Thursday, May 3, 2012

Complexity and Constructing Community Knowledge in Class

Middle School Student's Concrete Poem
The Context

Earlier in the week I was talking with a middle school teacher who shared the poetry writing of one of her students during a PLC.  The half dozen poems had voice, deliberate word choice, and each poem was complete. What interested me and still does are the teacher's comments. She said she brought this work to share as the student is not typical of her other students.  She explained that this young woman enjoys reading and language and writing.  "How do I help my other students to do what she does?" asked the teacher. I think her question is important and is connected to the teachers' tacit knowledge.
At this inner city school, there is a reliance on formulas by this teacher and her colleagues to teach thinking, writing, and reading. Originally when their coach had indicated that a way to understand poetry would also be to write poetry-- the idea was met with quick dismissal.  The teachers explained that students do not need to write poems on the state test, they only need to read poems. The totality of official learning was in many ways narrowed to what the teachers perceived as ways to pass the test--although I doubt the teachers would call it that.  Rather, it seems that the teachers have codified test taking and that this knowledge has (in)formed what comprises the taught curriculum. 
It doesn't matter that their interpretation of what constitutes literacies is flawed.  It is nonetheless deeply believed and acted upon and I imagine for compelling and felt reasons. In interestingly similar ways, the coach, external to the school functions like the poet in the class in that each offer external norms about what it means to be literate. The challenge though is how to we adjust our own beliefs to hear them?

Community Knowledge

Constructing community knowledge is very much connected to individual agency.  Brent Davis and Elaine Simmt (2003) suggest that five conditions are present in complex learning systems: internal diversity, redundancy, decentralized control, organized randomness, and neighbor interactions. These conditions are the basis upon which a team, such as PLC, or a classroom of students and a teacher build community knowledge that is rich and larger than any one individual. We can understand these co-specifying conditions in the following way.

Internal diversity, represents the ways in which PLC members are different from one another. It is important to have teams in which perspectives and experiences are different. Such diversity allows us the opportunity to consider things from alternative points of view.  Alongside rich diversity, a team also demonstrates redundancy which Davis and Simmt explain, “is essential in triggering a transition from a collection of me’s to a collective of us” (150, emphasis in original).  Redundancy may occur in shared Discourse (Gee, 2008), ideology, and core beliefs.  

Decentralized control, the third condition emerges as a team begins to compose new understandings of the work they are doing through discussion. It is critical that individual agency be present.  For example, in this way a team moves from being a PLC that is simply reading and discussing a text to one that is engaging with a heightened sense of praxis (Grundy, 1987).  Through conversation and hearing one another, the text is no longer an assignment, but rather a key to transforming the work at hand. This cannot occur if the individuals don't risk exchanging perspectives, beliefs, and ideas freely while all the time risking that their thoughts might be naive, immature, or wrong. 

In understanding the fourth condition, organized randomness, Davis and Simmt explain how structures for complexity incorporate both “sufficient organization to orient agents’ actions and sufficient randomness to allow for flexible and varied responses” (p. 155).  In this manner, one might understand the requirements of a course (like the poetry assignments) or the goals of a PLC as a means that help to organize the learners’ work. Although assignments are often externally structured, within that structure there also exists possibility for the unseen and the unimagined to occur.  Whereas “[c]omplex systems are rule-bound…those rules determine only the boundaries of activity, not the limits of possibility” (Davis & Simmt, p. 154). Scripts and formulas--be it in a writing class--or in a school limit possibility.  In complexity, assignments operate as an organizing forces, not determined conclusions.   

The final condition Davis and Simmt include is neighbor interactions. They indicate that the “neighbors” that interact “are not physical bodies or social groupings…Rather…these neighbors that must ‘bump’ against one another are ideas” (p. 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.  I have written about this previously as collisions. 

In returning to the teacher’s initial question about how might the other students emulate the thinking, reading, and writing habits of the class poet—complexity within the classroom is an important indicator. To what end do students have the right and practice to function as a complex collective? It isn’t just the assignments that are given, although well structured and informed assignments do matter—but it is also the way in which the group moves from a collection of me’s to a collective of us, and how the assignments offer structure and possibilities that are informed by the students' interactions with one another.

Works Cited
Davis, B. & Simmt E. (2003). Understanding learning systems: Mathematics teaching and complexity science. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 34(2), 137-167.
Gee, J.P. (1990/1996/2008).  Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in Discourses, 3rd ed. New York: Routledge.
Grundy, S. (1987). Curriculum: Product or praxis. New York: Falmer.


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