The Fragile Oppressor

Image courtesy of EverydayFeminism.com

An aspect of my work that has been the bane of my existence an educative experience in recent years has been the time I’ve spent around a group of variously conservative, middle aged white men, many of whom teach history and with whom I regularly debate the foundational intersections of liberal and conservatism found in the socials curricula.

A running thread in our conversations over the past many years has been a frustrated effort on my part to explore the implicit ways in which (mostly) unconscious biases perpetuate the white supremacism North Americans have struggled with since the time of European colonization and settlement. As news cycles in recent years have become increasingly concerned with issues of racial violence in the United States, aboriginal activism and protest against racial inequality in Canada, and the root causes of white privilege and racism on either side of the 49th parallel, these conversations have taken on an ever-more vital (and heated) tone, often resulting in either they or I admitting that dialogue around these topics is impossible.

I often seek to poke fun at what strikes me as remarkable insensitivity, greeting these moments of terse debate with sarcastic interjections to the tune of, “Don’t worry, one day the world will understand the White Man’s burden.” But I have also tried to follow these sorts of barbs with what I hope are more nuanced explanations of what might be witnessed in the headlines by my colleagues or the demographic they represent as senseless racial outbursts.

Last year, when violence erupted around a Mik’maq blockade in rural New Brunswick, I replied to an email thread characterizing the results of police contact with the protest as “anarchic” by pointing out the nature of resistance in such a context:

“The land that the oil and gas exploration is happening on is Mik’maq land; it is to be held in trust by the Government of Canada for the benefit of those people (not balancing the New Brunswick provincial debt). The Mik’maq have asked that environmental (chiefly water), and human impacts (cancer incidents) associated with fracking be measured before exploration proceeds. The government refused to engage in any such research, and started planning the drill, after which the Mik’maq created a blockade on their own Treaty-guaranteed land to prevent furthering the project until such investigations could take place.

“The government using the threat of snipers and indiscriminate spraying of tear gas to enforce the injunction against the blockade is violence too, isn’t it?”

As a sample, the replies to this sort of argument represent the nature of the difficulty of engaging many white people in even beginning to hear opposing views on topics related to race in North America. The original addressee to my reply ignored any of this attending context, focusing instead on a semantic query: “Even if all of what you just said was true,” he began:

“How is burning a vehicle with a Molotov cocktail (a clear tool constructed to inflict harm, chaos, or injury) not anarchic?”

Another’s defence swerved further into dismissive hyperbole, offering that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms entitles Canadian First Nations to engage in violent acts against police “because they’ve been victims of a genocide by us white guys all these years.”

This sort of condescending reaction is par for the course when engaging on racial issues with a group of people who tend to perceive the march of modernity as one bent specifically toward confiscating advantages and rewards they have rightfully earned. Even as contradictory data washes ashore in an empirical tsunami, calling into question the logic of meritocracy whereby their demographic has overwhelmingly succeeded is a non-starter here.

To even identify the ways in which white males are advantaged in society is, to certain among this group, racism itself:

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As I described at some length a while back, my life and career represent a shining example of the benefits of white male privilege, as do those of my friends and colleagues described here. But these interactions present me with genuine confusion that struggles to explain how vehemently the prospect of acknowledging such privilege is attacked when raised, either in the media or our conversations.

To a man, my colleagues own homes and recreational properties. They are gainfully employed and enjoy regular leisure activities and vacations.

And yet a common theme in our discussion of modern social issues remains the sentiment that “the most prominent form of racism in the world” is practiced against white people.

Which is astonishing, really.

African Americans are murdered in the streets by police with impunity.

Indigenous Canadians overcrowd our prisons as well as lists of murdered and missing women.

Poverty, a lack of access to clean water, health and education services, and positive opportunities run rampant in these communities.

And yet somehow white peoplelet alone white men, manage to believe that they are society’s most persecuted group. Whether at the hands of indigenous peoples, French Canadians, women, or other minorities, the cost of greater equality to history’s oppressive class is at best an unrealistic venture they are reluctant to embrace. At worst it is what they decry as “social engineering,” a sort of social blasphemy, or “liberal fascism.”

Surely this would be something of an amazing feat if it weren’t such a destructive and tragic sentiment.

Much to my relief, however, Robin DiAngelo presents an aspect of whiteness that helps shed light on my experience in recent years, introducing the notion of “White Fragility.”

Plainly, this fragility represents an “[inability] to tolerate racial stress… triggering a range of defensive moves… which reinstate the racial equilibrium.”

“White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. Fine (1997) identifies this insulation when she observes “… how Whiteness accrues privilege and status; gets itself surrounded by protective pillows of resources and/or benefits of the doubt; how Whiteness repels gossip and voyeurism and instead demands dignity” (p. 57). Whites are rarely without these “protective pillows,” and when they are it is usually temporary and by choice. This insulated environment of racial privilege builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.”

Thus as these sorts of issues are raised – whether in current events, casual conversation, or professional development sessions addressing minority concerns (around race, gender identity, immigrant populations, etc) – “stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar,” triggering what DiAngelo calls a “range of defensive moves.”

Challenging whites’ objective-viewpoint or entitlement to racial comfort, acknowledging inequality of opportunity between racial groups or disrupting an expectation of white solidarity each becomes exceptional in the white dominant environment, and “in turn, whites are often at a loss for how to respond in constructive ways.”

“When any of the above triggers (challenges in the habitus) occur, the resulting disequilibrium becomes intolerable. Because White Fragility finds its support in and is a function of white privilege, fragility and privilege result in responses that function to restore equilibrium and return the resources “lost” via the challenge – resistance toward the trigger, shutting down and/or tuning out, indulgence in emotional incapacitation such as guilt or “hurt feelings,” exiting, or a combination of these responses.”

All of which would more or less account for the range of “defensive moves” any challenges that various encounters have brought about in these interactions over the years (Even if all of what you just said was true…”), and seeks to uphold a racial inequality that will continue to benefit a particular class – and race – of people. After all, “if whites cannot engage with an exploration of alternate racial perspectives, they can only reinscribe white perspectives as universal.”

DiAngelo asserts that

“The continual retreat from the discomfort of authentic racial engagement in a culture infused with racial disparity limits the ability to form authentic connections across racial lines, and results in a perpetual cycle that works to hold racism in place.”

After all, it isn’t a cycle of oppression unless those who oppress never change, never let new ideas in, go to bed with the same worldview they woke up with. Which is where my years of banging my rhetorical head against a wall often leaves me frustrated and abandoning my efforts, however vital I see them to the progress of our schools and broader community.

But DiAngelo concludes with a few ideas that have compelled me to write and publish this post. Citing the collection of Derman-Sparks & Phillips, hooks, and Wise, she notes that “White racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people.” 

This can be problematic, as “Many white people have never been given direct or complex information about racism before, and often cannot explicitly see, feel, or understand it” (Terpagnier, 2006; Weber 2001). But in this light, the lens of White Fragility is helpful in framing the problem “as an issue of stamina-building.”

“Starting with the individual and moving outward to the ultimate framework for racism – Whiteness – allows for the pacing that is necessary for many white people for approaching the challenging study of race.”

In this view, “talking directly about white power and privilege, in addition to providing much needed information and shared definitions, is also in itself a powerful interruption of common (and oppressive) discursive patterns around race.”

“At the same time, white people often need to reflect upon racial information and be allowed to make connections between the information and their own lives. Educators can encourage and support white participants in making their engagement a point of analysis.”

Hopefully, in time, even if those participants are other educators.

Adventures in Blended Learning

John A. Skype

As I mentioned in a brief thank you to Alec at our last class meeting, in many ways it feels as though I’ve been taking his course on The Blended Classroom for a few years now.

When I joined Twitter back in… can it really have been 2009? Alec was one of the first people I followed. Along with Will Richardson, Dean Shareski, Sylvia Martinez and a host of others who have spoken with us or been name-dropped throughout our time together this semester, Alec has helped form and inspire many of the ideas that have driven my blended practice in the years since, a journey that has been charted across the near-300 posts on this blog, as well as in other online spaces, physical artifacts, and dialogue with peers, colleagues and students.

Along with Dave Cormier I am interested in the blurring of the boundaries between formal and informal learning, and seek to integrate a more rhizomatic approach to institutional learning that makes use of the sprawling inquiries I have engaged in during my time as an open online educator. While it may be more chaotic, and difficult (if not impossible) to direct, this more organic approach has challenged me to make meaning of diverse experiences and connections in a manner which is far more in line with socio-cultural trends at the heart of the digital age and 21st century.

As a reflective practitioner, this has allowed me to plot a uniquely personal course of study that is relevant to my own interests and passions, classroom communities, and emerging perspective on my place in the world as an educator and member of the human project. But it has also offered the opportunity to engage in the type of emergent meaning-making that has become central to the philosophy of education underpinning my work as a graduate student. Taken together these experiences have influenced the type of learning opportunities I strive to create for my students, as well as the type of learning I hope they are able to engage in for themselves once they venture beyond the school.

This semester my own learning has met the gentle structure provided by Alec’s class and branched in what may be considered three overlapping directions: theory, practice and reflection.

Theory

I began my theoretical work in January with a look at the potential for Collaborative Inquiry to address teacher professional development interests, as well as put educators into the experiential role of learners as members of a community:

With increasing classroom needs, revolutionary changes in technology and information literacies, in an evolving culture dealing with widespread anxiety and mental health concerns, classroom teachers and extended school communities confront diverse language language needs and an increased awareness around gender and sexual identity, among other unique challenges. In British Columbia, public schools face the additional challenge of an ongoing and tempestuous negotiation between different stakeholders over curricular reform, teacher-contracts, and the role of education in society.

The convergence of these myriad adaptive challenges – “for which the necessary knowledge [does] not yet exist.” – seem an appropriate place to engage a process of collaborative inquiry which allows participants to “adopt new values and beliefs.”

In addition to the value that it might add to teacher-development and learning, this type of collaborative inquiry is in line with a conception of citizenship that is coming to ground my academic work around civic education. As the emergent view of knowledge described above may be seen to, the challenges presented by multiculturalism in pluralist democracies highlights the tension between creating and maintaining institutions that can bring about outcomes truly constructed out of their (ever-changing) constituent parts.

An ongoing theme in my work on this blog, the problematic view of emergence is described by Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta:

“If we hold that meaning is emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ‘ground’ it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic. In other words the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the aims of education, traditionally conceived.”

Sigal Ben-Porath presents a potential resolution to this paradox in the form of Citizenship as Shared Fate, wherein “citizenship education ‘seeks forms of attachments, belonging and commitment that would enable children to become positive members of diverse communities of fate.'”

Such a citizenship, and thus citizenship education:

“aims to recognize differences in values, outlooks, language and preferences while developing institutional and conceptual concepts – particularly civic and political ones – in which different communities can develop ties and shared practices.”

Practice

In building on these theoretical underpinnings (among others), I sought during this semester to engage in my own professional learning, as well as facilitate my various classroom-activities, with an eye toward exploring the digital applications of these ideas in the service of both individual and community development.

Guitar

(One of) My own learning project(s) during the term took on the challenge of musical performance, both in my guitar classroom and the school community beyond, a process I documented and reflected upon in a series of posts both here and on the #IntroGuitar site:Murder at the Witch's Tavern

In addition to this somewhat formal performance (as well as those which will follow throughout the semester), I also took a stake in a fundraising evening of murder-mystery dinner-theatre for our drama department, writing and sharing a series of expository songs during the hastily produced play performed for local parents, colleagues and community guests.

In each of these examples, my aim was not only to develop and reflect on my own growth as a musician, but to engage in a process I regularly ask of my students so as to both cultivate empathy for the discomfort that often accompanies learning as well as share an example – successful or not – of stepping into Vigotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development for students and colleagues alike.

For my guitar students especially, whom I ask to document and reflect on their musical learning regularly, sharing my own journey as a guitar player is an integral part of cultivating an open course community within the structure of a for-credit classroom. Part of the ‘open’ ethos of the blended #introguitar environment creates the course site as a space for our students to cultivate and share their own narratives of learning among members of the class, but also those beyond.

But these individual and collective artifacts of learning also stretch beyond the classroom, leaving a lasting community of practice that is accessible – as the three iterations of the course that have used the course are – to future students of guitar, at Gleneagle and beyond.

TALONS Socials

The same might be said of the praxis of reflection and creation I have attempted to instigate in the TALONS Socials learning this semester, where members of the class have been asked to document various aspects of their learning: in blog posts, Tweets, pages of notes, and recorded class discussions and role plays.

With assignments separated into summative presentations and assignments, reflections and self-assessments, as well as documents of learning in progress (questions, notes on discussions, journal entries, marginalia in various readings, assigned and otherwise), the TALONS Social Studies semester orients itself toward students taking ownership over their own encounters with the course’s Ministry-mandated prescribed learning outcomes. Through a range of class activities and assignments, each is charged with the collection of various artifacts of learning that will be used in the creation of midterm, as well as final syntheses of learning, where these articles will serve as evidence that the curriculum has been encountered, critically interrogated, and integrated into their own emerging understanding.

Daily homework, if not otherwise specified, reflects the values of ongoing personal inquiry and is geared toward the TALONS being successful in what has become known as the Philosophy Pop Quiz:

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

Working toward the highest possible class average score on the above quiz, the traits and habits required for daily success can become part of the cycle of personal learning without falling prey to being too prescriptive. The synthesis of a collective voice out of these various inquiries and encounters with the common course of study are able to become the task of the social curricula.

This has been particularly evident in the class’ recent study of Canadian Confederation, where an experiment in social media role-playing has built upon the debates and discussion various historical characters have been waging in the face to face classroom, realizing that multicultural difficulty:

“…to ‘teach’ toward these myriad truths is at once a curricular requirement and Quixotic pursuit, revealing the tensions of education for citizenship in a pluralist democracy, asking How do we create unity and cultivate diverse perspectives?

“In interpreting history, as well as our present moment, students ought be engaged in rehearsing this act, and with the dramatic role play the answer offered to the pedagogic problem lies at the heart of narrative.

“Of sensing an individual’s arc at the centre of a multitude of shared and individual lives.

“Of constructing ‘we’ out of many ‘I’s.

“Whether face to face or in the online sphere, this is the task of schooling in the multicultural society.”

Reflection

Perhaps apart from both the theory and practice summarized above, the learning engaged in on this blog regularly ventures into more personal reflections and syntheses of learning that go beyond the collection of classroom experiences or theoretical readings and attempt to articulate something of a larger polemic on the state of educational or cultural affairs.

In the past few months, these posts have charted a variety of themes encountered in my weekly wanderings, including some thoughts on the nature of Learning on (and of) the Web, My life as the Music Department Digital Archivist, and Teaching in the Patriarchy. On a more personal note, I looked back on more than a decade spent with the work of Ernest Hemingway.

Each of these musings serves to help synthesize and express an emerging interpretation of various themes in my teaching, learning and life, harkening back to an image I used in a post last December on Course Design and Narrative Discovery, where data is transformed to information, to knowledge, to wisdom.

By engaging in this open manner, and publishing this work and these thoughts alongside the TieGrad cohort which has inspired many of them in the past two years, each of these experiences – and their corresponding posts – represents at once the wisdom of today as well as the points of data that will be made into new meanings going forward.

In a way it’s been the lesson I’ve been learning from Alec for years, while at the same time a culmination and synthesis of everything I’ve been learning the whole time.

Just as learning should be.

Social Media/Studies

UntitledIn addition to more critical efforts to conduct inquiries into history as it intersects with our present landscape, the TALONS class has come to embrace dramatic efforts to enact and recreate history in their social(s) learning. Whether engaging in a mock trial of King Charles II, or making impassioned speeches as characters in the French Revolution, such theatrical turns have traditionally made for memorable classroom moments.

A few years ago, a group of TALONS grade tens approached me to see if they could ‘pitch’ a unit plan for our upcoming French Revolution study: in blog posts and classroom activities, members of the class would each adopt a character from the revolutionary period, and strive to realize and represent diverse perspectives on events in 18th century France.

In the years since, the unit has evolved to include Twitter, as well as a series of improvised discussions, debates and addresses – all in character.

Thus the class is able to imagine and take in the passionate decrees of a young Maximilien Robespierre:

In the future I believe that it is not enough for the monarchy to only lose a portion of its power. France should be a country run for its people by the people, a democracy! At this moment I do not have enough political power to share my views in such ways, but in time I shall express my desires. One day I assure you, I will find a way to improve the lives of the poor and to strike down those corrupt from power.

And see the story through to his betrayal of Georges Danton, who addresses his friend:

I curse you.

We once had, if not brotherhood, at least mutual understanding. We were creating a France that our children would be proud of. I know not when your idealism became madness but I must have failed to see the signs, because I was not prepared for all the murders, and all the terror that you instilled into this country.

Robespierre, you will follow me into dissolution. I will drag you down screaming, and we will fall together.

In addition to these perspectives developing on individual blogs in monologues and comment threads, classroom time is spent charting the development of significant revolutionary events against characters’ reactions which are presented in improvised debates or speeches. And the dialogue continues on Twitter, as each character adopts an avatar to not only promote and archive their blogged artifacts, engage in dialogue with their allies and nemeses, and exercise their own democratic rights in carrying out the final assessments in the unit:

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Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.39.55 PMSensing that there might be a popular uprising against a tyrant teacher bent on sticking steadfast to an arbitrary deadline, I asked to see a show of support for the idea:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.43.23 PMThe idea was taken up quickly.

By philosophers:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.42.33 PMThe King of France:

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Feminist leaders:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.45.54 PMAnd even the farmers:

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At the culmination of the unit, each of the TALONS delivered a final address that looked back on their contributions to the revolution, and how they might have done things differently with the benefit of hindsight. And while each member of the class was only tasked with creating one unique angle on the historical events being studied, the effect rendered by the series of addresses on the unit’s final day presented a nuanced and multidimensional look into the various subjectivities that (might have) helped shape the revolutionary period.

From each of their perspectives, what the French Revolution might be about would likely sprawl in a dozen different directions: a part of a historical march toward justice; political reform; a spark in the narrative of female activism; the story of scarce resources driving extreme behaviour. And to ‘teach’ toward these myriad truths is at once a curricular requirement and Quixotic pursuit, revealing the tensions of education for citizenship in a pluralist democracy, asking How do we create unity and cultivate diverse perspectives?

In interpreting history, as well as our present moment, students ought be engaged in rehearsing this act, and with the dramatic role play the answer offered to the pedagogic problem lies at the heart of narrative.

Of sensing an individual’s arc at the centre of a multitude of shared and individual lives.

Of constructing ‘we’ out of many ‘I’s.

Whether face to face or in the online sphere, this is the task of schooling in the multicultural society.

An Open Letter to BC Education Minister Peter Fassbender

Minister Fassbender visits the TALONS Classroom, October 2013

May 31st, 2014

Greetings, Minister Fassbender,

As a social studies teacher in the Coquitlam School District’s T.A.L.O.N.S. Program, my teaching partners and I work to support the learning outcomes of our course curricula by cultivating an experiential, interdisciplinary learning environment. In designing a program which meets the social and emotional needs of gifted learners, T.A.L.O.N.S. teachers strive to align the explicit purposes of schooling – to educate the younger generation in the concepts, skills and competencies required to construct their individual and collective futures – with the implicit messages about our shared democratic values as Canadians – that each voice in our society is valued within the system of laws and government we are handing down to young people.

As you may realize it is important to teach courses on the foundations and traditions of our democratic history within a context that is true to these ideals. To this end T.A.L.O.N.S. students are provided with opportunities to exercise agency and voice in the creation of their own learning, as my colleagues and I believe that teaching students about the principles of the Enlightenment in a classroom that does not honour collective expression and democratic principles would negate the lesson at hand before the bell had even rung. As Gert Biesta and other educationists have noted, “Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught.”

As such the context in which the learning occurs communicates a great deal about the meaning that is created in the democratic classroom. And I raise these foundations of the T.A.L.O.N.S. program to your attention in part to refresh your memory that you’ve actually visited us in action. Along with our local MLAs, Coquitlam Superintendent Tom Grant, and other educational dignitaries, you were brought to see a few of our district’s exemplary classrooms at Gleneagle Secondary last fall. You were only with us for a few minutes, enough time to tout your government’s dedication to providing more education in line with how our students introduced the program’s philosophy, but I feel it appropriate at this time to highlight how incongruous your handling of the British Columbia Education file has been with public education’s democratic ideals in the time since.

Your government has been found twice to have violated BC teachers’ Charter rights to collectively bargain. Additionally, the Supreme Court found the Liberal Government to have bargained in bad faith to provoke a strike that would allow you further infringements of the province’s public servants. In the ten years that this affront to justice has been allowed to continue – in duplicated legislation and dubious appeals – the children of the province have seen their futures stolen out from under them with unstaffed libraries, under-supplied learning centers, closed language labs and counseling offices ill-suited to address today’s (significant) student needs.  The defense your government has raised when judged categorically by the Supreme Court to have broken the law (twice) is that adhering to the law as written would be “too expensive” at this stage in the game.

You can be forgiven for your lack of history education. But as someone charged by the government to teach young people about our democracy, I find it difficult to reconcile the lessons in my prescribed government curriculum with the context created by your Liberal government’s disrespect for the country’s highest law. After being told in 2011 that Premier Clark’s own Bills 27/28  were unconstitutional, the Liberals did not appeal the decision and proposed nearly identical legislation that was rejected by the Supreme Court yet again in 2014. Rather than take this judgment at face value, or even oppose it on the merits of the case, your government has instead hired a private trial lawyer at taxpayer expense to argue before the Court of Appeal not that the ruling was flawed, or that your government did not in fact violate teachers’ Charter rights, but that obeying the law would be too expensive.

As a private citizen you might be entitled to such unique interpretations of the country’s laws. In fact, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was conceived so that individuals would not be so vulnerable to the lumbering power of the State. But as a representative of an elected government, your continued disregard for the law of the land, taken together with the subversion of its very intent by using the Court of Appeal to further abuse educators and students is fundamentally opposed to the spirit of Canadian democracy as it is taught in the province’s schools. It is a shame that when you visited our classroom you weren’t given the opportunity to explain why it is you and your government feel it is that you are above the law.

Our public school classrooms are intended to reflect democracy as an ideal, a point beyond the horizon toward which humanity is forever striving. And this ideal holds that each individual’s voice is granted respect and protection by a mutual agreement that no one is above the law, or able to exert their will upon the group by sheer force or inherent power.  In attempting to design a classroom where these lessons are taught on the pages of our textbooks and in the activities we undertake as a class, the T.A.L.O.N.S. teachers’ intentions are to provide learners with lived lessons in democratic functioning.

What have your actions, and those of your government, sought to teach young people in British Columbia about democracy? About the rule of law? About our collective responsibility to one another?

When you visited us, and in the press releases I have seen in the time since, your words have often seemed directly in line with the values at the heart of the public education system. But your actions have consistently negated whatever weight these words might have carried, and such incongruence demands either an explanation or a change of course.

I would be heartily pleased to see either of these, though your past actions haven’t made me hopeful.

Regards,

Bryan Jackson T.A.L.O.N.S. Program Teacher SD43

EDCI 335: Final Design Project

EDCI335 Final Design from Bryan Jackson on Vimeo.

You can read the full PDF of the paper here

Background Drawing identified-gifted learners from the Coquitlam School District, Gleneagle Secondary School’s TALONS (The Academy of Learning for Gifted Notable Students) Program offers Ministry-identified gifted learners interdisciplinary core curriculum (Social Studies, English, Math, and Science for grades 9 and 10, all at an honours level), as well as experiential opportunities to complete Planning 10, Leadership 11 and PE 11. TALONS learning is largely organized around inquiry-based projects that make use of outdoor education and community service elements to imbue learning objectives with a greater tangible relevance to students and their local, as well as global, communities. In addition to covering provincial Ministry of Education curricula in the above courses, the program is grounded in George Betts’ Autonomous Learner Model (Betts & Neihart, 1986), with an emphasis on metacognition and acquainting each member of the cohort with skills and habits uniquely tailored to their own social and emotional roles in cultivating interdependence and community.

This design project was conceived to align both the explicit and implicit foci of British Columbia’s Social Studies 9 curriculum (Social Studies 8 to 10 Integrated Resource Package 1997) with a larger narrative expressed in the personal and collective learning in the TALONS classroom. By bringing the “Hidden Curriculum” into the open in this manner, the learning design intends to conceive of means of engaging the course material which are congruent with its ends. 

Digital Environments, Emergent Knowledge & Citizenship Learning

Untitled

Mock trial of King Charles I

EDCI 335 Challenge 10: What are the strengths/affordances of the technology or learning environment you have chosen for your learning design that will promote or facilitate learning?

In preparing the TALONS socials units this semester, I have sought to align aspects of technology, assessment and unit planning within larger values of emergent epistemology and citizenship learning. By bringing these different elements of my teaching into congruence, it is my hope that the class’ individual and collective learning is enriched by uniting these various aspects of their experience into a coherent and transformative narrative that will build throughout the semester and beyond.

To reflect these principles, technology has contributed a means of collecting and sharing class knowledge: aggregating and vetting various resources for study in our prescribed unit, presenting and synthesizing different aspects of the learning at hand, and providing a venue for assessment and reflecting on the course of study thus far. As we proceed (after spring break) the process will then recur to provide the goals, direction and implementation of future units of study as prior knowledge is re-organized, reconstituted and re-contextualized within new course content and experience.

As I’ve written about the class’ collaborative unit planning, I want to use this challenge post to collect and point toward a few specific examples of technology at work in TALONS Socials this semester.

At the outset, the class began by taking the prescribed learning outcomes specific to the English Civil War Unit in Social Studies 9, and employed an embedded Google Form in the class’ Wikispaces site for participant/learners to submit potential study materials. The selected materials were then rated according to our interpretation of the CRAAP Test, and the form was edited to highlight different resources that were either “Good to Go” (green), “Acceptable” (yellow), or “Extra” (red).

This exercise was an important place to begin for me as it placed the onus of research and curation on the class – rather than a teacher or the textbook. The debate about which sources were best suited to our purposes put the relevance and context of the unit in the class’ hands to be then planned and executed within our timeframe (before spring break). It was also my hope that such a discussion would lead organically into an inquiry of what meaning we are (each) to make of the English Civil War and its historical importance, and provide a context within which our individual understanding would emerge as the process unfolded.

Building on the questions and themes arising from the assembled resources and materials, the class then set about employing media and technology in synthesizing and sharing their learning on a variety of topics associated with the unit. There were adaptations of popular songs written to narrate the lives of Oliver Cromwell and his son, Prezi’s made to illustrate the historical timelines of James and Charles I’s reigns, and documentary films made about the trial of the King, to name a few. And in addition to being shared in class – in mini lessons, presentations, mock-trials and other demonstrations meant to share discovered knowledge with the immediate community – digital artifacts of the projects were/are being collected on the class site (alongside past years’ collected work and resources on the same unit).

The class Wikispaces site has long-been a valuable addition to the class’ study of socials, collecting a variety of different resources and media both created by past TALONS as well as useful materials existing on the wider web. It is an online accompaniment and ongoing assemblage of knowledge pathways which navigate the Socials 9/10 curriculum in British Columbia; but beyond serving to complement the TALONS’ own studies, the wiki’s existence as a repository of class work goes on to have a life as an open educational resource that serves a global community of learners. For example, the site’s statistics show that only 1/5 (22%) of the wiki’s traffic is even Canadian, and that the United States is responsible for more than half of more of the site’s 100 unique visitors per day

Whatever value it has beyond our own purposes, however, the course wiki represents an ever-unfinished and imperfect project, constantly in need of a structure which organizes knowledge in an accessible manner reflecting such an exponentially complex process of discovery.  And while the class has yet to meaningfully undertake a significant renovation or reorganization of the site, I am inspired at the prospect such a project might represent as an opportunity for the class’ unique perspectives to shape and engage in the creation of course knowledge itself.

Where each of these first two opportunities have presented means by which technology has influenced and (hopefully) supported the TALONS collective learning, the unit’s individual assessment has incorporated technology as a means of creating and sharing personal reflections and synthesis of learning across the class cohorts. The morning group opted to submit more anonymous reflections (corresponding to their student number for my reference) by way of a Google Form that, upon completion, shares the assembled responses with respondents, while the afternoon class decided to answer similar questions in the form of a post on their individual blogs.

The individual assessment asks TALONS to reflect on their process, habits and contributions to their individual study of the unit, their group’s project, as well as the larger classroom learning. Each is asked to highlight examples of their own or others lessons, or discussions which informed their thinking on the topics covered, as well as to expand on themes and questions raised during the course of the unit. Additionally, there are questions about the organization and implementation of the unit itself, and opportunities to influence future studies that will begin to shape our very next topic, completing the cycle of critical praxis for a first time.

Next week we will be taking up Socials 9’s next revolution in Europe and making use of each of these threads of learning, as we continue to:

  • shape the lessons of the class’ emerging understanding of the course content in individual voices and meanings, and
  • reevaluate and reconstitute the means by which that understanding is created to best serve our unique community of learners.

Continually seeking ways by which the class might be more consistently and actively engaged with these processes is central to both my epistemological and social-political beliefs about teaching social studies. And in these and other experiments yet to be undertaken this semester, technology plays a vital role in creating the opportunity to realize these lessons’ practical application.

Assessment for Critical Literacy

This semester’s Socials 9 curriculum was conceived with an intention to cultivate critical literacy, which I have come to define more and more as an ability to develop a praxis of reflection and action to continually discover and define meaning in an increasingly complex system. In learning from curricula, relationships or experience, individuals and societies alike are tasked with reinventing and transforming their reality as necessity and changing circumstances may dictate.

As I have attempted to re-imagine social studies as a venue for citizenship education, each of the TALONS classes have begun the semester with experiments in collaborative assignment and unit planning from the start. In considering our study of the English Civil War, there has been discussion of several questions:

What do we need to know? 

The class began by considering course outcomes and evaluating text and online materials to help guide the discovery of the unit’s main ideas, events and historical personages. Then set about generating criteria, a schedule and daily means by which the agreed-upon content could be learned.

In collecting, distributing and summarizing a range of primary and secondary sources on early 1600s England, What do we need to know was joined by What is there to be known about the topic? And as the readings’ various themes and ideas were identified and organized, the discussion shifted to consider What is important to know about these topics? As well as What do I think about all of this? 

But this was only one aspect of identification and collaboration to engage an agreed-upon problem. This is merely the deconstruction – the breaking into a million little pieces that could then be assembled into coherence anew through each learner/investigator’s reflection and action.

And it introduced a new question (and it’s a mouthful):

How do we know that we know what we’re now supposed to know (now)? 

In terms of reconstructing that knowledge, effective learning should also address the question How do we assess the learning that has taken place? But in considering critical literacy and consciousness, it becomes important that this question in particular is asked in such a way that it continues to be driven by the collaborative acumen and expertise of the group itself, just as the unit has been planned and carried out thus far.

This aspect of assessment is traditionally a means of learning owned and operated by the teacher. But the crux of this type of collaboratively-designed learning, and of the development of a continual praxis of behaviour, teacher and student are each challenged to engage their critical literacy, which may also be described as a kind of empathetic design research.

In their paper, Rethinking Design Thinking: Empathy Supporting InnovationMcDonagh and Thomas describe a process during which,

“as designers use empathy to support their research, ‘design moments’ emerge which provide them with more design-relevant data and supports product innovation.”

Here we see the designer’s role shift to that of a co-investigator, where

“the designer and user engage as collaborators, and together develop knowledge and understanding in order to generate appropriate solutions for real needs.

“Empathetic design research relies on the user being an active and participating partner within the information creation and designing process.”

Design’s quest for innovation begins to find itself within an emerging confluence of educational philosophy. Isn’t this innovation what Gregory Bateson might have described as transformative learning, or what Paulo Freire deemed a ‘limit situation‘?  This “simplicity of cause” comes as an affirmation of the ongoing praxis of co-investigation and co-creation that we might conceive of as critical literacy.

In looking toward assessing the English Civil War unit learning, the critical element arising out of the classes’ progress is the need for learners to acquire habits of mind and relation that make this continual praxis possible. For the TALONS (including myself), we may have found ourselves stalled and struggling to define and enact the required action for the moment. But while it may appear so on the surface, this moment of negative momentum is hardly an insurmountable obstacle. Indeed, it is the moment of tension in which true critical intelligences are asserted.

Critical Literacy in Assessment Methods

So we are confronted with the question, How do we know that we know what we’re supposed to know? It is a question of assessment, and one which is traditionally held at the end of units and courses of study as the sole dominion of the teacher. But such are the assumptions which bind both teachers and students to outdated pedagogies that may have fallen out of step with our stated intentions for learning: the apparent impossibility of imagining another way stops us from even considering it.

For my own part, even in projects and courses during which I have taken pains to co-investigate and instruct alongside my students as much as possible, the means of the learning still arrive at a point where my own voice is heard alone.

I arrive at a mark, and distribute feedback based on rubrics, course standards and report card criteria. And this isn’t to say that there isn’t still a place for this within institutionalized learning; indeed our competency and necessity as learning professionals is in many ways bound to our ability to evaluate and assess student learning.

But without obliterating the role of the teacher altogether, it is still possible to re-imagine the role of teachers in helping students direct not only the initial aspects of a project or course of study, but the means of assessment as well. To adopt the praxis of Freire’s critical consciousness is to confront the inherent difficulty of creating learning institutions where

“knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

While the teacher’s profession still involves the adjudication of academic or institutional success, the creation of a critical consciousness in schools still faces us with what Freire called “the teacher-student contradiction.” However, with the introduction of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bathkin‘s idea of polyphony, Alexander M. Sidorkin cultivates a third path between the ‘either or’:

“Bakhtin’s principle of polyphony offers a radically new way of conciliation of power imbalance within mutuality of relation. According to Bakhtin, an author of the polyphonic novel creates heroes that are fully independent of their creator. The problem of authority imbalance may be misstated; it is the specific kind of monological authority that eliminates mutuality, not authority itself. The polyphonic authority creates mutuality, and only this kind of authority should be used in education.”

Remixes, CRAAP Tests and Collaborative Unit Planning

Twitter as Citizenship Learning

For my EDCI: 335 class, Learning Design, I’ve thus far been addressing our discussion tasks and various thought exercises to my work with #IntroGuitar – especially as the class has been revised and relaunched for this new semester. But it feels as though there is also a lot going on in the TALONS Socials classes that has presented an avenue to manifest a lot of the theory underlying my term project in last semester’s EDCI 338, as well as aspects of our learning in EDCI 335.

As we have embarked on Socials 9 this year (our two-year class alternates between years of Socials 9 and 10), I have approached the spring semester in TALONS attempting to practice collaborative assignment and unit planning, offering opportunities in individual inquiry, media literacy created as an implicit expression of citizenship learning. With #IntroGuitar effectively “launched” for the time being, my planning focus has shifted to the beginning of socials 9, and the dawn of the modern era.

Remixing the Great Book of Knowledge

Over the past few weeks, we started with the source material of Kirby Ferguson‘s “Everything is a Remix” and CBC Ideas‘ The Great Book of Knowledge and set about discussing “the greatest knowledge revolution in human history ([which] began in our lifetime).” Pertinent as a connection to Gutenburg’s role in fostering the social conditions that brought about the Enlightenment period as well as to our present informational context, The Great Book of Knowledge presents the advent of Wikipedia as a manifestation of an emergent, socially created Truth. It seemed an apt place to begin talking about the advent of the bourgeois public sphere, and the creation of modern democracy.

From the hour long episode, each of the TALONS classes was left to organize and delineate the various themes and key ideas presented in the show. During each of these class discussions, I pledged not to talk unless necessary to clarify a technical aspect of information or procedure. In the vacuum created by eliminating the teacher’s voice, various individuals rose to the occasion to help bring about and represent the group’s thinking.

Momentum built slowly in either class’ discussion, with notes emerging on the board, and votes being taken to determine the show’s key themes and concepts.

Once the episode had been divided into as many segments as there were groups in the class, each ‘quad’ (group of four TALONS) was tasked with the creation of an audio remix that expressed the theme or thesis of their selected section. Each class brainstormed and supplied their own criteria for the assignment, and set about experimenting with the classroom technology – iPads, personal computers, Snowball Microphones.

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 8.04.35 PM

As a finale, the finished remixes were presented on K12 web radio station 105 the Hive live as a debut broadcast from the TALONS classroom. Class members took on the duties of slotting the remixes into an order reflecting their content, preparing copy and questions to read as MC/hosts, learning to navigate the broadcasting software and attending to the group’s various social media. With a few hiccups (network connectivity, a tripped extension cord), both morning and afternoon classes made auspicious debuts in presenting the live broadcasts, and archived their work on the class blog.

We even received a note from the producer of The Great Book of Knowledge, the CBC’s Philip Coulter:

Hey talented TALONS people!

I heard some of the remixes you posted on Soundcloud of The Great Book of Knowledge. They were terrific! Really imaginative work- you had a great feel for the ideas behind the programme and for how to take those ideas to another level, which is what remix is all about, and you obviously get it.

You’re lucky to be in such a great programme, and from a little cruising around your site its obvious that you’re doing really interesting work. Keep it up with creating things that no-one ever thought of before- thats called Art, and that brings us a better world!

Philip Coulter

Producer, The Great Book of Knowledge “Ideas” CBC Radio

CRAAP Testing the English Civil War

This week we have moved into a different sort of crowd-sourced media literacy, emulating Jim Groom and Paul Bond‘s Internet Course at the University of Mary Washington, and CRAAP Testing resources on the English Civil War.

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 5.01.52 PM

After applying the CRAAP Test to a reading that I supplied, we collected various resources and materials using a Google Form that was published in a wiki page dedicated to the activity. Next, each of the sources was evaluated and highlighted to indicate Good to Go (green), If you have time (yellow) or No Go (red).

In examining the resources Purpose(s), I provided the classes with the government’s prescribed learning outcomes for Socials 9, and asked which resources best fit the following tasks:

Students will: 

  • analyze factors that contribute to revolution and conflict
  • analyze the contributions of the English, French and American Revolutions in the development of democratic concepts
  • evaluate the changing nature of law and its relation to social conditions of the times

Collaborative Unit Planning 

Building on the questions raised by elements of the CRAAP Testing exercise, as well as the minimally guided dissection of The Great Book of Knowledge episode, collaborative unit planning has become a forum for developing the Ministry of Education’s “Applications of Social Studies,” wherein 

It is expected that students will: 

  • identify and clarify a problem, an issue or an inquiry
  • select and summarize information from primary and secondary print and non-print sources, including electronic courses
  • defend a position on a controversial issue after considering a variety of perspectives
  • co-operatively plan, implement, and assess a course of action that addresses the problem, issue or inquiry initially identified

Each of the morning and afternoon TALONS have pursued slightly different courses of action this week, as they have made their way through discussions about projects and readings, generating criteria and a two-week schedule (that will take us to Spring Break). In addition to addressing many aspects of the TALONS leadership curriculum in the spring semester – In-Depth Studies, Adventure Trips, and the culmination of an yearlong (and for the grade tens, a two-yearlong) exercise in community building – this approach is an extension of the reading and thinking I did last semester on developing an emergent curriculum.

Gert Biesta and Deborah Osberg describe a curriculum of emergence as one where:

“…knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object’ that can be transferred from one place to the next. Knowledge is understood, rather, to ‘emerge’ as we, as human beings, participate in the world. Knowledge, in other words, does not exist except in participatory actions.”

Having had the opportunity to experiment with the concept last semester in Philosophy 12, I am getting more and more comfortable with the idea that

“…to encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom, then the meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence.”

The Confederation Discussions

Confederation discussions

This past week, the TALONS classes have hosted and facilitated half-hour long activities and discussions that have been focused on an exploration of historical contexts and details of Canadian Confederation, as well as an attempt to cultivate the recently discussed Dispositions of Democratic Discussion

After an initial introduction to the Victorian era in the Canadian colonies, the unit’s focus on dialogue and discussion came about through lengthy collective reflections about each TALONS class’ strengths and areas requiring growth in oral participation and facilitation.

Major themes arising from these goal-setting sessions addressed:

  • Generating momentum at the beginning of a unit / week / class meeting: using hook-questions, soliciting initial opinions, and establishing a pace that invites broad participation and thinking.
  • Show people that their responses are relevant and valued within the discussion:
    • Make connections, follow up, refer to visual notes; demonstrate an appreciation of ideas.
  • Isolating the key issue, taking what has been said, and synthesizing the main question, issue, or key idea.
  • Guiding the discussion or lecture with questions and participant-responses, and discovering what types of questions or comments offer the most substance?
    • Conversation-starters,
    • Connections to past (or future) discussion points,
    • Inducing conversation, laughter, ease and comfort.
    • Allowing for quad/small group chats.
    • Posing questions generated within the moment.
    • Providing or soliciting visual notes.
  • Framing the topic or issue within the group’s existing understanding.
  • Involving the reluctant speaker by experimenting with the questions being asked, the format of the discussion, or style of engagement and individual participation.

On Monday there will be a traditional exam on the topics covered, and reflection assignments intended to synthesize personal and group learning about the skills and dispositions required for fruitful constructivist learning; it seemed appropriate to attempt to summarize my own observations of the unit.

Stars: Hospitality, Participation & Humility 

Each of the different discussions, debates and activities that the quads arranged found unique avenues toward involving a broader range of their classmates in a negotiation of understanding of the topics.

The different role-plays, mock-Parliaments, and small-group discussions created diverse entry-points and opportunities for quieter individuals to engage with their own thinking, that of their peers, and the new comprehension of the topics that came out of the process. The group’s and individuals presenting material or discussion points on the various topics were consistently humble in their own interpretation of the facts, and were quick to invite multiple perspectives into the conversation.

Wishes: Deliberation, Mindfulness & Hope

Going forward, for my part I would like to focus on building on cultivating greater mindfulness and deliberation by exploring the different ways that individuals can document and share their individual understanding (beyond classroom dialogue) in the hope that our time spent in discussion can go beyond the initial concepts to ask more philosophical, or related questions on the topics covered.

I think this synthesis of ideas beyond basic understanding will ask for a more consistently mindful approach to the class’ collective goals. This will require not only that discussion-participants raise the intensity and attentiveness of their own engagement with their ideas and one another, but that our moderators and classroom leaders are able to recognize and articulate the group’s learning intentions with clarity, and provide the modeling and facilitation to bring these goals about.

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.