Course Design and Narrative Discovery

Image courtesy of Michael Kreil on Flickr.

Now at the mid-point of my third pass at our open online Philosophy 12 course, I am finding different ways to bring about the salient outcomes which have arisen in the last few years. This is both a result of having observed and noted the successes and difficulty senior students have had with various concepts or ideas, as well as an improved familiarity with the connections and construction of meaning throughout the various units that constitute the course.

In just over four months, facilitating a highschool course which moves from the introduction of philosophy as a historical concept to logic, to metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics and social political philosophy is a daunting process if each of these topics is viewed in isolation. Each of my first two turns with the course saw the units as individual spokes in a wheel that loosely surrounded the study and – as the etymologists remind us – the love of knowledge. However, toward the conclusion of last year’s course, I began to see the narrative arc of our study play out in such a way that has allowed me to facilitate the course in what I hope is a more effective means ofImage courtesy of Ken Douglas on Flickr. providing intellectual growth for enrolled students, and open online participants this time out.

What follows is an attempt to synthesize this emergent narrative.

Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry

Beginning with an introductory unit on Philosophical Inquiry, participants are asked to respond to the question, What is PhilosophyHere, we discuss the nature of exploring wisdom, knowledge, and our relationship with our experience. Each participant’s What is Philosophy assignment is shared with the group and posted to the blog, and will eventually serve as an initial snapshot against which later ‘check ins’ (in the form of a mid-term, and final presentation) will be measured and reflected upon.


In logic, Philosophy 12 participants are introduced to the structure of basic syllogisms and logical fallacies, and are asked to introduce and evaluate examples of arguments in popular or political discourse, or even their own lives. Having each arrived at slightly different subjective responses to the question What is Philosophy? and What is wisdom? logic arrives as the (still biased) instrument by which such subjectivities might be shared or debated among different perspectives.

Scientific Philosophy

Building on the biases uncovered in even our application of rigorous and rational logic, the class sets out to examine the different lenses by which philosophers have approached the nature of scientific objectivity, generally working toward a debate around the topic, Is Science Objective

Which generally works toward the consensus that no, no it is not.

Pic courtesy of Paul Frankenstein on Flickr.


Where the course waters deepen quickly is with the onset of metaphysics, where the ‘first question of philosophy’ is addressed: namely, What is? Here the first three minor units culminate in an attempt to discuss an ultimately subjective topic within the confines of philosophical discourse. Fundamental questions about the composition and nature of reality are met with the rigors of applying a personal course of philosophical inquiry, an introduction to the logical underpinnings of various metaphysical themes and concepts, and the flimsy nature of what we might hold to be objective.

Metaphysical Inquiries

This unit in particular has evolved dramatically over the three iterations of the course. Beginning in the first cycle as a series of Pecha Kucha presentations on notable metaphysicians and how their ideas have contributed to our collective understanding of existence, the second cohort’s metaphysical study tackled a more constructivist approach and led to last year’s experiments with the Metaphysical Object.

This year the unit struck a balance between the highly structured and more open-ended, perhaps, as participants engaged in a collaborative inquiry of various interests and curiosities about metaphysics.


Having uncovered a personal course of inquiry, developed the means of formulating an argument, the nature of what can be known, and what there is (and then the question of what it might be like), epistemology provides another opportunity to synthesize learning from the previous units. Here the class was aided for the second year in submitting reflections on their learning through a Google Form which gathered not only personal evaluations and feedback on the unit plan and organization, but also generated insight into how the group might proceed as a collective into our next unit.

Image courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig on Flickr.

Epistemology proceeds naturally from metaphysics, in this regard, and this semester presented the opportunity for participants to reflect back on their initial thoughts on philosophy, as well as the units since. In the reflection upon the learning conducted in metaphysics, this and last year’s cohorts have seen the onset of epistemology as a point when the class truly begins to create their unique collective narrative as they set out to build upon personal and group learning from the prior unit.

This approach delivers the prospect of the unit on knowledge itself as an opportunity for exploration and expression of how the group thinks about their own learning and development as individuals within a wider culture. There is a lot of reflection on the purpose of schooling that is created from outside, and the freedom to create purpose within those expectations from our classroom, and these talks are consistently inspiring and humbling to be privy to. (The second iteration of the course conducted many of these talks as live Philosophers Cafes as Google Hangouts.)

Coinciding roughly with the middle of term, the Epistemology unit this year served as an opportunity for participants to synthesize their thinking about their own knowledge, not only on the topic itself but their journey of discovery in the course since the beginning of the semester.

The assignment’s purpose is outlined below:

  • To state and support a proposition of personal knowledge;
  • To synthesize and reflect on course topics explore thus far:
    • Philosophical Inquiry
    • Logic
    • Scientific Philosophy
    • Metaphysics
  • To integrate existing epistemological ideas into a unique personal theory.
These Personal Theories of Knowledge have been collected here:

At this point in the course, we have answered the following questions:

  • Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry: How do we / how have others engaged in the process of philosophical inquiry? What is philosophy?
  • Logic: How do we / how have others communicated, represented, and argued to support their propositions? Is it possible to formally discuss questions which may not have answers?
  • Scientific Philosophy: Can science objectively interpret the natural world? Our inner worlds? How best should science be utilized by society, given its limitations?
  • Metaphysics: What is reality/consciousness/the self/experience? What is it like? How can we / how have others imparted, described or represented the answers to these questions?
  • Epistemology: What do I/we know? How do we know it? How do we know that we know it? What is knowledge? How is it created, shared, or replaced with new knowledge?

We are left with the culminating units on Aesthetics, as well as Ethics and Social & Political Philosophy, the latter two of which I am toying with the idea of merging into a single study on Justice, as it appears to be a concept uniting both ethical philosophy, and the political.

Having hopefully discovered working answers to the questions up to this point, we are left with the issues of:

  • Aesthetics, and the nature of feeling, and beauty, and aspirational experiences; as well as
  • Ethics, and the resultant question of all which have preceded it thus far: what is a good life? Given what we know, and how we know it, about our shared and individual experience of life within the limitations of this knowledge, how best are we to spend our lives? Which leads naturally to
  • Social & Political Philosophy, which is the theorizing of a workable system to represent the collective voice of a society or community with regards to these ethical questions about how we ought live.

And while I’ve taught this course quite similarly these last three years, the nuances of the story it is telling it continue to emerge over time as different hands and voices come to share their experience with the topics, and one another. In an embedded reflection of the course’s narrative arc and themes, perhaps this has been the purpose all along.

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.

Metaphysical Emergence and the Discussable Object

Unplug'd 2012 Map Prep

Photo Courtesy of Alan Levine

This content was cross-posted on the Philosophy 12 course site

“It is to the reality which mediates [people], and to the perception of that reality held by educators and people, that we must go to find the program content of education.”

Paulo Freire

As we set out to encounter Metaphysics, my ambition as teacher is to help frame the creation of a learning object as an attempt at authentic social constructivism. Today we began with a conversation based on another Freire quote (about education being a ‘with’ transaction between teachers and students much more than a ‘to’ or ‘for’), and came away with a loose timeline and list of objectives and ambitions for the unit in the coming week.

“The investigation of […] people’s ‘thematic universe’ – the complex of their ‘generative themes’ – inaugurates the dialogue of education as the practice of freedom.”


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.

My hope is that these activities can be engaged in with the following in mind:

“…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.”

Osberg and Biesta

Thus far the group has agreed to the following objectives:

    • Delve into a metaphysical thinker’s life and ideas
    • Put their ideas into the context of larger theory, culture and critique
    • Evaluate one of your philosopher’s questions, ideas, or arguments with your own ideas about validity, truth and soundness
    • Narrate and participate in the creation of a collective representation of our learning about Metaphysics, and metaphysicians

This will begin with a blog post, wherein participants will demonstrate research and introduction to a philosopher of Metaphysics, and strive to respond to the following questions:

    • How did the philosopher’s life or biography influence their philosophical development?
    • What ideas or concepts are they credited with, or notable for?
    • How have these ideas been built on or incorporated into our modern zeitgeist or mindset?
    • What personal response do you have to the topics your philosopher explored?
    • What do you find confusing or difficult to conceive of, in your philosopher’s thinking?

And from there work through individual reflections and assessments of our own ideas contrasted against those of notable metaphysicians, as well as one another. Over the course of the following week, these experiences, discussions, reflections and activities will culminate in the creation of what for now we will call the Discussable Object. The logic here is derived from Osberg and Biesta again:

“…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.”

At present, the idea of the creation of the Discussable Object as an authentic constructivist summative assessment is unrefined; but the general intention is this: to create a collective representation of our individual journeys of understanding metaphysics.

This raises an interesting contradiction within emergentist epistemology that we will likely spend time in the coming week discussing, that:

“for the process of knowledge production to occur it is necessary to assume that the meaning of a particular ‘knowledge object’ exists in a stable form such that the ‘knowledge object’ can be used like a ‘building block’ in the production of new abstract knowledge objects. This idea, however, is precisely what an emergentist epistemology denies. Because the meaning of any new knowledge ’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.”

This marks I think a necessary crossroads in the creation of the blended open-online course, as 24 of our participants will engaged in something that may only create significance between themselves; I wonder about our ability – or the validity of the attempt – to share this process beyond the constructivism of our physical classroom. Here I am left thinking about Jesse Stommel‘s post on Hybrid PedagogyHow to Build an Ethical Online Course, and the idea that:

“We must consider how we’ll create pathways between the learning that happens in a room and the learning that happens on the web.”


Social Media & Personalized Learning Project Proposal Ideas

Tuesday Walk

As I’ve been blogging a little of late, I have spent September getting to know my various communities of learners once more. Whether the TALONS, this semester’s Philosophy 12 bunch, or my fellows in the #TIEGrad cohort, I feel lucky to have had the time and know-how to create enough space to reflect on this year’s learning environment and gradually engage in a manner that seems most appropriate to my own learning and thinking about teaching, facilitation, and collaboration.

I’ve been reading a lot, as well. Research papers and such; I’m building on a lot of ideas that began last year during the Philosophy class’ Epistemology unit with theories of Emergence, Enculturation, and Oppression

But more on that later, no doubt…

What I’ve come here to share today concerns the learning plan for my Personalized Learning & Social Media project this semester. At this point in September I have a few balls in the air, each of which could be construed as their own learning project. Or… all of which could fit nicely under a single topical umbrella that I’ve I’ve yet to open (though it is getting to be the season…).

A few things I’m kicking around, looking ahead at the coming months are:

Philosophy 12: An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course 

For the second time around, this semester I’m teaching Philosophy 12 at Gleneagle, and making as much of the goings on as possible publicly available to anyone who would like to join us as an Open Online Participant. And while there are differences between our face-to-face and online cohorts this year and last, there are innumerable things that excite me about the personalities in this year’s group, the course content and how so much of it aligns with aspects of social constructivism and other epistemological beliefs that I hold about teaching.

One of these aspects is the element of designing the course site to bring about a truly socially constructed knowledge of the course content. Having experimented with individual blogs, and a class blog in my TALONS teaching, I was pleasantly surprised last year to see the simplicity of a single class site become a hub of conversation for a community intent (for credit for amusement) on delving into the Big Ideas of Philosophy.

Coming back to the site this September, it is a little daunting (and a lot exciting) to see that each of the course’s units is already chalked full of posts by last year’s participants. This year we’re already adding exponentially to that total, and we will be again in successive years.

We are, quite literally, creating personalized and communal knowledge.

But one of the problems I’m looking to resolve this semester is how I might construct the site such that it will facilitate the sifting that so much of the Internet does (Reddit’s up-voting, for example, comes to mind) beyond the mere page-views and comments metrics the site’s statistics monitor offers.

My hope is that as we move forward, both this semester and into future cycles of the class, we have an organic means of establishing a set of pathways for future exploration of the site, and the philosophical knowledge that is discussed, shared and stored on the site’s various pages and posts. 

I talked to Jim Groom a few weeks ago about working with the University of Mary Washington‘s Domain of One’s Own program to bring some of the collected TALONS digital workspaces together under one roof, so to speak. Currently we use many different online platforms to publish, share and collaborate around the classes’ learning:

All of which I would like to figure more prominently in the daily goings on in the TALONS classroom, both as a means of creating, sharing and preserving learning artifacts and reflections, as well as cultivating a positive digital culture at the school that will extend beyond our room.

With our school and district moving in the direction of employing social media to support student learning, I think that many educators, students and their families are left wondering just what it is exactly the public web offers education (beyond the threats of deplorable discourse, pornography, or predators of youth). With the blessing of unique technology, an engaged parent community, and a documented tradition of former TALONS who have experimented with taking their lives and learning online, we have a unique position in the school to explore and demonstrate the practical applications and potential of many of these technologies.

Part of this learning is tied up in the practice that comes with students (and teachers, and parents, and alumni) engaging in the online community created and maintained across these networks of blog posts, Twitter updates, Flickr photos and comments. Part of it is inseparable from Paulo Freire‘s metacognitive praxis of Engagement –> Reflection –> Reengagement, and parts ask that participants consider their thoughts and actions in the public sphere, both as benefits a community, and as detracts from its potential.

All of which adds up to asking How, in other words, do we employ and engage with these social tools in the most effective way possible?

The other major thread here is of technical application: how do we take ownership and control over the physical data of our online lives and learning?

Image courtesy of Blogs @

I’ve long held in the back of my mind the privacy mantra, if you are not paying for a service, you aren’t the customer; you’re the product. But have had neither the time / knowhow / dire need to bring much of Gardner Campbell‘s notion of Personal CyberInfrastructure into school until…

…until they killed Google Reader.

But that’s a long and sad story that we can just agree to look forward from, and as an opportunity.

Suffice it to say that in addition to learning about how we might use these social tools, we are on the cusp of delving into how we might use these social tools, and that’s exciting.


This last one might be the most general, but may also benefit the most from the structure of an ongoing learning project in the coming months.

For the past three years, I’ve enjoyed bringing TALONS learning, musical performances, and a lot of stuff in between to the distributed web radio communities of #DS106Radio, as well as its younger sister-station 105 the Hive. And while this has mostly been a means of connecting my various classrooms and the occasional auditorium with folks hundreds or thousands of miles away, I am excited to think of the possibilities of supplementing our school’s burgeoning social media presence with the vibrant addition of live radio.

In the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with a few former TALONS and current music department seniors about resurrecting a tradition from our early experiments in web radio a few years back: the Lunchtime Jam. Our hope is that by creating and promoting a regular sharing of live music and conversation over the lunchtime airwaves, we’ll be able to bring our school a little closer together.

Through headphones, or iPhone screens, or the wondrous shared vibrations of musical sound.

Just like a campfire.

TALONS Panel: Open High School Learning

I had the great pleasure this morning to speak with TALONS alumni Liam St. Louis, Jonathan Toews, Clayton Dowdell, Megan Edmunds, Zoe Fajber and Iris Hung (along with Verena Roberts & the #ETMOOC crowd via Google Hangout) about the experiments and experiences in Open Learning we’ve embarked on in their four years at Gleneagle.

We mostly worked chronologically from the introduction of the TALONS blogs and RSS feeds (which coincided with Jonathan & Liam’s arrival in grade nine more than four years ago), to the creation of the class blog, Defying Normality, and how these publishing channels contributed to learning in and around the classroom. We talked about publishing work in public, the other mediums that could ‘work’ in lieu of text-only posts, and what it means to blog ‘authentically,’ before moving into a discussion about Philosophy 12’s open structure, Stephen Downes, and the value (and drawbacks) to learning on the open web.

Many thanks to Verena for moderating and inviting us into the #ETMOOC conversation, and to the TALONS who brought their incredible insight and voices to the discussion.

Opening K12 Education

Coming Soon to a Future Presentation
Photo courtesy of @CogDog

Having been exploring technology in the classroom for a few years now, I’ve seen more than a few passing trends in pedagogical circles come and go: blogs, wikis, podcasts; flipped classes, pe(a)rsonalized learning, Twitter, SharePoint, Edublogs, Youtube. Each has garnered momentary Klout clout in the Pedablogisphere before giving way to the Next Big Thing, a trend D’Arcy Norman pointed out in his recently completed masters thesis:

…educational technology can be prone to cycles of hype and fetishism, where new tools and applications are rapidly adopted by individuals who are seen as innovators in the field, with little time for thorough or rigorous investigation of the pedagogical strategies that may be enabled by the affordances of these new tools.

As I’ve seen the timeline of some of these technologies stretch beyond the horizons both ahead and behind us, I’ve sought to synthesize some of what I’ve found meaningful as a classroom teacher, outdoor leader, and an adult learner in physical and digital spheres into a sense of pedagogy that is in line with the rest of my views of teaching, and education.

When it comes to digital technology supporting learning, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the premise of Michael Wesch‘s seminal talk, The Machine is (Changing) Us, where he posits that:

We know ourselves by knowing others. 

New ways of knowing others creates new ways of knowing ourselves.

New ways of knowing ourselves create new possibilities of the very idea of the self, and its pursuit.  

As an English and History teacher who has helped develop and teach locally developed guitar and philosophy courses at our school, and as someone who has spent six years teaching a gifted program that emphasizes experiential, outdoor education as well as collaborative, social-emotional learning, I have often thought that creating just such possibilities of new ways of knowing ourselves and one another has been the chief concern of education through the ages.

He not busy being born, Bob Dylan tells us, is busy dying, and I have to agree with him and Gardner Campbell, who cites this compulsion to learn, to grow and expand our notions of ourselves and our place in the world as part of the evolutionary purpose of humanity itself. Beginning with Felix Baumgartner’s leap from the edge of space, and building on TS Eliot and the Music of the Spheres, Campbell’s keynote at the Open Education Conference in Vancouver last fall, The Ecologies of Yearning, helped me see the course of action toward Wesch’s call to envision new horizons as one central to the educational trust: to become open, and to be involved in opening oneself, one’s classroom, and one’s mind, to the possibility of building beyond our potential.

Each of these openings, I have to think, is indivisible from the others. An open mind is an open class is an open society. Some might say we are duty bound to go about creating the open society.

“This is what we say we want,” Campbell says of education: “Life long learning, critical thinking, adaptation.”

But in practice, he notes, “In this model, all the bets are off. Even the bets about the bets being off.”

The type of learning Campbell and Wesch are talking about, in other words, is risky business, especially when institutions are concerned, institutions which are bound by one responsibility to the will of the participant, but by another to the upholding of the order of the system itself, a paradox that confronts many stakeholders in modern education systems – K12, Higher Ed, Public, and Independent alike.

But Campbell introduces the work of Gregory Bateson, an “English anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist,” whose work with schizophrenia focused on just this sort of paradoxical “Double Bind,” and for which his Hierarchy of Learning serves as a sort of road map that I’ve written about before. Progressing forward from “Learning Zero,” the sort of critical thinking and adaptation included in mission statements and commencement speeches harkens Bateson’s

Learning III, and [the} bringing about [of the] possibility of Learning IV, must be concerned then with what the contexts of learning communicate – in where and how learning is carried out, what is motivating the learner, how the facilitating teacher interacts with the process, etc – but also with providing safe and authentic opportunities to “experience[] breaches in the weave of contextual structure.”

Without wandering headlong into Bateson’s work, I will recommend the paper by Dr. Paul Tosey (2006), Bateson’s Levels Of Learning: a Framework For Transformative Learning? and focus on that last idea there:

Breaches in the weave of contextual structure…

How else to describe our fascination with Google Earth? Chris Hadfield’s Twitter stream? Or Miles Davis & LCD Soundsystem’s perfect harmony?

It is a sort of yearning, that Campbell speaks about, and which elements of digitization put us in touch with, that offer what he calls “some deep experience of the richness, the complexity, the ecologies of yearning that inform our desire to make meaning of our experience, which we must do together.”

And so whether it’s blogs, wikis, podcasts or campfires; videos, GIFs, or walks in the woods, the story of human progress, and knowledge, is about learning to adapt to these “breaches in the weave of contextual structure,” something that the Internet has brought us in spades. That we should be using it to capitalize on the greatest capacities we possess – creativity and self-expression, community-building and collaboration – seems the most genuine of purposes for classroom learning to take on, and something I’ve found in educational opportunities that thrive because of an attitude of openness. 

Shotgun style, here are a few places that I think I’ve managed to create digital workplaces that are on the web, true, but are also of the web, itself.

TALONS Class BlogTALONS Flickr \ @talonsblog 

TALONS Blogs RSS \ Comments RSS

TALONS Socials, Science, English, Math, Planning & Leadership wikis

Late Slips at Awards Night

Music at Gleneagle






Epistemological Ecology

Learning Never Stops

This is cross-posted on the Philosophy12 Blog

There is a certain pleasure in being allowed to start things off in a class like #Philosophy12; while others may garner the satisfaction that comes from rising to the challenge of the various assignments and syntheses of ideas, as classroom facilitator my critical tasks have thus far revolved around the outset of the unit. Having hopefully created the conditions for individual and collective learning, I focus my energy around supporting the group’s thinking, whether in daily activities, viewing or reading materials, or engaging in class discussions about the direction and intentions of the unit or task at hand.

I get to learn a lot, just in seeing how the various branches of inquiry manage to reveal the topics at hand, and the perspectives that bring them to our classroom.

But I haven’t yet taken the opportunity to engage directly with the tasks myself, and I was taken with an idea for Epistemology: to state and support a personal proposition about the nature of knowledge, learning, and the justifications we use to frame these ideas. Within the context of the opening class structure, the unit presented a natural opportunity to turn the teaching of the course into a personal engagement with the material. If I could demonstrate an example of the type of learning I would like to see, would the allowance of the space and opportunity for participants to engage with their own individual creation of knowledge bring about an authentic expression ofsocial constructivism?

“All knowledge begins with experience.”

The starting point for my own epistemological proposition centers around a view of our reason as an evolving structure of knowing that shifts with the acquisition of new knowledge (gained through experience). I have more or less directly swiped this from Immanuel Kant, but I have seen these ideas reflected in the foundations of the post-modern era, constructivism, as well as a frequent touchstone in the class’ conversations about knowledge and knowing. A certain amount of our work in the unit was bound to retread at least some of the contribution he has brought to the field, I figure.

But I am nevertheless grounded in the idea that the structure against which our experience of the world is interpreted – our ability to reason – evolves with our experiencing of the world; as it does our sense of what can be known changes in kind, eliciting further questions, and creating new un-knowing. Jonathan said it well in his first of two Epistemology posts: “As we accumulate knowledge over time, I also believe that we develop abilities to gain these different types of knowledge too.

The sage former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld summarized part of this arc memorably in February, 2002:

“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”


“…the limitation of all possible speculative cognition to the mere objects of experience, follows as a necessary result.”


There is something of the snake-eating-its-own-tail that then arises in the compulsion to expand our notions of knowing against an ever-expanding experiential plain. “Essentially, we have proven that no piece of knowledge, whether of reason or of reality, is reliable,”Liam writes in his exploration of Descartes’ Evil Genius theory:”

Really, a more unhelpful and useless conclusion has never been reached. True knowledge, it seems, is nowhere to be found – and because of that, we must accept the flawed, unreliable knowledge that we have and make do with it.

The Double Bind

As I began to explore in my initial post and reflections, the contradiction of pursuing a knowledge that evades alongside our mastery over it reminded me of the concept of the Double Bind, introduced to me a few weeks ago by Gardner Campbell at the Open Education conference in Vancouver. According to wikipedia, 

double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, in which one message negates the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other (and vice versa), so that the person will be automatically wrong regardless of response.


While the acquisition of knowledge may not be an either\or scenario as described in the double bind, what I found valuable about Gardner’s characterization of the dilemma was the idea that the double bind can serve as a kind or prison, but also create the conditions for an expansion of awareness (or, cognition) that is the process of meaningful learning I hope some of #philosophy12 is providing for its participants. Again from Wikipedia:

One solution to a double bind is to place the problem in a larger context […] the double bind is contextualized and understood as an impossible no-win scenario so that ways around it can be found.


For my own part, the attempt to characterize and justify my own beliefs about knowledge has been vexing in the manner Bateson predicted as one of the responses to the double bind, wherein objective truth “cannot be reliably known, so all [truth] is treated as trivial or ridiculous.” It is admittedly difficult to engage faithfully in a process that seems fruitless from the outset, and for this I am glad to have waded into this experiment alongside the #Philosophy12 class.

Because it is a confrontation with the double bind that a new paradigm, either for each of us personally or together as a society, andisn’t this what I should be doing as a teacher?

Bateson outlines a Hierarchy of Learning in which Learning III (third in a series of IV) represents an ability to develop a “meta contextual perspective, imagining and shifting contexts of understanding.” Learning III puts the individual into a moment of learning with risk, where “questions become explosive,” Gardner says, as the potential to begin again at the base of the pyramid Jonathan outlines here is something that we are not often keen to explore, but central to the learning process.

And I think that perhaps this is both the source and the solution to the double bind offered in our own rational and experiential development. Learning IV – which would be the change enacted to progress beyond Learning III – Bateson notes, “probably does not occur in any adult living organism on this earth.”

Naturally: once we have solved the initial double bind and reached beyond our present understanding, we are greeted with new incongruities to decipher.

And yet..?

And yet we continue to engage in this process. We continue to yearn for a greater understanding, even while that understanding becomes obscured in the new questions it raises.

“It may be,” Gardner says, “that the evolution of the species represents the emergence of the possibility of Learning IV, as we think together.”

Leaving me again with echos of Kant:

it is plain that the hope of a future life arises from the feeling, which exists in the breast of every man, that the temporal is inadequate to meet and satisfy the demands of his nature.

Epistemological Wayfinding | Remixing Philosophy12 Discussions

Many thanks to Greg for capturing Wednesday and Thursday’s class discussions on his phone and uploading them to Soundcloud, so that we can catch up with what was discussed in a few sprawling conversations that made use of Santa Clause, Tetris, triangles and paradigm shifts to grapple with the development of personal ideas surrounding human knowledge, truth, belief and opinion.

In addition to being able to stream the contents of the conversation, Greg has made the files available for download, so that participants are free to download and repurpose the materials into new philosophy resources.

I parsed the first ten minutes of Wednesday’s class into a few audio remixes:

Epistemology Remix Side 1

Epistemology Remix Side 2

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.

Philosophy Pop Quiz

This post is also on the #Philosophy12 blog

I’m grateful to Dr. Gardner Campbell of Virginia Tech for letting me bring his daily pop-quiz into #Philosophy12 this semester, as it creates a context for learning that highlights behaviours that are congruent with the philosophical mode and constructivist’s approach as well.

The five questions of the quiz aren’t assessments of any specific understanding, but rather inquiries into habits that will lead to a conducive learning environment in the physical classroom. Our open online participants, I would guess, are the types of learners that are engaging in these behaviours (they otherwise wouldn’t likely be participating with us).

Dr. Campbell’s daily check in goes as follows (score yourself with the numbers supplied):

  1. Did you read material for today’s class meeting carefully? (No – 0, Once – 1, Yes, more than once – 2)
  2. Did you come to class today with questions or with items you’re eager to discuss? (No – 0, Yes, one – 1, Yes, more than one – 2)
  3. Since we last met, did you talk at length to a classmate, or classmates about either the last class meeting or today’s meeting? (No – 0, Yes, one person – 1, Yes, more than one person – 2)
  4. Since our last meeting, did you read any unassigned material related to this course of study? (No – 0, Yes, one item – 1, Yes, more than one item – 2)
  5. Since our last meeting, how much time have you spent reflecting on this course of study and recent class meetings? (None to 29 minutes – 0, 30 minutes to one hour – 1, Over an hour – 2)

Gardner talks about how the quiz is a predictor of how ‘productive’ his classes will be, and in a quick show of hands to reflect today’s scoring, I can see how the class’ honest reflection and response to these questions is potentially a very accurate picture of the engagement at the outset of the day. But more than that, I appreciate what Gardner might call the ‘meta-message’ contained in the brief assessment, and what GNA Garcia described as, “thinking about how [learners] are thinking about what they think about and when,” and thus creating “habits of mind.”