On other new beginnings and other new beginnings’ ends…

Howe Sound

“Every man moves on,” says my father quietly, and I think he speaks of Santa Claus, “but there is no need to grieve. He leaves good things behind.”

From Alistair Macleod’s “To Everything There is a Season

At certain times in life, there is too much to rightly say – too much felt, experienced, too many lives intersected, relationships fostered, or memories shared. Attempts to set down thoughts and feelings at a time like this obscure anything that falls outside that declaration; people, sentiments, scenes, and places are erased not for their lack of importance, but because in trying to describe the wholewe inevitably lose sight of the infinite complexities that compose it.

That said, there are the statements of fact to be reckoned with, and with that in mind I do want to share that as of next year I will undertake a secondment as a Faculty Associate at Simon Fraser University, working as part of their professional programs to certify new teachers. For the first time in ten years I will be starting a new job, moving beyond the home and students and role I’ve known for the near-entirety of my professional career, and becoming again the New Guy, an apprentice green and young among my more seasoned colleagues.

These last few years I’ve found myself an experienced member of my school community: confident to speak up, take on leadership roles, experiment with pedagogy and assessment, to fight for my vision of equity and justice for my students and colleagues. But with this confidence I’ve also been struck with a sense of wanderlust. As nice as it has been to feel as though I have a handle on what I’m doing, a part of me has longed to leap into the unknown.

Firm in the belief that we are growing most when we are forced beyond our comfort zones, I began to feel that I had been pushing hard in a host of professional directions – union activism, curriculum development, professional collaboration – and that, in time, this pushing would take me somewhere beyond my local school community. Indeed I had enrolled in and completed a master’s program over the last few years so that such future doors might be open to me, should I seek them out, even without a firm idea of what these new adventures might entail.

To be sure, my work with the TALONS is and has been too good to be true. In its every iteration it is education as it could and should be: community-focused, experiential, authentic, and personal for teachers and students alike. Our students and their families are deeply supportive and committed to making our program reach ever more daring heights and achievements, and celebrate each cohort’s learning with enthusiasm and love that is infectious and inspiring. I have been fortunate beyond words to call this program home these last ten years, and have not taken the opportunity to step away lightly. No small part of me worries that I will never have it so good; but I know that such fears can too often get in the way of stepping out into those new frontiers that we will come to call home.

It is time to scare myself with uncertainty, lean into the discomfort of unfamiliarity, and know again the work that comes with breaking trail.

I would be remiss however if in this time of looking forward I did not look back at a few of the people and places that have given shape to my last decade, without whom whatever lies ahead would not be possible. Without whom the perspective that writes these words would not have come into being.

JAM #SQUAD

Q and Andy

Though they each deserve their own novels of gratitude and attempts to describe what it means to be both colleagues and family, a few words here must be devoted to my TALONS teaching partners, Quirien Mulder ten Kate and Andy Albright.

For her part, TALONS would not exist without Q. In the first it would not be a program in our district for gifted high school students; and in the second it would most certainly not exist in any of its current or future iterations without her superlative energy and devotion to students, learning, the natural world, and the purest ideals of public service.

Since I have known her (with every indication that the trend was established long before), Q has done the work of several people: teaching courses within and beyond the regular timetable, supporting extra-curricular events and activities on evenings and weekends, attending musical and dramatic performances without fail, completing a PhD while she taught summer and night school, volunteering at Wildlife Rescue, and working to support her parents, niece and nephew, as well as a host of godchildren. She is a paragon of productivity, cutting to-do lists to smithereens in the service of others to an extent I have trouble understanding, even while I’ve been able to study her at close proximity for a decade.

Team TeachingFew of us will do so much in our lives to improve the state of our communities or the lives of others as Q does in a month. It has been a densely packed, invigorating, evolving, reflective and critically educational ten years working alongside her, forcing me to stretch my weaker areas as well as to know my own strengths and how better to positively impact my communities of practice both within and beyond the school. Ours has been a relationship of compliments, where each of us has owned the skills and dispositions lacking in the other, and where a state of fluidity and trust has enabled us to grow a program and working relationship that pushes us each to become bigger than we are. I owe every moment of my TALONS experience to her superlative tenacity and devotion to making our program a reality, as do every one of the TALONS, past and future.

And where Q might exude a life lived to its full depth – with singular obsessions explored to their very essences and marrow – Andy joined our program for four years before retiring this winter to lend a sense of life’s breadth. Having come to teaching in his thirties, Andy had previously worked for years in group homes for people living with disabilities, played in bands in the British Columbian Kootenays, and travelled across Canada as a high school senior in a yellow school bus researching the heights of the rock era. He’s sipped Italian wine in Italy, slept under the stars in Oregon, and spent a good amount of his twenties in the Vancouver counterculture-enclaves of Kitselano, Squamish, and North Van before they were millionaire retreats and lucrative offshore investments.

Andy has read the “good” books, can quote Dylan (Thomas, or Bob), loves Monty Python, and frequently recites long passages of The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye. He and I spent a lot of time on busses, around campfires, and laughing at the stupendous incompetence of the local compliment of moving truck companies. We told one another stories, remembered old friends, and shared much of the time we were able to have with one another with a similar purpose: to let what would be emerge, and to determine its meaning and significance afterwards. Ever a calm and articulate force, Andy brought an intentionality and thoughtfulness to TALONS that balanced Q and I, and couldn’t help but influence my life outside of school.

Often in our talks late at night around the campfire – ostensibly keeping watch for TALONS wanderers who might be looking for some teenaged evening freedom – we would lie under the stars and Andy would remember stories about his long-passed friend, Mark, someone I never met but who infused our relationship with the knowledge that even once these moments were no longer – once we had retired, or moved onto other gigs, or whatever would yet transpire – our friendship and the memories of these golden, glowing years would continue.

Where each of my colleagues is concerned, they will be carried with me for the rest of my days. We’ve stood around many a smouldering campfire late at night, debriefing and discussing the day’s events, hiked mountainsides in torrential rain, and chased bears from our campsites together, all of which – and much more between – can only be known by those who will work with the TALONS.

DSC02137

The Woods

A good deal of my professional life since university has transpired in the woods. In fact, my first legitimate educational work was teaching swimming and canoeing, lifeguarding and sailing, as well as what might have been called outdoor leadership in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas at a summer camp for Boy Scouts. Having been awarded an internship to study the Scouts organization by working at the Gus Blass Scout Reservation in 2003, I returned in ’04 and ’05, and gained the teaching experience and other prerequisites to enter the PDP Program and obtain my teaching certification (without ever explicitly pursuing education as a career path).

I had always enjoyed camping, skiing, and swimming in lakes and rivers, of course. But partway through my time in Arkansas I began to take weekend adventures with a teammate (from Prince George, BC) into the southern wilds, and similarly started to lustily plan my summers home in BC with an extra fervour for the oceanside mountains of the coastal range. I started to read Walden, and Jack Kerouac, and non-fiction tomes by Sebastian Junger and John Krakaur while I starting to reach toward what lessons that the wildernesses of my two homes might have to teach me.

In a way, it was how I connected to British Columbia, even while living far from home: what makes the left coast special, to my mind, will always be the unique collision of mountains and the sea. And so while I roamed the south I kept an eye out for the woods and forests on the edges of town: my roommates and I took canoe trips on the White and Buffalo Rivers, we explored the Ozark National Forest, and made regular trips to the top of Pinnacle Mountain just outside of Little Rock.

Eventually I would be working for the Boy Scouts, and not long after that be in PDP, and then teaching the TALONS program, getting the job on the heels of volunteering on the program’s first adventure trip in 2006. The following year, I became a TALONS teacher and our classroom took to the hillsides of Eagle Ridge, and Buntzen Lake, the Fraser River and Harrison Hot Springs. Squamish. The Gulf Islands. The Sunshine Coast.

In our work, Q and Andy, and now Dave and I have been fortunate to act as ambassadors for the natural world, tour guides into botany, natural history, wilderness survival, and leave-no-trace camping. Our jobs take us into the backcountry, down rivers and over mountains, engage us in the most unique collaborations and problem solving situations. We have met the most wonderful people, and been involved in the most challenging pedagogies out of doors. And we have been fortunate to share our joy in living in BC with young people, who leave our program with a raft of experiential memories created in the magic of the coastal wilds: having learned, as one does, the most authentic lessons about life and the self that Mother Nature makes available to us.

TALONS Grade Nine Retreat

The Precious

“It’s not the end of anything: now you get to go out into the world and recreate this, whatever you think this is.”

TALONS grade twelve peer tutor Katie F, speaking to grade tens on the last night of the Adventure Trip in 2012.

There are a lot of educational buzz words the TALONS program has recognized in its evolving embrace of 21st century learning these last many years: place-based, inquiry, experiential, collaborative or community-based, as well as a host of others. There are myriad ways in which the Betts’ Autonomous Learner Model has bent and evolved to contain multitudes, and as I am fond of quoting Emerson, has proven time and again that “At the periphery there is infinite complexity, while at the centre there is simplicity of cause.”

The simplicity of cause that we have lived by these last ten years, which has infused the TALONS program and the lives of those who have passed through its two year cycle, has been the idea that while we all take part in the same basic structures and contexts of learning, what is learned is up to the individual. It is a prerequisite of emergent learning that what is learned arises from the uniquely individual contributions and perspectives of those involved, and cannot be predetermined.

We cannot know from year to year or cohort to cohort what will come about through the traditional pillars of a given TALONS year. The themes, jokes, stories, and lessons of each group are created and held onto by the individuals that pass through the classroom and our community; and while there are rhymes or echoes of the years gone by, each year has brought about completely new iterations of the TALONS community. No two experiences, individual or collective, has yet to be the same.

But there is something that runs through: a simplicity of unspoken cause that keeps our alumni coming back to our Night of the Notables or InDepth Celebrations, maintains friendships across university educations, and keeps us committed as teachers to sleepless nights in May and June, and tearful conclusions at the end of the year. A few years back this unnamed entity started being referred to as The Precious: that unknowable essence that first arises on the Fall Retreat, and fuels the enthusiasm of the Eminent Person Study, and culminates in the storm of April, May, and June (always pronounced Aprilmayjune). It is that feeling, known to those who have felt it, but which they cannot describe to outsiders. It is the reason that the frenzy of what may appear from the outside to be too much, too taxing, or too strenuous, is never worthy of regret.

As I began this post, I can still only admit that there is too much to say, really. There have been too many experiences, memories, and lessons along the way. Arguably it has been something that few will be able to relate to, but that those who know will understand without explanation.

I will defer here to a joke made of the attempt to sum up what TALONS means to those on their way out, and in addition to these near-twenty four hundred words, offer the reflections of our alumni, Liam, who said simply, “It was good.”

So good.

On Reconciling Epistemic Enclosures

Epistemology Lecturing

Democracy depends on the negotiation of common ground

I’ve spent most of my life as a connector. I’ve always been something of a bridge-builder. Someone who can ‘see both sides’ (sometimes to a fault). I’m forgiving, even when I might vehemently disagree with someone, and am generally able to admit that my way of perceiving the world is no more than just that: my way. Anyone else’s is only an equal and complimentary contribution to the sum of views that accounts for our socialized reality.

In the opening lines of my Master‘s, I cite a few lines of Nabokov’s that I’ve carried with me through much of my adult life (a longer excerpt of this idea is included in the very first post on this blog, as well; certainly, it is a foundational idea in my thinking about life and learning):

“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.”

Of course there are limits to the idea that all perspectives are rendered equal, and I would admit the maxim that one is “entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” There is a hierarchy of (variously informed) opinions, (variously true or provable) beliefs, and what we might consider to be truly known (though even this empirical knowledge often offers a less complete picture than many ideologies would readily accept).

In basing our social reality (democratic politics) on such a humble view of what is known, and basing our decision-making processes on the limitations of that knowledge, we can hope to create the most just world possible. But this potential will remain as mere hope if we do not resolve to wrestle with democracy’s limitations; and if we believe in the potential of democracy to create such a just representation of human views, we must fight to be inclusive of diverse views that may offend our existing paradigm(s), while at the same time be able to reject that which is based in dubious claims to knowledge or reality.

Galileo to Descartes to Canadian Multiculturalism

By one reading, it was the destruction of the epistemological paradigm of the Middle Ages that brought about the west’s democratic revolutions in the first place. It is the scientific revolution which enables the social, and precedes the political, as Galileo and Newton create the necessity of Descartes’ ultimate scepticism that leads him to outline his knowledge beginning from only true beliefs, and the notion that the sole certainty is that “I am a thing that thinks.”

From here the technological advancements in printing technology and the cultural revolutions of the Protestant Reformation bring about the realignment of the knowledge-creating bodies of the western world. Where before the one word of god and Pope and king defined the parameters of the social experience, as it became clear that a polyphony of voices was just as capable of advocating for a truly collective perspective, it similarly became apparent that the political structures governing that society would be in need of significant renovation.

The initial forces exerting this seminal democratic will are with us today, and we see in the evolution of the causes of civil rights and social justice in countries continuing to strive toward these Enlightenment ideals. In its Multiculturalism policy, the Government of Canada sets the lofty goal for itself 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 and assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation”.

So radical does the statement strike me every time I read it that I cannot help but emphasize the scope of what such a policy might genuinely aspire toward. 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.”

In a seeming nod to Nabokov, Canada holds as an official view that each of our responses to the question, What does it mean to be a Canadian? must be counted as equal. Not only that, however, but also that it is the role of government (and citizen alike, by extension), to “assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.”

How we intend to arrive at the notion of what it means to be Canadian, and what this vision of nationhood implies of what it means to be human, then, exists on an epistemological foundation which values bridge-and-consensus-building, on creating spaces for dialogue and disagreement, and on reconciliation of the myriad different ways we each experience the world.

Engaging the deplorables

I’ve always had a lot more fun exploring my thinking on issues I’m passionate about with folks of differing opinions; even with my more liberal friends, the conversations I learn the most from are where we are able to highlight minute disagreements that help shed light on the contours of an issue or event. Fortunately in this regard I’ve been able to make social connections with a range of sharply opinionated conservative coworkers and teammates over the years: I spent five years living in Arkansas, two of which saw me working at a Boy Scouts of America summer camp in the Ozark Mountains; and I’ve shared a lunchroom back in suburban Vancouver with passionately libertarian male Baby Boomers (a relationship I’ve explored at some length here before).

In both of these cases, I’ve worked to represent the liberal values espoused earlier here, and attempted to represent and reconcile our differing views on a range of contemporary events and issues fairly and as dispassionately as possible (not that this has always been possible). I make a point of being overly cordial, friendly, and make explicit the idea that it is important for us to respect one another and our perspectives despite our divergent views about the state of the world. Reasonable people are free to disagree, after all, if we are each able to present our view of the facts as best as we are able and come to our own conclusions from there. It is through this process that respect and reconciliation of our differing views become possible.

But I wonder if we aren’t living through a time which makes this hope a fragile and idealistic possibility, as the advent of “alternative facts” and a pervasive distrust of there being any common reality for us to point to being dispelled through more and more normalized channels. How can we be expected to arrive at a collective interpretation of reality with such nihilistic views of facts or the truth circulating in such broad swaths of the population?

I’ve taken the opportunity of late to engage some of my southern friends and former neighbours in dialogue on social media over the last few weeks. I’ve attempted to dispel disproven facts, or to inquire as to the origins of what I perceive as xenophobic views.

“These refugees are getting ready for a war,” one of my Facebook friends writes, prompting me to offer an exceedingly polite summary of the process through which refugees must pass through before entering the United States or Canada. Over the course of a dialogue that lasts through the weekend, I am told that President Obama is a Muslim, and worked tirelessly throughout his presidency against American interests. I am told that his efforts as president were intended to weaken America such that the invading hoards of refugees could “make America Muslim.” This friend was proud to tell me that they knew of terrorist training camps throughout America, and that the fact that there was no evidence to support this claim was only more proof that vigilance is needed.

I’ve been down this road before: arguments about the “disastrous” Obama economy (despite 75 consecutive months of job creation; record high stock markets; auto-industry recovery; tens of millions insured); the validity of climate data (“scientists who study climate change’s funding depends on them making conclusions the politicians like”); and even the very existence of racism in America (what with the election of the nation’s first African American to its highest office).

“We can’t know any of the real story,” this friend informed me when I asked if there were any sources to their horrifying claims. It is a startling (and somewhat ironic) admission from someone positing their own reading of the available facts, but also a distressingly bleak prospect for deliberative democracy. It is little wonder that people with so little faith in the democratic system elected a man who campaigned on the rhetoric that he, “alone,” could fix what ailed America (even if by many demonstrable metrics the country had been progressing). There can be no truth under authoritarianism but what the authorities say it is; the consensus of the public ceases to matter, and like that we have undone the promise of the Enlightenment, the necessity of democracy, and the hope for justice that comes with it.

If nothing can be known – or if enough people in a democracy believe that nothing can be known – what is the point of discussing anything? Why ought there be a democratic process at all?

Epistemology, Pedagogy and Democracy in the Digital Age Bibliography

The Virtual Self @nora3000 at #Brocku [visual notes]
The Virtual Self, visual notes by Giulia Forsythe on a talk by Nora Young at Brock University March 2013 (Learn more about Giulia’s amazing Visual Practice here).

It has been a treat to delve deeper into the web of scholarship that charts the intersection of so many different philosophical inquiries that concern pedagogy as a branch of the digital humanities these last few weeks. The metaphysical and epistemic questions that guide our social, ethical and political discussions around the larger purposes of curriculum cast an incredibly broad net, but are undeniably arising out of the digital revolution in communicative technology we are living through. And so my bibliography covers a lot of ground:

  • What is knowledge in the digital age? How is it attained, where does it ‘live’?
  • If in fact knowledge has changed, how should we go about teaching in this new era?
  • And how do these shifts in knowledge and social processes affect the nature and purpose of citizenship?

Answers to these questions lie in fields of sociology, philosophy, political science, and education, but I have tried to locate and share readings that plot the intersection of these topics as relates the narrower field of ‘curriculum.’

Andreotti, V. d. O. (2011). The political economy of global citizenship education. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 9(3-4), 307-310.

Biesta, G. (2013). Learning in public places: Civic learning for the 21st century. Civic learning, democratic citizenship and the public sphere.

Biesta, G. J. J. (2012). Doing Emancipation Differently: Transgression, Equality and the Politics of Learning. Civitas Educationis. Education, Politics and Culutre, 1(1), 15-30.

Downes, S. (2012). Connectivism and connective knowledge: Essays on meaning and learning networks. National Research Council Canada, http://www. downes. ca/files/books/Connective_Knowledge-19May2012. pdf.

Feldman, S. B., & Tyson, K. (2014). Clarifying Conceptual Foundations for Social Justice in Education International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Social (In) Justice (pp. 1105-1124): Springer.

Garcia, J., & De Lissovoy, N. (2013). Doing School Time: The Hidden Curriculum Goes to Prison. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 11(4).

Howard, P. (2014). LEARNING COMMUNITIES AND DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP IN ONLINE AFFINITY SPACES: THE PROMISE AND THE PERIL. INTED2014 Proceedings, 5658-5658.

Khoo, S.-m. (2013). Between Engagement and Citizenship Engaged Scholarship (pp. 21-42): Springer.

Lentz, B. (2014). The Media Policy Tower of Babble: A Case for “Policy Literacy Pedagogy”. Critical Studies in Media Communication(ahead-of-print), 1-7.

MacGregor, J., Stranack, K., & Willinsky, J. (2014). The Public Knowledge Project: Open Source Tools for Open Access to Scholarly Communication Opening Science (pp. 165-175): Springer International Publishing.

Martin, C. (2011). Philosophy of Education in the Public Sphere: The Case of “Relevance”. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 30(6), 615-629.

Monteiro, H., & Ferreira, P. D. (2011). Unpolite Citizenship: The Non-Place of Conflict in Political Education. JSSE-Journal of Social Science Education, 10(4).

Queen, G., Ross, E. W., Gibson, R., & Vinson, K. D. (2013). I Participate, You Participate, We Participate…”: Notes on Building a K-16 Movement for Democracy and Social Justice. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor(10).

Rice, J. (2013). Occupying the Digital Humanities. College English, 75(4), 360-378.

Schugurensky, D., & Silver, M. (2013). Social pedagogy: historical traditions and transnational connections. education policy analysis archives, 21, 35.

Sidorkin, A. M. (2010). John Dewey: A Case of Educational Utopianism. Philosophy of Education Archive, 191-199.

Sidorkin, A. M. (2014). On the theoretical limits of education Making a Difference in Theory: Routledge.

Siemens, G. (2014). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age.

Talisse, R. B. (2013). Sustaining democracy: folk epistemology and social conflict. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 16(4), 500-519.

Willinsky, J. (2013). Teaching for a World of Increasing Access to Knowledge. CALJ Journal, 1(1).

Curriculum as Black Box

Image from designshack.net

“…a black box is a device, system or object which can be viewed in terms of its input, output and transfer characteristics without any knowledge of its internal workings.”

In conducting an inquiry into curriculum, the black box may prove a useful metaphor to consider possible avenues of discussion or research. In his essay What is Curriculum? (pdf) Kieran Egan introduces Cicero’s use of the Latin curricula “to refer to the temporal space in which we live; to the confines within which things may happen; to the container, as opposed to the contents.” By applying the metaphor of the black box, we can appreciate the discussion of curriculum as being concerned with educational inputs and outputs, and the black box itself representing the individual experience of the learner.

With the advent of Enlightenment philosophy, society began to orientate itself toward the actualization of a pluralism that assumed an infinite diversity of human minds; here we see the shift of inquiry away from inputs and outputs, and toward the nature of the black box itself.

Egan presents this awakening thus:

“traditional curriculum questions about what should be taught can no longer stand as a distinct question in the fact of discoveries about individual differences. Questions of method are unquestionably relevant to curriculum decisions.”

“The difficulty,” he adds, “in admitting the question, how, into curriculum matters is that there becomes little of educational relevance that can be excluded from the curriculum field.”

Indeed. And as we have become subsumed in a preoccupation with how, we have suffered from what Egan calls “a general failure of nerve, of vision, and of direction.”

“To know what the curriculum should contain requires a sense of what the contents are for. If one lacks a clear sense of the purpose of education, then one is deprived an essential means of specifying what the curriculum should contain.”

B.C. launches Skills for Jobs Blueprint to re-engineer education and training

And so we find ourselves surrounded by curricular initiatives that describe at exhaustive length the hows of learning in the 21st century: game-based, play, outdoor, experiential, collaborative, critical thinking, and various apps, hardware, and learning media aggregate to serve a purpose that is discussed as a forgone necessity. Notions of what should be taught are often presented in platitudinous photo-opportunities operating within the premise that the future will so paradigmatically different from the present or past that any discussion of curricular contents can only be looked upon with the most pragmatic or utilitarian perspective.

In building the altar of how, the means of delivering curriculum have become the ends: we have become singularly focused on what education must be in favour of what it might become. 

Egan would agree:

“This manner of stating the problem exemplifies the failure of nerve: it suggests we have no control over the future; we cannot make of it what seems best to us.”

Image from Zcache.com

In considering curriculum as a black box problem, we might be guided by Schroedinger’s cat thought-experiment. Originally conceived to highlight the paradox at the root of quantum mechanics (basically the uncertainty principle), a simplified look at the analogy finds Schroedinger’s cat inside a black box with a vial of poison that will alternatively be delivered, or not, depending on the state of a subatomic particle.

Until the box is opened, there exists potential for either eventuality to exist: that the cat is still alive; or that it has expired. And so until a definitive measurement or observation can be made, the cat might be thought of as being both alive, and dead.

In our own practice and research, ‘opening the black box’ of individual learning experiences is similarly limited and may be seen to require such a dualist response. “Focus on either how or what at the expense of the other,” Egan writes in his conclusion, “is improper.”

He writes:

“Proportion and good sense demand that we turn our attention increasingly to what questions and present strong arguments for or against specific curriculum content.”

In resembling the black box, our discussion of curriculum traverses the knowable entities of inputs and outputs, and seeks to investigate the opaque nature of individual experience. In this inquiry, as soon as measurement and observation are able to record new points of knowledge they unfold into new inquiries toward an ever-retreating horizon.

As a symbol, the black box represents paradoxes that are at the heart of learning and knowledge, and aligns with Egan’s characterization of bringing about authentic curriculum as a struggle to “summon the nerve to believe that we can make the future what we want and better prepare children to deal with it.”

Digital Environments, Emergent Knowledge & Citizenship Learning

Untitled

Mock trial of King Charles I

EDCI 335 Challenge 10: What are the strengths/affordances of the technology or learning environment you have chosen for your learning design that will promote or facilitate learning?

In preparing the TALONS socials units this semester, I have sought to align aspects of technology, assessment and unit planning within larger values of emergent epistemology and citizenship learning. By bringing these different elements of my teaching into congruence, it is my hope that the class’ individual and collective learning is enriched by uniting these various aspects of their experience into a coherent and transformative narrative that will build throughout the semester and beyond.

To reflect these principles, technology has contributed a means of collecting and sharing class knowledge: aggregating and vetting various resources for study in our prescribed unit, presenting and synthesizing different aspects of the learning at hand, and providing a venue for assessment and reflecting on the course of study thus far. As we proceed (after spring break) the process will then recur to provide the goals, direction and implementation of future units of study as prior knowledge is re-organized, reconstituted and re-contextualized within new course content and experience.

As I’ve written about the class’ collaborative unit planning, I want to use this challenge post to collect and point toward a few specific examples of technology at work in TALONS Socials this semester.

At the outset, the class began by taking the prescribed learning outcomes specific to the English Civil War Unit in Social Studies 9, and employed an embedded Google Form in the class’ Wikispaces site for participant/learners to submit potential study materials. The selected materials were then rated according to our interpretation of the CRAAP Test, and the form was edited to highlight different resources that were either “Good to Go” (green), “Acceptable” (yellow), or “Extra” (red).

This exercise was an important place to begin for me as it placed the onus of research and curation on the class – rather than a teacher or the textbook. The debate about which sources were best suited to our purposes put the relevance and context of the unit in the class’ hands to be then planned and executed within our timeframe (before spring break). It was also my hope that such a discussion would lead organically into an inquiry of what meaning we are (each) to make of the English Civil War and its historical importance, and provide a context within which our individual understanding would emerge as the process unfolded.

Building on the questions and themes arising from the assembled resources and materials, the class then set about employing media and technology in synthesizing and sharing their learning on a variety of topics associated with the unit. There were adaptations of popular songs written to narrate the lives of Oliver Cromwell and his son, Prezi’s made to illustrate the historical timelines of James and Charles I’s reigns, and documentary films made about the trial of the King, to name a few. And in addition to being shared in class – in mini lessons, presentations, mock-trials and other demonstrations meant to share discovered knowledge with the immediate community – digital artifacts of the projects were/are being collected on the class site (alongside past years’ collected work and resources on the same unit).

The class Wikispaces site has long-been a valuable addition to the class’ study of socials, collecting a variety of different resources and media both created by past TALONS as well as useful materials existing on the wider web. It is an online accompaniment and ongoing assemblage of knowledge pathways which navigate the Socials 9/10 curriculum in British Columbia; but beyond serving to complement the TALONS’ own studies, the wiki’s existence as a repository of class work goes on to have a life as an open educational resource that serves a global community of learners. For example, the site’s statistics show that only 1/5 (22%) of the wiki’s traffic is even Canadian, and that the United States is responsible for more than half of more of the site’s 100 unique visitors per day

Whatever value it has beyond our own purposes, however, the course wiki represents an ever-unfinished and imperfect project, constantly in need of a structure which organizes knowledge in an accessible manner reflecting such an exponentially complex process of discovery.  And while the class has yet to meaningfully undertake a significant renovation or reorganization of the site, I am inspired at the prospect such a project might represent as an opportunity for the class’ unique perspectives to shape and engage in the creation of course knowledge itself.

Where each of these first two opportunities have presented means by which technology has influenced and (hopefully) supported the TALONS collective learning, the unit’s individual assessment has incorporated technology as a means of creating and sharing personal reflections and synthesis of learning across the class cohorts. The morning group opted to submit more anonymous reflections (corresponding to their student number for my reference) by way of a Google Form that, upon completion, shares the assembled responses with respondents, while the afternoon class decided to answer similar questions in the form of a post on their individual blogs.

The individual assessment asks TALONS to reflect on their process, habits and contributions to their individual study of the unit, their group’s project, as well as the larger classroom learning. Each is asked to highlight examples of their own or others lessons, or discussions which informed their thinking on the topics covered, as well as to expand on themes and questions raised during the course of the unit. Additionally, there are questions about the organization and implementation of the unit itself, and opportunities to influence future studies that will begin to shape our very next topic, completing the cycle of critical praxis for a first time.

Next week we will be taking up Socials 9’s next revolution in Europe and making use of each of these threads of learning, as we continue to:

  • shape the lessons of the class’ emerging understanding of the course content in individual voices and meanings, and
  • reevaluate and reconstitute the means by which that understanding is created to best serve our unique community of learners.

Continually seeking ways by which the class might be more consistently and actively engaged with these processes is central to both my epistemological and social-political beliefs about teaching social studies. And in these and other experiments yet to be undertaken this semester, technology plays a vital role in creating the opportunity to realize these lessons’ practical application.

Emergent Knowledge and Institutional Learning

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12

“…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.”

Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta

A conception of learning I have been exploring and experimenting with in the last year has been attempting to design learning which imagines knowledge as an emergent event. Building on the constructivist perspective that knowledge exists in the act of its creation, meaning can be seen to emerge as it is assigned contexts of identification, value and purpose by individuals, as well as cultures. But even while such progressive perspectives on knowledge may be embraced by school administrators and teachers across institutionalized learning, the emergentist view presents a unique challenge to the design-minded educator.

In attempting to conceive of education within an emergent epistemology, Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta explore the question of “whether it is possible to maintain an emergentist conception of meaning in an ‘educational’ context, which in turn raises the question of what is meant by education.” Educational designers are forced to consider such questions in providing a context for learning in which meaning can be created by participants, and yet still fulfill the mandated curricular aspects of a particular course of study.

Osberg and Biesta outline the pragmatic critique of such “unguided” learning thoroughly:

The idea that meaning can be ‘created’ in the classroom has, however, been regarded with a good measure of suspicion by many educators because of its association with the much criticized ‘romantic’ or ‘anti-authoritarian’ version of progressive education in which the role of the teacher is downplayed to the extent that it does not matter precisely what is learned as long as students are leaning something. It has been argued again and again by conservatives and radicals alike that this pedagogy has no real ‘educational’ value. On the one hand, the ‘untutored’ approach puts people in the position of having to ‘reinvent the wheel’ before they can egt anywhere, and, on the other, it allows for anything-goes inventionalism, where people can simply ‘make things up’ rather than deal with the ‘reality’ of the world. Dewey (1984: 59) himself – one of the foremost proponents of progressive education – claimed the ‘romantic’ approach was not only uneducational but ‘real stupid.'”

In reflecting on these learning experiences, I agree with the authors’ assertion that “for an emergentist conception of meaning to contribute to discussions about education it must not reduce the concept of education to untutored learning,” and hope here to shed some light on the role of instruction in an emergent setting.

Fortunate last semester to consider the curriculum of our locally-developed Philosophy 12 course alongside these ideas, last fall’s class’ Metaphysics unit took the form of a “discussable object.” For my part, I hoped to engage the content-aspect of the course curriculum here by experimenting with what Paulo Freire called “the program content of the problem-posing method,” which he proposed should be:

“constituted and organized by the students’ view of the world, where their own generative themes are found. The content thus constantly expands and renews itself. 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.”

#PhilsDayOff

Before delving into the explicitly content-oriented aspect of the unit (the nature of metaphysics), the class held a handful of discussions and negotiations to reach a rough agreement of the questions raised by the topic – essentially revolving around the seminal, What is? –  and sought consensus around how those questions would be explored, shared and represented.  As the group deliberated on the themes and ideas brought about in their own study of an individually chosen metaphysician, practical aspects of the unit plan were analyzed and revised to align the assignments’ form authentically with an emergent view of content.

From my perspective, the notion of not apprehending the direction or meanings yet to emerge from the collective inquiry created a challenge in defining my role as teacher, a topic I brought as my own part in the group’s investigation and inquiry. In developing a scope and sequence for the unit’s activities and assignments, my own obligations – to the Ministry of Education, our course curriculum, as well as the individuals in the class itself – were only one part of the collected spectrum of needs expressed in these formative discussions, and were integrated into the emerging course of action as we progressed together.

As a co-investigator and mentor, rather than de-facto leader of the group, I attempted to teach and facilitate by advocating for my own expectations as part of an ongoing negotiation that included each member of the class on (somewhat) equal footing. I was upfront about the contradiction of attempting to provide student freedom within the constraints of our school system where I was/am still tasked with rating and evaluating their learning numerically for the purposes of university admission and other future prospects.

Aesthetics Discussion

Given this reality, it was nevertheless my intention to provide the necessary space for an authentic synthesis of individual subjectivities to be discovered and expressed by the group, free of interventions on my part that unfairly leveraged my power as teacher.

However, just because I had intended to create a vacuum of authority in the classroom didn’t mean that it was immediately or ‘productively’ filled by students eager to seize control over their own learning. Through the course of the class’ initial discussions and unit plans, I found myself interjecting to highlight different aspects of the processes at work (variously successful and with room improvement) as the group attempted to reach consensus:

  • pointing out people’s unconscious tendency to seek my approval before progressing with a topic or question;
  • inquiring about ways different aspects of metaphysical thought might be applied to the class’ efforts to discover its individual and collective ideas;
  • and identifying moments during which I very well could provide the next step in synthesis, but wherein it would be more instructive for the group to reach its own conclusion.

Image courtesy of EmeraldInsight.com

These interjections might be considered efforts to facilitate the generation of dialogue and empathy around tacit and explicit meanings being uncovered throughout the unit. In attempting to sense the meanings and concepts emerging through the class’ discussions, my expertise as the teacher had indeed shifted from dissemination of the course content to a facilitation of the course process.

Building on the initial success of the Discussable Object, I viewed the course’s next unit – that of Epistemology – as an opportunity to synthesize our recently concluded learning into new paths of discovery, both for myself and the class. In looking past the first level of such spiral learning, each of us had to press beyond the understandings reached through the Metaphysics unit and seek out the questions and contradictions at the heart of epistemology, namely: What do we know? And How do we know it? 

Epistemology Unit Planning

Epistemology Unit Planning

Here, the class was aided by Julie in capturing a discussion that looked back at what had come out of our previous unit, as well as ahead at what the class intended to make of its next topic. There were elements of the Metaphysics study that many deemed essential to repeat, and ways in which the group could seek out new challenges.

For teacher and students alike, one of these opportunities involved the nature of my participation in the process. Previously, I had contributed to class discussions and learning by gently nudging the group forward with questions or interventions that sought to connect or create context between different aspects of metaphysics and the group dynamic. But in initially discussing Epistemology with the class, we began to see the possibility of meaning and understanding arising more genuinely through student creation, free of teacher input.

Without question this next level of autonomous learning would not have been possible without the more involved teaching that preceded it. Again during Epistemology I was forced to (re)consider my position in the room to best support the expressed intentions for the unit during class discussions, smaller-group inquiries, and individual development, working toward a series of peer-facilitated conversations where I attempted to resign myself position of observer, only.

In these discussions, there were many different moments when I would have liked to pipe up, offer my own thoughts or connections to the class’ collected momentum. At others, when the discussion stalled, I found myself reflexively wanting to help, and question, prod, or provoke some new angle on the conversation. But in each case, having let the moment of possible intervention pass, something spontaneous and meaningful arose from one member of the class or another.

No longer were eyes and faces awaiting my permission or validation before proceeding; knowledge was being constructed between participants essentially without my guidance. But this characterization is misleading, as my ‘guidance’ had merely shifted its focus over the course of several weeks to accommodate and help bring about a more organic collective consciousness. Far from diminishing our part in the learning process, there is a niche to be explored and defined outlining the teacher’s role in an emergent classroom.

True to the epistemology from which such a pedagogy might take its inspiration, we cannot yet know where this might take us.

On Memorable Learning

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Whether working with the TALONS, philosophers, or the #IntroGuitar community, I am fortunate to get to spend a good deal of time planning lessons and thinking of learning experiences that are not only ‘memorable,’ but hopefully also: personal, meaningful and – optimally – transformative. I would agree with a definition that sees learning as Jeanne Ellis Ormrod describes it:

“A long-term change in mental representations and associations due to experience[.]”

The theoretical approaches that I bring to this view of learning are largely inspired by constructivism and sociocultural theory, as well as the networked processes at the heart of connectivism. Defined in this week’s EDCI 335 reading, constructivists:

suggest that people create (rather than absorb) knowledge from observations and experiences.

More and more I have come to see both the ‘hidden curriculum‘ and the provincially required curriculum as bound to Foucault’s vision of Enlightenment, which should not be considered:

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.”

I’ve come to think that memorable learning resides in such “experiments with the possibility” of going beyond our limits, when we are able to experience transgression of our boundaries and the potential and peril that such risk-taking involves.

Last spring I reflected on the work of:

Gregory Bateson, [who] describes these learning opportunities as “breaches in the contextual structure,” whereby individuals gain an understanding of the process involved in implementing “corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made.”

This sort of “third order” thinking is driven by a confrontation with “systemic contradictions in experience” (this is taken from University of Virginia prof Eric Bredo); to the outdoor educator, this double bind is represented by the necessity of learning to provide both the freedom to explore, as well as the structure and guidance that creates safe opportunities for growth.

Gardner Campbell points out that learning in this capacity puts participants – teachers and students and parents alike – to vulnerability. “It puts the self at risk,” he says. “The questions become explosive,” and “involve “the kinds of risks that learners, at their best, will be willing to take.”

It is a vision of learning that I think goes beyond the mass concerns of institutional education obsessed with accountability, but speaks to John Dewey’s dual intentions for public schooling:

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

In addition to being encultured to the traditions of our society’s ideals, meaningful, memorable learning is what Richard Dixon meant when he told me that

“Every class is just another opportunity for young people to practice forming communities.”

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The British Columbian outdoors have lent themselves admirably to this task:

We walked out into the woods and within minutes were greeted in our silences by the persistent hooting of an owl presiding over the camp for the duration of our solo. Scattered across the forest floor, in a blackness that enveloped all but the distant moon shining off the lake below, the owl rang its voice across the treetops, cradling us all. When I called out finally for the solo to end, seconds swelled and stretched in silence as no one wanted the moment to be gone.

Our ambition as TALONS facilitators is often to nurture these individual worlds, where everything needed for survival, or even thriving, is brought along in backpacks and the people assembled in a given place. Enjoying the peace of sitting in the woods at night alone, a serenity connected to the most basic of human fears of loneliness, made possible in the company of trusted peers.

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As have the annual rituals provided by annual TALONS events and adventures, when the (two grade 9/10 cohorts) each set about “creating something that is honest, magical, and their own.” On a night like the annual Night of the Notables, for instance:  

There is prolonged  thunderous applause. Standing ovations.  In all, it is quite a thing to see happen. Truly. Even if it is hard to say just what it is that happened up there on that stage and in the halls of our school tonight.

Because just as it feels a little bit my own, how I take in the night’s triumph against the backdrop of those that have preceded it, how everyone in the room experiences the evening is measured against their own sense of the vulnerability felt by those in the present ‘hot seat.’ 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 has gathered 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.

Something exceptional, like forming a band and playing your first gig just after locker cleanout on one of the last days of the school year:

On the last day of class, many of the Bears made a point of hanging around for a few minutes to take pictures with one another, shake my hands and otherwise linger in the magical atmosphere the guitar classroom had been transformed into by their efforts.

“This class was more than a class,” one of the young men who was graduating told me on his way out the door. “Just what it was, I’m not sure. But it was pretty great.”

Or teaching fellow singers in a Cuban fine arts school the English pronunciations in their new choral number:

What each of these learning opportunities have in common, I think, is that they put the student/learner at the center of the experience, where their individual perception of themselves or their world is expanded somehow. They perform feats not thought possible beforehand, or experience “breaches in the weave of contextual structure”:

  • Swimming in the ocean before breakfast,
  • Capping a night by first experiencing bioluminescence, or
  • Learning what part they can best contribute to a group.

Those are the sorts of things that lead to long-term changes in mental representations and associations. 

That is learning.

On Knowledge

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

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

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


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

I love this:

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

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

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

“…be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12

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

Here’s how I described it at the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussable Object Creation

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Discussable Object Photo Set on Flickr

Today the #Philosophy12 bunch culminated a study of Metaphysics that has emerged slowly out of individual inquiry undertaken by members of the class. The group engaged one another in a discussion that left a recorded physical ‘tail‘ that could be seen, and held onto.

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

We began a little more than two weeks ago with the introduction of various philosopher’s metaphysicslearning about Shoepenhaur’s views on the Will, Epicurean paradoxes, and Wittenstein’s unspeakable coolness and arranging for small group discussions to coalesce around thematic ideas.

After having first imagined that I would engage in the assignment as a participant, I became (in that ‘lead-learner’ sort of way) consumed by questions at the heart of the constructivist learning experiment ahead of us, and drew on many ideas of Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta, among them the notion 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. Knowledge is understood, rather, to ‘emerge’ as we, as human beings, participate in the world. Knowledge, in other words, does not exist except in participatory actions.”

And so my own metaphysics project became the conceptualizing and contextualizing of the task at hand: to create a representative learning object within an emergent, constructivist classroom design. With all sincerity, I embraced Osberg and Biesta’s idea that:

“…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.”

 Here, I was led by Paulo Freire:

“The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics, the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12

Julie at work on visual notes.

With this, more than one class meeting was organized around the generation of the contradiction at the root of each group’s metaphysical thematics; it is in the symbolic codification of such contradictions, Freire says, that such themes can become “cognizable objects[:] challenges towards which the critical reflection of the decoders should be directed.”

Having identified their philosopher’s major metaphysical ideas, and explored these ideas within the larger themes of their assembled groups, the class took advantage of last week’s school-based professional development day in the form of #PhilsDayOff, the requirements for which were spare:

    • Time must be spent consciously and deliberately engaged with a selected question of metaphysics;
    • This engagement can include activities, reflection, discussion, or other modes of inquiry, reflection and understanding; but it should not be time spent doing something participant’s ‘usually’ do;
    • Participants must create, discover, or record a meaningful artifact they think represents their metaphysical thinking, reflection, or understanding on Phil’s Day Off.

The learning went into the wild, and returned with lessons like the one Dylan offers here:

“I made a bus trek by bus up to household jam session as part of the Phils Day Off endeavor. I went up there to contemplate Schopenhauer’s ideas while enjoying some music (which, I’m sure, Schopenhauer would have been more than happy to participate in.) At the beginning of the night, a friend and fellow bass player took me over to the side to show me a trick that allowed the string’s on my bass life span to be extended, making it so that you wouldn’t have to buy strings as often.

“What he did was loosen the strings on the bass so that they were still on the instrument but loose enough that he could pull it up away from the fretboard a good distance. He loosened the string, and continue to pull the string up and then smack in back down onto the fretboard. He would do this over and over again on each string for a few minutes at a time.

“What this was doing, he later explained, was releasing all of the dead skin cells and extra debris that was caught in the strings, making it so that the strings became cleaner again, and thus could be repeated whenever the string would go dead or dull and wouldn’t need to be replaced as frequently. Other than being a sweet tip for a young-unemployed musician such as myself, it also came to be a great metaphor for all these talks of suffering and pleasure in my mind. You can look at life as a dead bass string, and you can view the debris as suffering. You can see it as Schopenhauer would, as something chokes life and ultimately makes life worthless. And no matter how much we clear up the debris temporarily, it will become dirty and dull again soon after.

“You can look at from one who would not worry about the suffering, and instead of focusing on the dirtiness of the string, would completely ignore it and go out and buy a new string right away. Or, you can look at it from the cleaning method that my friend taught me about the strings.

“Acknowledging the dirt and debris and how it’s affected you, and then turning it around and cleaning it up and turning it into something that is pleasurable.”

Dylan’s is just one of the stories we heard today as the class related their philosopher’s biography and ideas, touched upon themes explored in #PhilsDayOff and their group discussions, and connected their thinking (agreeing and contrasting) by tracing the conversation with different colours of yarn (with gratitude to our home economics teacher Ms. Priestly!). While Julie sketched out themes and notable ideas as they took shape on the board, the class emerging understanding took shape.

The activity took us from:

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12To:

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12To:

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be collecting reflections on individual learning, and the unit itself (both content and form, Aristotelians!), by way of this Google Form, and looking ahead at planning our Epistemology unit. The Discussable Object now behind us – wound back up into woolen balls and returned to the textiles classroom – I’m curious to know what the group thinks now of one of the quotes that brought us here:

“Knowledge […] does not exist except in our participatory actions.”  

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.