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Narrative: Robert Paterson - Looking Beneath the Surface

Robert Paterson's: Looking Beneath the Surface weblog contains a wide variety of interesting insights. I like the theme of looking beneath the surface since it invites us to probe and question beyond the appearance of things. Given Robert's interesting and diverse background, it is not surprising that his writing is loaded with perceptual acuity. While reading through his work, I was struck by the following...

Revolution and Placing Blame
In The Best Outcome in Education? Robert explores the possibility of a revolution in education. Oddly enough, I had just previously read this at the Joseph Campbell Foundation:

We keep hearing about the revolution around us all the time: the revolution, the revolution, the revolution. Revolution doesn’t have to do with smashing something, it has to do with bringing something forth. If you spend all your time thinking about that which you are attacking, then you are negatively bound to it. You have to find the zeal in yourself and bring that out. That is what’s given to you—one life to live. Marx teaches us to blame the society for our frailties; Freud teaches us to blame our parents for our frailties; astrology teaches us to blame the universe. The only place to look for blame is within.

None of this contradicts the need for or value of a revolution education, but it does point out what the revolution must challenge beneath the surface. I agree with Robert that a revolution is needed (there is a nice link to The Person of Tomorrow by Aaron Campbell).

At the same time, I have been involved in educational revolutions (I look back on them now as modest little poofs) and have recently commented on some issues surrounding them. When I designed and implemented Connected Intelligence Network Learning my intent was to craft a system that challenged the basic presuppositions of status quo education. The Virtual Community Project was much easier since it only affected my own classroom and the system could safely look upon my work as a transient anomaly with some entertainment value.

The quote from Joseph Campbell above captures what I believe is the most important defining feature of a successful revolution: The only place to look for blame is within. An essential feature of the hero's journey is the ability to place blame for situations, circumstances on oneself, rather than another person. This is of primary importance in building resilience.

Yet I wonder, how many educational systems are willing to look for blame within?

Emergence and Engagement
In Magic Numbers - School and Learning Engagement I read:

The one room school house was an "Emergent Design" that fitted naturally the formal learning needed by children into the life of their community. Being emergent, the design, like a good local fishing boat, emerged over time to best suit the real conditions. Being emergent, it had a scale that fitted the Magic Numbers of our natural organization. By fitting into that scale, it created by design the optimal social conditions for learning and social engagement. It was also very inexpensive and depended on few outside resources. By linking so tightly physically to the community, it also reduced the real childcare issues and cost that face every family through all the ages.

Community engagement in education is a powerful idea, yet it remains latent. I would go as far to offer the opinion that the most recent "developments" (perhaps changes is a better word) in education here in Ontario are decidedly anti-community engagement. This may not be the intent, but it does seem to be the end effect. Of course, to pin this problem down on education alone would be a mistake, but it does seem that education is merely reacting to social circumstances rather than taking a proactive stance.

The idea of engagement in learning was one of the fundamental building blocks for Connected Intelligence Network Learning Projects. If knowledge is dynamic, then systems of community engagement need to be articulated as clearly as possible. Here I explored the self-imposed probe: interaction design is instructional design. That probe was a way to challenge a number of the basic presuppositions of status quo curricula that contained interaction in a closed and self-referential system. But these open systems, which are not that difficult to design and implement, fly in the face of exisiting educational norms, that is to say, they challenge the basic structure, identity and processes of curriculum, instruction and evaluation. In doing so, they challenge basic definitions by forcing responses to questions such as, "What is the end of education?"

I don't believe that the Virtual Community Project or the Connected Intelligence Network Learning Program will have any sustainable legacy to education, other than the effect it had on the lives of the students within them. But as a revolution, they both clearly failed. I also don't believe that any of the ideas within either project are new or unique, but perhaps the configuration of exisiting ideas lend a quality of uniqueness to them. Ideas about designing open learning environments and new approaches are, quite frankly, a dime a dozen - mine included. What is missing from the equation are sustainability and durability of open approaches in the midst of a bureaucracy that does a great deal, intentionally or not, to shut down and contain them.

Revolutions fire and fallback if the individuals in the battles are not willing to place blame squarely on their own shoulders. A revolution is a direct challenge to exisiting systems of bureaucratic authority as well as individual identity. The revolution is not so much a search for new ideas and approaches, there are already in my opinion too many of them - and the last thing we need is yet another vision, but it is a battle to overcome the fear of doing something better.

The Internet is an completely inferior tool in waging a revolution against curriculum. Technology companies, although their influence in education is significant, have very little to offer in terms of looking beneath the surface. Curriculum assimilates computers; computers do not fundamentally alter curriculum. The Machine is bigger than the machine. The fact that "computers" can become a course of study, or a subject unto themselves, is a ode to isolation and subservience. The idea that students are taught history, often without ever conducting a historical investigation beyond printed matter in the library, is a variation on the theme of abstraction. The idea that music is often reduced to technique and interpretation by the way of endless band and choral performances squanders potential to experience it as Art. Curriculum technifies us.

And for all of this we significantly increase student debt [via Jeremy Hiebert]. University professors that speak about students reaching their fullest potential, freedom of expression, meaningful and rewarding relationships, wonderous visions of technology, and so on, all the while crushing students with excessive and inexcusable debt loads and oppressive forms of curriculum and evaluation are simply deluded and seriously out of touch. How is it they can continue to receive their salaries and tenure while ensuring that our youth will carry a financial debt load that is simply beyond reason?

Perhaps the blame is being placed somewhere else. Neil Postman has stated the problem clearly and accurately - and he is right.

Unjobbing = Underneath the Surface of a Job
Here is a wonderful entry: Unjobbing.

I have noted a big trend. Most of my children's friends cannot stay in the conventional workforce. They try for a while but have to get out or are pushed out. They don't fit. Many middle aged men (hi guys!) that I have met in the last few years are the same. Many of us have been successful in the old world but we cannot go back. The trouble is that there is not a good place for any of us to make the essential money.

My son, in second year Commerce at McMaster University has recently decided to start his own business. His reasons are twofold: a) he is unwilling to assume any debt at the end of his studies so he is starting his own business to deal with it now; and b) he is already finding the idea of "employment" confining. This speaks to Robert's ideas above. I can also say that for myself employment in the conventional sense is something I prefer to avoid. If we look at the increasing trend in violence and bullying in the school system, we might also note a trend toward not fitting in.

Only revolutionaries, saints and fools operate easily outside their own self-interest. Our operational culture has a series of rules, incentives and punishments that reinforce the old metaphor. It is not easy for anyone inside a traditional organization to make the changes to the new metaphor as all these forces will come into play against them. It is helpful to look at the power of these forces with fresh eyes. Only when we can see them clearly, can we see the value of building new organizations outside the power of the old.

I tend to agree with the idea that "reform" is not a useful tactic in building alternatives. When I was an educator a phrase I would often hear is "school improvement" yet if the question, "What is it we are improving?" was asked, the responses often left one wondering what is was we were really doing. If we look beneath the surface and expose the presuppositions of what we do, the idea of reform becomes moot.

I believe that the power of the old culture makes it almost impossible to change our organizations from within. The reasons for this failure are not lack of effort or lack of vision but the nature of the cultural reaction to the new. The rules of the old culture operate like an immune system seeking out new and dangerous ideas that threaten the old way of doing things.

Unfortunately, my experiences in various parts of the world also reflect this insight. This is not a pessimistic or cynical statement to make. At the same time, adding new structures and systems to the old guard is an equally perilous, but essential, endeavour. It is important to maintain an optimistic perspective that the nature of the cultural reaction to the new can in fact become more open and receptive in authentic ways as Robert nicely summarizes here:

I am beginning to think that this may be the great work - to build the alternatives rather than to try and reform the existing system.

I'm for this.

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