Education and postmodernism – a toolkit of plenty – or how i learned to stop worrying and love the postmodern


I once hated postmodernism… at a real, visceral level. I didn’t like the word, I didn’t like the smug looks on the faces of people who used it, I didn’t like the way they used the word ‘text’. “Well, this painting makes a very interesting text blah blah la la (insert snooty tone).” That was ten years ago. In the interim, I’ve studied a little, and thought a little, and become alot less confrontational and have found myself quite liking this new thing (it’s at least over 40 years old) that I’ve discovered. The problem is, by the very nature of what it is, you can’t say ‘postmodernism is this’. It isn’t one thing. Not everyone even agrees on what it isn’t. It’s very different in architecture, for instance, than for educational theory. A more useful way of thinking about it, I’ve found, is not asking “what is it?” but rather “what can it do for me?” Over the next few months I’ll be delving occasionally into this uncertain word to talk about my understanding of this ‘toolkit’ that is postmodernity, no doubt incurring the boredom of some readers, and the scorn of others. But it does make sense to me somehow, and that’s what I’ll try to work out here. First some quick thoughts and then a layout of the plan for the short term.

My concern, and indeed my fear, of postmodernism is that it does away with any clear, definable truth. Truths are dependant on context, and power structures and hierarchies PoMo tells us, the Truth that you believe in (sometimes ‘common sense’) is usually one of a group of dominant narratives of a society at a given time and therefore not really True in the sense that there aren’t other ways to do it, but more true from a certain point of view. Take the idea that ‘history is written by the victors’ and expand it to society as a whole, so “The truths in society, is what is true for the people with the most power.(that is not necessarily a single group, but the more powerful for a given situation)” Trickle down economics is a great example of this. According to wikipedia Trickle-down or Reaganomics are “is the view that to benefit the wealthy is to benefit the middle classes and even the poor. These benefits then trickle down.” The benefit to the wealthy is easily measured, the rest, well, is more a matter of opinion. But there are many people who still consider this to be ‘True’ even though “Reagan’s Economic Advisor later characterized supply side economics and trickle down economics as rhetoric.” (both quotes from here. Why, you might ask would people continue to believe in it? It is a dominant discourse. It is a narrative that is equated with power. To agree with it, is to agree with ‘common sense,’ a common sense that one of the people who created it calls ‘rhetoric’.

In the past fifty years we done away with many of these dominant narratives in the classrooms. They are things, for good or bad, that aren’t true for us anymore.

  • corporal punishment
  • the military classroom model (desk rows)
  • transmission style teaching
  • The Three Rs (although this little nugget seems to have staying power)

all once thought true and right, and now things of the past. We can all recognize them now, we can see them for what they are. Some of the changes of the dominant way things are done (often dominant ways, the powerful do not always agree, nor is there only one layer of hierarchies) we may not agree with, but, like it or not, they aren’t ‘the way things are done.’

The next question then is, “how can we judge the things we are doing now?” How can we look at our practice and decide which things we do are good, and which are not good. RESEARCH is the most obvious answer. Get some experts to test it. Problem is, we don’t really believe in experts anymore. When a doctor says “take this medicine”, we now say “what is it?” If someone tells us 300 students were tested and we found that those who scored high in Math scored low on the ‘english aptitude test’. We ask “what was on the test?” There are always variables, and always contexts that can affect a given study (not to metnion out and out bias) that affects the ‘truth-value’ of any research.

Enter the toolkit version 0.1
deconstruction
Jacques Derrida is solely responsible for some of the best sleeps I’ve ever had. There’s nothing like an incredibly dense bit of material writing in response to something that you haven’t read. He was deconstructing ‘modern’ narratives. This idea of deconstructing a ‘text’. I wont do Derrida the disservice of trying to shorten the tool to a short description…

simulacra
Jean Beaudrillard is still alive and kicking. His take on the term simulacrum gives us another tool to interpret our world. A simulacrum is a copy of a copy etc… of something until the copy no longer represents the original, but represents something entirely new. Think of the ‘mainstreet’ in Disneyland where everyone is happy, there is no crime or poverty. This is meant to resemble the ‘good old days,’ which, if you talk to someone who grew up in the depression, weren’t really all that good. These similacra own central places in many dominant narratives.

action research
In reality, that’s not how we do most of our adaptation anyway. If the person at the workshop says “wow, i tried this new trick on my students and it really worked.” we listen, we ask questions, we tune in. Action research is designed like this. A researcher, usually a classroom practitioner, follows their way through a project, using their PoMo toolkit, and talks about how things go. Are they making truth… no. Nor do they need to.

oh… even in writing them, i feel like I’m on shaky ground. But I feel like there is an honesty to writing this way. cheers for making it this far!

Project updates


We interrupt your regular scheduled programming to bring you this Dave’s Ed update…

Saturday morning of a very solid week. Worldbridges New Media Offer has attracted another pretty interesting project. Student language and culture exchange between Oberlin College in Ohio and an all women’s College in Jedda Saudi Arabia. Have had some great chats with some cool people and for this Sunday it looks like Will Richardson at 10am EST and Stephen Downes at 11EST live on the show.

The New Media Program that I’ve been working in and around over the last several months seems like it will make is to its alpha run, which is good. Jevon MacDonald, Rob Paterson and Tim Carroll were kind enough to invite me to sit around their table in their planning sessions for this course. The details are still not nailed down, indeed, keeping them in the air and letting them develop naturally is part of the plan. Essentially it is a course, designed to bring people together to learn to use new media by working on projects together. The idea is to keep the tech itself as transparent as possible and have the collaborators develop new media literacies ‘as they need them’. Unofficial start date is November 2nd. They’ll be regular posts for anyone interested.

The first entry in my ‘blog novel’ is posted on my personal site. I kinda like the idea of trying to do it in this medium. I’m also hoping for some comments along the way, and am interested to see how comments would affect the direction of the novel… there is a plan, but i’m not committed to it.

Teaching is great. I like blogging. Most other things are still ‘in the fire’… back to your regular scheduled programming.

Cheating, intellectual property, privacy and the read/write classroom

Tuesday, October 11th, 2005 (cut off in the great server crash of ’06)

I’m sitting at an old computer, in a windowless room at the university where I teach ESL students. It reminds me of my old university days in the rat warren, otherwise known as the ‘Life’ Science Centre at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Legend has it that the architect committed suicide after building that coffin. I’d […]

Who is powering the publication?

Monday, October 10th, 2005 (cut off in the great server crash of ’06)

A nice weekend away from the computer, chilled out a bit, and refocused myself for the coming weeks. We’ve got a bunch of stuff we’re doing, including the moodle moot some curriculum development not to mention my classes and the shows. But i’m looking forward to it all, which i suppose is a good sign.
I’ve […]

Patience in Podcasting

Friday, October 7th, 2005 (cut off in the great server crash of ’06)

Got brought up short tonight on the show by Jeff Flynn(gently as always, what a great guy)… I was ribbing him about podcasting in his new moodle installation, and about just doing his podcast with a microphone from his laptop. He says, “then it’s going to be about the technology, the kids are going […]

Microsoft supporting Linux development

Thursday, October 6th, 2005 (cut off in the great server crash of ’06)

Not technically education, but i found this while searching for educational stuff… so close enough. I was checking out the ‘mono-project’ which is the backend that I needed to get ‘epresence’ working and found another project called race to linux which offers a new xbox to people who can write the code […]

Sports and the death of Web 2.0

Thursday, October 6th, 2005 (cut off in the great server crash of ’06)

Web 2.0 is dead. shitty. I was just starting to get my mind around what it wasn’t… But maybe if I say it’s dead, it’ll be cool again. Are we marketers or are we just running to stand still (shameless U2 theft)
Among my many addictions is a very odd love of the sportscaster. I smile […]

Living the game – modelling in ed-tech

A lovely Tuesday afternoon to all, October continues to confound here in PEI, acting more like summer than our summer did. It’s good for the tan if not for the sanity. I like a tricky October i think, one day cold and blustery, so that i wonder about the wisdom of not putting stakes around the new trees planted outback, and then warm and still, so that people wearing t-shirts can give you that look of half pity/half disgust at your wearing a thick turtle-neck sweater. And in the midst of this confusion, we come to the idea of modelling your ed-tech.

I was reading my sort-of daily dose of George Siemens and connected to the Tim O’reilley post in his blog. I felt kinda funny reading it. Not haha funny, more of a I’m wondering why my seat feels wet kinda funny. It’s a fantastic explanation of all the subtleties of Web 2.0. Well layed out, researched, nice charts and graphs… all and all the very model of a static, web 1.0 webpage. Now to be fair, the article says it was first published somewhere else where it could very well have been a super bloggish-wiki-flickerific folksonotastic of interactivity, but this one wasn’t. It left me wondering about the viability of web 2.0 once it hits the mainstream and also, more importantly for my practice (which involves teaching, teacher training and ed-tech consulting) that one of the things that’s going to make it difficult for people to ‘buy in’ is this sense of unreality. One is left wondering, if web 2.0 was so darned good, why isn’t he using it now?

But on to practice. Blogging as lecture is something that we’ve covered here already, in terms of feedbooks, and wikis are great for project management. But what about the course itself. I know people right now that are teaching courses that guide themselves, like certain business courses, that have the freedom of having to cover general ideas, developing literacies that can be learned in almost any context. The students sort of take off with different ideas and develop plans along with things they are finding in the news or in their local context. Like, to flog a word for the 4th time in two days, project management. Wether you’re planning the irrigation of your playground in the springtime through the clever use of dams and streams, or following a rigid project management curriculum in business 305 you’re developing the same skill-set. But what about the kind of definition/description made by Mr. O’reilly? Is there room here for a wiki? If we give up on this kind of static page, what happens to our experts, both teacher and consultant? But at the same time, how can we try to convert people to a new process by using the old one?

Aside from the ‘there are different tools for different jobs’ response, which i hear so often (and agree with) I’m not sure how to answer these questions… I do think that when introducing these ideas, web 2.0 etc… there needs to be an honesty to the way we deliver it. We need to be risking ourselves, professionally and emotionally, in that way, that only way, that the ‘wisdom of crowds’ works. We need to give our introducees the room to criticize and comment and even take over the direction of our introduction…

Pirates and pacing

Tuesday, October 4th, 2005 (cut off great server crash ’06)

Much better rested after a day of getting my car fixed and climbing in my basement window. (these are connected, comment if you know how) I have two strangely connected things I want to talk about in this post, the pacing of new educational epistemologies and the paucity of pirates.
I had a great (short) chat […]

The Text-Event and the Educator

It’s the Sunday night of a long week and I have the vague, confused and grimy feeling of someone who just lost a fight with an old, dirty fog machine. There’s a level of confusion that comes on me at this time of night that is so strangely blended with moments of clarity that, unless I’m very busy, I tend to avoid it. But I want to try to take the post from yesterday and bring it into a more practical context, and also another shot at describing the feedbook… so here goes.Language-games are one of the central concepts that I’m going to babble about, so, having just copped out and used wikipedia for my last post, maybe I’ll address them a little more here. Language is alive. A word, out of context, has little meaning. -monkey- This is a word that i’ve used as a nickname for a friend of mine, it’s an animal, it can be an insult an endearment or, i would bet somewhere in the world, a foul tasting and instantly inebrating drink. A quick translation of a word from one culture to another will give even clearer examples. They mean something when they are part of a text-event. When language is used in a text event, Wittgenstein referred to them as being subject to various rules including grammatical rules but more importantly for this conversation also including societal rules. These rules can be seen as applying to a game stipulated by the circumstances of the text-event. You have entered into a language-game. You can ‘win’ the language game by successfully following all the rules and coming to any number of successful outcomes. You ‘lose’ a language game by not following the rules.

Anyway, to return to fog. That vague feeling of confusion and desire for low level avoidance is same feeling that comes over me when i feel like I don’t understand what is going on. Lets use a live example. As I made up the word last week, and since this may be the only website that ever uses it for the purpose that I had in mind when I first wrote it, let me use it to give you a feeling of what I mean.

I really like feedbooks. They are just what’s needed for education. (obviously not an introduction that’s going to make you feel comfortable, unless your the sort that has either the patience, or the personality, to enjoy/endure the speech of the prophet)

A feedbook is a collection of RSS feeds amassed in an OPML. (This is a little clearer, it defines the feedbook, and, given definitions for the other terms, would define to us what the word means. It tells us very little about the ‘text-event’… what would it mean to use the word.)

A feedbook is a collection of RSS feeds amassed in an OPML and used as the central (or peripheral) learning ‘text’ for a class. (We now have a context, in a classroom and a comparison to a physical textbook with which to make sense of some of the meaning of the word. Some people could begin to imagine how they could use the word, and understand it when it was used by others.)

A feedbook is a collection of blogs and podcasts that each student would have delivered to them like a personalized newspaper. (This example offers a little more context, a more experiential example of the kinds of things you could do with a feedbook. It’s a newspaper. We read daily stories and talk about them. This is different from talking about a ‘textbook’, which is static and passive in the event that takes place in the classroom)

The question is, when explaining something to people who aren’t already invested, how do we explain something so that they feel that they will have a fair chance of ‘winnning’ the language-game if they were to start it.