Archive for September, 2005

Literally Blogging and the Locus of Meaning

Sep 22 2005 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

b5media is a new blog network that recently launched. One blog in the bunch that I’m interested in – Literally Blogging – a pleasant alternative to the edublogs that I mostly read. I enjoy the variety of topics that Jacob Murphy and Erin Harvey, the editors are bringing forward.

A post called The Inefficacy of Language caught my attention today. The post was about the locus of meaning in texts, and whether meaning is in the words or in the mind of the reader. Jacob Murphy’s little demonstration of the variability of possible interpretations of a simple statement demonstrated the problems we have in making assumptions about whether, or how, our students are comprehending anything. I wonder if the education corollary to the literary assertion “the Author is dead” might read, “the Teacher is dead?”

How is meaning made in our classrooms? The answer to this question is fundamental to every instructional decision a teacher makes. When I was a kid my job in school was to learn or do whatever my teacher told me. No questions. But times have changed. We’ve entered an era in which there is a necessary process of negotiation for constructing meaning. Teaching critical thinking and fostering the prerequisite intellectual autonomy are promoted as best practices. That happens through dialog, not assessment.

This trend runs completely counter to the methods of No Child Left Behind in which meaning is narrowly defined and tested by experts who are distant and faceless. This is probably the most confusing and disheartening problem facing educators in the modern era. Our professional practice has been simultaneously colonized by researchers and politicians with ideological axes to grind, and whose voices are competing and sometimes blending, trying to dominate the discourse that will define our role in the process. My awareness of this noise is acute. Because of the way power is distributed in all of this, we don’t get to acutally say anything that people outside of the professional community are going to listen to. And if we have opinions that diverge from the dominant discourse, we can either function as subversives or burn out and leave.

The I Ching has a hexagram, Treading that addresses this condition:


TREADING. Treading upon the tail of the tiger.
It does not bite the man. Success.

The situation is really difficult…In terms of a human situation, one is handling wild, intractable people. In such a case one’s purpose will be achieved if one behaves with decorum. Pleasant manners succeed even with irritable people.

I like the Judgment.

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The World as Curriculum

Sep 17 2005 Published by under borderland,education,teacher research,technology

I borrowed the title for this entry from a quote I referenced in my last post. It fits here because I’m mired in a problem evaluating whether to go it alone with something that I have next to no experience with – leaky faucets – or paying for expert help.

According to situated learning theory, newcomers to a community are motivated to learn by a desire to become full participants in a socio-cultural practice. But what happens when a person’s identity hasn’t intersected with the group that has the necessary basic information? Obviously we can’t know everything, but every day we have needs for specialized knowledge. For big needs we call in experts. I’ve never wanted to be a plumber. I don’t especially enjoy fixing broken stuff. But I also don’t like to depend on other people to perform basic tasks that I should be able to do myself. I’m not a newcomer to the plumber community – I’m a complete outsider. I only want to know how to fix a leaky faucet, so I don’t feel a need to participate actively in plumber communities.

The leaky faucet didn’t sound like a major repair in the beginning, but it’s now approaching research project status. I did what any economy-minded homeowner with a few simple tools would do. I tried to take the faucet apart to see if I could find the problem and then take the defective part to the store and say, “I need another one of these.” But of course, it wasn’t that easy (or I wouldn’t be writing this!) After getting the faucet handle off I found a valve stem and no more moving parts. I tried vice grips, but I’ve learned from experience that vice grips can do a lot of damage quickly so I gingerly, and then a little bit more forcefully, pulled and twisted what I could grab with them. To no avail.

There is a lot of do-it-yourself information out there. So I took the next step: I went to eHow and found out that I may have a “cartridge faucet” (but I’m not sure since none of the illustrations match the faucet that I own). I was feeling hopeful until a critical information breakdown occurred between step 3 and 4.

3.Remove the handle from the faucet; virtually all handles are fixed with a screw, which may be hidden under a decorative cap that can be pried off with a small screwdriver. Remove the screw, then lift or jiggle the handle off. Set the handle aside after you’ve removed it.

4.Carefully pull the cartridge out of the fixture with pliers. (Some brands of faucets may have a lock ring or lock nut that holds the cartridge in place. This must be removed – use a screwdriver or pliers – before you can remove the cartridge itself.)

The place where it says “pull the cartridge out…” doesn’t mesh with my experience. I pulled on everything there was and nothing turns or slides. How? I ask. But that information isn’t provided. So my choices now are as follows:

  • Call a plumber;
  • Buy a new faucet;
  • Look for a repair kit with instructions;
  • Continue messing with the faucet until I destroy it and end up having to buy a new one and maybe need to call a plumber to repair the mess I made.

Update: Sept. 20 – repair complete. Special tool enabled removal of cartridge. No mention of such a tool was made in any of the online sources I checked. I ended up asking the school custodian about it, and he told me about the “key,” which is what the tool is called. After that, the repair was trivial.

All of this may seem unrelated to the concerns of a teacher reflecting on his professional practice, but it emphasizes for me the value of knowledgeable experts and the need for community to facilitate learning. Despite suggestions to the contrary, teachers are not going to become obsolete (but classrooms might) because there is always the possibility of a breakdown in meaning for any communicative act, and we need teachers to bridge that gap. I agree with Will that the nature of our work will -and must- change.

Teachers are not knowledge mongers but we do serve as interpreters of the world for our students. Wenger talked about the need for people to serve as bridges between one field and another, for people to shift their identities so that they can speak to different groups. The need for a bridge describes my current situation precisely. To get from step 3 to step 4 I need a plumber who is also a teacher. I can then become a teacher, with a working faucet, who understands more about plumbing.

Students come to us from vastly different backgrounds and on a range of personal trajectories. Communities of practice will increasingly be joined by the internet, and teachers will serve to bridge the gaps between those communities. The world will, as it has been for ages, be our classroom.

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Etienne Wenger

Sep 16 2005 Published by under borderland,education,teacher research

Serendipitous discovery: I was eating lunch at my desk while the kiddos were out in the schoolyard. I was surfing through some blogmarks I’ve got on the work computer when I saw Learning, Technology and Collaboration: A Journey of the Self on Stepen Downes’ site. I’m always interested in ‘journeys of the self’ since I think they are the only journeys that ever make a difference. I was very happy to discover that this post was a summary of notes taken on a talk by Etienne Wenger on communities of practice at ALT-C in Manchester. Considering that my last post was about Wenger (posted on Sept. 11, just 3 days after Downes’) I read with interest.

From the comments section I followed a link to a pdf file of Wenger’s presentation, and a link to I read a lot of his work a few years ago, and during the last couple of days I’ve been going through my notes to review because I’ve been wanting to explore the implications of communities of practice for classroom teachers.

These links have given me a more current web-based source to consult. I look forward to reading through what’s there, and would like to thank Stephen Downes and Seb Schmoller for sharing that material. The most significant part of Downes’ notes for me was this passage:

Existing in the world is a way of transforming what you know, of transforming who you are. It allowed us to place the making of meaning at the center of the analysis, in terms of ways of becoming a member, of hoping to become a member, to start talking about the world as a learning curriculum.

This completely resonated with me because it speaks to the intersection of meaning and identity, which I see as the critical piece in being able to facilitate school learning as transformational experience for both students and teachers. I want to emphasize that I think that we as teachers need to be open to learning from our practice. I believe that, too often, I close doors and miss opportunities that might have proven fruitful if only I’d been willing to step back from my agenda and consider the possibilites offered by alternate readings of the school text.

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Learning and Community

Sep 11 2005 Published by under borderland,education,teacher research

George Siemens, at the Connectivism Blog wrote a thought-provoking post called Meaning-Making. The questions George is asking about where meaning comes from and how it happens address the magic part of teaching. George is developing a definition of learning – a goal that’s imperative for any of us who envision a future for education that diverges from its current deterministic trajectory.

George mentioned that he is dissatisfied with his effort to define learning as the acquisition of “actionable knowledge” because it doesn’t “appear to completely explain the attempt and focus of learning.” If I understand him correctly, George wants his definition to account for motivation and choice as aspects of learning. I think this is an important question because without understanding the “why” of learning, we are left with a superficial behavioral explanation of how learning occurs. George is on target when he says that we need to develop learning ecologies, rather than courses with defined objectives. I am constantly surprised by my students’ failures to learn what I thought I was teaching them, only to later observe that they had indeed appropriated knowledge from the classroom environment to serve some particular purpose of their own.

Learning is not directly dependent on teaching. I’ve worked with plenty of kids who seem to have learned things that I didn’t intend for them to know. This is very humbling, and gives me pause. I have to remember that I am not the only instructional decision-maker in the classroom. The kids all come with agendas, and have decided whether or not they are going to be receptive to what I propose for them to learn.

What motivates learning?

The motivations of our students are determined by who they are, who they believe they are, and who they see themselves becoming. Learning is not simply a cognitive intellectual process. There is an element of heart and soul that we need to be mindful of, too. I prefer to view learning as a social process because social theories about learning recognize it as more than mere acquisition of information. I would agree that any comprehensive definition of learning must recognize it as a process through which an individual’s ways of acting are changed. But I also think that we should consider the changes that learning brings to our own perceptions of who we are. Learning changes not only what we do, but how we see ourselves as doers. Our identities are transformed in the process. Learning occurs as new situations make new demands and provide new opportunities for development. Learning is an inevitable consequence of participation in a social environment.

A useful construct for understanding what motivates learning can be found in communities of practice. Learning is a social phenomenon in which people develop identities as skilled participants within particular communities of practice. Communities of practice in this sense are groups of people who are mutually engaged in a shared enterprise, and who share a common repertoire of practices and understandings. These communities need not be institutionally organized. Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave developed the concept from ethnographic studies of apprenticeship as a way of explaining the role of participation and identity transformation in social contexts. The concept of communities of practice has powerful implications for the role of identity in classroom learning processes.

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Who, Me?

Sep 06 2005 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Somebody nominated me to be a test item writer for Alaska’s NCLB-mandated science tests. I have the application on my desk. DO THEY REALIZE WHAT THEY DID? Well, I’ve always known the whole NCLB thing is a crock that is being promoted by a bunch of idiots who want to either destroy public education, carry out cultural genocide, or just see how big of a practical joke they can pull off before they come out of their offices chuckling and say, “Just kidding. You didn’t really believe we thought that would actually work, did you? DID YOU?” The saddest thing is all of the grief that is being caused by this insane effort to measure and punish, test and sanction. So given my feelings and the stupidity of the entire standards movement, of course they don’t know what they’re doing.

Too bad I’m not in charge of the world. But hey, at least I get to see how stuff gets done. I’ve asked a few people if I should accept this honor and they say, “Well…yeah. We need skeptics to be involved in the process.” My attitude goes way beyond skepticism.

It might be fun to get to go to a fancy hotel for 3 days and see who else shows up. I wonder if teachers from rural Alaska, where the schools are having a hard time, are as resistant as I am.

I suppose I’ll have to listen to a bunch of jargon about AYP and GLE’s, and other similar nonsense. I hate those meetings! I get a stomach ache when they start getting technical. I’m a little afraid to go. I might say something. I’ll have to journal like crazy to keep from going nuts. I can take my camera, but that might be too weird.

As I think about it, I’m beginning to want them to accept my application. It makes me feel hopeful there is still enough chaos in the world to restore some balance .

Maybe I’ll get an invitation to the Republican convention next time they have one. ;)

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…Or by Fourth-Graders

Sep 05 2005 Published by under borderland,education

This looks normal to me now.

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