Social Media/Studies

UntitledIn addition to more critical efforts to conduct inquiries into history as it intersects with our present landscape, the TALONS class has come to embrace dramatic efforts to enact and recreate history in their social(s) learning. Whether engaging in a mock trial of King Charles II, or making impassioned speeches as characters in the French Revolution, such theatrical turns have traditionally made for memorable classroom moments.

A few years ago, a group of TALONS grade tens approached me to see if they could ‘pitch’ a unit plan for our upcoming French Revolution study: in blog posts and classroom activities, members of the class would each adopt a character from the revolutionary period, and strive to realize and represent diverse perspectives on events in 18th century France.

In the years since, the unit has evolved to include Twitter, as well as a series of improvised discussions, debates and addresses – all in character.

Thus the class is able to imagine and take in the passionate decrees of a young Maximilien Robespierre:

In the future I believe that it is not enough for the monarchy to only lose a portion of its power. France should be a country run for its people by the people, a democracy! At this moment I do not have enough political power to share my views in such ways, but in time I shall express my desires. One day I assure you, I will find a way to improve the lives of the poor and to strike down those corrupt from power.

And see the story through to his betrayal of Georges Danton, who addresses his friend:

I curse you.

We once had, if not brotherhood, at least mutual understanding. We were creating a France that our children would be proud of. I know not when your idealism became madness but I must have failed to see the signs, because I was not prepared for all the murders, and all the terror that you instilled into this country.

Robespierre, you will follow me into dissolution. I will drag you down screaming, and we will fall together.

In addition to these perspectives developing on individual blogs in monologues and comment threads, classroom time is spent charting the development of significant revolutionary events against characters’ reactions which are presented in improvised debates or speeches. And the dialogue continues on Twitter, as each character adopts an avatar to not only promote and archive their blogged artifacts, engage in dialogue with their allies and nemeses, and exercise their own democratic rights in carrying out the final assessments in the unit:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.38.18 PM

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.39.55 PMSensing that there might be a popular uprising against a tyrant teacher bent on sticking steadfast to an arbitrary deadline, I asked to see a show of support for the idea:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.43.23 PMThe idea was taken up quickly.

By philosophers:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.42.33 PMThe King of France:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.44.41 PM

Feminist leaders:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.45.54 PMAnd even the farmers:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.47.26 PM

At the culmination of the unit, each of the TALONS delivered a final address that looked back on their contributions to the revolution, and how they might have done things differently with the benefit of hindsight. And while each member of the class was only tasked with creating one unique angle on the historical events being studied, the effect rendered by the series of addresses on the unit’s final day presented a nuanced and multidimensional look into the various subjectivities that (might have) helped shape the revolutionary period.

From each of their perspectives, what the French Revolution might be about would likely sprawl in a dozen different directions: a part of a historical march toward justice; political reform; a spark in the narrative of female activism; the story of scarce resources driving extreme behaviour. And to ‘teach’ toward these myriad truths is at once a curricular requirement and Quixotic pursuit, revealing the tensions of education for citizenship in a pluralist democracy, asking How do we create unity and cultivate diverse perspectives?

In interpreting history, as well as our present moment, students ought be engaged in rehearsing this act, and with the dramatic role play the answer offered to the pedagogic problem lies at the heart of narrative.

Of sensing an individual’s arc at the centre of a multitude of shared and individual lives.

Of constructing ‘we’ out of many ‘I’s.

Whether face to face or in the online sphere, this is the task of schooling in the multicultural society.

Assessment for Critical Literacy

This semester’s Socials 9 curriculum was conceived with an intention to cultivate critical literacy, which I have come to define more and more as an ability to develop a praxis of reflection and action to continually discover and define meaning in an increasingly complex system. In learning from curricula, relationships or experience, individuals and societies alike are tasked with reinventing and transforming their reality as necessity and changing circumstances may dictate.

As I have attempted to re-imagine social studies as a venue for citizenship education, each of the TALONS classes have begun the semester with experiments in collaborative assignment and unit planning from the start. In considering our study of the English Civil War, there has been discussion of several questions:

What do we need to know? 

The class began by considering course outcomes and evaluating text and online materials to help guide the discovery of the unit’s main ideas, events and historical personages. Then set about generating criteria, a schedule and daily means by which the agreed-upon content could be learned.

In collecting, distributing and summarizing a range of primary and secondary sources on early 1600s England, What do we need to know was joined by What is there to be known about the topic? And as the readings’ various themes and ideas were identified and organized, the discussion shifted to consider What is important to know about these topics? As well as What do I think about all of this? 

But this was only one aspect of identification and collaboration to engage an agreed-upon problem. This is merely the deconstruction - the breaking into a million little pieces that could then be assembled into coherence anew through each learner/investigator’s reflection and action.

And it introduced a new question (and it’s a mouthful):

How do we know that we know what we’re now supposed to know (now)? 

In terms of reconstructing that knowledge, effective learning should also address the question How do we assess the learning that has taken place? But in considering critical literacy and consciousness, it becomes important that this question in particular is asked in such a way that it continues to be driven by the collaborative acumen and expertise of the group itself, just as the unit has been planned and carried out thus far.

This aspect of assessment is traditionally a means of learning owned and operated by the teacher. But the crux of this type of collaboratively-designed learning, and of the development of a continual praxis of behaviour, teacher and student are each challenged to engage their critical literacy, which may also be described as a kind of empathetic design research.

In their paper, Rethinking Design Thinking: Empathy Supporting InnovationMcDonagh and Thomas describe a process during which,

“as designers use empathy to support their research, ‘design moments’ emerge which provide them with more design-relevant data and supports product innovation.”

Here we see the designer’s role shift to that of a co-investigator, where

“the designer and user engage as collaborators, and together develop knowledge and understanding in order to generate appropriate solutions for real needs.

“Empathetic design research relies on the user being an active and participating partner within the information creation and designing process.”

Design’s quest for innovation begins to find itself within an emerging confluence of educational philosophy. Isn’t this innovation what Gregory Bateson might have described as transformative learning, or what Paulo Freire deemed a ‘limit situation‘?  This “simplicity of cause” comes as an affirmation of the ongoing praxis of co-investigation and co-creation that we might conceive of as critical literacy.

In looking toward assessing the English Civil War unit learning, the critical element arising out of the classes’ progress is the need for learners to acquire habits of mind and relation that make this continual praxis possible. For the TALONS (including myself), we may have found ourselves stalled and struggling to define and enact the required action for the moment. But while it may appear so on the surface, this moment of negative momentum is hardly an insurmountable obstacle. Indeed, it is the moment of tension in which true critical intelligences are asserted.

Critical Literacy in Assessment Methods

So we are confronted with the question, How do we know that we know what we’re supposed to know? It is a question of assessment, and one which is traditionally held at the end of units and courses of study as the sole dominion of the teacher. But such are the assumptions which bind both teachers and students to outdated pedagogies that may have fallen out of step with our stated intentions for learning: the apparent impossibility of imagining another way stops us from even considering it.

For my own part, even in projects and courses during which I have taken pains to co-investigate and instruct alongside my students as much as possible, the means of the learning still arrive at a point where my own voice is heard alone.

I arrive at a mark, and distribute feedback based on rubrics, course standards and report card criteria. And this isn’t to say that there isn’t still a place for this within institutionalized learning; indeed our competency and necessity as learning professionals is in many ways bound to our ability to evaluate and assess student learning.

But without obliterating the role of the teacher altogether, it is still possible to re-imagine the role of teachers in helping students direct not only the initial aspects of a project or course of study, but the means of assessment as well. To adopt the praxis of Freire’s critical consciousness is to confront the inherent difficulty of creating learning institutions where

“knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

While the teacher’s profession still involves the adjudication of academic or institutional success, the creation of a critical consciousness in schools still faces us with what Freire called “the teacher-student contradiction.” However, with the introduction of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bathkin‘s idea of polyphony, Alexander M. Sidorkin cultivates a third path between the ‘either or':

“Bakhtin’s principle of polyphony offers a radically new way of conciliation of power imbalance within mutuality of relation. According to Bakhtin, an author of the polyphonic novel creates heroes that are fully independent of their creator. The problem of authority imbalance may be misstated; it is the specific kind of monological authority that eliminates mutuality, not authority itself. The polyphonic authority creates mutuality, and only this kind of authority should be used in education.”