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.

Inquiry into the Northwest

Northwest Inquiry
Organizing Inquiry Topics

These last few weeks, the TALONS have taken their study of Socials 10 west, from the fledgling union of Confederation to Hudson’s Bay, Manitoba, and the resistance that unfolds along the Red River Valley. In seeking out the story of Louis Riel, and how his execution – as well as the subsequent relationship between the government and the Metis, Inuit and other First Nations of the Northwest – fits into modern Canada’s understanding of our origin story, the unit seemed naturally suited to a structure of personal and collaborative inquiry.

In thinking about what shape the inquiry would take, I wondered if Canadian History might borrow a project from a study of personal narratives a few years back. As part of an English essay-writing unit, the personal reflection and  critical exploration that came about through each member of the class writing and recording an audio version of This I Believe essays gave way to a crystalline vision of a socially constructed artistic expression.

Really, it was something.

Even the Edward R. Murrow quote from the unit page on the class wiki speaks to something I think we’re teaching no matter what the topic in history:

“..to point to the common meeting grounds of belief, which is the essence of brotherhood and the floor of our civilization.”


Needless to say, perhaps, I’ve been looking to repeat the experience at some point.

Though the TALONS program seldom ‘repeats’ itself very often. There are familiar elementsevents and explorations, sure. But to a certain extent, each of the TALONS cohorts walks its own path, and creates its own stories. And as these stories get filtered down between grade tens and nines, survive on the class wikis and archives of blogged assignments now going back four years (!), I look forward to this period of spring when the forms, norms and storms of the fall and winter allow for the present collective of personalities to synthesize their learning in the present community’s own terms.

This year the class’ study of North American history began with Geography and the American Revolution, before taking on a series of discussions on Canadian Confederation, and setting out into the Northwest. But through each of these subjects, there has been much conversation around the role of mythology in our national identity:

  • How we tell the stories of our inception.
  • How we internalize our narratives of victory.
  • And how best to confront the darker corners of our past.
Northwest Timeline
Northwest Timeline

All of which is the long way of introducing where the class began last week by reading up on the resources and materials created by the TALONS of 2010 and setting out their own directions of inquiry in blog form, which were then sorted into distinct themes:

Cultural Effects of Expansion

“Canada’s a pretty great place today, eh? The Northwest expansion, or basically the years from 1700 – 1900, Canada went through the time that would most influence the country that it is today.

In looking closer to a specific part of this process, I wondered how the expansion into Rupert’s Land owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company affected the Lower Canadian French people.”

Alyssa

“From 1830 to 1996 Inuit, First Nations, and Metis were torn from their native culture with intentions of assimilating them into the dominant culture through the Residential School System. These schools, run by Christian priests and nuns, raised and abused the indigenous people of Canada in hopes to “kill the Indian in the child”. Some schools in Alberta and British Columbia going so far as the compulsory sterilization OF CHILDREN. Aboriginal children weren’t seen as children, they were seen as seeds of savages to invade the garden of civilizations that were in need of extermination.”

Julie

The Fur Trade

“At the forefront of this (as you all know) was the fur trade.  For a set of pelts scraped off the backs of deceased animals you would receive fantastic HBC products such as overly strong perfume, clothing made in China, and other forms of HBC swag decked out in those trademark stripes.  Jokes aside, the items up for trade were much more practical, however, not any greater in the quality or value than their modern merchandise.   While you could get fabulous point blankets, thunder sticks, and firewater, there had to be room for profit.”

Tyler

“As common knowledge of the Fur trade, Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company were fierce rivals for many years. They both wanted to control the fur trade and were willing to do anything to control the market. This resulted in some company members even willing to murder for better trades. They began fighting and they continued fighting from the 1780′s until 1821. In 1820, both companies began struggling financially. In 1821,  Henry Bathurst the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, forced the companies to stop fighting.”

Anthony

The Life and Hard Times of Louis Riel

“Though regarded as a hero in Quebec, Riel was still widely denounced as Thomas Scott’s “murderer”, and a reward of $5000 was offered for his arrest. Sir John A. MacDonald, wanting to avoid political conflict, even offered to provide funds to Riel if he remained in his exile. But Riel eventually returned and joined federal politics. He was quite successful as well, winning in a by-election in 1873 and the general election is 1874. All was well for Riel, until he went to Ottawa to sign the register. Riel was sentenced to two years imprisonment and stripped of his political rights. The federal government finally decided to grant amnesty to Riel, provided he went into a five year banishment. During his banishment, Riel would go on to stay at two asylums in Quebec and a teaching job in Montana.”

Justann

Related Current Events

“Later that year, in May, chat logs revealed 22 year old Bradley Manning’s confession to leaking the video to Wikileaks. Manning was arrested shortly after without a trial and sent to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. There, he suffered harsh living conditions where, as David House, founder of the Bradley Manning Support Network, states that Manning “[degraded] over time – physically, mentally, and emotionally.” His mental health, as stated by his lawyer, has been described as “almost gone.””

Christina

“Anyway, so Cyprus was actually surprisingly stable for a long time, rated in the top 50 of the nicest places to live, up until the Eurozone crisis in which everything went to hell  heck(Gotta keep things ‘G’). That, as you may or may not remember, happened just last year and is still affecting them today, as we see with Cyprus. Being a small island country, they don’t have a vast amount of resources to trade and sell to help them escape the crisis, which is a primary reason behind their economic downfall.”

Jess

In the photo above – and in these herehere and here – you can see the process by which these various individual threads were woven into different group inquiries that have become (over the course of the last week) the subject of various audio documentaries. Taking as examples the exemplary reporting, editing and storytelling of the folks at Radiolab and This American Life – and coinciding with a particularly timely episode of CBC’s Ideas – groups of three-to-five TALONS have been building collaborative audio documentaries of their individual explorations, soliciting interviews and writing personal reflections on their learning throughout the research process.

All of which we’re hoping to share this week, live on the (web) radio.


Building on a recent English unit that saw the class present audio dramas live in the classroom, the plan for this week is to take the groups’ various produced segments down the hall (to an often-used Math ‘tutorial’ office) and onto the Hive 105 airwaves such that they can be streamed live into the classroom speakers (for that extra bit of radio authenticity), and onto the wider web for listeners across the country, and anywhere else you might like to tune in from [For more information about how to listen to 105 the Hive in your classroom, click here].

You’ll be able to tune into the TALONS Northwest audio documentaries this week on both Wednesday and Thursday (Friday as well, if necessary), with the morning class presenting between 9:00am – 10:10am (PDT), and the afternooners going on between 1:45pm – 3:00pm (exact time to be determined), and join us on Twitter (or a Skype call in, if there’s time…) at @talonsblog during each of the broadcasts.

If you aren’t able to join us live, stay tuned to Defying Normality for the upcoming show notes and audio archive.

Tell this story.

Morning Class Retreat

Talons talking erratically

In brainstorming a way to synthesize the myriad tangents and threads being pursued in our recent study of rebellion and revolution in Egypt, as well as 1860s Manitoba, I wound up writing what began as a challenge to myself, and the Talons, to boil down the human affinity for stories of power, rebellion and freedom, and became much more something of a spoken-word take on history, storytelling, and the very purpose of life itself.

Sometimes, it can feel as though the objective of a lesson – so often a shared synthesis of ideas that comes from everyone pulling in the same direction, as we say in Talons – is elusive to even the instructor, or facilitator, whose job it is to bring about and make meaning – data – for the concerned parties (learner, teacher, parent), until each group’s unique questions can be asked, and looking ahead at the next few days and a wrapping up of the unit on Canadian rebellion, I struggled to answer a few of the ‘regular’ questions:

  • What to make of the course material (in this case history)?
  • How to connect it to our modern experience?
  • How might this unit / project connect to the group’s collective and individual self?

In this case, I was trying to make the study of history connect with the class’ consistent call to actualize ourselves in the learning environment, and personal lives as students and citizens, and in some small way perhaps echoing Jim Groom’s call to:

...make open education in praxis fun, accessible, and basically rock!! DS106 is the beginning of this movement, and it isn’t about me, just look around ds106. I mean people all over the world are doing Colleen‘s Playlist Poetry assignment, she is shaping this class not only by her willingness to create and participate, but by our ability to connect that urge with many, many others who share her desire. That is the beginning of a new dynamic that is not simply transactional. The idea of creative teaching hopefully re-imagines that locus—and I need to spend some more time framing this out more because I know it’s right. I feel it deeply in my heart of heart’s, and as Gardner notes in the discussion above, it is time to reinvest our hearts in the process of teaching and learning—I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment and I want to make it so.

I wanted the Talons to take their reading and evolving understanding of our national, and current, history, and give it voice in whatever way they might see. But it can be difficult to generate this type of inspiration without a concrete goal, or set of instructions. My vision, though complex and potentially multi-faceted as the personalities and perspectives in the class, and across the world, was simple at its heart: I wanted the class to tell the story of Louis Riel, and the Red River Rebellion, and in doing so tell the story of our class, each of us, in encountering our history, and one another, at this moment in our shared development.

What else is there in life, really?

I was inspired and enthralled in this idea, as well, by my recent drive-time listening to the Radiolab podcast episode, “Who am I?” delving into engrossing scientific radio journalism in support its episode’s thesis: “The self is a story the brain tells itself.”

RadioLab.org – “The Story of Me”

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p style=”text-align: justify;”> And somewhere in there, in reflecting on the recent action research of the class’ blogging community, and the developing narrative of the class’ collective, and individual successes and struggles, I thought that the best outline I could offer the lesson and upcoming group project was the simple challenge of the brief essay I had written the night before. It is – to date – the strangest introductory material I have given to a history class.

Louis Riel by Bryanjack

Tell this story.

Rebellion, oppression, the will of humans to be free. We are taught the nature of history, and government, communication storytelling in the name of a pursuit of knowledge, of ourselves, and the breadth of our nature to be capable of making something, and living the best life we can. If each person who was given the opportunity to express their perspective in life did so, with the tools at their disposal to record and publish their thinking across distance and time we might know some fraction of the truth in a world inhabited by a people whose singular defining characteristic is to staunchly resist the very changes which contribute to our progress. But these struggles each represent a powerful theme in and of themselves about the truth of humanity’s story: that an indominable human will inevitably overcome a beaurocratic means of suprressing it; that new ideologies can shatter the expectations and realities of the old; and that an age committed fervently to its ideals is rife with the opportunity to be exposed by people few and brave. And we well these people’s stories, and attempt to in some way understand them and the moment they ineherited, and chose to stand up, and not submit to the expectations and realities of their day, so that we might recognize, in our own selves, and our own times, those things for which we need to stand up. Throughout history, we read of continuous examples of peoples who have through violence and ignorance have had their rights supressed by regimes both tyranical and democratic. When people have acted in haste or fits of passion, incorrectly, this has resulted in many deaths. Our present moment asks that we stand and be counted as lives lived to the best of our honest knowledge about what our actions mean. We study the lives and times of men like Louis Riel to know what others have been willing to stand for, when doing so has not been easy. Because it never it easy, and surely will not be when it is our turn, whether we are standing for our lives, our minds,or own opinion in a world where everyone’s from New Orleans’ orphans to the Kings of Spain, is exactly equal.

WikiBooks Publishing Project

Ksan, British Columbia
Ksan, British Columbia

One of the surprises of last year’s socials units was the TALONS class‘ foray into publishing with Wikibooks. After more than a year spent within the confines of our district’s SharePoint Wikis and discussion boards, Wikibooks offered our first opportunity to publish and participate in a global dialogue of meaning, history, and identity.

This collective Wisdom of the Crowd is the appeal and power of crowd-sourcing; but the rabid tenor of many Wikipedia debates and discussions – not to mention the oftentimes thoroughly vetted and polished nature of Wiki articles concerning subjects covered in high school – makes venturing into that community a difficult proving ground for young students. Unless students are to be contributing coverage or information on an as-yet-undocumented subject or event – unlikely given the topics covered during the Socials 9 or 10 curriculum – participation in Wikipedia can be a difficult place to start.

Fortunately, the range and reach of Wikimedia Foundation‘s projects extend to include Wikibooks, a subject-by-subject collection of textbooks open to user-editing. Where similar articles – concerning Louis Riel, and the Red River Rebellion, as well as information about Canada’s various First Peoples – on Wikipedia were (more or less) “complete,” I was able to find – to my great surprise – this time last year, that many entries corresponding to our mandated curriculum under the Canadian History text were blank. The class broke up into research groups and “adopted” pages on different groups of First Nations, geographic regions, or notable events and issues in Canadian history.

When we set out on the project many students were surprised that they were “allowed” to use Wikipedia at school, as in so many classrooms even touching down on the “world’s most-cited web page” is forbidden as a blanket policy to combat fears that students can too easily directly plagiarize Wikipedia’s answer to many questions asked as homework. And it is not that this never happens; students make use of Wikipedia and Sparknotes by default to answer traditional questions based around extinct modes of obtaining information.

But what if classroom projects and student research could ask “bigger” questions than when did it happen? or who was there? What if our assignments could facilitate students justifying their interpretations of history’s influence on the present moment and culture? And help them engage in this discussion with the world outside the classroom? To even begin such an endeavour, when faced with the prospect of setting out to research and discuss topics quickly glossed over in the narrow perspective of the classroom text, where would one find a better compendium of source material than Wikipedia?

Sgang Gwaay
SGaang Gwaay, British Columbia

What emerged in the course of publishing, far from an exercise in redundancy (merely copying text from the original Wikipedia articles to the empty Wikibooks pages), was a learning experience encapsulating literacy skills emerging as essentials in the evolving information landscape. Students tracked source material ranging from interviews  to academic papers, and collectively authored a first perspective in knowledge on their subjects. Students were forced to consider multiple sources in developing their own perspective on the complex questions of the Canadian Identity: the purpose of our history curriculum beyond what is written in the course’s prescribed learning outcomes.

During the project, students were not able to cite Wikipedia as a direct source, but encouraged to use it as a starting point toward authors of work on subjects referenced in the articles as a means of providing their published work with the strongest support possible. Students asked questions of experts from all over North America, read widely and were introduced to a variety of issues on the recommendation of public servants, non-profit organizers, academics, and politicians. In the end each group published theirs as a first perspective (in terms of the Wikibooks project) on the information of the day concerning a range of topics on the Canadian Identity. The work had to be cited and written in accordance with Wikibooks’ authorship guidelines, and opened the class’ work to the response and criticism, but also the benefit, of global study on the unit’s subject. From a pedagogical standpoint, the rigour and validity of the class’ use of Wikipedia (and reaching beyond the textbook in general) provided an experience richer in critical analysis and personal investment than many read-and-test units covering the same material.SGaang Gwaay

One student-solicited interview resulted in University of British Columbia Aboriginal Education professor Mark Aquash offering to spend an afternoon discussing the many tough questions surrounding Canada’s First Peoples that our texts (and oftentimes our teachers) are not well-enough prepared to confront. At the conclusion of the nearly two-hour dialogue – which covered the misunderstood labels of native, Métis, Indian, First Nations, Inuit, as well as contemporary conceptions of aboriginal land claims, reservations, education and welfare in the first person – a grade nine offered the following realization that I believe our texts are seldom equipped to facilitate:

All of [most] people’s anger and discomfort about Canada’s First Nations issues boils down to difficulties understanding the different ways our cultures view being human.

Of course, the statement is much bigger than a Canadian issue, and speaks to the extrinsic purpose of our education to teach empathy and understanding across the diverse cultures of our increasingly connected human experience. Thus the underlying purpose I hope the publishing project enables is to broaden the scope of the class’ discussion of our upcoming unit. I have been seeking classes or groups of aboriginal youth (wherever in the world they might reside, Canada or otherwise) to collaborate throughout the past year with the hope of working together to establish a dialogue or publication of student research and study of our local, yet universal history. I am excited to see the TALONS’ blogging network extend and to begin to see other examples of classes sharing their learning through social networks and blogging.

With respect to our First Nations unit specifically, I have only established a few “leads” in connecting our classroom to another in order to discuss this aspect of colonial history, something I think speaks to the pervasive lack of interaction and understanding between First Peoples the world over and European (or other) colonialist nations in the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, and Australia. Delving into the history as we are taught it with the intention of authoring a contemporary narrative of Canada’s struggle to implement a truly multicultural society seems a good place to start though, whether we have company in this endeavour or not.

Many of the TALONS students are participating in the international Student Blogging Challenge this spring, and there is a momentum building around the shared experience that modern communication can offer. With this call to action, the class’ study of its upcoming history chapters is an opportunity to produce a collaborative effort to start a global dialogue of our relationship with this place in Canada, and the world, in this moment in time.