Saturday, January 21, 2012

Bold Schools Part II: Teacher as Time Traveler

Time Traveler (M.A. Reilly, January 2012)
Will Richardson's search for bold schools nudged my thinking too.  In a former post, I wrote about the learner as knowmad, borrowing heavily from Pekka Ihanainen and John Moravec's concepts about knowmads.  In this post I explore teacher as time traveler. In the the third post I will explore community as rhizome. All three are conditions present in my conception of bold schools.

1. Clocks
And so I told myself to take that one. Because Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life. The hands were extended, slightly off the horizontal at a faint angle, like a gull tilting into the wind.  - William Faulkner, The Sound and The Fury.

About two years ago I stopped wearing a watch.  This wasn't done for any philosophical, literary, or even political reason, but rather wearing one seemed a bit archaic--unnecessary even.  As time is relative, what exactly is being represented by the movement of hands on a watch?  I sometimes think the early Egyptians had a finer sense of time via their sundials as they recognized that an 'hour' was not a constant. Variations in time clicked on until the medieval period, when the pendulum clock was invented and along with it, time and commerce co-mingled.  Purchasing time moved from concept to guiding reality--one that remains with us (just consider interest on loans) and (in)forms our understanding of school.

Lewis Mumford in Technics and Civilization (1934) rightly observed, "The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age."  The clock regulates.

It regulates you.



In bold schools, there is the recognition that in addition to 3-dimesnions of width, height, and length--there is a fourth dimension, time-space.  In traditional schools, acknowledgement of relative time is obscured by regulation and standardization of the day, the term, the school year.  

Let's take a closer look.

2. School Time

The schoolroom clock was worn raw by stares; and you couldn't look up at the big Puritanical face of it and not feel the countless years of young eyes reflected in it, urging it onwards. It was a dark, old spirit that didn't so much mark time as bequeath it. Tod Wodicka, All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well: A Novel

There's always a clock, isn't there?  Prominently displayed, the schoolroom clock is a staple, representing the regimentation that manages the coming and going of all.  And yet, the classroom clock in many ways is a testament to the fact that time does not flow at a constant rate, regardless of the ways we choose to represent it.  Just recall a time of tedium that informed a classroom stay and surely the concept of relativity becomes more embodied, less esoteric.  The orderliness of the clock as a single representation of time misrepresents the complexity of how we experience time just as the standardization of schools misrepresents learning.

Within any school environment multiple representations of time are present, yet not privileged in the way learning is organized.  In this manner,  schools are work like factories with all adhering to set starting and ending times, lunch breaks, passing time, and allocated 'minutes' by subject. Like factory lines, children are given x number of minutes to complete task y or task z.  Failure to adhere to the established scheduled is considered failure of the task. Time is an odd  constant. The tasks are predetermined and issued.  In many states, high school diplomas are granted based on seat time: literally the number of minutes one's seat has sat in a schoolroom chair. Yet, learning, like time, is conditioned and responsive to context.  Both are relative.

At a bold school, the environment is not set and a learner's time is local. The teacher travels across learners' notions of time, as establishing and managing time is understood as critical learning.  The teacher is a time traveler insomuch as s/he works in a fluid and changeable environment populated with learners whose time experiences are varied.

3. Local Time at the Bold School

The quantum theory of gravity has opened up a new possibility, in which there would be no boundary to space-time and so there would be no need to specify the behaviour at the boundary. - Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes

Boundaries are interesting. Specifying behavior at the edge of a boundary is a most frequent task teachers enact with students in traditional schools for in a regimented world, boundaries are prolific and one might even argue, necessary, in order to maintain power.

This is the way you line up to leave the classroom.
This is the way you ask for a pass to use the bathroom.
This is the way you exit a burning building.
This is the way you sit during an assembly.
This is the way you write a heading and format our compositions.
This is the divider you place on your desks when taking a test.
These are the hallways in which you do not run.
These are the guards who come to the classroom door to bring you to be disciplined.
This is the way you signal when you want to speak.
This is the way you keep a notebook.
This is the specific notebook you must have in order to write notes.
These are the notes you must copy and do so exactly as indicated.
This is the time you may use a computer to complete a task.
This is the task you must complete in x minutes.
This is the reading quiz you take when you finish reading a book.
This is how you walk to a special.
This is how you enter the school.
If you are a minute late to school, this is the line you stand in for 15 to 20 minutes in order to indicate you were late.
This is how you line up to get lunch.
These are tools you need to learn with and this is how you ask permission to use them.
This is the way you huddle in the corner of the classroom in case an intruder with a gun shows up at our door.
This is how you sit to learn.
This is fear. This is the way to wear it daily.
Boundaries abound and stripped of institutional context, the absurdity seems more apparent, doesn't it?

In a bold school, time is overtly relative by design and learners are knowmads who "work with almost anybody, anytime, and anywhere" (Moravec, 2008) As such, regulating behavior is less needed and teachers' roles shift from maintaining order and adhering to institutional and self-imposed sets of behaviors to understanding learners' intentions.   In such an environment,  teachers are situated as time travelers--those who negotiate their students' multiple and varying time frames, and in doing so are reflexive in order to support, teach, and guide these knowmads on their journeys.  In such a world, the term, teacher, is a placeholder for multiple types of people who guide, instruct, apprentice, and co-learn both within and beyond the physical classroom.  Some of these teacher-guides travel alongside a group of learners for years, while others fade when no longer needed.  Teachers visit, but do not live in the varied temporal realities of their students.  Susan Sontag notes:
To be a to be constantly reminded of the simultaneity of what is going on in the world, your world and the very different world you have visited and from which you have returned home.
Teachers, in bold learning spaces, hold such simultaneity in hand and that knowledge allows them and their students to craft important learning. This role requires new language, similar to the verb tense conundrum that Robert Heinlein discusses in his novel,  The Door Into Summer:
Nothing could go wrong because nothing had...I meant "nothing would." No - Then I quit trying to phrase it, realizing that if time travel ever became widespread, English grammar was going to have to add a whole new set of tenses to describe reflexive situations - conjugations that would make the French literary tenses and the Latin historical tenses look simple.
Time-traveling teachers recognize that listening well in order to better understand their students' locations is a critical teaching skill one that compliments a shift in what counts as important knowledge. These teachers work in an environment where what constitutes important knowledge has shifted from learning prescribed and explicit content to composing knowledge collectively.  Dave Cormier (2008) in Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum captures this idea well when he writes: “The community is not the path to understanding or accessing the curriculum; rather, the community is the curriculum." Learning in these times is less about absorption and more about participation.

4. Embodied Location

“Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” - James Joyce, Dubliners.

In lieu of the solitary schoolroom, a bold school recognizes a field of potential spaces to learn, beginning with an embodied self.  As such a learner's 'school' is the self in a community: his/her home, libraries, coffee shops, book shops, parks, state forests, museums, various storefronts, recreation centers, art and music spaces, dance studios, government buildings, beaches, the ocean, research centers, shelters, labs, a corner diner, bakery, architect's studio, dentist and doctor's offices, the hospital, the town hall, the police station, garden, farm, morgue, petrol station, amusement park, machine shop, theater, and so on.  One only has to look at the learning spaces Monika Hardy via the Innovation Lab is creating in Loveland, CO community to see how this might work.

Oddly, a bold school is inherently local, especially for the time traveling teacher.  Against the uncertainty of time, one revels in an anchor of sorts. I think here of Michael Doyle's blog post where he dreams of teaching his students clamming. Michael writes:
I dream of teaching my students how to clam. It's a local activity that will never be part of the national standards because it's a local activity. That may sound innocuous enough, but it gets to the heart of the sickness in education today, our love of the abstract.
Bold schools recognize that learners, including teachers, arrive in bodies, and do not ask them to check those bodies at the proverbial door. In bold places, teachers offer what they know and are learning, not the long list of things they have been told to mimic that most often comes from those who have rarely set foot in a school as an adult.  Much is learned through the close study of the local.  This may well mean walking about--perhaps along a beach with a teacher who knows the tides and clams and ways to read such landscapes.  It is in these situations that teachers remember who they have been and perhaps even why they sought this work.  (Shh. Look, you've known in your bones you have much to give. The failure of the traditional school has been in requiring you to stop being the impossibly human person you are and requiring you to become a talking head.) 

In addition to the local geography a learner might map, there is also a virtual community s/he belongs to that is far more resistant to mapping.  Participation in these virtual spaces may well lead to a redesign of the physical geography as learners come to know and name other places in the world. This naming though is informed by what learners come to know through local matters. Some of these places may become new centers that the learner visits and dwells in. The development of these physical and virtual learning spaces occurs horizontally: translocally. Helping students to determine, enter into, manage, complicate, compose, and grow such spaces of learning is complex and represents a critical teacher role.

Teachers and students co-learn with each other in self-, peer-, family- community-, and teacher-sponsored learning.  These networks are inherently nomadic as learners make, merge, mash, remix, and break connections in multiple ways.  Part of the work a teacher does is to guide learners in the development and articulation of learning plans that remain in many ways emergent. Learners participate in temponormative, pointillist, cyclical, continuous, and overlapping learning engagements. During temponormative learning, a teacher offers and/or arranges explicit instruction in which learning outcomes are less surprising, more predictable and explicit knowledge is made.  In contrast, during the remaining types of learning (pointillist, cyclical, continuous, and overlapping), a teacher engages learners in dialogic discourse that occasions them to pierce beneath the skin of the ordinary, the obvious--to uncover and compose with greater depth.  This type of 'teaching' is associative, not causal and requires a teacher to create conditions where learners have an opportunity to determine pathways to learning, to name explicit knowing, to codify tacit knowledge, and to fold/unfold/refold conceptual space. 

There are many truths. One truth in bold schools is that learners will exit with holes in what they know and they will know deeply that which they have named as critical. 

5. PLNs

Central to a teacher's role is the responsibility to cognitively apprentice learners so that they compose intellectual and social independence. Independence is learned through the development of and participation in personal learning networks (PLN) which are both local and virtual.  Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli (2011) in Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education write about PLNs and explain:
With a PLN, we can learn anytime, anywhere, with potentially anyone around the world who shares our passion or interest. We can literally build global, online classrooms of our own making on the web that include networks and communities of learners with whom we interact on a regular basis. We can learn around a particular topic at a particular time, or simply tap into an ongoing stream of knowledge from which we can sip anytime we like. And we can build things together, things that can have a global impact in ways that were impossible only a few years ago (p.2).
They describe how learners within the next ten years will all have personal Internet-enabled devices. I agree with them that this time frame is conservative and imagine that such access will occur sooner. These devices allow learners to connect with others--to form PLNs,  guilds, or collectives across geographic spaces.  How they connect and what they do via these connections of course matters. Will and Rob say: "What really counts is the power to plug into networks for learning under the guidance of a teacher who knows how to do that" (p. 139). What I want to urge here though is that much of the important learning will have local roots.  The many walks taken along that beach with a teacher will likely prepare learners to compose and navigate the unmapped space of a PLN. The teacher here, knows both times as well as the need for learners to get lost in these emerging landscapes.

Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) in A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change  list three principles upon which this culture is based: 
(1) The old ways of learning are unable to keep up with our rapidly changing world. 
(2) New media forms are making peer-to-peer learning easier and more natural. 
(3) Peer-to-peer learning is amplified by emerging technologies that shape the collective nature of participation with those new media. (Kindle Locations 578-583).
Peer-to-peer learning matters at bold schools.  It is privileged and central, not a thing one gets to after the 'real' work has been done.

6. Affinity-Based Spaces as Sites for Learning

Within networks are passionate affinity-based spaces that are learner-determined.  Important literacies are learned through play in such spaces. For example in massively multiplayer online games like Minecraft or World of Warcraft, learners have the ongoing opportunity to participate in complex systems, which in itself is a critical skill.  I have previously written about my son, his play in Minecraft and the learning he is composing with his guild and have come to see how powerful and socially complex the learning among these players can be. (I discuss this here, here, here and here).  James Gee and Elizabeth Hayes (2011) in Language and Learning in the Digital Age tell us:
...affinity spaces are about sharing a common endeavor were people learn things, produce things or knowledge, and can, if they wish, become experts...Even these experts believe there is always something new to learn, more to discover, and higher standards to achieve (p. 71).
What drives this powerful learning is commitment and passion.  For example, in Rob Cohen's 8th grade class, students are composing literary worlds in Minecraft. It was interesting to note one day that a student who had been absent from school was nonetheless present for class via the class's Minecraft site.  He was motivated to participate from home.  In this class, students can be found using the chat feature in their Minecraft site to guide homework they have from other classes. The site is a home of sorts. Thomas and  Brown (2011) explain that "[s]tudents learn best when they are able to follow their passion and operate within the constraints of a bounded environment" (Location 1050).  In Rob's class, student interest in Minecraft signals a passion and the means by which they compose through the software represents a bounded environment--one not always easy to negotiate.

In bold schools, learners' passions and knowledge guide curricular decisions, not state standards.  I think here of Rob's latest tweet in which he asks:

Simply put: it is illogical to think a single list regardless of how clever one might be can encapsulate what is important to know.  Thomas and Brown (2011) aptly remind us: "Making knowledge stable in a changing world is an unwinnable game" (Kindle Locations 522-523).

7. Unknowing

What is knowable?  What is curriculum?

As knowledge is not stable, then how does one determine what represents important community knowledge? In the concluding post about bold schools I discuss learning content by situating content as knowledge a community of learners compose. As community is understood as rhizomatic,  the representation of knowing is varied and complex.  Hope you will take a look.


  1. This is the challenging truth I have been searching for. Thank you for weaving the prose and vision of so many into your own brilliant vision and challenge for educators. I can't wait to share this with colleagues and others who want to turn the unnatural state of schools into responsive, child-centered learning experiences. As always, your wonderful writing inspires me.

    1. The pleasure is mine. I learn so much from you and others and t it is an honor to relocate that learning in blog posts. Please let me know how the work goes with your colleagues. Very interested.

  2. lovely.

    once we define things.. they die a little.. no?

    1. yes. such tension in naming the possible while not trying to name it as if it represented the whole.

  3. I had to smile while picturing how these ideas would be received where I used to work (I think we both know the answer to that). Too often we see teacher as warden, teacher as business manager, teacher as vessel for delivering content. When the LA times published test scores linked to teacher names, Steven Brill (in his terrible book "Class Warfare") commented, "It was classic journalism meant to inform the consumers of the quality of the products they were buying." Teacher as product.

    I love the idea of teacher as time traveler and of schools where "learners' passions and knowledge guide curricular decisions". I only wish more people would recognize the value in this. ~Sam

    1. Sam, me too. I imagine so long as power is a means to economic domination, schools will be located as product. It is the bold who will and do challenge the politically and economically powerful.