The Age of Bricolage: School in the Change Blender

When everything around is changing so rapidly that it feels like living inside a blender on high speed, habits and traditions can be comforting. As the year rolls along in any school there are the dates on the calendar – love them or dread them, those ceremonies, and celebrations – that are familiar, anticipated and taken for granted.

And then there are the routines provided by policy and established practice – the way students are scheduled, assigned to classes, assessed, allowed to dress or use technology – that provide structure and send the message: This is the way we do things here. This is what matters most.

But something new is afoot. Many schools, recognizing that the world is changing fast, are reconsidering habits as they take up the challenge to educate children for a world transformed. What is the place of grades in a learning environment where intellectual risk taking is essential? How do we help our students develop global awareness? Is critical thinking enough and what does it look like? Should we monitor student internet access? What belongs in the curriculum and what can we take out? Can cell phones and social networks be tools for learning? What kinds of students do colleges really want? Is the AP or the IB program the way to go? Are award ceremonies sending the wrong message? How can we meet the needs of diverse learners?

It is no longer good enough just to say: “This is the way it has always been”, and “This is the way we have always done it.”

For good reason, schools tend to be conservative institutions and the pace of change in effective schools is often glacial. The needs of childhood are timeless we tell ourselves, oblivious to the fact that we have already piled more expectations into kindergarten than are reasonable or justifiable by any established and rational theory of child development. Schools have proved very pliable to the pressures that say more is better – more tests, more AP courses more curriculum content. Taking on more seems easy, changing the game is so much harder.

There’s an old joke in education that says that it is easier to change the course of history than it is to change a history course. The way we have always done things may be an enduring and solid foothold on a slippery rockface but may also be the enemy of essential adaptation needed for survival. The trick for schools is to figure out the difference between the mission critical baby and the bathwater of time honored practice.

Technology as disruption came to me early in life and in a very personal way. When I was in the first form at school (equivalent to sixth grade) I was appointed to a most powerful and important classroom leadership role.

I was made Ink Monitor.

It was my morning responsibility to ensure that the small porcelain inkwell that sat in a recess on the top right of every student desk was replenished with ink from the large white bottle with the metal spout that was kept in the teacher’s cupboard. Needless to say, this was a responsibility I took very seriously and performed to the best of my ability.

There was a clear writing implements acceptable use policy. Work had to be written in ink, never pencil, and “biros” – ballpoint pens – were forbidden. The penalty for improper use was detention. We had to use either fountain pens or pens with nibs that were dipped into the aforementioned inkwells. The particular disruption of which I speak occurred when one student had the temerity to write using one of the illegal pens. Our history teacher – who to us was as ancient as the Ur of the Chaldees that seemed to comprise the entire curriculum – went ballistic. Her name was Miss Almond (we wittily called her “Nutty”) and she was famous for her classroom management expertise. In other words she was a holy terror to small children.

Nutty Almond’s outrage notwithstanding, ballpoints were soon everywhere. Students began using fountain pens with disposable cartridges of ink or brought their own bottles to school.

My reign as ink monitor was over. The middle person in this ink delivery system was no more. In technical jargon – like the Main Street purveyors of music, books, and so much else– I had been disintermediated.

Schools today have to educate children for a very different world that is not far off, and far from golden, age. Children are born digital and are growing up global and the adult task is to help them be ready to thrive in a future that we cannot predict.

Since the days of the ink monitor technological change has speeded up a bit.  You are probably familiar with all the staggering statistics about the phenomenal growth of social media. It took radio 38 years to reach an audience of 50 million, TV took 13 years and the internet just four. Facebook added 200 million users in less than a year.

So it’s not just the change but the dizzying, accelerating pace of it all.  Our lives are saturated with digital technology and we are so enmeshed we don’t stop to think about how profoundly it is changing us.

Disruption from every direction is the new norm. Even, finally, in education.  Another inside joke is that while all other industries – think agriculture, publishing, journalism, medicine, and engineering – have changed beyond all recognition in the past half century – most classrooms still look, seem and are distressingly familiar.

Schools are affected by social changes in different ways and some may feel immune. When the wait list is solid, college acceptances strong and the annual fund exceeds expectations, it is easy to imagine that life can continue as usual. But change is nibbling at the edges of even the most assured institutions as they contemplate a world of learning transformed by digital technology. This is when “That’s the way we have always done it” is not the rock of values, but a stumbling block.

Theres’s an intense debate going on in education about this changing world and the imperative for schools. For over a decade there has been a deal of excited talk about the 21st century learner and the need to reimagine education and redefine rigor for the new age. Schools have stuffed expensive interactive white boards into classrooms and outfitted labs with computers and children with laptops. But these can be cosmetic changes to an antiquated system. The whole notion of how and who we educate, why, where and for what, is the real debate.

In the 20th century it made sense – to many at least – that education was an achievement driven, sorting process. Schools were the engine for the transfer of knowledge and skills, conformity and memory were prized and higher education was a scarce commodity. Teachers were experts in their field and it was their job to pass the knowledge along. It was about linearity, conformity, scarcity and sorting.

All this is in the process of being uprooted. That’s a violent metaphor, but in context it is not too extreme. The way the world does business from entertainment to finance to philanthropy has been challenged by change – disrupted, disintemediated or  dismantled. And schools are not invulnerable. Home schooling is on the rise, middle class families struggle to pay independent school tuitions, online learning is no longer an oddity and disengaged students drop out of school in their thousands every week.

The ink monitor was disintermediated and teachers and schools can be too. It is possible, however, to imagine new roles for schools within a new ecology of learning made possible by the tools of social technology and the abundance of information.

For years we have prated about lifelong learning. Dig around in the mission statement of most schools and you will probably find it in one form or another. The ubiquitous learning now possible moves the phrase from wishful thinking to reality. And because the social web honors multiple intelligences and thrives on diversity, that learning can be for everyone.  When great universities such as MIT and Stanford make their content available to all there is no excuse for ignorance.

In networked learning, reciprocity – the push and pull of information – rules. Across generational boundaries learners are creators, distributors and users of knowledge. Social interactive technology has unleashed the bricoleur in all of us with the tools that enable us to take one thing then cobble it into something quite new to be used in a different context for a different purpose. The new emerges from discovery, adaptation, and borrowing.  And then it is shared to be refashioned yet again. Crucial in this age of bricolage are information navigation, filtering and the judgment of “crap detection”. In this ecology, learners become their own librarians and curators. This independence enables networked self-sustaining learning as we move from an expectation of being told to a new authority of finding out for ourselves.

Read Part Two: More Educator Luddites Please.


  1. I had to look up “bricolage” – Super blog post, as always.

  2. Ink monitor!! Great example of change–such a solid post to share with others, too. Thanks!

  3. admin:

    Thanks Susan. Being the classroom ink monitor was a great preparation for school administration! One always has to be mindful of the impact on character of all that power! You might be interested in part two – coming soon.

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