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?
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.