Against Grand Narratives

I'm probably the only one of the FLNW crew who has not yet posted anything on The Future of Learning in a Networked World conference that is currently taking place in New Zealand. So, here it is. We started on Monday, September 18th in Dunedin where we spent quite a bit of time engaging with educators at the Otago Polytechnic and the University of Otago. Then, we flew to Christchurch for a one-day session at the Christchurch College of Education, and are currently discussing online communities, virtual worlds, and organizational change at NorthTec in Whangarei, just north of Auckland. In short, we're having a great time discussing all aspects of learning in a networked world.

One of the most appealing and meaningful aspects of the conference is its focus on individuals. Wherever we travel, we are given opportunities to discuss the new nature of learning with teachers, teacher educators, administrators, and e-learning enthusiasts - with people who genuinely care about learning and want to make a difference. The conference also gives all of us an opportunity to learn from each other. I have already spoken to Jo about using Second Life in elementary education, to Sean and Steven about developing online communities of practice, to Barbara about setting up online class projects with her students in Sao Paulo, and to Teemu about meaningful applications of LeMill (which I will address in a separate post upon my return to Toronto). I am very fortunate to be surrounded by so much talent.

The people I travel with and all the individuals that we meet remind me that, as educators, we don't often focus on meaningful conversations and tend to privilege plot over characterization - we focus on grand narratives and not specific human stories. For the first few years of my teaching career my methodology was based on the notion that, whatever the topic, the students must learn as much as possible about its causes and its development. When we talked about World War II, for example, I never focused on Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, Stalin, or Chamberlain. In short, I never focused on fascinating individuals who could have made the study of history interesting. Instead, we looked at timelines and causes. When we studied Elizabethan drama, I focused on its principal characteristics and key playwrights. I spent hours focusing on the Globe Theatre and, while I used the biographies of Shakespeare and Marlowe, we never discussed these figures as people, as individuals who had colourful lives and interesting personalities. Instead, we discussed them only as literary figures - people of genius whose work is highly complex and meant to be carefully analyzed. Teaching complex historical issues was always reduced to recounting key events. In my search for grand narratives, I forgot about interesting individuals whose lives enrich these narratives. While we had many class discussions, they never helped my students enter the complex world of our curriculum. Instead, the students observed and analyzed from a distance. Learning was reduced to memorizing a collection of static objects, it was not a conversation that the students could enter as participants.

The conversations that are happening here in New Zealand remind me that this tendency to favour the plot is very limiting in the classroom setting and in life in general. Whenever I talk to educators about learning in a networked world, I am reminded of the words of Donald Graves who so accurately captures our tendency to focus on facts and figures, on timelines and key events:

We sit in our living rooms, clicking the television remote control as we search for an engaging story. Inside the classroom, reading discussions center on recounting events. In history or social studies, we focus on the chronology of the causes of the Civil War. We're missing the focus on people and their wants - the desires and conflicts that create the plots and cause the wars. Bypass the scientists and their decision-making processes and we don't learn how scientists think. Worse, we bypass students when we fail to focus on the people who can teach them (Graves, 2000).

When he refers to "people who can teach them," Graves of course means people who made history and whose lives offer an insightful glimpse into complex events of our collective past. In other words, Graves suggests that we move away from grand narratives and offer our students meaningful points of entry. Grand narratives are not very effective in education because they alienate learners. They are meant to be admired and analyzed and will always remain distant artifacts. What we need to do instead is help learners navigate their own paths through learning and that can best be accomplished by giving them opportunities to find meaningful points of entry. A history lesson on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example, could begin by discussing this picture. A lesson on democracy could begin with a class discussion of this picture. These are valuable and meaningful points of entry that emphasize the richness and complexity of human lives. Unlike timelines and key events, they do not prevent our students from tapping into the world where their lives can meaningfully intersect with the lives of interesting people.

I consider myself very fortunate to be here in New Zealand to participate in the FLNW Conference because I am reminded every day that I am here to engage with individuals who are passionate about their work and who have been inspiring me ever since I landed in Dunedin on Monday morning. Some might argue that our travels around New Zealand amount to a grand narrative, that we are privileging plot over characterization. The truth is that everyone we meet, everyone we talk to, becomes absorbed into the dynamic of a community of learners where we can address individual stories and challenges, where we can have discussions and move away from presenting carefully prepared PowerPoint presentations.

Case in point: (This was written at the Otago Museum on Wednesday, September 20).

Barbara, Rose, Steven, Jo, Teemu, Sean, Arti, Leigh and I are now sitting in the cafe at the Otago Museum conversing about education, learning, professional development, and the nature of this conference. There are no carefully prepared speeches, there are no definitive, conclusive statements about any of these topics. Instead, the ideas emerge and float around. We pull them into our discussions, we consider them, we share ideas, and the result, while certainly intangible, is exceptionally inspiring. We are learning. We are immersed in informal yet highly empowering discussions. When I return to Canada, I will not be able to show my colleagues any tangible outcomes of this conference. I will not have a book of conference proceedings. Instead, I will arrive back in Canada convinced that the best way to develop as a professional and a person is to surround myself with people who care and who are passionate about education.

Thanks, Leigh, for organizing this conference and giving us time to talk.