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.

TASL 2011: Participatory Librarianship–Creating Enchantment and Conversations for Learning

A heartfelt thank you to the amazing librarians of the Tennessee Association of School Librarians for inviting me to be part of their annual conference in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Below are the slides for my Saturday morning keynote on participation, enchantment, and learning through libraries.


Tranformational Power of Design Literacy: Conectar Igualdad

Transforming schools and the learning that happens there is not simply about what happens in between the four walls of the school building.  It is also about what happens in the larger social ecology that kids navigate and the extent to which other nodes in their network support learning across multiple sites, both formally and informally.


Conectar Igualdad: Argentina’s Bold Move to Build an Equitable Digital Future | DMLcentral via kwout

But beyond this basic literacy is the need to support a vision that defines digital literacy as a life skill that is connected to the everyday lives and situations of students and their families and communities.  Call it ‘design literacy,’ that is, the capacity to engage in higher-order thinking, critical thinking, and real-world problem solving.  Whereas ‘tools literacy’ is foundational, ‘design literacy’ is transformational.

I encourage you to take a few minutes to read one of the most interesting and exciting blog posts I’ve come across in 2011, “Conectar Igualdad: Argentina’s Bold Move to Build an Equitable Digital Future”, by S. Craig Watkins at DML Central.  Watkins explores the three major challenges all nations face in building a “more equitable digital future”—a must read for any educator.

Tumblr Is More Than Porn: Tumblr for Inviting Participation and Conversations for Learning

This past Wednesday at work, I was attempting to cross-post content from one of my Scoop.it dashboards to my Tumblr account; I was started to discover that it was no longer available to me on campus.  Tumblr, which was previously open and available to our students and teachers at school, was recently blocked at the district level;  when I questioned why the resource was blocked, the response was:

Tumblr was blocked this summer do [sic] to pornography it was hosting…When we are aware of a site that violates Board Policy IFBG, Children’s Internet Protection Act and the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act then we will take appropriate measures.

I would have no issue with a specific offensive site being blocked, but denying students and teachers access on campus to the tool for their own constructive uses seems extreme to me.  If a site hosting porn is the disqualifying factor for access and applied that as the standard to every website, we would most likely be blocking many educational resources that are identified as quality information streams or tools for learning.  Like many web authoring mediums and content hosting spaces, Tumblr can be used in  educational ways that I think outweigh the less-than-school friendly applications.  Tumblr has been super hot with our teens for blogging in the last six months or so, and I would like to utilize Tumblr as a space with them for digital composition and reflective thinking since it so easily allows users to post contents in many formats/multimedia.  I especially like how Tumblr lends itself to formal as well as informal networked learning and dovetails beautifully with a participatory stance on learning and librarianship.  I’ve loved playing with my own Tumblr account over the summer and exploring the possibilities for networked learning as it has become yet another node in my personal learning environment for discovering and sharing content.

Overall, my district has been progressive in recent years in increasing access to web resources for students and teachers, and while I’m appreciative of that, I don’t think I’d be true to my role as an advocate for intellectual freedom if I were to be content with what is accessible for the here and now and to be silent when previously accessible resources are blocked.  I could continue to use WordPress with students (and I do still love that medium although you can’t cross-post content to WordPress.com as easily as you can Tumblr, which defeats the concept of your learning tools speaking to each other and playing nicely together for a seamless learning/curation of content/thinking experience), or I could possibly use Posterous, but who is to say those resources won’t be blocked at any given time for the same reason in the future?  Looking at the bigger picture, this issue in my corner of the world speaks to:

1.  the growing tension in K-12 education and national debate about the possibilities and pitfalls of using social media in the classroom and equitable access to information streams in all formats.  The debate within K-12 educational circles as well as libraries reflects deeply differing opinions that in my opinion, speak to an even larger conversation about what the purpose is of public schools and of our libraries (academic, public, school, special).

2.  the greater need for educational institutions everywhere to consider handling filtering issues as you would a challenged print material through a committee and to consider the “challenged material” (in this case, a website) in light of its overall pros/cons.

Consequently, I feel compelled to assemble a  portfolio of educational uses of Tumblr as a tool for learning and digital composition as part of my efforts to make the argument for restoring student and teacher access to Tumblr; I thought I’d share just a few random sprinkles of inspiration gleaned from browsing my favorite Tumblr blogs this morning…

Idea #1:  Favorite Book Quote Crowdsourcing

So this Tumblr post has me thinking–what if a class is reading a novel, and everyone submitted their favorite quote from the book by creating a zen style photo and posting it to a shared class blog? Or what if you created a library Tumblr blog and had students post their entries in that space?   This idea dovetails perfectly with Cathy Jo Nelson’s awesome “Picture It” theme for Teen Read Week 2011 that Cathy reminded me of this morning via a Facebook conversation! ( also see the Google planning doc she created)

Idea #2:  Crowdsource Original Book Jacket Designs

I know our teens are eagerly awaiting the release of John Green’s new book, The Fault in Our Stars.  Take a look at this Tumblr blog that invites people to submit their original book jacket designs for the book!  How fun would this be to do through your library?

Idea 3:  Connect Your Readers to Favorite Authors via Tumblr

I love incorporating the social media streams of author in my research guides and YA Readers’ Advisory; an author Tumblr blog is another fabulous way to connect teen readers to favorite authors!  Thank you Kristin Fontichiaro for pointing me to the Penguin Teen Tumblr stream.

Idea #4:  Random Tumblr Goodness and Inspiration for Learning and Libraries

Recommended Reading

Your Ideas and Inspiration?

Are you using Tumblr through your library or classroom?  How is the use of Tumblr making an impact on learning in your community?  I invite you to share your practices, ideas, and resources!