What’s Our Focus? Participatory Learning (and Libraries): Beyond the Unicorns, Fairies, and Happily Ever After (A.K.A. Embracing Dissonance)

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Three years ago, Dr. Michael Wesch was one of the key people whose work inspired the vision for Media 21 (post 1 and post 2), an initiative that has resulted in a deep collaborative partnership with English teacher Susan Lester and her 10th Honors World Literature/Composition students and consequently,  collaborative partnerships  in varying degrees with other faculty who have incorporated some of the strategies Susan and I have utilized.

I rarely point people to specific articles through my blog (I use Twitter and Scoop.it for that purpose/sharing), but I think this article, “A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn’t Working“, in the Chronicle of Higher Education is a must-read for all instructional librarians and teachers; even more powerful and insightful are Wesch’s additional reflection in the comments that I’m going to quote and repost below.   Wesch’s comments resonate with me because of Wesch’s emphasis on:

1.  The relationship between students and teachers (and as I’ve shared in presentations in the last year, the idea of libraries being about the human experience and relationships being the cornerstone of libraries)

2.  The emphasis on learning communities (also central to my philosophy of librarianship)

3.  Planting the seeds for learning spaces to be sites of participatory culture

4.  Using social media and technology to amplify the possibilities for authentic learning, not for the “wow” or “shiny” factor

5.  His acknowledgement that not everyone finds a menu or use of technology empowering and that our focus should first and foremost be on infusing strategies to encourage participation by learners/students in multiple mediums.

As I have shared more extensively via blog posts in the last six months, Susan and I (as well as some of my other faculty) have encountered pushback from students in varying degrees over the last two years.  Some of this comes from a fear or a previous negative experience with technology; consequently, as Susan and I have evolved as teachers and learners, we’ve given ourselves permission to scale back and introduce/utilize technology tools more selectively in response to our students’ needs since our work is first and foremost rooted in this concept of participatory learning.  “Why are you doing this?” is the question we are continually asking ourselves, and for me, I’ve given myself permission to more critically examine practices that might be successful in one learning environment but not in another.

For many  students, the pushback we’ve experienced is rooted in adjusting to a learning environment that requires their active participation to think critically as an engaged member of a learning community who inquires, shares, and creates. Helping students work through this discomfort is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we encounter as we try to honor that uneasiness while trying to find ways to scaffold our students and support them as we try provide encouragement and grow their participation literacy.  We’re always tinkering with our pedagogy and strategies as we try to be reflective practitioners who know there is no magic solution that works for all students and that creating a participatory climate of learning is ongoing, organic work.  Too often we look at what others are doing and perhaps get the impression that a specific approach that is successful for one teacher will be successful for everyone else, but the reality is that crafting this participatory learning environment isn’t always the seemingly perfect “unicorns,  fairies, and happily ever after” success we expect it to be.  If I’ve learned anything, though, in the last year, it’s to embrace the cognitive dissonance that comes from what we may expect to transpire in a participatory learning enviornment and the actual reality of how that plays out with a particular group of learners.  By giving ourselves permission to tinker and yes, fail, I have become much more comfortable with really listening to the story that is in that dissonance and to ask the hard questions, to have the courage to take risks as a teacher and learner as we try to disrupt the testing culture that has so permeated classroom life in public schools, a culture that unfortunately has cultivated learning environments that often encourage students to be passive receptacles who acquiesce their curiosity and what Wesch refers to as “wonder“.

By keeping the concept of participatory culture and learning at the center of our work, I think we are able to craft richer and more meaningful learning experiences for learners of all ages that ultimately help cultivate traditional and emerging literacies needed to fully participate in today’s world.   While instructional literacy isn’t always sexy or what grabs the attention of many administrators, professional publications, or colleagues, I find it infinitely fascinating and at the heart of my work as a librarian and educator—I hope Wesch’s comments will help us all take pause and revisit the essential question of “Why are you doing this?” as we make pedagogical decisions about how, when, and why to embed technology as our paintbrushes to paint a larger canvas of learning.  I hope these are the kinds of conversations that we’ll have more of in library world as we engage in discourse about our mission, our practice, and our future.

Since there doesn’t seem to be a way to hyperlink to Wesch’s comments as a follow-up to the original article, I’m going to repost them here  for your reading and reflection:

It might be interesting to know a little background as to how this article came about. Jeff called me to discuss an upcoming presentation he is doing at SXSW facing the provocative question of whether or not lectures are dead. I think I surprised him a bit by actually championing the lecture, and pointing out that more participatory classroom methods can actually be bigger failures than lecture if they are not approached appropriately. I later clarified to him in an e-mail, “My main point is that participatory teaching methods simply will not work if they do not begin with a deep bond between teacher and student. Importantly, this bond must be built through mutual respect, care, and an ongoing effort to know and understand one another. Somebody using traditional teaching methods (lecture) can foster these bonds and be as effective as somebody using more participatory methods. The participation and “active learning” that is necessary for true understanding and application may not happen in the classroom, but the lecture is just one piece of a much larger ecosystem of the college campus. An effective lecture can inspire deep late night conversations with peers, mad runs to the library for more information, and significant intellectual throwdowns in the minds of our students.” (this echoes many of the thoughtful comments here) I’ll also note here that what makes Chris Sorensen so effective is the way that he seems to deeply understand who his students are, and where they are at in their understanding, so as he is lecturing he is able to trigger the right kinds of questions and thinking patterns that allow them to reach an understanding of physics … that’s what I meant when I said that he is “by their side, walking them through the forest of physics.”

To be clear, this is not a recent change in my thinking. Starting in 2008 I started highlighting the importance of purpose, significance, and the creation of learning communities (bonds between teacher and student, as well as among students). However, I have recently realized how buried that message can be in a presentation that is otherwise dazzling with technology and the ways in which it empowers students to connect and collaborate with people all over the world and produce work that they can take pride in knowing has significantly altered the way people talk and think about certain topics. (Our Anthropological Introduction to YouTube is perhaps one of our greatest successes in this regard.) My reboot is not so much a reboot of my thinking, or even my message, it is simply a reboot in how I deliver my message.

Within the broader ecosystem of a college campus, not everybody needs to jump on board with participatory methods and teaching with technology. But everybody does need to be on board with the goal of creating an environment in which a rich participatory culture of learning can grow. Part of that environment can and perhaps even should involve magnificent mind-bending lectures delivered by masters of their craft like Chris Sorensen.

Not everybody has to teach with technology, but it does need to be deeply embedded throughout the ecosystem we create on campus – and not because “that’s what students want” or “that’s where the students are.” The surprising-to-most-people-fact is that students would prefer less technology in the classroom (especially *participatory* technologies that ask them to do something other than sit back and memorize material for a regurgitation exercise). I use wikis, blogs, twitter and other social media in the classroom not because our students use them, but because I am afraid that social media might be using them – that they are using social media blindly, without recognition of the new challenges and opportunities they might create. I use social media not only as an effective teaching tool that encourages participation, but also as a way to broaden the media literacy of our students. In this regard, we still have a great deal of work to do. We need to embed new media literacy more deeply into the curriculum so that it isn’t just this “one crazy Anthropology class” (as I have heard my class fondly referred to by students) that showed them how they can effectively use these tools in ways they had not yet imagined, while also allowing them to see a little more clearly how these tools are using them, altering their habits, sensibilities, and values as well as the larger structural contexts in which they live.

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