Friday, July 22, 2011

And So I Dream A Bass Will Join Me: The Pleasure of We

I have been thinking about a line of thought that begins with Descartes' Cogito ergo sum, tours through American literature with its overt celebrations of the individual, and ends by wondering how we might shift schools from privileging thinking as a solo act to ensuring we design learning at schools that privileges neighbor interactions (Davis & Simmt 2003). Brent Davis and Elaine Simmt explain that ‘neighbors’ that interact ‘are not physical bodies or social groupings ... Rather ... these neighbors that must “bump” against one another are ideas’ (156). Neighbor interactions are group members’ ideas that are blended and juxtaposed through discussion, resulting at times in novel ideas that do not belong to any one individual.

It is in schools organized to leverage neighbor interactions that complexity of ideas bloom.  In many ways it is what happens in social media when ideas bump into ideas at such a rate that the origin of an idea becomes murky with the intentions of other.  Think about a twitter exchange such as the furious and fast exchanges via an Edchat  or English or social studies chat.  Ideas get retweeted, altered, morphed, triggering other ideas, slightly different and if you are like me, I often leave with some new understanding that would be impossible to trace as the idea(s) did not originate from one other person, but rather via the group in a nomadic fashion.

Yet in school we model assessment (think report cards, state testing) as if it is the lone individual who can best demonstrates knowledge. Why? Doesn't it seem foolish that in a world where we know knowledge is unstable that we keep issuing measures based on stability and say that these are our most profound indicators of learning? 

We need new narratives to guide us.

We continue to maintain the myth of the individual. American literature, like recounted U.S. history, is filled with stories about the plight and triumph of the individual, even when the official story does not adhere to such renderings.  Consider the distance between Longfellow's Hiawatha based on the trickster-transformer of the Ojibwe and the realities that framed Native Americans at the time from native perspective. In retrospective it is less than imaginable to think that a Native American would tell tribe members to trust the white man as if the missionaries arriving on the shore as Hiawatha is leaving were bringing justice, empathy, and cultural understanding alongside their desire to "get religion into the Indian".  The distance between the two is immeasurable and yet, Longfellow's Hiawatha emerges as a purveyor of cultural truths.

We have been told to love the individual and believe in his triumph.  Consider young Huck who reckons he has to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, or Nick who watches Jay Gatsby reach out his arms towards the water--towards the elusive green light at the end of Daisy' dock, or Holden who desires to be the catcher in the rye in order to save kids from falling off a cliff.  The individual be it boy, youth, or man is part of our make-up--our mythical sense of self and it has informed the way we produce schools and our emphasis on "the student."

From the very beginning, our education story has been a story about the individual rising up, acquiring the "smarts" on his (and later her) own to light out for the new territory.  We so believe this mythology that we have invented single user measures to ensure that students learn stuff as if the stuff was stable.  We hear the myth echoed in the SWBAT (student will be able to) statements based on Standards (fixed and measurable ideologies of power) and expressed through individual assessments that are routinely used in curriculum documents and teachers' plans.  We see it privileged in how we communicate learning: we issue report cards to individuals based on how they did or did not do or testing statements that recount how individuals have performed on a specific measure.  Our most privileged measurements that are tied to funding are supposed to tell us and the public how "much" each student knows based on a finite sense of content knowledge.  We neither invest in, nor represent the individual or the group in actual participatory practices.

And so I am wondering, are we myopic in our narrow expression of self as solitary hero; student as solo thinker?  The journey from "I think therefore I am" to "We participate therefore we are" is a difficult, albeit necessary, transition for U.S. schools. Instead of racing to be at the top, we need to be embracing participatory learning.

When I think of disrupting the myth of the individual, I considered all we can learn from a small song Harry Chapin recorded years ago, Six-String Orchestra. I think I am hearing strings way off in the distance.  How about you?

Work Cited
Davis, B., and E. Simmt. 2003. Understanding learning systems: Mathematics teaching and complexity science. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 34, no. 2: 137–67.


  1. This is a great post. There is so much to think about here. It presents a theme that is radical in the face of our current political/social climate in the United States. It's also a theme that brings promise when we think about the social, environmental, political issues which currently hinder human development and dignity. I will revisit this post as I think more about participatory learning and "we" vs "I" w/respect to both school and politics.

  2. Once again a thought provoking post. I attribute much of our culture's current lack of understanding of the importance of collaboration in learning to that awful phrase and misinterpretation of Charles Darwin's work "survival of the fittest" that spun our world into a frenzy of competition ignoring the role of the group in anyone's personal success.

    The question for educators becomes how to create balance within the learning environment. How does one provide opportunities that allow learners to develop and move toward individual goals while deepening understanding of the importance of collaboration to achieving those goals? Clearly, educators participating in social media have made the leap. Discussions and practices are now focusing on collaboration and the richness of ideas that evolve when social learning is practised. A cultural shift is occurring. I do wonder though whose voices are absent from these discussions. Is it because social learners are naturally drawn to social media that our ediscussions accept "collaboration" as the best model to follow? Are we merely talking amongst the converted? Are participants in social learning and social media by nature collaborative learners? Is there still a place and role for the quiet individual? How, as we develop this model of social, collaborative learning do we avoid that awful outcome "designed by committee"? Where does competition and the indivdual now fit? These are important ideas to discuss in our journey that is reshaping education.

  3. Thank you, Mary Ann, for this important post. I'm saddened to think about this current trend of overvaluing individual test scores, assessments, and solitary thinking and undervaluing collaboration. It's collaboration that inspires the greatest thinking. We learn from others. It's human nature. I always encouraged and expected my students to expand their repertoire of strategies and ideas by collaborating with partners, or in small groups. I know for myself, it's why I enjoyed co-authoring a book. It came out so much better than if I worked on it alone. We bounced ideas off one another to come to better understanding of our subject.

    We need to foster more collaborative learners in our world. I wish there was not such an emphasis today on the opposite of that.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post.

    Mary Anne

  4. Intrigued by the post and the comments that follow. Even in my math classes (I say "even" because I have heard too many educators discuss collaboration and passion only to say "well, except maybe in a math class...") I strongly agree that learning takes place when passion, failure (read as 'permission and trust to make mistakes'), and confusion are the primary ingredients in the mix - with collaboration and discourse as the primary agents for finding solutions.

    Ultimately, the stakeholders (students, parents, community, colleges, and employers) are interested in a sorting and ranking of individual ability, achievement, and/or aptitude. Championship teams have MVP', starting players, and bench-riders - yet every player on the team is a valued contributor.

    If we are able to replace "I" with "we" how do we address Heidi's questions of recognizing competition and individual accomplishment and achievement. A track & field relay team requires communication and cooperation yet each individual must strive to be the very fastest they can be. Ultimately, someone is the first and someone is last.

    In our schools, how do we strike the balance? Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    Grinding in Gradesville

  5. @Maureen, I ope when you revisit that you will add more. Interested in your ideas, perspectives, especially the ones that percolate a bit. Thanks.

  6. @Heidi When I read your line: "I do wonder though whose voices are absent from these discussions."--it stopped me. Such a great wondering and of course so vital to know.

    @Heidi & @Grinding in Gradesville: In posing the shift from I to we, my intention was not to silence the I, but to reposition it. In doing so I think competition can arise and can morph into other relationships as the I is aligned with other, not removed from other. Not sure if that makes sense.

    Appreciative of both of your comments.

  7. @MaryAnne, Wehn you wrote about the joy of coauthoring, it resonated with me. I have written several books, but the last one was co authored and that mad such a difference. I hope it was clear that I am not setting up a s dichotomy of I or we, but rather repositioning the I.

    Thanks Mary Anne.

  8. Thanks for the "I/we" clarification... I believe in a healthy coexistence as well. Our challenge as teachers is to "make it happen" in our classrooms.


  9. @MaryAnne, I totally got that and firmly believe in the importance of this shift.