Philosophers, Innovation and Questioning

Audrey Waters is a highly intelligent, connected and caring philosopher of education and technology.  In her post Against “Innovation” #CNIE2014 she wades into the murky waters of culture and education through a dialectic on terminology, meaning, praxis and ultimately ethics.  Giving a keynote talk to the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education conference her style, tone and brilliance in crafting an argument are immediately apparent in her cover slide:

Watters suggests that innovation (as a word and conceptual frame) is now loose terminology in education.  She points to the corporate nature of “reform” in education to make this point, calling out the educational technology sector and even the silicon valley driven ethos of entrepreneurialism for both ambiguity in message and means (and even inspiring blatant exploitation of education).   As a philosopher, Watters knows what she’s doing.  As Zizek (2009) posits ” a philosophers place is not to solve problems but to redefine the problems societies face”. To this end, Waters cares deeply about human self determination and has a unique place in the contemporary academic and cultural space to disseminate her thoughts. She is attempting (with much of her writing and speaking) and succeeding in her atempts to redefine the problems we face in education.  To me, Watters inspires a question for all of us in education, technology, industries of innovation, cultural studies and politics (for a nod to Watters).  How “thick” is our understanding and description of whats going on in these spaces?  As Geertz (1973)  wrote in his essay Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture:

The thing to ask about [innovation or educational technology] is not what their ontological status is.  It is the same as rocks on the one hand and dreams on the other–they are of this world. The thing to ask is what their import is….

Why innovation, innovating, inventing, imagination, creativity, knowledge….. may be our keystone question to consider in educational research, theorizing, design, and praxis.  Thus, we need to further critique as Watters has the ideology of innovation hysteria while also illuminating efforts where the why is obvious in innovative educational ecologies (see my previous post Pathways for Interdisciplinarity for examples of exemplar schools and projects). In these examples, communities of learners are imagining and innovating….designing the future of education. I am thankful to Watters for redefining the problems for us, asking us to question and frankly just making us think. It is an uncomfortable time in some schools as entrenched traditional forms of education are under attack and institutional immunity is flaring up. That same immunity can find comfort in some of the technologies Watters points out as those technological “innovations” strengthen rather than change managerial/industrial age methods.  Some in education rightly feel that the last decade has been spent fighting for “innovation” and change to very little systemic effect and to critique innovation of technology may be premature. I will argue that understanding the topographies of culture and education (symbolic, political, economic, historical, linguistic) is vital to serving and contributing to our collective futures. These futures exist in a middle grounds of hope, possibility and imagination for a global civic culture.  To support educational landscapes and learning.that proliferate these futures we must do the hard work of understanding philosophy, innovation and culture.

The Middle Grounds: Revisited

I wrote this post almost a year ago and dusted off the the archives to find sentiments I still find so important.  As discussions of  systemic change, grit and this evening grading take place, I am left in awe of the work we must do and at the same time the interest in the work that must be done! I am amazed at my PLN and the work they are doing in the Middle Ground.  With minor adjustments, I put this post back into the network-

“May the weary traveler turn from life’s dusty road and in the wayside shade, out of this clear, cool fountain drink, and rest” R. E. Speer, “Robert Burns,” Nassau Literary Magazine 43 (1888): 469.*

Today, we are in the “middle grounds” of society, economy and the environment. This middle ground encourages the educator, intellectual and citizen to bend beliefs and praxis into new designs taking into account the realities of world systems.  Many recent encounters I have had remind me of the importance of developing and acting on a shared understanding for our collective work in education.

In The Middle Ground  (1991) Richard White describes the process of globalization, genocide, blended culture and mutual aid in the French-Algonquin great Lakes Region from 1650-1815 he writes that “the creation of the Middle Ground involved mutual invention” This mutuality was necessary because the French and Algonquian where displaced (for different purposes ) into a new space/human ecology and confident in the cultural forces that shaped there world view.  In their new- found common landscape however they did not war, or isolate the other but rather took part in the messy business of social, environmental and economic deliberation for mutual aid.  White posits:

Perhaps the central and defining aspect of the middle ground was the willingness of those who created it to justify their own actions in terms of what they perceived to be their partners cultural premises.

What is our shared middle ground as educators, community members and humans?  Forces outside of our control see many cultures, communities, regions, nations and world together at nexus in a new emergent space.  Education has been separated by the industrial and industrial culture for long enough that the new pattern of cultures, one currently under creation in our shared networks takes a moment to see.  But the examples are everywhere.   Grant Litchman writes of interconnected “learning ponds” in a post he recently forwarded to me called Welcome to the Cognitosphere. This post was forwarded after I had shared a video with Grant that Roberto Greco had shared with me…. Both Grant’s post: a narrative of interconnectedness, along with Roberto’s feed that exemplifies his erudite thinking on the interdependence and need for freedom in learning without boundaries cause me to write this post. I could go on, my meetings in the last two weeks with Ed Maggert, Matt Henderson, Peter Gow ,Grant Lichtman, Shoshana Zuboff, Frank Strasburger, Scott MacClintic, Julia Finny, Nancy Doda, Bill Ivey along with my conversations (Twitter and other) with many more….not to mention my small rural public school board….exemplify conversations with the pragmatic and forward thinking to the radical educator and all in between.

I hope that all of you reading this recognize what a moment we are in.  Large corporations in education seek to reinforce the hegemony of industrial education in practice and function  while our schools and projects make motions to upend an industrial revolution long past as we acknowledge the information revolution upon us.  We seek plans, programs, places and praxis to express our passion for humanity.  Remember as Burns reminded us at the beginning of this post to rest for a moment in “the wayside shade”.  Relish in the relationships you have with the young and elder , new and old and look around at the landscapes that make up your spatial turn. Because as my friend and historian-geographer-networker, Jo Guldi writes: “by ‘turning’ we propose a backwards glance at the reasons why travelers from so many disciplines came to be here, fixated upon landscape, together.”*

See you in the middle grounds.

Readings I suggest:

Berry, W. NKU Commencement Speech http://youtu.be/oRgbLJnjwsQ

Boulding, E. (1990) Building a Global Civic Culture: Education for an Interdependent World

Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011 MOOC

Geertz (1977) The Interpretation of Cultures

* Guldi, J. http://spatial.scholarslab.org/spatial-turn/what-is-the-spatial-turn/

Independent School Magazine Spring 2013

Wagner (1981)The Invention of Culture ,

White, R. (1991) The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815






Who Are You Now?

“We cannot withdraw from the choices or moral consequences that come with knowledge”

-J. Roberts (2012)

Do you remember the last time your community of learners came alive in ways that astounded you….maybe scared you ( a little?). Students convened online study sessions around topics of self and social concerns, the way physics connects to the earth, poetry, a book, a simulation of the UN….took an interconnected service  learning project to worldwide levels, devoted themselves to others (or in my case, the student who has devoted her life to the architecture of resilient human rights struggles after our course studied Darfur)….that, just the world of upper schools. Amazing middle level educators like Bill Ivey can undoubtedly tell us of integrated mini-societies, futures thinking projects and more that that made the walls and halls of his school burst at the seams and demand the outside world as an essential freedom for growth.  Lower schools could regale us with stories of learning that feature heart-exploration, play and foundational connection to community and scholastic learning that cause hope to flourish.  The outcomes of the times you may be envisioning are vast. These experiences propel individuals and communities of learning into the spaces many of us yearn for in education.  They are wild spaces, panarchic frontiers and borderlands of learning. These learning experiences are liminal….but do they last?  How do we process experiences past the feel good times as they fade so often under a duress of the status quo and reoccurring managerial education that orders us again….not as ecologic complexity might order, but with social constructs that take enormous effort on the part of humans to maintain (schedules, tests, behavior management, fragmented disciplinary instruction)….

What if we asked ourselves, colleagues and the young people we interact with “who are you now?” as a key assessment or better yet, centerpiece of our curricula.1 Given the space and time to reflect on this question what can you imagine they would say….what would you say?  “Who are you now?”  The statement gathers the epistemology and praxis of experience in education in the simplest yet most potent way.  If we are discussing schools, pedagogy, thinking and action this question is in many ways all encompassing. Who are you now?  Have you given yourself, the students you serve, the  faculty you inspire, the community you share joy with the time to reflect on those experiences that made the heart sing?  Aren’t our founding school visions and missions built upon supporting young people in a growth meant to easily answer this question for the sake of the world? It is startling to know how much we and our learning communities learn every day, month and year. I challenge you to ask this question of yourself, students and beyond on a regular basis. Be careful however, in the way you open a heart and soul.  If you ask, listen for their sake as they answer.  Do not grade, do not measure, do not benchmark against a standard….simply ask and listen.  I hope what you hear is experience unchained. If this experience is allowed to grow and change in your school as humanity does what is our next step? The new fields of experiential education are open to us.  We are “making”, flying kids around the earth and driving them across town to connect and serve, enabling connections around the earth through the internet, sitting down with, instead of standing in front of young people, and asking foundational questions of ourselves about education. Ultimately then, what are the moral choices we would face as the answers to our question “who are you now?” emerged and wove a tapestry of humanity and confluence around us?


1 I participated in the 2014 Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) Annual Institute January 15-18. The experience was iseenfulfilling. Meaningful discussions and collaboration unfolded daily at the institute with some amazing educators from around North America. As you might imagine this group was active and I found myself in deep belly laughs multiple times–a treat. In a recent post I make an argument that a New Field For Learning is emergent in education. The institute is a testament to this in many ways with its focus on experiential education. There were a wide arc of individuals at ISEEN representing faculty, directors of outdoor programs and amazing Headmasters like Ed Maggert of The College School. There where also industry professionals, professors, researchers, lawyers and luminaries like Dan Garvey (link is to a video of Dan Speaking on the future of education at a NOLS faculty gathering). As I reflect on the conference a few points of wonder have stayed with me as I think about the place of experience in education.

On day two of ISEEN, Dr. Barry Wright spoke to the institute on institutional and personal change. I tend to be tough company for businessese speakers on the topic of change. My work is influenced by the time I have worked with and learned from Shoshana Zuboff . Her work on bypass, mutation and change theory for institutions sings to me as vitally important. That said, Barry was a good speaker, a smart man and a tale he told has stuck. The tale was of him entering his Ph. D. program and being reunited with an earlier mentor he had not seen for years. As he worked to track his mentor down, he only caught fleeting interactions with the man. He describes the first interaction with this professor like so. As he walked eagerly to speak with the mentor, the man looked him in the eyes and said “who are you now?”, and kept walking.

My thanks go out to Jesse Barre of Albuquerque Academy and all of the participants at ISEEN 14.  You moved me.


Building a Village Starts with Learning from Team WikiSpeed | Factor E Farm Blog

Building a Village Starts with Learning from Team WikiSpeed | Factor E Farm Blog.

On Machines: a Luddite Question

The refrain from a teacher who often critiques kids “playing” on their laptops instead of “learning” with them….”I am a Luddite”…. This in turn prompted my response that A. The Luddites knew their machines better than most and B ( A Question….) were the Luddites fighting machines or autocracy and the subversion of the commons?
These interactions with academicians occasionally wield deliberative dialogue that I feel is vital in the worlds of education today and hinge on questions.  Do the machines of today and the internet have a massive potential for enabling human self determination?  We must seek to understand them well….so we can also understand the stupefacient uses that hold court in so many networked environments today.  Networked Learning holds potential for the human to be engaged in a ubiquitous free and wild relationship with other humans and themselves.  We must act to enable networked (digital and face to face) learning ecologies that promote freedom, conviviality and mutual aid while also questioning our use of machines with deep and active awareness.  For when machines enable the erosion of our free convivial and mutual lifeways we to must raise ourselves in movement for change.


Some 10 years ago I sat across from an Aerial Wolf Hunting Lobbyist in Juneau AK as a long beard, back to the lander with AK roots.  He was a brilliant old timer: healthy, clean shaven, calloused, and tucked in….a big city (relative) look.  Visiting my father (also lobbying) we had sat for breakfast in the oldest hotel in town. I could not stop looking at this man.  I was doing work informally on reserve design for the Yellowstone to Yukon initative and was as I still am, a proponent of balance in ecological systems….read predators as keystone species…. Legislation was up to challenge  shooting wolves from airplanes and I agreed with it. He looked like he may have a differing opinion so I engaged him and will never forget the learning that took place that day.

Me: “Are you here for the legislative session”

Old Fellow: “Yes, I am….I’m here to support aerial hunting”

I remember being startled that he would engage me in this way

Me: “Why do you support killing wolves”

Old Fellow: “Its about balance, son”

He went on to describe how in the 1950’s and 1960’s the wolf management program disrupted the ecosystems in drastic ways and created an imbalance that will take radical and systemic change to right.  In his community of McGrath, though there where disagreements, a susbistence life was built around Caribou, tourism and self sufficiency….he was not about to let his lifeway go without evidence of how disrupting the “new” balance (keeping wolf populations low dealing with bear predation on fawning caribou….) was viable on the ground.  He was not going to allow a tight knit group of bush dwellers to suffer for peoples lofty philosophy.  Theirs was a deep opinion and way of life.  It was political, economic and environmental.

This meeting has been a clarion call for me.  Since that time I have studied why the “balance” in the world exists and specifically why school reform and tinkering toward utopia (Tyack 1995)  fails to address the core balance in education and learning.  Lobbing softballs in education around PISA and the common core, fixing teachers, students and schools because it is the “right thing to do” does not address the realities of balance and what it takes to change the cultural institution of schooling.  Their is a holistic imbalance in learning. The American people do not see why education needs to be changed because the institutions that they participate in have not changed.  AP, IB, honors, regents, common core, school re-design, teacher education and beyond feed a static process to enforce an almost 200 year balance and re-balance would effect every aspect of America and in turn the world.  Our educational system exists to school a population into 19th and 20th century social, economic, and environmental patterns.   These patterns need to be discharged, or detoxed as Monika Hardy and the Innovation Lab of Colorado practice.  Furthermore as Illich envisioned in Deschooling society, the very fabric of society will need to awaken and act in new designs and systems.  Yes there are growing vestiges of these innovations.  However, these vestiges will need to get to the heart of political engagement, move away from ideological trends, and embrace each other through the messiness of their call for peer to peer ecologies.  If this process of mutual aid, doxa and thaumadzein is networked, the balance in learning will correct like an ecological system and self organize.

Chomsky on Education

Sound doxa on critical education, deschooling, open learning, complexity in reform, technology in education.