Home > Shifting schooling > Binding–and releasing–metaphors, images, and rituals

Binding–and releasing–metaphors, images, and rituals

Back at the office now, and the sun is shining in Wellington! I had almost forgotten what that looked like. Here in the southern hemispheric winters, I’m constantly reminded about both how far I am from the place I used to call home (Washington DC–so hot this time of year) and also how connected we are instantly to people everywhere.

Thinking about Rachel’s comments on the comments to my last posting, I’ve been thinking about, well, thinking together. And as I want to have conversations with those of you on this website, those of you in this office, those of you who were at the hui (and those of you I’ve never met actually or virtually), I’m also thinking about the conversations we have with things in our individual past, things in our collective past, in the metaphors and symbols and rituals that we’re so immersed in we can hardly see them. We’re gathering images and stories for our November conference, and so I’ve been thinking about what our individual and collective images about schooling might be. Here, oddly, is the first one that comes into my head.

A 21C kid but a 20C teacher?

A 21C kid but a 20C teacher?

When my daughter was not quite 6 years old, after dinner she would take her baby brother (about 2) and our friend’s son (1.5) and play with them in that big-sister way she had. Often they would “go to school” after dinner, and the parents would watch the ritual played out in the lounge–three children, only one of whom had ever been to school, and the school that these kids would collectively create.

Naomi would sit the boys down on cushions on the floor, and she’d drag an ottoman over to be her table. Scene set, she’d grab something to teach about: a globe or a book. She’d stand in front of the seated, quiet boys, and ask them questions. Pointing to a random spot on the globe, she’d ask, “Does anyone know the name of this country?” The boys, who were not yet speaking much, would gurgle something or another. “No, Aidan. That is NOT the name of this country,” Naomi would sometimes admonish. “It is Heppalongabarah,”  she’d explain confidently (she couldn’t read much, either). The boys would try to pronounce whatever word she had just made up, and eventually they would get something she was satisfied with, and she’d congratulate them. They’d smile delightedly and sit quietly for the next question to come.

Searching for a new kind of school for the future?

Searching for a new kind of school for the future?

I would watch, amused and also horrified. How did we expect anyone to change their visions of schools if my 5-year-old daughter–who had been to an alternative, cooperative preschool and was now at a funky Spanish/English public school–had the most conservative and conventional images of school! And these boys who couldn’t really even talk were being inculcated into this thing called “school” which involved their sitting quietly while someone stood up, asked them questions, and told them they were wrong all the time!

This image of the captivating ritual of school, the ritual that goes back to our earliest memories, stays as one of the strongest ones for me about the challenge of moving to more 21C ways of thinking and teaching. As I have conversations about 21C teaching with my now biggish kids and my colleagues all over, I wonder how we can see the force of traditional forms of schooling–a force so strong that it shapes the thinking and practice of kids who have never yet been in a classroom. How do we admit this gravitational field, examine it, and then make choices about it rather than playing out this play written by another set of people in another country and another time?

What images–from your own lives and from public events, etc., stick with you as you think about shifting schooling in a new direction? What enables your thinking in new ways or constrains it? What images or rituals or metaphors can you share with the rest of us (feel free to upload here too) that help you think expansively–or which you’d like to purge in some way (or reknow in some way) because the image or metaphor or ritual limits your thinking?

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  1. | #1

    @Pat Hargreaves
    Hi Pat, care to expand more on your idea of “whentimes”?

    Do you mean that 21st C learning is about being more conscious/aware/attentive to what sort of learning, through what sort of relationships, in what sorts of environments, are appropriate in any given moment with particular people? (Rather than simply doing it in the same established way it’s been done before because “that’s the way it’s done”?)

  2. Pat Hargreaves
    | #2

    I’m afraid I generally struggle to make sense of peoples poetry, metaphors or whatever. Human beings are complicated enough without adding anything else in the mix.
    On that vein, I’m not surprised at Jennifers kids playing school whereby it seemingly looks much like the system that is currently being decried somewhat.

    The reason for that, I think, is that we all love to sit at the feet of someone who we perceive as worthy to tell us things. And I for one, say there is nothing wrong with that at all.

    The real problem, the real challenge, in coming up with a metaphor, or poem, or whatever to describe 21 C learning is probably deciding what it is supposed to look like? Hard to know how to describe something we’ve never seen…

    Some say the old ways are about the students spinning around the teacher like little satellites, reliant on the gravity of the teacher to hold them there. What’s really wrong with that? Sometimes.
    Some say the new way is about reversing this and making the student the centre of the universe. Nothing really wrong with this either. Sometimes.
    Some say it’s about meta cognition and learning the skills of learning rather than facts of knowledge. That’s okay too, sometimes.
    Some say that learning can ocur anywhere. Some say more out of school than in. That’s true also. Sometimes.

    But in my opinion, 21C learning is about the whentimes.

    How’s that for an obscure metaphor?

  3. | #3

    Ah, I’ve been thinking about the way schools are talked about in books. Sci fi books but also just the way schools show up in my kids’ favourite books. They tend to be containers for children to talk to each other and sometimes be annoyed by the adults there. Our fictional images of schooling–the ones of the future and the ones of the present–are all pretty grim.

    This contrasts with some seriously lovely images in books of LEARNING. Kids learn in the woods, they learn in the library, they learn when working with their parents or playing with their friends. If you look at the Harry Potter books, the classes are annoying interludes punctuating the times when real learning takes place. This is interesting, I think.

    Perhaps we’d all do better if we, as Artichoke does, turned to poetry for our central metaphors. Fiction is perhaps, well, not fictional enough!

  4. | #4

    Yes, I’m definitely going to use that book The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. I’ve also just read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and I have a new book from the library today, Ken MaCleod’s Learning the World. If anyone else wants to join me in reading and blogging about any of those books (or others) that’d be cool!

  5. Rose
    | #5

    Rachel – did you think to go back to The Diamond Age? I think I read your copy! The learning described in there is a sort of participatory hyper-reality – part screen-based, part action, in an environment that evolves in response to both. Funny thing is other aspects of social organisation were, as I recall, very conservative with overtones of Victorian England. Now what was that all about as a set of mixed metaphors??

  6. | #6

    Jim, I can’t tell you how many times I have wished I could download a foreign language right into my brain. Maybe the idea of learning as a process of securing knowledge in my brain (and, by extension, the idea that once it’s in there I can quickly and fluently access this information “on demand” any moment that I needed it) – is one of the ideas about learning that I have to let go of? (Actually I think I let it go a long time ago… but does that mean I have to let go of wishing that it was possible? Jennifer?)

  7. | #7

    A powerful image for future learning is in, I think, eXistenZ (1991, directed by David Cronenberg) in which a character downloads a foreign language through a portal in his body. If ‘teaching’ content was so easy, what would be left for teachers to teach, I wonder? Why is such a dry and functional take on learning a little unsettling?

  8. | #8

    Heppalongabarah – I hear it’s lovely in the Spring! I love thinking about what’s in our individual and collective “imaginary” for schooling! I’ve got this little pet project slowly ticking over in my spare time where I’m interested in reading futurefiction/science fiction to see how writers imagine schooling, education, learning, in “the future”. If there’s anyone who’d feel free to discard old metaphors and imagery and invent totally new ones, you’d think it would be science fiction writers, right? But perhaps it’s not such a surprise to find that many writers conceive schools as the future as very much the same as schools of today. Or should I say, very much like the Military Academies of today! So I’m interested in looking around for really “out there” and different imaginaries for future school and learning. I hope to blog about these in the future – any recommended reads, people?

  9. | #9

    I have always loved Simon Schama’s take on myth, metaphor and allegory … that call for memory over measurement – and it fits well as a counter to with our current focus on making learning visible, feedback, national standards
    “For if the entire history of landscape in the West is indeed just a mindless race toward a machine-driven universe, uncomplicated by myth, metaphor, and allegory, where measurement, not memory, is the absolute arbiter of value, where our ingenuity is our tragedy, then we are indeed trapped in the engine of our self-destruction.” P14 Simon Schama Landscape and Memory

    But Lakoff’s thinking – in “Metaphors we live by” etc alerts me to the fact that the metaphors I love might “not only shape our view of life in the present but set up the expectations that determine what life well be for us in the future”.

    So I guess what you are asking us to do is to reframe the metaphors of school to help us see more clearly.

    I think “Learning as a journey” could do with unpacking – I looked at this a while back in Educational Metaphor: Learning as a Journey and Curriculum as a Mollusc

    I also quite like what Lev Manovich does with collaboration and authorship to communicate new ideas (learning) Keep your eyes on my nipples … living on the fringes of conversation.
    and I note that Manovich argues for database as a symbolic form over the linearity of narrative http://transcriptions.english.ucsb.edu/archive/courses/warner/english197/Schedule_files/Manovich/Database_as_symbolic_form.htm – perhaps we could/should appropriate this metaphor for education/learning in 21C

    And then for something simpler – it has always been fun to code the metaphors in keynote addresses at educational conferences using Margaret Lloyd’s ontology in “The enacted myths of computer education”
    ULearn06: Enacted myths and lingering in the chambers of the sea

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