“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.

Ethics Unit Feedback and Reflection

Rate the unit's effectiveness

This semester I’ve been using Google Forms to collect reflections, self-assessments and unit feedback from both the Philosophy 12 bunch, as well as the TALONS. As with many aggregating aspects of the web, what I appreciate about this method of collection and feedback is the ability to analyze trends and other information (beyond the individual response to the unit or learning opportunity).

Building on the questionnaire for the Metaphysics Unit – the results of which were shared here – the Philosophy 12 class reflected on their course of study in Ethics by completing this Google Form posted on the class site.

Here are some of the analyzed takeaways from the class’ responses:

Which philosopher influenced your study of Ethics?

It is interesting not only to hear in a formative manner which readings and ideas “stuck,” but also in collecting the salient understandings that these concepts came to represent over the course of the unit. Here is a word cloud of the collected responses to the follow up question, What about this philosopher’s ideas influenced your study of Ethics? 

What about this Philosopher's Ideas influenced your study?

Some responses that stuck out:

Utilitarianism is probably the most memorable form of ideology that I will remember because it’s the idea of “the greater good.” It helped me realize that it’s not always moral to sacrifice the minority to satisfy the majority. John Stewart Mill’s ideals of Utilitarianism have some valid reasoning, but Immanuel Kant says pretty much the opposite. Kant believed that every life was an end unto itself, so there should be no purpose to where life should be used as a mere means. 

Immanuel Kant’s theory of universal law: A decision is only ethical if a universal law of its principle could be put in place. For example, it is not ethical for a man to end his life because he is unhappy, because we could come to a collective agreement that it would not be ethical or practical if every sad person killed themselves. 

The absolute nature of ethics of the Enlightenment, and the post-Enlightenment thinkers caught my attention, supporting my dislike of indifference. The requirement for thinkers, and abstract theorists to uphold a hokey vision of humanity and their actions is far more necessary and influential than previously thought. These visions are often difficult to accept and refute: In absolute reason, they’re impossible to refute without making some leap of faith. Ethics is a subject of absolute reason, without room for faith. Essentially the research we have done has widened and strengthened my perspective on the whole ordeal. When you perform an action, it must be equal efforts of ends, means and intent. There is little room for faith, or irrational selfish requirements. Ethics is a subject of absolute, ultimate logic in action. 

I liked Rawls’ Theory of Justice, as it gave a different perspective of what equality looks like. It let me look at things from a different way of a lot of different topics. For example, how non-human persons might be able to be accounted for as they should have perhaps equal opportunity to go about their animal business without oppression from humans. 

Jurgen Habermas doesn’t have as much to do with Ethics as he does with Social and Political Philosophy, but he nevertheless influenced my study of Multiculturalism which ties into Ethics. He strongly believes in multiculturalism and that if we integrate ourselves more with people from other countries, we will become more worldly and accepting of other cultures and less xenophobic. 

What Q's did the Ethics Unit Raise for you?

Above are the collected responses to the prompt, “What were the main questions the unit’s study raised for you?” Followed by a few highlighted responses:

If there really is an ultimate good in people? 

When is it OK to be selfish?

How should we treat others and how might society fit into what we know of biology? (Ie, what makes a person a person? What is the meaning of life, and when is OK to end it? How should/would we treat others from behind a veil of ignorance?)

Where did our sense or morality come from?

How ethical and effective is our system of voting and democracy?

I have a lot of questions regarding the fair treatment of animals and non-human persons.

Should euthanasia be legalized? Should it be included as a basic human right? Why are people opposed to it?

What is the government’s role in our life? Where do our individual liberties intersect with our obligations to society?

What is good and bad? Where do we draw the line? Should we take the Utilitarian point of view and say that anything which benefits society is just?

Should we be more considerate to animals, and life in general? How would this effect humans, or the ecosystem?

Does democracy really work? Is it possible?

Is equality necessarily a good thing?

Main questions: 1. Is voting ethical? 2. If not, can we make the act of voting ethical while increasing its efficiency and total effectiveness, and how? 3. Is there a way to improve the effectiveness of voting on its own? 4. How can we involve everyone in a democratic system, yet disallow those who do not contribute valid ideas to the system? 5. And, would the ideal from question 4 in any way be made ethical?

Describe your process in attempting to answer one or more of the above questions. 

Is it possible to live complying to two different, contrasting normative ethics? I tried answering this question when studying the ethics of animal experimentation. For example, Utilitarianism could justify both cosmetic and scientific animal testing. However, Kantian ethics could also justify both types, depending on what maxim we acted upon. This led me to question whether there was a certain ethical philosophy which is “more right” than the other, and if so, how would we know? How do we determine if utilitarianism is better than Kantian ethics, or visa versa? Should we treat each ethical problem on a case-by-case basis and use Rawls’ philosophy to solve one problem, Mill’s to solve another, and Kant’s to solve a third? Or is there one ethical philosophy we could adhere to? And if so, what would that look like?

I found out that something inside of me gets fired up when we hear ways that our individual liberties are being infringed upon, and though I still haven’t been able to fully articulate what this is specifically, it was a great inner discovery for me to come to.

I realized that most people weren’t black and white with their decisions about ethical topics. In fact, most people were grey and I realized that most people picked the decision they hated the least, or the one that had the most compromise. For example, we may have only seen two options at first, but then after discussion a third option came that was more appealing to the majority because it included aspects of both.

Christmas Ethics in Grade One

Grade One Audience

Without taking away from the stellar work that the other two groups in Philosophy 12 contributed to our Ethics’ unit endeavour to create teaching/learning materials for a younger audience (middle school on downwards), I wanted to share a recording I made of Iris, Megan, Greg, Zoe and Toren’s group’s presentation in a grade one classroom on Friday afternoon (the file is too big to post anywhere other than here on my site).

You can listen to the participatory magic the group brought to life in the way of a story, a singalong, and even some Christmas cookies if you like, by clicking the link below (sorry, I couldn’t manage to hyperlink the cookies).

Max’s Christmas Story by Megan (story), Iris (song), Greg (song), Zoe (illustrations), Toren (editing/photoshop/cookies).

The other presentations (a cinematic interpretation of the ethics at work in the film, The Hunger Games, and a Choose Your Own Ethical Adventure Youtube series) will be available on the Philosophy blog shortly. Some of the lessons learned from the peer and self-assessment is posted here.