Archive for June, 2006

Metablognition and Technosociality

Jun 26 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

An intuition that using weblogs might be a way to publish student writing lead me to occupy Borderland so I could try blogging myself. It started out as an encampment rather than a full-force occupation. I’d never heard of “edublogs,” and I didn’t have a well-defined blogging mission. I was simply writing about this and that, and pushing it out onto the web. Nothing happened. I couldn’t tell if anyone was reading the blog. There was no conversation. Blogging initially served simply as a technology for publishing texts and images.

astronaut self portrait
Astronaut Steve Robinson turns the camera on himself.

Consciousness and Self-Consciousness
I took a class and learned about social software. The blogger-author became a blogger-reader as I became more familiar with the form. But still there weren’t many comments. I set up some blogs for my students on a district server, and wrote about that. Will Richardson noticed, and I discovered the edubloggers’ network. Bud Hunt added Borderland to his sidebar. I became interested in the distributed conversation, yet didn’t know how to join it.

Blogging began getting complicated when the social dimension became apparent. Cognitive load increased as the blogger-author grew self-conscious. I wondered what I could write that teacher-bloggers would want to read. The blogger-editor appeared. ‘Aboutness‘ became an issue, and I began to see the blog in extrinsic terms. Questions like, Who am I to them? and Who are they to me? started to crop up. It wasn’t exactly fun, and I had to wonder why I exposed myself to such internal conflict, but I wasn’t ready to quit blogging because I sensed that I was missing some crucial technosocial understanding. I read Stephen Downes’ excellent article, How to be Heard, and made some adjustments.

Looking into Dark Places
From reading various blogs I learned that blog monitoring tools could show me if anyone was visiting Borderland. I got set up with Feedburner and was amazed to learn that I had 16 subscribers. I found out about Statcounter and my eyes were opened to the power of Google to refer people to my archives. People were reading Borderland even though they didn’t comment.

Complications compounded when self-consciousness itself became a matter of interest to me. The blogger-critic moved in and began to interfere with all of the other blogger-selves who are legitimately responsible for publishing Borderland. The blogger-critic is a merciless heckler, an interloper. He interferes with both the editor and the author, causing much cognitive conflict. He doesn’t monitor the blog; he monitors the blogger. His middle name is Doubt. Teachers of ZEN have spoken about the value of Doubt, and my current challenge is to make peace with this troublesome insurrectionist.

The blogger-critic feeds on tension between the human desire for affiliation and the creative need to Tell the TRUTH. He’s the popularity monitor, concerned with recognition. He insists on perfection and never says what it is. “How DO you look?” he taunts and jeers. He rattles my integrity, as I noted in a comment on Graham’s post about hypocrisy.

The blogger-self has become very complex and uncoordinated. There’s an author, but there’s also a reader, an editor, a critic, and ultimately an Observer of the entire schizophrenic racket. My desire to write about socially constructed literacies remains my main blogging mission, but I’m distracted by an internal dialog about the process itself, involved with annoying concerns for how my writing is received. And there are concerns about the concerns….Metablognition is the word I coined for this hall-of-mirrors, blog-and-blogger-monitoring tangle.

Whys and Wherefores
I blog this to document my experience of finding my way into a technosocial network, and to bear witness to challenges that blogging offers which have not been widely acknowledged. My experience may or may not be representative of anyone else’s, but it can nonetheless serve as a point of reference in the field of possibilities. I suggest that while blogging can be reflectively engaging and enriching, it can also be problematic for some people. With care, I think this form of sociality may open doors to the Self that students have not previously been lead through.

Blogging may build competence in a discourse that encourages extrinsic knowledge production, but it can also lead to self-consciousness that teachers should be aware of. This isn’t necessarily a negative outcome, and could be viewed as a learning opportunity if managed thoughtfully by a teacher who understands the condition.

Personally, my faith that maintaining the discipline will lead to new understandings that will ultimately prove beneficial is what keeps me engaged. Obstacles can be used as occasions for growth if they cause us to look inward and make necessary changes.

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On Literacies being multiple

Jun 20 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

This post is a response to Clarence Fisher’s Literacy as Battleground. While I’m in sympathy with Clarence’s belief that teachers should rethink pedagogy in order to account for new information communication technologies, I do not agree that we have reached an all-or-nothing “tipping point.” My original statement was not a commentary on current educational usages of technology, but an observation about the consequences of a resistant stance toward technologically mediated discourses.

Clarence is a tireless promoter of new ideas, and I am impressed by his fearless commitment to progress. He appears to be impatient with the rate of technology diffusion, but I don’t see us reaching any kind of “dangerous edge.” Change is a condition of the new classroom, and that must be a fundamental understanding. There is no edge anymore. If there was an edge, we’ve gone over. There isn’t anything more to be done but learn to fly. This may appear to contradict my earlier statement that “…it"™s an all-or-nothing choice, and either you adopt new literacies or you isolate yourself.” To be more precise I could have said, “…or you isolate yourself from that particular technologically mediated discourse,” but that would have taken the rhetorical punch out of the point I was trying to make.

Literacy is a battleground, I fully agree. The history of literacy as a term that means “the ability to read” is relatively new – much newer than reading or writing per se. As recently as 150 years ago anyone who could simply sign their name was considered literate. For decades, reading was synonymous with translating written symbols into speech, and comprehension was assumed. In our current era determinations about who is literate are made with standardized testing instruments that are the products of technical design processes, and are based on narrowly conceived definitions of literacy. Literacy is most definitely contested turf, and whose literacy is preferred is a matter of contention among diverse political discourses.

I’d like to touch on the idea of multiple literacies. Taking a cue from Donald Leu’s article about the New Literacy Studies, literacies are situated within technological contexts, and they include the ability to manipulate multiple media forms appropriate to particular needs. Literacies also include the understanding that all information is the artifact of specific social and cultural contexts. The new literacies are highly social, but they do not replace “previous literacies.” Understood though Gee’s sociocultural lens (para. 2), literacies are embedded in social practices that include ways of acting, thinking, and speaking, as well as the use of various nonlinguistic symbols and tools. Literacies in any case are the products of discourses, and they are closely integrated with each person’s identity. Rather than call for teachers to embrace new technologies, I would urge teachers to embrace the concept of multiple literacies and to become competent with the tools that are required to participate in them. They might be books, flutes, cameras, or even paper maché, as well as wikis. The tools will come and go as needed. Some will be old, some new and strange.

There was an interesting story on The World today. It was a report from BBC’s Daniel Griffiths about the craze to learn English in Chinese schools. 300 million people in China are believed to be studying English. As China becomes a member of the global economy, many people feel that having English as a second language is a good way to get ahead. The report said that China is determined to produce a whole generation of English speakers, and that one of the most successful textbooks for learning English sold over 100 million units, with sales still growing for junior and senior high. It isn’t a technological revolution, it’s an awareness of the need to gain competence in a discourse.

It’s not yet time for the general dispersion of read/write web technologies in school. We’re not at a critical point where we’re missing an opportunity. Clarence is correct that things will continue to change, but that shouldn’t be a problem. As Leu said,

Regular change is a defining characteristic of the new literacies. This simple observation has profound consequences for literacy and literacy education. The continuously changing technologies of literacy mean that we must help children learn how to learn new technologies of literacy. In fact, the ability to learn continuously changing technologies for literacy may be a more critical target than learning any particular technology of literacy itself.

Those of us who are using ICT’s now are still working out the details. It’s a frontier, and there won’t be widespread adoption in educational settings until there are demonstrable benefits and a critical mass of users who can promote the new literacies as normal and even necessary. That’s going to take time. The proper course now is to stay open and try to make sense of a chaotic environment. Share with your colleagues.

And it probably wouldn’t hurt to learn Chinese.

6 responses so far

Blogging as Active Sociality

Jun 18 2006 Published by under borderland,literacy,technology

Will Richardson’s Changing the Mindset post used MySpace as an example of the emergent mindset that I mentioned in my previous entry. I thought Will’s example was excellent, and I left a comment,

“It seems that distinctions between public and private are being blurred, and the "œreal" world is hard to distinguish from online activity.”

After I submitted the comment I remembered something that I wanted to add.

My daughter, who is in her 20′s told me a few months ago that she had to get a MySpace account because her friends all had accounts. So much of their face-to-face conversation was about what people were doing on MySpace that she felt left out when they were together. She said that it was like turning down an invitation to a party. She didn’t know what they were talking about, and she had nothing to add to the conversation. She resisted getting involved for a long time, but finally concluded that it was necessary if she wanted to maintain her “real world” friendships. This isn’t the same thing as peer pressure. MySpace participation is normal for people her age.

This is not unlike what happened to me and my wife when we moved out of town to an area that didn’t have telephone service. We lost touch with our friends because it was too much effort for them to contact us. Fortunately, phone service came along after a couple of years, and we now see and hear from people. There was a lesson in this experience. People expect one another to use certain technologies, and when something becomes the norm, you stand out if you don’t join in. This is the meaning of being literate in a technological environment, and the price of not participating is exclusion.

Sometimes it’s an all-or-nothing choice, and either you adopt new literacies or you isolate yourself. I still don’t have a cell phone, and I’m beginning to feel like I have to apologize sometimes. Lucky for me I’m married to someone who is well connected. :)

6 responses so far

Making Things Public

Jun 16 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics,technology

Education bloggers understand that the deployment of new publishing tools in classrooms unhinges learning from the frame of the traditional classroom. When students change from recipients of information to active participants in knowledge exchange and construction, their roles as learners are redefined. The definition of classroom is opened for debate. Terms like social and networking are used to describe the change, but what do those words mean? There is a belief that the power dynamic between teacher and students is flattened, and that social networking technology in schools changes classrooms from being simply walls, desks, and students to something more dynamic.

I agree with Will Richardson, David Warlick, Leigh Blackall, and Stephen Downes, who have all posted recently on this issue, that the roles of teachers and learners change in what I’m going to call a new classroom environment, but it would be useful to understand the ethos behind this transformation.

A graphic from Blogging as Participation: The Active Sociality of a New Literacy, a paper that Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel presented at a recent AERA conference demonstrates the difference between two of various possible mindsets regarding traditional and new classrooms.


Mindset #2 represents the “emergent” mindset, and outlines an ethos among teachers and others who are knowledgeable about transformative learning from their engagement with what have become known as ‘new literacies’.

New language is an immediate problem for anyone who wants to talk about or understand what any of this means. We inherit metaphors from earlier technological eras and use them to name new technologies. Our language misleads us when we use it to describe something new. This is unfortunate because we are in a time of rapid technological change, and the use of archaisms to describe innovative change limits our ability to understand new conditions. We stay locked into old habits of mind as a result. An example would be the use of the term horseless-carriages to describe automobiles. Carriages? Nobody uses that term now. Even the word automobile implies something (from auto- ‘self’ + mobile- ‘mobile’) that moves by itself – that is, without a horse, and the word doesn’t quite do justice to all that cars and trucks have become. Other examples abound.

In his speech on the State of the World 2006, Bruce Sterling mentioned this problem as being consequential because we “freeze an emergent technology into the shape of today’s verbal descriptions” which prejudices people and “limits their ability to find and understand the intrinsic advantages of the technology.” In order to avoid doing that, Sterling advocates inventing language that accompanies change. Like the word spime, a word he uses to describe a coming thing he imagines that is trackable in space and time. It will become, according to Sterling, part of what he calls an Internet of Things.

Sterling’s observations about the importance of language are worthwhile for educators. Not only is our job about communication, but it’s also about vision. If we don’t want to limit our vision, we need to pay attention to language because struggles with definitions are rooted in political power. We are contending to have a voice in what is valuable about learning, about schools, about technology, about literacy, about curriculum. Those words, those things, demand our attention.

I’m thinking about Why Things Matter. Things change, and take on lives of their own. They’re invested with the intentions of all the people who find a purpose for them. Things have a life. And as Francine pointed out, they have an afterlife. For all the things that we can see or name, there are interest groups. Things might be said to acquire agendas from the people who employ them for various reasons. Even trash, a word for something that outlived its original agenda, has interest groups from the ranks of the ecologically minded. Politics is all about things. Francine also noted that things matter because they trace stories, and she asked, “Why aren’t we listening?”

This question of why we might want to listen to things raised an interesting point for me. We don’t need new technologies to understand that things are already enmeshed in networks. If you look around you see countless things that are the products of industry and available through market processes. The clothes you wear, for example, “talk” about who you are. They represent links in the form of choices that have been made in a social and economic web of desire and distribution. Every thing is implicated. Even natural objects, untouched by people are affected by ecological and political forces because humans have demonstrated the capacity for global influence.

As I was thinking about this I came across a book at the library, and then a website about an exhibition called “Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy” in which Bruno Latour explores the significance of our representations of things, and what it means for us to assemble and to form a deliberative corporate body. This is an expansive notion of politics, one that focuses our attention on the things around us, removing us from the center of the action.

I’m curious about what it might mean to look at the world by foregrounding objects rather than subjects. Making things public implies that we understand what makes a thing significant, and what a public is. These are important considerations for teachers who want to employ emergent information technologies. New literacies raise provocative questions. My thinking about this is exploratory at this point, and the notion of publicness is a matter of interest. I wonder, who – or what – is meant by we? And how is a public constructed?

9 responses so far

Surprise, Surprise

Jun 15 2006 Published by under borderland,education,politics

According to a Harvard study,

U.S. President George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind education policy is failing to close racial achievement gaps and will miss its goals by 2014.

This shouldn’t be news. It indicates (at least) three things.

  1. Teachers’ voices aren’t heard. Teachers know that students with special needs, and students without the skills or background necessary to master course material aren’t going to suddenly “shape up” just because there’s a consequence. The news coverage of an academic study that says the same thing that classroom teachers all say indicates the lack of public credibility that teachers have. I wonder why that is?
  2. Education critics and policy makers have misidentified the problem and prescribed the wrong solution. Education reform that focuses on a single test score as a measure of success is wrong-headed and ignorant of real-world conditions. The real achievement gap is what education critics have assumed to be the effect of poor education. The unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity among racial and ethnic minority groups is the real achievement gap; and it isn’t going to be closed by schools alone. The problem is rooted in historical causes and requires basic political reform. Measure that!
  3. Parents won’t solve the problem. The news story is written for a mass audience that includes many, er…parents. But which parents are reading this news? Maybe we need to get those “other parents” to work on this. This is like news that tells us obesity is a health problem. It’s obvious, for some people. Hmmm….Reminds me that facts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Someone should fix this. Teachers? Sure, absolutely. Teachers, alone? Absolutely not. Raising the bar without a training program that makes a new level of success possible won’t help a high jumper. We should look at fitness before performance in school.

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An Internet of Classrooms

Jun 11 2006 Published by under borderland,education,technology

If you play with an idea long enough, you begin to recognize sides to it that weren’t obvious at first. This post is about an evolution in my thinking about classroom change, design, technology, culture and institutional resistance. That’s a lot of ground to cover in a single blog post, so I expect there will be gaping holes here, but I hope to at least come out with something that smells like it isn’t half-baked – which it is. I’ve been mulling over some new ideas for a while now and didn’t know how to approach writing about them, but Clarence’s post about new ideas, and Francine’s ‘Blogjects‘ post prompted me to go ahead and put this out in its still embryonic state.

The phrase “technology in the classroom” has been tossed around since computers made an appearance in schools in the 1980′s. There is an assumption in that phrase that we should use technology to help us do what schools were designed to do. It assumes that the classroom is a place, and that people and tools are in it. Consider what happens if we play with the language for a second and flip the thing upside down and say “classroom in the technology”.

Revolutionary thinking turns the power structure upside down. I’ve been thinking about a statement on the Classroom Change Wiki, “The classroom is not a place”. This is a radical idea.

This brings me around to a new source of ideas that I’ve bumped into recently, starting with Bruce Sterling’s Viridian Design Movement. He’s doing some far-out thinking about design, which I’ve been trying to apply to classrooms at a conceptual level. I just ordered his book, Shaping Things because it seems to have inspired some interesting ideas about an Internet of Things on Julian Bleecker’s blog. Julian described this as

a world in which Things that co-occupy physical space are…assumed to have the ability to disseminate, record, and perhaps even put in context what happens in that space and circulate such within the network will change the patterns of use, the kinds of social practice that obtain, and the imaginary about that space.

It occurs to me that if we stop thinking about classrooms as places, and instead consider them things – things that blog – or ‘blogjects‘ then we will inevitably begin to recognize new possibilities for working with them, rather than “inhabiting” them. According to Bleecker

blogjects in the near-future will participate in the whole meaning-making apparatus that is now the social web, and that is becoming the “Internet of Things.” The most peculiar characteristic of Blogjects is that they participate in the exchange of ideas. Blogjects don"™t just publish, they circulate conversations.

Finally, if you set aside any idealistic considerations and think about how the Iraqi insurgency has complicated the US invasion of Iraq, you begin to recognize how the power of dispersed networks can undermine a traditionally organized power structure. Perhaps this is what is going to happen with schools as a result of an Internet of Classrooms.

14 responses so far

Edge U blogging

Jun 09 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

Graham’s post, Blogging Masterclass Reflections, grabbed my attention. I hear Graham’s point about “teachers being bloggers first before imposing it on their students,” because I’ve said before, and I continue to believe that teachers who want to use blogs with their students need to blog themselves.

You can say, as Graham does, “…there might something of immense value in it (blogging) for you as a professional and as a person.” I agree, but we know that people hear this kind of thing all the time and nobody listens. Advice about health and diet are a good example of good-for-you things that we all make up our own minds about. In my experience this argument appeals only to people who are already inclined to hear it.

Graham’s point that “the true power of blogs can only be experienced by being in the mix,” is a much more credible rationale for teacher-blogging because it specifically addresses an essential element of blogging that is distinct from mere technological competence. The word ‘power‘ is the difference. Blogging is not a technology. It’s a social practice. Using blogging software is trivial compared with the social and cultural understandings that are necessary to do it effectively.

As soon as you start a blog you are confronted with a series of questions that demand answers. For example:

  • “Should I blog anonymously?”
  • “What should I write about?”
  • “How much of my personal business should I reveal?”
  • “Can I say anything I want?”
  • “Who will read this stuff?”
  • “What if I get a comment I don’t like?”
  • “Why don’t I get comments?”

These are not technical problems. They are decisions about how to act.

A teacher who asks kids to keep a public blog, should be aware of what is involved. It is an issue of credibility, but not credibility with kids. It’s an issue of professional responsibility to understand the reasons why we want our students to do the things we ask them to do, and to understand the limits and benefits of our decision-making. Without any direct experience blogging, teachers hear a “blogs are good” message without knowing how or why. Blogging is more than simply writing. It’s a form of communication that enables and encourages self-discovery.

We don’t have consensus on a pedagogy for blogging. There are developmental, ethical, and practical issues that are still being negotiated because this is a new practice that is being conducted in the public sphere. I don’t believe that teachers need to become fully devoted to blogging in order to understand what it’s about. That would be like saying that only mathematicians can teach math, or that only competitive swimmers can teach swimming. I do think that teachers should at least engage the practice along with their students in order to model it and guide students in their development. Graham had it right to begin with.

9 responses so far

Transacting with Wikipedia

Jun 08 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

Jaron Lanier’s essay published on Edge last week seemed to be prompted by his dissatisfaction with the Wikipedia biography about him which identified him as a film director, a statement that he claimed was inaccurate. His efforts to edit the page were repeatedly overruled by the other authors, and he concluded that “people with the most determination and time on their hands” are those whose voices prevail regardless of factual contradictions. He generalized his dissatisfaction with this personal experience to include “meta-aggregator sites” that “remove the scent of people” from content. Lanier concluded that ‘meta‘ websites deny readers valuable contextual information necessary for a coherent reading. He referred to Wikipedia as an “anonymous, faux-authoritative, anti-contextual brew.” Lanier wasn’t content to limit his critique to the internet. He broadened his complaint to include trends he sees running throughout society.

What we are witnessing today is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective. Numerous elite organizations have been swept off their feet by the idea. They are inspired by the rise of the Wikipedia, by the wealth of Google, and by the rush of entrepreneurs to be the most Meta. Government agencies, top corporate planning departments, and major universities have all gotten the bug.

A response to Lanier from various individuals, organized by Clay Shirky, appeared yesterday. Lanier’s essay, and the collective responses of Shirky, Douglas Rushkoff, Quentin Hardy, Yochai Benkler, Clay Shirky, Cory Doctorow, Kevin Kelly, Esther Dyson, Larry Sanger, Fernanda Viegas & Martin Wattenberg, Jimmy Wales, George Dyson, Dan Gillmor, and Howard Rheingold, make for an entertaining and informative commentary on Wikipedia, and the cultural changes that networked media are having on our society in general.

For me, this exchange of ideas highlights the value of transactional and reader response theories and suggests an answer to Dan Visel’s observation on if:Book that we are still Learning to Read Wikipedia. Ben Vershbow commented on the issue also.

I was interested in Larry Sanger’s commentary about what he called epistemic collectivism. Sanger addressed a paradox he recognized in his own support for strong collaboration and his rejection of the ideological conformity that springs from consensus-building activity. Sanger resolved his dilemma by challenging the focus of the consensus-builders, saying that it isn’t the results of the process that are important but the process itself. “What’s great about Wikipedia,” according to Sanger, “is the fact that it is a way to organize enormous amounts of labor for a single intellectual purpose.” I don’t believe it is necessary to discount the value of the content on Wikipedia to appreciate it as a resource. Wikipedia is more than an experiment in collective intellectual activity. Kevin Kelly argued that “…the dumb thing is smarter than we think.

Louise Rosenblatt’s, The Transactional Theory of Reading and Writing, provides an important insight into the value of interpretive communities to regulate the construction of meaning. According to Rosenblatt, “The "œmeaning" does not reside ready-made "œin" the text or "œin" the reader but happens or comes into being during the transaction between reader and text.” When we view meaning-making in this way we have to resolve a problem about where authority lies for determining the correctness or appropriateness of particular constructions of meaning. If authority rests with the author, then there is only one correct or legitimate meaning. If authority rests with the reader, then there is no correct meaning – all meanings are equally correct. Both of these positions are problematic in that they deny everyday notions of sense-making.

Rosenblatt saw “interpretive communities” as social and cultural regulating forces that limit the various potential meanings that can come from transactions between texts and readers. She argued that our ability to make tacit validity criteria explicit gives us a basis for both agreement and disagreement, and creates the possibility of change in interpretation, or the acceptance of alternative sets of criteria. Self-awareness on the part of readers and writers in Wikipedia enables communication across social and cultural differences. The work of the interpretive community is visible on the talk pages for any article. Readers of Wikipedia would be well-served to critically read the discussion pages because that’s where the validity criteria for article content is negotiated.

I don’t disagree with Lanier’s more general point about the danger of empowering collective consensus-building structures. Where Lanier went astray was in his inclusion of Wikipedia in his list of offenders. His misreading of Wikipedia assumed that the same power structure that governs top-down managed organizations is at work there also. The power and transparency of Wikipedia is visible in the talk pages and version history for each article. It is the interpretive community made manifest. The further beauty of the Wikipedia experiment in collective authorship is that anyone can participate. It’s unfortunate that it took a full-blown protest to resolve Lanier’s initial complaint. The breakdown of the editorial process is a matter of speculation. As it turns out, however, the interpretive community has made adjustments. If you look at the Jaron Lanier discussion page now, you can see that the error has been corrected, and you can see how the process was negotiated.

Maybe it’s irony, or just a mean joke that the bottom of his Digital Maoism essay contains the offending editorial comment, “Jaron Lanier is a film director.”

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Teaching Manifesto

Jun 05 2006 Published by under borderland,education

Teaching is a noun. A gerund, I think. It’s not a verb even though it often behaves like one. Teaching isn’t do-able in the same way that writing, or playing music, or washing dishes is because doing it (teaching) isn’t the same as getting it done. Teaching isn’t the reciprocal of learning.

Teaching and learning are only incidentally related. Once you’ve committed an act of teaching, you can’t know for sure if anything else happened. Remote sensing of events on Mars is more accurate than figuring out whether your objectives were met. The phrase, “I’m going to teach you a lesson” means that someone is going to try to effect a change in the point of view of someone else, to make a believer out of somebody. But the teacher can’t ever be sure. That kind of teaching is an imposition of power. Teaching truly is merely a condition of being. It’s the condition of being an interested person. It’s about relationship.

Teaching is a process. Day after day I spend time with students and try to understand what they know, how they feel, what they want, and who they are because those are things that regulate learning. I pick up clues. It’s detective work, piecing the stories together. Nobody tells me what’s important. They think I must know already, or they don’t want me to know because they’re afraid I might not like what I see. I’m responsible for inquiring. I create a feedback loop and insert myself into it. Conversation works best. I modify what I do based on the stream of data I receive. I become a learner and a problem solver. Sometimes there’s damage to repair. I have to get close-in to see that. I have to care enough to find out and try to untangle the knots or whatever it takes. That part of the job is often tricky and delicate. Teaching is getting to know my students and helping them believe that they’re worth knowing.

Teaching is a calling, and it’s not for everyone. Become a teacher and countless indignities will soon be yours. If you’re a parent you know all about this. When I hear that little Jason or Tanya needs a man-teacher I think, “Great!…What is it this time?” But I don’t say anything like that because I can’t say what I think when I think it. No, I save stuff up and say it out of context where nobody will take it personal. I hope. Being a model for half the human race is too much responsibility for me. My voice is too loud, or I’m too rough, or too loose, or too strict, or too scary, or my classroom isn’t colorful enough, or any number of unpleasant things to keep me from being be everybody’s ideal. I’m constantly challenged to be a better person than I want to be. I didn’t choose the job. It fell to me and I couldn’t dodge it. I answered a call.

Teaching is an art. An artist exercises his imagination. He makes his vision real. He bears witness to possibilities that would otherwise remain unexpressed. An artist needs skills and craftsmanship, certainly. But there’s more to creating art than technical talent, and there’s more to teaching than method. Skill is only a starting point. My imagination is challenged to find the middle path, the path that threads the line between authority and freedom, between convention and originality, between rigor and license. As a teacher I challenge myself to realize the possible, to preserve what’s sacred, and to know which is which.

Teaching is leadership. Set an example. Learners work from the model. I remember a poem by Gary Snyder called Axe Handles in which he recalled a phrase from long ago, “When making an axe handle the pattern is not far off.” He’s right. I am an axe, making handles. How like us they become.

Note:This entry was inspired by Meg Spohn’s Writing Manifesto, which blew me away. I took it upon myself to see what would happen if I tackled a similar project. Any similarities between the two pieces are due to my great respect for the model.

7 responses so far

Beyond Repair – Letting Go

Jun 02 2006 Published by under borderland,education,politics

I never wanted to change the system, or buck the system, or become any kind of reformer. All I wanted was to get a K-12 Reading Specialist endorsement on my teaching certificate. I wanted to do a better job teaching and advance on the pay scale. I went to graduate school and got a dose of the latest literacy research. But there’s a downside to the bleeding edge. Making changes in the classroom has been problematic: Schedules don’t work for projects; kids get pulled out of the class for remedial help that is antithetical to my view of literacy; parents are mystified by project rubrics; the report card demands numbers that describe complex achievements; curriculum assumes lockstep progress through a skills-based agenda for age-grouped students with vast ability and motivation differences. And then there’s the government…

Education bloggers hammer on this subject all the time. School reform. How do we “fix” education? We’ve got to get people to understand…(your choice). I’m as caught up in the discourse as anyone. I found a transcript of a 1995 interview with Kevin Kelly, author of Out of Control. I hadn’t heard of him before, but I’m now a new Kevin Kelly fan. The interview transcript is called The Structure of Organized Change. It offered an ecological model for understanding organizational evolution.

Out of Control
Kelly described organizations as evolving organisms. He used the metaphor of evolution to analyze processes of change. He didn’t specifically address change in education systems, (he used health care systems for his examples) but the relevance to schools was there for me. According to Kelly, “an organization is a set of relationships that persist over time.” As such, an organization tries to anticipate changes in the environment so that it can successfully adapt. Those of us who advocate reform believe that schools are not doing this very well. Of course, there are conflicting views of what kinds of changes are needed, and those views are based on differing assumptions about the proper role of schools in society. Regardless of the ends to which education processes are directed, it’s useful to think about how adaptation works at an organizational level.

Under the heading, “The Limits of Adaptability” Kelly said

It’s generally much easier to kill an organization than to change it substantially. Organisms by their design are not made to adapt too far. They have only a limited ability to adapt beyond a certain point. And beyond that point it’s much easier to kill them off and start a new one than it is to change them….Species go extinct because there are historical contraints built into a given body or a given design.

That’s where we are now with schools. We’re asking them to do what they were never designed to do. We probably need to let them die in order to move forward. The situatedness of schools in a world that is globally networked makes schooling anachronistic. Who can’t see this? Kids know it. The real problem is that we haven’t yet arrived at consensus for what kids should be doing while their parents are at work. We don’t have a replacement vision.

According to Kelly, what we need to do is give up control and get comfortable with influence.

We don’t drive systems, we shepherd them. The sheep are doing their own thing, eating the grass, finding their own water, producing the wool. We have some guard dogs that are keeping them in line. The shepherd keeps the flock in the right general area, and harvests the results. This is the kind of systems, and the kind of management of systems, towards which we are headed.

I’m at a loss for a better suggestion. I’ve said before that I think teaching is like herding goats. Letting go of old notions of control is hard, but if we’re going to move forward successfully, we need to accurately read the landscape we’re trying to navigate. Giving up control has not been part of the discourse of reform. I’m not fixing anything. I’m herding goats. I understand how they think and I can care about them. I don’t know anything about reforming a system.

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