Critical Citizenship for the Digital Age

Brian and Bryan Jam

Photo courtesy of Alan Levine

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 project builds on these notions of a process-oriented citizenship curriculum by bringing them into the digital age. As communicative technology has altered how people relate to both information and one another, humankind is forced to reimagine both knowledge and citizenship in contemporary society. “In the digital age,” Simsek and Simsek (2013) write, “it is a vital requisite to fully understand and use the capacity of new information and communication technologies” (p. 128). Where prior media landscapes – print, film and radio – forced citizens to make meaning based on limited societal authorship, literacies arising in the 21st century “differ from the previous ones, mainly due to their operational, interactive, and user-based technological characteristics” (p. 129). Epistemologically, the creation of cultural narratives and realities has been urged away from a minority authorship toward what Sidorkin (2000) describes as “polyphony, the principle of engaged co-existence of multiple yet unmerged voices” (p. 5). Thus the communications revolution calls upon schools to foster the discovery and synthesis of diverse voices in the service of citizenship learning, something digital tools are well-suited to provide, as “the free flow of information through new technologies is consistent with the requirements of deliberative democracy and corresponding citizenship practices” (Simsek & Simsek, 2013, p. 130).

In a seminal essay in the movement toward open 21st century education, Gardner Campbell (2009) builds on Marshall McLuhan to explore the message at work in the medium of the World Wide Web. “Print is not advanced calligraphy,” he writes. “The web is not a more sophisticated telegraph” (p. 58). To better interpret curriculum in the digital age, Campbell suggests the idea of “personal cyberinfrastructure,” where students are assigned and provided with their own web servers and domain names, and then proceed – through the course of their institutional educational experience – to “build out their digital presences in an environment made of the medium itself,” allowing them to “shape their own cognition, learning, expression, and reflection in a digital age, in a digital medium” (p. 59). Citizenship education, in this view, is enabled by educators and institutions willing to exemplify the participatory culture required by democracy, and which is essential to the information landscape of the digital age:

if what the professor truly wants is for students to discover and craft their own desires and dreams, a personal cyberinfrastructure provides the opportunity. To get there, students must be effective architects, narrators, curators, and inhabitants of their own digital lives. Students with this kind of digital fluency will be well-prepared for creative and responsible leadership in the post-Gutenberg age. Without such fluency, students cannot compete economically or intellectually, and the astonishing promise of the digital medium will never be fully realized. (Campbell, 2009, p. 59)

Stewart (2013) similarly describes an “ethos of participation” grounding many open educational experiences, as she notes that, “To be digitally literate is to be able to engage the connections and communications possibilities of digital technologies, in their capacity to generate, remix, repurpose, and share new knowledge as well as simply deliver existing information.” However, Groom and Lamb (Groom & Lamb, 2014) counter these attempts at optimism in their description of “innovation fatigue” taking over education in 2014: “As institutional demands for enterprise services such as e-mail, student information systems, and the branded website become mission-critical, the notion of building and re-imagining the open web gets lost” in a preoccupation with “what’s necessary rather than what’s possible,” as institutional decisions are further driven by private capital and interests that fall outside those of education for the public good (para 12). If education for citizenship is to be concerned with the “analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (Foucault, 1984, p. 50), educators must seek the promise of openness, not only in technology but society itself. Chief engineer of the World Wide Web, Tim Berniers-Lee, described the necessity of seeking an open Internet as central to the democratic project: “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). Groom and Lamb note that “It is well within the power of educators to play a decisive role in the battle for the future of the web,” even if this will “require an at-times inconvenient commitment to the fundamental principles of openness, ownership, and participation” (2014).


Reclaim TALONS

Out Walkin'

While I attempted to introduce the new academic year in a blog post that wound up meandering into too many of my thoughts and feelings on the culmination of BC teachers’ recent strike action, here I intend to share my initial guiding interests and projects setting out into the 2014-15 school year. As I alluded to in my previous post on the dawning of September, I plan to continue my research into citizenship education as concerns digital pedagogy, curricular reform, and broader currents in educational philosophy.

In the last few years, I have become an admirer of Paulo Freire‘s notion of critical pedagogy, and try in my own practice, as well as my classroom constructivism, to create habits surrounding an ongoing praxis of reflection and action for myself and my students. Such a praxis suits the type of citizenship education Gert Biesta and others espouse as central to the emancipatory process introduced by Freire, and also aligns with many of the intentions of pioneers on the open web and in the digital humanities. In my work as an open educator this praxis also revolves between the theoretical concerns of pedagogy and the practical applications of these intentions.

Reclaim TALONS 

One such foray into the practical application of my research interests has me finally setting out on an adventure I have long-anticipated.

Since taking the TALONS communities onto the public web, first with, then and free sites, I have largely pursued a narrative of online learning which focused on the skills and awarenesses required in the digital sphere. Working across these public platforms, my students and I have contemplated digital citizenship and storytelling, as well as had many opportunities to connect our classroom learning with a wider audience than within the school district’s information silos.

Each of these services – Edublogs, Wikispaces, and WordPress, among others – have afforded us the opportunity to dip our toes in the public web without first surmounting the limits of my own technological expertise around how to manage and administer our own classroom spaces and domains.

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 2.42.53 PMBut in the meantime, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know and work with a handful of innovators in higher education who have shown me the relevance of gaining such expertise, both for my own development as an open practitioner, and as an opportunity for the students I work with.

In his 2009 essay, “Personal Cyberinfrastructure,” Gardner Campbell presented an idea Jim Groom, Tim Owens and Martha Burtis have since ran with at the University of Mary Washington:

Suppose that when students matriculate, they are assigned their own web servers — not 1GB folders in the institution’s web space but honest-to-goodness virtualized web servers of the kind available for $7.99 a month from a variety of hosting services, with built-in affordances ranging from database maintenance to web analytics. As part of the first-year orientation, each student would pick a domain name. Over the course of the first year, in a set of lab seminars facilitated by instructional technologists, librarians, and faculty advisors from across the curriculum, students would build out their digital presences in an environment made of the medium of the web itself. They would experiment with server management tools via graphical user interfaces such as cPanel or other commodity equivalents. They would install scripts with one-click installers such as SimpleScripts. They would play with wikis and blogs; they would tinker and begin to assemble a platform to support their publishing, their archiving, their importing and exporting, their internal and external information connections. They would become, in myriad small but important ways, system administrators for their own digital lives.3 In short, students would build a personal cyberinfrastructure, one they would continue to modify and extend throughout their college career — and beyond.

In addition to building technical knowledge and skills required to exercise agency and voice in the post-Gutenberg age, students charged with the creation and maintenance of their own personal cyberinfrastructure would be engaged in learning across the disciplines of “multimodal writing to information science, knowledge management, bibliographic instruction, and social networking.” To read Campbell’s 2009 call for this type of university education strikes me at this stage in my research and interest in the digital humanities and citizenship education as the intersection of the two, and something that ought be explored at the highschool level.

By Campbell’s description, this discussion of a technology-infused education, is everything at the core of popular discussions of digital skills, literacy and citizenship. “If what the professor truly wants is for students to discover and craft their own desires and dreams,” he writes,

a personal cyberinfrastructure provides the opportunity. To get there, students must be effective architects, narrators, curators, and inhabitants of their own digital lives.6 Students with this kind of digital fluency will be well-prepared for creative and responsible leadership in the post-Gutenberg age. Without such fluency, students cannot compete economically or intellectually, and the astonishing promise of the digital medium will never be fully realized.

While Campbell admits that such forays onto the open web wait until students enter college, the intervening years in educational technology have only hastened the need for students to protect and manage their own data. In British Columbia, FOIPPA laws surrounding storage of student-data on locally maintained servers creates the need for many district’s and educators to work within closed or clumsy information management system provided by Pearson or Microsoft, where after spending millions for the software, the rights to the intellectual property of student work is retained by the company.

The same laws might be seen as the impetus for public school students in British Columbia to be educated in owning once and for all their digital selves, as it is in the interest of so-called ‘protection’ of this information that the laws exist in the first place.

Since the University of Mary Washington launched its own riffs on Campbell’s cyberinfrastruture in projects such as Domain of One’s Own and Reclaim Hosting, I’ve often mentioned to Jim Groom that I would love to bring what he and Tim Owens and Martha Burtis have created to the TALONS classroom. For only my own hestiation has it taken this long to bring the project about though, as Jim has been enthusiastic about the prospect from the first. Within a day of sending Jim and Tim an email outlining where I wanted to go with the TALONS data, the class site had migrated to its new domain (

The journey had begun.

In the week since, I’ve also moved the open course Philosophy 12 from its old WordPress digs to a subdomain on the same site (, and will do the same with the school’s open Introduction to Guitar closer to the spring. Tim and I have begun to see if data from the class’ years’ old subject wikispaces will easily migrate to DokuWiki apps residing on the same site (eg., and in the next few weeks the TALONS will be setting up their own blogs as extension of the webspace which they will use to chart their learning over their two years in the program. When they come to graduate from the program, and move into grade eleven and beyond, they will have the opportunity to take their data with them, transfer it to their own domain, and continue in their digital educations.

As the province begins to etch out its vision of personalized learning, I submit what comes of our continued experiments to the discussion of citizenship education in the 21st century.

On Open Learning Environments

Sweden’s Vittra School (Image from

When looking to explore the panoply of 21st century incarnations of education, I am often compelled to seek out a tangible unifying force at work which might correspond within a larger context of society as it is being influenced by the digital technology revolution.

As the web has increased in its capacity for open sharing and collaboration, it has inverted power-structures and business models that have failed to meet authentically the potentialities of the emerging digital age. Where we can see outdated business-practices in the music and film threatening those industries’ continued existence in the age of file sharing online and the advent of remix culture in aps and Macintosh Arts on devices around the world, educational institutions should seek to embrace the 21st century as an opportunity to help cultivate educational value in the communities they serve. In attempting to identify this through-line within the lens of imagining future learning environments, I find inspiring the conception of a scholastic experience whose foundational purpose is to aid in the removal of the boundaries and walls which exist in our institutions.

The literal and perceived ‘walls’ of school largely extend from a bureaucracy established to serve a different conception of knowledge and schooling than exists today. We separate students by age and grade, divide classes by time (with bells!), segregate our subjects in different areas of our buildings, and detach much of the experience of learning about a variety of topics from applying or rejoicing in the value the labour of their learning contributes to the community. If we look at the manifestation of 21st century principles at work in enterprises like Wikipedia – where the values of connection, openness, and collaboration have made the peer-edited encyclopedia a global storehouse of emergent knowledge – schools would be well advised to adopt similar ethos in creating tomorrow’s schools.

While the information revolution might be in the process of changing cataclysmically the manner in which we go about learning informally as much as formally, the spirit of connection, openness and collaboration presents the possibility of a one room school house for the 21st century, where the physical barriers in our schools – walls, separate subjects, age groupings – dissolve along with the larger boundaries we imagine construct our schools.

John Willinsky talks about how “the democratic culture of [our] country is dependent on the educational quality of our civic lives,” which I would like to apply to a conception of schooling wherein the cultivation of this ‘educative civic life’ is nurtured and maintained by the learning activities carried out by the students themselves. This notion of learning has been nurtured in my own practice through the open-education movement and pioneers such as Stephen Downes, Jim Groom and Gardner Campbell, who have worked to develop the architecture of open online courses. In opening their courses and institutional learning communities to the wider web, and reflecting on and reforming their work publicly, they have created courses which function as just this sort of societally enriching education.

In sketching out the design principles underlying effective self-organizing networks, Stephen Downes describes how “human neural networks, student educational experiences, the cities, ecosystems and anything else you want to create a network out of work better if they satisfy the following four criteria”:

Autonomy, the individuals in the network makes their own decisions.

Diversity, being one isn’t about being the same. Let me repeat. Being one isn’t about being the same. Being a Valencian isn’t about being the same, being a pine tree isn’t about being the same, being a doctor isn’t about being the same. Diversity, in fact, is what makes being doctors possible.

Interactivity, the knowledge created by a network is created by the interaction between its members and, as we would say, is emergent from its members and is not simply the propagation of one person’s opinion to another, to another, to another, to another. Everybody contributes together to make knowledge.


Finally, openness, because networks cannot work if they are closed. Networks cannot work if there are barriers to communication, if there are barriers to entry, if only some kind of messages are allowed.

Something I’ve been thinking about in my last few posts has been the possibility and potential for our schools to embrace these more open principals while fulfilling their institutional responsibilities. As much as we might wish (or philosophically rationalize) that education to take on this more free-range (or what Jim might call feral) approach, there is tension here between an intrinsic inspiration – that emanating from individual learners – and and the extrinsic obligations of institutional requirements. But in exploring the boundary between these opposing forces, there is much to be learned about which assumptions about learning we can retain, and which we might discard.

Jim Groom‘s recent Internet Course at the University of Mary Washington, which he has been teaching with Paul Bond, has offered an example in striking a new balance in course planning, execution, and assessment:

What was somewhat unique about this particular test was that the students designed it. The questions for the test were based on the four panels discussions they ran over the first half of the semester. These panels were student-led, driven by the research they did in the first couple of weeks on specific topics such as internet historyhow it workscreation/consumption, and intellectual property.

Given the students have been framing the curriculum and discussions for the class thus far, it only made sense to have them create the midterm. The result was pretty remarkable. The test is impressive, and it reminded me a bit of what happened with assignments in ds106. What’s more, the feedback students gave Paul and I on the test was interesting–almost to a student they found it both difficult and useful in forcing them to re-engage and clarify what we discussed during each of the panels.

Gardner Campbell recently captured the web’s role in bringing about some of what these first two have described here by highlighting the role of recursion and syndication in learning:

Web syndication really does think about the web as a vast database, and each site on the web as potentially a dynamic, curated representation or slice of that database. But the database is itself constantly refreshed because the web that feeds the database of the web is the web of human curiosity, expression, and meaning-making.

Education as a constantly refreshing database. A web of human curiosity, expression, and meaning-making. Idyllic, utopian even. What might such principles lead to in the K12 classroom, though?

Enter Sweden’s Vittra School, which brings us back to the initial idea of division and barriers in the classroom:

The principles of the Vittra School revolve around the breakdown of physical and metaphorical class divisions as a fundamental step to promoting intellectual curiosity, self-confidence, and communally responsible behavior. Therefore, in Vittra’s custom-built Stockholm location, spaces are only loosely defined by permeable borders and large, abstract landmarks. As the architects explained, “instead of classical divisions with chairs and tables, a giant iceberg for example serves as cinema, platform, and room for relaxation, and sets the frame for many different types of learning,” while “flexible laboratories make it possible to work hands-on with themes and projects.”

Whether our schools feel compelled or pushed to pursue these (r)evolutions is something only time will reveal. But there is an ecosystem of knowledge and learning that is enabled by the advent of the web that schools would do well to embrace if they are to grow meaningfully into the 21st century.

Eminent Person Study: Documenting Transformative Learning

Screen shot 2013-10-20 at 12.29.44 PM

We began talking about Eminent Person the other day by discussing Gardner Campbell’s quoting of Gregory Bateson’s work, and the idea of:

“…breaches in the weave of contextual structure.”

As I’ve mentioned here many times in the past, many experiential aspects of the TALONS program, and authentic learning wherever it happens for that matter, seek to create “breaches” in each participant’s “contextual structure.” In each bringing past experiences, expectations for ourselves and others, and other “contextual structures” to bear on the learning at hand, when these expectations are exceeded – above, beyond or laterally – we are given a view of the world and our relation to it that didn’t until then exist.

The knowledge of this expanded plane of perception leads us toward the action required to establish it as a new self-evident truth of existence. And we do this as individuals as well as cultures:

  • We see our first live concert and witness the magic of music as something made by people, and go about learning to play the guitar;
  • We watch Chris Hadfield sing with Ed Robertson and a choir in Toronto and know that the world is now this small, this connected;
  • We conduct interviews with experts thousands of miles away, and give speeches, and glimpse in ourselves strengths and talents we didn’t realize we there, and are never quite the same afterwards.

In a way it is impossible to settle for the previous way of imagining the world, and are forever drawn to the expanding horizon. And I think this is where the Eminent Person Study finds its particular stripe of ritual power from every autumn, as the new grade tens settle in to their first major opportunity for individual and collective learning, and the nines learn from their example.

The TALONS alumni often come away with having witnessed something profound:

In a way, I think Night of the Notables, especially the speeches, is the gr. 10 initiation. When I finished that speech and went to sit back down amongst the other gr. 10s, it was like taking my place among the elite. And every time someone came back, they passed the test, I suppose. I saw you all a supportive group being each others’ safety nets.

Having been privileged to be a part of the last seven incarnations of the TALONS Eminent studies, I’ve come to revel in the realization that:

From the college kids in the back to the grade nines sitting in the second row (to the teacher grinning in the balcony), everyone in the TALONS orbit [gathers] to give it up for those whose task it is this year to set aside their fears, come together as a group, and dare to do something exceptional.

The experience is something shared, yet something unique to each of us. And it is this particular aspect of the learning process that I wanted to honour in redesigning the project outline and assigned expectations to focus on the sharing of and in one another’s journeys through the project.

Alumni quotes

Alumni Advice

The project’s goals remain largely the same, but I have tried to have the various assignments move away from presenting a finalized product toward capturing a study in progressBiographical research is intended to be connected to each learner’s personal goals – expressed in blog posts from earlier in the year, or their IEP – and field studies and Night of the Notables postings are designed to become a synthesis of both presentation and reflection of individual learning.

Groups will be formed to facilitate commenting and feedback to help further one another’s inquiries into biography (and autobiography), and it is my hope that these conversations will begin to constitute an assembled ecosystem of narrated learning artifacts. The challenge I am looking to confront specifically this year is emphasizing an ethos of social media sharing and documentation to effectively archive and organize this year’s learning for future reflection and growth.

Because we hope to be transformed positively from this experience, each of us. But if we are to make these journeys, and come to these new perceptions, there is an almost moral obligation to share that wisdom with others who might make the trip themselves, something I’ll be interested to see unfold in the coming weeks.

Opening K12 Education

Coming Soon to a Future Presentation
Photo courtesy of @CogDog

Having been exploring technology in the classroom for a few years now, I’ve seen more than a few passing trends in pedagogical circles come and go: blogs, wikis, podcasts; flipped classes, pe(a)rsonalized learning, Twitter, SharePoint, Edublogs, Youtube. Each has garnered momentary Klout clout in the Pedablogisphere before giving way to the Next Big Thing, a trend D’Arcy Norman pointed out in his recently completed masters thesis:

…educational technology can be prone to cycles of hype and fetishism, where new tools and applications are rapidly adopted by individuals who are seen as innovators in the field, with little time for thorough or rigorous investigation of the pedagogical strategies that may be enabled by the affordances of these new tools.

As I’ve seen the timeline of some of these technologies stretch beyond the horizons both ahead and behind us, I’ve sought to synthesize some of what I’ve found meaningful as a classroom teacher, outdoor leader, and an adult learner in physical and digital spheres into a sense of pedagogy that is in line with the rest of my views of teaching, and education.

When it comes to digital technology supporting learning, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the premise of Michael Wesch‘s seminal talk, The Machine is (Changing) Us, where he posits that:

We know ourselves by knowing others. 

New ways of knowing others creates new ways of knowing ourselves.

New ways of knowing ourselves create new possibilities of the very idea of the self, and its pursuit.  

As an English and History teacher who has helped develop and teach locally developed guitar and philosophy courses at our school, and as someone who has spent six years teaching a gifted program that emphasizes experiential, outdoor education as well as collaborative, social-emotional learning, I have often thought that creating just such possibilities of new ways of knowing ourselves and one another has been the chief concern of education through the ages.

He not busy being born, Bob Dylan tells us, is busy dying, and I have to agree with him and Gardner Campbell, who cites this compulsion to learn, to grow and expand our notions of ourselves and our place in the world as part of the evolutionary purpose of humanity itself. Beginning with Felix Baumgartner’s leap from the edge of space, and building on TS Eliot and the Music of the Spheres, Campbell’s keynote at the Open Education Conference in Vancouver last fall, The Ecologies of Yearning, helped me see the course of action toward Wesch’s call to envision new horizons as one central to the educational trust: to become open, and to be involved in opening oneself, one’s classroom, and one’s mind, to the possibility of building beyond our potential.

Each of these openings, I have to think, is indivisible from the others. An open mind is an open class is an open society. Some might say we are duty bound to go about creating the open society.

“This is what we say we want,” Campbell says of education: “Life long learning, critical thinking, adaptation.”

But in practice, he notes, “In this model, all the bets are off. Even the bets about the bets being off.”

The type of learning Campbell and Wesch are talking about, in other words, is risky business, especially when institutions are concerned, institutions which are bound by one responsibility to the will of the participant, but by another to the upholding of the order of the system itself, a paradox that confronts many stakeholders in modern education systems – K12, Higher Ed, Public, and Independent alike.

But Campbell introduces the work of Gregory Bateson, an “English anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist,” whose work with schizophrenia focused on just this sort of paradoxical “Double Bind,” and for which his Hierarchy of Learning serves as a sort of road map that I’ve written about before. Progressing forward from “Learning Zero,” the sort of critical thinking and adaptation included in mission statements and commencement speeches harkens Bateson’s

Learning III, and [the} bringing about [of the] possibility of Learning IV, must be concerned then with what the contexts of learning communicate – in where and how learning is carried out, what is motivating the learner, how the facilitating teacher interacts with the process, etc – but also with providing safe and authentic opportunities to “experience[] breaches in the weave of contextual structure.”

Without wandering headlong into Bateson’s work, I will recommend the paper by Dr. Paul Tosey (2006), Bateson’s Levels Of Learning: a Framework For Transformative Learning? and focus on that last idea there:

Breaches in the weave of contextual structure…

How else to describe our fascination with Google Earth? Chris Hadfield’s Twitter stream? Or Miles Davis & LCD Soundsystem’s perfect harmony?

It is a sort of yearning, that Campbell speaks about, and which elements of digitization put us in touch with, that offer what he calls “some deep experience of the richness, the complexity, the ecologies of yearning that inform our desire to make meaning of our experience, which we must do together.”

And so whether it’s blogs, wikis, podcasts or campfires; videos, GIFs, or walks in the woods, the story of human progress, and knowledge, is about learning to adapt to these “breaches in the weave of contextual structure,” something that the Internet has brought us in spades. That we should be using it to capitalize on the greatest capacities we possess – creativity and self-expression, community-building and collaboration – seems the most genuine of purposes for classroom learning to take on, and something I’ve found in educational opportunities that thrive because of an attitude of openness. 

Shotgun style, here are a few places that I think I’ve managed to create digital workplaces that are on the web, true, but are also of the web, itself.

TALONS Class BlogTALONS Flickr \ @talonsblog 

TALONS Blogs RSS \ Comments RSS

TALONS Socials, Science, English, Math, Planning & Leadership wikis

Late Slips at Awards Night

Music at Gleneagle






Adventures in the ‘self-reinforcing virtuous cycle.’

Coming across this stellar mashup of the LCD Soundsystem’s “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down” and Miles Davis’ Elevator to the Gallows score made me think of Gardner Cambell’s question from a month ago:

What is the real meaning and appropriate function of the Internet itself? 

Gawker introduced the video by saying, “The Entire Internet has been a prelude to This Mashup of LCD Soundsystem and Miles Davis,” answering the question and quoting its author who says it contains, “No editing or other tricks, just 2 youtube videos played at the same time.”

Maybe everything really is a remix.


Epistemological Ecology

Learning Never Stops

This is cross-posted on the Philosophy12 Blog

There is a certain pleasure in being allowed to start things off in a class like #Philosophy12; while others may garner the satisfaction that comes from rising to the challenge of the various assignments and syntheses of ideas, as classroom facilitator my critical tasks have thus far revolved around the outset of the unit. Having hopefully created the conditions for individual and collective learning, I focus my energy around supporting the group’s thinking, whether in daily activities, viewing or reading materials, or engaging in class discussions about the direction and intentions of the unit or task at hand.

I get to learn a lot, just in seeing how the various branches of inquiry manage to reveal the topics at hand, and the perspectives that bring them to our classroom.

But I haven’t yet taken the opportunity to engage directly with the tasks myself, and I was taken with an idea for Epistemology: to state and support a personal proposition about the nature of knowledge, learning, and the justifications we use to frame these ideas. Within the context of the opening class structure, the unit presented a natural opportunity to turn the teaching of the course into a personal engagement with the material. If I could demonstrate an example of the type of learning I would like to see, would the allowance of the space and opportunity for participants to engage with their own individual creation of knowledge bring about an authentic expression ofsocial constructivism?

“All knowledge begins with experience.”

The starting point for my own epistemological proposition centers around a view of our reason as an evolving structure of knowing that shifts with the acquisition of new knowledge (gained through experience). I have more or less directly swiped this from Immanuel Kant, but I have seen these ideas reflected in the foundations of the post-modern era, constructivism, as well as a frequent touchstone in the class’ conversations about knowledge and knowing. A certain amount of our work in the unit was bound to retread at least some of the contribution he has brought to the field, I figure.

But I am nevertheless grounded in the idea that the structure against which our experience of the world is interpreted – our ability to reason – evolves with our experiencing of the world; as it does our sense of what can be known changes in kind, eliciting further questions, and creating new un-knowing. Jonathan said it well in his first of two Epistemology posts: “As we accumulate knowledge over time, I also believe that we develop abilities to gain these different types of knowledge too.

The sage former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld summarized part of this arc memorably in February, 2002:

“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”


“…the limitation of all possible speculative cognition to the mere objects of experience, follows as a necessary result.”


There is something of the snake-eating-its-own-tail that then arises in the compulsion to expand our notions of knowing against an ever-expanding experiential plain. “Essentially, we have proven that no piece of knowledge, whether of reason or of reality, is reliable,”Liam writes in his exploration of Descartes’ Evil Genius theory:”

Really, a more unhelpful and useless conclusion has never been reached. True knowledge, it seems, is nowhere to be found – and because of that, we must accept the flawed, unreliable knowledge that we have and make do with it.

The Double Bind

As I began to explore in my initial post and reflections, the contradiction of pursuing a knowledge that evades alongside our mastery over it reminded me of the concept of the Double Bind, introduced to me a few weeks ago by Gardner Campbell at the Open Education conference in Vancouver. According to wikipedia, 

double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, in which one message negates the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other (and vice versa), so that the person will be automatically wrong regardless of response.


While the acquisition of knowledge may not be an either\or scenario as described in the double bind, what I found valuable about Gardner’s characterization of the dilemma was the idea that the double bind can serve as a kind or prison, but also create the conditions for an expansion of awareness (or, cognition) that is the process of meaningful learning I hope some of #philosophy12 is providing for its participants. Again from Wikipedia:

One solution to a double bind is to place the problem in a larger context […] the double bind is contextualized and understood as an impossible no-win scenario so that ways around it can be found.


For my own part, the attempt to characterize and justify my own beliefs about knowledge has been vexing in the manner Bateson predicted as one of the responses to the double bind, wherein objective truth “cannot be reliably known, so all [truth] is treated as trivial or ridiculous.” It is admittedly difficult to engage faithfully in a process that seems fruitless from the outset, and for this I am glad to have waded into this experiment alongside the #Philosophy12 class.

Because it is a confrontation with the double bind that a new paradigm, either for each of us personally or together as a society, andisn’t this what I should be doing as a teacher?

Bateson outlines a Hierarchy of Learning in which Learning III (third in a series of IV) represents an ability to develop a “meta contextual perspective, imagining and shifting contexts of understanding.” Learning III puts the individual into a moment of learning with risk, where “questions become explosive,” Gardner says, as the potential to begin again at the base of the pyramid Jonathan outlines here is something that we are not often keen to explore, but central to the learning process.

And I think that perhaps this is both the source and the solution to the double bind offered in our own rational and experiential development. Learning IV – which would be the change enacted to progress beyond Learning III – Bateson notes, “probably does not occur in any adult living organism on this earth.”

Naturally: once we have solved the initial double bind and reached beyond our present understanding, we are greeted with new incongruities to decipher.

And yet..?

And yet we continue to engage in this process. We continue to yearn for a greater understanding, even while that understanding becomes obscured in the new questions it raises.

“It may be,” Gardner says, “that the evolution of the species represents the emergence of the possibility of Learning IV, as we think together.”

Leaving me again with echos of Kant:

it is plain that the hope of a future life arises from the feeling, which exists in the breast of every man, that the temporal is inadequate to meet and satisfy the demands of his nature.

Bateson’s Hierarchy of Learning

Something that really resonated with me, toward the end of the thesis proposed by Gardner Campbell in his OpenEd12 Keynote, was the introduction of Gregory Bateson‘s Hierarchy of Learning, described below. Despite being focused around the purpose of higher education, I see a lot of what my TALONS colleagues and I have sought over the course of the last few years in the creation of the learning environment alongside an ever-evolving pedagogical positioning.

The following is from Dr. Paul Tosey‘s paper, “Bateson’s Levels Of Learning: a Framework For Transformative Learning?

Learning 0 (Zero) 

Characterised by specificity of response, which – right or wrong – is not subject to correction.

“…entails responding to stimuli but making no changes based on experience or information.”

Learning I

…is change in specificity of response by correction of errors of choice within a set of alternatives.

[Learning] I is the explicit focus of much Higher Education and management learning, involving common notions of `learning’ as cognitive, conative and affective – changes in knowledge, skills and attitude. It is also the focus of much learning theory. Behavioural, cognitive and experiential perspectives are much concerned with the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Finally, `learning to learn’ often refers to study skills. 

Learning II

…is change in the process of Learning I, e.g. a corrective change in the set of alternatives from which choice is made, or it is a change in how the sequence of experience is punctuated.

“…the norms and expectations of this new setting (e.g. about the level of personal disclosure), and how socialisation was happening in parallel with the overt teaching of content, marking this context as similar to and different from other settings in my experience. I experienced a congruence between the overt, espoused intentions and the `hidden curriculum’.”

Learning III

…is change in the process of Learning II, e.g. a corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made.

Bateson (1973:276) refers to being `driven to level III by `contraries’ generated at level II’; `The “problem” to which third-order learning is a “solution” consists of systematic contradictions in experience’ (Bredo 1989:35), [and that] … symbolic modes of knowing demonstrate[] the significance of metaphor at the root of perception, and the profound potential for learning should such metaphors change.

Learning IV `

…would be change in Learning III, but probably does not occur in any adult living organism on this earth.’

I agree with Gardner’s observation that schooling, and education’s purpose is not habituation and conditioning, or adaptation. It is the cultivation of the ability to think about strategies and contexts from which one could choose to adapt… or not.” 

“It may be,” he says, “that the evolution of the species represents the emergence of the possibility of Learning IV, as we think together.

Learning III, and bringing about this possibility of Learning IV, must be concerned then with what the contexts of learning communicate – in where and how learning is carried out, what is motivating the learner, how the facilitating teacher interacts with the process, etc – but also with providing safe and authentic opportunities to “experience[] breaches in the weave of contextual structure.”

I think about the lasting experiences of the TALONS Fall Retreat, Night of the Notables, Adventure Trip and In Depth studies as “breaches in the weave of contextual structure,” where there is glimpsed (to again borrow from Gardner) “some deep experience of the richness, the complexity, the ecologies of yearning that inform our desire to make meaning out of our experience, which we must do together.”

Last spring we came to call this monad-force The Precious, a grand harmony experienced in these rare moments TALONS builds itself around, and that our grade twelve peer tutor Katie summed up perfectly in a day’s end temperature reading seated on the side of a mountain in the pouring rain, telling our graduating grade tens that, “now is when you get to go out and recreate this, whatever you think this is.”

Philosophy Pop Quiz

This post is also on the #Philosophy12 blog

I’m grateful to Dr. Gardner Campbell of Virginia Tech for letting me bring his daily pop-quiz into #Philosophy12 this semester, as it creates a context for learning that highlights behaviours that are congruent with the philosophical mode and constructivist’s approach as well.

The five questions of the quiz aren’t assessments of any specific understanding, but rather inquiries into habits that will lead to a conducive learning environment in the physical classroom. Our open online participants, I would guess, are the types of learners that are engaging in these behaviours (they otherwise wouldn’t likely be participating with us).

Dr. Campbell’s daily check in goes as follows (score yourself with the numbers supplied):

  1. Did you read material for today’s class meeting carefully? (No – 0, Once – 1, Yes, more than once – 2)
  2. Did you come to class today with questions or with items you’re eager to discuss? (No – 0, Yes, one – 1, Yes, more than one – 2)
  3. Since we last met, did you talk at length to a classmate, or classmates about either the last class meeting or today’s meeting? (No – 0, Yes, one person – 1, Yes, more than one person – 2)
  4. Since our last meeting, did you read any unassigned material related to this course of study? (No – 0, Yes, one item – 1, Yes, more than one item – 2)
  5. Since our last meeting, how much time have you spent reflecting on this course of study and recent class meetings? (None to 29 minutes – 0, 30 minutes to one hour – 1, Over an hour – 2)

Gardner talks about how the quiz is a predictor of how ‘productive’ his classes will be, and in a quick show of hands to reflect today’s scoring, I can see how the class’ honest reflection and response to these questions is potentially a very accurate picture of the engagement at the outset of the day. But more than that, I appreciate what Gardner might call the ‘meta-message’ contained in the brief assessment, and what GNA Garcia described as, “thinking about how [learners] are thinking about what they think about and when,” and thus creating “habits of mind.”

…a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle.

I woke up this morning with the lofty goal of revisiting Gardner Campbell‘s keynote from the Open Education conference that went down in Vancouver this week, The Ecology of Yearning. However, the gods of the Internet didn’t agree and the archive seems to have gone missing for the time being, so I will hopefully return to it soon. In the meantime, I’m digging into an older presentation from Gardner called “Teaching, Learning, and the Digital Imagination” that is hosted on Youtube and his blog.

Even though the talk is only a year old, it synthesizes so many ideas that, even in a year, seem foundational to vastly greater heights. Beginning with Clay Shiky’s quote,

We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capacity in the history of the human race.

Gardner discusses the “Digital Imagination” as a vision of the Internet’s transformative potential. Far more than a data management system, or the efficiency of email, he frames our appraisal of technology’s value or purpose in the tradition of under and mis-valuing innovation. Just as we mistook the true innovative potential of the electric motor, the question is not, to be sure, How can the Internet make us more efficient? but What is the real meaning and appropriate function of the Internet itself? 

Gardner, round one.

Photo Courtesy of @drgarcia

Even as I generally find this sort of argument quite compelling, I was especially struck with the power of the idea that in practicing, refining and education we are striving – one might even say yearning – to oblige a “moral responsibility to be of the most use to civilization,” and that the Internet creates the possibility of a “self-reinforcing virtuous cycle” that I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to witness over the course of the last week with Gardner and other educators out of no more technology than guitar amplifiers and a few printed lyrics and chords.

Audrey Waters highlighted the connection that has become tradition among the DS106 tribe in Vancouver,

I started to write this post, and then found myself spending the evening at a musical jam session with Campbell and others. So there’s that. And that’s actually a wonderful ending to a wonderful beginning of the day. Because jamming is sharing. Jamming is collaborative creation. Jamming is learning. Jamming is process. “Make art dammit,” as DS106 commands us, with the emphasis, I think, on the “make” more than than the “art.” And at the end of the evening with the music ringing in my ears, Campbell’s keynote makes perfect sense, and there’s nothing much to say.

Being able to play music with Gardner a few times this week – including two attempts at the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” among others – added a different authenticity to his words this morning, though. He wasn’t speaking abstractly about his thinking that technology might prove the platform for a heightening community’s potential; he was speaking specifically. Shouting, really. Singing, explaining deftly to a crowd of ecstatic participant-revelers that, “Her name is Gloria.”