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Shiftingthinking or Lolcats?

March 25th, 2010

Spoiler: Although this posting discusses LOST and Lolcats, it is actually deep and meaningful, and you will be rewarded with an interesting 16-minute videoclip, so stick with it!

Given the rather serious intentions of this website, I think it’s amusing that some of the most commented-on-and-revisited postings have been our various “Shakespeare or LOST?” conversations. Much of this conversation has been driven by three of us at NZCER (myself, Jim, and David) and we clearly each have quite different perspectives on LOST as either a literary text, a source of cognitive engagement, and/or a social/cultural phenomenon. (If you haven’t been following this debate and want to catch up, I suggest you start by reading this comment, then this posting and associated comments, and finally this posting).

While I’ve enjoyed these debates, does such a thread really belong on this website? Aren’t we supposed to be discussing more deep and meaningful ideas about how to transform education for the 21st century? What purpose, exactly, are the blogpostings and discussion threads on this website supposed to serve, and does an ongoing discussion about the television show LOST take us any closer to achieving our desired purpose?

I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot lately due to the AERA paper that Jennifer and I are currently writing. We’ve been looking to ourselves, our colleagues, and anyone out there in the shiftingthinking community to help us pin down some answers. What I’m coming to realise – particularly through writing Shifting Thinking: The Making of (Part 1) and (Part 2) - is that in one sense, we have (and have always had) a pretty clear idea of what we’re trying to do, and our big-picture intentions around this project/website have been pretty consistent. Yet in another way, we really don’t know exactly where we’re heading, or what might it might look like when we get there, and what else unexpected might emerge along the way. On good days, I find this idea very exciting and inspiring. On bad days, it’s scary and confusing. I’m sure this is something that school leaders, staff, and communities experience when they are undergoing some kind of long-term transformational process! (See Jennifer’s recent posting entitled wondering what’s next )

For me, one of the most interesting possibilities of shiftingthinking is the invitation it extends to you (all of you out there) to participate in, and contribute to shaping, this *thing*, *idea*, this *change* that we’re trying to create. It’s not entirely directionless, and there are some well-thought out, deeply anchored theoretical arguments that underpin our intentions. Thus far our “invitation to participate” is, you might say, a bit limited, because for the most part we are seeking your engagement with us in the form of an online, written conversation through blogs and comments around ideas/threads that we think are worth discussing (don’t forget though, if you have a webcam you can also add video comments to any posting!). We extended this invitation to participate a bit further with the 2009 shiftingthinking conference – where some of you came together with us to go on a two-day journey through some of the most challenging ideas for 21st century education. We asked you to take on some responsibility for shaping the conference, by choosing the dilemmas and tensions that hooked you in the most, and collaborating with us and each other to seek new ways to think about these questions, and new ways to think about changing ourselves and our environments in order to reframe today’s challenges into tomorrow’s new possibilities.

But….are we getting anywhere yet?

With all these thoughts in mind, last week someone I follow on Twitter posted a link to the Clay Shirky video below, which helped  to put all these things into a context that makes sense to me. (I’m a fan – having mentioned Clay Shirky’s book, Here comes everybody, a number of times on this website). In this video clip, Shirky talks about something he refers to as a society’s “cognitive surplus”. Loosely, he seems to mean all the extra cognitive power in a society that isn’t being taken up by our obligations to our existing social institutions (like our work, our schooling, etc). Another way to describe it is “free time”, but measured in terms of thinking capacity. He goes on to discuss the critical technologies in the 19th, 20th, and 21st century that have either sought to absorb/mask/dissipate that cognitive surplus, or those which have actually provided an opportunity to channel that cognitive surplus into something interesting. Rather than me paraphrasing, I now invite you to watch the clip:

There’s plenty of interesting ideas to discuss here, but the point that really sticks out for me is when he says the following:

The interesting thing about a surplus is that at the beginning, you don’t know what to do with it at first. You can’t. Because if you knew what to do with a surplus, with reference to the existing social institutions, it wouldn’t be a surplus would it? It’s precisely when no-one has any idea how to deploy something, until people start experimenting with it and finding new ways of using this, that the surplus gets integrated and in the course of this, transforms society. (Clay Shirky, 2008, Web 2.0 Expo, San Francisco April 22-25)

All this helps me place my/your/our engagement with each other, and with ideas, on shiftingthinking into context. As a huge fan and participant in the social media universe, I’ll be the first to admit that I frequently take up, with glee, the “invitation to participate” that’s offered to me by various social media – Twitter, Facebook, the LOSTpedia, and yes, even Lolcats. But I’m really happy that I can use at least a little bit of my “cognitive surplus” here, with you, on shiftingthinking, where the invitation to participate offers at least some hope of generating an outcome that matters. Even if we don’t know exactly how to get there – yet – I’m inspired to stick with it. Are you?

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  1. Mary
    | #1

    Hi, Jennifer

    You ask ” what our “real” business really is as educational researchers”?

    That’s a good question – but I think not quite the right one. Your business is as an educational researcher. That’s not my core bbusiness though. So perhaps the more relevant question is, what our “real” business really is as a learning community, and what relationship that has to the core business each of us identifies outside the community? And even more particularly, what is it “now” and how is it evolving as we generate and process some of that surplus emotional, social, cognitive capacity (capital?) that Clay Shirky refers to in the video clip? A genuine community is multi-dimensional; time is one of those dimensions, just as the individual and collective frames of reference, interests and interactions are.

    In a living system or community, you can only really map the past, the present and the future remain more uncertain.

    2)”What is it that we are really setting out to do? Do we spend our days working so that we can have these “coffee lounge” threads? IS our work actually to create these things? Do “coffee lounge” threads create our real work?”

    For me the answer to this last question is yes. What I’m “setting out to do” will be unique to me although it will overlap with other people’s as well. But for me, the excitement and the purpose is as much in generating that surplus and finding a vehicle to explore it as in anything else. The synergies and dynamics of the multiple dimensions /multiple interactions of a genuine community are an important source of it.

    But that’s just me.. what are the rest of us “setting out to do”?

  2. | #2

    @Jennifer Good question, Jennifer – hopefully readers have already found your latest posting where you take this question further. As for the question of our “real business”, in one way I don’t think that really changes, if you think about it in terms of the ultimate goals.

    To simplify it it down to the basics, I think that the ultimate goals of our business are to build knowledge – relevant, valid, reliable knowledge – about learning, education, teaching, (as well as the ever-changing social, ecological, technological, and cultural landscapes of our local, national, and global environments, because if we don’t take these into account then our knowledge won’t be particularly useful or relevant!), and then USE that knowledge (and help others to use that knowledge) to act on the world to make things better for more people.

    I guess what shiftingthinking (and other “disruptive technologies” as you describe in your next posting ) does is to shift around our existing ideas about exactly HOW the knowledge should get built, by whom, and WHAT criteria we can use to decide whether the knowledge is reliable, valid, trustworthy, etc (something that’s already been debated for ages particularly in the field of qualitative research), and HOW and WHEN that knowledge can act on the world. Plus, when we start to question all those things, we are inevitably led to question various different peoples’ roles in all of those things… Yes, these are big disruptive questions, but I think we needn’t be afraid of delving into them, even doing so in a public space like shiftingthinking.org!

    This line of argument leads me back (as usual!) to our “LOST vs Shakespeare” debates. One point I’ve argued in the past is that studying both LOST and Shakespeare are different routes for engaging in quite complex thinking, digging beneath the surface of each “text” to explore different interpretations, make connections, apply one’s own perspective, generating new meaning in shared thinking with other people, putting ones’ self “into” the text and seeing things from a character’s point of view, etc. OF COURSE I am not trying to equate these two texts in terms of their cultural value, depth of linguistic richness, and potential cultural longevity (Shakespeare will clearly outlive LOST as part of the cultural canon!). But even asking a provocative question, like “is studying LOST as educationally valuable as studying Shakespeare?” is useful, just look at the conversations it has sparked. We could choose to see these as “coffee lounge” chats in the sense that they are tangents, social talk, unimportant, OR we can actually mine these conversations to pull out the nuggets of deep thinking/debate/new knowledge that emerge from them, and realise that this is all part of our “real work” :)

  3. | #3

    @Rachel Bolstad
    And I guess my question for both of you would be about what our “real” business really is as educational researchers. What is it that we are really setting out to do? Do we spend our days working so that we can have these “coffee lounge” threads? IS our work actually to create these things? Do “coffee lounge” threads create our real work?

  4. | #4

    Thanks for your comment Mary – you’ve articulated this so well, and so speedily! I’m particularly interested in purpose #2. I’m a big believer that that the most interesting stuff is usually the stuff that starts out on the peripheries – the sidelines, tangents, unexpected connections and creative leaps that you could never have predicted would link back to the “real business”, but which, as you point out, often do re-braid in useful and surprising ways!

  5. Mary
    | #5

    Hi, Rachel

    This is a dilemma that comes up in the online pedagogy quite regularly -in it’s purest form it boils down to: “what is the value of community in a community of practise?”

    The conversations about Lost, etc have two purposes (at least) in these circumstances –
    1) is to develop the sense of community. In online programmes I have studied and/or taught in, the “coffee lounge” thread is an important one in developing a positive dynamic among [participants. Courses (cohorts, communities) with active "coffee lounge" threads also tend to have dynamic and constructive interactions in the more focussed threads e.g. peer assessment, as the trust between participants has been developed more fully.

    2) is to explore the periphery of concepts that may or may not relate back usefully to the "real" business of the community. By definition, these "sidelines" often arise out of a reference or an analogy in the main discussion that then takes on a life of it's own. It may or may not re-join the flow later on, with a new trail of accumulated understanding, metaphor and shared understanding behind it. The metaphor of the braided river that we looked at in one of the shiftingthinking workshops comes to mind.

    On both fronts, the sidelines perform an important function in developing a genuine learning community. [IMHO. =) ]

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