Sunday, October 11, 2009

Learning, for Whom?

Back in the late 1970's, the technology of video cameras was making its way into "third world" countries--but not simply as a typical consumer product: people in otherwise isolated areas were using video as a way to begin communicating across distances, as they struggled to find their broader political footing against military death squads and oppressive regimes.

I recall a conversation at that time between two of my professors-- one with a deep English (writing and literature) background, and one with an incredible background in the study of religious scriptures (Jewish and Christian, in Greek and Hebrew). Both were sympathetic to the political struggles about which they spoke, but the former was disturbed that such people were not taking full advantage of the power of written communication. He insisted for a time that they needed "literacy" (heavy emphasis on the written word). In his very self-effacing way, the latter scholar--author of many books himself--suggested that in fact such people in their struggles were actually leapfrogging (my term not his) over textual communication, and were becoming quite literate in their own way through visual and audio communication. It was a fascinating dialogue between these two wonderful scholars--and quite formative for the young (politically conscious) grad students who surrounded them.

Fast-forward to this year (with many rich examples skipped in between!) We have seen Twitter become a political tool in the US elections (along with Facebook, blogs, MySpace and more); it has also been used as a way to communicate from behind otherwise restrictive boundaries in more than one country facing political unrest. Numerous instances of YouTube videos have surfaced that have turned things like police-brutality into situations of justice for the aggrieved. Refugees have been armed with inexpensive video cameras to document and communicate the nature of their treatment by the powerful who surround them.

Meanwhile, I can't walk into a library any more, pull out a file drawer, and hunt for book titles on index cards carefully indexed by skilled librarians. I was a bit mournful the day I saw the last hard-copies of key reference sources disappear from the library shelves, to be replaced by online databases (that only go back to the early 1980s). Yet, I can turn on an appliance the size of a deck of cards, and access more information in an instant than most people in the world ever had available to them in their entire lifetimes!

In all of this, I guess my main realization is that this depth and range of technologies (and learning how to use it creatively) is as much for the "people who will take out the trash" (a phrase used by a colleague) as it is for anyone else. The student who simply wants one to give them the answers so they can study is as much an opportunity for us to examine deeply what has been done to them--and what more can be done to ignite their own abilities to really learn--as they are maybe a disappointment at times. Above all, though, they challenge us to be better at our profession of teaching.

There is a video by Dewitt Jones called "Celebrate What's Right With the World" in which he uses his lifetime experience as a photographer to talk about the importance of being in tune with the moments of possibility--being open to "challenges" as times of opportunity. It continues his other theme of "everyday creativity," which further explores the value of learning to see the extraordinary in the "ordinary" of everyday life (including in the "ordinary" people around us).

Ultimately. as Les Lewchuk and Ruth Stiehl like to say in their series on teaching and learning: "It's not about the technology, but about the conversations." (2005) The technology is just a set of tools, but these won't "do" anything for us automatically, apart from the relationships we build as teachers and learners. Certainly, we can't fetishize the technology (any more than we should fetishize, say, currency) but we still have the challenge (opportunity) to use it--and use it effectively.

In the work of Paulo Freire, in fact, we are reminded how another ubiquitous technology--the written word--could be used either for oppression or liberation, depending on how it is learned in relationships. Those without the basics of literacy all together are at the most disadvantage, as objects in society rather than as subjects. Freire spent his life developing a spirit and an approach to teaching and learning based on a liberating approach to literacy; in the process he offered the surprising perspective that not all 'literacy' is necessarily liberating! His own approach then was to cultivate "inter-subjectivity,"rather than the delivery of knowledge.

We're in an exciting time of global possibilities. It seems pretty certain too that even the most "educated" among us are challenged by the rapid change of the world around us---both at the local and the global level. It use to be that when it was mostly about delivery of information ("coverage" of a discipline) we were the expert deliverers in our classrooms as teachers. But now so much of learning is about ... well... learning (learning to learn, constantly)--and so much of learning is mediated through changing technologies that are at least as new to us as they are to our students. As a result, our disciplinary expertise is not so prominently on center stage anymore, as we attempt to continue to develop and support institutions in which students (and we) will learn to learn.

And such learning, demanding of our creativity and passion, is even for those in our society who may not have goals to climb up the ladder of power and prestige. It is, as Jones invites us to consider, the challenge to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, the challenge in these terms, of everyday creativity.


Brief highlights about Freire's work:

Video sample from Dewitt Jones (Celebrate What's Right With the World)

Video sample from Dewitt Jones (Everyday Creativity)

Lewchuk, Les and Ruth Stiehl
2005 The Mapping Primer: Tools for Reconstructing the College Curriculum. Corvallis, Oregon: The Learning Organization.

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