Getting Ready for England: Memory Stirrers and Stories/ The Social Nature of Learning

Preparing to give a talk in a place I do not often visit, or have never visited, sends me into personal memory and/or imagination as much as into reflections and experiences of this world of twenty-first century teaching and learning. November, before I headed out to Illinois, for instance, had me writing about Willa Cather and the vast open spaces of the prairie as they existed in my imagination; last summer, prepping for a talk in London brought me back to my childhood year in Cambridge, England and had me thinking about how my school days were proof of how so much crucial learning about the world occurs in informal as opposed to formal learning spaces. This weekend I head back to England, and naturally return to that year on the cusp of adolescence (I turned 12) during a time of great turmoil and excitement (1968-69). Plunging back into memories that my busy life has left by the wayside until triggered, back into personal narrative provides me with useful insights into the emerging opportunities to make formal learning more equitable, more effective, and more enduring. Weaving my own small story through my thinking of larger educational questions, in other words, creates its own valuable discoveries.

And because I see preparing for each talk as an opportunity to push my own expressive online practice, I’m playing around with images and voice recordings for this talk–no Powerpoint. No iMOVIE. How scary. How risky.
I’m exploring Splashr:
and
Dumpr, turning
this image of a thicket thicket into this one:thicket image in a circle
and this image of a crow crowinto this one: crow in a circle

Here’s the current draft of the opening anecdote of the talk for AocNilta in Leeds on March 20–I’ll add the complete talk with voice files, etc. once I’ve got it all together. My point here in posting just the opening is the importance of this practice of returning to our own early experiences, reflecting on them and connecting them to what we’re up to in our teaching and learning now. Every post pushes me forward in my thinking, I hope; every talk gives me a fresh opportunity to explore what I’m trying to do in the classroom. People think I’m nuts to prepare a new talk every time out, but if I’m not discovering something new every time I write or speak, how can I expect anyone reading or listening to discover anything…

Blurring the Boundaries, Making It Real: Global and Local, Formal and Informal Learning Landscapes
Sir Robert de BurrA lady and knightSir Roger's face

I have a memory from when I lived here in Cambridge (England) that means something quite different to me now as I near fifty than it did at eleven. That year, while my father was buried deep within the university libraries, digging through eighteenth-century journals and letters, and my brothers and I were trapped inside our stiffly starched schools, my mother toodled around the countryside in our bright red Volvo, searching for brasses to rub. On Saturdays I would sometimes accompany her to one mossy medieval village church or another that instead of stretching to the sky in what my college art professor called the “soaring verticality” of the Gothic church, pushed down into the ground, so squat, so rooted, so damp, so dark. Inside, she would lay a long scroll of black, velvety paper onto a brass figure of a knight or lady right in the church floor, then spend hours bent over, kneeling on a pillow with her silver and gold wax crayons, paying tribute by coaxing it to life onto her paper.

A shy child, a collector, what interested me then were the odd pieces of people’s histories pressed into the dim stained windows and tombstones, and the conversation amongst the people who found their way to the door. Sir Robert's chainmail Sir Robert's knees I listened. I observed. The talk and the stories that wafted from my mother’s spot.

What interests me now is how my mother learned to rub such beautiful impressions of these brasses–informally–she had a book about the monumental brasses of the U.K. that helped her locate them–but that was it. She was willing to make mistakes, to learn as she went, to dismiss the scrim-thin white paper and black charcoal most people used for thick black paper and color in public, among strangers. Sometimes she made huge gaffs, coloring an ear the wrong hue–there was no backtracking. Once committed, the color was there and couldn’t be covered or erased.

Although she was the only one to apply crayon to paper, hers was a collaborative process. From the sexton to the church ladies to visitors to other brass rubbing enthusiasts, she received a near constant flow of suggestion, encouragement, correction, story and conversation. crows at dawn I see now that she learned by conversing, by experiencing glorious failures, by networking with the brass rubbing crowd who told her which church to go to next, where to buy the best supplies, what to say to the grouchy deacon at such and such a church, stories around the figures. It was a bit like the travel boards I loved in India with their tatters of paper pinned with messages for friends, tips for anyone, queries for the around-the-world-traveling network. But it was different, too, as she was not merely messaging–she was actively learning, with purpose, with passion, something quite exacting inside an improvisational, creative, public space.

It speaks to me now of Vygotsky’s (make sure you watch the little video) and Dewey’s theories of the social nature of learning, of Hannah Arendt’s learning as action, of the value of sharing the actual process of expression and creation. I wonder what my mother’s rubbings would look like, or what she would have learned about the the knights and their ladies and the places they lived if she had learned alone in a studio, or in a class. Sure, she would have figured out how to use her crayons, and her book or a teacher would have explained the iconography of the symbols, Sir Robert's feet but what would have been lost– the sense of history’s continuity, the feathering out of meaning beyond the act of rubbing the brass, or her own contributions to the brass rubbing circuit. Rubbing brasses, it turned out, was about far more than rubbing brasses.

In stark contrast, I did learn about brasses in school: in a unit on medieval times, we read about knights, looked at pictures of the rubbings, and ran pencil on paper over the face of a half-crown to simulate the act of rubbing a brass. And then we moved to the next lesson. It meant nothing. The only reason I remember it, I’m sure, is that I knew what these brasses felt under the hand–how big some of them were, how detailed, how expressive, how real.

For the past twenty-five years I have tried to get my students out into the world to rub their own brasses, so to speak, to have those slow conversations that billow out around the central learning purpose, deepening, and adding complexity and richness to the learning–making it real. I want them to feel what Ted Nelson says: “Human ideas, science, scholarship, and language are constantly collapsing and unfolding. Any field, and the corpus of all fields, is a bundle of relationships subject to all kinds of twists, inversions, involutions and rearrangement,” (in Manovich or what George Seimens says: “Conversations are a means to create content.”

But it has not been easy. Our educational systems conspire against a messy, organic approach to learning because it’s difficult to compare one student to another, or quantify the knowledge retained for the moment. And even now, when technology affords us all kinds of opportuntities to make learning real, the classroom walls porous and thus open to a natural give-and-take between the formal and informal, the local and global, the schoolroom and the world, it is challenging work. It’s risky to welcome failure into the classroom, to invite students to take control of their own learning, to remove the yoke of doled-out knowledge sirrobertdeburr in favor of the Sir Robert de Burr Full size murky press of exploration. But as I hope to argue here today, there is a role for schools to play as nerve centers of various learning spaces, precisely because they are more contoured than informal learning spaces, and offer time for concerted exploration, and opportunities for extended collaborations, things difficult out in the messy spaces of informal learning… (more to come)