No more pendulums

Regarding Mike Caulfield’s latest thoughtful post:

On one level, I couldn’t agree more. I write this post after long silence not to refute Mike’s ideas, wonderfully expressed, deeply encouraging.

But I’m driven to respond because the matter is not simply one of awakening from a “hasa” world into the brave new “isa” world. If only it were that simple. “Hasa” and “isa” are not alternatives. They are partners in a dance. They are both parts of the inescapable, imperfect, provisional, necessary work of conceptualization itself. Of identity.

There’s a “hasa” element in our experience that we should not reject, lest we swing from one mistake to another.

What I’m finding this summer, for example, is that the course of study, as an experience, does indeed have its own integrity and identity, and that students in some cases want to keep their front page (let’s call it) unique to each class. (Yes, I understand that RSS makes this possible and even trivially easy, but there’s more to it than that.) Example: I have two students who decided to start a new blog for a new class, with an entirely separate URL, because they wanted to craft their work in a different “room” (see below). They didn’t want simply to tag their work in one common space and feed those tagged materials into separate places. They wanted to start in those different places, perhaps to recombine the work later in different ways, perhaps not.

I hope they do find the connections and decide to explore recombinations, of course. Not only do I hope it, I encourage it. Part of the problem is that many students will have to be taught to understand the linking and cross-pollination opportunities the web and a CMS like WP present to them, because those opportunities are hidden by systems like Blackboard, and because for many reasons those opportunities are what schools say they provide when what’s truly rewarded is High Compartmentalization. Sure. But we who provide these opportunities also need to understand that students may want to work through, experience, and communicate in different environments depending on the course of study (or the nature of the experience), a course of study that is itself an experience locatable in time and (often) in space. And that location can matter in beneficial ways, like measures in music or a frame around a picture. Context yields meaning. The trick is to teach people that context is not always a given. It too can be shaped by our decisions. There’s a metacontext, after all, or before it….

(Maybe it’s the difference between a narrative and an interactive game. We need both experiences to help us shape our understanding. Folks who speak of the boring “linear” narrative vs. the exciting “interactivity” of a game are missing the glories of each. But I digress.)

A container is not necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on how we create, understand, and use those containers. Identity is a container, for example, and often a problematic one. But without identity there’s no alterity, and without alterity there’s no love, no freedom. But of course the identity-container needs to be both whole and open, both bounded and permeable.

Or maybe it’s like having different rooms in a house. Sure, it’s one house, but having different rooms is a way of acknowledging the different facets of one’s experience, even though all the experiences are at home, and home is indeed uniquely personal and intimate.

The typical LMS, of course, is not like different rooms in a house. It’s like different peeling-paint waiting rooms in different grey buildings in Anywheretown. Instead of open doors leading easily from one room to another, there are walls and gardens locked away from view, etc. The horror: Blackboard and the many administrative conveniences it serves and mirrors give us all the malignancy of difference with none of its real benefits. In many respects, there’s no real “difference” in these different locked grey buildings at all….

But the impulse of which the LMS is an institutional perversion is not, I’m beginning to think, wholly wrong. The challenge is to re-imagine school so that the boundaries can be artful, changeable, semi-permeable, and the result of creative decisions, not administrative convenience.

Most of all, learning management itself should be part of what a student studies and crafts, part of what the teacher models, not a one-size-fits-all monstrosity that keeps all the work and all the teaching materials hidden and hermetically sealed. Every course of study, in one way or another, should ask of its teachers and students, “What do you make of this? What can we make of this?” And, yes, the ethical question: “what should you make of this, and what should we make of this, and while we’re at it, what should we make of this you-me-we thing, anyway?”

Sadly, as I realize every day (I seem to forget it every night), many students, faculty, staff, and administrators will view this freedom and self-reliance as at best a nuisance, at worst an attack on carefully ordered and compartmentalized lives. To a considerable extent, the educational system we have is the system most people apparently want. It’s a transactional system, not a community of shared endeavor.

I am not sure what to do about this situation. I do feel strongly, however, that we must immediately abandon talk about “learner-centered” or “student-centered” education vs. “teacher-centered” education. That dichotomy seems very appealing on the surface, especially because it seems very democratic, and also because of the home truth that only the student can decide to learn. I embrace that home truth, wholeheartedly. No teacher can decide that a student will learn, and no system can simulate that decision for the student in any truly effective way. No system should try. Nevertheless, “student-centered” starts to sound like “power to the people” to me at times, and I’m increasingly skeptical that it means what we want it to mean. Who are these people and what is the power we imagine? (Related question: Why do we think most students are unhappy with a transactional model? I’m not sure that most of them are.) I also think, with all due respect, that “student-centered” can all too easily become a communitarian fiction that hides the real power, and the real value, of teaching, and teachers, and mastery.

Worse yet: it’s one short step from “student-centered” to “customer-driven.” David Wiley’s post, linked to by Martha above, is relevant here as well.

For me, at this point, all real school must be “learning centered,” that is, devoted to identifying and shaping and nurturing a community that has devoted itself to learning. Real school is centered not on people, per se, but on people’s commitments. It’s a crucial distinction. Our rights, responsibilities, and identities as members of this community are conveyed not automatically, or statically, or unthinkingly, merely because we’re on the payroll or registered for a class. Those rights, responsibilities, and identities are conveyed because of shared commitments. Commitments born of trust, commitments reflecting each person’s willingness to risk, to contribute. Commitments born of each person’s decision, like the books in Donne’s heavenly library in his “Mediation 17,” to lie open to each other, to read, and be read by, the other.

That commitment is our homework: the work we do at home, and the work that builds a home.

I don’t have the whole answer, but at least for this day, I do feel I understand one part of it: any educational system, whatever its design or ideology, that hides, downplays, avoids, or otherwise redirects our attention from the absolute necessity of shared, wholehearted commitment is, in my view, deceptive and destructive. Specifically, anti-human.

Our identities are real, and meaningful, but their meanings are activated only in relationship.

I began this post in darkness, several hours ago. Now light frames my basement window. What do I see? I’m not sure. Do you see what I see? I’m not sure of that either.

S’io credesse che mia riposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’ i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

http://tinyurl.com/yv2yad

15 thoughts on “No more pendulums

  1. Yes. Location–a conceptual “room”–provides the opportunity for focus. It’s less about boundaries and more about attention. Compartmentalization on the other hand, works primarily to keep things out–to keep things separate–like gated communities and TV dinner trays.

  2. “Or maybe it’s like having different rooms in a house. Sure, it’s one house, but having different rooms is a way of acknowledging the different facets of one’s experience, even though all the experiences are at home, and home is indeed uniquely personal and intimate.”

    Keep on dwelling in possibility, Gardner, a fairer house than Blackboard. 🙂

  3. Consider also that the purpose of student blogging is not just personal. The blog medium typically has an audience, even if it’s only peers or professors. To clump multiple classes into one blog would detract from the blog’s appeal to its audience. A blog focused on one subject brings attention to the subject. A blog focusing on multiple subjects brings attention to the relationships between the subjects, ultimately bringing attention more to the author and his or her interests, rather than the subjects. This is because everything that is viewed in a blog is perceived as a whole; tagging and categorization are merely sub-parts to the whole.

    Let’s say I have a blog designated to my studies in Economics. I could easily name my blog “Studies in Economics” and categories could be neatly divided into macroeconomics and microeconomics. Now let’s say I have a blog designated to Calculus, Linguistics, and Biology. What could I name this blog but “Studies for Fall 2007” in which there is weak subject connection? Categorization, too, would be sloppier as more branches would stem in hierarchal tree of subjects.

    To aggregate separate ideas into one page is to create a Web Portal, which has an identity of its own. The CNN.com homepage is a decent available example. The purpose of its homepage is to announce its own identity by displaying a synopsis of each of its subjects: Politics, Entertainment, Health, Tech and so on. A blog does not separate things so cleanly. A blog represents a notebook whereas a Web Portal represents more of a shelf of books. It’s possible to organize different ideas in a single spiral notebook, but it might be more efficient for both the writer and the readers to write in separate notebooks.

    So if the school would like their students to have a centralized location for all their work, they should be give them each a single web portal that feeds to various blogs and such. Provide the shelf for students to store their various notebooks.

    Good post!

  4. Wow. You’ve hit so many important nails on the head here. You’ve pushed and challenged some of the very things I was talking about with folks in Montana this week. Now, I need to go back and figure out how it all fits in. I need to do some re-thinking. . .

    I’m curious about your question/statement:

    “Related question: Why do we think most students are unhappy with a transactional model? I’m not sure that most of them are.)”

    What do we do about this? If students want the transactional model, how do we find a space for that?

  5. I’ve been wanting to comment all day but, I didn’t want to rush it, so I had the whole day at work to think about it.
    First off wonderful post and good to hear your “blog-voice” again after a period of silence.
    Today as I was watching the newest Harry Potter at the theatre I couldn’t help but draw connections to Real School (I swear the connections are really there). In Harry’s fifth year they are no longer learning actual skills in defense against the dark arts (even when the threat from Voldemort is obvious) and they spend their time learning theories and never apply them (learning in a vacuum?). In rebellion against this Harry forms a group of people to secretly learn and train on how to actually use the skills because they’re necessary for the battles to come. But the oddest moment came when the students were taking standardized testing and Umbridge (the lady who put in place the restrictions) was standing in front of a giant swing pendulum. I thought to myself “No more pendulums!”. A strange coincidence or maybe its the fact I can’t get real school off my brain.

    Your post has brought together a lot of pieces for me and you always seem to remind me that most often it is not oppositional dichotomies battling against each other, nothing is black and white. You said, “The challenge is to re-imagine school so that the boundaries can be artful, changeable, semi-permeable, and the result of creative decisions, not administrative convenience”. Wow, I have been thinking this (though of course it sounds nicer the way you said it) because their needs to be certain requirements and boundaries but, at the same time those requirements and boundaries cannot be permanent edifices, unable to change with the times. They also need to be thoroughly thought through because otherwise it ends up being a dead requirement (see the former Information Technology proficiency test).
    Lastly, I loved this quote:
    “Our identities are real, and meaningful, but their meanings are activated only in relationship.”
    What a thing of beauty.

  6. Pingback: Mike Caulfield » Blog Archive » Inverted LMS Revisited: The various uses of containers

  7. Oh, soooo good to read your voice again.

    I take a few important points away — one, I need to temper my bent toward radical student focus on my ideal tool selection criteria… if the students want a special space, they should have it (then again, ti should be their choice). And your distinction between learning centered and learner-centered is exactly the kind of close reading we need more of in our discipline. And a distinction based on commitment is a very provocative idea.

    But mainly, I’m so grateful for how you engage what I see as a central tension in this field. As I’ve observed the Andrew Keens Michael Gormans of the world do their thing, I find myself less outraged than saddened by a sense of missed opportunity. There is such a huge and necessary space for people who get the potential of new media to offer some honest and rigorous critique. I do try to use these periodic cautions of yours to temper my enthusiasms, ones fueled by frustrations.

    As an aside, I came across this post this AM, and perhaps it’s relevant: http://www.brynmawr.edu/etc/etcblog/2007/06/students-not-as-tech-savvy-as-we-think.html

    Such a fine post, thanks!

  8. Gardner,

    For me this post is strange dark and hopeful at the same time. I read it yesterday morning as was almost angry for some inexplicable reason. I read it last night at I was strangely confused, I read it gain this evening and I am struck with its power, emotion, and fierce intensity. I realize it manifested anger in my originally because it forced me to think about those difficult questions I all too often evade or intentionally overlook. I all too often want to rip down the edifices and build them anew, but when I have a new blueprint in mind, I often become as dogmatic and fierce committed to it as I

  9. (con’t from above, sorry 🙂

    …was to ripping down the old system. Moderation often infuriates me, as does an over conceptualization of a problem all too common in academia. Why? Well, because I feel that the more we sit around and think about all of these issues, the sooner the technology will define the channels through which we understand these ideas. What we are doing by challenging the traditional LMS in its entirety is literally destroying the conduits of power through which we aggregate, create, publish and share information. Blackboard was lame five, even seven years ago -this is nothing new. What is new, however, are these alternatives and possibilities -how a student uses these tools, as a container, an integrated notebook, neither, both is purely up to them -and that is the point. They should be given the ability to decide, yet the might often choose the path of least resistance. But this is nothing new, and I am not sure that we can even fully meet your call for commitment given the way in which our credential system has framed education as a transactional system.

    I certainly think a number of students are here first and foremost for a degree, a credential. But what credential do they get in Business Administration or Education that they can’t already get in the world around them. Might the same be said for a host of other disciplines? Even English? I don’t know, and I would like to instinctually answer of course not, but I just don’t understand how a curriculum that refuses any in-depth, classical rigor can prepare students for the cultural explosion that the internet represents. How could the possibly read these connections through a context that they are never provided? I, for one, would eliminate just about every marketable discipline from a Liberal Arts college and return its mission to the core elements of an education: philosophy, classics, religion, literature, history, art, theater, dance, languages. But the changes that need to happen go so far beyond the technology that it seems almost irrelevant to pose these issues together. The technology may, however, offer a way to subvert the Taylorization of education by allowing a space for dialogue both within and beyond the requirements of a “general education.” Education should never be general, nor should it be required -it should be, as you so beautifully state, premised on wholehearted commitment -but commitment to what? -to one another? -to a community? -to a belief in the value of learning? How can that be possible in this day and age? None of these skills are marketable, all of them remain in the realm of idealism, and each of them reflect the very problem of institutions that reinforce the idea empty idea of knowledge as some kind of quantifiable property. I scored this much on my SAT, I achieved this grade, etc. this seems to me just a reflection of the invidious comparisons that are born from the different ways people “consume” knowledge for a profit or as a means to power. Black Mountain College in North Carolina had it all figured out. You go there to think, imagine, read, converse, and take risks. You leave when you are finished doing as much without so much as a diploma, final exam, paper, etc. You were not tested, nor expected to produce something, but to take some time out in think about things within a community of folks who also believed in the value of a collective space for an unstructured education. Knowledge can never be property for the innumerable reasons you list above, yet we all have so much invested in the real estate of higher education that to imagine some other system of sharing information as a solution to the transactional model of a credential based education is really a moment of alterity –that is seldom, if ever, the conditions of possibility for love or freedom . A relationship premised on ideas and beliefs is not about ownership -it’s about relationship. And the tenuous distinctions we have erected in regards to experts and pupils in education more generally obscures the fact that we have systematically uprooted the traditions of communities that framed their learning in a much more organic and symbiotic and less prescribed manner

  10. Ok Gardo, this is the final drat. I know, I know -I’m a general nuisance 🙂 Can you delete the two above please for clutters sake?

    I certainly think a number of students are here first and foremost for a degree, a credential. But what credential do they get in Business Administration or Education that they can’t already get in the world around them. Might the same be said for a host of other disciplines? Even English? I don’t know, and I would like to instinctually answer of course not, but I just don’t understand how a curriculum that refuses any in-depth, classical rigor can prepare students for the cultural explosion that the internet represents. How could they possibly read these connections through a context that they are never provided? I, for one, would eliminate just about every “marketable” discipline from a Liberal Arts college and return its mission to the core elements of an education: philosophy, classics, religion, literature, history, art, theater, dance, languages. But the changes that need to happen go so far beyond the technology that it seems almost irrelevant to pose these issues together. The technology may, however, offer a way to subvert the Taylorization of education by allowing a space for dialogue both within and beyond the requirements of a “general education.” Education should never be general, nor should it be required -it should be, as you so beautifully state, premised on wholehearted commitment -but commitment to what? -to one another? -to a community? -to a belief in the value of learning? How can that be possible in this day and age? None of these skills are marketable, all of them remain in the realm of idealism, and each of them reflect the very problem of institutions that reinforce the empty idea of knowledge as some kind of quantifiable property. I scored this much on my SAT, I achieved this grade, etc. this seems to me just a reflection of the invidious comparisons that are born from the different ways people “consume” knowledge for a profit or as a means to power. Black Mountain College in North Carolina had it all figured out. You go there to think, imagine, read, converse, and take risks. You leave when you are finished doing so without so much as a diploma, final exam, paper, etc. You were not tested, nor expected to produce something, but to take some time out to think about things within a community of folks who also believed in the value of a collective space for an unstructured education. Knowledge can never be property for the innumerable reasons you list above, yet we all have so much invested in the real estate of higher education that to imagine some other system of sharing information as a solution to the transactional model of a credential based education is really a moment of alterity –that is seldom, if ever, the conditions of possibility for love or freedom . A relationship premised on ideas and beliefs is not about ownership -it’s about relationship. And the tenuous distinctions we have erected in regards to experts and pupils in education more generally obscures the fact that we have systematically uprooted the traditions of communities that framed their learning in a much more organic and symbiotic and less prescribed manner –and replaced them with sub-divided receptacles of mediocrity.

  11. OK, OK, I’m officially spamming you, this is my last post/comment -the others were just stuttering attempts -treat them accordingly.

    Gardner,

    For me this post is strangely dark and hopeful at the same time. I read it yesterday morning and was almost angry for some inexplicable reason. I read it last night and I was confused, I read it again this evening and I am struck with its power, emotion, and fierce intensity. I realize it manifested anger in me originally because it forced me to think about those difficult questions I all too often evade or intentionally overlook. My first inclination is to rip down the edifices and build them anew, but when I have a new blueprint in mind, I often become as dogmatic and fiercely committed to it as I was to ripping down the old system. Moderation often infuriates me, as does an over conceptualization of a problem all too common in academia. Why? Well, because I feel that the more we sit around and think about all of these issues, the sooner the technology will define the channels through which we understand these ideas. What we are doing by challenging the traditional LMS in its entirety is literally destroying the conduits of power through which we aggregate, create, publish and share information. Blackboard was lame five, even seven years ago -this is nothing new. What is new, however, are these alternatives and possibilities -how a student uses these tools, as a container, an integrated notebook, neither, both is purely up to them -and that is the point. They should be given the ability to decide, yet they might often choose the path of least resistance. But this is nothing new, and I am not sure that we can even fully meet your call for commitment given the way in which our credential system has framed education around the transactional model.

    I certainly think a number of students are here first and foremost for a degree, a credential. But what credential do they get in Business Administration or Education that they can’t already get in the world around them. Might the same be said for a host of other disciplines? Even English? I don’t know, and I would like to instinctually answer of course not, but I just don’t understand how a curriculum that refuses any in-depth, classical rigor can prepare students for the cultural explosion that the internet represents. How could they possibly read these connections through a context that they are never provided? I, for one, would eliminate just about every “marketable” discipline from a Liberal Arts college and return its mission to the core elements of an education: philosophy, classics, religion, literature, history, art, theater, dance, languages. But the changes that need to happen go so far beyond the technology that it seems almost irrelevant to pose these issues together. The technology may, however, offer a way to subvert the Taylorization of education by allowing a space for dialogue both within and beyond the requirements of a “general education.” Education should never be general, nor should it be required -it should be, as you so beautifully state, premised on wholehearted commitment -but commitment to what? -to one another? -to a community? -to a belief in the value of learning? How can that be possible in this day and age? None of these skills are marketable, all of them remain in the realm of idealism, and each of them reflect the very problem of institutions that reinforce the empty idea of knowledge as some kind of quantifiable property. I scored this much on my SAT, I achieved this grade, etc. this seems to me just a reflection of the invidious comparisons that are born from the different ways people “consume” knowledge for a profit or as a means to power. Black Mountain College in North Carolina had it all figured out. You go there to think, imagine, read, converse, and take risks. You leave when you are finished doing so without so much as a diploma, final exam, paper, etc. You were not tested, nor expected to produce something, but to take some time out to think about things within a community of folks who also believed in the value of a collective space for an unstructured education. Knowledge can never be property for the innumerable reasons you list above, yet we all have so much invested in the real estate of higher education that to imagine some other system of sharing information as a solution to the transactional model of a credential based education is really a moment of alterity –that is seldom, if ever, the conditions of possibility for love or freedom . A relationship premised on ideas and beliefs is not about ownership -it’s about relationship. And the tenuous distinctions we have erected in regards to experts and pupils in education more generally obscures the fact that we have systematically uprooted the traditions of communities that framed their learning in a much more organic and symbiotic and less prescribed manner –and replaced them with sub-divided receptacles of mediocrity.

  12. Folks — seems to me there are dozens of really interesting notions captured in Mike’s and Gardner’s original posts and the comments. Let me try to add one or two.

    Reading through the exploration of context and container brought this image to my mind: what we’re shooting for is a learning “container” where the border of the container is a continuous “Stargate” (sorry — pop-sci-fi day for me) where when you press through it you’re not just on the other side. You’re someplace wholly different, determined by the dialing sequence that you entered (which in turn you determined from the experience that you’ve just had).

    And although in the movie versions the path is a long arc, in essence it is a linear trajectory, but when we’re successful in building a complex environment of learning-tied “relationship” or of shared learning “committment,” all of those individual linear trajectories are regularly interrupted by non-quite random intersection with the learning trajectories of other travelers.

    So, we want a learning system to provide Stargate borders that, when we touch them, accelerate us to new destinations, made different from the ones we think we’re aiming to reach by intersection in-transit with other learning travelers.

  13. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » Response to Gardner

  14. What kind of astral travel is *this*? I just saw Jim link to this post in a tweet, and I thought, hmm, ok, what did I say, and then I traveled back here and skimmed my post and read all these wonderful comments, and I thought “I never responded to any of this?!” Everyone here added so much richness and depth to the original post. I’m ashamed of myself for not responding.

    All I can think–and to be honest, what I vividly remember–is just how dark and hollow and urgent and desperate I felt when I wrote this post, right down to the bit from “Prufrock” at the end, a savagely bitter, joyous twist. (“A drifted, secret, bitter ecstasy,” to use G. Schnackenberg’s perfect words.) Lots of times when I write it just comes out, out, out with such tremendous force and urgency that I am spent by the end and can hardly bear to think about it anymore. My that sounds dramatic doesn’t it? But the truth is that I’ve had to struggle to overcome so many layers of self-critique, inhibition, furious self-correction and self-editing, and even more furious self-debate (and not all of that is bad by any means, mind you), that the contents are under such pressure that I just stand back and let it go, then think only months or years later about what it all meant.

    I see the origins of much of the Edupunk debate here, or at least a precursor of it. I see folks engaging with my ideas, my frustrations, my harsh and shattering attempts to come to grips with something I just can’t resolve. I see generosity, and more than that, I see full, committed conversation. I also see I just could not take it all in at the time. I’m not sure I can take it in now, either. Here I go with a scattered, emotion-heavy response nearly two years later, buried in a comment it’s likely no one will ever read. And yet, as Eliot writes in his poem about the Magi, “mark this here”: I cannot deny we did something together in this space. And I need to take that acknowledgment and press on. Write on.

    So I’ll try.

    My humble and astonished thanks to everyone who participated in this post, and to Jim Groom for recalling me to it. Something like this, in multiple variations across multiple communities of time and location and interaction, is what I mean when I yearn for real school, for lifelong learning.

    Amazing.

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