We Don’t Need No Thought Control: the deep grammar of schooling

Late last month I went to London, not to look at The Queen but to lead three days of Media & Information Literacies workshops with Swedish teachers. It was a pleasure and a privilege and also just a really good time…and I came away having learned the following:

1. When I was 13 and I thought I wanted to run away to London to hang out with David Bowie and Boy George I HAD TOTALLY GOOD INSTINCTS. At least about cities.
2. Swedish teachers do not dress like Canadian teachers. Which may be just a Euro v. North American style distinction…but since, in my world, you can’t turn around without stumbling on people fretting about the dang PISA test and Finland, the theme of teacher professionalization and status has been on my mind. And while Sweden is NOT Finland, hey, it’s next door. So when I wandered into the first all-Swedish event of my stay, I found it curious to observe the fact that pretty much every. single. person brought the funk and androgyny (and great boots!) generally reserved here for NYC artistes or filmmakers and I wondered about cultural capital and masculinities and how a profession builds its own reputation for cool. Then I wondered where I could get myself some new and improved boots, thank you very much.
3. Again, Sweden is NOT Finland. Ahem. I learned Swedes are not officially fond of Finland. Or the PISA test. They will, if pressed, politely talk about their boots. The folks I met mostly wanted to talk with great thoughtfulness and enthusiasm about learning. They were lovely. Thanks, Per!
4. Swedish schools increasingly – though not necessarily entirely equitably – have 1 to 1 computing, meaning a device in the hands of every student.

The last one blew my mind.

The possibility of an education system where connectivity and bandwidth and crappy outdated computers and blocked sites are NOT a hurdle is, frankly, totally outside my experience. When I realized I was talking about networked education with a group of people who actually have the infrastructure to DO networked education, I felt like I’d landed at Disneyland.

For all of about 23 minutes.

Then I listened some more to what they were telling me. And I discovered what I should have known – the challenges education faces coming to terms with information abundance and 21st century communications media and all that those shifts imply are NOT actually infrastructure challenges. Yes, those are real, and they are political, and distribution of technologies is uneven and unequal and that is important to talk about and address. But they are not the key barrier.

Technology is not a solution to problems of competing knowledge claims and changing communications structures. Digital technologies can be a tool for making meaning within information abundance, but in order to function as a tool, they require skills and literacies for using them effectively FOR THAT PURPOSE.

If you could wave a magic wand and put a working iPad in the hands of every teacher and student in the world tomorrow, we’d still have an institutional schooling structure that is neither designed nor equipped nor interested in truly taking on the challenges of networked education, no matter how much lip service it pays to the ideas of “innovation” and “21st century learning.” This structure is not something we can carve out and separate from the heart of our concepts of school – it IS our concept of school. We – teachers and students most of the world ’round – are complicit in it; in upholding and replicating what Lankshear and Knobel call the “deep grammar” of schooling (2006). When we consider the idea of classrooms full of young people with devices in their hands, the words that leap to minds and mouths aren’t “connection!” or “participation!” but “distraction” and “disruption”…in all senses of the term. This is our institutionalization showing.

Our institutionalization means that, without new ways to conceptualize the work of learning, we end up replicating top-down power and knowledge structures no matter how many shiny screens we add to classrooms. Yet knowledge and information no longer work that way, not really.

I left London wondering about power and control.

When I talk about networked education, I try hard to confront and undermine the fetish for “shiny!…the idea of tech as a goal in itself. I focus on literacies for filtering and prioritizing within a world of immersive communications: on networks as a way of un-schooling and adapting our systems of education.

Networks need not be digital – we all grow up within networks of friends and family and acquaintances to whom we are tied one-to-one with various degrees of closeness and communications. At the same time, many of us have, with Facebook, ported our f2f networks online and live in a state of hybridity, blurring online and offline identities and connections. We are skilled in many of the practices we might need to make meaning in the great firehose of information abundance, but our culture is not giving us the meta-literacies to recognize and value and utilize those skills.

Increasingly, I encounter a strain of “I’ve never tried it but I know it’s bad” resistance to networks as educational possibilities; to social media as represented by mainstream media and cultural narratives. People have heard of Twitter, or blogging…they may even have accounts. They often use Facebook socially. But they come to the idea of educational use, increasingly, steeped in the pervasive cultural messages that social media is making us lonely or stupid or toxic or whatever the deterministic accusation of the month may be. Educators get the message that these communications media are not part of the legitimate curriculum, of the *true* pursuit of knowledge.

I get it. And I get that networks are hard, and messy, and require a constant filtering that exhausts us: I live it. But I want to consider why these cultural messages are growing stronger; who is served in the fantasy of imposing control over the proliferation of networked, peer-to-peer communications.

Some of these questions came together for me in London, in the midst of presenting. I was a few slides into the second deck below, on the second day of the workshop, talking about traditional broadcast media and information literacies and the idea of trusted channels. It occurred to me that in the midst of information abundance, our desire for trusted channels so we don’t HAVE to do the constant work of filtering is…huge. It occurred to me that the cultural narratives circulating about overload and lack of connection serve to blind us to whatever network literacies we actually practice, and that public models for complex filtering are rare. It occurred to me that those narratives implicitly encourage the default institutionalized passivity of waiting for “good,” sanctioned information from established, gatekept, powerful channels. And it occurred to me that those channels tend to be corporate or institutional hierarchies with a great deal of power and a great deal to lose if peer-to-peer networked learning and communications actually manifest to capacity, in our society. It occurred to me, much as Sarah Kendzior succinctly stated in Al Jazeera yesterday, that “demonizing social media can be a play for power.” She’s talking state power. But I’m not sure it’s any different in education. Just ask every system struggling with the externalized standards of the PISA test.

This doesn’t mean networks are in any way idealized forms of communications. That need to leap to the binary assumption that critique of one thing equals uncritical lionization of its perceived Other is itself residue of the deep grammar of schooling, the Enlightenment categorization embedded in our cultural practices. Institutions and networks are neither entirely separate nor either of them ideal. We need to be able to discuss where each offers value, and to whom. But in order to do that, we need to unpack our pre-conditioning, our sense of deep vulnerability without someone in authority telling us what to think.

Or maybe Pink Floyd were wrong. Maybe we *do* need thought control, after all.

What do YOU think? How do we address the ways in which the deep grammar of schooling and its inherent top-down structure still constitute the language our thoughts are written in? And for those taking part in Dave’s #rhizo14 conversation this week, what role do you think writing itself plays in this?

And what would (or do) YOU do in a classroom full of people with devices?

12 Comments We Don’t Need No Thought Control: the deep grammar of schooling

  1. Neil

    In this virtual world economy, it seems that increasingly the only way to make money in many professions, particularly in the humanities, is to be deemed an authority. So it seems as if there is a need for this ‘mind control’ as part of the economic system. Maybe the standards for being an authority have changed.

    1. bon

      Neil, you put your finger smack on the part I wasn’t talking about….well-played. Yeh, the economic aspect of all of this needs to be part of the picture: in a sense, the history of our shared blogging culture and how it was changed by monetization was the best education I could have gotten in the limitations of networks.

      I don’t think our economic systems – and the power that coheres in them – are going to switch over to peer-to-peer practices anytime soon. So rather, since about 2008, they’ve been reinforcing and consolidating their power by picking up pieces of the network that bring with them eyeballs or influence – the things power needs to remain power – and opening doors to economic opportunity for creators of networked content by sanctioning them under a corporate or institutional umbrella (or header, as it were.) This lends authority, like you say. But I’m not sure it means standards for authority have changed, per se…rather – at least in terms of my research into this in academia – it’s more like two competing sets of standards now operate at the same time.

      Overall, this seems to reinforce inequality and the power of bigger voices: networks already tend toward that. They’re not democratic. When you add in institutional hierarchies, people who don’t measure on either terms find it increasingly hard, I think, to find a place of legitimacy. So economically, we’re hybrid, but it’s kinda nasty. I think. I haven’t really sorted it all out.

  2. Emily R

    I think you’re right on the money. Once upon a time we could get knowledge from a textbook that we covered in brown paper wrapping because it would be passed down and passed down. Now, of course, information is big and messy, coming at us from all angles, and a big part of knowledge is understanding how to weigh that onslaught–the sources, the biases, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s not a binary at all, but there is comfort in thinking, “Well, it was in the textbook.”

    1. bon

      Thanks, Emily. Yeh, I think there *is* comfort in clinging to the construct of the textbook. I see it as reasonable info, just as I see wikipedia as reasonable info – which one is more appropriate for a given purpose depends on that purpose and how timely it is, often. If something is *really* specialized or timely, I go to my own network, not Wikipedia, b/c their biases default differently (and I am embedded enough to understand/account for those biases) and their advice may be better than sheer info. Just depends.

      But the defaulting to the textbook in the face of understanding all that complexity and the systems that make all those options possible? That just strikes me as a terrible case of willful blindness. Or terror.

  3. Simon Ensor

    Hi Bonnie
    Just doing research on this very question. I am coming to the conclusion that
    a) we have to keep opening up classrooms and learners/teachers to the rest of the world not to be even more tested
    b) we are in for a very long haul
    c) we must concentrate on interconnections (nexus) of discourses and reveal/reanimate
    d) we must look to critical pedagogy to reflect on network enclosure and reread Jaron Lanier
    ‘I am not a Gadget’, Neil Selwyn ‘Distrusting Education Technolgy’
    Rushkoff: ‘Program or be programmed’.
    e) avoid any missionary zeal (coming from missionary stock I retain extreme scepticism concerning my own beliefs/judgements)

    1. bon

      Simon, I’m with you right til you get to Lanier…I think the network enclosure issue is a huge deal and in effect a big part of the power politics I’m referring to here, and I wanted very much to engage with Lanier’s ideas, but You are Not a Gadget felt to me very much like someone judging the web of 2010 based on the terms and ideals of 1995…without having experienced (or at least appreciated) network effects (and thus without, IMO, understanding why enclosure is so threatening.) Perhaps I read it differently from you?

      But yes, avoid the missionary zeal. Like I say above, I’m not interested in idealizing networks. Only in comparing and contrasting and looking at overlaps and power relations. Because in there, I see this whole zeitgest trapped in amber (okay not really; it’s still moving…but I can SEE it!) and waiting to be dissected.

  4. Scott Johnson

    Do you think we filter for certainty because it is the duty of educators not to “mislead”? Even though the ability to recognize dis-utility and not be mislead is a supposed goal of education we fall over ourselves to be “right”, consistent and reliable in a time when those qualities diffuse curiosity and teach dependence.

    1. bon

      I think you put your finger on it Scott. More on this in the piece I’m working through today…stay tuned for blog ramblings part deux!

  5. Frances Bell

    Thanks Neil and Bonny for talking about economic perspective. There are multiple power relations going on -some of them intentionally covert and some unknowingly so . We can’t look at everything all at the same time but… tick, tick, tick.

    1. bon

      Frances…indeed. Tick tick tick…I feel as if, in spite of agreeing fully with Raul’s perspective below on participatory networks, that it’s the participatory stuff being discourage and enclosed by various powers that be, particularly those seeking profit. And no, they can’t do so completely – if they did, monetization would cease to be profitable for any parties – but they can discourage the great masses who will never gain the critical mass to BE monetizable from doing participatory stuff in the first place. Thus keeping the power relations a little more stable and comfortable and institutionalized, and preventing any real shift in those power relations from occurring for all but the random few who go viral. Encouraging a culture of celebrity not only commodotizes but stabilizes in favour of the status quo.

  6. Raul Pacheco-Vega

    I am a networked scholar, both online and offline. I have learned this since I was a child. I’m gregarious, sociable and since I first laid eyes on human beings I wanted to understand why humans cooperate. SERIOUSLY.

    Cooperation is a form of network-formation. Thus, it follows that studying cooperation would lead me to attempting (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to understand networks. And with social media, I began USING tools to create networks. That’s the whole idea of #ScholarSunday (building networks of like-minded scholars).

    But I built networks WITHOUT technology before. Or at least, without shiny, beautiful technology. I built them by visiting Simon Fraser University, University of Victoria, and dropping by and meeting senior professors. By attending conferences in remote places of the world and having martinis with graduate students and professors alike.

    In my humble opinion, all forms of learning are networked. Online technology and EdTech helps, but is no substitute for it. Cooperation is deeply ingrained in human ethos. Therefore, exogenous forces attempting to control how this cooperation (and thus, network-building) occurs will inevitably fail. The complex adaptive systems literature tells us this much: self-organization will enable human groups to find ways to cooperate with each other and build networks.

    The only way to control a network of learning will be participating in it. Physically and electronically and in any other mediated way possible. And as soon as you are deeply embedded in the network, you will be assimilated, like The Borg. And that, I think, is beautiful.

    Because you’ll then be part of a networked learning process. Even if you attempted to control it.

    My 2 cents :)

    1. bon

      Raul…I totally agree. Your ideal of networks (both online & off, like I said above, and participatory) is very similar to mine. But I think the power relations need unpacking, as I say above in my response to Frances. I think those of us truly IN networks – who see and use them as participatory media and not just consumer media – are difficult to enclose or to control by keeping out. It’s everybody else, and the ways current popular messages shape everybody else’s approaches and attitudes towards networks, that I’m wondering about.


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