Tag: thinking

Do big ideas need big spaces?

It’s taken me over a decade, but I finally got round to reading Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. It’s a wonderful book, seamlessly combining the author’s own experiences with those of philosophers through the ages. I was genuinely delighted to learn, for example, that Baudelaire suffered perpetual ‘itchy feet’ but never felt at home anywhere. Likewise, de Botton notes that, as he has to bring himself along on every journey, the perfection promised by photographs and descriptions are never matched by the traveller’s own reality.

All of this reminds me of the opening verse to a song by one of my favourite bands, Kings of Convience entitled Singing Softly To Me:

Things seem so much better when
They’re not part of your close surroundings
Like words in a letter sent
Amplified by the distance
Possibilities and sweeter dreams
Sights and sounds
Calling from far away
Calling from far away

The above is merely away to introduce a quotation that keeps popping into my head from de Botton’s book. The passage we’re interested here can be found on page 57:

Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts new places. Introspective reflections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape… [T]he view distracts for a time that nervous, censorious, practical part of the mind which is inclined to shut down when it notices something difficult emerging in consciousness and which runs scared of memories, longings, introspective or original ideas and prefers instead the administrative and the impersonal.

It’s no wonder people enjoy living at the tops of hills, looking down out of an aeroplane, or gazing out to sea. There’s something about a immense vista that inspires big ideas. This is the the ‘quaint correlation’ that de Botton identifies.

I’ve felt this often while travelling. It’s not so much new experiences that provoke thought (although they helps, too), but rather liminal spaces coupled with expansive views. Just as we literally zoom out of our everyday life while travelling, so we can conceptually remove ourselves from everyday worries and concerns, and focus on the bigger picture.

We should do this for ourselves, but we should also seek to do it for others. Perhaps we need to physically remove that recalcitrant child and put them somewhere with an inspiring view. Or maybe we should encourage our significant others to fly with us on an next business trip. Even changing your desktop background to one showing the magnificence and power of nature may help. Who knows?

Image CC BY-NC Aftab Uzzaman

PS If you do decide to purchase de Botton’s book, I highly recommend the original black-covered hardback. It feels ever-so-slightly luxurious.

An Unreasonable Man writes his Damn Book

The above image* was taken by Ian Usher at a co-design event just before I joined Mozilla in May 2012. It shows me in conversation with Oliver Quinlan (left) and John Bevan (right) both of whom are now at Nesta.

* Apologies for those reading this by email, you’ll need to click through!)

About Oliver’s book

Oliver’s written a book called The Thinking Teacher which I began reading this week. It’s a really clear and well thought-out approach for those who want to take a step back and think what it is that we’re actually doing when teaching others. For a limited time his book’s on special offer via Kindle for the bargain price of 99p. You should buy it.

Here’s a few things that I’ve highlighted already:

There are few other careers than teaching where everyone entering already has thirteen years of experience in the workplace.

Great observation. This is why (some) parents seem to think it’s OK to tell you how to do your job – and why edtech entrepreneurs think they know how to ‘fix education’. Of course, spending time somewhere as a ‘consumer’ is not the same as working there. It’s an imperfect analogy, but anyone who’s ever worked in a shop that they’ve also bought things from will know the difference between front and back of store.

If we are in the business of teaching and learning we have to believe that most things are learnable. All things being equal, it is possible to make significant changes in yourself and to learn. Of course, many things are situational: I am never going to be an Olympic gymnast – I am too old and my body is past it already. However, with enough time, dedication and practice I could certainly learn some gymnastic skills and improve.

I think the important insight here is that you don’t have to have the capacity to be the best in the world at something to derive use and satisfaction from getting better at it. Our world all too often tells us differently and it’s up to us as educators to push back on the holistic value of learning.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. (George Bernard Shaw)

Although I’ve heard this paraphrased before, I never knew it was a quotation from George Bernard Shaw until Oliver used it to introduce one of his sections! Such a great and widely-applicable way of looking at the world.

Great teachers are immersed in their field, not as a syllabus but as a changing, developing entity, with new areas to discover and new questions to ask.

This is one of the things I miss about teaching. My field was History, but even that was an ever-changing landscape based on discoveries (‘out there’ and my own) as well as different intepretations and ways of visualising the past. We can apply this mindset to any area, though – for example I’m trying to ask new questions about what it means to be ‘literate’ on the web.

You should definitely snap up Oliver’s book while it’s on special offer. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it! Check out his blog and Twitter account too. 🙂

About YOUR book

Great though Oliver’s book is, my main point in writing this post is to encourage you to Write Your Damn Book. That’s the name of a course I received via email over the past year from Paul Jarvis. He’s now ended it – packaging everything up and making it available as a free PDF (5.2MB)**

You should write your book this year. Seriously. People are waiting to hear your unique take on life. They want to find out more: what do you wake up every day thinking about? For those of you who blog regularly, why not select your best posts and self-publish? Curate your stuff and put it out there for people to read! Books help you reach out of your echo chamber.

You can create a book using your favourite word processing software, export it to PDF and sell it on Gumroad. Or do as I’m doing for the two books I’m writing this year and try out Leanpub as a total solution. If you want a physical copy, I’ve had success using Lulu. There’s something about having a physical copy in your hands but, either way, it’s the intentional curation that counts.

You know, I bought myself a cheap bit of wall art before Christmas. It’s ironic given the title of Oliver’s book, as it says THINK LESS. DO MORE. Some of us need to do less doing and more thinking. But for me, my motto for 2015 revolves around less thinking and more doing. What’s yours?

** If that link doesn’t work, try this one (archive.org)!

On the difference between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ (and getting from one to the other)

I went for a walk at the weekend through the woods near our house to clear my head. While avoiding slipping on the icy track I was struck by something that’s been percolating in my thoughts and conversations for a while. It’s embarrassingly simple, but important to me and hopefully worth sharing. It’s the difference between what is and what ought to be – and how we get from one to the other.

Let me explain.

Most of us believe that the way the world is differs from the way the world ought to be. This may be for many reasons – climate change, religion, how we educate young people, the government’s financial policy…. the list is endless. Consciously or unconsciously we tend to surround ourselves with people who think in a similar way to us. Our Circle of Concern grows wider.

The trouble is that all of us hold views of the world that are theory-laden. That is to say we perceive things through the lens of what ought to be. This, inevitably, leads to a situation where a person/group/state points to something as ‘evidence’ in support of their views. Meanwhile, another person/group/state points to the very same evidence in support of the exact opposite view.

A good example of this would be the current crisis with the National Health Service in the UK. Some point to this as evidence of an ideologically-motivated government de-funding public services. Others use it as an example of the shortcomings of socialised medicine. Each side ends up talking past one another as they have no common ground on which to debate. Not only do they use the same example to ‘prove’ different things, but they use the same words in different ways.

During my most recent self-imposed two month digital hiatus I became convinced that quite possibly spend the other 10 months of the year somewhat deluded. I’m almost certainly surrounding myself with people who live within what is quite a small bubble. While there are examples in history of small numbers of people effecting massive change (e.g. the Renaissance, the Bolshevik Revolution), most of the time change is s-l-o-w and comes from lots of groups of people coming into alignment. This takes time because the reasons for each group’s alignment depend on factors other than ‘evidence’.

“Good things happen slowly; bad things happen fast.” Finley Quaye

To my mind, meaningful change comes through people (and organisations) having a reason to change. They respond to ‘incentives’, loosely-defined. They change in accordance with their own version of reality, not by accepting others. Innovations, if not entirely in harmony, are seen to at least be non-threatening to their common beliefs. If it didn’t sound so mystical and new-age, I’d sum this up by saying change comes from within. There are many staging posts along the way to ‘enlightenment’.

I’m not sure whether any of this makes sense, but for me it’s going to mean a change. I’m kind of done with spending my life talking on all fronts about the way the world ought to be. I’m going to spend more of life enjoying the world as it is and being patient. Otherwise, I’m in very real danger of slowly turning into a Grumpy Old Man. And goodness knows there’s enough of those in the world.

Image CC BY-SA Luke McKernan

Things I’m Thinking About

In this month’s Wired magazine regular contributor and comic book writer Warren Ellis entitles his column ‘Five things I’m thinking about right now.’

Whilst I often share what I’ve been thinking about in my weeknotes, I thought I’d share what’s been on my mind more generally recently:

1. Standardisation

Innovation seems to be predicted upon standardisation. This can either be distributed (in the case of Open Source Software) or due to an individual or small group’s previous efforts that have led to a core of good practice.

2. The atomisation of society

Even when events are held and people are gathered together they are increasingly not interacting with others who are physically present. Whilst there is some mediated interaction via social networks most of the interactivity is, in fact, controlled by brands and organisers. These exert power and control even in seemingly-informal situations, such is the power of mediated communication.

That’s not to say that there is anything new to this, per se. It has ever been so through television, books and the power of institutions. People seem to like hierarchies.

3. The media

Whilst a lack of gatekeepers and the extremely low cost of entry allows blogs like this to reach a modest number of people it can, depending on the critical faculties and method of presentation, lead to a situation where all ‘news’ is seen as equal.

Perhaps the zenith of this is newsmap.jp, a service that constructs an uncritical visual representation of the top stories from Google News. Stories from the barrel-scraping TV show ‘X-Factor’ are juxtaposed and, depending on the time of day/week, sometimes overwhelm events of immense historical, political and economic importance.

Unfortunately, it would seem that the public broadly considered believe news to be apolitical and unbiased. One has only to witness the number of people in obviously well-paid jobs crucial to the country’s successful functioning who eschew quality news reporting for the fast-food ‘reporting’ of free newspapers.

4. Metaphors

There’s a paucity of historical metaphor, especially within the educational sphere. As I hope to point out in a forthcoming post, grasping for new metaphors and making seemingly-tenuous connections is vital for sustaining and enriching language.

I’m currently at the stage of laughing at authors whose imaginations (or perhaps basic knowledge) cannot stretch further than hunter-gatherer or industrial revolution metaphors. That laughter may well give way to frustration sooner rather than later.

The sublime and the ridiculous.

There’s a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous. Take the following in response to a retweet I made about potentially giving learners Google-like ‘20% time’ to pursue their own interests:

My initial response?

Ridiculous. That would never happen!

And then…

But perhaps as a vision statement for 2020 that could work.

Which got me thinking:

So what would we need to do to make that reality?


  • Mobile phones seen as learning equipment.
  • Availability of secure GPS-enabled school environment.
  • Learner autonomy.

So actually, an offhand statement can serve as a vision to work towards. It’s good to mix things up sometimes. :-p

Hannon: ‘Reflecting on Literacy in Education’

It’s not too often I read something which makes me continually nod in agreement, but Peter Hannon’s marvellous Reflecting on Literacy in Education (2000) certainly had me doing that!

As regular readers will know, in my Ed.D. thesis I’m looking at the concept of ‘digital literacy’ – whether it (or something like it) ‘exists’ and the implications this may have. At one point Hannon’s book made me think he actually had all the answers but, like all great works, it left me with questions and inspired me to do more thinking and research. 🙂

Hannon has a very logical and coherent style, demonstrating a clear-headed and considered approach to his subject. I’m going to string together some of his quotations so you can get a feel for what he’s arguing. He begins by explaining that differences between printed and electronic text are very real and cannot be ignored:

David Reinking (1994) has suggested that there are four fundamental differences between printed and electronic texts. First, he points out that while it has often been suggested that readers interact with text in a metaphorical sense, in the case of electronic text this can be literally true, for example in the way readers can respond to some texts by switching to other texts via ‘hot links’. Second, it is possible for electronic texts to guide or restrict the reading path according to educational or other criteria, e.g. requiring re-reading of passages if comprehension questions are not answered correctly. Third, the structure of electronic text can be radically different in ‘hypertext’… Fourth, electronic texts often employ new symbolic elements – not just illustrations but video clips and other graphics, including next ‘navigation’ aids. One can argue about whether or not these features of electronic literacy are desirable but that they have arrived and that they represent a radical shift seems beyond argument. (p.22)

Whilst I think that at this stage he’s probably jumping the gun slightly to ascribe these different elements to literacy, I do think that pointing out these four differences is important. There are those, for example, who simply believe that electronic text is simply printed text in a different format.

From here, Hannon goes on discuss, as other writers have before and after him, how literacy is dependent upon technology:

The nature of literacy in a culture is repeatedly redefined as the result of technological changes. Throughout history the introduction of new materials (stone tablets, skins, papyrus, paper) and new mark making methods (scratching, chiselling, ink, the printing press, typewriters, ball-points, laser printers, and so on) has meant both new users and new uses for written language. The consequences of such changes can be very complex – not just in terms of more literacy but different literacy (Eisenstein, 1982). Technology begins by making it easier to do familar things; then it creates opportunities to do new things. Our literacy today is consequently very different from that of  medieval England not just because the printing press is more efficient than having scribes copy manuscripts, but also because printing and other technologies have stimulated entirely new uses for written language (e.g. tax forms, novels, postcards, advertisements) unimagined by medieval society. If the past is any guide to the future, we should information technology to transform literacy rather than eradicate it. (p.22-3, my emphasis)

The point that new technologies create new literacies because they allow different methods of expression and communication I believe to be monumentally important. Such changes lead to different norms of behaviour and cultural practice. Hannon gives the example of how email has removed tedious barriers such as printing a letter, putting it in an envelope, posting it, waiting for a reply, and so on:

Eliminating these stages not only speeds up the process of writing letters but also, like earlier technological developments in literacy, changes the uses for written language. It encourages a casual, immediate style of communication and it becomes possible, for example, to sustain a research collaboration with people thousands of miles away. (p.24)

Writing in 2000, Hannon was able to set up somewhat of a ‘straw man’ – the opponent who claims that because everyone has not yet got a computer with Internet access, teaching such literacy skills are pointless. Hannon, in a move which would delight any enlightened reader of the edublogosphere and believer in ‘School 2.0’, writes:

All our literacy students will end up using written language tomorrow in ways very different from those we can teach them today. This applies… much more strongly to younger students and children who, if development proceeds in the next fifty years as it has in the past fifty, will use written language in ways which we cannot even imagine. What matters in this context is that we teach what is important about written language – those essentials which can be expected to endure in future contexts. These could include the ideas that the value of written language depends on what we want to do with it, that all texts can be read critically, that there are many genres, that literacy has a potential for liberation, that writing can aid thinking, that reading can be enjoyable, that public writing is for readers not writers, and so on.

This is almost a ‘meta-literacy’ – an ability to reflect upon literacy not as a state, but as a continual socio-cultural construct.

Hannon then turns his attention upon those who espouse, almost unthinkingly, a ‘unitary’ view of literacy. He gives examples, all of which assume that literacy is a skill, that there is an ‘it’ of literacy to which we can refer. Opposed to this, Hannon investigates the claims of thinkers who put forward a ‘pluralist’ view of literacy. He quotes Lankshear (1987:58):

There is no single, unitary referent for ‘literacy’. Literacy is not the name for a finite technology, set  of skills, or any other ‘thing’. We should recognise, rather, that there are many specific literacies, each comprising an identifiable set of socially constructed practices based upon print and organised around beliefs about how the skills of reading and writing may or, perhaps, should be used. (p.32)

Hannon also quotes Gee (1996:46) who is concerned about the context of literacy:

[T]he traditional view of literacy as the ability to read and write rips literacy out of its sociocultural contexts and treats it as an asocial cognitive skill with little or nothing to do with human relationships. It cloaks literacy’s connections to power, to social identity, and to ideologies, often in the service of privileging certain types of literacies and certain types of people. (p.34)

But does the pluralist conception of literacy lead to problems. What type of literacy should be taught at school. If they are all so very different from one another, should we be calling them ‘literacies’ at all. Hannon brings in Wittgenstein’s famous difficulty (1953: sections 66,67) in defining what a ‘game’ is in support of the pluralist argument:

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances’ for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc.overlap and criss-cross in the same way. And I shall say ‘games’ form a family. (p.36)

Just as Wittgenstein found nothing concrete in common between the different activities we call ‘games’ – yet still found a way to put them into the same category – so Hannon wants to do with literacies. He imagines them being set out on a family tree, with some more closely related than others. It’s an interesting concept.

He then, however, goes and muddies the water somewhat and, for me, spoils his argument slightly, by stating that we don’t talk of ‘musics’ even though there are many and varied styles. He also reduces theorists’ conceptions of literacy into two broad camps. He believes that there are those who believe literacy to be a skill and come from a psychological point of view, and those who believe it to be a social practice, who come from a sociological background.

Hannon concludes the chapter by offering a rapprochement between the two by quoting with approval Delgado-Gaitan (1990:29):

The ability to interpret linguistic and graphic symbols associated with texts requires one type of ability. Literacy is a sociocultural process, and it follows that another literate ability has to do with the sociocultural knowledge and cognitive skills that are necessary for the child and the family to interpret text. (p.38).

When I first read this, I thought it was a somewhat of a cop-out, a way of sitting on the fence. However, if we unpick it slightly, we end up with:

1. To decode linguistic symbols is an ability.

2. To decode graphic symbols is an ability.

3. Literacy is dependent upon the ability to decode symbols using the technologies of a relevant culture and context..

Ergo = To decode symbols using technology is a literacy dependent upon sociocultural factors.

I’m still thinking about this. At the moment I’m thinking it’s akin to genius as it cuts through a lot of the problems in defining literacy. On the other hand, I’ve a nagging  suspicion at the back of my mind that it may be using a lot of words to say something which maybe isn’t worth saying.

Hmmm…. :-p

The problem(s) of 21st century literacy/ies

I’d really appreciate it if you tagged anything related to this post or topic literacyconversation.  It will help me (and others) collate ideas and conversations. Thanks! 🙂

As most people reading this will already know, I’m studying towards an Ed.D. at the moment. My (tentative) thesis title is What does it mean to be ‘educated’ and ‘digitally literate’? The impact of ICT and the knowledge society upon education in the 21st century.. You can find my thesis proposal here and bookmarks related to my studies here. My current thinking is that I’m just going to focus on the concept of what ‘literacy’ means in the 21st century as it’s a huge and confused (confusing?) field.

Because of my studies and deep interest in this field, I was delighted to come across Ben Grey’s blog post entitled 21st Century Confusion, which he followed up with 21st Century Clarification. Ben’s an eloquent and nuanced writer, so I suggest you go and read what he has to say before continuing with this blog post. 😀

The above blog posts sparked a great conversation on Twitter, of which I was part. The hugely influential Will Richardson suggested, as we were getting a little frustrated with being limited to 140 characters, that we have a live session via Elluminate the following day. You can find a link to the archived session here.

My own thoughts about that skillset/mindset/ability range we’re trying to quantify and describe by using terms such as ‘digital’ or ’21st century’ literacy are still a little jumbled. I’ve read, and am continuing to read a lot on the subject (and related areas), notes on which you can find on my wiki.

For now, though, here’s some highlights:

1. Literacies as ‘umbrella terms’

Many of the literacies or ‘competencies’ that are being put forward are described in ways that suggest they incorporate other literacies. Take for instance, this definition of ‘information competence’ (Work Group…, 1995):

Information competence is the fusing or the integration of library literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, technological literacy, ethics, critical thinking, and communication skills.

And again (Doyle, 1994)

In the last decade a variety of “literacies” have been proposed, including cultural, computer, scientific, technical, global and mathematical. All of these literacies focus on a compartmentalized aspect of literacy. Information literacy, on the other hand, is an inclusive term. Through information literacy, the other literacies can be achieved (Breivik, 1991). In attaining information literacy, students gain proficiency in inquiry as they learn to interpret and use information (Kuhlthau, 1987).

Ryan Bretag’s post, The Great Literacy Debate, introduced me to a word to describe this that I hadn’t come across before – deictic. This means that ‘literacy’ tends to be used in a way heavily dependent upon context. I couldn’t agree more!

2. Literacies defined too broadly or narrowly

As referenced above, if a type of literacy being put forward by an individual is defined too broadly, it becomes an umbrella term and of little practical use. Initially, I liked Judi Epcke’s comment that she’d heard Jason Ohler define literacy as “consuming and producing the media forms of the day”. But this began to trouble me. Aren’t consuming and producing different skills? And if they’re skills, is ‘literacy’ involved?

But then, defined narrowly, it’s easy to come up with counter-examples. For instance, if we define 21st Century Literacy in relation to technology, it begs the question ‘does literacy in the 21st century relate to printed matter at all‘. The answer, of course, would have to be yes, it does.

3. Do we need new definitions?

I share the despair of Gunther Kress (2003, quoted in Eyman) when he sees new forms of ‘literacy’ popping up all over the place:

…literacy is the term to use when we make messages using letters as the means of recording that message….my approach leaves us with the problem of finding new terms for the uses of the different resources: not therefore “visual literacy” for the use of image; not “gestural literacy” for the use of gesture; and also not musical “literacy” or “soundtrack literacy” for the use of sound other than speech; and so on.

Semantics are important. Whilst we can’t keep using outdated words that link to conceptual anachronism (e.g. ‘horseless carriage’) we must be on our guard against supposed ‘literacies’ becoming more metaphorical than descriptive.

Concluding thoughts

One educator left the Elluminate discussion on 21st Century Literacies before had really got going. He mentioned that he was in favour of deeds rather than words. I can see what he means, although as I have already stated, semantics are important.

But there comes a point where one has to draw a line. In my thesis, I’m using a modified version of the Pragmatic method, as spelled out by William James (1995:82)thus,

To ‘agree‘ in the widest sense with a reality, can only mean to be guided either straight up to it or into its surroundings, or to be put into such working touch with it as to handle either it or something connected with it better than if we disagreed… Any idea that helps us to deal, whether practically or intellectually, with either the reality or its belongings, that doesn’t entangle our progress in frustrations, that fits, in fact, and adapts our life to the reality’s whole setting, will agree sufficiently to meet the requirement/ It will hold true of that reality.

Thus names are just as ‘true’ or ‘false’ as definite mental pictures are. They set up similar verification-processes, and lead to fully equivalent practical results.

I’m looking for a definition that doesn’t ‘entangle my progress in frustration’. I’m yet to find it, but I’ll keep on looking! :-p


  • Doyle, C.S. (1994) Information literacy in an information society: A Concept for the Information Age, DIANE Publishing
  • Eyman, D., Digital Literac(ies), Digital Discourses, and Communities of Practice: Literacy Practices in Virtual Environments (Cultural Practices of Literacy Study, Working Paper #12, no date)
  • James, W. Pragmatism (Dover Thrift Editions, 1995)
  • Work Group on Information Competence, Commission on Learning Resources and Instructional Technology (1995), quoted by Spitzer, K.L., et al. Information Literacy: essential skills for the information age, 1998, p.25