On Reconciling Epistemic Enclosures

Epistemology Lecturing

Democracy depends on the negotiation of common ground

I’ve spent most of my life as a connector. I’ve always been something of a bridge-builder. Someone who can ‘see both sides’ (sometimes to a fault). I’m forgiving, even when I might vehemently disagree with someone, and am generally able to admit that my way of perceiving the world is no more than just that: my way. Anyone else’s is only an equal and complimentary contribution to the sum of views that accounts for our socialized reality.

In the opening lines of my Master‘s, I cite a few lines of Nabokov’s that I’ve carried with me through much of my adult life (a longer excerpt of this idea is included in the very first post on this blog, as well; certainly, it is a foundational idea in my thinking about life and learning):

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

Of course there are limits to the idea that all perspectives are rendered equal, and I would admit the maxim that one is “entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” There is a hierarchy of (variously informed) opinions, (variously true or provable) beliefs, and what we might consider to be truly known (though even this empirical knowledge often offers a less complete picture than many ideologies would readily accept).

In basing our social reality (democratic politics) on such a humble view of what is known, and basing our decision-making processes on the limitations of that knowledge, we can hope to create the most just world possible. But this potential will remain as mere hope if we do not resolve to wrestle with democracy’s limitations; and if we believe in the potential of democracy to create such a just representation of human views, we must fight to be inclusive of diverse views that may offend our existing paradigm(s), while at the same time be able to reject that which is based in dubious claims to knowledge or reality.

Galileo to Descartes to Canadian Multiculturalism

By one reading, it was the destruction of the epistemological paradigm of the Middle Ages that brought about the west’s democratic revolutions in the first place. It is the scientific revolution which enables the social, and precedes the political, as Galileo and Newton create the necessity of Descartes’ ultimate scepticism that leads him to outline his knowledge beginning from only true beliefs, and the notion that the sole certainty is that “I am a thing that thinks.”

From here the technological advancements in printing technology and the cultural revolutions of the Protestant Reformation bring about the realignment of the knowledge-creating bodies of the western world. Where before the one word of god and Pope and king defined the parameters of the social experience, as it became clear that a polyphony of voices was just as capable of advocating for a truly collective perspective, it similarly became apparent that the political structures governing that society would be in need of significant renovation.

The initial forces exerting this seminal democratic will are with us today, and we see in the evolution of the causes of civil rights and social justice in countries continuing to strive toward these Enlightenment ideals. In its Multiculturalism policy, the Government of Canada sets the lofty goal for itself to

“promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation”.

So radical does the statement strike me every time I read it that I cannot help but emphasize the scope of what such a policy might genuinely aspire toward. To promote the “full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.”

In a seeming nod to Nabokov, Canada holds as an official view that each of our responses to the question, What does it mean to be a Canadian? must be counted as equal. Not only that, however, but also that it is the role of government (and citizen alike, by extension), to “assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.”

How we intend to arrive at the notion of what it means to be Canadian, and what this vision of nationhood implies of what it means to be human, then, exists on an epistemological foundation which values bridge-and-consensus-building, on creating spaces for dialogue and disagreement, and on reconciliation of the myriad different ways we each experience the world.

Engaging the deplorables

I’ve always had a lot more fun exploring my thinking on issues I’m passionate about with folks of differing opinions; even with my more liberal friends, the conversations I learn the most from are where we are able to highlight minute disagreements that help shed light on the contours of an issue or event. Fortunately in this regard I’ve been able to make social connections with a range of sharply opinionated conservative coworkers and teammates over the years: I spent five years living in Arkansas, two of which saw me working at a Boy Scouts of America summer camp in the Ozark Mountains; and I’ve shared a lunchroom back in suburban Vancouver with passionately libertarian male Baby Boomers (a relationship I’ve explored at some length here before).

In both of these cases, I’ve worked to represent the liberal values espoused earlier here, and attempted to represent and reconcile our differing views on a range of contemporary events and issues fairly and as dispassionately as possible (not that this has always been possible). I make a point of being overly cordial, friendly, and make explicit the idea that it is important for us to respect one another and our perspectives despite our divergent views about the state of the world. Reasonable people are free to disagree, after all, if we are each able to present our view of the facts as best as we are able and come to our own conclusions from there. It is through this process that respect and reconciliation of our differing views become possible.

But I wonder if we aren’t living through a time which makes this hope a fragile and idealistic possibility, as the advent of “alternative facts” and a pervasive distrust of there being any common reality for us to point to being dispelled through more and more normalized channels. How can we be expected to arrive at a collective interpretation of reality with such nihilistic views of facts or the truth circulating in such broad swaths of the population?

I’ve taken the opportunity of late to engage some of my southern friends and former neighbours in dialogue on social media over the last few weeks. I’ve attempted to dispel disproven facts, or to inquire as to the origins of what I perceive as xenophobic views.

“These refugees are getting ready for a war,” one of my Facebook friends writes, prompting me to offer an exceedingly polite summary of the process through which refugees must pass through before entering the United States or Canada. Over the course of a dialogue that lasts through the weekend, I am told that President Obama is a Muslim, and worked tirelessly throughout his presidency against American interests. I am told that his efforts as president were intended to weaken America such that the invading hoards of refugees could “make America Muslim.” This friend was proud to tell me that they knew of terrorist training camps throughout America, and that the fact that there was no evidence to support this claim was only more proof that vigilance is needed.

I’ve been down this road before: arguments about the “disastrous” Obama economy (despite 75 consecutive months of job creation; record high stock markets; auto-industry recovery; tens of millions insured); the validity of climate data (“scientists who study climate change’s funding depends on them making conclusions the politicians like”); and even the very existence of racism in America (what with the election of the nation’s first African American to its highest office).

“We can’t know any of the real story,” this friend informed me when I asked if there were any sources to their horrifying claims. It is a startling (and somewhat ironic) admission from someone positing their own reading of the available facts, but also a distressingly bleak prospect for deliberative democracy. It is little wonder that people with so little faith in the democratic system elected a man who campaigned on the rhetoric that he, “alone,” could fix what ailed America (even if by many demonstrable metrics the country had been progressing). There can be no truth under authoritarianism but what the authorities say it is; the consensus of the public ceases to matter, and like that we have undone the promise of the Enlightenment, the necessity of democracy, and the hope for justice that comes with it.

If nothing can be known – or if enough people in a democracy believe that nothing can be known – what is the point of discussing anything? Why ought there be a democratic process at all?

Teaching to Resist

Sea Lion

Where did everybody go?

Is it just me, or has it been a minute?

Did we turn a corner? Or have we ascended some ultimate peak to only be careening out of control these last how many months?

Did things online not seem to move so fast, previously? Or were they just less likely to see us preoccupied and frantic with the escapades of the new American world order?

…or is it not just online that this has been happening?

If it’s only been me who’s been feeling this way: I’m sorry to have deserted you, friends. We probably used to talk about other things. We used to share music, books. Used to browse each others’ photos over stories of where the “real world” had taken us. Lately it’s as though the noise of the world has been taking up more and more space, and those opportunities to ruminate in thinking about things frivolous or fleeting are losing out to the latest press release, analysis or interpretation, this or that comedic riff, or the public stands taken by individuals and groups that provide momentary bulwarks against bottomless negativity.

Perhaps it’s coming to grips with life as an act of resistance, and the need to keep one’s eye on the advancing shadows of authoritarianism, hatred, and white supremacy that the last eight years might have calmed us into thinking were in their deathly rattles. Perhaps it’s the shock that precedes the types of upheaval the likes of Steve Bannon and the newly orange-coloured president seem intent upon wreaking.

Whatever its cause or wherever its origins, I’m writing here to acknowledge that something has changed, rather than to pin down anything of substance that might explain it.

How to teach and learn now?

Last year our school began a pilot process of professional development based on a collaborative inquiry model. We begin the year with individual questions that lead us into small groups that meet over the course of the year to investigate the unique conundrums and inquiries we are each facing in our classrooms and teaching lives beyond (I’ve written about this here, if you’d like to hear more about the origins of this project).

This year we met for our second instalment and meeting in our small groups, and revised and re-entered the questions and inquiries that we had begun in September. A few of us had missed that initial day for trips or illness, and a few others besides had seen their questions change or become irrelevant in the meantime. A few more student-teachers and new staff had been added to our school as well, and so among the splinter cells of inquiry a smaller group was struck that I found myself in despite it not having a banner or direction under which to organize ourselves.

The conversation quickly turned to whatever latest outrage had been announced south of the border, and how the general mean-spiritedness of so many of the new administration’s initial policy announcements were affecting anxieties in both our students, and ourselves.

“How do I model coping with a world like this for my students when I am at an utter loss myself?” one of my colleagues asked.

“What can we do or say, especially in subject areas that aren’t directly related to current events, oppressive structures, or political goings on?” wondered another.

There is a line, we agreed, between acknowledging the panic that comes with witnessing preposterous cruelty on such a grand scale as the new government has sought to impose on the most vulnerable members of its society – from LGBTQ+ kids’ rights to safe schools, to green card holders and visiting scholars turned away at borders, to hate crimes erupting in the light of day echoing the new administration’s language, ideology, and intent – and modelling hope and perseverance for our young charges.

But as to where we might garner and gather that hope and perseverance is a query we have not yet seemed to solve, either around that little table, or in the larger culture of which we feel a part.

Don’t go away.

What seems clear is that we must stay present, and available to one another. That we stay trained on the creeping tide of hatred and fear that threatens the values of inclusion and progress that our societies and schools are based on. And that we fight alongside and for those who are most threatened.

We must admit that we each are struggling to find our feet as agents of resistance against an emerging institution that seems bent on keeping us off balance, and create balance and stability for one another in the minute ways we might be able.

School Politics

Participation Inequality 90 9 1

Image courtesy of Christopher Allen on Flickr.

It is a common sentiment that schools ought be apolitical spaces, despite the fact that in policy, curriculum, and objectives they cannot help but exist in political reality. In the resultant power dynamic that confronts us as professionals, even reluctant teachers engage in a struggle for agency and voice in working for what we believe are the best interests of our students. As union members and public employees, our contract negotiations, and evolving role in society is regularly part of the broader political dialogue that surrounds schools, whether in our neighbourhoods, newspapers, broadcast media or holiday dinners.

Our efforts to work alongside our colleagues and cultivate the spaces of public education take on political dimensions in other ways beyond the classroom, as well. As the Canadian Multicultural Act puts forth, our pluralist democracy is only realized through “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.”

However, even while we are each ensured this right as citizens of Canada (a right reinforced by the collective bargaining power to resist provided with our union membership), the structural inequalities present in society manifest themselves in our classrooms, and are similarly recreated among school and district staffs.  Intersectional privileges and marginalization lead to working environments which have largely been established (and continue to be maintained and administrated) by those who have been the beneficiaries of the system as it exists.

Administrators and trustees, board office employees and superintendents, department heads, increasingly essential Parent Advisory Council leadership, union representatives and other decision-making committees in a school or district tend to skew toward those who share a collection of unearned privileges: they are disproportionally male, often white, and possess a particular confidence and conversational / social capital. Among those who are not male, or caucasian, there is often a shared economic class (even among teachers, who share a pay scale but emerge from relatively diverse economic backgrounds), or level of education. Recent immigrants are at a disadvantage in acquiring these attributes (which can be acquired), and can be delayed in attaining positions of influence or power; as in all aspects of social life, those who are not comfortable or confident vocal participants in larger groups are underrepresented in the collected culture.

At this disempowered end of this spectrum of influence we generally see an over-representation of the young, new Canadians, visible minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, people with more challenging social-economic backgrounds, and women.

And yet, the Multicultural Act promises not only a national aspiration toward “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society,” but demands that Canada “assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.” We are not merely assured this right as citizens and educators in Canada, but also challenged to continually strive to expand the circle of participants in our emergent national narrative.

It may be easy to see that this ought be our intention as teachers orienting our schools and classrooms toward citizenship, and providing a democratic education; however it is important to consider the role we each play in cultivating the public school space as one which seeks to eradicate the inequalities which prevent “all participants” from contributing to “all aspects” of community life and identity.

Fortunately, there are many avenues and opportunities for these inclusive dialogues to take place, and which ought be embraced by those looking to work toward social justice in our schools, for our colleagues as much as our students: professional development, collaborative decision making, departmental, committees, union volunteerism, and social planning groups offer official channels for discussion and dialogue that includes the possibility of all voices. Beyond these our hallways and staff rooms, intramural pitches of competition and picket lines offer an informal space of interaction that can foster collegiality and consensus that enables our capacity to collaborate as professionals.

Across these settings there are inevitably those whose voices are heard above the rest, and we needn’t take anything away from those possessing the ability to influence; but we are not practicing democracy if we do not work to correct a system of interaction in which many are disproportionally voiceless.

On Parity

When asked why he had made gender parity in his cabinet a priority, new Prime Minister Trudeau shrugged and said simply: “Because it’s 2015.”

With Prime Minister designate Justin Trudeau preparing to announce a cabinet that is 50% women, researchers have discovered a sharp 5000% increase in the number of men who suddenly have strong opinions about how cabinet appointments should be a “meritocracy.”

Across the nation statisticians are at a loss to explain a recent and drastic jump in the number of men who have spontaneously developed hard opinions about the qualifications of Federal Cabinet Ministers.

“This is affirmative action, and even though it has been statistically shown to improve working conditions over time, I don’t like it,” said longtime man Thomas Fielding. 

The Beaverton

The argument for meritocracy espouses the belief that we should make decisions about hiring upon completing a thorough search for “the best person for the job.” This despite the tacit societal acknowledgement (“It’s not what you know…”) that the person in the job only has it because of a web of networked advantages: of friends and family connections, personal gifts or turns of good fortune in sport, wealth, opportunity or talent.

I’ve often remarked that “I’ve never gotten a job by blindly submitting my resume”; I won an athletic scholarship to a university in the American South, earned an academic fellowship along the way, and got work as an alumni teaching back at my old high school.

I may be “the best person for the job” that I have. But in gaining the qualifications to have found myself in the position, I can’t deny that I have enjoyed the easiest, least impeded path here by way of my various privileges, whether in gender, class, race or physical abilities. While I don’t often lack for self-confidence, I don’t think for a moment that a surplus of merit has earned me my job ahead of others who might similarly apply.

There are more than twice as many female teachers in British Columbia as men; yet it wasn’t until 2011 that there were as many female principals as there were men. Even in 2013 the province’s superintendents were 2 to 1 men.

Is the fact that so many men find themselves in the top spot a condition of their disproportionate merit? (Given their underrepresentation in the larger teaching force, this density of male talent and experience must be considerable for them to enjoy such heights of leadership, earnings, and power.)

Or…. there’s something else happening: gender inequality.

And if we can acknowledge that gender inequality unfairly advantages a distinct group (50%) of us toward positions of power and influence, we must also acknowledge that we aren’t committed to finding “the best person for the job.”

It means we don’t find them. We hire our friends, our sons, our connections through sports or other social networks that hold half of us (women) back.

And if we are to admit that this is the case, then establishing a quota for hiring or appointing leaders hardly seems the worst way to proceed. Even if there are arguments to be made against quotas, merit isn’t one which warrants consideration.

“All of those fifteen women,” a conservative friend of mine said today, “have a question mark above them, because we don’t know if they got the job because they deserve it, or because of the quota.”

Which is true, but no more true than it is of every man appointed today – or ever – to a government’s cabinet: we don’t know if they got the job because they deserve it, or because of a host of advantages that have nothing to do with merit, or earning the position. Karen Ho opens an eloquent salvo on how Meritocracy is a Lie by stating:

it’s important to acknowledge that notions of merit have never stopped previous governments from determining the make-up of their cabinets based on a variety of criteria. As Vice Canada parliamentary reporter Justin Ling has pointed out, “regionalism, parliamentary experience, who they endorsed for leader, [and] which MP they beat” are all considered valid reasons for the job, and gender is not. In effect, quotas meant to be fair representations of a variety of different Canadian constituencies have been around for almost fifty years.”

In the meantime, what these quotas ensure is that while societal inequality grooms men for roles of leadership and power, our government will at least endeavour to represent diversity of gender in its institutional leadership.

When asked why he had made gender parity in his cabinet a priority, new Prime Minister Trudeau shrugged and said simply: “It’s 2015.”

The young ladies in my philosophy class variously gasped, clapped, and cheered as we watched live on our class projector.

However, as Ms. Ho observes (by way of Denise Balkissoon writing in the Globe and Mail), this “is only the first step to recognizing the country’s diversity.”

The large shift in the number of visible minorities and residents of First Nations groups who were elected as MPs is a positive, encouraging change and their significant presence in Trudeau’s cabinet is nothing less than extraordinary. But real representation of this country also includes people with disabilities and members of the LGBT community.

If I can interpret the sentiments of many the young people I spend time with, and spoke to today, there is much hope that this symbolic first day of a new government is only that first step of many toward a more inclusive and just country.

Pedagogy for the Oppressor: Cease to do Evil, then Learn to do Good

Image courtesy of SFU.ca

In an essay collected in Rethinking Freire: Globalization and the Environmental CrisisDerek Rasmussen introduces Paulo Freire and those who would introduce his critical praxis to victims of oppression in foreign countries as “rescuers” attempting “to ameliorate the conditions of the oppressed.”

This is, Rasmussen admits, “certainly a worthy aim.” However, the blind spot in this well-intentioned practice is the fact that “rescuers often seem oblivious to the possibility of stemming the oppression of others in the first place,” and he introduces the problem of such foreign interventions of critical pedagogy as lacking if they do not address the fact that that which many westerners seek to rescue the rest of the world from, we in fact cause. For western conceptions of “progress” to be realized, social organizations not based in the same economic or social paradigm as our own must be disintegrated.

This, Rasmussen offers, is a problem at the heart of Freire’s emancipatory pedagogy, as “the two main life-preservers that the rescuers offer the world are education and economy.”

“What the rescuers view as tools of salvation, the rest of the world experiences as the things that cast them further adrift.”

And so before we can do good, we ought inquire as to how we might first cease to do evil.

Rasmussen cites The Great Transformation, wherein Karl Polanyi presents the modern nation-state and market society as part of a paradigm in which four guiding principles reign to create what Rasmussen calls the “disembedded economy”:

  • Land Ownership
  • Labour
  • Money
  • Corporations

“These fictions,” he writes, “dissolved society’s roots; dissolved essential connections between people and between people and place.” As the enclosure society and economy took hold in Europe with the fall of feudalism, it created the largest mass-migration in history as people clamoured for land, labour and opportunities to survive which had become (remained) the property of elites. This migration led to the same induced scarcity of enclosure across the colonized world, and continues unabated today as the IMF and World Bank, along with western governments’ commitment to foreign aid are tied to national goals of economic growth and the exploitation of natural resources.

Thus, in an effort to ‘free’ the oppressed majorities of globalized capitalism, Freirians of the west arrive in the developing world with a mission Rasmussen describes glibly as:

“Now we will train you to master alpha-numeric symbols in order to make money (from us) in order to get access to the land (we took from you) in order to buy the essentials of life.”

Troublingly, Freire’s critical pedagogy is tied to literacy as the primary means of engaging with the struggle against oppression, arguing that “human existence is not silent.” This perspective not only limits the scope of human knowledge in ways that discredit many indigenous ways of knowing, wisdom and heritage, but even goes so far as to build to the Euro-centric notion that cultures who focus “almost totally on survival lack a sense of life on a more historic plane.”

Freire warns that the non-literate may be “so close to the natural world that they feel more part of this world than the transformers of the world,” resulting in “almost a state of non-being,” unable to become “fully human.”

Such a cautionary reading of Freire will no doubt strike those of us who have read even introductory notes on the place within a local environment many indigenous populations envision themselves. Rasmussen notes that the “Nunavummiut do not experience this closeness to the natural world as less than human or merely human, but as more-than-human.”

Against such a worldview is Freire’s orthodoxy cast as a co-conspirator and, indeed, oppressor.

“Freire had no quarrel with the Euro-American civilization that spread the ideology of literacy, the civilization that spread the notion of language as non-silent, the notion of knowledge as print-based product, the notion of education as the means of knowledge-production.”

A crucial step such a praxis leaps past, Rasmussen offers, is the act of taking inventory of the “‘poisons’ that dissolve rooted societies in the first place.”

This needn’t necessarily mean that we throw Freire out with the bathwater; but it may require a significant re-positioning of the critical praxis, and this must begin at home, in the mind of the oppressor themselves. “As long as our way of life is causing most of the problems that the rest of the world has to deal with,” he writes. “The best thing we can do is deal with our own way of life.”

“Let us not presume to do good until we have ceased to do evil. This ought to be the essence of a pedagogy for the oppressor – first, cease to do evil. Next, study our own behaviour.”

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.

Epistemology, Pedagogy and Democracy in the Digital Age Bibliography

The Virtual Self @nora3000 at #Brocku [visual notes]
The Virtual Self, visual notes by Giulia Forsythe on a talk by Nora Young at Brock University March 2013 (Learn more about Giulia’s amazing Visual Practice here).

It has been a treat to delve deeper into the web of scholarship that charts the intersection of so many different philosophical inquiries that concern pedagogy as a branch of the digital humanities these last few weeks. The metaphysical and epistemic questions that guide our social, ethical and political discussions around the larger purposes of curriculum cast an incredibly broad net, but are undeniably arising out of the digital revolution in communicative technology we are living through. And so my bibliography covers a lot of ground:

  • What is knowledge in the digital age? How is it attained, where does it ‘live’?
  • If in fact knowledge has changed, how should we go about teaching in this new era?
  • And how do these shifts in knowledge and social processes affect the nature and purpose of citizenship?

Answers to these questions lie in fields of sociology, philosophy, political science, and education, but I have tried to locate and share readings that plot the intersection of these topics as relates the narrower field of ‘curriculum.’

Andreotti, V. d. O. (2011). The political economy of global citizenship education. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 9(3-4), 307-310.

Biesta, G. (2013). Learning in public places: Civic learning for the 21st century. Civic learning, democratic citizenship and the public sphere.

Biesta, G. J. J. (2012). Doing Emancipation Differently: Transgression, Equality and the Politics of Learning. Civitas Educationis. Education, Politics and Culutre, 1(1), 15-30.

Downes, S. (2012). Connectivism and connective knowledge: Essays on meaning and learning networks. National Research Council Canada, http://www. downes. ca/files/books/Connective_Knowledge-19May2012. pdf.

Feldman, S. B., & Tyson, K. (2014). Clarifying Conceptual Foundations for Social Justice in Education International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Social (In) Justice (pp. 1105-1124): Springer.

Garcia, J., & De Lissovoy, N. (2013). Doing School Time: The Hidden Curriculum Goes to Prison. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 11(4).

Howard, P. (2014). LEARNING COMMUNITIES AND DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP IN ONLINE AFFINITY SPACES: THE PROMISE AND THE PERIL. INTED2014 Proceedings, 5658-5658.

Khoo, S.-m. (2013). Between Engagement and Citizenship Engaged Scholarship (pp. 21-42): Springer.

Lentz, B. (2014). The Media Policy Tower of Babble: A Case for “Policy Literacy Pedagogy”. Critical Studies in Media Communication(ahead-of-print), 1-7.

MacGregor, J., Stranack, K., & Willinsky, J. (2014). The Public Knowledge Project: Open Source Tools for Open Access to Scholarly Communication Opening Science (pp. 165-175): Springer International Publishing.

Martin, C. (2011). Philosophy of Education in the Public Sphere: The Case of “Relevance”. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 30(6), 615-629.

Monteiro, H., & Ferreira, P. D. (2011). Unpolite Citizenship: The Non-Place of Conflict in Political Education. JSSE-Journal of Social Science Education, 10(4).

Queen, G., Ross, E. W., Gibson, R., & Vinson, K. D. (2013). I Participate, You Participate, We Participate…”: Notes on Building a K-16 Movement for Democracy and Social Justice. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor(10).

Rice, J. (2013). Occupying the Digital Humanities. College English, 75(4), 360-378.

Schugurensky, D., & Silver, M. (2013). Social pedagogy: historical traditions and transnational connections. education policy analysis archives, 21, 35.

Sidorkin, A. M. (2010). John Dewey: A Case of Educational Utopianism. Philosophy of Education Archive, 191-199.

Sidorkin, A. M. (2014). On the theoretical limits of education Making a Difference in Theory: Routledge.

Siemens, G. (2014). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age.

Talisse, R. B. (2013). Sustaining democracy: folk epistemology and social conflict. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 16(4), 500-519.

Willinsky, J. (2013). Teaching for a World of Increasing Access to Knowledge. CALJ Journal, 1(1).

On Knowledge

Screen shot 2014-01-27 at 3.54.00 PM

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.

Discussion in a Democratic Classroom

Promote Human Growth

To promote human growth.

I discovered the above quotation (then highlighted, and apparently even underlined it) in a  (photocopy of a) book that Q lent me this week, Discussion as a Way of TeachingAnd with each of my classrooms providing affirmations or further questions about various aspects of the introductory chapter, I wanted to see if I could synthesize and share some of my thinking here with the hope that it might lead us somewhere meaningful.

Confluence of Conversation

In one of those subconscious coincidences that arise from time to time, a few different planets have aligned to allow both the TALONS classes, as well as the twenty-odd program alumni that are taking Philosophy 12 this semester, are creating a thorough deconstruction and re-imagining of their views about democracy through their respective current studies. For the TALONS, this has been the American Revolution, where a series of blog posts and comments have charted a thoughtful exploration of both personal and collective interpretations of historical events.

Ironically enough, the TALONS initial reading about the topic came by way of a few of the former class’ bloggers who find themselves discussion Social and Political Philosophy.

In either case, the groups are addressing fundamental questions about the nature of social democracy as it has been practiced since the dawn of the Enlightenment. The younger class (grade nine and ten TALONS learners) are coming to the subject by way of the fight to establish the American republic; there is much discussion around the usual suspects: taxes, representation, unity and propaganda. But there are questions about the future here, too:

If we can see and understand how blatantly unfair it was for people back in the American Revolution, why hasn’t more changed? I will admit that things have gotten a lot better here in America, but what about other places around the world?

The philosophy class spent a few days last week discussing some of the foundations of our thinking about democracy, and brainstormed different framings and questions from which they could interrogate them. The group set about trying to define the roles of idealism, pragmatism, education and the media could (or should) play in a democracy, questioning the value of “true” democracy, the societal safety-net, and how it is that our evolving knowledge of human nature influences group development.

Across digital and in face to face conversations, each of the blocks I am teaching these days is consumed with an inquiry into what it means to be a critic and participant in the democratic process. I’ll admit to getting more than a small kick out of the type of political engagement and discussion I seek out as an adult learner and voter, and something I am privileged to find in my colleagues in the Social Studies department at our school.

Dialogue beyond the classroom

On a given week in the last few years, there has been an ongoing and at times heated exchange of political ideas across members of the Socials department relating to current events, historical interpretations, the “big ideas” that may reside in aspects of the various curricula. With each of the teachers in these email threads possessing disparate ideologies and frameworks of understanding, arguments and perspectives from all points along the  political spectrum are often represented in these arguments that serve as serious debate, rhetorical sport, and the sharing of opinion from a variety of personal news and editorial sources.

Such is the influence that these passionate (and often humourous) exchanges bring to the history and political courses at our school, the last year has seen recent graduates instigating, challenging and benefiting from these email conversations (that in some cases have spanned more than 40 responses including tens of thousands of typed words). The vibrancy of our school’s Model United Nations, Political and Debate clubs are certainly signs of a politically ‘awake’ student body (which we probably owe to Steven and Liam more than anything we’ve done as teachers), something that inspires some of the modeling that a few of the teacher debates can supply as a means of exploring the different ways to approach various topics.

One of our school’s History 12 teachers and I are even trying to start a podcast based on the exchanges we have with and for his class.

Democracy and Discussion

I think why my Social Studies colleagues and I get such a charge out of all of this discussion, both inside and out of our classrooms, is because it is an engagement with one of the fundamental functions of democratic schooling: to cultivate and prepare the citizenry that will inherit the reigns and responsibilities of the future.

Discussion and democracy are inseparable because both have the same root purpose – to nurture and promote human growth. By growth we mean roughly the same thing as John Dewy (1916) did: the development of an ever-increasing capacity for learning and an appreciation of and a sensitivity to learning undertaken by others. Democracy and discussion imply a process of giving and taking, speaking and listening, describing and witnessing – all of which help expand horizons and foster mutual understanding

And something that has struck me this week is that the things that are difficult about bringing about a discussion‘s potential are of a similar nature to the tendencies that limit the possibility of a optimal democracy, and it is for this reason that I agree (along with the authors) with Richard Rorty’s assertion that

…bringing people together in conversation and challenging them to use their imaginations to create new meanings and move toward greater human inclusiveness is, for Rorty (1989), a moral endeavour. 

The working definition that Brookfield and Preskill posit of discussion itself extends this morality to affirm the notion of classrooms functioning as democratic laboratories, where students prepare to meet the tasks of political responsibility.

We define discussion as an alternatively serious and playful effort by a group of two or more to share views and engage in mutual and reciprocal critique.

The purposes of discussion are fourfold: 

    • To help participants reach a more critically informed understanding about the topic or topics under consideration, 
    • To enhance participants’ self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique
    • To foster an appreciation among participants for the diversity of opinion that invariably emerges when viewpoints are exchanged openly and honestly,
    • And to act as a catalyst to helping people take informed action in the world

…empowering students to probe the contradictions and injustices of larger society.

As participants in discussion-based education build a critical awareness of “the ways in which different linguistic, cultural, and philosophical traditions can silence voices,” the macro-micro analogy can become instructive as students and teachers alike can look upon opportunities for learning about improving elements of classroom discussion can build outward into society. To this end the introductory chapter of Discussion as a Way of Teaching highlights nine Dispositions of Democratic Discussion, each of which could serve as an opportunity for reflection for people engaged in this type of learning.

Nine Dispositions of Democratic Discussion

Hospitality

How well does each party in the discussion help foster “an atmosphere in which people feel invited to participate”? I think we often consider our positioning as teachers toward projecting hospitality (for different ideas and perspectives, diverse expressions of the self, as well as challenging arguments and evidence) but having watched and talked to a few of the TALONS who facilitated a class discussion this week, realize that cultivating an awareness of these dispositions – perhaps this first one especially – among students themselves is key to realizing the collaborative potential of the class.

Participation

Similarly, the responsibility  to encourage full-participation – in democracy, as in conversation – is something that ultimately falls to each member of the community, who would do well to remember that

the incentive to participate diminishes when what one says or does is ignored or leaves no discernable impact. Everyone in democratic classrooms, but especially the instructor, must work at encouraging widespread participation and finding spaces during class time to receive more than just perfunctory responses from the class. For us this means that we must in some cases ask follow-up questions, at other times rephrase what has just been said, and in still other situations show clearly and assertively how one person’s contribution is related to other ideas already presented. 

Mindfulness

Something GNA Garcia has always brought to our conversations about life, learning, teaching and most points in between is an ever-present mindfulness that manifests itself as a reverence for what the authors of Discussion as a Way of Teaching might describe as “the whole conversation – of who has spoken and who has not – and of doing what one can to ensure that the discussion doesn’t get bogged down in the consideration of issues that are of concern only to a very small minority of participants.”

It is important to remember here that “group cohesiveness and the give-and-take of a good discussion are usually more important than any particular thing that we feel compelled to contribute.”

Humility

Central to the process of expanding one’s understanding is the willingness to let go of our prior notions of Truth or objectivity. The authors here remind us that “Humility helps us remember that learning is always an uncertain, even uneasy quest.”

If we admit the limits of our knowledge and opinions, we are more likely to work authentically to create a greater understanding among group members. 

Mutuality

Mutuality means that it is in the interest of all to care as much about each other’s self-development as one’s own.”

This is something that I think we practice in the TALONS classroom with regularity, and in many tasks – especially those centered around our experiential or outdoor learning opportunities – the necessity of each individual contributing to the group’s success is a baseline expectation. But I do think that we might be able to look for ways to improve this sense of mutual responsibility for supporting discourse in the classroom, or on our blogs.

Deliberation

To approach discussion with a disposition toward deliberation, participants must cultivate an awareness that “the ensuing exchange of views may modify their original perspective.” Here, we see the fallibility of the combative talking heads that are presented to explore contentious topics in our print, radio and televised media:

Unless there is a general commitment to deliberative practices that foster reflective and informed judgements, democracy is robbed of its authority and moral meaning. 

Which isn’t to say that a capacity for deliberation must be bound to the goal of forming consensus (while that might be ideal); the authors propose that “it may be just as desirable if deliberation results in continuing differences’ being better understood and more readily tolerated.” 

Appreciation

As delving into the emotional terrain that many of these conversations hopefully mine can be a daunting and risky enterprise at times, it is important for members of the discussion community to demonstrate appreciation for the sharing of diverse opinion and thought. This is another area that I see teachers concerned with where students and other stakeholders could emphasize their appreciation not only for the different perspectives and viewpoints being shared, but also for the willingness of others to commit to the process of open and honest discussion.

Hope

“Without the hope of reaching new understanding, gaining a helpful perspective, or clarifying the roots of a conflict, there is little reason to go on talking, learning and teaching.” 

I think the worst of human behaviours and thoughts come about when individuals and groups have lost this most basic sense of hope toward a resolution of conflicting ideals, values or perspectives even when that resolution seems least likely. Here, the authors again invoke John Dewey and his notion of Democratic Faith: 

Democratic faith implies that pooling the talents and abilities of individuals increases the likelyhood that new light will be cast on old difficulties and everyday common sense will be brought to bear on problems said to require technical expertise. 

If teachers and classrooms fail to operate atop a foundation of this sort of faith and hope, our schools risk becoming the antithesis of how they are conceived in a democratic society.

Autonomy

In the end, what these dispositions, and what a truly democratic society is capable of nurturing, is a society composed of individuals capable of interrogating their own base beliefs against the paradigm of their culture, and commit to living and behaving authentically and ethically as a result.

Without individuals who are willing to take strong stands and to argue assertively for them, democracy is diminished, and the opportunities for growth and self-development, partly dependent on the clash of contending wills, are greatly weakened. 

Making the Learning Visible: TALONS on the American Revolution

Initial Questions about the American Revolution
Questions after reading homework from 2011

As part reflection on a statement made during the introductory session of Alec Couros#ETMOOC, and part synthesis of the TALONS introductory blogging and commenting on the American Revolution, I wanted to highlight some of the recent dialogue and discussion going on in the TALONS classroom these last few days.

Someone noted during the first #ETMOOC meeting that part of open learning revolved around making the learning visible, and I think a major contributing factor to the success of the TALONS blogging community is an evolving ability to present and share individual and collective learning. But something I have come to appreciate lately is how this knowledge has grown alongside an ability to meta-cognate, and build upon the lessons of networking norms explored by the last few years’ classes.

Old and Bold
Image edit and Interview synthesis by #Talons Yilin, Hayley, Max and Kyler

Now three full years into the class experiment in conducting and presenting our learning on the public web, the community has cultivated an understory of class discussion as the architecture of the initial thinking and conversation allows it to be visible and accessible as it is being created, but also indefinitely into the future

Since we first began experimenting with the form, the TALONS have each maintained an individual blog with EduBlogs, which the class has subscribed to (comments as well) using Google Reader. Every year, links and archives of posts from each of our units of study accumulate across our subject Wikispaces, Delicious bookmarks, and these blogs to become the fodder and foundation of the next year’s learners, and it is striking to see what is possible as these years have begun to accumulate.

The class began this last week with the assigned readings of a host of 2011 American Revolution posts, and a few questions:

More Questions about the American Revolution

    • What is the author’s main idea, or thesis in the post? 
    • How do they support this claim?
    • Who are the key figures / what are the main events discussed?
    • What conclusions about the American Revolution does the post give you? 
    • What questions about the American Revolution does the post give you? 
This led to many new questions, which then erupted in a weekend’s blog posts and commenting.

 

TALONS grade nine Alyssa highlights the Seven Years War as a key ingredient in the outset of the Revolution:

 

Over the course of thirteen years, the American revolution raged on between the British, and the American colonists.  But what were the reasons that brought on one of–or even the most–important revolution? What could could set flame to such a fire that a nation could split in two?

To discover this, we must trace back to the where the first larger scales of disruptions of peace started, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, in 1763. Just twelve years later, the American revolution officially started in 1775.

Picking up where the thread, Sierra does an eloquent job of creating context beyond the Seven Years War to reveal the colonies as anger and violence bound to boil over:

After the Seven years War, the British Empire was markedly fatigued, as the war had, among other things, caused great financial hardships to Britain. This meant that Britain was relying more and more on America, raising taxes to compensate for the splurge. They began enforcing new laws, such as the Navigation Act, prohibiting colonists from shipping and trading with countries other than Britain. Then they began implementing taxes, such as the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Townshend Act, taxing everything from printed materials, to lead, pain, and tea.

This angered some of the American colonists, and the propaganda began. Britain began sending over troops, to prevent violent protests, and in 1768, four thousand redcoats landed in Massachusetts to help maintain order. However, despite this, in 1770, on March 5th a rebellious group of American colonists clashed with British troops. Five colonists died in the confrontation, and the event became known as the Boston Massacre.

Following the horror of the Boston Massacre, Owen explains how a revolution about human dignity and democracy is still often seen to revolve around tea:

Nearly all the taxing acts were either reduced or completely dropped, proving that the British still had some leniency to the colonies, which the colonists did not appreciate completely. Wealthier men and others who relied on illegal trade were especially displeased with the taxes on goods as it would eat into their profits. Tea was the only trade item that was left taxed and was sold by the East Indian Trade Company at low prices. Of course, the rich and greedy men who sold smuggled tea could not afford to lose competition. Men like Samuel Adams were essentially so jealous that they organized a raid on the Boston trading ships that saw all tea content dumped into the harbor.

But there are other conversations, and other threads being pulled, with conversations on Monday afternoon exploring ideas of unity, hypocrisy and the nature of historical mythology and symbolism during and since the Revolution.

Marie’s post, Equality? has at present gathered an impressive 21 comments. Among them such insights and questions as the ones Kim addresses here;

Something I have to add is that women in America were fighting for their rights in the American Revolution, and they did win back some rights that should have belonged to them from the very beginning. Do you feel that the American Revolution opened the door for female rights in the future, or do you feel that no change was made (impacting the rights of women)?

Kim’s own entry came in the form of a fictionalized letter from an anonymous woman during the revolution:

As the war began to grow, so did the group of ours efforts, along with women across the country.  We spun thousands upon thousands of yards of yarn, stitched hundreds of clothing items, and took our time knitting far too many stockings for the American men in battle.  We fought to be able to fill the shortage of workers in jobs that were usually occupied by men, but were then left empty during the war, and we won the battle. I took on three jobs during that time: a blacksmith, a ship builder, and a writer.

Many people were not aware that women had made a difference, and had done anything other than sitting at their home raising a family.  Women clothed the armies, signed the petitions, and wrote the books. You would not be able to hear about the war today through the original documents and encyclopedias, if it werent for the dedicated women writers. Through these small actions that we took during this rough time, we opened the door for female rights to come.

Another grade ten, Bronwyn casts her gaze on the men at the center of the struggle to forge a way out of the war with Britain:

After the war, there was much social, political, and economic disorder. It was a country of thirteen governments, each trying to help itself at the cost of the others. Nine states had their own navy and each state had its own army.  Without changing their political and governing system, America was on the road towards anarchy. The saviours of the new independent country were people like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who worked endlessly to convince a sceptical nation of the concept of unification. Finally, a form of working democracy was created. However, it took them thirteen years of unrest and negotiation to create this government.  Thirteen Years.  Was America’s new governing system a system eight years of fighting and killing and then thirteen years of internal unrest? This is not a question I can really answer, but what I can say is that people’s quest for the perfect government and democracy came with a hefty price and most people believe that it was worth every penny.

And these are only a few. Each of the fifty six TALONS published an initial reflection on the American Revolution this weekend, and three times I have scanned through more than 100 comments in my Google Reader. The class spilled and consumed some 50,000 digital words on different aspects of the American Revolution: themes, opinions, interpretations, relations to current events and personal experience.

Not only is the conversation becoming a sort of living textbook, but it is creating an ecological succession beneath the canopy of the blogging forest that has been established over the last few years. “The learning,” that nebulous, individual struggle for understanding that we negotiate with one another, is visible now and for all of the future TALONS (not to mention anyone else who finds their way into the old-growth forest of now-more than 100 individual TALONS blogs that are still online).

I hope that visitors and residence alike take away that this sort of sharing of ideas and conversation can be a powerful and authentic means of discovery. Like Jabiz says,

…blogging is contagious. As the plants begin to grow, they shield and guide and support the younger saplings. Suddenly we find ourselves in a thriving eco-system of ideas. So I will till the soil, add fertilizer when needed, consider the amount of water every seed will need. I will find sunlight or shade as needed for every fragile sapling. I will wait patiently and stare at what appears to be barren soil. But like every successful gardener I have faith and I have patience. I will wait for every seed to grow.

This year’s individual TALONS blogs can be subscribed to as a bundle by clicking this link. The comment thread is syndicated here

You can keep up with the class’ collective online space, Defying Normality, which was graciously highlighted on the excellent site, Comments4Kids, today, or follow our adventures on Flickr.