Part two of: The Age of Bricolage: School in the Change Blender:
Technology is always disruptive: Think of the introduction of the printing press, or the combine harvester, or the typewriter. Think of the mechanical looms and the factory system of the industrial revolution that destroyed a way of life for cottage industry weavers. Some of them took to frame breaking and gave us the unfairly derisive term of “luddite” for those who resist technological change.
In the early decades of 19th century England, years of war, economic hardship, crop failures and political repression incubated a spirit of rebellion that made the government nervous. Rather by chance, I discovered this year that I am a descendant of a luddite – an infamous rebel and the last person in England to be sentenced to be beheaded. In 1817, beguiled by a government spy, Isaac Ludlam – a Methodist minister past middle age – led a group of men armed with pikes, scythes and muskets on a march to unseat the government. They were stopped by the military and Ludlam was captured and convicted of treason. His sentence, and that of two of his companions, was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The Prince Regent commuted the sentence to beheading. The trial and execution in Derby gaol was so vividly described by the poet Shelley that readers imagined he had been present.
Knowing that story has given me a new appreciation of luddites and I think it is time for a little revisionist history. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I think we need a new caste of educator luddites to help guide schools forward.
The luddites of the industrial revolution were craftsmen and artisans fighting against forces that would reshape their industry and impoverish them. They were not mindless louts but desperate men concerned for a future that they saw threatened by the mechanized factory system. They were resisting the destruction of their way of life, their livelihood and the deskilling of their labor
In Releasing the imagination Maxine Greene wrote of the notion of teaching “social imagination,” which she defined as “the capacity to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we live, and in our schools” (p. 5).
I think we need to cultivate that process of social imagination, reclaim the label luddite from the pejorative and establish a whole new ethos of luddism in our schools.
The educator luddites I have in mind are people who have always understood school to be more than test prep and who see themselves as far more than the agents of a standardized testing industry. I see them leading the way to create inquiry driven schools where students and teachers are not too busy to think. Schools where the technology serves the learning rather than drives the teaching and where the demand for original work is a collaborate effort to solve compelling problems to which no one present knows the answer. In such a school, the curriculum is not driven by the textbook, the flow of information is not unidirectional, learning is networked and students and teachers work together across the boundaries of age and experience as active seekers, users and creators of knowledge. In this rosy picture, individual schools form a kind of globally aware and networked cottage industry of creative learning.
In order to start that journey we need a collective effort to figure out how to negotiate the changing world and make sense of it. Here, in a small collection of nutshells, are some observations about the context for the work:
- The web is changing (us). For the most part we are oblivious to the bigger picture as we take each new gadget, or shift, or industry upheaval for granted. For the cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch, the machine is us and the machine is using us. In his prescient and chilling short story written in 1906 “The Machine Stops”, E. M, Forster imagined a world dependent on an all-powerful, all-knowing machine where humans became shrunken, feeble underground creatures alienated from nature and the natural landscape. In Forster’s story, the machine falters and fails. In our world, it does not look as if the machine is going to stop anytime soon. And that, according to Professor Wesch, means we are going to need to rethink a few things, including: copyright, authorship, identity, ethics, aesthetics, rhetoric, governance, privacy, commerce, love, family and ourselves.
- In the networked world of ubiquitous and mobile access, boundaries are fluid and hierarchies broken. The ownership of knowledge is changed and the flow multidirectional. Students come to school wired and ready to join the knowledge stream. Learning needs to be organized around these networks and not contained in the traditional one way flow of teacher to student.
- We have to think off the world of the web and interactive technology as a new ecosystem – one in which any person, in any place, at any time can participate, contribute, communicate, produce, share, curate and organize. It’s an ecosystem that has the potential to make prosumers of us all. That is, producers and not just consumers of information and media content. Anyone with a connection can generate content and the tools of social media mean it can be Stumbled, tagged in Delicious, uploaded to YouTube, sampled in Moviemaker, voted on at Digg, pushed in an RSS feed, shared on Facebook and Tweeted to the world. And then someone can create an interactive commentary, put it to music and turn it upside down, again. This interactivity blurs boundaries. As the New Yorker cartoon put it: “On the net, no one knows you are a dog”. Expertise and value may be perceived without the limiting filters of age, status, nationality or appearance.
- We have both an explosion of creativity and an incessant need for problem solving and ethical thinking. Information, misinformation and disinformation are fast moving and in fluid abundance. In Teaching as a Subversive Activity Postman and Weingarten wrote of the need to develop “crap detectors” to filter the disinformation, propaganda and hype. To some www means a world wild web of mayhem, mischief and malice. But with a sense of purpose, and the skills of filtering and information navigation, it also holds great promise and potential.
- Reading and writing are becoming less of a solitary and silent activity characteristic of the print era and more of a social activity. E-reading enables readers to interact with each other as well as the text and digital text is always on the move.
- We are headed toward ubiquitous access and ever more speed. As quotidian objects such as umbrellas and shopping carts become digitized we are being linked with products just as we are linked with each other. Building community and creating relationships are what people, and social media, do well.
This then is the sea in which schools can swim, or – if they allow themselves to become irrelevant – sink. Professor Wesch had his list and here is my list of some of the things that schools may need to begin to rethink:
Classroom and school design; the school day and the schedule; segregation of learners by age and rather than by interest, passion and commitment; the segregation of knowledge into subjects; grading and assessment; social relationships, adult learning, the role of teacher, peer-to-peer learning and the isolation of the learner; textbooks, curriculum development and the sources of information; the nature of literacy; the nature of learning, creativity and the place of technology; citizenship and community; teamwork, collaboration, plagiarism and cheating; digital footprints, transparency and privacy; partnership with parents other adult learners; learning in the world and learning in school; what counts and what gets counted and how and by whom; and the dress code. (I added the last item because sometimes it’s useful to have a topic that gets everyone thoroughly engaged and busily distracted from important work.)
Above all it means a definition of education as going beyond the acquisition of knowledge. Critical thinking and digital literacy are essential but they don’t go far enough. We need to educate children for active and ethical participation. They need to be contributors and creators of knowledge and that means engaging in solving real problems from the very start.
Change is always hard. Socrates feared the effects of literacy on memory. He argued against it as harmful to young minds, short circuiting the arduous intellectual work of examining life. The scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein, who has written extensively on the effect on the world of the Gutenberg and the print revolution, has said it may be too soon to assess the full impact of that centuries old shift. If it’s too soon to gauge the effect of printing then we can only dimly imagine the effects of social media and the digital age.
Media has transformed our society before, but never at this dizzying rate. The unforeseen and unintended consequences of this revolution that sweeps all before it loom for many as dark clouds threatening the very roots of civilization. And here we are – smack in the epicenter. Unless we want to take ourselves right off the grid we had better start trying to make sense of it.
Educator luddites will be those who can learn with others, in and out of school, against the grain of narrowing definitions and toward what it means to be an educated citizen in a networked world.
I think it is our collective task to engage in the work of social imagination and envision our schools as we want, and need, them to be.
For schools it means some hard work and we are going to need all the help we can get.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth, L. (1979) The printing press as an agent of change: communications and cultural transformations in early modern Europe (2 vols. ed.). Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Postman, Neil, and Weingartner, Charles (1969), Teaching as a Subversive Activity, New York, NY: Dell
Greene, Maxine (1995). Releasing the imagination. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass