boundary of not only my body, but my will. Every race stood as a new opportunity to create a greater effort than that I had previously achieved, where I might defeat an unbeatable rival, or set a lifetime best. Or not. Even when my efforts were unsuccessful, I was discovering The Line, my boundaries, or the limits that I would be trying to surpass the next time out. Having taken the better part of my twenties away from the sport of running, recent years have found me venturing for further and further runs and races in the localwatershed, and I am again developing the taste for exploration at the edge of my physical limitations. In doing so, I have reaffirmed for myself the faith in a process that I think ought be authentically modeled for students we are encouraging to practice the “analysis of the limits that are imposed on us” and to engage in “an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (Foucault, 1984, p. 50).


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.”


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.

Citizenship in Global Space: Convergences and Departures

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Education for Global Citizenship

“…increasing calls for educational provision to develop a more global orientation.” 

Mark Priestly, Gert Biesta, Gren Mannion and Hamish Ross (2010) introduce a network of policy drivers in the UK including departments of education, NGOs and political groups calling for schools to “equip children and young people with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will make them more aware of, and more engaged with, global issues and phenomena.” However, they note that “the reach of this global curricular trend has been largely homogenous within the UK and elsewhere,” a statement supported by recent British Columbia Ministry of Education Focus on Learning Forum: Rising to the Global Challenge.

Given this reality, the authors set out to define just what is meant by “Global Citizenship.” This discussion introduces two sets of inquiries:

  1. What is ‘global’ about global citizenship? What are the origins of this view, and how are these origins converging in our particular historical moment? Also, what are the implications of such convergences?
  2. How do we differentiate between Citizenship and Global Citizenship? “What kind of notion of citizenship is assumed in or promoted by the idea of global citizenship?”

In sketching out these various conceptions of what is meant by ‘global’ and ‘citizenship,’ the authors highlight distinct tensions between promoting citizenship as a competence (outcome) or as a social practice (process), as well as the distinction between citizenship as a social membership or political affiliation. And by looking at three sub-fields of education as points of convergence, these tensions and intersections are shown to represent areas of further discussion in educational policy discourses surrounding education for global citizenship, as each “appears to allow diverse meanings to converge while subordinating some aspects of the constituent meanings.”

Environmental, Development, and Citizenship Education

The authors present the lineages of environmental, development and citizenship education as the theoretical forbearers to our present press toward education for global citizenship. These lineages are raised for discussion with the caveat that “as each of the three traditions arrives and accepts or resists education for global citizenship, there are concerns, losses and points of departure” to consider.

Environmental Education

The history of environmental education “binds it to a struggle for the well-being of the planet that is essentially a global sense of responsibility and camaraderie with world populations. ” However, problematically environmental education is vulnerable to efforts of ‘greenwashing,’ or initiatives that allocate “significantly more money or time… advertising being ‘green,’ than is actually spent on environmentally sound practices.” As the authors point out, environmental education “is a highly attractive concept that is likely to appeal to even opposed interest groups.

As these themes are co-opted, education for global citizenship risks succumbing to “taken-for-granted assumptions that development implies in a Western [neoliberal] economic view,” and the potential to

“essentially [present] education as an instrument for the conservation of the environment, which is reduced to the status of resource for economic development, itself seen as an essential precondition and goal for societal development” (Sauve and Berryman, 2005 p. 230).

Thus we see that environmental education presents the possibility for education for global citizenship to “extend citizens’ rights across time, space, generation and species,” as well as the peril of an attempt to “close the circle” of discourse to exort a particular manifestation of neoliberal citizenship: commodification.

Development Education

Development education provides “a pedagogical reaction to the developmental state of the world society [that works] within the normative premise of overcoming inequality by being oriented towards a model of global justice.” Along with striving to teach competencies “for life in a society” emphasizing an uncertain future, and increased complexity, development education incorporates aspects of sustainability education and a perspective on global justice that may provide a meaningful point of departure which could be meaningfully synthesized by education for global citizenship.

By recognizing an essential relationship between global citizenship and development policies and constructs, governments, NGOs and others might seek to define a justice-oriented citizenship of global activism.

Citizenship Education

Globalization has compelled a response of “global citizenship” that might enable justice or promote a sense of duty and responsibility toward fellow citizens of the planet, even those who may be far away. In this view, the private sphere (in habits of consumption, for instance) becomes political in the manner of the public, as injustice relates to sustainability and democracy.

However, the risk exists that such consensus-driven notions of what is right and how best to achieve it will be difficult to arrive at, as well as the possibility that an emphasis on the private sphere and a voluntary duty to “do the right thing” will leave a western public sphere to continue unchecked. There is also the tendency for “global citizenship” to focus on the creation of a competitive workforce and contribute to economic growth.

Considerations and Concerns

A primary concern in looking at this type of global citizenship is the ever-present threat of meandering into hegemony, as

“it could be argued that the official take on the curricular global turn is, in fact, a localized feature of modern western countries that perhaps seeks to transcend and occlude other alternative local (non-global or anti-globalization) perspectives.”

The authors implore those who would promote such an idea of global citizenship to

“look closer and more critically to see if it is functioning as an ideological concept that travels well, but is working (sometimes inadvertently, but sometimes deliberately) as a tool of western modern imperialism; to homogenize and prescribe goals, thereby reducing ‘the conceptual space for self-determination, autonomy, and alternative ways of thinking'” (Jickling and Wals 2008).

This critical inquiry into global citizenship ought explore various dimensions of citizenship, and ask what sort of citizen education should be developing.

Would education for global citizenship promote a more social, or political citizenship? Is such community responsibility and cohesion driven by unity and common character, obedience and patriotism? Or a more democratic quality that seeks to govern expressions of our diverse perspectives?

Might we see the education of the global citizen as a set of competences or outcomes, or as a praxis of behaviours oriented toward an ever-evolving set of values and goals?

And if we are to find that we would like to proceed in this more democratic, process-oriented vein, we must seriously consider the question of whether such citizenship experiences are even possible within the school or institutional setting.

A Critical Citizenship

For their part, the authors suggest that education for global citizenship demands the development of an ongoing critical citizenship as opposed to one that would be seen as more compliance-based, noting that “more critical practices of education for global citizenship may serve to counter hegemonic views of globalization and narrow social conceptions of citizenship.”

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.

The Digital Age and Curriculum in British Columbia

I: The Digital Shock & Curricular Reinvention 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II: Principles of Curriculum and Instruction in the BCEdPlan

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Educational Philosophy

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

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

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

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

Image by Alan Levine

III: Further Discussion

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

The ‘shock’ of the Digital moment provides an opportunity for both critique and the establishment of new myths surrounding education, the broader enactment of which Michel Foucault described as Enlightenment (Foucault, 1984), or critical ontology, something that should “be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating,” but rather, “a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

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

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

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

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

Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction (Vol. 59): Harvard University Press.

The Constitution Act, 1982 (1982).

Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988).

Council, Preimier’s Technology. (2010). A Vision for 21st Century Education

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

Drucker, J. (2011). Humanities approaches to graphical display. Digital Humanities Quarterly, 5(1).

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

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

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

Giroux, H. (2012). Education and the crisis of public values. Peter Laing, New York.

Government, B. C. (2013a). BC Jobs Plan

Government, B. C. (2013b). BC’s Education Plan Province of British Columbia.

Groom, J. L., Brian. (2014). Reclaiming Innovation. EducausE review, Online.

Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism: Oxford University Press.

Kiss, J. (2014, March 12, 2014). An online Magna Carta: Berners-Lee calls for bill of rights for web. The Guardian

Klein, N. (2008). The shock doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism.

McLuhan, M., & Fiore, Q. (1967). The medium is the message. New York, 123, 126-128.

Perry, D. (2011). The Computational Turn: Thinking about the Digital Humanities. Culture Machine(Spec. Issue ).

Shirky, C. (2008). Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations: Penguin.

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

Tyler, R. W. (2013). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction: University of Chicago press.

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

Emergent Citizenship: Curriculum in the Digital Age


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

What is curriculum?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emergence in the Digital Age

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching and learning in polyphony

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

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

“The task of the dialogical teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to “re-present” that universe to the people from whom she or he received it – and “re-present” is not as a lecture, but as a problem” (p. 122).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curriculum as Identity

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

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

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

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

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

The Constitution Act, 1982 (1982).

Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Moments happen quickly, and changes come slowly.”

Summer school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than one hundred years ago, Montessori wished

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

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

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

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

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

must be of the strictest rigor.

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

Curriculum as Black Box

Image from

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

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

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

Egan presents this awakening thus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egan would agree:

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

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

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

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

He writes:

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

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

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

Emergent Knowledge and Institutional Learning

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12

“…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.”

Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta

A conception of learning I have been exploring and experimenting with in the last year has been attempting to design learning which imagines knowledge as an emergent event. Building on the constructivist perspective that knowledge exists in the act of its creation, meaning can be seen to emerge as it is assigned contexts of identification, value and purpose by individuals, as well as cultures. But even while such progressive perspectives on knowledge may be embraced by school administrators and teachers across institutionalized learning, the emergentist view presents a unique challenge to the design-minded educator.

In attempting to conceive of education within an emergent epistemology, Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta explore the question of “whether it is possible to maintain an emergentist conception of meaning in an ‘educational’ context, which in turn raises the question of what is meant by education.” Educational designers are forced to consider such questions in providing a context for learning in which meaning can be created by participants, and yet still fulfill the mandated curricular aspects of a particular course of study.

Osberg and Biesta outline the pragmatic critique of such “unguided” learning thoroughly:

The idea that meaning can be ‘created’ in the classroom has, however, been regarded with a good measure of suspicion by many educators because of its association with the much criticized ‘romantic’ or ‘anti-authoritarian’ version of progressive education in which the role of the teacher is downplayed to the extent that it does not matter precisely what is learned as long as students are leaning something. It has been argued again and again by conservatives and radicals alike that this pedagogy has no real ‘educational’ value. On the one hand, the ‘untutored’ approach puts people in the position of having to ‘reinvent the wheel’ before they can egt anywhere, and, on the other, it allows for anything-goes inventionalism, where people can simply ‘make things up’ rather than deal with the ‘reality’ of the world. Dewey (1984: 59) himself – one of the foremost proponents of progressive education – claimed the ‘romantic’ approach was not only uneducational but ‘real stupid.'”

In reflecting on these learning experiences, I agree with the authors’ assertion that “for an emergentist conception of meaning to contribute to discussions about education it must not reduce the concept of education to untutored learning,” and hope here to shed some light on the role of instruction in an emergent setting.

Fortunate last semester to consider the curriculum of our locally-developed Philosophy 12 course alongside these ideas, last fall’s class’ Metaphysics unit took the form of a “discussable object.” For my part, I hoped to engage the content-aspect of the course curriculum here by experimenting with what Paulo Freire called “the program content of the problem-posing method,” which he proposed should be:

“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.”


Before delving into the explicitly content-oriented aspect of the unit (the nature of metaphysics), the class held a handful of discussions and negotiations to reach a rough agreement of the questions raised by the topic – essentially revolving around the seminal, What is? –  and sought consensus around how those questions would be explored, shared and represented.  As the group deliberated on the themes and ideas brought about in their own study of an individually chosen metaphysician, practical aspects of the unit plan were analyzed and revised to align the assignments’ form authentically with an emergent view of content.

From my perspective, the notion of not apprehending the direction or meanings yet to emerge from the collective inquiry created a challenge in defining my role as teacher, a topic I brought as my own part in the group’s investigation and inquiry. In developing a scope and sequence for the unit’s activities and assignments, my own obligations – to the Ministry of Education, our course curriculum, as well as the individuals in the class itself – were only one part of the collected spectrum of needs expressed in these formative discussions, and were integrated into the emerging course of action as we progressed together.

As a co-investigator and mentor, rather than de-facto leader of the group, I attempted to teach and facilitate by advocating for my own expectations as part of an ongoing negotiation that included each member of the class on (somewhat) equal footing. I was upfront about the contradiction of attempting to provide student freedom within the constraints of our school system where I was/am still tasked with rating and evaluating their learning numerically for the purposes of university admission and other future prospects.

Aesthetics Discussion

Given this reality, it was nevertheless my intention to provide the necessary space for an authentic synthesis of individual subjectivities to be discovered and expressed by the group, free of interventions on my part that unfairly leveraged my power as teacher.

However, just because I had intended to create a vacuum of authority in the classroom didn’t mean that it was immediately or ‘productively’ filled by students eager to seize control over their own learning. Through the course of the class’ initial discussions and unit plans, I found myself interjecting to highlight different aspects of the processes at work (variously successful and with room improvement) as the group attempted to reach consensus:

  • pointing out people’s unconscious tendency to seek my approval before progressing with a topic or question;
  • inquiring about ways different aspects of metaphysical thought might be applied to the class’ efforts to discover its individual and collective ideas;
  • and identifying moments during which I very well could provide the next step in synthesis, but wherein it would be more instructive for the group to reach its own conclusion.

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These interjections might be considered efforts to facilitate the generation of dialogue and empathy around tacit and explicit meanings being uncovered throughout the unit. In attempting to sense the meanings and concepts emerging through the class’ discussions, my expertise as the teacher had indeed shifted from dissemination of the course content to a facilitation of the course process.

Building on the initial success of the Discussable Object, I viewed the course’s next unit – that of Epistemology – as an opportunity to synthesize our recently concluded learning into new paths of discovery, both for myself and the class. In looking past the first level of such spiral learning, each of us had to press beyond the understandings reached through the Metaphysics unit and seek out the questions and contradictions at the heart of epistemology, namely: What do we know? And How do we know it? 

Epistemology Unit Planning

Epistemology Unit Planning

Here, the class was aided by Julie in capturing a discussion that looked back at what had come out of our previous unit, as well as ahead at what the class intended to make of its next topic. There were elements of the Metaphysics study that many deemed essential to repeat, and ways in which the group could seek out new challenges.

For teacher and students alike, one of these opportunities involved the nature of my participation in the process. Previously, I had contributed to class discussions and learning by gently nudging the group forward with questions or interventions that sought to connect or create context between different aspects of metaphysics and the group dynamic. But in initially discussing Epistemology with the class, we began to see the possibility of meaning and understanding arising more genuinely through student creation, free of teacher input.

Without question this next level of autonomous learning would not have been possible without the more involved teaching that preceded it. Again during Epistemology I was forced to (re)consider my position in the room to best support the expressed intentions for the unit during class discussions, smaller-group inquiries, and individual development, working toward a series of peer-facilitated conversations where I attempted to resign myself position of observer, only.

In these discussions, there were many different moments when I would have liked to pipe up, offer my own thoughts or connections to the class’ collected momentum. At others, when the discussion stalled, I found myself reflexively wanting to help, and question, prod, or provoke some new angle on the conversation. But in each case, having let the moment of possible intervention pass, something spontaneous and meaningful arose from one member of the class or another.

No longer were eyes and faces awaiting my permission or validation before proceeding; knowledge was being constructed between participants essentially without my guidance. But this characterization is misleading, as my ‘guidance’ had merely shifted its focus over the course of several weeks to accommodate and help bring about a more organic collective consciousness. Far from diminishing our part in the learning process, there is a niche to be explored and defined outlining the teacher’s role in an emergent classroom.

True to the epistemology from which such a pedagogy might take its inspiration, we cannot yet know where this might take us.