v0.1 of some guidance I’m putting together.
500 words about something tediously simple.
A couple of years ago, as part of my research into my doctoral thesis, I commented on how Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of ‘liquid modernity’ captured succinctly the changing nature of knowledge in our society. Serendipitously, I came across a recent interview with Bauman via a tweet from Terry Wassall, ostensibly a colleague of his at the University of Leeds.
It’s a shame (and ironic given some of Bauman’s comments towards the end of the interview) that Theory, Culture & Society isn’t open access. Quotations will have to suffice, such as this one (my emphasis):
I did not and do not think of the solidity-liquidity conundrum as a dichotomy; I view those two conditions as a couple locked, inseperably, in a dialectical bond… After all, it was the quest for the solidity of things and states that most of the time triggered, kpt in motion and guided those things’ and states’ liquiefaction; liquidity was not an adversary, but an effect of that quest for solidity, having no other parenthood, even when (or if) the parent would deny the legitimacy of the offspring. in turn, it was the formless of the oozing/leaking/flowing liquid that prompted the efforts of cooling/damping/moulding. If there is something to permit the distinction between ‘solid’ and ‘liquid’ phases of modernity (that is, arranging them in an order of succession), it is the change in both the manifest and latent purpose behind the effort.
I think what Bauman is getting at here is that it very much depends on your worldview and context as to whether you see liquidity or solidity as desirable. The fact that people differ in similar ways over time (e.g. one group arguing for the status quo, one against) leads to the ‘dialectical bond’.
Originally, solids were melted not because of a distaste for solidity, but because of dissatisfaction with the degree of solidity of the extant/inherited solids: purely and simply, the bequeathed solids were foud to be not solid enough (insufficiently resistant/immunized to change) by the standards of the order-obsessed and compulsively order-building modern powers.
To cut a long story short: if in its ‘solid’ phase the heart of modernity was in controlling/fixing the future, the ‘liquid’ phase’s prime concern is with the avoidance of mortgaging it and in any otther way pre-empting the use of as yet undisclosed, unknown and unknowable opportunities the future is sure to bring.
Essentially, then, the left and the right of the political spectrum is a continuum of metaphorical viscosity. The conservative right tends towards solidity and the status quo, whilst the left looks towards liquidity and, in the words of Bauman, to avoid ‘mortgaging’ the future for the sake of the present.
As an educator, it’s difficult not to apply Bauman’s analysis to our current problems with the education system. As a citizen of the western world, it’s even harder not to apply his analysis to the crisis of Capitalism…
Image CC BY-NC whisperwolf
I spent last week in New York at the Mobility Shifts conference. No, I wasn’t there on JISC business; I took some annual leave and got there thanks to the generosity of Scott McLeod, Director of CASTLE. In return, Scott gets my undying gratitude and the following blog posts:
- Introducing Doug Belshaw, blogging at #MobilityShifts
- Day 1 – Wikipedia and Formal Education
- Day 2 – Privacy, Surveillance and the Academic Commons
- Day 3 – Hacking, Playfulness and Free Universities
- Day 4 – Open Access, Mobile Devices and Connected Learning
- Day 5 – Emerging Learning Environments, Peer to Peer grading and an Interview with Cathy Davidson
- #MobilityShifts – 5 key trends for the future of education
I’d usually put this on my conference blog but, well, I spent longer than usual crafting these posts and they constitute a body of work that (albeit predicated on the thoughts of others) I think you should go and read.
Only got time to read one of these posts? Try Day 5 featuring my interview with Cathy Davidson! 🙂
I re-read Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting last week. It’s not a straightforward read but it’s certainly a challenging and rewarding one. Kundera describes it as “a novel in the form of variations” and “like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme”.
The future is an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and it’s countenance is irritating, repellant, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past. We fight for access to the labs where we can retouch photos and rewrite biographies and history. (p.30-31)
“You begin to liquidate a people,” Hübl said, “by taking away it’s memory. You destroy it’s books, it’s culture, it’s history. And then others write other books for it, give another culture to it, invent another history for it. Then the people slowly begins to forget what it is and what it was. The world at large forgets it still faster.” (p.218)
History is a series of ephemeral changes, while eternal values are immutable, perpetuated outside history, and have no need of memory. (p.257)
During the last two hundred years the blackbird has abandoned the woods to become a city bird. First in Great Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, then several decades later in Paris and the Ruhr Valley. Throughout the nineteenth century it conquered the cities of Europe one after another. It settled in Vienna and Prague around 1900, then spread eatward to Budapest, Belgrade, Istanbul.
From the planet’s point of view, the blackbird’s invasion of the human world is certainly more important than the Spanish invasion of South America or the return to Palestine of the Jews. A shift in the relationship among the various kinds of creation (fish, birds, humans, plants) is a shift of a higher order than changes in relations among various groups of the same kind. Whether Celts or Slavs inhabit Bohemia, whether Romanians or Russians conquer Bessarabia, is more or less the same to the earth. But when the blackbird betrayed nature to follow humans into their artificial, unnatural world, something changed in the organic structure of the planet.” (p.267-8)
This idea of one of the most important changes from our planet’s point of view taking place without us noticing really made me sit up and think. But it was this last quotation which was the clincher for me writing this post:
The best possible progressive ideas are those that include a strong enough dose of provocation to make it’s supporters feel proud of being original, but at the same time attract so many adherents that the risk of being an isolated exception is immediately averted by the noisy approval of a triumphant crowd.” (p.273)
In other words, if you want to change things for the better and achieve improved user outcomes, you need to build a constituency. You need to make an idea powerful enough that people are attracted into its orbit.
The time between finishing your degree and graduating.
The duration of an usual and lengthy method of transport.
The time between just before mother and baby come home for the first time.
These are all examples of liminality, “a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective state, conscious or unconscious, of being on the “threshold” of or between two different existential planes.” Liminal spaces tend to promote both reflection and planning and I believe them to be profoundly important.
Spare capacity is exactly what you’d expect it to be: the ability of an individual or organization to do something due to ‘slack’ in schedules, workflows or projects. It’s unallocated time associated with an ability to make something happen.
Both of these are under attack. Liminal states can be all-too-easy to break by accessing virtual spaces, whilst spare capacity is often filled up with needless stuff by individuals and organizations alike.
Significant birthdays and new arrivals both force you to reflect on our lives; I’ve certainly inhabited a liminal space most of this past week. I’ve also been thinking recently about my own spare capacity (‘cognitive surplus‘?), something I never had the luxury of even considering whilst teaching.
There’s a lot of change that I can and should effect in the world. And seeking out liminal spaces and spare capacity are two ways I (and we all) can do just that.
Image CC BY-NC Pulpolox !!!
This morning I dropped my son off at school nursery and then went for a run. As I ran past our local church I noticed there being more cars there than usual. This got me thinking about fluctuating church attendance over the last few hundred years and how, in times of crisis, people tend to start attending again.
When people who don’t usually attend church return – at times of crisis or for the major festivals like Christmas, Easter and Harvest Festival – they expect things to be the same. It’s much the same with parents and schools. Apart from dropping their children off when they’re younger, the only times they enter schools are for parents’ evening and school events. Parents expect schools to be much the same as when they went themselves.
People expect institutions with which they don’t engage much to remain the same.
So what are schools, churches and other institutions to do who face this problem? Wait until people engage with them to gain a mandate to change and stay relevant? Of course not, that would create a vicious circle.
What’s needed is strong leadership. A vision: a clear, decisive focus on what’s important. In our increasingly atomised society it takes a huge effort to create an engaged community. This is especially true in schools who, according to a figure I heard at the Scottish Learning Festival this week, have had to deal with 700 new initiatives since the dawn of the National Curriculum.
Parental engagement is like confidence. You can’t wait for it to happen; you have to make a decision and decide to change. It’s takes effort, but it’s got to be worth it in the long run!
ChangeThis is a website dedicated to manifestos written by people pasionate about changing something. I’ve just had a proposal accepted entitled, Why ‘digital literacy’ is central to 21st century education. I’d like you to vote for the proposal so I can write the full manifesto, please!
I had Monday and Tuesday this week off school. I had a cold, felt lousy, and felt my recently-self-diagnosed SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) kicking in. Just as I didn’t believe that children were born with personalities before we had Ben, I used to think that ‘disorders’ were ways to label avoidable abnormal behaviours. I don’t think that any more. 😮
In schools and businesses we pay very little attention to the fact that it is human beings involved in these institutions and who, as such, fluctuate, change, and are affected by external factors. As I’ve blogged about before, one disorder I suffer from is migraines. There’s no way that those who don’t suffer from these can know what they’re like, of the way fluorescent lighting affects the way I see and think sometimes, and the ‘fuzziness’ associated with it. Likewise, those who don’t suffer from something I’m labelling SAD for convenience can understand what it’s like for a usually energetic and enthusiastic person to completely lack all motivation. 🙁
The stimulus for this post came from reading Dan Meyer’s blog post Wherever You Can Find It, signposted on Twitter by Darren Draper, who stated, “I’m telling you: 5 years ago, I was @ddmeyer. Absolutely no doubt about it” – linking to this comment in particular. The first part of it reads:
And maybe that kind of leadership is enough to staunch some of this new teacher blood, but it isn’t enough to staunch mine.
Because I came here to do a job, just a job. I wasn’t “called” here but I knew that job was essential to the future and polity of our country. That job was too hard. I failed. Then I learned. Then I started blogging. I torched a lot of terrible personality defects on the altar of better teaching. I sacrificed a lot of time to improve. Now I’m good at this job.
How many other professions would tie that kind of growth to zero extrinsic (and particularly financial) reward?
There is no promotion. There is no pay raise. There is no bonus. And lately, most obviously, there is nothing to compensate me for the time I spend elevating student achievement, time which other teachers spend throwing frisbees on the beaches of Santa Cruz with their wives.
As I commented on Dan’s blog, I’ve suffered burnout, depression and the effect it can have on the relationships with those around you whom you love. My advice to Dan and to all young teachers working all hours for the benefit of students is to beware of the Vortex of Uncompetence. It goes a little something like this:
If you can’t see the above clearly (it’s meant to be a little trippy), then here’s the stages:
- Identify deficiency – you feel as a teacher that there’s something not right with the system.
- Discover community – either in school, socially or online, you realise you’re not the only one to feel this way.
- Attempt to remedy situation – you decide to do something about it, working hard to make your lessons and the learning experiences of students, different.
- Face barriers – there are problems regarding student behaviour, assessment schemes, line manager comments, or you’ve not got enough time to do what you want to do.
- Work at solutions – you work harder and harder, trying to convince others, meanwhile attempting to be radically different.
- More barriers – becoming almost zealot-like, you meet a lot of resistance.
- BURNOUT – unable to take on the might of the educational system, your physical and/or mental health suffers, along with relationships with people who matter to you.
Some may wonder why I’ve included the ‘discovering community’ part in step two. It’s a case of wanting to be seen to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’. When you’ve committed to something, staked out your claim as a believer, you’ve got to act in a way that’s befitting. Sometimes, this can engender more problems than if you’d slowly tried chipping away at things over time – evolution, not revolution.
Why Vortex of Uncompetence? It’s a tongue-in-cheek term I’ve made up, probably after reading too much Dilbert. Teachers who go down this road are not incompetent – far from it. But then, they’re not competent in the ways expected for traditional teachers. They’re uncompetent: they refuse to be held to the standards set by the majority view in education. It’s easy to get sucked into the vortex and, as a husband and father I can’t afford to be pulled into it again. I’m trying to position myself as a catalyst for fast-paced evolution. Almost everyone resists revolution – the status quo is just too comfortable… :-p
Do YOU recognise yourself or anyone else entering the Vortex of Uncompetence?
(the Vortex of Uncompetence is based on an original image by ClintJCL @ Flickr)
I am of the opinion that there are various pressures, not all currently identified (at least by me), on our conception of knowledge to change. Here are some obvious ones:
- The demands of business and the need for new skills in the workplace (but what is driving organizational change?)
- The pressure on teachers and schools by learners who have different skillsets, interests and motivations than previous generations (but where do these come from – the media?)
- The ‘flattening world’ due to new technologies?