I am just back from a couple of days at a conference at Stirling University Scotland.
Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau and I presented a paper and ran a theory clinic (see here for details)
As with all conferences for me – it’s difficult to come away and clearly articulate the conference’s value, or what I have learned, or been provoked into thinking about and exploring further (at least in the short term). And as with all conferences, I went to some sessions that ‘left me cold’, but to others which left me knowing that there is lots I need to think about further. The Stirling conference (overall) fulfilled the latter more than the former. I was introduced to lots of new ideas.
Recently I wrote a post about being a glass half empty person . After this conference I realize that is not quite correct – but that my interest in learning is stimulated by ‘unlearning’ and by ‘unseeing’ – an idea further stimulated by a paper presented by Jason Thomas Wozniak, Teachers College, Colombia University, USA.
I was lucky that this was the last session I attended, as for me it pulled together ideas from some of the other presentations that had been simmering in my depths somewhere and also related to our own papers in unexpected ways and particularly to the idea that what is not present is as important as what is present – which I first began to think about after reading a paper about 6 months ago by Terrence W. Deacon (2011).
This idea of ‘The Other’, learning not from what is, but from what is not, also seems critical to avoiding echo chambers and ‘group think’, a topic which has been discussed many times by MOOC followers. Jason Wozniac reminds us that
‘There is a long history of ancient and modern philosophers like Seneca and Foucault who sought to defamiliarise themselves with habitual manners of perceiving and thinking in order to acquire new approaches to reality.”
Wozniac’s work with learners in Brazil has sought to encourage learning through ‘making the world strange’. Paul Standish, another speaker at the conference, seemed to be aligned to this idea, albeit through different expression, when he urged us to ‘reclaim the concept of the amateur in a positive way’. I take this to mean that we have much to learn from the amateur and unexpected ways of thinking. Standish pointed out that teachers often close down dialogue and said that teachers need to learn how to be an authority without being in authority.
Wozniac also writes “Habitual perception conceals or makes us numb to many aspects of the world. We become in essence de-sensitized, and our participation in the world is impoverished’ … and he quotes Ginzburg, 2001, p.13) ‘To understand less, to be ingenuous, to remain stupefied: these are reactions that may lead us to see more’.”
Wozniac’s team attempted this with Brazilian learners, i.e. to encourage learning through unlearning and seeing through unseeing, through a series of exercises involving art, poetry and dialogue. This reminded me of when (years ago) I attended life drawing classes and for weeks we were not allowed to draw the figure as we saw her, but instead each week had to draw her from different perspectives, e.g. the figure as a mathematical representation, the figure as a landscape and so on. We, along with Wozniac’s adult teachers and students, were developing ‘negative capability’ (Keats 1935, p.72, quoted by Wozniac) .
‘That is to say that these teachers were ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Wozniac, 2012).
This idea of promoting uncertainty and mystery in learning is very closely related to the work I have been doing with Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau on emergent and embodied learning ….. And it seems to me that a focus on uncertainty necessitates consideration of what is not there, or ‘The Other’.
For Julie Allan (keynote speaker) this ‘Other’ was expressed as ‘Aporias’. She encouraged us to think in terms of expressions of doubt, e.g. How can we raise achievement and promote inclusiveness , or how can we promote autonomy and support collaboration (which seems very relevant to the FSLT12 MOOC ).
And our second keynote speaker Tom Popkewitz talked of ‘double gesture’ i.e. by considering what is – you also necessarily identify what is not. For example he writes:
Today’s the “urban” family and child has new classifications of “troubled youth” and “the dropout”. Without too much effort, it is easy to realize that there is no “troubled” or “dropout” without theories about the child who is not troubled and who is different from the child “drop-in”.
According to Popkewitz you can’t understand the self without understanding ‘The Other” and trying to control the future has never worked.
As Paul Standish said, the aim of education is to lead to freedom. What I learned from the conference, is that this is the freedom to see things as we have never seen them before, to think things we have never dreamed possible, to embrace uncertainty and ‘strangeness’ and to welcome defamiliarisation. This freedom will no doubt feel like strange and unfamiliar territory, but to quote Michel Foucault
‘There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all.’
Deacon, T.W. (2011) Consciousness is a matter of constraint- My New Scientist
Magazine issue 2840.
Ginzburg, C. (2001) Making it strange: The prehistory of a literary device. In Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance (pp. 1-23). (Martin Ryle & Kate Soper, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press)
Keats, J. (1935) The Letters of John Keats (p.72) New York: Oxford University Press
Popkewitz, T.S. (2012) Is there an Option: Theory as an Empirical Fact. http://www.stir.ac.uk/education/future-of-theory-in-education/
Wozniak, J.T. (2012) Exercises in Making the World Strange: Cultivating new ways of perceiving the world in teacher education programs and adult literacy and philosophy classes. http://www.stir.ac.uk/education/future-of-theory-in-education/