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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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