Scenes in Adventure Learning (Part I): Over, Under, Through

Arch

Aligning our departure from Chin Beach to the 8am low tide, our group of seventeen grade nine and ten students and four adult leaders set out around the rocky bluff at the western edge of the beach, walking in the shadow of towering sandstone cliffs. Groundwater drips down mossy walls and splatters on the slick boulders we navigate to the tune of clattering hiking poles and the gasps of narrowly avoided falls. To the west the bright blue sea is visible through the window of a dramatic granite arch extending from the forest.

One of our volunteer leaders and one of the grade tens ventures under the arch to assess the possibility of avoiding the abrupt headland interrupting our beach route, to no avail. Even with the low tide, the route under the arch runs out into shallow seawater and the threat of being surprised by rogue waves on the exposed point; we will have to go over.

It is the second morning we’ve woken up on the beach, having set out just after lunch from the China Beach parking lot at the eastern end of the Juan de Fuca Trail Saturday afternoon. We have hiked more than twenty kilometres with tents and food and water purification tablets, and as we set out onto the third day of the five-day trek, the most difficult sections of trail are behind us. Having surmounted the endless switchbacks and headlands of the merciless stretch between Bear Beach and Chin, the group is strong and confident, and sets about scaling the rocky archway without a break in collective stride. 

Arch BypassThe first few who make it up onto the bluff deposit their packs and hiking poles on the far side, and return to help others gain the ledge with encouraging words, outstretched hands, and assurances that what looms on the other side is “no worse than we’ve done so far.”

On the other side, the route descends sharply to the boulder-strewn beach over a five foot ledge that offers only an awkward bum-shuffle as a way down. Here, too, bags are shuttled briskly through helping hands; a guide line is set to balance reluctant shufflers;  encouragement and spotters collect on the beach to catch us as we resume the trail on the other side. A waist-height waterfall pours out of the sandstone onto the beach where we wet our faces and cool ourselves before continuing into the morning. A hundred other challenges will arise before the day is out, but no matter. The group is operating with a heightened focus on the goal at hand: to safely reach the end of the trail together.

Less than a kilometre down the rocky beach, we meet the buoys hanging in a tree that signal the trail ‘s shift inland, and clamour in a rough single file up and over the twisted roots of a sitka spruce hanging over the edge of a creek. For the next three days we will continue in this manner, immersed in the boundary between forest and sea, with everything we need to survive stowed away in brightly coloured packs and the awestruck glances of our teammates.

On Knowledge

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It’s a great thing to receive invites like this one from Manitoba civics teacher extraordinaire Matt Henderson, and be prompted to a discussion of knowledge spanning two continents and including some of my favourite edu-thinkers in a single Tweet. A huge admirer of GNA Garcia, Zoe Branigan-Pipe, and Thomas Steele-Maley for their influence on my thinking about teaching and learning already, I’m excited at the introduction to @gmbchomichuk and Jock Martin, as well as the folks Matt is cavorting with in South America (nice timing, considering Manitoba has recently recorded temperatures colder than Mars). 

Matt followed up with a note to those of us who jumped at the opportunity to connect:

On Tuesday, we are workshopping (did I just say that?) the idea of knowledge acquisition: How do people acquire knowledge and how can teachers facilitate this process effectively?
As you all are expert/master teachers in my eyes (whom I adore), could you provide me with an explanation of how you personally acquire knowledge and how you as a teacher foster acquisition in your learning environments?


Envious of the ability he has to say it so well, I think Thomas has already articulated many perspectives on knowledge that guide my own personal development and conception of pedagogy.

I love this:

I see my learning broadly as a theory, design, and praxis cycle. I yearn to theorize the world around me, design learning environments for myself and others that intervene in the confluent and ever changing learning process. I then actively test those designs through mentorship, facilitation, teaching and learning.  Thus, I acquire knowledge through qualitative, quantitative and distributed modalities:

      • I read, write and cipher daily and have done more than my fair share of institutional learning (schools-universities).
      • I  am connected and those connections can grow, focus, change, and enhance my experiences and those of others acquiring knowledge.

Recognizing that schools bear an institutional responsibility to reproduce the subjectivities that lead to the successful aspects of society or civilization, I try to co-create educational experiences that reflect this messier authenticity at the heart of transformative, enlightenment education, which Michel Foucault characterized as something that 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.”

This view of learning relies on an emergent epistemology, or view of knowledge “that does not exist except in participatory actions.”

I am indebted to Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta for helping visualize an emergent pedagogy, where:

The meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence.”

Philosophical TraditionsThese postmodern conceptions of knowledge might strike some as too abstract or high-minded to bear any practical application to modern schooling; but it bears pointing out that the traditions that underpin this type of emergent knowledge creation are inextricably tied to modern philosophical traditions alive since the seventeen hundreds. In discussing what constitutes scientific or political truth, or how to designate a consensus of public opinion, or what is entailed in living a ‘good life’ (as well as what that ‘good life’ is, and who gets to live it), we are asking philosophical questions that represent the emancipatory ideals of modern learning as conceived during the Enlightenment period.

To be free to pursue one’s own mind and potential is irrevocably connected to one’s freedom from political tyranny: it is thus that we see that the continental revolutions in science, art and religion followed directly by political, technological and economic upheaval across the known world.

Intrigued by the interdisciplinary ethos running throughout this tradition, I spent a lot of time this semester thinking about how they might be brought into my classrooms, and found a likely opportunity to realize emergence in my Philosophy 12 course during our Metaphysics unit.

On the class site, I introduced a unit plan wherein:

Our task, in general terms, will be to encounter the lives and ideas of metaphysicians. And, in asking of ourselves what we can interpret of their essential guiding questions, to engage in the study of our own metaphysical thoughts and conceptions. This will happen in exposition on the class blog, connections made through comments and conversation, and inquiry through reflection and dialogue.

As the participants’ individual conceptions of reality, experience and knowledge were beginning to be shaped by the reading and inquiry they were conducting into the lives and ideas of various metaphysicians, I was considering the shift in thinking Osberg and Biesta described in emergent pedagogy.

I shared these ideas with the class as we began to conceive of what the summative reflection of the unit’s learning might become:

“The meaning of any new knowledge [which] ‘emerges’ would be highly specific to the complex system from which is emerged, it follows that no ‘knowledge object’ can retain its meaning in a different situation.”

We had, in Freirian terms, begun an investigation into the group’s generative themes, the guiding metaphors and narratives at the heart of our unique collected cultural experience, and brainstormed the ways in which we might realize the aims of his brand of emancipatory learning:

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

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12

And so one Thursday, after two weeks in which each member of the class had delved into the life and metaphysical question of some of the greatest thinkers in history, and spent time outside of school (as part of a long weekend ‘individual field trip‘ assignment) considering those questions, the class met to construct its Discussable Object (here is a link to the expanded photoset).

Here’s how I described it at the time:

The group engaged one another in a discussion that left a recorded physical ‘tail‘ that could be seen, and held onto.

Indeed, it was an ‘object‘ that came into being only by virtue of being suspended between the class’ interrelated ideas, and whose creation facilitated a synthesis of collecting thinking and learning.

In a reflection written shortly after the creation of the Discussable Object, I asked participants about their experience with this type of socially-constructed knowledge, where many returned to the idea of knowledge existing in those “participatory actions”:

Education is always in a participatory manner. The act of learning is to gain foreign information. The only source of foreign information is gained from other sources. Whether you’re reading a book, blog, or looking at a painting, you’re having a discussion, the basic form of exchanging knowledge. Discussions or conversation is the exchange of ideas. You require two parties. It is regardless if the other party is a person, a painting or a blogpost. The exchange is happening. Knowledge cannot be shared, used, or exist if it is not participating in active thought. 

Asked to reflect on the unit’s essential opportunities, several highlighted the open-endedness of the unit’s planning and structure:

I would keep the idea of “Phil’s day off” and the final class discussion. To me, I highly enjoyed the freedom we had to go about this unit and the opportunity to basically act like our own philosophers when thinking about certain questions.

Phil’s Day Off and the whole concept of the object. I thought that this made the assignment personal and gave us all a chance to really reflect and be creative. I would not have done Phil’s Day Off had it not been for homework simply because I’m lazy. Making it homework made it necessary and ultimately I’m glad I had that experience.

Group discussion was excellent. It facilitated a deeper understanding of themes and objectives. I think doing a #philsdayoff with out groups included and maybe even mixing up groups would’ve made it interesting.

I think the freedom aspect of Phil’s Day Off really helped the class think more about the conversation that we had the following week. It’s really fresh to have such freedom in a class, and it kept me engaged in my topic. 

I really enjoyed the group discussion because it was very enlightening and approached the topic in a different way that was more engaging than just writing about it in the blog.

The whole experience was quite something to behold, as is I believe this opportunity to share and discuss these various views of knowledge and learning. I think anytime people are making meaning together, we’re delivering on those promises of the Enlightenment, and that our cultural potential and possibility lies in our ability to cultivate greater and greater reservoirs of the human experience.

I’m grateful to participate in that anytime. But especially when it’s in classrooms and conversations with people like those included here. Thanks for the invite to connect, our future conversations, and for the learning from here on out.

Cleaning the Canvas

Today Iris and a group of TALONS grade tens removed one of the signature pieces of the classroom “cave paintings.” As part of her This I Believe essay representation (last year), she had initially come up with the idea of filling the large triangle above the back of the class with a synthesis of her classmates’ essays, a colourful mantra that has hung above the room for more than a year: We Believe in Being Happy.

But today we started the task of cleaning the room of past projects, artwork, and the residue of culture that a two-year, interdisciplinary highschool program can accumulate. The collages from our fall retreat came down from their clothes-pegs; blackout poetry was removed from windowpanes and shades; and the banner would have to come down.

Which is not to say that this was met very easily by the TALONS who have spent two years filling this space with their breath and essence, have laughed and cried and made art across its walls, floors and desks. There is a certain amount of the pain that is saying goodbye to a place like the TALONS classroom that leaving a physical legacy can help alleviate. But how this happens is an important piece of the program’s emotional topography.

I had a conversation with a few of the TALONS who were around near the end of period three today about this: how at this stage in the program’s life, there is an ‘inner’ perception of what TALONS is – created and inhabited by those who have been here, and those who are here – as well as an ‘outer’ perception – held by those who know the class through blog posts and SharePoint sites, district newsletters and a growing, global, word of mouth. Now that this incarnation of the gifted cohort is in its sixth year, and there is a much more defined ‘outer’ perception of what this place is, and what it is striving to achieve, it is important to consider that those left with the task of creating the ‘inner’ world of TALONS – current learners in the program – do so under the weight of considerable history and the legacy of the remarkable people who have called this classroom home for two years.

For the new myths to be written, in other words, the old myths need to make room for them. And while there is a great empty space where the banner used to hang, there are already plans for its quotes and paint-stained hand and footprints to be deposited and scattered about the cupboards and closets of the room so that the ghosts and wisdom of TALONS past will still be speaking to us.

Beginning again in September, the room will have new cave painters: a new cohort of 56 young learners, each eager to continue writing the story of this place. Their task is a unique one, and individual to the group they will create; but it is a narrative given over to them, most humbly, by the departing grade tens, and each of the past TALONS alumni.