Thursday, January 26, 2012

Part III: Bold Schools - Community as Knowledge

Community is Infinite (January 2012, by M.A. Reilly)

This is the third post in a series where I explore bold schools. In the first post I examined the learner as knowledge worker--a knowmad. In the second post I situated the teacher as time traveler. In this post I deconstruct the idea of content and connect it to community, rhizome, and complicated conversations. These posts were composed in response to Will Richardson's query about bold schools.

1.  What Is Content?
from here.

In bold schools, 'content' is situated and experienced as stable and unstable, bound and unbound.  In this manner, tensions are often present and we may characterized these tensions as rhizomatic.  Although Deleuze and Guattari (1987) tell us: “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (p. 25), they also remind us that "there exists tree or root structures in rhizomes; conversely, a tree branch or root division may begin to burgeon into a rhizome”(p. 15).  At bold schools, what becomes important content is conditioned by lines of flight, stratification and context. Nothing is primary.

In traditional schools, content remains mostly a matter of stratification and is hopelessly decontextualized. Content is often seen as autonomous--something that can be listed and transferred to another to enact, to know, such as a list of standards and learning objectives that have been developed elsewhere and handed down to the teacher to enact. In such schemata, the most we can hope for is mediocrity.  The 'stuff' we learn has always been a movable force, incapable of being fully contained.  Learning is non-orientable and each time we position it in a limited space we kill a little bit of hope, narrow the range of what might be learned, while guiding learners to reach the unfortunate conclusion that x represents the whole of some matter.

In situating content as rhizomatic, it allows for possibility, not certainty; context, not decontexualzation. Experiential ways of coming to know, gain a foothold in such schools--a requisite for lines of flight.  In an earlier post, I wrote:
Lines of flight represent the creative impulses we compose while thinking and doing that offer a seemingly novel way to disrupt concepts cast as dualities. In fact, one might argue that it is the duality that may at first spark the line of flight: a way of moving beyond what is given to explore what might be. 
In bold schools--neither the State, the institution, the teacher, or the student own the curriculum.  It is a shared matter that is made and remade based on emerging intention by learners, regardless of their role. You can't place it in a binder. You can't post it on the Internet and say it is our Common Core. This is a model for a past century. It cannot hold us in good stead now.  Bold schools understand that curriculum--the content that is learned-- is a made thing that happens inside a context and is impervious to prior mapping.  This is not to say that such curriculum isn't informed by State, institutional, teacher, or student resources.  It surely can be.  What is essential though is that it does not exist as a closed system. 

2. Social Participation and Community as Sources of Knowledge

In bold schools, learning is recognized, even celebrated as being social, experimental, and experiential.  Bold schools make use of digital and non-digital technologies in order for learners to connect, collaborate, contextualize, and create knowledge with others. Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) explain:
The learning that happens through blogs, social networks, and other new media may be deeply grounded in experience and personal expression, but it also arises from the contributions of multiple people and voices. Expertise and authority are dispersed rather than centralized, and once a digital space hits a point of critical mass, it is very likely that some member of the community will have valuable expertise to share about a given topic (Kindle Locations 924-927).
Thomas and Brown point at the role of community in content knowledge. A second shift in understanding how content is situated then, is to recognize the role of the community as knowledge maker.  In "Community as Curriculum" Dave Cormier (2008) writes:
In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum.
 A few years later (2010) he adds:
We need to return to community as a valid repository for knowledge, and away from a packaged view of knowledge and expertise. Knowledge can be fluid; it can be in transition, and we can still use it. We need to tap into the strength provided by communities and see the various forms of community literacy as the skills we need to acquire in order to be effective members of those communities.
Bold schools tap into and contribute to local and extended communities of practice. Neither the teachers, nor the students are contained by the school.  They are mobile learners, who have presences beyond the institution, and in fact many who play a role in student learning will not be officially employed by the school. Networks abound.  In bold schools the conversation is not about whether the students will have an Internet presence and will collaborate with 'strangers', but rather how such presence is mediated, conducted, and (re)presented.

The curriculum composed is generated in the lived moments of learning.  As such, the rhizomatic possibilities become quite pronounced. In these schools there are bold teachers and learners who understand, even celebrate, that such curriculum is complicated conversation (Pinar, 2008) that occurs among the teachers, students, and extended community. In an earlier post, I defined complicated conversation, quoting William Pinar:

William Pinar tells us that curriculum is a “complicated conversation.” He suggests curriculum is situated in space and time where teacher, student, and text meet to co-produce self, other, and culture. The curriculum documents that are produced in schools and standards that are produced by states and nations offer possible curricula, but not the lived one. To mistake one for the other often leads to reenactment or miming and divorces "school curriculum from public life and school curriculum from students' self-formation" (Pinar, p. 186).  Pinar writes:
Instead of employing school knowledge to complicate our understanding of ourselves and the society in which we live, teachers are forced to "instruct" students to mime others' (i.e., textbook authors') conversations, ensuring that countless classrooms are filled with forms of ventriloquism rather than intellectual exploration, wonder, and awe (p. 186).
Intellectual exploration, wonder, and awe cannot occur if learners are thought of as receivers of curriculum, be it the teacher who is handed the curriculum to deliver or the student who receives "the content".  Intellectual exploration, wonder, and awe require an organicism that is not relevant, nor possible, when the task at hand is mere mimicry or translation.
The community, both local and extended, represent a new culture of learning that Thomas and Brown (2011) contrast with teaching-based education:
...the primary difference between the teaching-based approach to education and the learning–based approach is that in the first case the culture is the environment, while in the second case, the culture emerges from the environment—and grows along with it. In the new culture of learning, the classroom as a model is replaced by learning environments in which digital media provide access to a rich source of information and play, and the processes that occur within those environments are integral to the results. A second difference is that the teaching-based approach focuses on teaching us about the world, while the new culture of learning focuses on learning through engagement within the world. Finally, in the teaching-based approach, students must prove that they have received the information transferred to them—that they quite literally “get it.” As we will see, however, in the new culture of learning the point is to embrace what we don’t know, come up with better questions about it, and continue asking those questions in order to learn more and more, both incrementally and exponentially. The goal is for each of us to take the world in and make it part of ourselves. In doing so, it turns out, we can re-create it (Kindle Locations 374-387).
We cannot conceive of bold schools and do so in the former guise of the teacher-based (or I tend to think of this as State-imposed) approach to education.  We need to stop asking, did the student learn X, and instead ask what did the students create and how and why did they do so?

In bold schools there is an understanding of, appreciation in, and a felt necessity to recognize teachers as caring intellects who know how to teach well and place responsibility for curriculum into their capable hands--a responsibility they share with learners and the larger community beyond the school.  These are teachers who connect with the world beyond the school. They live wide-awake lives (Greene, 1988). Bold schools don't simply mouth platitudes about valuing teachers--they live it.  In 2010, I had the pleasure of visiting High Tech High in San Diego. While there I spent part of a morning talking one-to-one with Larry Rosenstock. We talked about a lot of things, and one topic that resonates still was a discussion about a teacher who Larry described with great affection as being avant-garde and utterly essential to the school. He recognized that the teacher makes the school, as does the student and the community.

Bold schools are places where the critical role and brilliance of teachers are recognized and this knowledge informs how curriculum is understood. What this means in practical terms is that the teacher and his/her students are expected to make decisions about learning.  This would not seem so amazing if not for the times in which we live. We have recast the role of many a teacher from decision maker to mime.  Mimes cannot exist for any length of time at bold schools as they are sorely out of place. The culture does not support mimicking. 

3. We Have What We Need

Bold schools may feel unfathomable--impossible. You might be tempted to begin to list all of the difficulties you might face in composing bold schools.  You may begin to list the specific teachers you would need. The specific type of student you would want to enroll; the type of community where such boldness might best occur. You might begin to think about budgets, policy, boards, facilities and come to a halting stop, well before you have even gotten started.

You will need to resist these impulses as they allow for standardization to be used as an antidote to complexity.  Resist.  This has never been about you or me.  Rather it is about us. There must be an us for bold schools to come of age.

Monika Hardy recently reminded me that we have what we need, with an emphasis on the we.  I think about that for a while and recall having what we need is one of the 8 principles in Walk Out Walk On.   I am reminded of South African community leader, Dorah Lebelo, who explains that leadership happens in concert with one's community.
I don’t exist outside my community; they create me. And I in turn create them by believing in their leadership, by trusting that we have everything we need to create the world we wish for (Walk Out, Walk On, p. 95).
Being bold requires the understanding that it carries with it an uneasiness. Deborah Freize, one of the authors of Walk Out Walk On explains that she helped to create the Berkana Exchange as she needed "a community of fellow pioneers, people willing to experiment with groundbreaking work, people willing to fail over and over again and yet to persevere in their yearning to create a new future" (p.233).

When I think of bold schools, I think of Michael McCabe ,who along with others, is composing The Kornerstone School in Wisconsin.  This is a new venture, a public school serving students in grades 8 through 12.  The Kornerstone School's Mission is:
Provide a learning environment where students’ passions direct the day-to-day learning. Students create projects and become active citizens in their community. Kornerstone School will provide students with the foundation to get into their profession of choice and make a significant impact on their community.  
Passion matters. I think of the work I did with Scott Klepesch, Mark Gutkowski and others from Morristown High Schools when we began a Classics Academy. The Academy was begun as the result of four teachers' collective passion about classical times. The Academy which operates within a traditional public high school, includes student-selected mentors who are often external from the school. Although I have left the school system, I will have the pleasure this year of mentoring a student in the Academy, a talented photographer, Jon Stone, as he composes a final work for  public exhibition in June. What connects Wisconsin and NJ is the idea of community as an evolving entity, privileging the passion of all learners, and the understanding that failure will accompany success. In our situation in NJ, we also made good use of visiting bold schools that were established. Specifically some of us went to Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and High Tech High in San Diego, as well as visiting smaller, but nonetheless powerful innovations happening within schools such as Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, NJ. I hope this year to make it out to Loveland, CO to visit Monika and The Innovation Lab, another bold project.

This rests in our hands. Boldness has always been ours to compose and to come to know. It may mean that for some of us, we will need to walk out from the way--and perhaps even the place where--we currently work.  Without question, boldness will require us to walk on.
Walk Ons find each other and connect. Together, they learn quickly, take greater risks, and support one another to continue their pioneering work. A new system is born from their efforts (Wheatley & Frieze, p.12).

Community is infinite.
Are you willing to chance?
To join?
To commit and walk on?

Works Cited

Cormier, D. (2008). Rhizomatic education: Community as curriculum. Innovate, 4 (5). Retrieved from
Cormier, Dave. (2010). Community as curriculum: Vol. 2. The guild/distributed continuum. Retrieved on 1.25.12 from here. Dave's Educational Blog: January 27, 2010.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Continuum. 
Greene, Maxine. (1988). The dialectic of freedom. New york, NY: Teachers College Press.
Pinar, William F. (2008). What is curriculum theory? Taylor & Francis e-Library.
Thomas, Douglas; Seely Brown, John (2011-03-12). A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. CreateSpace. Kindle Edition.
Wheatley, Margaret and Frieze, Deborah (2011-04-11). Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition. 

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