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

"Manual Focus" CC image http://bit.ly/ykxpTc

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.

Dr. Michael Wesch: Rethinking Education (and Libraries,Too)

I somehow missed this video when it was first released in January, but thank you to DML Central and Open Culture for helping me discover the video, “Rethinking Education” from Dr. Michael Wesch . I found myself exclaiming “yes!” several times while watching this video from thought leader and teacher extraordinaire (and inspiration agent for Media 21) Dr. Michael Wesch.  A little background on this video designed to be a “conversation starter”:

This video was produced as a contribution to the EDUCAUSE book, The Tower and the Cloud: Higher Education in the Age of Cloud Computing, edited by Richard Katz and available as an e-Book athttp://www.educause.edu/thetowerandthecloud or commercially at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0967285399/ref=kinw_rke_rti_1 Produced in 2007 as a conversation starter in small groups. Released in 2011 as a conversation starter online.

Although targeted toward the world of higher education, this video speaks to the challenges we face in K12 education and consequently, libraries at large as we now realize, “there is no shelf”; the video speaks to the fundamental shifts in how information is distributed and how we are now constructing and sharing knowledge.  While many statements stood out to me, one in particular captures the sense of urgency I feel in my work as a librarian and teacher:

‎”The critical thing that is happening is the public is existing now, is living and breathing, within a much larger sphere of information and knowledge.  That critical openness to knowledge, that is something we had better address, or we are ill-serving our students.”

The possibilities for initiating, inviting, and sustaining conversations for learning about these organic changes in the information landscape are what I find incredibly exciting and what give me hope, in spite of what seem to be insurmountable challenges at times, that we can disrupt and topple the banking system of education that treats students as passive receptacles of knowledge and devalues the potential of participatory learning, critical thinking, and inquiry.

Watch, Listen, Learn, and Think: Henry Jenkins and Michael Wesch

The TEDxNYED videos are now up on YouTube—this event featured a stellar lineup of innovative minds of relevance to all librarians and educators, but I want to spotlight two of my favorites here:  Henry Jenkins and Michael Wesch.   Wesch, a significant source of inspiration for me in the last year, and Henry Jenkins, of whom I’ve been a fan for nearly two years but whom I am now inhaling after participating in his free webinar last week (which you can watch here by accessing the archives page), are more than worth your time, so check out their talks from March 2010.


Information Literacy and Inquiry as Disruption to School Culture Oppressed by Testing

My Media 21 project is inspired by the work of Wendy Drexler and Dr. Michael Wesch; this tweet from last week’s NEIT Conference reflects an essential question driving my Media 21 project:

As my Media 21 students have shared some new research reflections in the last week, I have felt both overjoyed and frustrated by responses.  How is it that some students have seen the last 15 weeks as the most challenging and rewarding learning experience of their lives that they hope will continue second semester while others have viewed the learning experiences more as a chore and something to simply “get done”?  Why do some students embrace reflection and original thinking while others chafe in the face of learning experiences that do not reflect the knowledge banking nature of today’s test driven educational climate?

In reflecting and returning to a reality that I faced when I adopted a literacy as inquiry stance as a classroom teacher in 2002, I am revisiting my studies of literacy as inquiry with Dr. Bob Fecho at the University of Georgia.  Just as some students resisted a learning environment I created that valued questions, not black and white answers, I see this resistance in some of my Media 21 students who seem to prefer learning activities that value regurgitation of facts rather than questioning or critical, creative thinking.  This question came up during Dr. Wesch’s keynote at NEIT:

In my corner of the world, my answer is “More than you might think.”  While some students are liberated by choice and free thought, others feel threatened by a learning environment that is inquiry driven and participatory in nature.    I can’t help but think that this phenomenon is easier to comprehend when you consider today’s students are among the first generation to grow up in a test driven school culture that is contradictory to inquiry.

What is inquiry? Here are qualities identified by classmate Sharon Murphy in Fall of 2002:

• Dis-ease. There are many questions raised without answers.

• Establishes more than the teacher as validator of knowledge/work.

• Feeling of responsibility to yourself and the class.

• Recognizes classroom as a complicated, non-laboratory place filled with complex, caring human beings.

• Fights culture of school that wants THE right answer.

• Doesn’t hide what is occurring in class and makes class part of determining what is occurring.

• Patience- doesn’t give up too quickly and realizes community/learning/inquiry doesn’t happen overnight.

Does this sound like the learning environment many school librarians crave yet find themselves hungering for it in the current educational landscape?

In revisiting my initial reading of Pedagogy of the Oppressed of 2002, Paulo Freire says the oppressed are often “hosts” of the oppressor (48) because they are so immersed in the culture of oppression.   Does this description fit today’s student who must buy into the testing culture so privileged (whether by choice or force) by public schools?  Does it also apply to many classroom teachers whose careers are judged by test scores and perhaps even our profession as school librarians as we are called upon to tie our programs to student achievement in order to “survive”?  How does the assimilation of the discourse of testing impact how students transactions with information and how they construct knowledge?

The current test driven culture values knowledge banking and correct answers; standardized curriculum and conformity to ways of knowing and learning are the hallmarks of contemporary American education.  In many schools, students and teachers feel pressured to “cover” knowledge precisely and efficiently.  Contrast these values to those Freire asserts:

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(72).

So what does this all mean?  Right now, some key ideas are resonating with me:

My big question:  how can inquiry driven learning and an inquiry stance on information literacy positively disrupt students who are entrenched and oppressed by the testing culture?  How can participatory librarianship support inquiry and students who find conversations about learning troublesome rather than empowering?   How do we address their “dis-ease” they feel as they are pushed out of their comfort zone?  How can school librarians and libraries be more effective sponsors of information literacy and transliteracy?