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.
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:
- and function.
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 🙂
Fariello, 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).