metal plates bolted together curving like a leaf down toward a brick-red wall

Bit, Block, Sketch, Build: Bricolage and Educator Learning

 Published on April 24, 2018 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris /  “Patchwork buidling” by darwin Bell; CC BY-NC 2.0 /  1

Critical Digital Pedagogy

This article is part of a series working to define Critical Digital Pedagogy. The goal is to map (or represent) the terrain of the field, while considering questions of authority, roles, and agency. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

Maybe this reads as familiar: A bit of information shorn of its original context, a fleeting reference to that thing you read last month, some multimodal trace; all untethered, these fragments await a generative assembling.

A passage: From Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Teargas, in her fifth chapter about “Technology and People,” she observes:

“Digital technologies of connectivity affect how we experience space and time; they alter the architecture of the world — connecting people who are not physically near, preserving words and pictures that would otherwise have been ephemeral and lost to time. Digital technologies are the most recent historical versions of communication and information technologies that create these important changes in the architecture of the world.” (p. 122)

An article: On the heels of a new semester and year, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently published The Hope and Hype of the Academic Innovation Center. The article’s thesis is a question: “Can you engineer innovation?” One possible answer appears in the form of Michigan State University’s Hub for Learning in Innovation and Technology, a center operating at the intersection of interdisciplinary collaboration, educational technology, and pedagogical innovation. MSU’s “hub” isn’t alone; indeed, the article cites a 2015 report about the growth of academic innovation centers at various types of higher education institutions. My own campus has earnestly embraced this trend, too. Over the past few years, the University of Colorado Denver has become home to both Inworks and the Comcast Media and Technology Center.

A moment: During last summer’s Digital Pedagogy Lab at the University of Mary Washington, Laura Gogia visited the Networked Learning and Intercultural Collaboration track, facilitated by Kate Bowles and Maha Bali. Laura’s afternoon workshop, Connection and Digital Architecture, shared insight about digital architecture supporting connections — some serendipitous, others cultivated, all intentional. Her workshop helped us participating educators explore the question: “How can we capitalize on digital architecture to help students grow their connective fluency, their capacity for thinking in, building, and seeing connections?” Digital architecture, according to Laura, is comprised of “building blocks,” like hyperlinks, images, hashtags, mentions, and comments, all of which shape both the aesthetic and networked qualities of (digital) learning.

And a tweet:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Technology and connectivity is changing the architecture of the world. Universities are investing to engineer innovation. And digital architecture is a connective fluency.

Building and Learning

I am an educational bricoleur, a pedagogical journeyman. It is both my craft and my labor to build meaningful learning. As an educator in both K-12 and higher education contexts, I strive and have struggled to connect facets of formal education — that is, learning I have helped create for the purposes of schooling — with the variegated interests, goals, and lives of my students. And at a time when the inequalities of educational systems appear more intentional than accidental, is it not my responsibility to build toward more equitable student learning opportunities and experiences? At a time of institutionalized disparity in information accessibility, is it not crucial that I build digital and critical learning environments as “a site of intellectual and moral agency?” And at a time when educator agency may be co-opted by the Siren song of neoliberal reform, is it not necessary that social and technical supports buttress my “wakeful” engagement with varied publics?

In surveying linkages between building and learning, my effort is not intended to inspire trite platitudes about scale (“bigger is better!”) or heedless progress (“onward and upward!”). Rather, I am interested in building new forms of educator learning. As a process both intentional and constructive, I am concerned about the ways in which new forms of educator learning do, or do not, center commitments to educational equity. And I am also concerned with the extent to which educator learning is, or is not, responsive to everyday institutional relationships. In other words, how might new designs for educator learning connect to — and guide — more equitable learning futures? And how might new forms of educator learning connect to — and encourage — systemic change? These questions have accompanied my labors as an educator. Accordingly, I work with architecture and architecting as useful language and analogy to discuss the complexity of building educator learning.

First, I am encouraged by the many educators who, writing in this journal, have regularly addressed the importance of building new forms of learning with their students. What are they architecting? Referred to with terms like co-design and collaboration, these efforts evidence a range of pedagogical commitments that showcase building for learning as a humane, critical, and sustaining endeavor. When I build learning, do I trust like Hiie Saumaa and Michael Cennamo, who write about how to “build a space where the presence of everyone — teacher, technologist, and student — would be known, felt, and respected”? When I build learning, do I welcome divergence and connectedness like Naomi Barnes, who envisions a future of learning in which educators who “build webs of knowledge are the ones who will inspire generations of knowledge weavers, not just knowledge collectors”? And when I build learning, do I converse and joke like Michelle Reale, whose approach to “hands-off” teaching helps students “begin to see themselves think in the classroom and begin to build the muscle that critical thinking calls for”?

Maybe this, then, also reads as familiar: Every course, every semester, and every workshop is a mutable foundation upon which to build for empathy rather than efficiency, to architect relations of curiosity and variance rather than similarity and control.

Second, I am aware that building new forms of learning — and whether with students or with educators — necessitates a keen understanding of space. As an analogy, consider how architecture may be inviting and more open, or how buildings may be perceived and also experienced as closed and inaccessible. Certain architectures, and either by design or neglect, may also be differentially accessible whether on account of interest, ability, or power. Examples from the everyday built environment — a public library, a gated neighborhood, walkways as shortcuts — translate well to insight about the spatial qualities of (digital) learning environments.

The affordances and limitations of environments like MOOCs, for instance, persist as spaces designed to encourage open participation despite struggles to retain social connectedness over time. As educators, we might recognize, and rightfully critique, closed and more private architectures, like the Learning Management System which has been described as a walled garden. Furthermore, with power both an inherited and an intentional feature of all learning environments, some designers and scholars have strongly advocated open philosophies and open pedagogies to configure more participatory educational landscapes.

Constructing learning invariably raises questions about the social, political, technical, and historical qualities of space. As we educators imagine, encounter, and help build new learning architectures, multifaceted spatialities require us to ask: How is this new form of learning responsive to surrounding contexts? How do my contributions to this new learning architecture reify or contest convention?

As critical educators, we cannot build learning as if it is just another brick in the wall. As creative educators, we cannot build learning that eschews an aesthetics of openness and wonder. I am interested in architecting with educators-as-co-designers to engender new professional learning configurations, to shape new forms of learning that are not impulsive responses to decontextual mandate, but rather are sincere reflections of local interest. Educator professional learning — as dictated by authority rather than as engendered by shared curiosity, and as piecemeal rather than as connected — should not be prefabricated. Such designs suggest progressions of educator learning are to be manufactured like uniform bricks in a textureless, impenetrable wall. As critical and creative educators, we don’t need such thought control. Rather, I believe it is imperative that we educators construct with generative building blocks that support new forms of educator learning.

The building of equitable, agentic, and open learning is neither an insignificant nor effortless social accomplishment. Earlier, I observed that my experience as a pedagogical journeyman has been situated in a historical moment characterized by systemic inequity as well as by disparities associated with who can access, construct, and contest knowledge. Accordingly, I contend that a responsive builder of learning (whether of a course or digital environment) tinker only after listening to — and adjusting plans because of — dissonant voices.

There is value in recognizing the limitations of personal experience (whether with tools or methods), and in embracing the unknown and expansive possibilities of collective agency. As a critically engaged builder of learning, I have refined designs because the constraints of context or the priorities of partners reveal unintended consequences. Like acts of pedagogy, the craft of building meaningful learning is inherently political. With learning environments and opportunities imbued with ideology, the labor of building meaningful learning must be reflective, both self-aware and self-critical, and also iterative.

Building Blocks

I suggest that critical and creative educators build with ignorance, through partnership, amidst openness, and across boundaries. If the labor of education is a process of building, and if we educators excel at bricolage, then perhaps the following proposed architecture for educator learning may help to scaffold more accessible, divergent, and equitable forms of education.

These four commitments for architecting educator learning need not be read as a fixed blueprint dictating precise construction. Rather, these architectural features are akin to design principles, such as those Jesse Stommel once listed when designing a digital humanities program. Like LEGO blocks, these multiple pieces can be fit together in varied arrangements that invite change over time. As with playful building, these pieces need not be sequenced in a linear progression toward a known and inflexible outcome. In describing each commitment, I mention related educator learning initiatives that are rooted in an unwavering concern for educational equity and are also pragmatically responsive to the realities of working with and through formal institutions. Though brief, all of the highlighted efforts recognize the power of digital technologies and connectivities to change the social and technical architectures of the world; in other words, the noted designs are architected attempts to change teaching and learning.

1. Ignorance.

Tradition and institution readily frame educators as experts; how, then, might educators embrace that which they do not know? Ignorance, according to the biologist Stuart Firestein, is more interesting than knowledge. In his book Ignorance: How it Drives Science, Firestein argues that it is important to eschew answers in favor of generative “knowledgeable ignorance, perceptive ignorance, and insightful ignorance.” Firestein’s thesis, in essence, is a call to cultivate high-quality ignorance through strategies like connectedness, curiosity, and nuanced questioning. While Firestein is primarily concerned with fostering scientific discovery and a more scientifically literate public, his advocacy for “having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt” suggests, to me, that educators can also appreciate the unexpected and recognize their own biases and limits. Embracing ignorance is not a license for negligence in learning design; rather, I suggest cultivating high-quality ignorance through discerning curiosity is a novel and refreshing stance from which to architect educator learning.

Here’s an example. The ThinqStudio initiative at my institution seeks to advance critical digital pedagogy. It began with little more than a goofy name, volumes of high quality ignorance about institutional change, and a desire to embrace a powerful unknown: How might a grassroots effort explore the praxis of critical digital pedagogy at a self-described urban research university? Despite all my ThinqStudio collaborators and I did not know — including our next steps, our governance and partnership needs, and how to meaningfully engage with both faculty and adjuncts — we have gathered around shared commitments to instructional innovation, peer-driven professional development, new forms of impactful scholarship, and service to our students.

2. Partnership.

New architectures for educator learning emerge through partnership. Of course, idealized visions of partnering (“let’s go play together!”) are just that; simplified outlines that lack nuance revealed when initiating and maintaining partnership. When we architect learning, how do multiple partners come to share common language and expectation, particularly as new collaborators join and as goals mature? How is conflict managed as productive struggle? And how do partners become stakeholders? Elsewhere, I have written about some promising (and playful) strategies for establishing new learning partnerships, such as naming expansive learning possibilities, establishing collaborative presence, attending to trust, and working with the ambiguity of hybrid social and cultural arrangements. Partnering welcomes newcomers, ambiguity, conflict, and changing roles — all of which are dynamic over time. Embracing the complexity of partnership is indispensable when architecting educator learning.

One example of multifaceted and multi-stakeholder partnership can be seen in a project I’ve helped to coordinate over the past few years called the Marginal Syllabus. The Marginal Syllabus convenes and sustains conversations with educators about equity in education via open and collaborative web annotation. Our initial commitment to author partnerships has grown to include active partnering with both publishers of academic content (so as to encourage openly accessible scholarly conversation), as well as with organizations like Hypothesis and the National Writing Project (who provide technical and facilitation supports). Collectively, these partnerships support K-12 educators and university faculty as they use open source technology and openly access texts that spark collaborative conversations about educational equity.

3. Open Infrastructure.

New learning architectures are built, in part, with digital technologies. As designers, we may choose to architect learning with technologies like open source software, open educational resources, and other technologies that exemplify open standards. New learning architectures also thrive through participatory social practices, such as accessible governance, shared decision-making, and transparent leadership. As learning architects, we should ask of ourselves and our partners: How do our technologies and social practices cohere in service of more open infrastructure? Keri Facer, in her book Learning Futures: Education, Technology, and Social Change, forwards the notion of a “socio-technical formation” to describe the ways in which potential technological capabilities are taken up by — and also reflexively shape — social contexts and practices. A perceptive coupling of open technologies with participatory social practices can foment creative and critical socio-technical formations as a sustaining infrastructure for educator learning.

What might it look like for educators to architect such open infrastructure? As one example, I am reminded of Robin DeRosa’s description of open pedagogy among her Interdisciplinary Studies program at Plymouth State University. Among the intentional ways in which technologies have been taken up in this social context, DeRosa and her colleagues have established new pedagogical practices, whether by developing curriculum across multiple courses, or by establishing new administrative and support services (including a food pantry). They have also advocated various approaches to open pedagogy, including the use of open technologies (like Creative Commons-licensed open textbooks), open initiatives like Domain of One’s Own portfolios, as well as a “greenlight model” of assessment that encourages their students to share work that is “helpful to the commons, the student, and the field.” Collectively, these efforts represent both strategic and sympathetic approaches to cultivating open social and technological practices that, in combination, architect new teaching and learning methods.

4. Boundary Crossing.

Learning architectures can also be designed to propel movement across boundaries. While boundaries are most certainly material and embodied, they are also sociocultural, temporal, and conceptual. Research on the educational significance of boundary crossing has grown alongside expanded notions of learning, mobility, and hybridity across settings (see, for example, this thorough literature review by Sanne Akkerman and Arthur Bakker). Boundary crossing refers to the ways in which learning occurs when individuals (or groups) encounter unfamiliar territory, construct new and fluid identities, and synthesize ideas from divergent domains for a given purpose. How, then, might learning architectures encourage such movement across boundaries?

A final example: Architecting boundary crossing appears in Kira Baker-Doyle’s book Transformative Teachers: Teacher Leadership and Learning in a Connected World. In describing a professional learning model for K-12 educators created by the National Writing Project, Baker-Doyle distinguishes between two designed settings; private “studio spaces,” where educators can receive mentorship and experiment with their voice, and “gallery spaces, which provide open, public spaces for teachers to share their stories and ideas.” Similar to movement between private the public spaces, learning architectures can be designed to guide educator boundary crossing in service of new identities and practices. While Baker-Doyle is primarily interested in K-12 educator learning, similarly open studio spaces can be designed to propel creativity and inquiry across boundaries for university educators, too.

A Final Sketch

In writing this essay, my hope is that those who are committed to creating opportunities for educator learning — teacher educators working in K-12 contexts, administrators leading university teaching and learning centers, higher education faculty organizing professional learning communities, instructional designers across settings — find some resonance with my reflections as an an educational bricoleur. I have observed and experienced the practicable utility and inspired possibility of building with ignorance, through partnership, amidst openness, and across boundaries. Of course, these building blocks are neither an exhaustive survey of foundational educational commitments, nor are they shared with the intention of convincing readers to adopt a rigid design convention. Perhaps the building blocks that have helped me architect educator learning are closer to fruitful provocations.

As a final sketch and call to dialogue, I end with a series of encouragements that may help others to architect, bit by bit, new forms of educator learning. Shape and name your building blocks for educator learning as relevant to both local contexts and learning environments. Discuss among your stakeholders and partners why these building blocks for educator learning matter. Detail publicly and iteratively how your learning architectures are both attentive to concerns about educational equity and are also responsive to everyday institutional realities. And share the ways in which your architecting of educator learning creates new forms of professional inquiry, collaboration, and agency.

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1 Response
  1. The freedom and agency to shape/name our own contextual building blocks is a critical insight (for me). Architecture, digital or otherwise, is wrought with local/personal meaning and relevance. There’s untapped freedom in the modern bricolage ethos…thanks Remi!

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