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.”

Summer Book Project: Narcissus & Goldmund

Image courtesy of Solomon Says

I first read Narcissus and Goldmund ten years ago this February – finishing it at 11:33pm on February 16th, 2004 (the inscription in the back cover tells me). It’s likely that I was at my house on Barbara Circle, in Little Rock, an idyllic three bedroom where I spent my senior year of college. It’s possible that I was traveling somewhere with our track team, laying in the back of a team bus taking us north to the indoor tracks of the midwest, or biding time in a hotel or at one of our early season meets.

The note in the back of the book only gives the date and time.

I’d already read some Hermann Hesse by then – Siddhartha and Steppenwolfto be sure, perhaps even Demien (which I purchased at Little Rock’s fabulous Lorenzen & Co Booksellers). But after ten years, Narcissus and Goldmund has stuck out, somehow: there was something about this parable that effected the twenty-three year old me greatly. Delving into the passion at the heart of artistic expression, I recall the book presenting some sacred devotion to life, love and connection that however subtly contributed to the momentum of my post-collegiate years.

This past July, as I began thinking about these youthful books and first (re)read On the RoadI coupled Narcissus and Goldmund into a short list that I thought might capture the transformation that Literature had wrought on my young mind and life. The list included (or has grown to include):

Through On the Road I was heartened to discover in the text that neither of us had aged so terribly that the experience made me cringe. True, there was sadness where before I may have seen lust or excitement, fear where before there had been confidence. But alongside what Kerouac had to say to me at thirty two rang loud and clear the message he had for the younger Bryan, and it was a lesson I’m still grateful to have been taught.

With Hesse I had a similarly passionate relationship as a younger man, reading nearly everything I could get my hands on between the ages of twenty and twenty-five: Steppenwolf, Demien, Rosshalde, Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund (The Glass Bead Game site on my shelf, a treat to myself for some future date when I can read a “new” book by a favourite long-deceased author). Each of them is dog-eared and wildly underlined; the’ve been lent to friends and frequently to students (especially a yellow and yellowing copy of Demien that is currently on a vacation with one of the TALONS alumni). Concerned as so many of his stories and characters are with discovering one’s passion, voice and place in the world, he is what I consider to be an essential voice for wandering youth.

But I’ve long held Narcissus and Goldmund somewhere above his other works – more profound, more lasting, or all encompassing. I’m not sure what, exactly, and so I sat down this February, somewhat coincidentally to see what all the fuss had been about all those years ago.

As in most of Hesse, there is the ring of a Jungian call to pursue one’s heroic calling in life that Narcissus presents his younger pupil Goldmund as he counsels him away from life at the seminary:

“Natures of your kind, with strong, delicate senses, the soul-oriented, the dreamers, poets, lovers are almost always superior to us creatures of the mind. You take your being from your mothers. You live fully; you were endowed with the strength of love, the ability to feel.”

Goldmund’s sensitivity is aesthetic, where Narcissus’ is logical, and the novel makes a case for the superiority of the former as we follow Goldmund away from school to bathe in the personal riddles of time and the nature of the self on a pilgrimage that may be characterized as spiritual without being religious.

There is an exaltation of mystery here that I no-doubt found inspiring as a fifth year senior looking ahead at graduation.

“Oh how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pong, the eye of a person or of a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all; but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning like Father Anselm or wise like Abbot Daniel, and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening.”

In the spring of 2004, I was on the verge of graduating from university. I had lived in Arkansas for most of five years, beginning when I was scarcely 18, and the life I had established for myself in the south would soon be over and in many ways irretrievable. While this is true in some ways of all experience, leaving Little Rock brought with it the additional mourning that most of my friends from that time would be returning to their own home countries and cities across the States, and whether I was conscious of it at the time or not, I was comforted through Goldmund’s experience of death bringing his life into a crystalline focus:

“He thought that he, that all men, trickled away, changing constantly, until they finally dissolved, while their artist-created images remained unchangeably the same.

“He thought that fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all things of the mind. We fear death, we shudder at life’s instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something that lasts longer than we do.”

Indeed, a journal entry from the afternoon of February 12th, 2004 – that was written on a charter bus taking our track and field team north to compete at an indoor meet the University of Iowa – is freckled with Hesse quotes, and captures a purely preserved expression of my mind at the time:

“We are in a western-looking saddle of the country, with sparse snow around the trees that flank farmers’ fields. It feels like Wyoming, the sun-bleached yellow terrain, mountainous as we run down the ancient Ozarks. Dirt roads and barns abound, as do the hawks riding updrafts against the dusty foothills, bullet holes against the blue sky.

“It is a place that lends itself to a trip through one’s mental landscape, and easy to become lost in your thoughts up here, and as we ascend a ridge-winding two-lane highway and climb above a soil-rich rolling valley – Marshall Welcomes You, the sign says – something says to me, Merritt, BC, and in a flash I see British Columbia. It is fleeting though and only a moment before the small-town churches and Missouri mom-and-pops begin to dominate the scenery, and Canada is an infinite ride away into the North.

“Home is both a million miles away and yet somehow coming closer than I care to have it. Anyone who cares to read these words will traipse through these last few dozen pages and tire of the time I have devoted to the loss and remorse the idea of leaving Arkansas has brought me. But it is something which weighs mightily upon me.”

As with Kerouac earlier this year, I am happy to find in the rereading of Narcissus and Goldmund that my younger self was fortunate to encounter an author and a companion such as Hesse. Goldmund confronts his own existential nausea with a devotion to applying his aesthetic sensitivities – as both the cause of Goldmund’s inspiration as much as it is his torment – to art that was able to capture “the solemn feeling of a rare and great experience which he might perhaps know one more time in the course of his life or which might remain unique.”

With so many of my own life experiences nearing an end, my anxiety was given solace in attempting to live with what Hesse called:

“A deep reverence, a great earnestness, and at the time a secret fear of the moment when this high, unique experience would be over, classified, swallowed by the routine of days.”

Reverence alone, Goldmund realizes, is not enough, however.

“In order to create a work like this, one had not only to carry images in one’s soul; one also had to have inexpressibly trained, practiced hands. Perhaps it was after all worthwhile to place one’s entire life at the service of art, at the expense of freedom and broad experience, if only in order to be able once to make something this beautiful, something that had not only been experienced and envisioned and received in love, but also executed to the last detail with absolute mastery. It was an important question.”

It is, and it’s one of many pieces of the book that struck me in 2014 as much as in 2004. Almost thirty three, I’m no longer looking out on adulthood as the Void Beyond University so much as I am poised between the path I’ve created of it thus far, and the possibilities it holds into the future. Ten years on from both Hesse and graduation, I have accumulated a good many of the life moments and experiences that will have cumulatively determined who I was in this life. And while my interpretation of the wrestling with that question may have shifted, it feels central to feelings about my self and life today as much as ever.

Like Goldmund, I have remained “in his dreams or his thought-filled moments of rest, overlooking a flowering or wilting valley, […] all eyes an artist.” With him I have “longed desperately to halt the gracefully drifting nonsense of life with [my] mind and transform it into sense,” though of late this has taken on a more intellectual aim than artistic.

Toward the end of the book, Narcissus directs me to consider the merits of complementing this pursuit with more art, and heart:

“Our thinking is a constant process of converting things to abstractions, a looking away from the sensory, an attempt to construct a purely spiritual world. Whereas you take the least constant, the most mortal things to your heart, and in their very mortality show the meaning of the world. You don’t look away from the world; you give yourself to it, and by your sacrifice to it raise it to the highest, a parable of eternity. We thinkers try to come closer to God by pulling the mask away from His face. You come closer to Him by loving His creation and re-creating it. Both are human endeavors, and necessarily imperfect, but art is more innocent.”

Because just as the more academic or reflective posts on this site are records of ideas and expressions of an evolving self, there are emotions and realizations captured in these aged books of both Hermann Hesse and my own ink that light the way to an understanding that yet eludes meaning, an exaltation of

“How mysterious this life [is,] how deep and muddy its waters [run], yet how clear and noble what emerge[s] from them.”

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.

Attention!

St. John Historic Classroom 2

An attentive bunch at St. John Lutheran

In discussing whether or not technology is harming students’ capacity for attention”(as those of us embarking upon EDCI 335 this week have been asked to do), each of these terms inhabits a range of contextual definitions that make first attempting to determine a common understanding necessary if any meaningful discourse is to emerge.  Many of the assumptions underpinning aspects of this discussion, however, serve mostly to obscure the more important, emancipatory aims of education in service of outdated, dominating educational practices.

It is in the interrogation and illumination of these assumptions wherein I find more fertile grounds of discussion.

Such as, first of all, determining which aspects of “technology” might we look to brand with this “harmful” brush?

  • Smart Phones? Wifi? Social Media?
  • Television? Video Games? Mix Tapes?
  • Pencils? The Steam Engine? The Wheel?

Belonging to a vastly different historical eras, each of these technologies was as harmful to their contemporary societies as they gave expression to them. Which interests and values do we see represented by those who deem the digital technologies harmful?

And what might we learn from looking at various criticisms lobbied against prior technological advancements and paradigm shifts?

One might easily imagine a case for banning pencils in a bygone era:

Kids will just use them to play games. Hangman, Tic-Tac-Toe, word searches, crosswords, and now the latest craze: Sudoko. How can any student be expected to keep their mind on lessons when there are so many tempting distractions just a pen stroke away?

Our relationships with new technologies are always complicated, and we are seldom able to determine the lasting effects they will exert on society and culture until they are supplanted by even newer devices, tools and relationships.

Indeed, people may even have lamented the advent of the electric toaster:

When the electric toaster was invented, there were, no doubt, books that said that the toaster would open up horizons for breakfast undreamed of in the days of burning bread over an open flame; books that told you that the toaster would bring an end to the days of creative breakfast, since our children, growing up with uniformly sliced bread, made to fit a single opening, would never know what a loaf of their own was like; and books that told you that sometimes the toaster would make breakfast better and sometimes it would make breakfast worse, and that the cost for finding this out would be the price of the book you’d just bought.

As Marshall McLuhan told us, “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” Try as we might, we don’t have all that much say in the matter, making the question  Is “technology” in and of itself “harmful” to (young) people? similarly useful as considering aging’s influence on mortality.

In either case, there is a limited range of responses to such questions. And in regarding technological advances – just as we might contemplate our own death – we can only live with a greater awareness of what such knowledge means to us, and attempt to live what we consider to be the good life within such bounds.

Similarly, “attention” occupies a much broader spectrum of meaning than “harmful” or beneficial.” Tom Chatfield notes that:

Attention comes in many forms: love, recognition, heeding, obedience, thoughtfulness, caring, praising, watching over, attending to one’s desires, aiding, advising, critical appraisal, assistance in developing new skills, et cetera.

And in limiting our view of attention so narrowly, we create a perception of it as a scarce resource, prompting Chatfield to ask,

What are we actually talking about when we base both business and mental models on a ‘resource’ that, to all intents and purposes, is fabricated from scratch every time a new way of measuring it comes along?

Such a conception of attention transforms teaching into a marketing or business problem, which it is not. Despite what the premier might say in the Throne Speech, the job of teaching is to help foster individual agency in the name of creating a better society and a more authentic vision of liberty.

Chatfield points out something I have been quick to highlight in more than one of our EDCI 335 topics so far this semester, that education and attention have always been oriented toward this ideal:

As the manual on classical rhetoric Rhetorica ad Herennium put it 2,100 years ago: ‘We wish to have our hearer receptive, well-disposed, and attentive (docilem, benivolum, attentum).’ To be civilised was to speak persuasively about the things that mattered: law and custom, loyalty and justice.

But the modern conception of efficiency, accountability and attention provides the essence of a self-defeating conception of learning. When British Columbia’s Minister of Education Peter Fassbender talks about “improving educational outcomes,” he would do well to remember that:

‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.’ There are few better summaries of the central flaw in attention economics.

Despite including that summary in his own article, Tom Chatfield goes a step further, lampooning such notions of attention as:

a mix of convenient propaganda and comforting self-deception that hails new kinds of agency, without pausing to acknowledge the speciousness of much of what’s on offer.

Ira Socol has written a devastating critique of another word that finds itself nestled into the “attention economics” narrative: Grit. What “grit proponents” are after, Ira writes, is “kids working hard at what they [the teachers] themselves value, which is, apparently, “white middle class conformity.”

In a word, both grit and attention seek compliance and subservience to a particular set of values.

Ira highlights a quote from school leader Dave Meister, who defines grit as “simply a term by which the privileged try distinguish their behavior from those they define as unworthy.”

These narratives – of grit, attention, and a host of other educationally entrepreneurial marketing campaigns – not only seek to dominate and eliminate difference in our classrooms, they also undermine the very qualities at the heart of creativity and innovation.

Ira wonders:

What “grit” did Bill Gates demonstrate when he quit Harvard because his dad hooked him up with an amazing contact at IBM and his buddy found an operating system Gates could buy for almost nothing and sell for a fortune? What “grit” did George W. Bush show when he walked away from a National Guard commitment because, suddenly, he was more interested in a political campaign?

…we know, thank God, that Samuel Clemens stuck with that riverboat career and Albert Einstein fully committed himself to his Patent Office clerkship.

Indeed, while it might be the ire of stand-and-deliver lecturers and Best Buy shift managers, a lack of ability to “pay attention” may actually be exactly what is required of modern schooling, and which our fertile media technology landscape affords in spades. Jonah Lehrer reminds us that:

In recent years […] scientists have begun to outline the surprising benefits of not paying attention. Sometimes, too much focus can backfire; all that caffeine gets in the way. For instance, researchers have found a surprising link between daydreaming and creativitypeople who daydream more are also better at generating new ideas. Other studies have found that employees are more productive when they’re allowed to engage in “Internet leisure browsing” and that people unable to concentrate due to severe brain damage actually score above average on various problem-solving tasks.

In considering the integration of technology in our modern lives and student learning, we would do well to ask:

Where is the space, here, for the idea of attention as a mutual construction more akin to empathy than budgetary expenditure — or for those unregistered moments in which we attend to ourselves, to the space around us, or to nothing at all?

In cultivating “attentiveness [as] a fungible assest,” Chatfield says:

We’re not so much conjuring currency out of thin air as chronically undervaluing our time.

This is what we’re doing to our students when we look to market our lessons to them, or slyly con them into paying attention: we are undervaluing their time, we are assaulting them with our need to be “understood.”

We are denying them any agency over their own use of time or learning.

And we are denying the transformative qualities of digital technology and the social web.

Howard Rheingold grounds “attention” within the context of five social media literacies that I find helpful to the discussion:

    • Attention
    • Participation
    • Collaboration
    • Networked Publics
    • Critical Consumption

Although I consider attention to be fundamental to all the other literacies, the one that links together all the others […] none of these literacies live in isolation.1 They are interconnected. You need to learn how to exercise mindful deployment of your attention online if you are going to become a critical consumer of digital media; productive use of Twitter or YouTube requires knowledge of who your public is, how your participation meets their needs (and what you get in return), and how memes flow through networked publics. Utlimately the most important fluency is not in mastering a particular literacy but in being able to put all five of these literacies together into a way of being in digital culture.

Not a new thing in an old way. Not an old way with a new thing.

Howard wraps it up better than I’m able to:

This is not just another set of skills to be added to the curriculum. Assuming a world in which the welfare of the young people and the economic health of a society and the political health of a democracy are the true goals of education, I believe modern societies need to assess and evaluate what works and what doesn’t in terms of engaging students in learning.

If we want to do this, if we want to discover how we can engage students as well as ourselves in the 21st century, we must move beyond skills and technologies. We must explore also the interconnected social media literacies of attention, participation, cooperation, network awareness, and critical consumption.

On Memorable Learning

Untitled

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.

On 21st Century Schools

As I’ve explored at some length here, I think of schools today as guided by our mission statements and legal mandates to pursue an ageless ideal of education along the lines of how John Dewey characterized schooling as the act of “preparing students for the adult vocations needed for society to continue to exist.”

The question of whether our current schools / teachers / curriculum are preparing students for the 21st century involves an analysis of the implicit messages communicated by schools about education and whether they are in line with the values of enlightenment and learning: an investigation of what we might call the Hidden Curriculum 

José García and Noah De Lissovoy introduce the idea that “school curriculum at any given point in time can be marked by the cultural, political and economic structure of that particular society.” Building from this premise, they set about defining the momentary economic need addressed by 21st century school curricula:

“Capitalism in its current stage is marked by structural changes in the process of production along with the rise of a global neoliberal political order. This stage is characterized by the transition to a post-Fordist process of production along with the rise of a neoliberal political project to establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites through the crafting of specific political and ideological structures and understandings (Harvey 2005; Wacquant 2012). The school, as an institution within the state, serves to produce the subjects that are required for the novel social conditions of the neoliberal era.”

Garcia and De Lissovoy frame their analysis within a context of precarious employment and financial instability – especially among young people – and “the carceral 1 turn in Neoliberalism.”

“Building from Michael Hardt’s notion of ‘prison time,’ we propose a notion of school time which links preparation and demoralization, as the subjectivity of students is organized as much for exclusion as for incorporation into familiar spaces of labor and citizenship.”

In doing so, they present a hidden curriculum which “lays the groundwork for an orientation of servility in relationship to authority and a condition of precarity in relation to work.”

Driving this evolution of the hidden curriculum, the authors suggest, is the advent of a “post-Fordist regime of production,” wherein labour are:

      • Flexible, mobile and precarious;
      • Highly adaptable to constant innovations in production;
      • Willing to move frequently between jobs;
      • Accepting of the fact that long-term employment is not guaranteed;
      • And able to merge the communicative processes with those formally thought as “production,” or instrumental tasks.

Part of the larger neoliberal political project, the evolution of post-Fordist capitalism has been nurtured by the cultivation of “discourses of efficiency, consumerism, choice and accountability in place of sense of collective responsibility.”

Under neoliberalism,

“Spheres of social activity organized on the basis of notions of the public good or social solidarity are branded as inefficient from this perspective, and neoliberalism demands that they be reorganized according to the bottom-line logic of the market (Klein 2007). The school has been one of the crucial sites of the broad neoliberalism of society (Hursh 2005; Saltman 2005).”

The authors incorporate Michael Hardt‘s (1997) idea of “prison time‘ into the school’s hidden curriculum in considering the course of a school day:

“In [school], the planning ahead of how time will be used, controlled and regimented by power signifies the domination over an individual‘s control of his or her time, and thus his or her freedom and sense of agency. Furthermore, the control and regimentation of time eliminates possibilities for improvisation in daily experiences; nothing is unforeseeable.”

If the schools of the Fordist era of capitalism can be seen adopting the narrative motifs of the factory – with the student the symbolic factory worker – we glimpse a hidden curriculum preparing labour to receive an altogether different induction into the “real world,” one where one’s publicly available education could ensure a stable career and income, mortgage payments and a pension.

As in the unionized factory where the symbolic ‘worker’ will take up his life’s profession, through the hidden curriculum the student is taught to contribute his skills and working life to the larger project of labour as a respected part of capitalistic society.

Compared to the worker being groomed in the schools of the 21st century, we might forgive the many failings of 1950s institutions – racism, sexism, or violence against those outside the white mainstream – for their ability to maintain the intellectual ideals that would create the space for the civil rights movements that fought to create greater human freedom across the capitalistic experience. Today’s students are prepared to enter a world of labour created by the post-Fordist, neoliberal era where, for Hardt, Garcia and De Lissovoy, the societal metaphor at work in schools’ Hidden Curriculum has evolved in kind: “society is no longer a factory, it is a prison.”

“…in neoliberalism, freedom is understood as choice […]. The choices are already prescribed and we express our freedom by choosing from the given options. Life even outside prison has thus become regimented and void of meaning, for we no longer have autonomy to decide what and how to use our time beyond exercising our freedom to consume.”

Gregory Bateson defines the type of learning within such a set of choices as Learning I, where development is achieved through a “correction of errors of choice within a set of alternatives.” 

From Learning 0 to Learning IV, Bateson introduces a Hierarchy of Learning in his book, Steps to an Ecology of MindLearning II, Bateson says, would exist as corrective change in the set of alternatives from which choice is made.”

In Learning II, there might still be a test, or a report card; but participants are invited to be engaged in the process.

“Within this seemingly inescapable reality of domination,” Garcia and De Lissovoy concede, “there are nevertheless moments in which inmates and those outside prison resist the drive of power to control time, in authentic encounters with others and the relationships that arise from such encounters.”

Indeed.

As Bateson’s hierarchy moves to Learning III, we see a glimpse of schooling which encourages a corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made, a truly transformative act of learning that schools are also charged with providing. For the act of learning, and of schooling, is not merely to prepare the required labour for the dictates of an all-powerful market society; it is to prepare the minds and citizenry capable of creating a society, economy and culture that honours the best of what the Project of Enlightenment promises, and critiques the status quo, imagines what could be alongside the asking why things are the way they are, and has the skills to create a meaningful tomorrow.

Through such an education, 21st century schools might realize what Paulo Freire called the creation of:

a critical and dynamic view of the world, [which] strives to unveil reality, unmask its mythicization, and achieve a full realization of the human task: the permanent transformation of reality in favor of the liberation of people.

  1.  Latin: carcer – prison

EDCI335: Introduction to Learning Design

Polar Dip 2014

Polar Dip 2014

Recently returned from a two-week odyssey around my girlfriend’s native land of Barbados, I’ve been tasked as part of our first module in EDCI 335: Learning Design with introducing myself and my intentions in the course. I’ll admit that it’s something that – this far into the ongoing learning project of this blog – strikes me as a little odd. Those looking to ‘meet’ me through this post will find no shortage of background on what has brought me here with a little exploration of my About Page, or by delving into my post categories and tags.

The short answer is that I am a HS Gifted Program teacher in Coquitlam, BC, with specialization in History, English and Leadership. Additionally, I am also a music teacher at my school, where I teach an open online Introduction to Guitar course, as well as a similarly open Philosophy 12 class. I live in the suburban seaside community of Port Moody, where I can generally be found canoeing, walking and running, often either with my dog, the gal who introduced us, or both of them.

As to the follow up questions to my own introduction, I am asked to speak briefly about what I would like to teach the world, and how I plan to going about this goal. Here I will refer new and existing readers to a post published on this site near the end of last semester:

This semester I have come to believe more and more that all education is citizenship education. All education should be concerned with the Project of Enlightenment and the search for greater justice that it entails.

And I do admit that it is encouraging to note here that we spend a great deal of time incorporating ideas of “social responsibility” and “justice” and “democracy” into learning outcomes, core competencies and school codes of conduct. Ensuring that the education system’s explicit messaging system – The Curriculum™ – reinforces these ideas is an excellent place to start.

But if we are serious about cultivating “lifelong learners” capable of delivering on the promises of the Enlightenment, and to guard against our own democracies falling prey to those who would subvert their intent for private or minority gain and exclusion (I’ll let you decide who you imagine in that role), we must have the courage to address the observation that many of modern schooling’s implicit messages communicate to young people (and teachers alike) messages about power, agency, and citizenship that can be seen as contradictory to the basic values of learning and progress.

In his popular essay, Immanuel Kant begins his response to the question, What is Enlightenmentby stating that:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from anotherSapere Aude! [dare to know] ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’ – that is the motto of Enlightenment.”

It is within this notion of the intellectual tradition that I strive to frame my own notions of pedagogy and schooling

I think this foreground provides an ample challenge for this semester’s learning about design, as it involves creating a particular learning ecosystem that fosters infinite growth and complexity, possibility and potential. I’ve experimented with a few different learning environments to this end in the last few years, and am looking forward to finding more in the weeks and months to come.

Ethics Unit Feedback and Reflection

Rate the unit's effectiveness

This semester I’ve been using Google Forms to collect reflections, self-assessments and unit feedback from both the Philosophy 12 bunch, as well as the TALONS. As with many aggregating aspects of the web, what I appreciate about this method of collection and feedback is the ability to analyze trends and other information (beyond the individual response to the unit or learning opportunity).

Building on the questionnaire for the Metaphysics Unit – the results of which were shared here – the Philosophy 12 class reflected on their course of study in Ethics by completing this Google Form posted on the class site.

Here are some of the analyzed takeaways from the class’ responses:

Which philosopher influenced your study of Ethics?

It is interesting not only to hear in a formative manner which readings and ideas “stuck,” but also in collecting the salient understandings that these concepts came to represent over the course of the unit. Here is a word cloud of the collected responses to the follow up question, What about this philosopher’s ideas influenced your study of Ethics? 

What about this Philosopher's Ideas influenced your study?

Some responses that stuck out:

Utilitarianism is probably the most memorable form of ideology that I will remember because it’s the idea of “the greater good.” It helped me realize that it’s not always moral to sacrifice the minority to satisfy the majority. John Stewart Mill’s ideals of Utilitarianism have some valid reasoning, but Immanuel Kant says pretty much the opposite. Kant believed that every life was an end unto itself, so there should be no purpose to where life should be used as a mere means. 

Immanuel Kant’s theory of universal law: A decision is only ethical if a universal law of its principle could be put in place. For example, it is not ethical for a man to end his life because he is unhappy, because we could come to a collective agreement that it would not be ethical or practical if every sad person killed themselves. 

The absolute nature of ethics of the Enlightenment, and the post-Enlightenment thinkers caught my attention, supporting my dislike of indifference. The requirement for thinkers, and abstract theorists to uphold a hokey vision of humanity and their actions is far more necessary and influential than previously thought. These visions are often difficult to accept and refute: In absolute reason, they’re impossible to refute without making some leap of faith. Ethics is a subject of absolute reason, without room for faith. Essentially the research we have done has widened and strengthened my perspective on the whole ordeal. When you perform an action, it must be equal efforts of ends, means and intent. There is little room for faith, or irrational selfish requirements. Ethics is a subject of absolute, ultimate logic in action. 

I liked Rawls’ Theory of Justice, as it gave a different perspective of what equality looks like. It let me look at things from a different way of a lot of different topics. For example, how non-human persons might be able to be accounted for as they should have perhaps equal opportunity to go about their animal business without oppression from humans. 

Jurgen Habermas doesn’t have as much to do with Ethics as he does with Social and Political Philosophy, but he nevertheless influenced my study of Multiculturalism which ties into Ethics. He strongly believes in multiculturalism and that if we integrate ourselves more with people from other countries, we will become more worldly and accepting of other cultures and less xenophobic. 

What Q's did the Ethics Unit Raise for you?

Above are the collected responses to the prompt, “What were the main questions the unit’s study raised for you?” Followed by a few highlighted responses:

If there really is an ultimate good in people? 

When is it OK to be selfish?

How should we treat others and how might society fit into what we know of biology? (Ie, what makes a person a person? What is the meaning of life, and when is OK to end it? How should/would we treat others from behind a veil of ignorance?)

Where did our sense or morality come from?

How ethical and effective is our system of voting and democracy?

I have a lot of questions regarding the fair treatment of animals and non-human persons.

Should euthanasia be legalized? Should it be included as a basic human right? Why are people opposed to it?

What is the government’s role in our life? Where do our individual liberties intersect with our obligations to society?

What is good and bad? Where do we draw the line? Should we take the Utilitarian point of view and say that anything which benefits society is just?

Should we be more considerate to animals, and life in general? How would this effect humans, or the ecosystem?

Does democracy really work? Is it possible?

Is equality necessarily a good thing?

Main questions: 1. Is voting ethical? 2. If not, can we make the act of voting ethical while increasing its efficiency and total effectiveness, and how? 3. Is there a way to improve the effectiveness of voting on its own? 4. How can we involve everyone in a democratic system, yet disallow those who do not contribute valid ideas to the system? 5. And, would the ideal from question 4 in any way be made ethical?

Describe your process in attempting to answer one or more of the above questions. 

Is it possible to live complying to two different, contrasting normative ethics? I tried answering this question when studying the ethics of animal experimentation. For example, Utilitarianism could justify both cosmetic and scientific animal testing. However, Kantian ethics could also justify both types, depending on what maxim we acted upon. This led me to question whether there was a certain ethical philosophy which is “more right” than the other, and if so, how would we know? How do we determine if utilitarianism is better than Kantian ethics, or visa versa? Should we treat each ethical problem on a case-by-case basis and use Rawls’ philosophy to solve one problem, Mill’s to solve another, and Kant’s to solve a third? Or is there one ethical philosophy we could adhere to? And if so, what would that look like?

I found out that something inside of me gets fired up when we hear ways that our individual liberties are being infringed upon, and though I still haven’t been able to fully articulate what this is specifically, it was a great inner discovery for me to come to.

I realized that most people weren’t black and white with their decisions about ethical topics. In fact, most people were grey and I realized that most people picked the decision they hated the least, or the one that had the most compromise. For example, we may have only seen two options at first, but then after discussion a third option came that was more appealing to the majority because it included aspects of both.

Citizenship Learning and the Project of Enlightenment

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As part of my personal learning project in #TieGrad’s studies I’ve been guided in my efforts to frame my learning – as well as the intentionality of creating my classroom spaces – by  delving into educational research surrounding topics of interest this semester. Aligning neatly with my opportunity this term to be teaching Philosophy 12 as an open course, my research concerns have been epistemological, ethical, and social-political; through many of my readings, the theme of student ownership and empowerment offered through a variety of learning opportunities constitutes a democratic necessity.

The act of learning itself is presented as a requisite component in bringing about greater human freedom.

There are two foundational texts I’ve taken on this semester, both of which create the progressive framework of many faculties of education in North America:

While Dewey’s tome may be seen to fall short for reasons critics have long-outlined as failings of his work, the necessity of public education as a means of cultural survival is an idea that resonates with me for many of the reasons he outlines. For Dewey, education seeks to achieve balance between the contradiction of its dual purpose:

  • 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.

Freire, while not offering a perfect system by any means, offers a similarly passionate characterization of education as an ongoing emancipatory process through which teachers and students engage in learning that resolves the power dynamic between them. His vision of education is rooted in similar sentiments, that:

It is as transforming and creative beings that humans, in their permanent relations with reality, produce not only material goods— tangible objects—but also social institutions, ideas, and concepts. Through their continuing praxis, men and women simultaneously create history and become historical-social beings.

Each’s vision of education is one of necessity, and one which holds the potential to increase the freedom and equality of opportunity for all as its ideal. Education’s role in delivering on democracy’s promise is rooted in the critical thought Michel Foucault uses to define the Enlightenment, which he says 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 semester I have come to believe more and more that all education is citizenship education. All education should be concerned with the Project of Enlightenment and the search for greater justice that it entails.

And I do admit that it is encouraging to note here that we spend a great deal of time incorporating ideas of “social responsibility” and “justice” and “democracy” into learning outcomes, core competencies and school codes of conduct. Ensuring that the education system’s explicit messaging system – The Curriculum™ – reinforces these ideas is an excellent place to start.

But if we are serious about cultivating “lifelong learners” capable of delivering on the promises of the Enlightenment, and to guard against our own democracies falling prey to those who would subvert their intent for private or minority gain and exclusion (I’ll let you decide who you imagine in that role), we must have the courage to address the observation that many of modern schooling’s implicit messages communicate to young people (and teachers alike) messages about power, agency, and citizenship that can be seen as contradictory to the basic values of learning and progress.

In his popular essay, Immanuel Kant begins his response to the question, What is Enlightenment? by stating that:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’ – that is the motto of Enlightenment.”

It is within this notion of the intellectual tradition that I strive to frame my own notions of pedagogy and schooling, and with much time spent documenting my range of practice in carrying out what I’ve defined as my own efforts in citizenship education, I have collected here a variety of papers that have shaped the development of my underlying theory these last few months.

Epistemology and Theories of Knowledge

The Emergent Curriculum: Navigating a Complex Course between Unguided Learning and Planned Enculturation | Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta

“…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.”

Information, Knowledge & Learning: Some Issues Facing Epistemology & Education in a Digital Age | Colin Lankshear, Michael Peters and Michelle Knoble

“In an age which fetishizes information, knowledge may seem either to be passe, or in need of a serious reframing. What follows is an attempt to identify some areas and concerns we believe need close attention in the context of burgeoning use of new communications and information technology, including their rapid incorporation into school-based teaching and learning.”

 Kant and the Project of Enlightenment  | Curtis Bowman

“…the development of a system of human freedom, both in theoretical and practical matters. Thus we are to accept only those beliefs found acceptable to reason; custom and authority are no court of appeal for theoretical matters. And we are to lead lives in pursuit of autonomy in which the chief goal of human action is the realization and maximization of human freedom (understood as self-imposed lawful behaviour). In other words, we are to be our own masters in both theory and practice.”

Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the Difference? | Edith Ackermann

Psychologists and pedagogues like Piaget, Papert but also dewey, Freynet, Freire and others from the open school movement can give us insights into:

      1. How to rethink education
      2. Imagine new environments, and
      3. Put new tools, media, and technologies at the service of the growing child.

They remind us that learning, especially today, is much less about acquiring information or submitting to other people’s ideas or values, than it is about putting one’s own words to the world, or finding one’s own voice, and exchanging our ideas with others.

False Dichotomies: Truth, Reason and Morality in Nietzsche, Foucault, and the Contemporary Social Sciences | Paul R. Brass

Even more distressing in the latter discipline is the celebratory character of so much work that takes for granted the existence of democracy and freedom in our world, and hails their extension to the rest of the world in processes of so-called democratization. It never recognizes the need for anything but reform without displacement, even if it ever makes any policy suggestions. It never offers a thoroughgoing critique. Before revolutionary action can be proposed, revolutionary thought is required.

Citizenship Learning & the Public Sphere

Understanding Young People’s Citizenship Learning in Everyday Life: The Role of Contexts, Relationships and Dispositions | Gert Biesta

“Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught.”

Transformative Learning and Transformative Politics | Daniel Schugurensky

“The struggle over politics and democracy is inextricably linked to creating public spheres where individuals can be educated as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities, and knowledge they need not only to actually perform as autonomous political agents, but also to believe that such struggles are worth taking up.”

Education in a global space: the framing of ‘education for citizenship’ | Mark Priestley, Gert Biesta, Greg Mannion & Hamish Ross

“…a form of citizenship which is predicated on critical political activism, rather than upon social compliance. If we think of citizenship as something that constantly needs to be achieved (and this can never be guaranteed), then we need to emphasize the process character of citizenship.

Unpolite Citizenship: The Non-Place of Conflict in Political Education | Hugo Monteiro, Pedro Daniel Ferreira

Like social and cultural elements, schools have special responsibilities towards diversity. To affirm the richness of this diversity transcendent to the apparent unity of the whole becomes a particular task in public schools. There the “right to education” established in the Declaration of Human Rights becomes a particular challenge in the response to each singularity that actually composes universality. This is one of the political/educative roles of an education that does not deny or avoid conflict but actually underlines its presence as a particular and manageable value.

Doing Emancipation Differently: Transgression, Equality and the Politics of Learning | Gert Biesta

it is no longer so that we need to learn – need to discover some truth about ourselves and our condition – in order to become emancipated. If there is something to learn in relation to emancipation, so we might conclude, it is about what we can learn from engagement in the always open and always uncertain experiments of transgression and dissensus.