Posts Tagged ‘craft’

In which connections occur.

Following a quick note and blog posts from the unbelievably productive Jenny Mackness, I listened to my first (and to date only) ChangeMOOC recording in which Geetha Narayanan presented “dangerous ideas”—or “inconvenient truths”—about learning and education.

As I understood it, Geetha’s presentation offered a glimpse of experiential learning based in a local community, with an explicit recognition of the “expansion of the inner self” as a purpose of learning; the development of learning as tied to craft on a local and hands-on level; and an understated nod to curriculum content and measurement.

The presentation was packed with concepts that are clearly highly developed and detailed in their own right, and so I focused on ideas that resonated or dovetailed with my own experience while recognizing our different individual situations and responsibilities in our different parts of the world.

In particular, Geetha’s work focuses not just on adult learners, as does much of the conversation in the connectivist MOOC spaces (which, by the way, I see as different from MOOCs offered for content delivery/coverage purposes), but on young people. While still in the process of formulating questions that allow me to express tacit learning in this area, I think a critical point is my understanding that sustainable learning may be brought into being not by intentionally creating and trumpeting change (“before/after”) for those bridging two or more systems (adults), but in trying leapfrog to where that which might be “new” in a historically comparative perspective is quite normal and business as usual. Perhaps this needs to be a consideration for connectivism or networked learning where, when attempting to draw these ideas into “conventional” learning climates, there is a tremendous amount of energy expended on addressing skepticism and the need to prove its worth in comparison to “traditional” learning (in whatever sense that is understood).

Instead of asking “How can we change what we have and make people do something different?” my question is more along the lines of: “What happens when we are (largely) embedded in a different worldview of the purposes and processes of learning from the start?” This difference may seem impossibly subtle, but I think it’s important.

I was also struck by the somewhat wistful comments of the session participants–“ I wish I had a school like that.”  I do often wonder, having heard similar comments quite often, whether this expresses a desire for a different school, or is more an expression of a desire for the opportunity to experience/facilitate different learning. I think these are ultimately two very different questions or wishes. The assumption of school structures as essential may on one hand be viewed as obviously practical or economically necessary in terms of scale, but on the other hand seems to be a “legacy future,” in which the way things are and have been have so colonized our minds that we have lost the ability to image anything else. Additionally, such comments raise a question of agency. Perception of personal agency is exactly that– personal, as well as complex– meaning agency is not something to be judged by others. I would note  that deviating from a status quo in any context, including learning endeavors, requires serious decision-making with a slate of both clear and completely unknown long-term consequences for all involved, and the strategies available are regarded by many as “high risk.” (An understanding of emergence, complexity and resilience goes far in mitigating the perceived risks and addressing the actual ones, and, in a neat circle, I would suggest that learners who have learned to navigate uncertainty early on are much better at doing so.)

Uncertain waters

This recognition of the difference between school and learning also relates to the issue of scale brought up in the presentation. Geetha referred to the idea of Clayton Christenson’s “disruptive innovation” as a bottom-up effort that would spread and scale. And indeed, scaling the school model she is working with – with the paradox of the small and local as a focus within individual schools—was identified as an explicit goal.

While I do not know the circumstances and parameters involved in Geetha’s work, I do feel that some generic assumptions about scale might need to be examined, both in the idea that scale, meaning large numbers, must absolutely occur as an indicator of success, and in how scale might be confused with sweep, meaning that when people look for scaled results, they expect to see many instantiations of the same thing in one place—district-wide, state-wide, nationwide in “schoolish” terms.

Scale in terms of increasing numbers seems a bit of a throwback to an industrial, production-based perspective, whereas sustainability and the development of the self rests much more in quality and enduring presence than on more, more, more.  And as an example, if MOOCs have been evidence of anything, it may be the idea of what I seem to want to call disaggregated scale, where “sweep” is not in evidence. By this I mean the presence of individuals or small clusters scattered across wide distances (however we wish to define “distance,” whether geographic, temporal, or cultural). Indeed, I was struck by the fact that among the participants in Geetha’s session were names familiar to me from previous connectivist MOOCs, many from CCK08. Each one of those participants, I would hazard, represents a “node” that facilitates or expresses ideas gained in and through the connectivist environment—creating a form of networked “scale” over four years (!) that is not evidenced by the participant numbers, or perhaps even network mapping, and is certainly not that solid blanket or sweep of sheer numbers in contiguous space.

By the same token, I wonder if youth learning represented through experiential self development is a “movement” (the “newness” of which probably depends on personal and cultural history, as Jenny indicates) best viewed and “scaled” not as a program to be implemented on a school-by-school basis, but through an understanding of such endeavors as the outgrowth and potential of a more disaggregated, self-identified/identifying and flexibly sustainable network or connective activity.

Finally, I would note that Geetha follows another principle of disruptive innovation, in focusing her efforts on populations (in this case of young people) that might otherwise evoke reactions of indifference, helplessness, or even desperation among school officials or the culture at large. Where populations are already underserved or when “best practices” are clearly inadequate or irrelevant, there is room for new visions. But the often subsequent idea that any program, or any new vision of learning, is going to be appropriate for or desired by all young learners—and/or their parents or others—over time may be another “legacy future” stumbling block. While new ideas are often implemented with the assumption that, once proven, it will be the responsibility of authorities or even community members to “get people on board” and convince others of the need for change, this effort to “scale up” may well be a draining effort that takes energy away from the actual act or emerging result of leapfrogging that is critical for those who are most prepared for and need the “new and different” to be their own, sustainable “normal.” (The issues of voluntary participation and resulting questions about equality in learning are too large to address here, but fresh perspectives may be needed here as well.)

Perhaps one of the best ways to rephrase my understanding of experiential learning which allows growth of the inner self is to return to the concept of “craft,” which, while a minor point in Geetha’s presentation, is one very worthy of consideration and embedded in my reflections on learning. As Geetha noted, there must be an understanding of the hand and not just the mind. I have found that viewing learning as a form and expression of craft, both in its connection to physical presence and activity, and in the idea of “crafting” or creating on that broad and fuzzy cusp merging tradition, improvisation and innovation, seems to remove many of the inappropriate burdens that are currently placed upon education.

Crochet in the tent

If  “awakening, discovery, recovery and revitalization” of the self, rather than the acquisition of testable knowledge (and the idea of this as a dichotomy is a simplification and shortcut here) should be the outcome or emerging vision for learning, then the processes that lead to it seem to demand different visions as well.

Richard Sennett notes that the act of craft and resulting crafted products serve entirely different purposes than those of machine production and products. Craft is embedded in culture, tradition, and connection—creative unity, perhaps, as Geetha phrased it– rather than some idealized goal of perfection. So too, it seems, would education focused on the growth of the inner self contain the paradox of the both local and individual within a connective context, and the inherent understanding of experience and engagement as the point of learning, rather than learning as a means to an externalized and idealized “perfect” end.


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In which I might be onto something, and in which I make an initial stab at trying to pin it down.

I’ve been journeying rather far from home for quite some time to explore a strange but compelling land where “learning” and “technology” and “education” and “change”… and people… seem to converge.

I travel with biases. We all view the world through personally honed lenses, ground through psychological inclinations, experiences, academic training, etc.

And so I find I’ve begun to frame/articulate what I (think I) have been seeing in those travelled lands as something familiar, something with similarities to the land in which I generally reside as an observer and participant of culture.

"Carved by the hired hand on the farm."

Folklorist Henry Glassie writes about art and culture:

“We have drowned ourselves so thoroughly in our own tradition that we casually mistake its intricate artifice for natural process.”

I suggest that this applies to learning as well. And when stripped or relieved of all the imposed mechanics and quantifying measurements and manufacturing goals of “modern” education, the iterative processes and communicative acts and products of learning are, in essence, forms of creative expression.*  **

To justify this explanation, I am tempted to take a pretty big detour—one that explains the territory of folklore (from whence, in part, I come)  to the legions who are baffled by the very idea… but that’s what links are for, aren’t they?

So, moving on…

One form of creative expression familiar to most people, and perhaps therefore easy to understand, is the creation of objects—of craft. I use this word a bit hesitantly, but trust it will serve simply as a relevant and “graspable” example of creative expression and not bring forth too many biases. (Paula Owen notes: “The ambiguity of the word ‘craft’ is troublesome because for the majority of people it connotes hobby-level kitsch, which nullifies significant achievements and ideas. It is [also] troublesome because many young artists have grown up in a world of cultural fusion and no longer find the classification relevant.”)

Nonetheless, for the sake of example: in creating—crafting—a quilt, or a chair, or a “found object” sculpture, the creator employs a wide variety of decision-making process, all of which vary in emphasis and importance due to the complexities of the interrelationships between the choices.

  • A craftsperson has choices of materials, of tools, of subject matter.
  • A craftsperson makes choices about how much to adhere to a tradition, and how much to vary or innovate within and beyond it.
  • A craftsperson works with varying sources of information and inspiration, in different contexts of time and space, with differing demands and responses from one or more audiences.

This sounds to me much like the options available to learners today, for those who choose to choose.

Along the same lines, E.M. Fleming suggests that material culture (i.e. artifacts, such as craft objects) can be analyzed through developing understandings of an object’s:

  • history
  • material
  • construction
  • design
  • and function.

At the parade. Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

I would suggest that in working to understand others’ learning and resulting communicative products (especially as they develop outside formal educational boundaries), these are equally useful lenses.

A further thought is that by understanding how creative expression such as craft functions, we can also understand the potential of, as well as current resistance to, viewing learning as a creative process. For example:

  • Craft as a process of creative expression creates its own emergent structures of authority or non-authority; learning can be formal, informal, non-formal…. (Perhaps so subtle as to be “invisible.”) Mentorship, apprenticeship, being “raised in the tradition,” formal instruction—all are viable processes. Choices regarding this are frequently the province of the creator.
  • Creative expression is an emergent, “design as you go” process (one of bricolage, as Graham Atwell has pointed out in his explorations of personal learning); one which is multi-directional. Henry Glassie writes: “The process is a common one, known to every cook and carpenter. It is a matter of reorganizing materials. As more and more that matters is pulled into the process…it gathers more into itself and so gains the strength to reach out more broadly…” This pulling and reaching supports both tradition and innovation.
  • Craft expressions are best understood as processes and products of the interplay among the intent (motives and motivation) of the creator, her community, and other context, rather than as “masterpieces” of an individual artist/genius working in splendid isolation.

Among the difficulties:

  • The idealized perfection of uniformity promoted by mass production. (Interestingly, the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century was in many ways anti-factory-production, but its adherents were not necessarily anti-technology, nor were they opposed to efficiency in production.)
  • A cultural bias devoted to promoting the supposed moral superiority of “high art” and assumptions (indoctrination?) of an “educated elite” about the presumed, innate, and absolute “quality” of such art over craft.
  • Tacit and explicit lack of respect for cultures and communities which bring craft expressions into being; whether cause or effect, craft is associated with populations which have been marginalized, particularly based on gender and race. These populations and their creative expressions have been called “naive” and even “unschooled.”
  • A cultural view that suggests domains reflecting Cartesian worldviews– math and science, for example– are more valuable (economically, politically…) and worthy of transmission than domains of craft/creative expression. (I do not claim that math or science is purely Cartesian nor that these pursuits are not creative. Nor do I mean that learning within these realms cannot result from learning as a result of the same choices of creative process noted above—only that this is currently not/rarely the case.)

Presently I’m feeling a bit like a hunter who has stalked prey across unfamiliar stretches of savannah, wrestled it to the ground in a bruising but respectful battle, and is now dragging the bounty back to the comforting campfires of home, a dietary enrichment for the tribe…

Or, potentially a little less bloody in extended metaphor, here’s where I seem to be travelling now: through a messy roundabout of learning, education, technology and the enticing potential of “hand-crafted learning.”

* Please, please, please do not read this as “students should do a project/learn some stuff and write a song about it.”

** This observation is distilled from a multi-page rambling I’ve been stuck on for a couple of months, one which inspired me to post an equally distilled summary comment recently on Dave Cormier’s blog discussing factory education– an important “getting over the hump” step to this post, for the record of those who are tracking connective processes 🙂

Works consulted:

M. Anna and Owen, Paula. Objects and Meaning. New Perspectives on Art and Craft. Scarecrow Press (October 2005).

Glassie, Henry. The Spirit of Folk Art. Harry N. Abrams (February 1, 1995).

Schlereth, Thomas. Material Culture Studies in America. American Association for State & Local History (June 1982).

Toelken, Barre. The Dynamics of Folklore. Utah State University Press (May 1, 1996).

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