Education as a Gift Economy

The Gift
I originally posted this piece in 2012 to the group blog “Cooperative Catalyst” (a wonderful site where I first met David Loitz, John Spencer, Paul Freedman (of the Salmonberry School) and other amazing educators.  Having just read another amazing article by Arthur Chiaravalli on his journey to gradelessness, I was reminded of the notion of teaching and learning as a type of economy.  I’m reviving this article here as I’d like to think it might spark some discussion regarding the “economies” of education, especially given all the recent and growing criticisms of the “neoliberal agenda” in the realm of education.  (See here, here, and, most importantly in our Trumpian world, here for more on this interesting critique.)

Merry Christmas…

Einstein Teaching

In a monthly meeting at my middle school, we were discussing the issue of grades and homework.  I thought this bit from Prof. Einstein might offer some way of illuminating part of the discussion we were having, but it has led me even further down a wondrous rabbit hole, so far it demanded a blog post of me.

I’ll begin with an assumption, namely that parents don’t send our children to school with the solitary belief that after 12 years and college they’ll land a solid job and make more money than we ourselves do and thus perpetuate a sort of social mobility that, for a large portion of the population, doesn’t even exist anymore.  We send them to school because we believe, whether we know it or not, that a public education will provide the sort of well-rounded, liberal education that will help our children grow into good people.  Thus, when a teacher tells my oldest child, as his kindergarten teacher did once, that school is his job, well…I bristle and my wife has to hold me back from making a scene and assuring a dire future for “the children of that man.”

As regards Einstein’s observation, the assumption is couched in these words: “Never regard study [read, “school”] as a duty [read, “job”] but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs.”  Too often students do see study as a duty and only that.  It is our job as teachers to change that perspective, to enlighten them, which is, so far as I’m concerned, the ultimate end of education–light:  light for ourselves, but also light for the community.  Education, then, is not about racing to the top and “winning” (whatever that means/looks like it probably has something to do with grades and test scores), which so far as I can tell is a very solitary thing…solitary, competitive and hardly healthy for our children, our system, our world.

You see, I agree with Einstein’s framing teaching as a gift.  Several years ago I attended a one-day conference at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking called, “Why Write?”  Which was, of course, about why we (teachers) write and teach writing.  The common text we studied for the conference was a book by Lewis Hyde called, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.  

The GiftHyde’s premise is that there are some human endeavors (the arts, obviously, but I include teaching in that group) that escape the traditional exchange economies of “I give you money…you give me a good or a service.” Teaching, as I mentioned, is not, or rather, ought not be thought of as part of an exchange economy.  Rather, it is part of a “gift economy” (I defer now to Wikipedia’s explanation):  For Lewis Hyde, the gift is an object that must continuously circulate throughout a society in order to keep its gift qualities. In this way the gift perishes for the person who gives it away, even though the gift itself is able to live on precisely because it has been passed on. He calls this the “paradox of the gift”: even though it is used up, it is not extinguished. This gift exchange is responsible for establishing connections and emotional ties between people which in turn serve as a basis for community and social cohesion.

“The gift lives on because it has been passed on….”  Tell me that’s not teaching.  I don’t impart knowledge.  No.  It is not that that “perishes for the [teacher] who gives it away.”  Rather, I impart a way of being in the world, a way of approaching problems and paradoxes and conundrums and to say (paraphrasing Einstein again) that the mystery is the most miraculous thing we can experience.  Teaching is a strange gift, though, in that I feel no sense of loss, nothing perishes with the gift I offer, perhaps because I truly offer nothing.  I’m simply revealing themselves to themselves…Awakening the genius, if you will.  And it is that sense of genius that is part and parcel to this “way of being” over which I wax so poetic.

Back to Einstein, then:  “Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift….”  It is, for many of us, a perspective flip that requires great effort…to view teaching as part of a gift economy and to view the student as something more than a repository for all the weighty hopes, fears, lies, dreams, wishes and anxieties we ourselves have about the future and “the real world.”  When we teach that way, we rob children of their own lives and potential in the name of some perceived future which, in all truth, we can never see with any clarity.  But when we offer ourselves, our art, as a gift, then we offer them the chance to know the “liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit.”

I know the difficulty of the perspective flip that precedes the offering and the truth of the gift economy–that one need not ever accept a gift.  Thus, just as in the capitalist economic model where a student need not “buy” what a teacher is selling, the same is true of the gift economy–the student need not accept the gift.  But oh!  How much more simple it is to accept when nothing is required in return.

 

A View from the Crossroads: Design as Liberal Education

The emergence of design thinking in the twentieth century . . . lies in a concern to connect and integrate useful knowledge from the arts and sciences alike, but in ways that are suited to the problems and purposes of the present.  

All men and women require a liberal art of design to live well in the complexity of the framework based in signs, things, actions, and thoughts.

–Richard Buchanan, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”

Complexity Rules

The world is not getting any simpler.

Ok, I have a firm grasp of the obvious.  But let’s be clear and clichéd: children today will inherit a world we can hardly imagine  Little of what we teach them will be relevant even 10 years from now.  What, then, do we do to help our educational system, which always changes at a glacial pace, keep up with an increasingly shifting and complex world?  

A.J. Juliani and John Spencer’s new book, Empower  (2017) offers a reframing of the issue when they write:  “Our job as teachers, parents, and leaders is not to prepare kids for ‘something,’ our job is to help kids prepare themselves for ‘anything.’”  Such inspiration is wonderful, but what does this preparation look like?  What are its implications for education?

Please check out the rest of this blog post at Plusus.

 

Extraordinaires Design Club: Designerly Minded Teachers

As followers of this blog may know, I have been working with and observing a group of Middle School learners since late November as they meet weekly to play and learn with the Extraordinaires Design Studio.  We started in November and December by getting to know one another,  learning about user-centered design and empathy’s central place in that endeavor, and exploring the Design Studio kits.

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In the intervening months, we have learned more about visualizing ideas, practiced the ancient Greek technique of “ekphrasis” with a high-school student and a Hollywood writer/producer/director, built 20-minute prototypes from Dollar Store parts; we even skyped with Rory O’Connor, one of the designers responsible for the Extraordinaires and generally had a lot of fun imagining how the world might be a better place, not only for the extraordinary characters who are the Extraordinaires, but also for us.

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However, the most interesting and rewarding event of the year and the one that holds the most promise for moving design-based learning into more of the classes in my own district was the Extraordinaires Design Sprint we held for teachers at Perkiomen Valley Middle School East on Wednesday, May 17th.

Over the course of four club meetings, the students in the Extraordinaires Design Club and I organized an experience for teachers that combined the Extraordinaires Design Studio, design activity sheets from the teacher’s resources page of the Extraordinaires website, and the Cooper-Hewitt’s “Ready, Set, Design” activity.  Teamed in pairs, six teachers from different disciplines received an Extraordinaire, a Project Card, and a Think Card.  They also received a brown paper bag containing equal parts of “structures, fasteners, and surfaces.”  Pairs squared off against pairs to compete for awards. Two teams designed cooking utensils for The Giant, two teams designed an object to clean yourself with for The Robot, and two teams (had we had more in attendance) would have designed a music player for The Superhero.

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I’ll not detail the full lesson here.  If you would like to run the lesson with your students, use it in professional development sessions, or just play around with it on your own, you can find a link to it here.  (If you do use the lesson, drop a comment back to me letting me know how it went, what modifications you made, etc.)

The club has one more meeting, next Wednesday, May 24.  We’ll be sharing ideas and stories from the year, reflecting on what worked and what we could have done better, and developing positive, critical feedback on the Extraordinaires product itself.

The Modern Learner: Dancing to Learn

iStock_000020371243Small_largeI link below to the blog and youtube channel of a student who has taken a passion project/20Time project to levels far beyond my expectations.  If you’re an educator of any sort, you should take a look at her work.  While she is certainly an exceptional student,  she could easily be languishing in classrooms that sap her energy and deny her access to her curiosity.

Instead, Irina has created opportunities and taken hold of those presented to her to pursue her curiosity and interests.  This is the modern learner, the innovator, the self-determined learner.

This is the future of education, and it is now.

As educators, we know that we need to question ourselves constantly.  And while it may be exhausting, we need to find ways to be in a constant, iterative cycle.  Change is everywhere, and it is represented strongly in our students, especially those like Irina.   We can either lead with them or get out of their way.  But if we think conducting our classes the same way we always have will help students like Irina learn what they need in a world that has always outpaced our glacially paced system, we’re mistaken and worse, an anachronism.

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Commotion — Blog

Youtube Channel

The Chaotic Arrow: Musing on the Importance of Perception in School Change.

Thursday’s blog post from George Couros got me thinking, as normal.    Take a look at it, especially at the line drawings for what constitutes “Success.”

 These doodles are true enough (you’ll also find the squiggle as the Design Squiggle ) to the pathways we perceive as leading to success and the meanderings that actually do.  In that, the straight arrow stands as a warning to the pretensions of linearity that typify most of our endeavors at schooling and its reform…STILL!  (I mean, come on.  We talked about this back in the 80s, 60s, 20s….)

Anyway, George has written another great post for teachers and teacher leaders.  If we are thinking of change, at whatever level, be it one teacher in the classroom, or one building, or a district as a whole, let’s admit to ourselves that our narrative will not trace the unwavering flight of an arrow.  That’s as illusory and destructive as the notion that time itself is an arrow.

MissLandsatFeatured-300x336Instead of an arrow, the change in which we engage will more resemble the narrative of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the great, muddy, messy river at the heart of the novel.  Change meanders,  ox-bows, turns back, crosses itself, confuses, drifts, gathers.  It is at once powerfully beautiful, and powerfully frightening.    And so the question for innovators in schools is really how do we make all of the learners (students, teachers, admin, support staff, etc.) floating down our own great river of change, education, understand and honor that the trip will rarely…should ever…be as straight and efficient as a line?

Answers to that question are complicated by the fact that any talk of change breeds fear, and that fear stems from the perception that something (comfort, safety, status) will be lost when we change.  This is especially true of districts like my own which label themselves with that perennial deflation, “We’re good enough.”    The real answer to how we get all learners on board the riverboat to effective change is that we need to help them shift their perspective.  If we can do that, then “fear” is replaced with “conviction,” “risk” with “opportunity,” and “failure” with “learning.”

shiftBut shifting perspectives is difficult.  It takes a willingness to see one’s self differently and an understanding that we are the only real engines of change.  It also takes a willingness to accept one’s power and its attendant responsibilities.

If we are to start shifting perspectives, we can hardly start in a better place than two simple questions.  “Why are things the way they are?”  and “How can we make them better.”  The first question opens us to an understanding that the built world is born of intention, that all the objects, experiences, apps, and systems we have made are responses to solving problems, and some of them do so better, with more focus on an understanding of the users than others.  The second question reminds us that we are the creators, the agents of change.  It empowers those who have forgotten their power and enlightens those who never realized they had it.