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:
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)

9 Responses

  1. Thank you for that “rub their own brasses line”. I think I laughed loud enough to get the attention of TSA minions, here in the airport.

    So shouldn’t every college experience begin by asking students to reflect on their lifetime of informal learning?

  2. Precisely. That is why I open every course with three exercises: the old Russian custom of sitting on our suitcases before we launch into the adventure, the deep-learning exercise from Jane Love, which has the students attaching colorful stickie notes all over the walls and then looking for patterns between their remembered learning experiences, and a personal digital story in which they explore what brings them to the course and what they bring with them. It’s remarkable how this series of exercises orients them in terms of how they want to take this particular course and bonds them to the group.

    I’m glad I made you laugh…in the airport 😉

  3. I like this piece about making the school a “nerve center.”

    It makes perfect sense that with the constant growth of technology in the form of communication and social software and, therefore, the growth in connecting classroom students to the larger world – along with connecting the larger world to itself (cultures, people, places, etc.) – that the role of the traditional school, classroom, and professor will change. And, so will the role of the student.
    We’ve always talked about how often traditional schools/departments hold tight to their books on the shelf, but it’s a reality that technology is pushing through the door. Consequently, educational institutions have no choice but to adopt some of the new ideas and unique forms of education that are spawning from the increase in web communication. Consequently, the students are being empowered, but it’s not mutiny. Far from it. Rather, students are, as you say again and again, connecting the formal classroom to the outside/informal classroom much more quickly, and the truth is that technology is allowing this connection to happen. Schools are important in directing the students, acting as a reference, resource center, and, to some extent, a nest for the student to return to in order to learn (soak in the books, the knowledge that has come before her/him), debrief, process, reflect (compare & contrast to others and to personal work/experiences), and create. Maybe the ‘letting go’ starts with having the classroom accessible to all – start blogging, starting talking about what happens in the classroom with those outside of it. (I like feeling that there’s nothing to hide, only things to give and learn from inside and outside the classroom.) Exposing the classroom will invite discussion between students and between professors… possibly succeeding at what most colleges strive for: connecting their many departments together both inside and outside the classroom – creating dialogue in a cross-departmental way. me, I felt most comfortable when I knew I was working on creating, researching, forming an argument with someone, rather than given the cliche “here’s an essay question that’s been handed out before, but there are many ways it can be answered.” Do not confuse this with my rejection of learning the form before trying to critique it. There must be a base understanding, and I think that is why technology is not threatening the life of the classroom or the role of the professor, rather it supports both. Technology expands the classroom, the work(s) studied and created by the students, and, in my opinions, allows for more learning styles to be accommodated. Thoughts on my rants?
    Just landed not a day ago and I bet you can guess that I’m itching to talk your ear off about this technology piece.
    Some incredible perspectives and colors in your photographs, Barbara! Really like the birds at dawn and the snowdrifts.

  4. When introducing technology into your classes, do you find students who hesitate to work with the technology for fear of becoming a part of that “messy, organic” learning process and making mistakes? Are there students who don’t connect with the technology, or who think it is too far out of the box and, therefore, unauthentic in academia?

  5. As a fellow slow-blogger, quick comments do not come naturally to me, but I’ve been lured from lurking by an extraordinary coincidence: I too was in Cambridge in 1968, the year I turned 12, while my father was on sabbatical. (My educational experiences were somewhat different–my father refused to “let me take an English girl’s place” in grammar school so it was Coleridge Secondary Modern School for me, easy academic classes but an enlightening intro to social class). Now that I’m here, I just wanted to express my admiration for yr lovely, thought-provoking blog (fuller discussion to follow on my own blog before too long…)

  6. Thanks, Remy, for the detailed, thoughtful response and the questions–it is really very helpful for me to have these reflections from students who have left the nest and are out in the world.

    As for the reluctant student–yes, absolutely there are those who really want to have nothing to do with technology. That’s natural. There’s always someone who doesn’t like something. And I think there are several reasons for this. Some people just don’t like computers. Period. Just as some people are shy and quiet, others like to talk in class–you see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. But I don’t think it would be responsible of me as mentor and guide in a 21st-century classroom to ignore technology or to allow students to ignore it altogether. I ask those reluctant bloggers to talk about what it is that they don’t like–and the rest of the class is clearly having such a good time learning together that soon just about everyone comes aboard to some degree or other. And yes, some students have bought into a certain view of a proper college education–but they get over it pretty quickly in my classroom. 😉


    What a lovely coincidence! We probably passed on the streets, in the market…small, small world. Thank you for leaving a comment–I am delighted to make your acquaintance and to discover your blog, too. I look forward to getting to know your blogging, and I will think of you as I speak of Cambridge during my talk. Cheers!


  7. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!!!!!
    We’ll miss you in NYC. Can’t wait to hear about what you have to say in Leeds!

  8. oh my gosh…it was your birthday? and on the first day of spring? how…perfect! Hope you are having a wonderful restful time!

    PS you were a shy child? Really? What happened???? 😉


  9. What you said about actual experience and the subsequent learning process is a very valid point. Perhaps the added technology can somehow take away from the need of the student to go out there and to experience for themselves. As a simple example, going to a museum is no longer so necessary when most exhibitions can be viewed online. Educators have a special challenge these days to guide their students in a way that will allow them to balance the information sources available to them.

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