On Reconciling Epistemic Enclosures

Epistemology Lecturing

Democracy depends on the negotiation of common ground

I’ve spent most of my life as a connector. I’ve always been something of a bridge-builder. Someone who can ‘see both sides’ (sometimes to a fault). I’m forgiving, even when I might vehemently disagree with someone, and am generally able to admit that my way of perceiving the world is no more than just that: my way. Anyone else’s is only an equal and complimentary contribution to the sum of views that accounts for our socialized reality.

In the opening lines of my Master‘s, I cite a few lines of Nabokov’s that I’ve carried with me through much of my adult life (a longer excerpt of this idea is included in the very first post on this blog, as well; certainly, it is a foundational idea in my thinking about life and learning):

“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.”

Of course there are limits to the idea that all perspectives are rendered equal, and I would admit the maxim that one is “entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” There is a hierarchy of (variously informed) opinions, (variously true or provable) beliefs, and what we might consider to be truly known (though even this empirical knowledge often offers a less complete picture than many ideologies would readily accept).

In basing our social reality (democratic politics) on such a humble view of what is known, and basing our decision-making processes on the limitations of that knowledge, we can hope to create the most just world possible. But this potential will remain as mere hope if we do not resolve to wrestle with democracy’s limitations; and if we believe in the potential of democracy to create such a just representation of human views, we must fight to be inclusive of diverse views that may offend our existing paradigm(s), while at the same time be able to reject that which is based in dubious claims to knowledge or reality.

Galileo to Descartes to Canadian Multiculturalism

By one reading, it was the destruction of the epistemological paradigm of the Middle Ages that brought about the west’s democratic revolutions in the first place. It is the scientific revolution which enables the social, and precedes the political, as Galileo and Newton create the necessity of Descartes’ ultimate scepticism that leads him to outline his knowledge beginning from only true beliefs, and the notion that the sole certainty is that “I am a thing that thinks.”

From here the technological advancements in printing technology and the cultural revolutions of the Protestant Reformation bring about the realignment of the knowledge-creating bodies of the western world. Where before the one word of god and Pope and king defined the parameters of the social experience, as it became clear that a polyphony of voices was just as capable of advocating for a truly collective perspective, it similarly became apparent that the political structures governing that society would be in need of significant renovation.

The initial forces exerting this seminal democratic will are with us today, and we see in the evolution of the causes of civil rights and social justice in countries continuing to strive toward these Enlightenment ideals. In its Multiculturalism policy, the Government of Canada sets the lofty goal for itself 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 and assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation”.

So radical does the statement strike me every time I read it that I cannot help but emphasize the scope of what such a policy might genuinely aspire toward. 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.”

In a seeming nod to Nabokov, Canada holds as an official view that each of our responses to the question, What does it mean to be a Canadian? must be counted as equal. Not only that, however, but also that it is the role of government (and citizen alike, by extension), to “assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.”

How we intend to arrive at the notion of what it means to be Canadian, and what this vision of nationhood implies of what it means to be human, then, exists on an epistemological foundation which values bridge-and-consensus-building, on creating spaces for dialogue and disagreement, and on reconciliation of the myriad different ways we each experience the world.

Engaging the deplorables

I’ve always had a lot more fun exploring my thinking on issues I’m passionate about with folks of differing opinions; even with my more liberal friends, the conversations I learn the most from are where we are able to highlight minute disagreements that help shed light on the contours of an issue or event. Fortunately in this regard I’ve been able to make social connections with a range of sharply opinionated conservative coworkers and teammates over the years: I spent five years living in Arkansas, two of which saw me working at a Boy Scouts of America summer camp in the Ozark Mountains; and I’ve shared a lunchroom back in suburban Vancouver with passionately libertarian male Baby Boomers (a relationship I’ve explored at some length here before).

In both of these cases, I’ve worked to represent the liberal values espoused earlier here, and attempted to represent and reconcile our differing views on a range of contemporary events and issues fairly and as dispassionately as possible (not that this has always been possible). I make a point of being overly cordial, friendly, and make explicit the idea that it is important for us to respect one another and our perspectives despite our divergent views about the state of the world. Reasonable people are free to disagree, after all, if we are each able to present our view of the facts as best as we are able and come to our own conclusions from there. It is through this process that respect and reconciliation of our differing views become possible.

But I wonder if we aren’t living through a time which makes this hope a fragile and idealistic possibility, as the advent of “alternative facts” and a pervasive distrust of there being any common reality for us to point to being dispelled through more and more normalized channels. How can we be expected to arrive at a collective interpretation of reality with such nihilistic views of facts or the truth circulating in such broad swaths of the population?

I’ve taken the opportunity of late to engage some of my southern friends and former neighbours in dialogue on social media over the last few weeks. I’ve attempted to dispel disproven facts, or to inquire as to the origins of what I perceive as xenophobic views.

“These refugees are getting ready for a war,” one of my Facebook friends writes, prompting me to offer an exceedingly polite summary of the process through which refugees must pass through before entering the United States or Canada. Over the course of a dialogue that lasts through the weekend, I am told that President Obama is a Muslim, and worked tirelessly throughout his presidency against American interests. I am told that his efforts as president were intended to weaken America such that the invading hoards of refugees could “make America Muslim.” This friend was proud to tell me that they knew of terrorist training camps throughout America, and that the fact that there was no evidence to support this claim was only more proof that vigilance is needed.

I’ve been down this road before: arguments about the “disastrous” Obama economy (despite 75 consecutive months of job creation; record high stock markets; auto-industry recovery; tens of millions insured); the validity of climate data (“scientists who study climate change’s funding depends on them making conclusions the politicians like”); and even the very existence of racism in America (what with the election of the nation’s first African American to its highest office).

“We can’t know any of the real story,” this friend informed me when I asked if there were any sources to their horrifying claims. It is a startling (and somewhat ironic) admission from someone positing their own reading of the available facts, but also a distressingly bleak prospect for deliberative democracy. It is little wonder that people with so little faith in the democratic system elected a man who campaigned on the rhetoric that he, “alone,” could fix what ailed America (even if by many demonstrable metrics the country had been progressing). There can be no truth under authoritarianism but what the authorities say it is; the consensus of the public ceases to matter, and like that we have undone the promise of the Enlightenment, the necessity of democracy, and the hope for justice that comes with it.

If nothing can be known – or if enough people in a democracy believe that nothing can be known – what is the point of discussing anything? Why ought there be a democratic process at all?

Teaching to Resist

Sea Lion

Where did everybody go?

Is it just me, or has it been a minute?

Did we turn a corner? Or have we ascended some ultimate peak to only be careening out of control these last how many months?

Did things online not seem to move so fast, previously? Or were they just less likely to see us preoccupied and frantic with the escapades of the new American world order?

…or is it not just online that this has been happening?

If it’s only been me who’s been feeling this way: I’m sorry to have deserted you, friends. We probably used to talk about other things. We used to share music, books. Used to browse each others’ photos over stories of where the “real world” had taken us. Lately it’s as though the noise of the world has been taking up more and more space, and those opportunities to ruminate in thinking about things frivolous or fleeting are losing out to the latest press release, analysis or interpretation, this or that comedic riff, or the public stands taken by individuals and groups that provide momentary bulwarks against bottomless negativity.

Perhaps it’s coming to grips with life as an act of resistance, and the need to keep one’s eye on the advancing shadows of authoritarianism, hatred, and white supremacy that the last eight years might have calmed us into thinking were in their deathly rattles. Perhaps it’s the shock that precedes the types of upheaval the likes of Steve Bannon and the newly orange-coloured president seem intent upon wreaking.

Whatever its cause or wherever its origins, I’m writing here to acknowledge that something has changed, rather than to pin down anything of substance that might explain it.

How to teach and learn now?

Last year our school began a pilot process of professional development based on a collaborative inquiry model. We begin the year with individual questions that lead us into small groups that meet over the course of the year to investigate the unique conundrums and inquiries we are each facing in our classrooms and teaching lives beyond (I’ve written about this here, if you’d like to hear more about the origins of this project).

This year we met for our second instalment and meeting in our small groups, and revised and re-entered the questions and inquiries that we had begun in September. A few of us had missed that initial day for trips or illness, and a few others besides had seen their questions change or become irrelevant in the meantime. A few more student-teachers and new staff had been added to our school as well, and so among the splinter cells of inquiry a smaller group was struck that I found myself in despite it not having a banner or direction under which to organize ourselves.

The conversation quickly turned to whatever latest outrage had been announced south of the border, and how the general mean-spiritedness of so many of the new administration’s initial policy announcements were affecting anxieties in both our students, and ourselves.

“How do I model coping with a world like this for my students when I am at an utter loss myself?” one of my colleagues asked.

“What can we do or say, especially in subject areas that aren’t directly related to current events, oppressive structures, or political goings on?” wondered another.

There is a line, we agreed, between acknowledging the panic that comes with witnessing preposterous cruelty on such a grand scale as the new government has sought to impose on the most vulnerable members of its society – from LGBTQ+ kids’ rights to safe schools, to green card holders and visiting scholars turned away at borders, to hate crimes erupting in the light of day echoing the new administration’s language, ideology, and intent – and modelling hope and perseverance for our young charges.

But as to where we might garner and gather that hope and perseverance is a query we have not yet seemed to solve, either around that little table, or in the larger culture of which we feel a part.

Don’t go away.

What seems clear is that we must stay present, and available to one another. That we stay trained on the creeping tide of hatred and fear that threatens the values of inclusion and progress that our societies and schools are based on. And that we fight alongside and for those who are most threatened.

We must admit that we each are struggling to find our feet as agents of resistance against an emerging institution that seems bent on keeping us off balance, and create balance and stability for one another in the minute ways we might be able.

Assessment Methods, Feedback, and Grades

MEd Final Presentation

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

Assessment Methods

As students and participants in this type of unit plan are being asked to formulate personal and collective goals for study, it is important that assignment criteria and feedback are similarly placed in their hands. In attempting to instil a classroom community with an authentic critical praxis of inquiry and expression, educators must bear in mind Osberg and Biesta’s (2008) advice that “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” (p. 314). By enlisting students in the creation of rubrics to guide various assignments, classroom expectations and aims are owned by the students to whose academic work they will be applied, and, as the tool shapes the task, oriented toward creating more autonomy and consensus-building ability within the group.

There is a tension, if not an outright contradiction, between this approach and the reality of government prescribed outcomes, as pure constructivist emergence encounters the societally- endorsed skills and topics embedded in government curricula. The resolution of this tension requires a move toward the creation of personal connections between students and the government-prescribed outcomes, with teachers transparent in their role as conduits and guides in revealing a unique encounter between each student (and cohort) and their schooling. By giving government curricula over to the students, and having individuals and classes generate criteria based on both existing and emergent outcomes, expectations can be determined around the best use of each assignment in a unit. A daily ‘pop quiz,’ developed by Gardner Campbell, stresses the daily engagement that cannot help but generate content and reflection in the unit assignments (see Figure 2: Philosophy Pop Quiz). While the quiz’s subjective self-assessment makes it unsuitable for generating marks, it remains a reflective and motivational means of directing student attention and energy toward authentic inquiries into the curriculum. By regularly beginning class meetings with the quiz, students engage with prescribed outcomes and readings, as well as their own emergent inquiries and understanding of these topics. Their respective score on the quiz highlights the value of habitual engagement with course materials, and personal learning.

To develop a useful and flexible rubric for the types of assignments outlined here, teachers can facilitate discussion to generate criteria divided into three areas:

  • Unit Content: What are the prescribed outcomes to be learned, represented, demonstrated?
  • Personal Inquiry: How is the learning of personal value or interest? Are there connections to prior learning or ongoing inquiries?
  • Aesthetic Presentation: How ought the learning object at hand be created? Is there a potential form that might best suit the assignment’s content?

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The process surrounding feedback is generated by having students share and engage in dialogue around various documents of learning, whether introductory posts, plans for summative pieces or presentations, or those summative experiences themselves. At each stage, students are asked to highlight areas of success and possibilities for future growth, and as a habitual process of commenting on, questioning, and discussing peers’ work emerges, so too does an organic feedback loop arise between classmates, propelling inquiries further.

During summative efforts, these comments and feedback can become points of reflection and self-assessment; however, for introductory or in-progress documents of learning, such comments and questions can optimally contribute to the improvement of student work in real time. Having come to agreement about assignment criteria and expectations for a particular document of learning, classmates can be assigned a small group of peers with whom they can share commentary and feedback. The focus of these comments and questions is to raise – through dialogue – opportunities for the original author to improve their level of achievement relative to the agreed-upon assignment criteria.

For example, an introductory assignment in a biographical study of a historic figure may ask that students briefly introduce the person’s life and historical period, as well as any initial questions they hope the study may resolve. In this model, a rubric can be developed with student input to target content areas, personal inquiry, and aesthetic expectations. By grouping students into ‘comment groups,’ the class can move forward with feedback by recognizing areas where peers have failed to meet, met, or exceeded various assignment expectations, and engage in dialogue – asking questions, drawing connections, and furthering discussion – via face-to-face or blogged commentary such that the post’s author might (through that dialogue with their peers) progress toward better meeting the assignment criteria.

Through this process of regular, community-generated feedback, students work toward a proficiency to engage in constructive dialogue oriented toward heightened and critical self- discovery and expression. Working together to build their own – as well as their peers’ – understanding, collective narratives of learning are generated.


This unit framework places high importance on a process-oriented, personalized learning that presents a challenge when looking to assess student learning relative to government-mandated curriculum, and grading standards. However, such institutional ‘reports’ can be framed as regular opportunities to assess progress in developing an individual critical praxis corresponding to a given curriculum, rather than the demonstration or retention of a given set of skills or facts. As such, the unit framework resists the tradition that compels us to assign each piece of academic work a numerical grade, and emphasizes more holistic achievement indicators, according to student-generated rubric criteria: not yet meeting, meeting, fully meeting, or exceeding expectations.

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As daily engagement and participation create documents of learning, and lead to summative assessments that can become points of reflection and further goal setting, teacher and student are gathering data which can be used in the furthering of educational ends – those which are handed down from institutional documents and government curricula, as well as that which is generated within the learning community itself.


Unit Plan of One’s Own: Unit Components

MEd Final Presentation

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

This proposed unit plan for assessment includes opportunities to document individual learning in diverse forms and media on individual blogs. It is intended that by collecting a record of learning across various units, these documents will help contribute to a larger, summative syntheses of learning such as a midterm or final examination. In these documents, students may choose to capture learning in a variety of ways: blogged text, handwritten notes, audio or video reflections, social media updates (Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, or others). At each stage, so long as the intention and record of one’s thinking can be tagged, categorized, and curated appropriately on the individual (or class) blog, the documents will serve the larger outcomes in the course of study.

At a minimal level, the first position and reflection / self-assessment assignments introduced in this chapter will continue to drive a critical praxis of individual expression and reflection, while other aspects described below (including the Midterm / Final Examination) can be added or taken away from units as time and context deem necessary.

First position

Objective: To ‘capture’ ourselves at the outset of the unit / lesson / activity.

Key Questions:

  • What are my first impressions of the topic?
  • What do I / we know about the topic already?
  • What do I wish to know about the topic?
  • What questions do I have?
  • How will I go about finding answers to these questions?
  • Why is it important for me to find answers to these questions?

In this introductory post, base knowledge and initial questions are outlined. Following an initial encounter with the unit objectives (through a class discussion, lecture, reading or individual research), this post seeks to set goals and outline personal intentions for the learning to come, including how the achievement of these goals might be realized. As even at the outset of a unit, a student’s “first” position comes as the resolution of previous learning, it is important to highlight the importance of reflection at this stage and connect emerging themes and questions to prior lessons or experiences.

Document of learning in progress

Objective: To make a record of learning as it is unfolding.

Key Questions:

  • What did I set out to find?
  • What am I finding?
  • What has thus far been successful / interesting / of value?
  • What has thus far been challenging / disappointing / confusing?
  • Has this experience revealed any new questions?

As students (and perhaps teachers) look to document learning that is in progress, it is important to look both backwards and forwards. Checking in on one’s original intentions, and making plans to progress further, offers the opportunity to reflect upon and assess individual learning, as well as to recalibrate goals toward emergent inquiries and outcomes. In addition to this point of reflection on individual learning, the document of learning in progress allows for further engagement with peers’ work, and the chance to synthesize collective narratives around shared themes or topics of study.

Planning for summative assessment

Objective: To propose possible means of demonstrating and sharing one’s learning at the conclusion of the unit. This stage can be utilized for individual, as well as group/class planning.

Key Questions:

  • How will I/we best be able to demonstrate or represent my/our learning during this unit?

  • Is there a particular medium of presentation which suits the topic, lesson, or personal/collective theme at the heart of the unit?

  • What are the possibilities or challenges associated with these various forms?

It is important at this juncture of a particular unit for students to outline appropriate forms of representing their knowledge at the culmination of the unit, whether within a common set of expectations, or as individual expressions of learning. While this stage of a unit and brainstorming / goal-setting of this type may be completed through discussion, and may not ultimately demand to be archived for future reflection, it can be helpful for reflection and self- assessment of summative experiences where what emerges goes well beyond (or below) original expectations. Charting how these expectations are met, or not, by looking back on these previously stated goals, can offer specific direction in future opportunities.

Summative capture

Objective: To record or document one’s effort in a final expression or representation – whether as an essay, dramatic, collaborative, or explanatory presentation, or experiential project – of summative learning for the unit. As the reflection and self-assessment stage of the unit plan seeks to synthesize unit learning surrounding summative exams and presentations, documenting these learning experiences in digital form is not an essential element of the unit’s design. The objects which are created to represent emergent learning can often lose meaning outside of their immediate contexts, and as such it is not imperative to have these summative representations documented on an individual blog.

The challenge to capture the summative experience or effort should not interfere with the quality of the examination or participation in the experience in the first place. Rather, it is important to use these objects and experiences as prompts for reflection, self-assessment, and future goal setting. If the archiving can be bent to serve unit objectives while developing digital literacies and means of expression, indeed, then so much the better. However, digital curation should not impede the central objectives of the summative assignment.

Key Questions:

• Does the summative activity, project or presentation lend itself to digital archiving?

• Can the means of digitally preserving the summative learning become part of the process of creation and supportive of the overall unit objectives?

Reflection / self-assessment

Objective: To engage in metacognitive critical thinking about the process that has unfolded during the unit.

Key Questions:

  • What have been the main learnings (personal or collective) throughout this process? What will you remember about this experience?

  • During which aspect of the assignment do you feel that you did your best work? Describe the process which led to this success.
  • During which aspect of the unit do you feel you did work which you feel that you could improve? Describe the process which would lead to this improvement.
  • Who helped you in achieving your success in this unit? How?

This reflective aspect of the unit may or may not be published to the individual public blog. However, it is important that this stage of the unit is executed, as it provides the required impetus to synthesize both personal and collective themes into unit lessons that can provide the first positions in subsequent units and learning. In addition to publicly posted reflections and self-assessment, discussions on these topics conducted in private (on an individual or class basis) can similarly lead to powerful learning.

A digital tool that can aid in the private collection of student reflection and goal setting is Google Forms, which allows teachers to gather survey responses to a variety of questions surrounding unit outcomes in a single spreadsheet or range of data representations. The documents created through these anonymized reflections can produce useful compendiums of classroom learning which can be used to produce themes of success or struggle, and highlight the work of peers which might otherwise go unheralded.

Midterm / final examination

Objective: To look back on multiple units, a term of study, or an academic year, and synthesize major themes and concepts encountered during the course of learning.

Key Questions:

• Which learning outcomes – personal, curricular, or emergent – have I have learned particularly effectively?

• Which documents and evidence of my learning can be used to support these claims?

• Which aspects of the learning have been particularly challenging, or unsuccessful?

• How will I make use of the learning that has taken place here in my future schooling, employment, citizenship and life?

In this larger summative opportunity, students are invited to reflect upon and synthesize individual and collective narratives of learning that take into account successive cycles of the critical praxis. Here, there is an ability to contextualize and reframe even unsuccessful efforts into moments of beginning, where the ultimate lessons of a term or course can be identified and begin to take root. And by inviting peers to continue offering feedback – whether in posts to a public blog, comments on a physical representation, portfolio, collage of learning, or presentation to the learning community – those who have played integral parts in an interdependent journey of discovery remain included in the process.


Toward a Critical Citizenship


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

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

If we hold that meaning is emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ‘ground’ it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic. In other words, the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the idea of education, traditionally conceived. Emergent meaning – if it exists – is incompatible with the idea of education as planned enculturation. (p. 317)

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

The task of the dialogical teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to “re-present” that universe to the people from whom she or he received it – and “re-present” it not as a lecture, but as a problem. (p. 109)

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

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

By conceiving of citizenship as shared fate, schools are able to formulate a curricular response consistent with principles of emergent knowledge and Freire’s critical praxis. Citizenship is no longer a vision of national unity or virtue, but exists as the assemblage of “visions, practices and processes that make up the civic body through engaging individuals and groups in the continuous process of designing, expressing and interpreting their membership in the nation” (p. 382).

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


Apathy & Oligarchy in the Public Sphere


Photo courtesy of Filippo Minelli.

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

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

While it acknowledges that “Participating in elections is the essential starting point of any democratic system,” Elections Canada’s own working paper on the Electoral Participation of Young Canadians (Howe, 2007, p. 5) cites a characterization of the nation’s youth as “political dropouts,” building on the dour findings of Ottilia Chareka and Alan Sears (2015) that even though “Youth understand voting as a key element of democratic governance, a hard won democratic right, and a duty of democratic citizenship […], most indicate they do not plan to vote because voting does not make a difference” (p. 521). The paper notes that despite being politically inactive when it comes to voting habits, young Canadians are more inclined toward other forms of political engagement – political rallies, demonstrations, or public awareness campaigns and petitions – that offer encouraging signs that positive change may be possible. McKinnon, Pitre, and Watling (2007) similarly observe that “youth have tended to reframe engagement in more individual and less institutional terms” (p. iii), which may create a more engaged voting block as the millennial generation comes of age.

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

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

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

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

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


Teaching to the (Limit) Situation


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

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

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

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

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


School Politics

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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.”


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


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.