The Only Truth is Narrative Truth

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Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)

In his essay on ‘The Fallibility of Memory‘ Oliver Sacks offers us an insight into why discussions about the importance of ‘knowledge’ in education are often superficial, and at times futile. While we debate the relative importance of skills and knowledge, we might be more productively engaged in discussing the elusive nature of knowledge itself:

‘We, as human beings, are landed with memories which have fallibilities, frailties and imperfections – but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information. Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say, and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. Memory arises not only from experience but from the intercourse of many minds.’

The connection between memory and knowledge is a vital one, and Sacks seems to be suggesting that the most reliable knowledge is that which has been ‘contributed to’, a notion which would chime particularly well with the idea of ‘wiki-learning’, where everyone has a contribution to make, however small (for further reading on the use of Wikis for learning follow this link).

In discussing the fallibility of memory, and (again) on the importance of narrative, he has something important to teach us when it comes to understanding the human brain and how it records and analyses what it sees:

‘Christopher Isherwood starts “A Berlin Diary” with an extended photographic metaphor: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”

But we deceive ourselves if we imagine that we can ever be passive, impartial observers. Every perception, every scene, is shaped by us, whether we intend it or know it, or not. We are the directors of the film we are making – but we are its subjects too: every frame, every moment, is us, is ours.’

‘There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves – the stories we continually recategorise and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the brains we have. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare and that for the most part our memories are so solid and reliable.’

Our only truth is narrative truth. Now there is something to contemplate.

 

 

 

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Learning. It’s Complicated.

I read and follow many educational writers, bloggers and theorists in an attempt to understand how learning works, and, by implication or association, what makes for good teaching and an effective education system. However, not everything about education is to be learned in educational texts. A good example of this is to be found in reading ‘River of Consciousness‘, a collection of essays and the last publication of the English-born neurologist and polymath Oliver Sacks. Here, in the course of a few relatively short pieces, the author of such works as ‘Awakenings‘ and ‘The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat‘ takes on evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience and the arts, as he searches for an understanding of the conscious mind and what it is that makes us human. In doing so, he touches on subjects which I see ‘debated’ on eduTwitter on a daily basis. On the importance of Play, for example, especially in young children, he has this to say:

‘All children indulge in play, at once repetitive and imitative and, equally, exploratory and innovative.They are drawn both to the familiar and the unusual – grounding and anchoring themselves in what is known and secure, and exploring what is new and has never been experienced. Children have an elemental hunger for knowledge and understanding, for mental food and stimulation. They do not need to be told or “motivated’ to explore or play, for play, like all creative or proto-creative activities, is deeply pleasurable in itself.’

Which begs the question, if children have an ‘elemental hunger for knowledge’, why do so many children stop engaging with school? I suspect the answer may have something to do with who determines the knowledge which is on the menu, and the extent to which the consumers have a choice. A very important element of play of course is the storytelling element, and Sacks has an observation on that which touches on one of our favourite themes here at The Literacy Adviser:

‘Both the innovative and the imitative impulses come together in pretend play, often using toys or dolls or miniature replicas of real-world objects to act out new scenarios or rehearse and replay old ones. Children are drawn to narrative, not only soliciting and enjoying stories from others, but creating them themselves. Storytelling and mythmaking are primary human activities, a fundamental way of making sense of our world.’

Put very simply, storytelling should be at the heart of any education programme, at all ages and in all subject or topic contexts. And speaking of educational contexts, here is what Sacks has to contribute on the nature of schooling, and the perennial debates about ‘skills v knowledge’ or ‘progression v tradition’ or ‘freedom v structure’:

‘Intelligence, imagination, talent, and creativity will get nowhere without a basis of knowledge and skills, and for this education must be sufficiently structured and focused. But an education too rigid, too formulaic, too lacking in narrative, may kill the once-active, inquisitive mind of a child. Education has to achieve a balance between structure and freedom, and each child’s needs may be extremely variable. Some young minds expand and blossom with good teaching. Other children (including some of the most creative) may be resistant to formal teaching ; they are essentially autodidacts, voracious to learn and explore on their own. Most children will go through many stages in this process, needing more or less structure, more or less freedom at different periods.’

So there you have it. It’s complicated! Schools and education systems have to be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of all learners, which incidentally are not fixed, even within an individual. You begin to see why there is no such thing as a perfect system or a perfect school, and why as long as we have formal schooling, everything within it is a compromise of ideas and ideals.

Next time I will be sharing what Sacks has to say about the nature of memory and conscious thought.

 

Play It Again, Sam

It has been a long wait – almost seven years – since I wrote about the wonderful world of Samorost, and the creative opportunities it provides for an inventive teacher (see Sam, The Spaceship and Me), so you can imagine how excited I am to get my hands on Samorost 3, just released by Amanita Design, and described thus:-

‘Samorost 3 follows a curious space gnome who uses the powers of a magic flute to travel across the cosmos in search of its mysterious origins. Visit nine unique and alien worlds teeming with colourful challenges, creatures and surprises to discover, brought to life with beautiful artwork, sound and music.’

What’s not to like? If that doesn’t tempt you, have a look at the preview.

See also Machinarium, from the same company.

For teaching ideas across all curriculum areas, see previous post by following the link.

A Feast of Film

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Introducing the first Scottish Film and Learning Festival

You know that feeling you get when you have been planning a big event for the past few months and suddenly it’s over? That’s how I’m feeling today, after a truly fantastic day at the first Scottish Film and Learning Festival in Glasgow on Saturday. The area around George Square really did have a festival feeling, as the Great Scottish (Children’s) Run was also in town, but not even the samba band immediately outside one of the conference venue’s seminar rooms could dampen the enthusiasm inside. For those of you who were not able to attend this time, here is the complete list of presenters and presentations. If you click on the title of the presentation it will take you to some further information or resources related to the speaker and/or the presentation topic. A big thank you to John Johnstone from Radio EduTalk who came along and captured some of the presentations, which you can hear by going to the EduTalk website.

John Murray – Reading Explorers

Jo Hall – BBC L.A.B.

Sarah Wright – The Show-Stopping Toolkit

Rob Smith – Using Film in the Classroom

Mark Reid – Cinematheque Francaise and Understanding Cinema

Tim Flood – Draw What You See

Jonathan Charles – Using Storyboards to Develop Visual Literacy

Claire Docherty – Using the Scottish Film Archive in the Classroom

Bill Boyd – Ten Tools for Reading Film

Sarah Derrick – Discovery Film Festival DCA

Athole McLauchlan – Film Studies in Social Studies

David Griffith – From Shots to Sentences

Barbara Hill and Gordon Brown – SQA and the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy

Jo Spence – Into Film Programme for Schools

Craig Steele – Movie Mashup

Jennifer Jones – Commonwealth Digital Project

Glow Scotland – Using Glow to Enhance Visual Literacy

Bruce Eunson – Film and the Scots Language

Are Literacy And Learning the Same Thing?

There are very few references to literacy these days which don’t have an adjectival prefix – digital literacy, financial literacy, emotional literacy etc. – which makes me wonder whether literacy has simply become a synonym for learning. Which also makes me wonder whether, when we talk about literacy in the traditional and narrow sense, we shouldn’t call it what it is i.e. the ability to read, or to write grammatically, or to spell a specified list of words without reference to a dictionary or spellchecker. Is it possible to have such a range of definitions of ‘literacy’, or does the word ultimately become meaningless? I guess that is my thought for the day.

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Curriculum for Integrity

This blogpost is re-published with kind permission from its author, Matthew Boyle. The original can be found on his own blog, Each and Every Dog. Well worth a visit for anyone with an interest in learning and teaching.

commonweal1 I had the great pleasure of attending a “thinking and creating” day organised by the Common Weal, “think and do tank” and chaired by the very engaging and upbeat Katie Gallogly-Swan. They described the day as a “policy lab” with the explicit aim of connecting academics and experts in education with “interested citizens” to “ask some of the big questions” and to help shape policy for Scotland going forward.

The day began with us considering the questions that mattered most to us and which we felt were fundamental to improving education. The central chosen question, underpinning it all was “what is the purpose of education for the nation?” The other popular questions were:

  • How can the final qualifications system be made to better serve the needs of all?
  • How can equality for all be more clearly baked-in to everything that we do?
  • What should be done to help the system realise its ambition to implement the Curriculum for Excellence?

I am sure everyone took their own strong conclusions and learning from the very rich and open plenary that knitted up the day’s discussion, but I left further reinforced in my view that what is needed is a “strategy for integrity” to ensure that the “Curriculum for Excellence (CfE)” means more in practice than at present! The day coalesced around an early proposition by Bill Boyd (Literacy Adviser), that CfE was already an excellent and well-consulted plan for an egalitarian, effective and individualised education experience; Bill simultaneously conceded that our implementation has left much to be desired, with the model being hindered by traditional forces such as SQA examinations which seem to pay little heed to the aspirations of the new curriculum, or inspection which seemed to hold back innovation.

The new curriculum is based to a significant degree on “The Treasure Within (UNESCO)” with its four pillars of learning:

Learning to know: to provide the cognitive tools required to better comprehend the world and its complexities, and to provide an appropriate and adequate foundation for future learning.

Learning to do: to provide the skills that would enable individuals to effectively participate in the global economy and society.

Learning to be: to provide self analytical and social skills to enable individuals to develop to their fullest potential psycho-socially, affectively as well as physically, for a all-round ‘complete person.

Learning to live together: to expose individuals to the values implicit within human rights, democratic principles, intercultural understanding and respect and peace at all levels of society and human relationships to enable individuals and societies to live in peace and harmony.

This has been translated and modernised by our own curriculum which clearly targets the following (among other outcomes):

  • personalisation and choice, although you could argue that that is only a limited version where the factory model of schooling allows.
  • Interdisciplinary learning (IDL), although ten years on, strong examples of this “real application of learning” are in only the minority of schools.
  • Breadth and depth of learning, which are quite untestable and a bit “mom’s apple pie” in scope and ambition anyway, so what they have led to is no change.
  • An exam system to declutter the curriculum and to reflect the more joined-up learning that young people are now undertaking, which teachers are preparing learners for by cutting up old, pre CfE papers, since much of what is in the new exams is similar to the old!

I largely agree with Bill that CfE contains good things, largely agreed on by teachers and society, some of it clearly too woolly and contradictory, but that we are simply not delivering it in the way it’s authors and contributors intended. Perhaps now, as a possible conclusion from the policy lab, it is time for us to refocus on delivery, not rewrites, and attempt to deliver a Curriculum with Integrity! If we believe the examination tail has too long wagged the learning dog, then we must redesign the exams to reflect that belief. If we believe IDL is a major delivery mode of our curriculum then we must break down some of the subject silos at all levels and deliver integrated project-based learning. If we believe individualisation matters, then we must have personal choices available throughout regardless of the inconvenience to our current models.

A delivery strategy to do what we say we value might just be the saving of a good curriculum that we are failing to deliver; CfI instead of CfE anyone?

Everyone Needs Positive Feedback #edcmooc

neverOne final reflection on the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC (for now). Last week I wrote about what was required to complete the course. While it is not over-demanding, the possibility of failure is not something any of us welcomes, so it was with a sense of relief as well as satisfaction that I read the very positive comments on my final submission this morning, and discovered that I had secured a Grade 1 Pass (the only alternative being a Grade 0 Fail!).

I suspect that it is this aspect of the massive, open and online course which will attract most scepticism, if not outright cynicism, the fact that success and failure are based largely on the observations of your peers and not the course tutors. Yet in a way that is what I find most attractive about it. While the ultimate responsibility for learning remains with the learner, there is a great sense in which the whole endeavour is a collaborative effort. Every participant is reaching for a better understanding of the topic, not for the right answer. This piece of advice on the MOOC site sums it up perfectly:-

Giving and receiving constructive feedback
“Explaining your understanding of someone’s work to them will help them to refine their own understanding and will also help you refine your own – it’s a reciprocal process. This is the purpose of this peer feedback exercise.

Of course this formal exercise should not be the only opportunity that you take to interact with your fellow students during and after this course. This process is formal, and anonymous. You should seek to create your own opportunities for collaboration and discussion – in the discussion forum, and in self-organised and emergent groups in which you can cultivate relationships, pursue common interests, and engage in more intimate discussions.

You should be both supportive and critical in what you write. What might that mean in practice? The notion of being supportive is probably the easiest to understand. You are all in this together. This course – learning in general – is not a ‘zero-sum game’ where only one person can win and others must lose. When the group works together everyone benefits. Receiving feedback on our work provides valuable guidance and stimulus to further thought. Giving feedback on the work of others helps us to clarify our own thinking through the act of framing it in the process of communication. To be supportive will also imply courtesy and sensitivity in the way in which we express our views. We can more productively assimilate and work with a comment when the other gives it and we receive it in a context of politeness and trust.

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The notion of criticality is more difficult to grasp, not least because our everyday usage of the word tends to carry the implication of negative criticism – focusing on, and pointing out, what is wrong. However, it is perfectly possible to be positively critical as well. One may point out a strength in some work, and then build on this by giving advice as to how to enhance that strength. ‘I like what you have done there. It made me think of ….. You might consider incorporating …..’. Or it may be that you see a strength that the creator has not made as explicit as they might have done. Encouragement may then be offered to the creator to go further with what they have started. A positive criticality may involve seeking to empathise with the creator, and how he or she might take the next steps. It may be about articulating sincerely held questions about a piece of work, and about the creator’s intentions in its production.”

When I embarked on this 5-week course, one of my aims was to examine how the principles of the MOOC might be applied in school settings, within the context of compulsory education. Sharing the responsibility for learning, including greater use of peer assessment and feedback, and removing ourselves from that ‘zero-sum game’ might not be a bad place to start.

The E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC is offered by the University of Edinburgh via Coursera. If you are interested in taking part in a MOOC you may also want to have a look at the FutureLearn website where you will find courses run by some of the UK’s top universities.

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