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Students can feel constrained by ways of communicating and learning that seem opaque and fixed because they are permeated with norms never made explicit, knowledge they do not share, or the language of others.

Janette Ryan and Rosemary Viete
Respectful interactions: learning with international students in the English-speaking academy.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

On connection and change in Education

When I was researching for my PhD, I would frequently come across a book or set of essays which began with "On" something, or "Towards" something. I liked these works because they were so evidently open and in the process of becoming and evolving, never seeking to establish unique authority. This is a position I respect in academic writing, because it contributes a new voice to an area of exploration but then leaves the door open for new voices to follow. The writers are invariably of the kind I aspire to be: balanced, critically aware, passionate, and most importantly, they desire to be part of a developing narrative contributed to by others. Such voices are sadly harder to hear in many areas in which I am now spending intellectual and emotional time in the education field.

Of this "becoming" genre, one title is stuck in my imagination: Susan Stewart, "On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection". I actually came across this work when doing my Masters research into wilderness art and photography, and I can still say it was by far the most enjoyable book I read across my whole candidature, mostly because of the depth of imagination the author brought with her, and the beautiful connections she was able to so skillfully make between the objects and practices examined, and the human desires which brought those objects and practices into being.

'Longing' on it's own is a powerful word. It positively hums with associations which stimulate the human mind and body. It simultaneously carries embedded within it hopefulness and lack of fulfillment; a searching gesture towards a vision of the future, flanked by absence and uneasiness. And so it should. This is the way desire should be. This is the nature of the force which motivates people to act, choose, learn, work, love, grieve, and create. Why is it so hard for us to remember?

My major frustration at the moment, in both my work as a teacher and as someone working in an education technology integration project, is daily encounters with binary thinkers. Mostly, the frustration comes when I realize that reluctance to engage with new ideas and concepts is based on a more deep seated reluctance to look beyond one's own interests. It is both a personal failure of vision, and a failure to recognize that all individuals can, and should (if they are at all involved in delivering or receiving education) take a place on a broader canvas of human endeavour.

Put simply, I am constantly disappointed by the fact that it is so often a default position to criticize and dismiss, than to make the effort to understand how something could be engaged with creatively to further both those private interests, and the broader ones. An easy example is to read the comments on articles written about new school projects to introduce iPads, iPods and other mobile learning devices into classrooms, or to use e-book readers, or open a lecture series to a Twitter backchannel. Scorn and derision pepper the more hopeful and positive responses like bitter stains. Yes - of course there should be discussion and debate, of course divergent opinions must be heard and respected. Yet, what many of these negative voices share, in my view, is a lack of actual reflection on what positive things could be achieved by thinking creatively, and opening up a fruitful debate instead of closing it down through unexamined fear of change.

Why is it so difficult for students, and many others, to be open to seeing connections between what appear to be on first glance divergent sets of skills and concepts? Why is there such a longing for separation, isolation, and simplistic solutions? Complexity is a natural state of affairs for most intellectual disciplines, systems, institutions, and human relationships, but many still cling resolutely to the walls which can be (clumsily) built to neatly divide complexity into an illusion of simplicity.

As I've grown older and practiced reflection, the parallels between all the things which shape my personal and intellectual life have become easier to see. I actively look for these connections in my everyday life, both in my teaching with students and in my role working with teachers. But I am generally unsuccessful in communicating the benefits such an ability to see connections can bring, and I now think I know why.

It's more than simply fear of change or laziness which prevents some people from seeing more creatively. Among my younger students, it's usually simply a lack of experience of seeing how seemingly divergent concepts, contexts and disciplines can intersect and overlap. Here is a fundamental role teachers at all levels need to fulfill: enabling students to actively transfer the skills they gain in a particular course across the curriculum.1

For older people, reluctance to look at what benefits both change and collaboration can bring are more complex - but they will never be convinced by being told to do so by someone else. Professionals need to see the benefits of change for themselves, and if possible they need to be the creators and managers of their own change: not the followers of someone else's vision. Professionals don't really appreciate being students again. As a professional teacher I see this: my frustrations come when some refuse to even look, and reject the opportunities to lead or participate due to myriad possible reasons which I can never hope to fully appreciate, or influence.

This realization should free me up somewhat, and I should feel less responsibility for those voices of dissent. Potentially, transferring more responsibility to others can empower me to articulate a stronger sense of the collective vision, and enable others to shape change according to their own visions. I say 'potentially' with a sense of longing - I want this freedom to express, but it's not quite there. I long for a clear sense of path and purpose, but shadows will always cloud the way. Without the challenge a struggle brings, desire to achieve and longing for fulfillment will fade from view. We all need to keep struggling, and thus to keep learning and 'becoming' something else.

I don't always want to admit it, but, this is the way it should be.

1. For an excellent article on this, see Dara Rossman Regaignon, 'Traction. Transferring Analysis Across the Curriculum.' Pedagogy Vol 9, 1, 2009.

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Location:In Flux.

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