MEd Introduction: Personal & Critical Approaches

Objectivity by Sol LeWitt

From Flickr user Sol LeWitt

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

“The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality.” (Nabokov, 1980, p. 251)

In these the early decades of the 21st century, discussions about education are often concerned with a cultural transformation being wrought by the advent of the Internet and a plethora of revolutionary digital communications technologies. Analogous paradigm shifts observed as the digital age has impacted human relationships in economics, popular culture, and academic research have similarly challenged schools to prepare young people to lend their voice to a global dialogue. This digital age makes possible new realizations of pluralism and democracy, where the means and ability to present and communicate an individual narrative and perspective invites all citizens into a collective authorship. If the collaborative power of the World Wide Web threatens the ability of an elite minority to define shared narratives – such as the influence of corporate interests or the State itself – the development of participatory literacies presents emancipatory possibilities for each member of society to become reflected in a shared identity.

While these changes can be and often are touted as revolutionary and inspiring, this era of unprecedented communicative potential on a global scale has been accompanied by rapidly expanding trends toward political and economic alienation and fragmentation, making schools susceptible to replicating inequalities prevalent in wider society. To address this problem, this project explores the potential for citizenship curriculum in the 21st century to provide young people with experiential lessons in transforming themselves as individuals, contributing to the continued transformation of their surrounding societies, and developing greater individual agency in the shaping of a collective identity.

Through this, the project is guided by the following questions:

  • Does open discourse influence young people’s sense of voice and agency in the shaping of collective identities?
  • Can digital tools and open pedagogy provide a means of realizing emergent curriculum for citizenship in the 21st century?

In an attempt to honour the pluralist spirit of collective authorship, the project is framed by an approach to learning that includes personal as well as critical foundations. Although research and professional learning has inspired the process-oriented conception of citizenship learning described here, life experiences and personal pursuits dating back to my adolescence reveal a similar theme of individual transformation that is explored in the introduction to the project. Whether in an adolescence spent training and racing in competitive track and field, university years spent trying to craft the perfect sentence, or as an adult striving to embody lifelong learning, my personal and academic ambitions have consistently been oriented toward transcendence. This introduction outlines the manner in which these life experiences have come together to form the particular lens applied to my academic study of teaching and learning.

References

A Unit Plan of One’s Own: TIEGRAD Final Presentation

MEd Final Presentation

Notes and slides which served as a summary of learning at our cohort’s presentations in Vancouver on December 5th, 2015.  The title comes from an essay by Virginia Woolf and has been used as the basis for a project started by Jim Groom and others at the University of Mary Washington called Domain of One’s Own (which they’ve since taken on the road as Reclaim Hosting) and which allows faculty and students to own and manage their own domain and web publishing spaces. The idea from Woolf is that all one needs to write, and thus be free, is a place to write: and while for Woolf that place may have been a room, for people today everywhere is place to write, and reflect, and synthesize. This is as true for us in how we are able to approach our various areas of education, as it is for our students who are growing up on the web as participants in a truly globalized culture. Teaching young people to own and manage their own data, from the 1s and 0s on up to the content they share on Facebook is central to the task of educating digital citizens. In an article published on Medium last year, Audrey Watters cited the TALONS class as an example of “the growing number of schools [who] believe that students need a proprietary online space in order to be intellectually productive.” This project focuses on the creation of that space as having a central role in citizenship learning in the 21st century. MEd Final Presentation

Something great about networked learning – and learning in public – is that it sprawls. It goes all over. In relationships and projects, initiatives and endeavours: it is always ephemeral. Sometimes it crystalizes into moments of understanding and knowledge, but inevitably it careens back into confusion and new mysteries.

But in blog posts and pictures and videos and presentations, collaborations and conversations, rhizomatic wanderings can come together and be recorded as syntheses of new meanings and understandings that sprawl further and further in every direction.

This was a journey I had been on for more than five years before I joined TIEGRAD, and the challenge to bring together this swarm of ideas and authentically represent the last two year’s learning has been tougher than I might have thought, coming in.

MEd Final Presentation

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p style=”text-align: justify;”>Something that has remained consistent, however, has been a focus on teaching and learning for citizenship, and the view that schools are places that can increase a community’s ability to realize democratic possibilities. This was true in many of my past experiences as a teacher prior to enrolling at Uvic:

  • Whether working in an experiential gifted students program;
  • as a music teacher;
  • as someone working in a global social network;
  • or in my personal and professional development on my blog.

 All along I was sketching out the elements of what might constitute a conception of citizenship in the 21st century.

MEd Final Presentation

Through my grad studies, that conception of citizenship has grown to include the longer traditions of educational philosophy, and support what I had previously approached as exclusively “digital” concerns.

Introductions to Paulo Freire, John Dewey, and Gregory Bateson brought me to a view of citizenship learning that blended critical pedagogy and transformative learning, and placed the digital contexts of modern learning square in the tradition of the Enlightenment.

MEd Final Presentation

In his description of Enlightenment, which he called ‘critical ontology,’ Foucault referred to:   “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’s a description befitting the outcomes much of our educational reforms are concerned with these days, especially when we think of an emphasis of constructivist pedagogies and student-led inquiries. But for schools to truly embrace an emergent view of knowledge – where what emerges from the process of learning cannot, and should not, be predetermined – schools confront a direct challenge to the notion of traditional curriculum and assessment. MEd Final Presentation

Over time, my research question formed around the possibility of creating such a framework for learning based on emergence, and what this could look like within the constraints of traditional – or even the newly Government-mandated – curriculum, and given the possibility of digital technology.

In attempting to set up digital spaces for learning, I try to use a similar structure for knowledge-building and dialogue that I would in physical space: we learn by trying to articulate ourselves to others, and by recognizing new possibilities in one another’s expressions of our shared experiences.

So as would apply in the classroom, it is important that digital space is organized to foster audience and sharing around collaborative inquiries, with a record of individual growth accumulating in an environment that is owned by the individuals in that community.

MEd Final Presentation

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p style=”text-align: justify;”>In the unit plan of one’s own, the process can be organized around any grade level or subject area; it also doesn’t necessarily need to take place within a digital environment. What the class or individual blogs present is the opportunity for a critical praxis of learning to be documented in-progress by individuals or groups: if a similar record of learning artefacts were to be kept in a binder or shoebox or corkboard through the course of a semester, much of the essence of the pedagogy would remain. For those looking to instil a sense of digital citizenship extending beyond the local classroom, however, public sites can take the process onto the global web.   At the outset of a unit, students document or represent their “First Position.” The intent here is to “capture” the state and intentions of their learning with only introductory information at hand:

  • What are my first impressions of the topic?
  • What do I already know?
  • What do I want to know?
  • What are my questions?
  • How will I go about finding answers to them?
  • And why is it important for me to have them answered?

From there we have a document of learning in progress, a planning document of what might become of the ‘summative’ event, a ‘capture’ or record of that summative piece, and a reflection or self-assessment to articulate the learnings of the particular unit – whether to the individual learner, teacher, or group as a collective. The process itself is structured to bring about an authentic emergence of subjective perspectives around a common topic or inquiry.

MEd Final Presentation

For each of the unit assignments, criteria are generated by the class to determine mutual expectations for the learning that should be done, and how it will be shared. Rubrics are created and distributed, and used to gather peer-feedback, provoke authentic self-assessment, and to provide for teacher intervention where necessary.

It is not even always important that grades be attributed to each of these unit assignments, as they can distract the focus from seeking out relevant feedback to better meet individual and collective goals.

To coincide with reporting periods, it can be useful to require a mid-term and final synthesis of learning relative to mandated curricular outcomes. Here, students are asked to look back over their amassed documents of learning, and to assemble a record of their work toward identified learning standards. These points in a semester can offer a chance for students and teacher to arrive at a grade reflective of the totality of their work – rather than an aggregate ‘score,’ for the term or semester.

MEd Final Presentation

In brief, the process has left me with a few takeaways:

  • One is that I need not be a revolutionary: the system we have inherited is itself built on the premise of an ongoing revolution. Democracy is the worst form of government there is, except for all the others. But it is especially bad if we don’t know how to use it to build community-driven consensus.
  • How we pursue this community driven consensus is by preparing young people to express themselves as members of their various communities to achieve authentic collective ends.
  • And finally we must pursue this for ourselves as educators and citizens, working through our own praxis of intention, action, and reflection, because this is what it means to be enlightened.

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.

Back to School(s): Part I

Salad Roll / Tentative Deal Day

Having only spent a few Septembers free of my varied back-to-schools, I have difficulty not viewing fall as the start of a new year. Rested and inspired following summer break, September has become a time of renewal, setting goals, and staking out the terms and terrain by which the academic year will unfold. As I’ve been able to fold my professional pursuits within my personal endeavours and interests these last few years, I’ve increasingly looked to the dawn of autumn as an inspiring time.

Relieved as I may be to have returned to school this last week following the longest strike in British Columbian schools’ history, there is something that makes this September’s embrace somewhat awkward.Labour Days

Forced, even.

Until just last week, teachers in BC’s daily reality concerned a struggle for what many of us see as our part contribution toward realizing democracy’s noble aspirations. Faced with a government that has repeatedly shown disrespect and disregard for the purpose and mandate of public education, the majority of my 40,000 colleagues across the province and I were committed to standing up for not only our own rights to education, but those of our students, present and future.

And while the thought of it made me sick to my stomach, I was committed to standing on the street in front of our school as long as it was going to take to preserve those rights.

For eight weeks this summer, and for two into the new school year, the government’s proposed contracts contained strips (or at least threats, depending on the lawyer at hand) to legal victories which have cost the teachers’ union significantly, both in its finances and its standing with the public. For more than a decade, the combat of the BC Liberals and the BC Teachers’ Federation has revolved around the constitutional violations of a contract ripped up in 2002. While repeatedly admonished in the courts, the government has consistently and blithely thumbed its nose at the law and the province’s public schools, increasing funding to private “independent” schools, duplicating legislated language already deemed to be outside the law by the Supreme Court, and even diverting school funding during the strike for parents to seek out ‘other educational opportunities’ such as online courses or private education.

Not Your Family

As was noted in several conversations I’ve had in recent months, in the current government we faced “a totally different animal than ever before,” and there was no telling to what depths Premier Christy Clarke and Education Minister Peter Fassbender might sink in attempting to extract a victory by attrition to win back cases they’d soundly lost in the province’s highest court (twice). There was little reason to expect that part of the Liberals’ agenda included keeping public schools closed, and teachers’ families going without income, into October.

But I am proud to have been part of such a tribe as teachers who looked at such a set of circumstances and agreed to stand firm in our resolve to resist such a government. I’m glad to have fought alongside my school staff to make the best of a bad situation, to bring each other food, and emblazon T-shirts with our simplest of battle cries, and to share in one another’s company, and solidarity.

I’m proud to know the parents, and students, and members of our community that recognized the stand we were taking, and the toll it was taking on us, and helped us out: who wrote letters, and organized sit-ins, and brought us food and coffee on the picket line.

We believe in Public Education

And I’m proud to say that as a result of our shared efforts there was an end to the strike that protected our court victories, and even won several concessions for our elementary colleagues and TOCs in the province.

But between the official ending of the strike and the starting up of school this pride and sense of victory has soured some, as we have returned to school with these as the most meagre of victories. Victories which are so minute, in the grand terms of the struggle, that I am filled with a sense of anger at the blindness of government that would so unnecessarily lead the province’s public school system through such a protracted crisis.

For what?

To return to classes which are still too big, and getting bigger.

To reenter schools where our librarians are picking up blocks to teach, and our administrators are finding their way back into classrooms so students have courses to take.

Where our foods and shop classes are swelling, and our district continues to find ways out of its millions-of-dollars-a-year budgetary shortfall by amending class size limits or asking teachers to shoulder an ever-laden burden.

So as much as we have returned to work, we have also merely changed the venue of a fight against a government that stretches back more than twelve years. Where past Septembers have taken my aims and interests into blogs, and open courses, and trips into the British Columbian wild, I am compelled to continue the fight of our strike now in our day to day work as teachers. To this end I’ve taken on the role of (one of) our staff union representative(s), and hope that this new perspective on our profession allows me further opportunities to fold my personal and professional ambitions into a modeled teaching persona that is of pedagogical value in my classrooms, as well as the local community our school serves.

Setting out in the construction of my Masters of Education project, I plan to continue this year in exploring notions of citizenship education, both as a component of experiential education as well as in my work and advocacy as an open educator. Elements of this exploration touch upon curriculum, philosophy of education, and the advent of the Digital Age, and it is my hope to refine these strands of thought around ongoing projects in my fall and spring classes which I will describe in greater depth in a second installment of Back to School(s).