An Ignite Talk: No handbook for Transcendence

Pic courtesy of Dean Shareski

Pic courtesy of Dean Shareski

What a hoot tonight to come share in a blitz of ideas with a room full of #bced folks, convened around food and drink, rallying around a call from Dean Shareski to talk about our passion projects. The atmosphere was loud and fun, thoughtful and provocative, and I’m glad to have dusted off at least an hour’s (or a PhD’s) worth of ideas to cram into a five minute – fifteen second a slide – presentation.

In a bar. With the Canucks game on in the corner. On a mic that seemed poised to drown us in feedback with a step in the wrong direction.

But if that makes the task sound a chore, it really was the perfect setting to dash across way too many ideas in the time allotted: indeed it is the appeal of the Ignite Talk format. There isn’t room for any pontificating, audience interaction, or derivations into the fescue after an interesting anecdote to illustrate a point.

There is just the idea you brought to share. And then it’s gone.

Then there are more talks.

It was great, really, even if I felt rushed, and left stuff out, and probably crushed several different words together trying to get them all out at once.

Anyway, the great thing about giving talks and presentations to groups of plugged in people is that the job is really just to get them curious about the things the presenter has been spending time thinking about / experimenting with / learning. If anyone is so inclined, they can seek out the breadcrumbs that lead to these lessons and insights later on, if they choose.

If they’re not, the talk is over in five minutes.

Tonight I returned to a topic I’ve discussed before in presentations, blog posts, academic papers, and casual conversations and rants going on more than a year now: Citizenship Learning and the Project of Enlightenment. It’s a big topic. Too big, really, for five minutes, but as my opening lines addressed, education is a matter of infinite complexity driven by a simplicity of cause. What’s underneath all that complexity is a simple idea, one that we’re always shaping together: What is school for? Why are we learning?

Here then are my slides and the notes I was working with for those that would like to pursue these ideas in a little more depth. Links to many of the things discussed here – and more… – are in this Google Document. Click on any of the images below to see them bigger.

No Handbook for Transcendence 


Emerson wrote that, “At the periphery there is infinite complexity, and at the center, simplicity of cause.” And I like to think that just as our work as educators is infinitely complex, it is driven by a simple cause.


When it comes to learning we stand at the intersection of philosophies that constitute what several have deemed the Project of Enlightenment: the cultivation of the self, of knowledge, and society that encompass the study of epistemology, metaphysics and citizenship.

But I wonder whether we honour the traditions that first created the need for institutional learning.


I wonder what does constructivism – what emergent subjectivities forming a unique collective voice – really looks like? What if knowledge “does not exist except in our participatory actions”?


I wonder what our schools would look like if we embraced the idea that democracy is dependent on the ability of individuals to create public spheres representative of a collective will?


Because if this is true, and ‘new ways of knowing ourselves can create new conceptions of the self, and new possibilities for the search for the self itself,’ teachers and learners are forced to rewrite the book daily. The metaphor of the digital campfire, where we share our stories and songs recalls the infinite complexity and simplicity of cause.


Fortunately, lots of intelligent people have been talking about this for quite some time, and a theme that emerges describes Enlightenment as the acquisition of knowledge about our boundaries and experimentation with the act of going beyond them.


A big part of the reason we put such a high importance on the ability to transcend our selves and our contemporary problems is that it is just this sort of behavior which gave us the modern age.

It’s no accident that we begin to see the end of feudalism, the monopoly of the Catholic church, the emergence of the scientific age, and the artistic renaissance at the same time we start building schools, and parliaments, and the institutions of democracy.


Unfortunately for us, where once various media allowed us a free exchange of ideas and the creation of a representative public opinion, Habermas says that the public sphere has been degraded to “spectacle,” frivolity, and “passive consumption.”

Good thing that didn’t happen to us, right Kim Kardashian?


Now, the good thing is we’re all about this stuff, in every ‘official’ way possible.

Any one of your district’s mission statements and you’ll find some combination of things Immanuel Kant and Paulo Freire and Michel Foucault would stand up and applaud.

Lifelong learning would by necessity become Foucault’s definition of Enlightenment, wouldn’t it?


But if we’re to be creating and preparing tomorrow’s citizens for the job (as opposed to just saying this is what we’re doing), we need to remember a couple of things:

One is that learning about this type of citizenship happens everywhere.


Another is that the context in which a thing is learned says more about what is being being taught than the thing itself. So we need to be careful that we don’t devote our thinking to what is to be taught at the expense of thinking about the contexts in which the learning takes place, and the meaning communicated by these contexts.


And that might just look like this: Maybe it could espouse openness as a way of operating. It could cultivate habits of mind, rather than contents. And maybe the knowledge created there would be seen to emerge from the sum of its parts.


School could become the kind of place that is filled by the will of its participants. A cave they could populate with their own shadows, and made into meaning by the assembled voices of a community of inquiry.


Assignments, then, and assessment, and the problem of educational design could become the challenge of providing a platform on which to reflect, and develop one’s voice: something that might be deemed socially documented inquiry.


Something like this owes a lot to what Gardner Campbell coined and that Jim Groom and Tim Owens and Martha Burtis have been developing at the University of Mary Washington, with the Domain of One’s Own and Reclaim Hosting, where learners become system administrators of their digital lives.

“Shaping their own cognition, expression and reflection in a digital age…”


Because the antidote to the degraded public sphere may just be subverting the system of power through the very same media channels which operate it.

This is our Philosophy classroom, with a worldwide reach. It’s learning not only on the web, but of the web, conceived in the same spirit.


Here is our classroom broadcasting live on 105 the Hive, distributed web radio, sharing a remixed episode of CBC’s Ideas with live introductions and interviews with the producers of each remix. Media archivists Tweeted feedback and promoted the event in progress, catching the attention of Philip Coulter at the CBC, who emailed his praise.


Here’s what a ‘test’ looks like in an emergent classroom. If you were to get 10 out of 10 on a quiz like this every day, you wouldn’t need the same kind of teacher you have now.


Because the trouble with the types of paradigm shifts our continued Enlightenment depends on is that there’s no handbook to transcendence. The wisdom adopted and created by each successive generation is a collaborative act young people need to rehearse and explore with adults engaged in this struggle.


That struggle to “generate public spaces of social interaction… based on finding agreement, welcoming different points of view, identifying the common good… searching for synthesis and consensus, promoting solidarity and ultimately improving community life.”

On motivating the Difficult Student

Brooke’s challenge post brought something to mind I’ve been struggling with myself in EDCI 335 this semester:

“In the coursework this term, and in my work, [I] feel like content and ideas are flying into my head, being held in temporary holding long enough to process it into a semi-reasonable response, and quickly vacating for the next piece.”

Having been curating a personal course of study online and in my classes informally now going on five years, the weekly demands of my Learning Design course have often felt like derivations from a larger arc of learning I am actively synthesizing in discussions, posts and reflection in the classroom and beyond it. While recognizing the benefit of encountering influence and dialogue outside my general sphere of inquiry, I have frequently struggled to successfully integrate the intended outcomes of the course with my own existing narrative of personal learning coming into this term.

My design posts, both on this blog and in our silo’d discussion boards have often only seemed loosely bound by the central thread at their centre – me. Generally I have made what feel like scattershot responses to questions and debates I am not meaningfully connected to, or are housed in terminology or semantic distinctions that I often have seen as problematic in my own thinking, and are interrelated only in so much as they correspond to a textbook whose author cautioned me that I “might not the target audience” for it.

It’s not that I don’t think there is value in exploring this conflict. Indeed, these epistemological and linguistic concepts of learning are aspects of any topic that I find interesting. Whether arts, politics or education, the construction and transformation of different epochs or paradigms cut to the heart of my foundational beliefs about life and learning, and are where my own philosophical values align with both my professional and personal learning intentions.

But as our units have progressed and each begun anew with the assertion of various contentious assumptions about learning and knowledge, I have felt constrained by the compulsion to reexamine these same premises in each new argument before presenting what would be my own interpretation of the topic or questions associated with it. This perceived distance from our covered topics have made me a poor contributor to the class’ various discussion threads and conversations and have left  me feeling generally that “Design Thinking” and I can just agree to disagree.

But here I am.

I continue.

Because I need the marks for this week’s assignment, and next week’s, and last’s.

Because I need to get a grade in this course that will allow me to continue in the next phase of my studies.

And because I’m driven by the fear that I will have not answered the question sufficiently, or might in exploring my own perspective on the topic be seen to be missing the point of the exercise entirely.

In and of themselves, these are grim motivational forces, it’s true. And at times they have brought about unfavourable turns of my student profile.

From an early age, I have possessed an anti-authoritarian streak that rejects anything that doesn’t yield personal relevance or connection before I can engage in it meaningfully. Similar to the gifted students I work with these days, I want to know why we’re doing this – whatever it is – before I can commit to doing it. And I want to ask questions about the meaning or the relevance of the activity itself often much more than I am ever willing to “just jump through the hoop” and meet the task head on.

But what might have seemed at younger ages as defiance or oppositional behaviour, I’ve come to believe is part of the spirit and tradition of intellectual and philosophical thought. In attempting to align a sense of my own epistemology with existing values of pedagogy, I feel only more firm in myself and confident to pursue and create such personal courses of study, even when it might not be the path of least resistance.

At thirty two I’ve come to feel more confident in my seventeen-year-old decision to include a satirical essay with my high school Graduation Portfolio that initially earned me a failing grade back in grade twelve. Responding to one of the topics, “How has your education prepared you for the future?” I took the opportunity to [sarcasm] graciously thank the school system for the opportunity to participate in the fledgling Career and Personal Planning curriculum [/sarcasm] in an essay that caught the eye of the teacher in charge of signing off on our portfolios. When my parents later demonstrated to an administrator that the teacher’s reaction to the essay had unfairly biased him toward the rest of my portfolio, I was issued a 50% and allowed to graduate on time in the end.

But I’ve been fascinated by this whole process ever since, and even more so now that I teach: why in the school’s opinion was it more important for me to be obedient, in that case, than to exercise my critical thinking?

And why did my school not look to engage me as a learner, rather than seeking first to punish me?

I can only assume that without my parents’ potential to embarrass the teacher and the school over the whole scenario, I would have been forced to comply with the their wishes and then either not graduate or submit a placative assignment. And while it’s not indicative of the entirety of schooling, and perhaps unfair to extrapolate based on a unique experience, the memory (evidently) guides me these days as both a teacher and a student.

As many teachers do, perhaps, I try to create learning opportunities that I would have seen as meaningful and thus benefitted from as a learner when I was a student. And the dual role created by Learning Design this semester has been eye opening as I reflect on my learning as a student when I’m  caught between the oft-quoted maxim that we should “never let education interfere with learning,” and the knowledge that there are certain responsibilities to be placated within institutionalized learning.

Somewhere between the chaotic wandering of rhizomatic learning and replicative-education there is a balance to be struck, isn’t there?

Or from circumstance to circumstance, will one always win out over the other?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking this semester about what motivates me to learn, and a lot of time thinking about what triggers these instances where my motivation wanes. I’ve been thinking about how our institutions are set up to deliver on their mandate to produce beneficial skill-sets and competencies in younger generations, as well as nurture a lifelong love of learning in each of them.

And I wonder if these two aims might be at odds with one another, somehow?

How do we engage in organic learning, learning that is propelled by the individual within the (perceived) contexts of its collectives, and yet which fulfills these external, institutional measures as well?

The teachers who have been able to connect to my ‘difficult’ student are hopefully the ones I embody in my teaching these days. From elementary school, to university, to teacher-training and the informal spaces along the way, these teachers have been able to frame opportunities for learning as personally relevant and meaningful to me, and have acted as mediators between me as an individual and larger institutional requirements, contextualizing these experiences in terms that arouse my own motivation to engage and grow with them.

If the work of teachers is ultimately relational, and relies uniquely on our abilities of empathy and creativity, this is where much of it resides.

The TALONS meet Alec Couros, via Skype

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of TALONS students had the opportunity to visit a classroom at the University of Regina. Professor of Educational Technology Dr. Alec Couros extended an opportunity for classrooms to connect to his, via Skype, so that his class of student-teachers could gain first hand responses to their questions about the use of technology in working classrooms across the globe. Throughout the day classrooms from across Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia participated in video chats with Dr. Couros’ students in Saskatchewan, and at 2pm, a select group of TALONS – all of whom blog, Tweet, and live Facebook-savvy lives of “regular” Skyping with Dr. Alec Courosteenagers beyond their academic use of the Internet and computers – contributed first hand knowledge of what works, what doesn’t, and what they would like to see when teachers set out to implement different technology into the classroom. Dr. Couros’ classroom was projected on the wall of Gleneagle‘s office conference room, and the TALONS were broadcast in real time halfway across the country, allowing for shared learning and collaboration newly available to today’s students.

Holiday Reflections

Today is the first true day of my holiday, as I lay in bed until ten before slowly preparing coffee and a light breakfast before settling down to lazily catch up with my digital goings on. There are still presents to make, or piece together from stops at the mall or other local shops, and a trip into Kitselano to pick up my new, temporary bottom teeth (meaning that for Christmas I am literally recieving my six front teeth). But today I intend to explore my Google Reader’s starred items, Twitter Favourites, and Delicious network’s bookmarks – which though managable through the myriad capabilities of my iPhone, persist in becoming cluttered.

But before I begin with all of that, I wanted to share and point to a few strudent reflections on the holiday season. A festive lot if the school were to have one, our class made Friday a memorable celebration of family in the form of our class with energy and creativity. When we arrived in class, my teaching partner and I were introduced to a video bearing the first clue in a scavenger hunt that would – in rhyme – lead us to the band office, PE Wall of Fame, front hallway and back to the classroom to find it decorated and ready for our pot-luck Secret Santa gift exchange. But the Hunt wasn’t over, as each of our clues had yeilded several Scrabble pieces that still had to be assembled to yeild the final hints which led us each to the hidden locations of our gifts from the students.

scavenger huntAt such times I cherish being a part of a class that is capable of taking ownership over the ongoing creation of community and a nuturing learning environment. The leaders in class have gone to great lengths to establish a sense of familial interdependance this year, and continue to look forward to this spring’s Adventure Trip and In-Depth Studies with energy and originality.

In honour of my first real morning of holiday, I wanted to share some of the class’ writing about Christmas, and the holidays, and spread some of the class’ holiday cheer. I look forward to the coming week providing me with the time to adequately reflect and create posts on a few classroom topics and activities (including the “Don’t Stop Believing” in Christmas Sing Along, the TALONS class’ Representative Democracy group project, and a few of the early results of our school’s Social Studies Educational Technology Learning Team). May your holidays be similarly inspiring, and lend themselves to an energized start to the new year!

I find the evolution of Christmas quite fascinating. Once the holiday was Pagan, then it became Christian, and now I’m not sure what it is. I think how you view the holiday probably depends on your family and where you live. My family, for one, is not Christian but we’ve celebrated Christmas my entire life. I guess we see it as a celebration of family and a reason to light up the darkest months of the year. Many people I know feel the same way. Yet, in the United States, where my grandparents live, Christmas is still very strictly religious. Merry Christmas only belongs to Christians. Here in Vancouver, it doesn’t really matter. We don’t need Happy Holidays or Season’s Greetings. Our class has recently been discussing multiculturalism and I think that the more liberal Canadian view of Christmas is a reflection of our attitudes towards the celebration and preservation of diversity. Why make Christmas, the best holiday of the year, exclusionary? Well, happy December!

How was I supposed to explain to my 7 year old brother that magic was real? Last year my mum showed me the Christmas present that Santa was going to give me, telling me that he wasn’t real. It didn’t upset me that my parents lied, because, for me, they made the magic true. They helped me understand the wonder in the unknown and also, in giving. Why would an old fat man give gifts to millions of kids and get nothing in return? My parents showed me what being generous and caring meant through Santa. When I bought or made gifts for people, I felt like Santa, I felt magic.

Last year’s Christmas seemed a little less special, a little less anticipated, a little less…like the feeling you get when you bundle up on a freezing snowy day, drinking hot chocolate, feeling it trickle down your throat and the warmth spreading through you, while watching the sheets of snow silently drifting down. What joy it was to know that you were remembered by such a busy person with so many people to keep track of. What bliss it was to know that you were special.

I suppose I believe things that people find silly, like unicorns or other mythical creatures wandering the depths of some nameless forest, alternate worlds, rips in time and places, that some crop circles are made by aliens, the Fey and Faerie of the old haunts in British Isles, Atlantis, that stars are actual beings put up by the gods in mythology….and other things that perhaps are not so silly: fate, destiny, heaven, reincarnation, love….magic in general.

What I’m trying to say is this: Christmas comes but once a year, so we should all make the most of it. Some things are out of our control, but that shouldn’t stop us from enjoying the holiday season. There are so many wonderful, glorious, and exciting parts of Christmas. It is a most beauteous holiday. So from me to you (whoever you may be), have the merriest Christmas you’ve ever had!

Classroom Doors, Open to the World

In keeping an ongoing record of our class’ experiment in becoming globally connected and networking learners (teachers most humbly included), I will be occasionally sharing examples of student blogs along the lines of various assignments as a means of both celebrating and sharing exemplars of student blogs and writing, as well as inviting the reaches of my own personal learning network into the students’ opinions, writing, and learning.

To that end, our study of Alistair MacLeod’s “To Everything There is a Season”  has made its way to the discussion of students’ theme statements for the story, which I asked them to impart, express or defend in the form of a blog post that would become – in my words – an informal essay. Tell me what you think the theme is, and why.

My intention in describing the writing this way may seem to hasten and encourage the informal chatspeak of MSN, text-messages, and email (with its uncapitalized i’s, non-existent commas, and rampantly incongruous uses of semi-colons). But as our students come from several middle schools around the district and everyone has had a different experience with essays, arguments, and the criticism of literature, I wanted to see what would arise without laying out the forms and norms of formal writing (which I think can tend to intimidate and stifle the natural creativity and confidence necessary to write about literature).

Well, here is what happened (if you haven’t read the story, spoilers will abound below):

  • Reflect upon the past, look forward to the future and remain in the present – Donya (grade nine) has concocted an original organizational structure to lay out her supporting evidence according to the various time frames addressed by the story’s characters.
  • “Every man moves on, but there is no need to grieve. He leaves good things behind.” I love how Jenna has cribbed the last lines of the story to be included in her own closing argument for the story’s theme.
  • Believe in that tiny light ahead, it might just wait for you. Louise creates a very thorough and engaging argument for theme built out of her own experiences and relationship with the character of Santa Claus.
  • At the beginning of the story, our protagonist is trying to figure out whether or not he believes in Santa Claus. Andrew does a great job at retaining some of the formal conventions in writing about literature, and manages to make a personal argument without the use of (too many) unnecessary personal pronouns.
  • What is comforting is not always true. Liam makes an eloquent personal appeal for his theme that addresses human nature and our natural affinity for order, stories, and their salvation.

But these are merely the highlights of the posts I was able to digest before the assignment’s due date. Out of fewer than ten early submissions, there were at least eight examples worth sharing with the class, our school, and now the world. To tune into our conversation, follow our shared Google Reader feed here, as well as our comment feed here. The rest of our class blogging information (links to each student blog, our comment and blog RSS, as well as Twitter hashtags and Delicious bookmarks) is supplied for you here.

Don’t be a stranger! Stay tuned for highlights from next week’s creative pieces, and a term, semester and year of outstanding student expression. I am looking forward to it!