What is worth knowing?

In my last post, I wrote about page 61 in Teaching as a Subversive Activity – where Postman and Weingartner asked the readers to contribute their questions to help shape an inquiry-based education, in response to their initial question “What is worth knowing?”

And now, I’m wondering… If you’re reading this…

What is worth knowing to you? What are the important questions? What are the unimportant questions that should still be asked?

What is worth knowing?

To start things off, my contributions to my campus’ local copy of TaaSA were:

  • Who am I?
  • Who cut the cheese?
  • How do I ride a skateboard? (actually, this was asked by my 5 year old son Evan)

inquiry as a subversive activity

I’ve been reading Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (more info), and I’m finding myself extremely drawn into it. It’s the kind of book that I may have read as an undergrad, but just wasn’t ready for. It’s the kind of book where you need to be ready to really engage with it before it makes sense. And it’s the kind of book that has me rethinking pretty much everything, and seeing new patterns everywhere. The book was written before I was born, and published only a few months before I was. But it feels so intrinsically relevant and important today – maybe moreso now than in 1969.

One of the chapters is describing inquiry, and what an honest adoption of inquiry would mean for curriculum, education, and society at large. What does it mean when curriculum isn’t predefined, and must be pulled from individuals and groups through the act of questioning, and the process of making sense? What does that look like?

Although much of it rings as important, even critical, to adopt in education, I think a full-scale adoption of inquiry would require more than just a tweak of the education system – it would require essentially nuking every concept of curriculum, and assessment, which would in turn require nuking large parts of entire educational institutions (and non-educational ones as well) and rebuilding from scratch. Sounds nice, but it’s just not practical.

Then, I turned the page and hit something I hadn’t seen before. A blank page, filled with handwritten sentences. At first I thought there was something wrong with the book. Postman and Weingartner had been talking about eliciting questions from the reader. And their implementation was to actually leave room inside the book for contributions from the reader. Not a blank page at the back of the book with “Notes:” stenciled on the top. Not a generic page for random scribbling. A blank page, with the specific purpose of eliciting responses from the reader: What questions would you ask if there was no curriculum? What is worth knowing?

page 61

It’s a simple technique, but shows a few things in action.

  1. The simple act of honestly asking for contributions radically changes the nature of the experience. One is no longer simply “reading” the book – they are helping to write it.
  2. Inquiry doesn’t need to be a Big Scary Thing – it can be as small and simple as asking a question, and allowing all responses. Note that the authors didn’t say “what topics are important?” or “what are the fundamental subjects that should be taught?” – they asked “what is worth knowing?” and that is a pretty simple yet powerful question, leading to further simple yet powerful questions in response.
  3. Starting from a set of open-ended questions, one can start to define some paths for further inquiry pretty quickly. Inquiry isn’t chaos – it’s finding out what matters to the individual participants, and then searching for strategies to finding solutions and answers. It’s not the absence of content, or the absence of direction. It’s placing the focus of the activities of teaching and learning on the individual, and finding what their needs are, in various contexts.

And others have used similar strategies to draw people into conversations and presentations. I was able to help facilitate an inquiry-based session a few years ago with Brian and Alan, and it was one of the most powerful experiences I can remember. Stephen Downes has been doing this for years – I had the pleasure to see his new EduRSS (now gRSShopper) backchannel running at TLt this summer during his presentation.

stephen downes with the backchannel

Sure, some of the responses are silly when there are no restraints placed on contributions. But some responses are deep, thoughtful, relevant, engaging, engaged, and enriching. And the participants care about what is going on.

If inquiry is honest, and participants are working together to identify questions that they feel are valid – and then to answer them – that is a powerfully subversive activity that can change education from simple content dissemination into something that is so much more engaging and relevant. It changes education from being an industrial age “teaching factory” to an organic, adaptive, extensible process.

And I’m not using subversion in a negative sense. From Wikipedia:

Subversion refers to an attempt to overthrow structures of authority, including the state. It is an overturning or uprooting.

page 61

Postman and Weingartner were talking about inquiry-based education, and how throwing out the “curriculum” and instead having students ask genuine questions that they would then work to answer together – that this would provide a powerful, relevant, and highly personal experience and a richer education. When I got to page 61, I did a doubletake. Was there a misprint? Did a vandal insert a blank page? No. They left the page blank intentionally – not even a page number – for the readers to add their own questions. It’s a simple technique, but one that profoundly changes the experience of “reading” a book, much as genuine inquiry can profoundly change the experience of “education”.

I added two questions, and asked my 5 year old son to ask a question of his own.

perception and reality

…we do not get our perceptions from the “things” around us. Our perceptions come from us. This does not mean that there is nothing outside of our skins. It does mean that whatever is “out there” can never be known except as it is filtered through a human nervous system. We can never get outside of our own skins. “Reality” is a perception, located somewhere behind the eyes.

– Postman, 1969

This sums up so much of what I’ve been thinking about. And leads to so much more…

mollom just got punted

Mollom‘s been doing a simply outstanding job of blocking spam lately, after the warm-up period. Unfortunately, it appears to be doing a bang-up job of blocking legitimate, breathing humans who are trying (and failing) to comment. I’m moving antispam back to Akismet for awhile, and am hoping it’s just a growing pain for Mollom – I really like the system and design, but can’t have valid people frustrated when they try to post comments. For now, it’s back to moderating comments through Akismet…

Network vs. Machine

Cole wrote a post about how his Twitter network helped him solve a problem. His blog suddenly decided to stop accepting comments, and he wasn’t sure how that happened, or how to fix it. I was just going to post this as a comment on his blog, but, well, it’s still not accepting comments 😉 (and I apologize if this post comes across as snarky – not intended to – it’s just a pre-caffeinated response to a blog, first thing in the morning…)

Posting a question to the Network via Twitter etc. is great, and it really IS impressive that people provide answers so quickly. But one thing that I wonder about is the reliance on other people rather than our own referencing and querying skills. I’m probably more guilty of this than anyone I know – heck, I have a whole tag of “lazyweb” posts here on my blog.

What I find puzzling, and I’m not meaning to pick on Cole here, is that the same answers to the same question could have been found in less than 5 seconds with a properly worded Google query. Like this, for instance:

Google Query for wordpress enable comments on all posts
Google Query for wordpress enable comments on all posts

The trick is to know roughly what you’re looking for. Key words like “enable comments” might not just roll off the fingertips of everyone with the problem. But variations might work as well.

I’m really NOT trying to discount the power of the Network in pooling resources and brains, but we also need to remember that we have tools at our own fingertips to help enlist the huge databases of the Machine to help find information to solve problems independently.

WPMU Tweakage for ucalgaryblogs.ca – Part 1

I said I’d share what I’ve done in setting up ucalgaryblogs.ca, and instead of waiting for The Mother of All Blog Posts, I’m going to break it up into a few parts. In Part 1, I’ll talk about some of the mu-plugins I added. Some are really cool, some are just shiny…

Basically, start with a fresh copy of WordPress Multiuser. I’m running 2.6 on ucalgaryblogs.ca. Then, add the following bits into the wp-content/mu-plugins directory.

List-All

A great plugin that provides an extra tag to embed on pages to list all blogs in a WPMU installation. Good for a blog service directory..

MU-Admin-Bar

Adds a bar to the top of every page of every blog, similar to WordPress.com, to make it easy to manage a site and log into the service.

WordPress MU Sitewide Tags Pages

Donncha’s awesome plugin to essentially aggregate every blog into a single überblog so archives and tag clouds can be shared. At first, I thought this was a silly way to do it – Drupal could have easily just displayed tag clouds and archives with no pre-aggregation, but it works, and it works very well.

Sitewide Feed

Generates combined feeds for all posts, comments, and pages posted to the WPMU service. Makes it easy to keep up to date on all activity. I’m guessing/hoping this will become essentially useless once the service takes off – I can’t imagine following hundreds of blogs/comments once they become active…

I’ve got a few more miscellaneous mu-plugins installed, but I may be yanking them as they’re really not critical and I want to keep the amount of loaded code down…

Next up: Part 2 – the “main” theme (including home page, sidebar, archives, tag cloud, etc…)