Thursday, May 27, 2010

Metaphors for Learning


We've had a hot spell. A couple of nights ago it was very warm, hardly any wind at all. It was warmer still in the Assembly Hall, where they had the Centennial High School graduation; my older son was one of the not quite 400 graduates to be. My younger son, a member of the band, was part of the show. My wife and I attended, along with a few friends. We were there to mark the milestone that the ceremony represents and to let our son know we support his efforts. What we wanted was to hear his name read aloud, to see him shaking hands with the dignitaries, to watch him walking across the stage before getting ready for his picture to be taken.
In a practice I thought a bit odd, for each graduate they had a PowerPoint slide with the student's name displayed on two big screens, a photo (face only) if that was available, and the college the student would be attending in the fall or the place of work or military service that the student committed to. I didn't know that information was a matter of public record something all in attendance should see. Most of the students will be attending college within the state of Illinois. Many are going to Parkland, the local community college. There were a good chunk going to the U of I, and another dollop to Illinois State, Southern Illinois, and elsewhere such as Illinois Wesleyan and the Art Institute in Chicago. Then there were a bunch headed to neighboring states, Indiana mostly but also Iowa, Kentucky, and Missouri. I don't recall any headed to Wisconsin but some of the schools mentioned I hadn't heard of before so it is possible that I just missed it. There were several headed to Texas, a few to California, and a couple to the Ivy League. I believe the majority who were headed out of state were nonetheless going to public universities though, for example, there were several planning to attend Butler in Indianapolis.
Each student had a moment to be center stage. With so many graduates in total, it took quite a bit of time to get through the entire list of names, read in alphabetical order. Anticipating that it would take a while and owing to the temperature in Hall, one might have guessed that the preliminary part of the program would be abbreviated so as not to try the patience of the audience. That was not the case, however.
There were a variety of musical numbers, a couple with soloists who themselves were graduating seniors. And there were several speeches. The one given by the Senior Class President was charming, with insight into what it's like to mature as a high school student and quite a bit of down to earth humor. My son told us on the drive home that he too thought it well done and he should know since he's been on the speech team the last couple of years. It was a pleasant surprise since the speaker is a jock, a starter in boys' basketball, a team that won the state championship the year before and that did quite well in the tournament this season. The Principal spoke with tenderness about other milestones in the lives of parent and child – the first day the kid was dropped off at primary school, where both cried about the separation – and the one upcoming later in this summer when the kid gets dropped off at the college dorm, where likely it will only be the parent who cries.
Those talks captured the spirit of the moment and should have sufficed. Yet there was more. And here I should add that though this was a joyous event there was an undercurrent of racial tension, based on a history dating back to before the Consent Decree. Seemingly symbolizing the black-white division, there were presentations by both David Tomlinson, President of the School Board, and Arthur Culver, Superintendent of the Unit 4 Schools. Unit 4 consists of the public elementary, middle, and high schools in Champaign. Though their styles were quite different both embraced a paternalistic, advice-for-the- graduate approach in organizing their talks. It is not an approach I'm apt to appreciate in its own right – the kids should figure these things out for themselves – all the more so when I think the underlying points are not well taken.
My wife has been quite active in Band Boosters and the PTSA, an indirect way to show support for our kids and to learn more about the environment they operate in. I've kept my nose out of it, attending their performances but otherwise not involved with the affairs at school. I had never seen Culver talk before and I've seen Tomlinson talk only this spring – after the show Pajama Game and at the Awards Ceremony. His comments at graduation seemed more of the same. I'm not sure he meant it this way but his comments appeared targeted for the white part of the audience. He used movies as a reference point and talked specifically about the Lion King, the part where Rafiki boinked Simba on the head, in order to bring out the old bromide – leave your worries behind, a benign message. Tomlinson's entire talk was mercifully short.
Culver's presentation was edgier and longer. He seemed more than a little taken with himself and his delivery was like a sermon offered up in a church, the motif emphasized all the more because some in the audience sitting near us would should out "that's right" or "amen" after he would make a point. I got irritated during his presentation but it wasn't because of his style. He talked about being a "winner" in school and in life. I think that sports or military analogy is inappropriate for learning and is quite likely pernicious. I hate it when a college coach is interviewed on TV and talks, invariably, about his student-athletes competing in the classroom. Learning is mostly not a competition. Learning is about tinkering, trying out ideas, exploring via new experiences. The emphasis on winning via discipline conjures up the notion of learning as memorization. That is the wrong message to be sending to these students.
Much of Culver's message, as I understood it, was aimed to bolster the student's self-esteem. The goal is laudable. I don't quibble with that. But the approach Culver took is to me just plain wrong. The role model for excellence shouldn't be George Patton or Knute Rockne. It should instead be Abraham Maslow. Self-actualization should be the ideal students chase after. Culver wanted the students to deny their own weakness, overcome that through strength of character. But such denial either creates neuroses or forces the individual to numb himself to many of the sharper realities. Creativity is not found this way and the approach likely promotes unquestioned belief that leads to prejudice. Instead, creativity emerges via the tension between our weakness and the occasional self-loathing that weakness engenders with our inherent need and aspiration to self-actualize. We should give these kids a more mature view of what being an adult means where that tension comes into focus. With that sometimes kids need to give themselves a break rather than always look for the answer via more discipline. Our foibles can be a source of joy for themselves. Do winners have foibles?
I was no fan of No Child Left Behind, the narrowing of the curriculum that it indirectly encouraged as a result of the teach to the test mindset that came from thinking of school performance solely based on standardized test scores. And I'm no fan of the new Race to the Top either. But as I've written elsewhere (for example, this essay on personal learning agendas and this other one that is mainly about Joyce's story in Dubliners called Two Gallants) that the burden shouldn't be entirely on school. People need to be learners in and out of school. Out of school learning is for recreation as self-edification. If we do it well we broaden and deepen our understanding of things. We should be for that. I'm afraid that Culver's approach, perhaps unintentionally, will invariably narrow the student's perspective. If we must talk about winning then I make the following proclamation. Curiosity beats discipline. Let the students learn to satisfy their own curiosity.
* * * * *
I wasn't expecting to get onto a soapbox from attending my son's graduation but I suppose I was primed for it by earlier in the week watching all five of the videos on YouTube of the Edupunk Battle Royale. This is from a session where Gardner Campbell and Jim Groom face off on the term "edupunk" and Gerry Bayne, the moderator from Educause, steps in on occasion to steer the conversation with additional questions. This session was filmed more than a year ago so, not surprising for me, I'm quite a bit behind the times in trying to understand things.
My indirect path for coming to this viewing started with a post on Scott Leslie's blog that posed the question: What is the most "successful" "formal" "OER" project? After commenting on that post myself I thought I had selected to be notified about further comments, but apparently not. So when it occurred to me that I wasn't getting the updates I returned to the post anew a few days later to find quite a thread. Jim Groom's comment immediately followed mine and I found myself agreeing with much of what he said, particularly his instinctive dislike for formalized structures. A bit later Alan Levine chimes in. He and Scott seem to be part of a Jim Groom admiration society.
I've had some interaction with Gardner Campbell in the past, via our respective blogs, through Educause meetings, and within the Frye listserv. I knew Gardner and Jim were colleagues when Gardner was at the University of Mary Washington, though I don't know the details of the relationship they had with each other. And when a friend at Educause asked me to write a column for Educause Quarterly, which ultimately became a column called Framing Questions, I became aware that the solicitation was partially motivated to offer an alternative to edupunk, one that might appeal to administrative types who are Educause's core membership. I steered clear of doing that mostly because I didn't know enough about what edupunk was and also because I saw a different need emerging as we started in on early discussions about repositioning IT on campus, that goes under the banner IT@Illinois. Thinking other campuses were doing something similar, I could see a series of pieces that made sense to me on the topic. So I put any curiosity about edupunk to the side.
The comments on Scott's post rekindled that curiosity. I did a Google search on Gardner and Jim and the Battle Royale popped up on the first page. Now I have a better idea of what the issues are. Being unfair to both of them, I will summarize tersely as follows.
Jim's position is that creativity needs to be as unfettered as possible. Technology can help. In Jim's world Blackboard plays the role of Darth Vader while Wordpress is Luke Skywalker. Since the force is in all of us, just let it be. Cultural elements matter here to creativity since we all make connections with what we learn and the culture in which we are already immersed. Punk music must have been very important to Jim and perhaps still is. So the notion came easily to him.
Gardner and Jim are pretty much in a agreement on the creativity part, but Gardner doesn't like the punk metaphor because punk was ultimately non-generative. Gardner would like us to be more thoughtful about the entire path and not just have us live in the creative moment, oblivious to the long term consequences.
Each of these seem to have some justification but here is some pushback for which I hope somebody will scratch their head and come up with a response. Potentially generative alternatives might fail. If we're trying something new it might go places, then again it might fail. Assuring it is generative a priori is a very stern requirement, perhaps putting too much bias on the status quo, when it otherwise doesn't deserve the support. Let me again turn to race relations as an example because we now have the fullness of time to consider the issue with that example.
We now regard Martin Luther King Jr. as a martyr, perhaps even as a saint. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is now generally viewed as an extremely important struggle that helped the country heal and live up to its ideals. Yet we are clearly not all the way home. What if a more radical approach than King advocated had prevailed in the late 1960s. Black power ultimately was non-generative. But that needn't have been the case, especially if one views it as a way to set a bargaining position in an ongoing negotiation. Why must it be the courts that redress the racial injustice? Couldn't progress have been faster if cooler heads saw progress as the way out of an impasse? Read (or listen to) this speech by Stokely Carmichael on Black Power. I'm sure it was a frightening speech to many when it was delivered in 1966. But from the perspective of now it is quite reasonable. At least I found it so. Might all of us have benefitted from more Stokely, not less of him? I don't know the answer to that question, but I believe it is worth pondering. That is the question for Gardner.
The pushback at Jim is his making it too easy by identifying the external enemy, Blackboard. What happens if the enemy is closer to home, like his university, and it is imposing restrictions on his creativity, perhaps to respect Federal or State regulations or simply because some of the alumni are none too happy with some of Jim's work, what then? Or what if the enemy is even closer to home than that? It is really our inner demons with which we must continually wrestle. Do we self-filter our creative outbursts because we're aware of in the past regretting some of what we've produced, the harm greatly outweighing the benefit? And if that has happened in the past, should we nonetheless trust only internal filters or require others that are at an institutional level? By that line of thought, might Blackboard be resurrected as the embodiment of the institutional restrictions we need for our own protection? I don't know the answer to these questions either.
As I teacher who wishes to experiment with the technology and the pedagogy, I do feel incredibly encumbered by the restrictions that my institutions seems to want to respect. So I have this desire to go outside the institution with the tools I use to support learning. But I know that completely ignoring the restrictions is a mistake as well. I'd like to set a a different balance than what we have but I've got insufficient principles to guide me to how that balance should be attained.
I wonder if we'll make progress on this one.

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