Friday, February 4, 2011

A Call for a Dionysian Perspective in Education

I used to make a regular routine of watching at least one TED Talk, or related vodcast, every night. The past six months I have fallen out of this habit and so I now have some catching up to do. The other night I sat down for a little TED marathon and discovered some gems that I believe, while not directly related to the topic, express ideas that are certainly germain to education reform. They also provide a fresh way to express and describe what is wrong with our current industrial model and the policies that encourage it.

First, there is this great talk by Brene Brown about the power of vulnerability. Brown is a researcher by trade and in the talk she describes the nature of what research is all about as trying to take control of something via data to make predictions. She then goes on to describe the mindset of the researcher that sees the world as being comprised of data. She even quotes a professor she once had as saying, "If it cannot be measured, then it doesn't exist." This sounds like the mindscape that has had its grip on our education for quite some time. It describes the mindset that leads us to insist that what we do is done through "Data-driven decision making." And this need to view everything that occurs in the process of learning as being able to be reduced to a measurable set of numbers and scores clearly is rooted in this worldview. Brown describes in her video how her own research into the effects of shame on people led her into conflict with this mindset and presented a problem that for someone looking at the world through data lenses must have felt like a paradox. What she concludes is that it is not through control but through being vulnerable that one is more connected with the world and more content.

The second video that struck me as being related both to Brown's talk and what is going on in schools right now was a talk by Amber Case called "We are all cyborgs now." In this video Amber points out that this new rapidly changing technological landscape is starting to look more organic than technological. She describes our new connective technologies as worm holes for the mind, allowing us to transport our brains from one side of the globe to the other instantaneously. The implication is that our new technologies are really tools that help us be more organic and more human by breaking down physical barriers.

Applied to education this would support the idea of not teaching technology but using technology to connect people. Instead, what we see happening more and more in education is the technology being used as a tool to collect, measure, and process data. If, as in Brown's talk, the need to measure everything and turn it into data is rooted in our own insecurities and a need to grasp more control, then Case does a nice job of explaining what she proposes might cause such an insecurity in the first place. Case proposes that now we each have two selves (an idea I wrote about roughly this time last year), a physical self and a digital self which is comprised of our web presence. We have to manage the lives of both of these selves and just as our physical selves go through an adolescence so does our digital selves. The disconnect is that these two adolescence periods do not coincide. Therefore, a young person might have already passed into digital adulthood while their parents are just entering their digital adolescence.

To measure means we must construct controls and variables, even if they are arbitrary. We do this as Dan Phillips says in his talk, "Creative houses from reclaimed stuff" through standardization. Phillips talks about standardization in the building industry and how it generates massive amounts of industrial waste, waste that by other standards is perfectly good. He describes how human beings, as was proposed by Nietzsche, are always torn between two different perspectives, "On one hand we have the Apollonian perspective which is very crisp and premeditated and intellectualized and perfect on the other side of the spectrum we have a Dionysian perspective which is more given to the passions, intuitions, tolerant of organic patterns and human gesture." Phillips believes that for the survival of our planet we need to adopt a more Dionysian perspective. I believe we do in education as well. I would guess that Alfie Kohn, John Holt, Seymour Papert, Jean Piaget, Neil Postman, Gary Stager, Ira Socol, and so many others would agree.

So, what industrial waste is caused by standardization in the education industry? What could be built with it? In the building industry this waste refers to raw materials, in education this waste refers to at least three things:
  1. Students
  2. Content & Areas of Study
  3. Forms of Motivation & Ways of Knowing
How do we bring back a Dionysian perspective in education? How do we convince education policy makers, administrators, and teachers that it is not only OK to be vulnerable but being vulnerable is necessary for our success and well being? How do we convince them that there is no need to exert so much artificial control? How do we convince them that for learning to happen we need to encourage the use of our resources for the purpose of exploration, connectivity, and dialog and not measurement and control? How do we get education leaders to learn for education the lessons learned by Brown, Case, and Phillips?

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