Apathy & Oligarchy in the Public Sphere

Democracy

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)

References

Teaching to the (Limit) Situation

Korchstag

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.

References

Lit Review Twitter Essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21. Fugitive thoughts quickly captured.

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

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

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

It might begin something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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Here we might continue in an academic voice:

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

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

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

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

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

Again:

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

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

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

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

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

Education for Citizenship as Shared Fate

Untitled

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

They write:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He continues:

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

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

Here, shared fate:

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

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

Identifying a Research Problem

Research Query

Identifying a research problem consists of specifying an issue to study, developing a justification for studying it, and suggesting the importance of the study for select audiences that will read the report. 

John W. Creswell

While it acknowledges that “Participating in elections is the essential starting point of any democratic system,” Elections Canada’s own working paper on the Electoral Participation of Young Canadians cites a characterization of the nation’s youth as “political dropouts,” building on the depressing findings of Ottilia Chareka and Alan Sears, that even though

“Youth understand voting as a key element of democratic governance, a hard won democratic right, and a duty of democratic citizenship […], most indicate they do not plan to vote because voting does not make a difference.”

Additionally, the perils of such a disinterest threaten the creation of a trend Gilens and Page have identified in the United States as having transformed the country [back] into an oligarchy, wherein “mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Taken together the two ideas present the nexus of an area of research my recent work and experience lead me to consider, as it offers a unique insight into a vital phenomenon. As the author of the Elections Canada working paper, Paul Howe observes that “a lower voting level among the young could simply represent an increase in the number of intermittent non-voters and/or a decrease in the incidence of voting among young, intermittent non-voters.”MA Doodles

He adds,

“The notion that today’s young people need particular support and encouragement to take up the habit of voting is an important one. To better understand these processes, further research focusing on political socialization dynamics in late adolescence (when young people are approaching or reaching voting age) would be valuable.”

In the last many months, I have considered the problem of my upcoming graduate inquiry as an opportunity to explore this application of public education, sensing the intersection (though perhaps collision would be more appropriate) of Canada’s democratic traditions with the lauded Digital Age and the school curriculum itself. Working as I have (and continue to) with various unique cohorts in blended digital and face-to-face environments, as well as beyond formal instruction in a variety of informal or extra-curricular settings, my spheres of interaction with young people presents what Howe describes as an area for future research:

“Conducting research in the high school setting has the advantage of providing access to all segments of youth society, including the most marginalized, indifferent and/or disaffected, who often cannot be effectively targeted once they have left school.”

Something I’ve quoted often as a guiding principle in my work over the last many years is Gert Biesta’s notion that

“Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught.”

In his graduate work [highlighted recently on CBC’s IdeasDavid Moscrop highlights a problem in applying the workings of the “lizard brain” to the complexities of modern democracy: “It’s about messaging and name familiarity. And it reflects our MA Doodlesown vulnerability to being manipulated — which is why attack ads work and sound bites work.” Such a revelation echoes Habermas, who described a degraded public sphere as one co-opted by media and political elites who manipulate public opinion to their own ends.

In confronting this emerging civic reality, my own interest in curriculum adjoins the prospect of critical pedagogy as a means of instilling young people with an emancipatory praxis that allows them to enact and create their own freedom. This tradition of scholarship includes the likes of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, as well as Michel Foucault and Gregory Bateson, but also recent the recent theorizing of Stephen Downes, Bonnie Stewart, Jesse Stommel and Gardner Campbell.

Following from Freire, a critical perspective on one’s “generative theme” is central to an emancipatory education:

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

When broadened to include the evolution of the public sphere presented by the burgeoning Digital Age, the means by which these themes and power-relationships are forged has expanded beyond traditional print and broadcast media to include a panoply of personal publishing technologies that continues to mediate power relationships in new and daunting ways. It is a time fraught with both possibility and peril.

So we can see that as Gardner Campbell posits the creation of personal cyberinfrastructure, Audrey Watters wonders about the peril of bringing our face-to-face cultural inequalities online:

“What percentage of education technologists are men? What percentage of “education technology leaders” are men? What percentage of education technology consultants? What percentage of those on the education technology speaking circuit? What percentage of education CIOs and CTOs; what percentage of ed-tech CEOs?

“Again: How do these bodies — in turn, their privileges, ideologies, expectations, values — influence our education technologies?”

In my work with young people I strive to create learning opportunities meant to instill a reflective critical praxis emblematic of the type of citizenship engagement necessary for democracy to exist. Many of these learning opportunities are conducted in a blended digital and face-to-face environment, and utilize open digital practices intended to leverage the participatory practices essential to both the success of the web, as well as democracy itself.

MA Doodles

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

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

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

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

Reflection, Self-Explanation & Citizenship

MA Doodles

Analogue Notetaking

Reflection vs. Self-Explanation

One of the questions asked by a #TieGrad classmate during my presentation on the Self-Explanation principle was whether there was all-too-much difference between the practice of self-explaining and a more general reflective process. And while I might be more inclined to leave the definitive boundary-setting to those more versed in the theory, something that drew me to investigating the principle in the first place was the apparent overlap with many of my own practices revolving around critical reflection and pedagogy.

There does indeed appear to much overlap between the practice of guided reflection, the creation of objects of learning, and an ongoing critical praxis.

The benefits of guided self-explanation touted by the chapter in Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning involve the following:

  • Repair mental models,
  • Identify previously held misconceptions,
  • and Make inferences between learning materials.

Further, studies have shown that

“When students are explicitly asked to make connections between sources of information while self-explaining, they are better able to integrate the information to form a more complete mental model.”

Self-Explanation & Citizenship

Slide20As I’ve described in other posts this semester, such a framework for learning suits the ongoing themes in my own theory and practice as related to critical pedagogy and citizenship learning, as it serves to provide a personalized outlet for meaning-making in a complex learning environment. Such a process seems poised to deliver the lessons requisite for students to continue lifelong learning beyond the school or institution and become contributing members of a just society.

Such a conception of democratic society is the same one introduced by John Dewey, nearly 100 years ago. Among a great many contributions to progressive education, Dewey prescribed schools (and curriculum) as the means by which the younger generation could become enculturated to the traditions, concepts and proficiencies society deems necessary for its continued survival and progress, as well as laboratories where young people could rehearse the formation of their own communities and societies, based on their own emergent values and principles.

This notion, that each individual has a role to play in society and that schools’ function is to aid in the full participation of each citizen, relies to a certain degree on the ability of students to become lifelong learners capable of enacting an ongoing critical praxis. The education of the self as a unique agent in society is a process that does not end upon graduation, and in fact demands an even greater ability to synthesize complex learning uniquely presenting itself to each member of the broader community upon entering the so-called ‘real world.’

That guided self-explanation might help enrich learning in a complex environment, and is most effective when used to support challenging, engaging, cognitively complex learning, presents such a principle as uniquely positioned to help K12 students develop a necessary skillset in the realm of citizenship education.

The Process behind the Product

The idea of narrating one’s work has more and more become central to my focus in crafting assignments and units that reflect a focus on process over product, even when a project or opportunity presents itself with a resolute product as finale. While each member of the community or classroom may pursue a unique pathway in their own learning, a few common, simple goals can help align collective efforts toward diverse, individual learning outcomes.

An example of this type of learning design is the TALONS Eminent Person Study, a traditional gifted students’ program “Hero Project” wherein each of the TALONS adopts a notable individual who has attained ’eminence’ in their chosen field, and prepares a research study on their life and achievements. There are several general expectations for each during the course of the project:

  • Introductory Blog PostSlide14
  • Library Field Study
  • Expert Interview
  • Document of Learning
  • Learning Center
  • Night of the Notables Reflection
  • Bibloggrapy

And yet within these individual assignments, there is the latitude for each to pursue an aspect of personal learning, whether related to Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals, areas of passion or curiosity beyond the scope of Ministry curricula, or themes emerging within the unique community of learners. So while each of the above assignments is a marked component of the study, the unit’s assessment is weighted toward the insight and autonomy expressed in the blogged reflections and documents of learning created and shared throughout the process.

Eminent Evaluation 2014

Further, these open-ended reflections are supplemented by guided self-explanation prompts in the form of a summative evaluation via Google Form. Here, the TALONS are asked to reflect upon their own process of learning throughout the project – how they measured up to their initial goals, what led them to success, or how they would improve various aspects of their work – as well as summarize and state what they felt constituted the grand takeaways from the monthlong odyssey.

Here, the process of guided self-explanation is enacted to (ideally) synthesize diverse threads of individual learning, which will in time radiate into the collective themes of the community.

In reflecting on what made her speech this year her best work in the project, Alison noted,

First of all, this year I wrote my speech draft much earlier than the due date compared to last year. Due to this fact, I was able to receive a lot of great feedback from my peers during the writing process, which then allowed me to improve my speech even further. Once my draft was written, I was lucky that I had a lot of time to rehearse my speech. One step that led my speech to success during this stage was that I didn’t just rehearse the words, I also rehearsed body language and movement, and the use of the stage. Although I can’t accurately judge what I did on stage due to my nerves, through the feedback I received from peers, guests, and alumni I can think that I was one of my better works.

But beyond these questions of process, which are of great value from the standpoint of identifying and correcting previously held misconceptions or mental models (prized by the self-explanative educator, we are told), it is the parts of the survey which prompt students’ thinking about the synthesis of personal or collective themes which shine light on the particular nuances between the product-oriented outcomes.

What will you (or do you want to) remember about this project?

One thing that I would like to take away from the project, in addition to all that I learned about [my Eminent Person], is how closely the class supported each other in their own studies, specifically in the grade 10 speeches. Although Eminent is a very personal project, I enjoyed the process in which we came together to somehow connect our eminent people into one, collective sequence of performances. It allowed us to be aware not only of our own learning, but of the learning happening around us, and how it related to the common goals of the group. Seeing all of our speeches come to life on stage was also very validating for the work that we put in together.

I think I’ll remember a lot of the little moments. I think I’ll remember the moments of support backstage and in our huddle as well as moments of joy like when I was on stage and after when we were all running down the halls.

I will remember the experiences that I had to express my learning of my eminent person. For me personally, it was the first time I had gone to a university library to find serious sources. It was very interesting to see the endless amount of books. It was also fascinating to see the university lifestyle, and to think that I may be there in a few years. Another part that I will remember about this project is the learning centers. I thought that it was  fairly similar to a science fair, I was, for the most part, wrong. It was similar to a science fair in that there were stations, but different because of how we were encouraged to have an interactive element. Usually, people might have pictures or models, but we got to speak to the people, and have them experience our project more in-depth. I enjoyed these parts of the project.

I will always remember the freedom with this project. The outline for this project can easily be altered, and I feel that this leads to a more passionate project with students who are willing to learn about something they enjoy or care about. I had the choice of being whoever I found eminent and that is something I will always remember about Eminent Person Study.

Is Constructivism Possible?

A question I have been exploring in the past year has been whether or not constructivism is possible within institutional learning. We are torn, in schools, between the dual purpose of Dewey’s initial calls for democratic instruction, and teaching what society deems ‘required’ skills, facts, or habits, and creating a space for unique individual subjectivities to emerge within educative spaces. The contradiction which arises within institutional learning settings surrounds the notion that for truly unique subjectivities to be brought about, the perceived ‘objectivity’ of the instructor/facilitator/learning outcomes often unnecessarily limits these possibilities.

This relates to an oft-quoted edict of Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta on this blog, 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.”

It is a difficult thought to wrap one’s head around, but one which is central to the aim of multicultural societies, where to foster broad diversity within a pluralist democracy citizens of countries such as Canada are tasked with

“[promoting] 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.”

Indeed, Osberg and Biesta write that

“In contemporary multicultural societies, the difficulty with education as planned enculturation lies in the question of who decides what or whose culture should be promoted through education. The problem of ‘educational enculturation’ is therefore of considerable concern to theorists grappling with the issues raised by multiculturalism.

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

Thus while still nevertheless prompted to respond to the pre-defined outcomes of a project such as the Eminent Person Study, the TALONS are hopefully still yet encouraged to construct their own subjective perceptions of themselves within the learning experience. And so in answer to the following question, we find a multiplicity of responses:

If you had to describe your learning during the Eminent Person Study in one word, what would it be? 

If you had to describe your learning during the Eminent Person Study in one word, what would it be?

An Ignite Talk: No handbook for Transcendence

Pic courtesy of Dean Shareski

Pic courtesy of Dean Shareski

What a hoot tonight to come share in a blitz of ideas with a room full of #bced folks, convened around food and drink, rallying around a call from Dean Shareski to talk about our passion projects. The atmosphere was loud and fun, thoughtful and provocative, and I’m glad to have dusted off at least an hour’s (or a PhD’s) worth of ideas to cram into a five minute – fifteen second a slide – presentation.

In a bar. With the Canucks game on in the corner. On a mic that seemed poised to drown us in feedback with a step in the wrong direction.

But if that makes the task sound a chore, it really was the perfect setting to dash across way too many ideas in the time allotted: indeed it is the appeal of the Ignite Talk format. There isn’t room for any pontificating, audience interaction, or derivations into the fescue after an interesting anecdote to illustrate a point.

There is just the idea you brought to share. And then it’s gone.

Then there are more talks.

It was great, really, even if I felt rushed, and left stuff out, and probably crushed several different words together trying to get them all out at once.

Anyway, the great thing about giving talks and presentations to groups of plugged in people is that the job is really just to get them curious about the things the presenter has been spending time thinking about / experimenting with / learning. If anyone is so inclined, they can seek out the breadcrumbs that lead to these lessons and insights later on, if they choose.

If they’re not, the talk is over in five minutes.

Tonight I returned to a topic I’ve discussed before in presentations, blog posts, academic papers, and casual conversations and rants going on more than a year now: Citizenship Learning and the Project of Enlightenment. It’s a big topic. Too big, really, for five minutes, but as my opening lines addressed, education is a matter of infinite complexity driven by a simplicity of cause. What’s underneath all that complexity is a simple idea, one that we’re always shaping together: What is school for? Why are we learning?

Here then are my slides and the notes I was working with for those that would like to pursue these ideas in a little more depth. Links to many of the things discussed here – and more… – are in this Google Document. Click on any of the images below to see them bigger.

No Handbook for Transcendence 

Slide01

Emerson wrote that, “At the periphery there is infinite complexity, and at the center, simplicity of cause.” And I like to think that just as our work as educators is infinitely complex, it is driven by a simple cause.

Slide02

When it comes to learning we stand at the intersection of philosophies that constitute what several have deemed the Project of Enlightenment: the cultivation of the self, of knowledge, and society that encompass the study of epistemology, metaphysics and citizenship.

But I wonder whether we honour the traditions that first created the need for institutional learning.

Slide03

I wonder what does constructivism – what emergent subjectivities forming a unique collective voice – really looks like? What if knowledge “does not exist except in our participatory actions”?

Slide04

I wonder what our schools would look like if we embraced the idea that democracy is dependent on the ability of individuals to create public spheres representative of a collective will?

Slide05

Because if this is true, and ‘new ways of knowing ourselves can create new conceptions of the self, and new possibilities for the search for the self itself,’ teachers and learners are forced to rewrite the book daily. The metaphor of the digital campfire, where we share our stories and songs recalls the infinite complexity and simplicity of cause.

Slide06

Fortunately, lots of intelligent people have been talking about this for quite some time, and a theme that emerges describes Enlightenment as the acquisition of knowledge about our boundaries and experimentation with the act of going beyond them.

Slide07

A big part of the reason we put such a high importance on the ability to transcend our selves and our contemporary problems is that it is just this sort of behavior which gave us the modern age.

It’s no accident that we begin to see the end of feudalism, the monopoly of the Catholic church, the emergence of the scientific age, and the artistic renaissance at the same time we start building schools, and parliaments, and the institutions of democracy.

Slide08

Unfortunately for us, where once various media allowed us a free exchange of ideas and the creation of a representative public opinion, Habermas says that the public sphere has been degraded to “spectacle,” frivolity, and “passive consumption.”

Good thing that didn’t happen to us, right Kim Kardashian?

Slide09

Now, the good thing is we’re all about this stuff, in every ‘official’ way possible.

Any one of your district’s mission statements and you’ll find some combination of things Immanuel Kant and Paulo Freire and Michel Foucault would stand up and applaud.

Lifelong learning would by necessity become Foucault’s definition of Enlightenment, wouldn’t it?

Slide10

But if we’re to be creating and preparing tomorrow’s citizens for the job (as opposed to just saying this is what we’re doing), we need to remember a couple of things:

One is that learning about this type of citizenship happens everywhere.

Slide11

Another is that the context in which a thing is learned says more about what is being being taught than the thing itself. So we need to be careful that we don’t devote our thinking to what is to be taught at the expense of thinking about the contexts in which the learning takes place, and the meaning communicated by these contexts.

Slide12

And that might just look like this: Maybe it could espouse openness as a way of operating. It could cultivate habits of mind, rather than contents. And maybe the knowledge created there would be seen to emerge from the sum of its parts.

Slide13

School could become the kind of place that is filled by the will of its participants. A cave they could populate with their own shadows, and made into meaning by the assembled voices of a community of inquiry.

Slide14

Assignments, then, and assessment, and the problem of educational design could become the challenge of providing a platform on which to reflect, and develop one’s voice: something that might be deemed socially documented inquiry.

Slide15

Something like this owes a lot to what Gardner Campbell coined and that Jim Groom and Tim Owens and Martha Burtis have been developing at the University of Mary Washington, with the Domain of One’s Own and Reclaim Hosting, where learners become system administrators of their digital lives.

“Shaping their own cognition, expression and reflection in a digital age…”

Slide16

Because the antidote to the degraded public sphere may just be subverting the system of power through the very same media channels which operate it.

This is our Philosophy classroom, with a worldwide reach. It’s learning not only on the web, but of the web, conceived in the same spirit.

Slide17

Here is our classroom broadcasting live on 105 the Hive, distributed web radio, sharing a remixed episode of CBC’s Ideas with live introductions and interviews with the producers of each remix. Media archivists Tweeted feedback and promoted the event in progress, catching the attention of Philip Coulter at the CBC, who emailed his praise.

Slide18

Here’s what a ‘test’ looks like in an emergent classroom. If you were to get 10 out of 10 on a quiz like this every day, you wouldn’t need the same kind of teacher you have now.

Slide19

Because the trouble with the types of paradigm shifts our continued Enlightenment depends on is that there’s no handbook to transcendence. The wisdom adopted and created by each successive generation is a collaborative act young people need to rehearse and explore with adults engaged in this struggle.

Slide20

That struggle to “generate public spaces of social interaction… based on finding agreement, welcoming different points of view, identifying the common good… searching for synthesis and consensus, promoting solidarity and ultimately improving community life.”

Teacherless Discussion

Teacherless Discussion

Mapping the teacherless discussion.

Something the Philosophy 12 group experimented with in last year’s cohort was the idea of holding teacherless discussions. As research and work in my own graduate studies took me further into notions of citizenship education and a confrontation with contemporary political apathy, I began to look at the structure of classroom activities as a means of engaging student and peer ownership over the learning process.

I was inspired initially to take this course of action by the writing of Paulo Freire, who highlighted the need for emancipatory education to reconcile the student-teacher contradiction. “The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics,” he writes, “the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

Perhaps more simply put, as I explained to the philosophy class today, ‘school’ should be less something that happens to students than something they make happen for themselves. And while teachers may approach their classroom activities with the best of intentions in this regard, there is still ultimately a group’s propensity to rely on a designated instructor / leader / teacher to move things along, creating a broadly perceived apathy that allows a minority to dictate – often without opposition – the course of the community.

So I started sometime last year deliberately ‘going dark’ for some of our classroom discussions, and found the results of the experiment to be immediately palpable, if not specifically nameable. Something which also struck me was the shift in participation, posture and presences making their way into discussions in which I re-inserted myself, as students reverted back to offering their responses more directly to me than the group, seemed to seek my approval or appraisal of their thoughts, and otherwise seemed to lose sight of their community of peers.

This morning I sought to begin our teacherless discussion efforts earlier in the semester with a dissection of the New York Times Opinionator Blog essay “Logic and Neutrality.”

The map above shows the course of the conversation as it moved about our classroom. Numbers show the order of speakers, with the two volunteer moderators (Jeff and Cassidy) noted in red. Dashed lines show spontaneous interjections, and numbers otherwise note the order of speakers as neatly as I could manage.

In my own notes I also highlighted several contributions which furthered the discussion, as well as a few points where things seemed to stall, and asked the class to create their own lists of these points in the conversation.

A few of those helpful contributions included:

  • Asking guiding questions to outline course of discussion in progress,
  • Attempting to define different vocabulary and concepts being used,
  • Highlighting quotes from the article at hand,
  • Incorporating examples from popular culture or common experience,
  • A willingness to pose what may sound like a ‘silly’ question, or hypothesis, and
  • Synthesizing board notes or past points and challenging the momentum of the discussion.

A few places where the class’ momentum faltered:

  • Getting bogged down in controversial or opinion-based hypotheticals (in this case the question of the morality of murder that was ended deftly by someone’s suggestion that “we move off murder”),
  • Moments where a more common understanding of discussion aims and/or vocabulary would have created more clarity around topics,
  • Encountering quiet moments of thought following tough questions or attempts to synthesize discussion.

As an initial effort in the teacherless discussion this semester, the Philosophy 12 group demonstrated many characteristics of successful group discourse, and will continue to build on these strengths as the class moves on into more individual and collective inquiry.

The Digital Age and Curriculum in British Columbia

I: The Digital Shock & Curricular Reinvention 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II: Principles of Curriculum and Instruction in the BCEdPlan

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

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

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

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

Progressive

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

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

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

Essentialist

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

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

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

Sociologist

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

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

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

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

Educational Philosophy

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

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

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

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

Image by Alan Levine

III: Further Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Constitution Act, 1982 (1982).

Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emergent Citizenship: Curriculum in the Digital Age

Junedays

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

What is curriculum?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emergence in the Digital Age

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching and learning in polyphony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curriculum as Identity

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

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

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

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

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

The Constitution Act, 1982 (1982).

Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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