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?

MEd Introduction: Personal & Critical Approaches

Objectivity by Sol LeWitt

From Flickr user Sol LeWitt

This post is part of a serialized collection of chapters composing my recently completed Master’s of Education degree at the University of Victoria. You can access the other chapters on this site here, and access a pdf of the completed paper on the University of Victoria library space here

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Blogs as Documents of Learning

Documenting Learning. Electronic Portfolios: Engaging Today's Students in Higher Education

Giulia Forsythe’s visual notes on Tracy Penny Light’s session on Documenting Student Learning with Electronic Portfolios.

I started blogging with the TALONS class (since expanded to two) a little more than four years ago. In that time I’ve learned a great deal about the capacity for such digital publishing tools to help realize aspects of the larger purpose of schooling; part of this has come through developing my own informal network and community of practice constantly interrogating the same question, and lately has included both a graduate community of SFU diploma students, and my own masters cohort. Including my own classrooms, every learning space I move through is suffused with discussion and debate about the purpose of school.

I’ve written about this a few times on this blog, as a matter of fact. Back in May, 2009, I began documenting my Adventures in a Gifted Classroom by quoting Nabakov:

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.

For Nabokov’s objectivity to be realized though is to realize the paradox of Einstein’s relativity (one degree of separation between Nabokov & Einstein: a productive Monday morning!): the more we know about the object’s speed, the less accurately we know its location, and visa versa. Any definition we seek – for Truth in the religious sense, to the tenor of our elected officials and the implementation of our education systems – must be constantly reevaluated, re-calibrated and ready at every moment to be torn down to make way for the New.

And while I still agree with the general direction struck up now four and a half years (and a few hundred thousand words) ago, a quick survey of my blog archive charts the evolution of my theory and practice in the time since:

21st century Learner

Giulia Forsythe’s 21st Century Learner

Breakdown of Posts by Category (from a total of 224) 

As broad terms, Pedagogy and Technology might be expected culprits in a teacher’s blog these days (and I am more than a little glad to see Pedagogy edging to the win here… phew); but I think the focus on Learning Networks and Classroom Communities is more revealing about the larger purpose of schooling I’ve been uncovering in posts on grammar, music, and outdoor education these last four years.

Across these topics, I have striven to refine a pedagogy that empowers learners to take ownership over their learning. As published in my most recent post, I believe that:

the skills attending to student “ownership” of learning are essential elements in the ongoing creation and maintenance of a democratic society.

In four years of blogging, I’ve refined my process in cultivating space in the TALONS class for students to find what Clare found, back in 2009:

“Writing, I think is both a way to think aloud and preserve ideas I’ve come to a conclusion about in my head or random observations; the blog is just an archive in that sense. I also have a draft saved on my email account where I journal on-and-off, as well as a word document on my desktop, but I think the stuff on my blog is more developed in terms of exploring what I have to say. Sometimes when I post something, I secretly hope that other people will read it and offer their opinions, other times I forget about it as soon as I click ‘publish.’ Blogging provides a lot of revelation and I’m still guessing at its destination, but I do know that it’s going somewhere good.

Untitled

Revelation without destination strikes me as a noble purpose for a school system concerned with creating lifelong learners that shifts our focus from product to process. But even while this has been a foundational piece of my beliefs about education since I began teaching, I have continued to refine the role that blogs and the development of student learning networks and communities play in this process.

More and more, both as a reflective practitioner and someone trying to create learning spaces and opportunities for others, I think this revolves around the praxis outlined by Freire – and explored into more than one recent blog post here – of a cycle of reflection and action. Blogging – and tweeting, and taking pictures, and journals, and many other acts of preservation – creates an object of those experiences that can be viewed in reflection, and can be manifest in future opportunities as wisdom.

Personal Epistemology – Mr. J Edition

About halfway through my attempted introduction of Philosophy 12’s Epistemology unit assignments – clumsily introduced here – Jonathan asked a salient question: 

Could you do one of these assignments first, so we can see what it is you’re looking for?


To refresh myself ourselves, the individual piece of the Epistemology study will be to create a personal epistemological proposition: to state and explain something about what we know, and how we know it.  

Can I do this first so I the class can see what it is I’m looking for?

Um… yeah, sure. Of course. 

What I Know… How I Know It

This started out as a messy, painful process for me that I trust will emanate throughout the class this week. But this sort of psychic discomfort is integral to the learning process, I’ve come to think; and it is something that I was curious to lean into with the hope of seeing where my thinking took me.

I started with the attempt to create simple statements that I hoped would lead me somewhere meaningful.

Statement A

I doubt what I know; it fluctuates. My relationship and understanding of my self and the world is subjective. 

Statement B

I read (some of) Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” to be about the need to live as though the things that cannot be known can be (even while admitting that they can’t). 

Therefore (Statement C)

Learning is central to trusting in the fleeting knowledge gained while I interrogate and reform my “knowledgable paradigm.”

I have always been fond of the Hemingway quote

There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.


OK, so…?

Having come to some understanding of what I wanted to say, what I could stand behind as my beliefsabout knowledge at this stage, I then sought to ground these statements in the contexts of philosophy and epistemology. I had a few different ideas here, mostly due to recent thinking about Immanuel KantThomas Kuhn, and Gregory Bateson.

Where to next?

As it stands now, I’m returning to the syllogistic A & B –> C format of attempting to lay out my proposition about knowledge and learning, trying to hone the statements offered above and support them with some of the thinking of other philosopher’s.

My “A” Statement at the moment begins with the preface of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

Human reason,” he says, “in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, as they transcend every faculty of the mind.”

I’m hoping to contrast some of my thinking about the above with what he says later, that: “…a dogmatist promises to extend human knowledge beyond the limits of possible experience; while I humbly confess that this is completely beyond my power.”

Taken together (A & B), this rationale – to seek, even when the knowledge may be beyond us – creates a dizzying cumulative effect that Gardner Campbell spoke about a few weeks ago in Vancouver: the double bind. I think this scenario is where I find my thinking aligning with Gregory Bateson‘s Hierarchies of Learning, and even the ‘scientific crisis’ written about by Thomas Kuhn, wherein the old paradigm is the prison, but also the route to salvation (for a time).

Mr. Jackson, it seems like you’re more confused than when you started…

Of course not! 

Well, maybe a little.

But I’ll let you know how the next few steps go.

Carrying Stones

Voyageur at Unplug'd 2012
Photo by @cogdog

I arrived at Unpludg this year without a finished draft of my letter.

Either out of procrastination or by an unconscious but deliberate choice, I made the journey east resolved to not panic about not having completed my draft and to try my best to remain open to the vibrations of the moment over the course of the weekend, to soak the experience in, and use the time set aside for peer editing with my group to finish the song.

Our songwriter, Bryan

Earlier in the week, I had sat at my kitchen table looking out over Burrard Inlet strumming the familiar opening chords of G major, D, and C, singing I’m gonna write myself a letter…  until I settled on the opening groove of the song. Pretty quickly I had scribbled down the opening two verses and had a chorus that scratched at a theme of a collective voice emerging from so many individual journeys out toward the Edge.

My own curiosity about this year’s event, now expanded to include international participants, centered around what a diverse selection of passionate educators (to quote Rob Fisher from last year, “People who care about education so much it hurts.”) might create in a mosaic of their voices. Last year this had seemed easier, as our focus was the ‘limited’ prospect of a Canadian identity, and I wondered what my role would be an a conversation about about a more diverse voice.

UnPlug'd 2012 Visual Notes

@giuliaforsythe's visual notes

It wasn’t that Unplugd this year wasn’t still a heartily Canadian affair, with Ontario and educators from across Canada, not to mention the Edge hosts and Voyageur, the Six String Nation guitar, playing a role in welcoming our friends and colleagues from the United States and Australia. Thursday night’s reception in Toronto, culminating in a presentation from Jowi Taylor about his journey to collect the artifacts composing Voyageur, a guitar made up of mythically charged Canadiana – Trudeau’s canoe paddle, the Golden Spruce, Maurice Richard’s Stanley Cup Ring – provided an opportunity for the story of the guitar to begin the weekend’s conversation about people and place.

Being asked to play a song on Voyageur was an honour that was both invigorating and daunting, as I knew in some ways the performance would serve as a sort of host’s welcome to our international friends and local guests. But I had little idea the emotional weight such a guitar could bear. And when the story of Jowi’s journey to have the Voyageur built wound to a close, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of having my voice, and my words, spoken through this mystical object, joining in the chorus of the pieces making up the guitar, as well as the thousands of people who have held it in their hands, and contemplated their own relationship to the country and one another through the songs Voyageur has helped them sing and hear.

Needing a few minutes to settle myself at the front of the room and hopefully provide some context for the song I had chosen to sing, I talked about the idea of Canadian soul homes, and that truths are woven in places where people are living, as Martha reminded us in this year’s opening circle, “at the pace of creation.” I had arrived in Toronto the day before having brought a stone I picked up in the estuary of Noon’s Creek near my house, a barnacle encrusted river rock forged a hundred million years ago in  Heritage Mountain that now lolled in my neighbourhood’s high tides. Thinking about how I’d found the stone earlier in the week on a low neep tide that in the fall will be carrying streams of salmon home to spawn in the creeks where they were born, and that I was now being given the opportunity to make music by playing notes that would resonate through the sacred wood of the Golden Spruce struck me as especially moving in that moment.

 

 

As it turned out, leaving my letter unfinished was the right choice.

I think about writing songs a little like archaeology: once the hook – a riff, lyric or chorus – is discovered, the rest of the song is usually nearby, obscured just below the surface of sedimentary dust. They are like puzzles, where a songwriter creates an opening image, or symbol, builds upon that theme by creation tension (either literally or musically), and then resolves that tension for their audience.

Going into the weekend, I had written the first two verses and a chorus for my letter-song, but couldn’t have written the third verse (the resolution) before Thursday night, or the rest of Unplug’d had played out. The tension of the song was created out of my own question about the experience: what would this group come together to say? I would need to write the song, and capture it, from the middle of the experience.

Writing a song on Voyageur

On Saturday afternoon, my editing group of Donna Fry, Marci Duncan, and Gail Lovely sat on yoga mats in the upstairs studio of Points North, and I played them the opening verses of the song. We had saved the song for our last edit, and had spent the day  up until that point contextualizing the meaning of each of our letters through the stories we had told one another and our emerging reflections on what the experience was teaching us. Jowi Taylor was gracious enough to let me enlist the powers of Voyageur in the composition, and he joined us for a conversation about authenticity, and truth, and the role of music, metaphors, and symbols in our collective storytelling while I sat cross-legged with the guitar in my lap.

Like each of the songs I played on Thursday night, “Carrying Stones” turned out to be a collaboration, like all art and stories are, really. Jowi and Voyageur gave me most of the words in the third verse.

The rest of the Unplug’d participants helped set it to music.

You can continue to join in the song by playing along to the lyrics and chords I’ve posted here.

Storytelling as Learning Tool

On Monday I’ll be giving a brief talk to the Langley cohort of Simon Fraser University’s Learning & Teaching with Technology Field Program about Personal Narratives as a framework for learning. Not particularly adept at the nomenclature surrounding and separating ‘frameworks,’ lenses, methods, and mostly considering myself self-taught when it comes to this stuff, I have long-found stories to be a vital part of my teaching bag-of-tricks, and will be sharing some of what I’ve found along the way with the group. As an introduction, I’ve shared the following post on the class’ Posterous account, but it’s private; so I’ve shared it here in the hope that those of you out there – who have really done all the teaching in this supposed ‘self-teaching’ I’ve been doing – might leave us a comment, a story, a link to some reading, or pass this post along to someone who might. 

Why Sharing Our Stories Matters: Story by Bryan Jackson from unplugd on Vimeo.

As a means of collecting some of the supplemental material I would attach to a discussion of Personal Narratives and Storytelling in the classroom, I thought I would put together a post here that you may find useful in extending the conversation post-“Institute.”

As a general introduction, the above video is a story I told in a canoe in Algonquin Park last summer at the Unplug’d Education Summit. The purpose of the “un-conference” was to bring together educational stake-holders to synthesize our individual essays (each filling the blank in the title, Why _________ Matters) into a book organized by thematically grouped chapters. You can download the e-book here, and learn more about this year’s event at Unplugd.ca.

While the whole process revolved around a socially constructive framework, my essay centered around the idea that “Sharing our Stories” matters: that each of our individual truths construct a shared “truth” or objectivity; and that if we follow this through to its logical conclusion, the skills required to realize, share and synthesize our stories become essentials in creating a healthy culture (democratic, social, educational or otherwise).

From both a personal and pedagogical perspective, this aspect of joining the personal and the collective through stories holds great interest for me, especially as we consider that our digital tools provide ever-more opprortunities to share unique pieces from our individual corners of the world with tribes and swarms and communities beyond our own local geography. Indeed:

…our understanding of authorship is, at the present time, caught between two regimes: one a system of knowledge production informed by Enlightenment-era notions of the self, the other is a world of “technologies that lend themselves to the distributed, the collective, the process-oriented, the anonymous, the remix.” As we step into the future increasingly governed by the latter, we move, in some ways, back to an earlier era: a move away from a culture of isolated reading — the individual reader, alone with a book or a screen — towards a more communal engagement, the coffee-house or fireside model of public reading and debate in which literary culture historically originated. Long before print culture, storytelling was not a solitary experience but a group event. Houman Barekat on Planned Obsolescence 


In its more classical sense, education concerned itself almost exclusively with Aesthetics, or the “broader sense” that Wikipedia describes as “critical reflection on art, culture and nature. Educators today would do well to be aware of an emerging New Aesthetic (which is described here in a specific fashion that need not be completely digested or accepted to be relevent to our discussion).

Simply put, the New Aesthetic concerns itself with how the digital world and the real world are starting to overlap and intermingle in interesting, routine and unexpected ways.  As search engines, online ‘bots’, spam generation engines, online mapping tools, google street view, machine vision and sensing technologies proliferate, our everyday life in the western technologically advanced world is starting to bristle with new types of augmentation and hybridity. Interview with Bruce Sterling about the New Aesthetic


As we move into next week, I hope we can play around with some of these emerging tools to begin to tell our own stories and begin to create possibilities for storytelling (digital or otherwise) as a means of individual and collective learning in your classrooms.

The main point I like to stress in talking about storytelling in our emerging media/digital landscape is that despite our new modes of communication, the act of telling our individual and communal stories is fundamental to the creation and maintenance of our culture and in this way is at the center of what education strives to achieve.

As one of my teaching idols told me on the day he retired, “Any class you teach is just another opportunity for kids to practice forming communities,” a sentiment I find myself agreeing with more the longer I teach, and a process in which I find stories increasingly fundamental.

 

Family Legend

_ALB6070

Campire Stories

A little twist on the Family Legend assignment from the Daily Create let me bring this neighbourhood legend to the Camp Magic Macguffin campfire. 

They had come from Burnaby, had the MacDonalds that came to reside on Garcia Court, and beyond the neighbouring suburb were from points across the breadth of Canada and back into Europe. Both branches of the family we knew reached the old countries of England and Scotland eventually, but had each traced vastly different routes across Canada to the coast.

Mr. MacDonald’s family had splintered out of a line of Joneses in Ontario and settled in southeastern British Columbia near the American border where towering mountains are ringed by lingering smog of a half-century’s smeltering. Mr. MacDonald’s father had worked in that smelter, and he and three siblings were raised in a narrow two-story house near their elementary school. The family lived above the gouge of the Columbia River and knew well the hoards of river moths that owned the dusks and dawns of summer with a singular and biblical tenacity.

It has struck me each time I’ve heard it told that Mr. MacDonald never passes over the subject of his hometown in conversation without mentioning these moths. His eyes sharpen and he pointedly engages each person within eye and earshot in his narration; there is no mistaking the onus he places on the regular emergence of the hovering pests.

“You have to drive with your windshield wipers on,” I have seen him marvel. “And the town hides itself indoors, sure to seal every window and door – even though you could at best keep only ninety percent of them out!”

Listeners cringe at this image, and Mr. MacDonald relishes their discomfort. “Oh yeah!” He often repeats important details for effect, stalling and indulging brief cul de sacs and dead ends before continuing with the story. These productions never seemed scripted until I began to hear these various narratives told and retold by Mr. MacDonald, and then also by others on the street, word for word.

This particular story of the onslaught of minuscule beasts wobbling as they rise from the Columbia River Valley inevitably meanders to the recounting of the childhood of Mr. MacDonald’s youngest brother, David. (No one fails to mention, in this telling, that Brandon bore such a resemblance to his father’s brother that once Brandon had reached the age of fourteen, they were christened “DavidBrandon” for the duration of several family gatherings that spanned almost a decade.)

It is told that as a child David never harboured the town’s apprehension for the river moths, and would await their nightly coming tide at the crest of the bluffs above the river. Standing bare-chested toward the setting sun, he would watch the air thicken above the flat pools on the Columbia and hear the million hatchlings popping onto air. The hum would drive in a cloud toward him on the hill and his heart reportedly raced as the million moths reached and engulfed him before sweeping over the bluffs like a humming wave. They would fly through his hair and glue their wings to the sweat of his arms and legs, and he would let the ones that could land and begin to crawl, trekking his skin and covering him from head to toe. Only once the night’s flight had subsided would he walk the steep grade of the hillside and descend slowly into the freezing depths of the river. The moths that resisted at the surface of the water would come unstuck once submerged, and David would rise from the water clean, washed with the first boilings of the next night’s hatch.

I heard this story for the first time at a cul de sac barbeque at the end of my driveway. Mr. MacDonald had put his silver beer down to do the telling, and as many as fifteen of us looked on as he reached the dramatic finish, painting his brother as a shining martyr of these moths. Perceiving that I was perhaps the only one present who had yet to hear this tale, he nodded to me for what I assumed was my appraisal of the tale.

I said meekly, “Didn’t anyone ever go out there with him?”

Mr. MacDonald laughed and said, “DavidBrandon always wanted to know the same thing.”

21st Century Learning: Entrepreneurial Citizenship vs. Democracy

A very interesting talk given by Tobey Steeves Friday afternoon at the BCSSTA Conference in Vancouver that is well worth your time to explore both in the slides above, and the corresponding ‘pencast’ embedded below that captures the session’s audio, and my notes about the discussion of public education’s role in a democracy, and how this thinking could be applied to education policy’s current obsession with a vague notion of 21st Century Learning.

I have been thinking of the role of this type of critical inquiry into not only the terminology surrounding 21st Century Learning and the advent of technology in the modern classroom, but Learning (or Schooling) itself, similar questions being posed by Dave Cormier in a recent post entitled, Workers, Soldiers or Nomads:

The why of education should be the first question that we answer in any discussion in the field. The answer to the ‘why of education’ question should be debated, mulled and hammered, on and on, and be at the centre of the work that we do. Sadly, it seems to be very difficult to say anything about “what learning is” and “why we educate our children”. We tend to end up saying something like the following
 
  • We are preparing our students for the future
  • We need to get them ready for university
  • We are trying to make good citizens for our society
  • We are trying to instill cultural values
  • We are trying to teach them to learn
There are any number of ways to say this, and, by saying it, say nothing. These answers have content, maybe, for the people saying them, but there’s no way for me to know what you mean. What are the cultural values you’d like to pass on? Is it likely that a vast majority of people are going to want to pass on those particular values? What would a good citizen do in our society? Are they law abiding or do they fight injustice? I’d like to think that they are both, but it’s pretty tough to create a system that both trains people to do what they are told and to also critically assess their culture.

I think that last piece, the ability to ‘critically assess [one’s] culture,’ is essential if we are to realize this idea of Maslow‘s, brought to my attention this weekend by Canadian musician and activist Raffi Cavoukian:

So while we become human through being culturalized so that our mind, emotions, speech, and behavior is cultivated to the values of our parents and teachers, to develop to our full potential we have to simultaneously learn to wear our conventionality lightly so that we learn to choose what parts of the outer world to bring in and what to merely adapt to, and what to reject. If we conform blindly and unthinkingly to the cultural rules of family, religion, school, media, business, etc., we dull our individuality and avoid authenticity.  

From L. Michael Hall’s “Unleashing your Real Self

We talk a lot about individuality and authenticity in T.A.L.O.N.S. and how to live in such a way that we enable each of these in ourselves and one another. But isn’t what we’re really talking about also called subversion?

And what if we are talking about subversion?

Might that be (at least part of) the point of school?

Consensus in the Classroom

One of the interesting aspects of the #Occupy movement for me is the General Assembly driving the decision-making and ideology of the groups gathering in cities around the world. Modeled on non-violent means of protest as old as civil disobedience itself, the General Assembly operates on an egalitarian process of generating consensus that I can’t help but find eerily similar to the type of decision-making and values TALONS teachers strive to place at the center of our class’ learning on a daily basis.

I stumbled across the above video on Google+ yesterday, as did apparently Michael Kaechele, who posted the following questions in a post on Teach Paperless this morning:

  • What is actual democracy?
  • Is the current government of the United States a democracy?
  • Whose voice is most important in an democracy?
  • For PBL it is a great example of how student groups should function.
  • What are the weaknesses of this form of government?
  • Does this scale to a national level and what would that look like?
  • How can we make sure more opinions are heard and given a true seat at the table before decisions are made?
  • How can we implement the consensus model in schools?
  • How could the consensus model be used in your classroom?
  • How could the consensus model be used with students in curriculum planning and design?

These are questions that should be up for almost constant debate and discussion within a democracy, and surely within our classrooms, if we hope for them to be raising engaged and empowered citizens of our students.

Detractors of the #Occupy movement are quick to point out that it is “slow,” “messy,” or “unfocused,” seemingly without awareness of the fact that the most “efficient” form of government would be a dictatorship. Surely the process of representing the diverse voices of the most complex, interdependent global society the world has yet known will be a difficult and frustrating task to be realized (especially if it decides to eschew the soapboxes of traditional media and government), and I raise this point not to debate the validity of the protests or their root causes, but rather to hold up this idealized form of democracy-in-motion and ask, Is education up to the challenge?

Twin Talons alumni Blog Abroad

Talons at Montague Harbour, Galiano Island 2010

Grade tens in the Talons program when we began our blogging experiment, Saskia and Ariana would be seniors at our school this year. Would be, of course, had they not each accepted scholarships and student-exchange opportunities in Belgium, and on Vancouver Island.

Luckily for those of us living and working back in the local Talons’ neighbourhood, they have continued to share their learning on a blog they began before either of them set sail this summer. And with the recent passing of Canadian Thanksgiving, each published reflections on their new lives and learning away from home.

Ariana, making a home on Vancouver Island, was able to make it back to the mainland for the holiday, and wrote about returning to her place in her home, as well as with her younger sister (current Talon, Bronwyn), and mother:

Today, while my three guests from Pearson explored Vancouver, I had a tea party with friends, picked beans with my mother, and chatted with my little sister. I discovered that, despite the shifted arrangement of my room, the deeper structures of my home – the connections between me and my friends and family – have stayed the same. I can still argue and laugh with my mother, be goofy with my friends, and laze on the couch with my little sister (after she scored two goals during her soccer game).   Before, I worried that as I began to belong at Pearson, Port Moody would feel less like home. I was wrong. It is comforting for me to know that, no matter, what, there is one place in the world that is mine. There is a room in a bright green house in the suburbs of Vancouver that I can count on to welcome me home.  

While Saskia, across the Atlantic:

…spent my first Thanksgiving away from home last week. While my family rolled out pumpkin pie dough and brought cranberry sauce to a simmer, I floated down the sluggish Meuse on a Rotary boat trip. Compared to rivers in British Columbia, the opaque brown water didn’t provide much scenic value. The three hours offered me plenty of time to chat with other exchanges students, however. My mind on Thanksgiving and home, we discussed clashing attitudes and ways of life.  

Because this is what the idea of exchange is about, is it not? To immerse oneself in a new culture, and find what it might have to teach us about ourselves.

But there is an added opportunity in an exchange that separates twins, I think (not being one, I can’t confirm), in that individuals who have shared nearly everything in their young lives set out on their own to discover not only a new place, but a new relationship with themselves, and a voice and perspective that isn’t as much shared as it is theirs alone:

The most challenging aspect of being an exchange student for me is not necessarily adjusting to the different attitudes and traditions themselves. What’s harder is the fact that people here can’t understand or appreciate where I come from. I have to be the one to justify my mismatched actions or ideas by underlining the disparities when I discover them. Otherwise, I quietly realize, accept and move on. When I wrote my Rotary application, I explained that I wanted a new view on home, to take another look at some of the realities I took for granted. It’s happening.