Blog as Prologue

Evening Meeting

Upon completing my undergraduate education, I toyed briefly with the idea of heading directly into my Master’s, though at the time it would have likely been in American literature or an MFA program in fiction writing than the course I’m currently following. Then again during my course work to obtain my teaching certificate, I considered accepting the invitation of one of my professor’s to pursue a doctorate in Fine Arts Education.

However, apart from the timing and other opportunities that kept me from continuing my studies at either of these junctures, I knew in the back of my mind that I would be best suited to continue my formal education if I were able to bring a crystallized vision of why my studies would be of value – to me or anyone else. Ever charmed by a holistic philosophy, I often do my best work when that work can intersect with personal passions, causes and ambitions.

My graduate studies would organically come to pass as my theories and practices – in life as well as work – came more clearly into focus and alignment with one another, as I am confident to say that they have of late.

This process, almost in its entirety, has evolved and emerged in some two hundred and seventy posts which find themselves in the pages of this site. In striving to define my own minute corner of the universe, my hope all along has been to register my perspective among the collective narratives of the communities to which I belong.

Back in 2009, I began this site by asking What is School’s Job? and invoked a Nabakov quote that has inspired me to explore and document my own perspective in the posts since, as well as my burgeoning graduate degree:

Indeed, this subjective life is so strong that it makes an empty and broken shell of the so-called objective existence.  The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality

Whether in blogged reflections, artistic challenges, or academic work, it is contributing to this conception of greater human knowledge and objectivity that continues to inspire me to push publish, and share my thinking with a wider audience. In the intervening years since that initial post, I’ve come to have a clearer sense of where my perspectives on educational theory and practice might best be put in the service of our shared educational reality, and have been doubly inspired by my initial graduate studies to expand my perspectives on each.

In considering the intersection of cultural epistemologies, ethics and social and political philosophy that constitute curriculum studies, I have come to focus on aspects of learning design and student ownership and engagement with learning through the lens of citizenship education. However, even as these interests have sprawled in the last several years, I have been driven to see them coalesce around the type of “simplicity of cause” that Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses, wherein “There is at the surface infinite variety of things; at the centre there is simplicity of cause.”

In documenting and reflecting upon outdoor education, collaborative inquiry, classroom discussion, digital media or learning through the arts, I’ve found these complexities to be grounded in the view that democratic freedom depends on a broadly engaged citizenry. Such a broadly engaged citizenry demands that schools provide students with experiences in constructing their individual and collective perspectives on community, thereby learning to better contribute as individuals to those communities.

Such a focus provides an ample platform to go about forming a problem statement for my Master’s research, as well as directing a question toward addressing it in future posts and papers. However, while each new representation of these questions, theories or experiences contains the potential for what yet may come, it stands among the prior formulations of itself, and in these multitudes is contained the essence of my thinking.

As a jumping-off point as I set out to synthesize my own thinking on citizenship education, it is important to consider the course of experiences which have brought me here. And by briefly tracing this arc of narrative learning, I hope to bring the larger themes of my own research and experience to bear on the discussion going forward.

Back in 2010, replying to a staff email thread at my school on the nuisances of cell phones, I argued for the citizenship benefits to technology in the classroom:

“It is not a matter of banning cell phones, or even giving them a constant working purpose in our classrooms (such that they are not idle and hence a distraction, or even to meet students “on their turf”), but rather, a focus on raising learners – and to continue in Broadbent’s vain: citizens – that exist within the emerging fluidity of the 24/7 social media cycle, and yet are empowered by its capabilities to unite, and connect, rather than cowed by its vapid and addictive lesser qualities.”

Reflecting on the merits of outdoor education a year later, I highlighted the ability of experiential learning in the woods “to provide experiential lessons in:

  • Realizing that we are a community.
  • Experiencing our place in the (local) natural world.
  • Learning self-reliance and accountability.
  • Living in the moment.”

While I wouldn’t be reading the paper for three more years, it is interesting to see the intersection of many of the notions expressed in this post with Daniel Shugurensky’s ideas about citizenship learning which

“generate[s] public spaces of social interaction in which discourse is based on finding agreement, welcoming different points of view, identifying the common good in a myriad of competing self-interests, searching for synthesis and consensus, promoting solidarity, and ultimately improving community life.”

In 2012, the opportunity to engage in my own community of practice at the Unplug’d event in Algonquin Park provided an opportunity to engage in my own experiential learning about the creation of an educational culture indivisible from the shared perspectives of a community of individuals.

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

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

Building on my Unplug’d experiences, the work I was doing in my own classroom(s) became more and more oriented toward an aspect of digital citizenship I have come to see as an area of potential when looking at technology in learning: openness.

“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.”

It is this ethos of openness and participation where I see my areas of focus and scholarship being of value, as my work in a variety of learning environments has offered a glimpse of enthusiastic cohorts of young people exploring and reflecting upon unique courses of study. As Simsek and Simsek note, the “democratic values needed for the citizenship are not different for new literacies. Many democratic values could be acquired by new literacies.” In fact, they point out that “New literacies are prerequisites for digital citizenship.”

Whether in the gifted cohort I team-teach in Coquitlam, the open-online Philosophy or Guitar courses I facilitate, or broader contributions I have offered to the digital and face-to-face experiences of my students and colleagues, I feel uniquely poised to chart a course of personal and collective development of ideas about citizenship in my corner of the world. And it is here that I would like to begin my Master’s research.

In future posts, I plan to chart and document the evolution of this scholarship as an extension of the prologue offered here.

“Moments happen quickly, and changes come slowly.”

Summer school

The title of this post, and its contents are synthesis and reflection of my thoughts while reading James Nahachewsky and David Slomp’s book chapter “Sound and Fury: Studied Response(s) of Curriculum and Classroom in Digital Times,” originally published in Beyond ‘Presentism’: Re-Imagining the Historical, Personal, and Social Places of Curriculum (2009).

Similar to Borges‘ introduction, “like all men, he was given bad times in which to live,” we find ourselves in complex times that have yet undeniably coalesced into a present “moment” that might be described as a Digital Age. The arrival of these digital times has arrived with

“a shift in perspective that recently has thrown many modernist educational boundaries and underlying assumptions into doubt – including constructs of learner and teacher, and schooling itself (Gee, 2004; Knobel & Lankshear, 2007). This shift is due, in part to young people’s own fluid, de-territorialized meaning-making afforded by the consumption and, perhaps more importantly, the production of digital texts.”

Nahachewsky and Slomp present the problem of how confronting these new realities of the digital age reveals a contradiction in that “digital texts, as created by young people become sites of action and agency [while] Arguably, brick and mortar classrooms are not.” The language arts, the authors note, are uniquely situated to reveal the particular opportunities such times present the study of pedagogy, as new media arise, changing the relationships between students, teachers, and even broader educative communities beyond our institutions. Using the shift brought to text by the digital age as a corollary, the authors begin to outline a structural transformation that is beginning to be seen in literacy education.

“The spaces of classroom and educational digital texts create complex dialogic ‘contact zones’ (Bakhtin 1981), where we may witness the representation of learner, teacher, and curriculum in interesting, complex, and non-traditional ways.”

Highlighting the example of the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol for Collaboration in Basic Education, Nahachewsky and Slomp note that democratic governments have engaged the collision of the 21st century and its burgeoning technological revolution to provoke discussion around the revolutionizing of curriculum itself, though the section of the paper begins with a quote from Jerome Bruner’s Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (1986):

“Language- can never be neutral, it imposes a point of view not only about the world to which it refers, but toward the use of mind in respect of this world.”

Because while the governments of the western provinces strive toward a collaboratively determined common curriculum that will best prepare young Canadians for the digital and globalized 21st century, “The primary issue the Ministers [of education from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon and the North West Territories] identified in the agreement was the need to optimize the limited resources of the provinces in improving education [emphasis from the original].” The point of view “imposed,” and which frames the narrative of educational reform contextualizes the task as one of necessity rather than aspiration.

One needn’t suggest that fiscal responsibility shouldn’t constitute an aspect of educational discourse; but by beginning from this foundation, the “authors” of our curricular narratives – granted such voice by the democratic processes guiding public policy in Canada – limit the possible iterations of curriculum that might better contribute to education’s guiding purpose(s) than those created solely out of financial necessity. With the broad focus of literacy, the authors summarize the purpose of language learning expressed in the WNCP, which presents literacy as a tool:

“To facilitate thinking, define culture, develop personal identity, build interpersonal relationships, extend experience, facilitate reflection, contribute to a democratic society, construct and convey meanings, and facilitate metacognitive awareness.”

But while even optimists among us might appreciate these strokes of application that these democratic processes have sketched out on our collective behalf, the authors emphasize what is not included in this discussion of education’s future, what is not part of the narrative authored on society’s behalf: “the question, To what end?”

“…to what end do we use language to facilitate thinking or to construct meaning?”

In other words, what is understanding? And what is it for?

The affordances of new media in these digital times has further contributed to the disruption of the narrative of the singular author, a process that has been at work throughout the modernist period and which dates back to the Enlightenment period. Such philosophical movements are congruent with Bruner’s suggestion “that our use of language has a constitutive role in creative social reality and concepts of our selves.” 

To paraphrase Michael Wesch, our digital times present us with the opportunity to witness Marshall McLuhan‘s edict that “we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us,” in real time, largely through the critical study and experimentation with different forms of texts encountered in the language arts classroom. Indeed, Nahachewsky and Slomp point out that “this has important implications for the culture of education and the concepts of self that teachers and students co-construct.”

As the revolution of text online has challenged the notion of a single authorial rendering (even of an original work or act), so too might the digital age present the opportunity to consider the direction and construction of meaning to be a collaborative act between students who are guided in this process by a teacher. However well intended, our present schools are places where

“students are seen as participants who are given a role as ‘performing spectators who play out their canonical roles according to rule when appropriate cues appear.”

Bruner notes further than “this role causes the child to only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it.” However much this framing might offer a shift in perspective to today’s educators, it has been more than one hundred years since Maria Montessori lamented that while “it is true that some pedagogues, led by Rousseau, have given voice to the impracticable principles and vague aspirations for the liberty of the child […], the true concept of liberty is practically unknown to educators.” (Montessori 1912)

More than one hundred years ago, Montessori wished

“to direct the teacher to awaken in him[self], in connection with his own particular field, the school, that scientific spirit which opens the door for him to broader and bigger possibilities. In other words, we wish to awaken in the mind and heart of the educator an interest in natural phenomena to such an extent that, loving nature, he shall understand the anxious and expectant attitude of one who has prepared an experiment and who awaits a revelation from it.”

However as we look to the educative narrative presented in Canada today, we might note the Federal Harper Government’s discussions of scientific discovery have similarly limited its scope to invest “scarce resources” in research that offers a practical return on investment, thus affirming the broader cultural narrative of perpetuating an infinite growth economy as our highest purpose.

As it is in education, the question To what end? is not included in the discussion of why we ought pursue scientific discovery (if not to achieve predicted economic outcomes), and the omission represents an abandoning of principles around which our cultural, social, artistic, political and moral traditions each originate and continue to revolve, those traditions which coalesced and were articulated during the dawn of the era of mass-printed texts.

Following the invention of the printing press, Europe witnessed the transformation of its public sphere(s) (Habermas 1991), with paradigmatic shifts visited upon religion, politics, science, philosophy and the arts. The ability of greater and greater numbers of people to encounter and freely share new ideas delivered a cataclysm upon the singular narratives of public affairs constructed with absolute power by monarchs and churches, and is the overarching arc of justice which guides foundational schools of western philosophical thought to this day. Broadening the base of authorship in the creation of a collective narrative led directly to the transformation of the existent structures of the preceding paradigm.

We might learn from these events, as the advent of our modern, digital technologies presents what may constitute an analogous ‘moment’ of cultural revolution where the discussion of what might be is at least as relevant for discussion as the prospects of what must be. In fact, we have learned much from those who sought to uphold the mantles of chalice and crown throughout the various Enlightenment revolutions employed various arguments to make their case, and should proceed skeptically with those who would tell us what “must be.” With the traditions of scholarship and tools we have acquired in the age of empiricism, the test to establish what “must”…

must be of the strictest rigor.

In the meantime, it is equally important that modern educationists explore and discover what can be, as it is central to the task of creating a fuller perception of nature and humankind which the traditions of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and political philosophy demand of us.

21st Century Learning: Entrepreneurial Citizenship vs. Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what if we are talking about subversion?

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

Dave Truss Introduces the PODs at BLC09

I’ve known Dave Truss for all of a few months. After sitting in his proximity at one of Alan November‘s presentations at a District Pro-D Event, I began to enter the world of RSS feeds, Twitter, and other avenues of the Web 2.0 world, discussing ideas and articles I was finding alongside a few colleagues at school who were becoming similarly inclined. One such colleague kept mentioning Dave’s name: “You’ve got to get in touch with my friend; you two are on the same page.”

Anyway, some weeks later I was at an informational meeting regarding the upcoming Me-to-We Celebration at GM Place that some of my students will be involved with, and noticed that Mr. Truss was one of the administrators introduced. Following the meeting I crossed the room and shook his hand.

“I’m Bryan Jackson. I read your blog, and Andrew Lloyd says we need to know one another.”

At the time I wasn’t yet blogging outside of the classroom-permissioned constraints of my SharePoint site, and though I was one of the “Technology People” (see also: Scott Findley, Cindy Quach, and others) at our school, I realized I\we were very much on the cusp of technological possibilities. I just didn’t yet know what the Next Step might be, so I went and shook Dave’s hand.

It turned out that my colleagues and I owe Dave a great debt of gratitude for pushing us (and assisting us) to create an English Department Learning Blog, which in turn led to Cindy and I beginning our own reflective pages (Comon, Scott!). We were put in touch with the right people – notably Brian Kuhn and Martine Duby – and Dave was quick to comment on our department and personal blogs, fostering the kind of community that makes online communication so vital, and becoming a friend in the process (a friend I’ve had the opportunity to meet once (and a half, counting the November session)). It might seem odd, but to be losing Dave to an administrative post in China is saddening – as our enclave of Coquitlam techies will no doubt miss his influence and leadership – while at the same time also something of a non-issue: 99% of our communication has been online, perhaps higher (our conversation on that first afternoon was brief), and we live in the same town. How much will our relationship change now that he lives in China? One thinks perhaps not very much (though he will be Twittering from a different timezone…).

All of which is really the long way of introducing Dave’s excellent Slideshare presentation of his Building Learning Communities talk on PODs, or Personally Owned Devices.

For me the presentation focuses on the manifestation of the digital divide in our schools that are our policies surrounding personally owned devices: iPods, cell phones (and with them still and video cameras and personal internet access), and the rest of the universe many teens wield from their pockets\backpacks. Out in The World, these tools – Blackberries, iPhones, netbooks – are indispensable across a variety of fields: I have a friend right now working on his PhD in Geology who is tramping across untold swaths of the Yukon wilderness this summer, collecting data, taking pictures, and plotting his sporadic pickups with his helicopter pilot through the wonders of a device the size of a deck of cards. Anyone operating within the realm of business – sales, purchasing, management, and on and on – is at a disadvantage without a Blackberry (even President Obama wouldn’t give his up, as per existing White House policy). But these devices are banned in many classrooms, an irony exposing the faults in our approach to the use of technology in education.

One of the more poignant moments (way to go, Nokia!) in the presentation is the sharing of the video below, which describes the world we live in through the lens of the early 20th century: every day, we interact with magical, mind-blowing tools that shrink our world, and put us in touch with one another through the use of personalized media (again, that fits in our pockets).

But the slide that follows further exposes the common theme of this digital divide:

Our student’s live in her essay’s future, until they come to school.

The presentation goes on to discuss the fact that many school’s computer labs display information about the school, or district’s filters that block everything from Youtube and Facebook, to Blogger to Delicious, to Diigo, to Twitter and Google Earth. How many years will it take before such restrictions are considered the height of irony?

I would venture to guess that we are there, as even yesterday I contributed to a Twitter-question posed by Ed-Tech guru Dr. Alec Couros, who asked his expansive network (4,474 followers at last count) of educators, “What are your favourite classroom tech tools?” You can see the assorted answers by scrolling through the hash-tag search of the course he is teaching right now, but suffice it to say that almost every one of the devices, websites or other resources considered indispensable by hundreds of progressive, global educators is blocked somewhere in schools or districts that consider themselves to be preparing their students for the future.

This all should seem odd: how can each of these ambitions (restriction of access to content, and wanting our education systems to move forward) be congruous?

In the long run, I doubt that they will. History always seems to favour the expansion of rights and freedoms (who knew the iPhone would demand its own civil rights movement?), and in time thinkers like Dave will be vindicated. But in the meantime, it is ironic what passes for consistency in regards to our use of technology in the classroom, and I heartily thank Dave for gently pointing this out (his most biting points are in the form of cartoon). Such observations would be missed, if – for me, anyway – he weren’t moving halfway around the world (while essentially residing in the same place).