Sunday, September 18, 2011

Basics at the Edge of Flow

Watching the River (M.A. Reilly, 2010)
I think it is comforting, albeit mistaken, to advocate for the idea of something called The Basics.  The Basics sound foundational and in a world of exponential change, a belief in something sturdy may feel reassuring.  But there is no single foundation one could name that would aptly capture the important learning for 120 million students regardless of what national movement such as Common Core would have us believe.  The metaphor, of learning as foundation, doesn't work.  It is an error to confuse what can be tested with what might be learned. The Common Core is a field guide to what can be tested, wrapped neatly in a mythology that says these lists of testable objectives represent what your child needs to learn.

This simply is not a truth.

A Bend in the River (M.A. Reilly, 5/2011)
Learning is more a river flowing and less a house one can build.  Learning is about being in middle of currents where orientation shifts and footing comes and goes. Experience matters in such rivers as one cannot convey the essentials without the experience and time beyond to name what felt essential.

We live in river time.                 

During the last couple of weeks, I have lost track of the number of times I have heard others reference the importance of The Basics or Core Subjects. These phrases are used interchangeably and I want to kindly suggest that both phrases are paradoxically empty and full--as they represent whatever is longed for/remembered, politicized, and ideologized. The Basics and Core Subjects are placeholders very much like the green light at the end of Daisy's dock insomuch as each represents a mythical sense of stability. Gatsby longed for the green light, of an imagined time where the world held still. A dream state. Consider Nick Carraway, narrator in The Great Gatsby who concludes:
I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out Daisy's light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.  (Fitzgerald, chapter 9, Gatsby).
Forgetfulness (M.A. Reilly, 5/2010)
The Basics, as a closed system of things to know and be able to do, are already behind us and have always been fictive, but perhaps felt less so at a time when change was not felt as keenly by those holding power.  The poor, the disenfranchised have always been subject to a world with greater flux and change than those safeguarded by money and position.  But these days all live in a world where change is exponential and faith in foundations will leave us moored--set aground.

John Seely Brown (JSB) in the closing keynote to the 2010 New Media Consortium Conference said that "We're at a moment in time where many of the ideas that made us successful in the 20th century are actually going to work against our ability to perform in the 21st century."  JSB's speech focused on defining and explicating the shift from a predictable world of equilibrium to an exponential world of constant flux and disequilibrium and how the shift influences and (in)forms learning.
This game is one of constant, constant change. And I want to argue that in fact the big claim is that civilization has never seen a game like we're now entering where there is no termination that we see ahead in terms of these rapid flux, rapid changes...If this world of constant and accelerating flux is true, guess what? The half life of any particular skill is shrinking, shrinking, shrinking and in fact today as we teach our kids most of the skills we teach them may have a half life of around five years. Perhaps more importantly virtually every strategic architecture in our corporate world is based on how to preserve the current value of stocks. I want to argue that, in fact, we're now in a big shift where we're moving in taking our eye of the view of just preserving, safeguarding, protecting stocks, keeping things as they where, to now how do we really move to embracing change in terms of learning how to participate on the edge of interesting flows. The shift from stocks to flows. The shift from saving the old and protecting it to actually moving into a new kind of participation of things on the edge. (JSB)
Hudson. (M.A. Reilly, 1/2011)
JSB's talk pushes us to rethink how we learn, what we need to learn, and how new media changes both.  On the edge of any flow what is understood is that "basic" can only be contextual, learned more often tacitly while on the move and later codified.  Helping learners occasion experiences and codify experiential knowledge represent important learning tasks and where one practices is no longer owned solely by the institution we know as school.

The river is not a building.

There is tension between what we have historically named as important learning (lists of objectives) and what are important ways of knowing in these times. Lists of knowable and testable objectives do not include what JSB says is most critical.  
Basically learning has a lot more to do with creating the new, rather than just learning the old. But if you're constantly creating the new, much of what you're creating has a very strong tacit component. We are used to saving, passing around, delivering, teaching the explicit, not the tacit. It takes time to codify what can be codified from an experience in order to pass it around in terms of the explicit. If we're living in a world where more and more of the things that need to shared are the tacit,  how does this change the very notions of how we want to build systems? How does it change how we want to think about immersive learning and so on so forth... If we have a world of constant flux, of constant change we shouldn't overlook something. Maybe the most important thing we have to worry about in our students, etc. is how do we afford curiosity?  Because basically if you're not curious you're screwed in a world of constant flux.  In fact many of our kids start out in the world incredibly curious. How do we honor that curiosity in the way we run our own school systems?  (JSB)
If curiosity is another basic, how does the structure of schools support learner curiosity? How can one be seriously curious if the entire school year is not only mapped and determined, but via institutional imperatives such as standards, the educational experience is mapped?  Where is the room to occasion, to create, to wander and wonder?

As a beginning teacher with a few years of experience, I remember thinking that when the course structures I began with failed often about 5 weeks into the school year, that my thinking had not been sufficient. I later realized that the structures failed out of necessity as I made room for students' voices, curiosities, interests: I could not name these ahead and had at the time no adequate language to place hold the tacit--the experiential when I planned.  I grappled with how to occasion learning at a time when belief in causality reigned supreme. I grappled with both content and context.  It is rarely, if ever, a singular matter of content.

JSB suggest that a blended epistemology of knowing, making, and playing of both content and context represent a new culture of learning.
Soar (M.A. Reilly, 1/2009)

So 2 questions I know I am pondering:
  1. How is curiosity engendered where I/you work and who gets to do the engendering?
  2. If new (not the) basics include: knowing, making, and playing--how am I/you how are these represented to learners? Parents? Teachers? Administrators? Local and State Board of Education members? Secretary of Education?


  1. As always, I value your blogs and insights. You challenge my thinking and deepen my understanding. What about basics such as reading, fundamental math skills and writing. I know that listening/seeing will play an increasing role and one day "chips" may be implanted for basic facts. . .but for now, it's seems like basic math, reading and writing are still foundation skills that are necessary and should be blended with all that you mention to make learning meaningful and useful in a world of constant change? I'm open to your suggestion. Thanks for this thoughtful, insightful post.

  2. I'm not suggesting that composing (be it as reader, writer, artist, linguist, musician, scientist, mathematician, doctor, historian, and so on) or consuming are not important. They are. Belief in The Basics obfuscates learning deeply. One can learn a myriad of ways to read (landscape, words, intention, your lover's moods) and in each situation context influences content. This is so because compexity requires tacit knowing.

    We tend to teach reading as a set of skills. This is a mistake. Learners need to experience reading and then codify those experiences into method. The hours of lap time reading when a child hears story and watches as a parent reads, turns pages, points at text and image and so on gets translated by the learner into code. The "skill sheets" reduce learner desire and confuses learners as they are based n a false premise that says one context is the same as the next.

    Knowing how to select the main idea (again a made up testing item) is decidedly different than coming to understand that what one thinks is a central to a text is often dependent on what one knows and relates to the text. A story about hurricanes may be understood differently when read after one has survived Hurricane Katrina.

    See? Context matters and we dim that every time we pretend there is something called The Basics.

  3. Thanks for stretching my thinking once again. I always look forward to your posts and thoughts.

  4. Your comment helped to clarify my thinking.

  5. No subject is more subject to the BASICS mantra than good old math. Even some progressive educators will decry, "Well, it (creativiy, curiousity, etc.) is hard to do in math." ARGH! I say, "Where more so than math."

    We teach THE BASICS in math by rote as if they are easy to comprehend. Number sense is achieved through repeated attention to multiplication tables. Balderdash!

    The "concept" of zero was a matter of contention for centuries as elite mathematicans (often also philosophers of the day) struggled with the idea of assigning a number/value to the void/abyss/nothingness that a zero would represent. Robust number systems thrived and Egyptian pyramids were built (with squared corners) without a zero to be found.

    Yet we expect students to understand (oops, I mean regurgitate) CLEAR and ABSOLUTE properties of zero (such as the the Additive Identity Property and the Multiplicative Property of Zero) based on one mini-lesson (often repeated in intensity at age 8,9,10,11... etc) as if math were some simple construct of rules and procedures that make perfect sense.

    In my math class, confusion reigns supreme. Making sense of the senseless. No formulas until we can build them ourselves. It fosters an agency in the student... an agency that understanding and multiple representations rule the day. Confusion fosters a sense of questioning/challenging the accepted (aka the status quo)... indeed, quite the interdiscplinary life lesson. Actually, it's easy to do... it's what we must do. Interestingly, it accomplishes the intended learning endgame of the PARCC folks better than the rote methods that many promote.

    Yes, there is something to say for practice, repetition, and, when introduced with the proper positioning, the fundamentals/basics. But it is wonder and confusion that will whet the apetite of the learner and make the fundamentals stick. With confusion, everyone wins!

  6. The following passage is from "Turning to one another: simple conversations to restore hope to the future" by Margaret J. Wheatley... I think Margaret succinctly encapsulates my "rambling" in the previous comment...

    We can't be creative if we refuse to be confused. Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new. Of course it's scary to give up what we know, but the abyss is where the newness lives. Great ideas and inventions miraculously appear in the space of not knowing. If we can move through the fear and enter the abyss, we are rewarded greatly. We rediscover we're creative.

  7. @Anonymous I was away and read your first comment on a phone and knew I would want to respond once I got home and could use a keyboard. I so appreciate your comments (both) and understood both. I wonder when we situate curiculum as lists of standards and learning objectives if one outcome is that the complex is rendered simple, flat? Mathematics becomes nothing more than a construct of rules and procedures that make sense and fail to include ambiguity, uncertainty. This is true for English Langauge Arts as well.

    I think in doing this (and having it done for so long) that we consider 'basic' as being a complete set and in doing so we routinely sacrifice wonder and awe for standardization. Complexity cannot rest on a single page of lists, regardless of how clever one might be.

    The curriculum I suspect we both seek is one that is based on complicated conversations. It needs to happen among people where not knowing is possible.