Posts Tagged ‘culture’

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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In which educationalists should feel free to roll their eyes….

CCK09: Guilty as charged– lurking. It’s a factor of time, schedule, and attention, but also perhaps one of sloth. While writing for academic and literary purposes needs to be approached as regularly as any serious work  (a friend compares it to laying pipe), writing about something immediately compelling is… so much easier. And after CCK08 I figured that, even with a low and random level of monitoring, CCK09 would probably prompt a few compelling thoughts somewhere along the line.

Hark! Whilst peeling fava beans in my Midwestern kitchen on a rainy fall day and listening to this week’s Elluminate session, some thoughts converged. In this mundane setting and in the midst of this mindless task, I realized that one of the difficult things about connectivism is the large amount of imagination and creativity it requires. (Online resources for these topics are really fluffy, but work by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi seems a reasonable entry point, and this resource at the Open University provides some toeholds.)

tomatoesThese aspects have come into play on several levels. On one, I’ve needed on several occasions to transcend language/linguistic conventions and limits in order to understand the entities and concepts being described. So many of the terms in use here, as in most of education, are highly connotative, perhaps particularly so for those most versed and expert in various related fields. Groups, networks, teacher, school, knowledge, learning… Instead of mincing descriptive and definitive language (and I do differentiate these) down to even more precise levels (and I’m usually among the first to appreciate precision in language), I’ve found it useful to abandon or bypass the mental pictures these words first bring to mind from various perspectives of understanding. It has been important to clarify my own underlying assumptions about whatever term is in question, and then to be able to recognize that they might not be applicable here, even if they seem to have the contextual hallmarks of conventionality or use within a discipline.

This doesn’t mean dismissing all previous conceptualizations out of hand, but it does mean putting them at least temporarily on hold, no matter how tightly we are wedded to them. Take the basic associations for the term “networks,” for example. From the lay/popular culture side: way too overloaded and intermingled with “networking” as a self-promotion strategy to be useful here. On the technology side: way too mechanistic and clear cut. (True, these are unsophisticated examples, but they serve for the purpose of illustration.) Jenny Mackness mentioned last year that network visualizations seem to need a third or other dimension. For me this idea was, to use a current turn of phrase, resonant, and is indeed descriptive how I satisfy my “sense” of what is described. My mental image of the relationships and manifestations of networks and groups is still much more amorphous and multi-dimensional than anything that I’ve seen on a page; it’s more of a sculpture or some form of art installation (with lights, I think, yes, colored lights… that move, and with a range of emergent sounds…) than any type of graphic illustration. Attempting to understand connectivism has become, in this respect, an almost synesthetic experience.

On a second level, creativity and imagination have been needed to edge into the realm of innovation; that is, to identify how and where the implications of connectivism are realized. Connectivism is a descriptive entity (realm?) rather than a tool or an approach or, heaven forbid, a program. And yet it seems that some come to CCK manifestations with an idea of “applying” connectivism “in practice.” And so here’s another epiphany (it sounds easy, but it was rather grinding, really) I needed to have: The implications of the concepts under consideration, whether packaged under connectivism or some other understanding, are not necessarily something that one can work towards. They are something we have to leap to, and then, only after this leap of imagination and the fundamental revisioning of the possible, does it become fully clear where the understandings of connectivism are “applicable.”

In some ways, my understandings (which I don’t claim to be comprehensive or completely accurate) come from a process of working backward to accommodate existing realities, rather than working forward to an envisioned potential.(See also: backcasting.) And so something like “How can I use/apply/integrate connectivism in my classroom?” becomes, from this perspective, a totally irrelevant, and perhaps misguided, question. I would encourage anyone struggling with connectivism to work hard at inventing a mental world where connectivism makes total sense and is completely feasible… and then work back through the details. A quote I enjoyed today:

Society is not always quick to understand game-changing innovation. In fact, according to MIT professor Lant Pritchett, there is a very particular pattern of acceptance and understanding we go through that can be summarized as “Crazy. Crazy. Crazy. Obvious.”

I’d say connectivism is at least nominally easier to grasp if you envision a world in which it is “obvious” first, and then work back through the layers of crazy.

As a bit of a tangential disclaimer, I would note that I don’t have much interest in science fiction or fantasy literature, should anyone see this as the approach I am taking. Instead, in studying culture, I have an innate interest in unpacking the layers of understanding and meaning within events, stories and objects. That means “seeing” the invisible, the worldview, contained in or implied by such entities. And this is how I tackle connectivism. Connectivism requires and supports creativity as it becomes both an object of interpretive study, and a viewpoint that inherently encompasses personal narratives/constructions of learning processes. (Out on an intuitive limb here.)

Finally, one other thought about connectivism, creativity, and the sense of “different” participation this year: There is an association between creativity and risk-taking, and yes, novelty. And for intellectual risk-takers and novelty-seekers in a number of related fields, whether lurking or dueling (or engaging in scorched earth warfare), the CCK08 MOOC was a pretty compelling place to be/play. So if participation is down/different, I don’t think it’s a referendum on the course or connectivism itself. Indeed, after adrenaline junkies finish the parachute jumping, someone has to inspect and fold the chutes. Many jumpers pack their own, I hear, but for the sake of metaphor, let’s say that might be what CCK09 participants are doing. That said, it’s still early. BASE jumpers (gratuitous video) could still be lurking.

Coda: We had “Gigantes” once in a restaurant and found this to be a tasty dish. I’m not big on recipes, except for broad outlines, and my dislike of big box grocery shopping stands in the way of any precision in ingredients required for authenticity, but this is what I do with the aforementioned beans:

favaplateCook and peel 1 lb of fava beans or large lima beans while listing to CCK09.  Chop one or two (depending on how close it is to carpool time) onions and sauté in a small pan with olive oil; simultaneously roast two or three red peppers on another burner, steam in paper bag. Return from driving to wake up the computer; peel and chop peppers and five or six farmer’s market tomatoes. Do not drip on the keyboard while occasionally waking up the screen with your wrist in order to read the chatroom comments.

Mix all of the above (minus the paper bag and the computer) in a baking dish with olive oil, pepper, salt, oregano, marjoram and crushed garlic. Bake for about an hour or until household citizens are done practicing their instruments. Add liquid as needed  if there’s a jazz combo still rehearsing in the basement. Mix in whatever fresh, chopped parsley the first Minnesota frost hasn’t wilted, and crumbled feta cheese. Serve with some form of green vegetable, because it makes a pretty picture on the plate.


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Once upon a time, I went off to Austria as an exchange student. Having limited travel experience, it seemed a pretty big leap. Many years later, it’s clear to me that the Austrian and Minnesoto-American cultures are, in broad and relative strokes, much more similar than they are different. But as an inveterate researcher of culture and cultural change, I also am aware of how the “small things” communicate big messages.

One of the things that startled me most at the time was the mid-sized Bundesgymnasium’s lack of a library. My high school, built during a period of relatively progressive educational vision and funding, had a “media center” at its heart. This contained shelves and shelves of books and magazines, along with a small TV studio, and enough A-V opportunities to warrant the “media” designation. Students would meet in the media center for projects, and it was, in the conceptualization of David D. Thornberg, one of the school’s “watering holes,” where random and casual social encounters were possible.

It’s true that the Bundesgymnasium, set in an alpine valley, had better scenery, which in my mind certainly compensated for its libraryless-ness for a while. But that’s not where the contrasts ended. The first day of classes found me scrambling as I learned that when a teacher entered the room, all the students rose to their feet. The memory is particularly vivid in relation to the history and geography class, my favorite subjects prior to that time. The teacher entered, waited for the rising and rustling to stop, and gazed slowly through the room, checking for attentiveness and transgressions such as stray objects on the desks. Once satisfied, he spread his arms, granting permission to sit. He instructed students to take out their notebooks, pens and rulers (woe unto anyone who had already done this before commanded),  and then he opened his own notebook. It, like the students’, was handwritten– the chapter and verse of that year’s curriculum.

Monday through Thursday, he would dictate to the students, right down to the punctuation, Roman numeral outlining, and underlined words.

On Friday, students would recite, on command and from memory, passages from their written notes. Some recitations, in inadvertent Victor Borge fashion, included the punctuation.

No wonder there wasn’t a library. In this world, teachers were the ultimate, unquestioned information authority. The very existence of a library would suggest otherwise.

I have been assured that not all classrooms in Austria, or even in that school, operated like this at that time. And indeed, I also remember a literature teacher who was at least moderately interested in conversation. (Although she also continually scolded students for their ill-structured essays without communicating what good structure would be.)

The Kirche up the hill.

The Kirche up the hill.


But the symbolism of the standing, the dictation, “the” notebook, and the recitation is hard to miss. These things said a lot about authority, about concepts of knowledge and learning and choice… about worldviews. Indeed, the classroom rituals were not all that different from those conducted in the Kirche up the hill.

Several years later, I returned Austria, this time to Vienna, on a cooperative program that placed English language speakers in academic high schools as teaching assistants. During an orientation tour, my guide burbled enthusiastically about the newest addition to the school – a real innovation. Funding had been secured; parents and teachers were thrilled. It was… a library. We strode briskly down the hall, a door visible on the far end.

“Do the students use the library on their breaks, or go as a class?” I asked, clear that things were probably still a far cry from the casual “media center.” My guide looked at me strangely, pulling a set of keys from her pocket.

“Of course we don’t let students in here, but if you need something, you can see me,” she said, unlocking and opening the heavy wooden door.

Behind the door was a walk-in closet, filled with shelves, only some of which were occupied… with multiple copies of textbooks.

The great new addition to the school was considered an innovation largely because it meant that teachers no longer had to dictate punctuation.

I’ve had cause to think about these experiences and understandings as I read frequently about the push for interactive white boards (and learning management systems) for classrooms and schools. Lots of public funding dollars are being spent on these. They are also being touted as important and innovative technology – surely parents and the public would want these in our schools!

But, like the library-but-not, I have to muse about the symbolism behind these tokens of digital progress. I can’t help but wonder how many current technology initiatives are promoting tools that make the traditional conceptualizations of knowledge more entrenched and the rituals of the learning process more efficient… or perhaps even enshrining them. Interactive white boards, while they can be used as a central interface to connect to the bigger world, are designed for a world where classrooms as the primary site of learning. They remain a “sage on the stage” tool, one in which central efforts around worksheets and demonstrations can revolve. They might be fun and flashy for kids, and yes, I’ve seen them in action and I can see where it can all depend on the individual implementation, but let’s be clear: they are largely for the teachers’ convenience. (And that clicker thing? Spookily Skinnerian.)

Do teachers need all the help they can get? Sure. It doesn’t help to demonize those things that bring short-term relief to people and systems under pressure, whether they’re better desks, exercise balls, or technology aids.

Mobile learning via GPS

Mobile learning via GPS



However, what happens when we contrast these popular “innovations” with the symbolism and tacit messages of technology dollars spent on mobile and individual learning devices such as netbooks or OLPC-type machines? These de-centralized technologies communicate very different messages– about options and locations for learning, about learners’ power to make choices… and about a learner’s responsibilities in relation to learning processes.

In the best of worlds, technology choices, as well as learning choices, would not be either/or. And true, it’s possible to overbearingly dictate the use of de-centralized technology. And, finally, there is also a danger of being overly reductive with this type of analysis; learning is a complex system.

And so I would simply note that a society’s choice of tools, coupled with their implementation, could be understood as saying a great deal about its traditions, as well as its hopes and its vision – its worldview. An innovation in one context is interpreted differently in another. Nothing new here, but it seems like a good thing to remember now and then.

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