(Limited) Imagination, You lost me at “Spellings,” and Riley’s Agency

This week’s readings on assessment, grading, and motivation offers an interesting study of politics and education. I’ll return to this in a moment, but in short, we find Kohn suggesting and Riley demonstrating the obligation of educators to challenge standards and structures that essentially remove the “liberal” from liberal education. On the other hand, we find Liu and Noppe-Brandon arguing to liberate imagination, even collective imagination, and yet seemingly oblivious to the social conditions that allow for some imaginations to be much more expansive and possible to realize than others.

Now Liu and Noppe-Brandon aren’t necessarily wrong in their argument and possibilities for imagination. They rightly challenge the myths that constrain imagination. And yet their own imagination seems oddly constrained within a dominant social and political order. They cite the 9/11 commission for instance, that found “the government failed to imagine that terrorists might strike at America in such a stunningly symbolic, asymmetrically powerful way.” But what about the imagination that would question the very motivations of the terrorists? Of course if the dominant rhetoric is because “they are radical Islam,” or they are simply evil, one doesn’t need to have any further imagination.

Liu and Noppe-Brandon also suggest that imagination trumps material conditions. They cite, for instance, J.K. Rowling’s imagination of “a world of wizards and limit-bending acts of magic when all around her was the harsh scarcity of welfare and single motherhood.” That’s all very well, indeed, especially for those of us who were privileged with a good education, a good family, a good community, or something else. But what about those individuals who have none of these, because the once-strong community and family they had were trashed by an economic order that has gutted and sent overseas the industries and jobs once found in these communities?  It feels so utterly empty, so patronizing, asking them to “think big” in the face of this despair. Can’t we do better?

And Lombardi… well honestly, she kinda lost me with her invocation of Margaret Spellings as the source of an education goal we should really pay attention to. For Spellings, apparently, her model of the students is solely as an (neoliberal) economic entity that is positioning themselves to be competitive in a global marketplace. And while she doesn’t say it directly, this will “Make America Great Again.” Lombardi seems mostly silent on any larger purposes of education… such as, hypothetically of course, preparing a citizenry to recognize and challenge a political regime that is eroding if not more directly tearing apart and undermining democratic institutions.

Riley, however, is really getting at something. She is a political agent, as she recognizes that engineering education, just like any education, can never be removed from politics. She is challenging the structures, standards, and leadership that would reduce engineering education to a technical skill, and deprive this education of ethics, and its political nature. For instance, she makes an important distinction between policy and politics: “By shifting to the term policy instead of political, ABET is shrinking the intended domain of action for engineers. Understanding the political contexts that give rise to engineering projects, and analyzing potential political implications is an essential professional capacity.” Similarly, she challenges what seems to be a minor change in ethics, to something that has quite significant implications: “Removing the professional context in which engineering ethics is necessarily practiced and replacing it with the word “principles” evokes personal morality (as in, “Does one, or doesn’t one, have principles?”).” Riley doesn’t just take engineering education as something that can be isolated from its larger social and political contexts. It is something that is inherently immersed in these contexts, and a responsible and ethical engineering education must not just have ethics or political education as something added in as an extra course or two. They must be integrated into engineering education, throughout the curriculum.

Mindful learning: Important but critically and radically insufficient

Perhaps Ken Robinson best captures a common problem that also concerns Wesch and Langer; a dominant culture of education in the U.S. that is targeted toward conformity and compliance. He states that we hold a mechanistic model of education, treating it as an industrial process that can be improved with more data; more data from standardized tests that can accurately measure improvements in student learning. Langer’s version of this is that we’ve bought into the myths of learning that involve memorization, deference to authority, and breaking down a task into discrete elements, each of which can then be practiced and mastered. So things become second nature and automatic; mindless. This leads to a performer of some sort that is technically proficient, but who’s actions have a mechanistic quality to them. The problem Wesch sees is that the structures of higher education classrooms and courses are oblivious to the individuality of students, seeing them as soulless containers that will be filled with facts and information. No wonder, then, that students become bored and unmotivated when we educate them not to genuinely think, but rather for “low grade clerical work.”

Instead, they argue that real learning involves seeing human beings as radically diverse, each with their own questions about “who am I,” and “what am I going to do”? Robinson argues education must involve a culture of creativity, based on the concept of education as an organic system, not mechanistic. Langer argues for teaching that fosters mindfulness; “teaching in a conditional way [that] sets the stage for doubt and an awareness of how different situations call for subtle differences in what we bring to them” (16). Wesch gets to this more humanistic model of education by creating learning environments in which a student’s unique “gifts” and talents can be engaged as a source of motivation and learning. He speaks to environments that can recognize the heroic dimensions of each student that also fosters compassion and “to build a life worth living,” resources to get us through the dark night of the soul.

So I think these arguments are all quite important. My primary concern is that they are silent on the broader social and political forces that are institutionalizing industrial forms of education. To be fair, Robinson comes close to this broader problem when he invokes the mechanistic model of education, as an industrial process. He also speaks to the need for a broader curriculum, including the arts and humanities. But beyond this, the solutions they offer seem to be premised on the problem that teachers need better teaching methods. This may be true, but it leaves unchallenged the structures that have perpetuated Langer’s mindless myths, Wesch’s abysmal classrooms, and Robinson’s “culture of compliance.” What about the notion of politicizing their audience? To urge them toward at least some collective action to challenge the corporatization of higher education? Don’t we need to speak at much more loudly to the broader structures and ideologies that are creating a generation of students that are left with small answers to small questions?

The ambiguous experiential nature of Networked learning

The articles and video on networked learning and blogs this week argue that rather than a solitary process, more powerful forms of learning involve putting one’s own thoughts and perspectives in conversation with a broader community. This is really critical. I like Campbell’s notion of this when he says that learning is best understood as an “adventure in discernment and self-actualization within a deeply relational context.” These articles and the video particularly speak to the possibilities of digitally mediated networks for this type of learning – blogs, twitter, and collaborative student projects – that go beyond the aims of gaining information, finding meaning, and even critical thinking, to the possibilities of making meaning (Wesch).

This all largely fits with what I see as the conditions for powerful learning. In many ways, it seems to suggest a form of learning, and of knowledge, that is more inclusive of many non-Western cultures that understand knowledge as fundamentally relational rather than the traditional Western conception in which knowledge a universal truth that transcends all cultures and places. More specifically for this week’s articles, digitally mediated environments make it technically easy (as Wesch suggests) to realize the interesting possibilities associated with collaborative projects. I’ve often considered how students in my Global Environmental Studies class might somehow collect and organize their collective learning and knowledge gained throughout the course and make it available in a public forum. I could see the class as having a sense of accomplishment in doing this. But as Wesch rightly reminds us, while these projects are technically feasible, the actual practice of having students “connect, organize, share, collect, collaborate, and publish” sounds quite rigorous and time-consuming.

Despite the argument that these digitally mediated learning environments are a form of experiential learning that is associated with high-impact practices, it seems to me that they capture a very limited range of the human experience. It certainly is experiential in the context of digital environments. But we might question what parts of life, such as directly embodied human-human or human to non-human interactions are left out of these environments. The limitations of communication through social media are well known, when a particular Facebook comment can be read in multiple ways. In short, then, I’d argue that the experiential learning of these digitally mediated environments is valuable in today’s world, but also quite restricted and abridged.