Original Remix: Some insights and lightbulbs
In no particular order, and with scattergun reference to a range of speakers who presented on the day:
Decolonisation of the mind
It was a shake of the shoulders to hear that only a few short decades ago, initial teacher training courses would actively seek to ‘decolonise’ mindsets before sending wide-eyed new educationalists into the classroom. We discussed the now lost intention of ITT of old to delineate the socio-cultural contexts framing education with a view to perhaps dismantling them, for the benefit of students. Now, with such rapid routes into teaching and very little thinking time before hitting the chalk face, the moment of reflection in which teachers can challenge the paradigms steering their professional existence has been diminished, almost to nil.
- Are we even aware of the colonial bent affecting our contemporary thinking?
Collective memory, collective accountability
At one point someone raised the point that in this digital age we have a very visible, very updatable forum for shared memory and accountability via social media channels such as YouTube (particularly the comments) and twitter. The relevance? That new forms of expression are held to account with a scrutiny and immediacy that we, as a species, have not experienced to date. This got me thinking. So much of what we study has been cauterised and shaped and managed and moulded into a solidified history that purports to be objectively ‘true’, that it goes unchallenged. The digital age has revolutionised this, inasfar as cultural artefacts are scrutinised, and criticised with an existing record in a democratised sphere.
- Do we challenge pre-modern art in this way?
- Who is (or was) the critical community for canonical works? (If YouTube is the critical community for modern popular works, for example)
Being porous vs being shrink wrapped
The curriculum samples from a narrow field of thought, values and ideals and suffers from confirmation bias over time. This means that students become ‘shrink wrapped’, hermetically sealed from new ways of thinking about old things, or new things entirely. Even the existence of a curriculum that implicitly suggests that the best of all there is is what has been selected and studied is deeply problematic. Educators have a responsibility to encourage porous students who are receptive to new ideas and challenging thought, otherwise we risk confirming the confirmed rather than encouraging genuine insight.
- How can we make a very shrink wrapped curriculum an opportunity for permeability, when the pressures are to close the conversation rather than open it up?
Neoliberal forces in education
Education is being commodified with increasing frequency. Just consider the unending stream of bumf hitting heads of departments’ pigeon holes, selling educational solutions at a price. During my own prevention I offered the idea that we ‘dance to a neoliberal groove’, by which I mean that the purpose of formal education is still to satisfy capitalist urges. Get kids the skills and knowledge they need to prosper, or prop a system that benefits others. This perspective has bled into the delivery of education itself, with private companies such as Ark and Harris being given the remit to establish schools out of proven business models. Where pedagogic integrity sits in all this is open for debate.
The power of context
Linked to above. Being aware of the paradigm in which you operate is key to having any sense of ownership over your actions. Neoliberalism is one example, but other huge contextual forces include Colonialism, Capitalism, Liberalism and Masculinity. Some good, some problematic, some not so good, some deeply dangerous. It’s very simple: our contexts can influence our decisions in the way a riverbed dictates the water’s flow of travel. (A metaphor that Guy Claxton offered in a recent conversation I had). Once we are aware of conext, we are in a position to critique it. Summarised neatly in the bullet points below, as crafted by one of the speakers on the day:
- Map the terrain
- Break it down
- Find areas for innovation
- Either say something new, or say something old in a new way
- Compare and critique
The educational landscape must be interrogated in this manner to avoid blind reinforcement of ideas we didn’t create in the first place. In my talk, I referenced Hirsch as a huge influence on our educational ideas, with the whole ‘knowledge as power’ approach steering our educational drive.
Sampling vs ‘new languages’
When notoriously political artist Ai Wei Wei used mangled iron rods to make comment on the state’s attitude to natural disaster and tragic loss of life, he spoke to audiences in a new unfamiliar language, offering cryptic, elusive codes that created dissonance and asked for new thinking. Saying something in the same way it has been said before offers recognisability and ease of understanding, but this can be at the expense of useful frictions.
- As educators, which ‘languages’ have we been given?
- How can we create useful dissonance and friction for students to interrogate received knowledge (steered by aforementioned contexts)?
The destructive power of the single story
It’s nothing new that the curriculum tells a singular, predominantly monochrome, heavily gendered story, but seeing the texts that constitute the KS3 and 4 curriculum in black and white was a cold reminder of Dead White Man model of literary education that we continue to run. More illuminating was the discussion surrounding the Enlightenment. An argument proposed was that this period of ‘enlightened’ thinking was actually born from a need to inoculate certain cultural ideals into a generation of privileged elite who were poised to go globe-trotting – an endeavour that risks irreparable cultural damage. The result? Cultural ideals define what is considered important, confirmed and reconfirmed every time we dust off the canon and turn pages on ‘the classics’.
For educators, especially ones entering a scholarly heritage, it is imperative to stop confusing intellectual identity with cultural elite. Here, I was introduced to the work of Lisa Jardine, who has interrogated the Renaissance and asked questions of how this period reflected hierarchies in status and control.
- Whose story are we telling?
- Are there any tokenistic nods to diversity? What do they suggest about the single story?
There’s an intimidatingly long German word I have never come across before that will forever affect my attitude towards progressivism in education. Reformpadagogik.
As educators, we need to be hyper-sensitive to perceived societal and cultural needs, specifically the gaps between these needs and existing arrangements. In short, if the curriculum is not fit for actual purposes, there is a problem that needs to be addressed.
- Is it even possible to craft a meaningful and apt curriculum without first listing societal and cultural needs? (And regularly reconsidering any conclusions reached)
I loved this definition, complete with an all-important hyphen. Western educational systems are guilty of returning to the same cycles of thought that promote the same hieracrchal structures. This re-cycling can confirm problematic hierarchies. The irony is that many of the most revered thinkers in popular English intellectualism actively break the cycle and operate in slippage and code switching, eg: Shakespeare, Stephen Fry, Monty Python.
Knowing your samples is key
For depth and integrity. Knowledge of the original contexts for a particular idea, thought or artefact is as important as appreciation of that idea, though or artefact. Not only because you might miss some of the depth linked to the original source material, but because you will not be aware of what has been lost. Seeing examples of poor artistic appropriation / theft in which nuance and meaning ins lost highlighted the danger of wholesale theft. Meanwhile, the risk of pastiche that comes from sampling without deliberation and intent (eg: Justin Bieber making Dancehall vs Rihanna making Dancehall) can lead to meaningless work that asks no questions and serves no purpose. For educators, the lesson is clear: we must know where our assumptions and ideologies come from, because chances are they are rooted in sources of old.
When done properly, sampling can bring an idea back into relevance or celebrate the original, confirming its worth in a contemporary context. Remixing is celebratory and disrespectful in equal measure, but deliberate remix and sample work is rooted in integrity.
- How can we have integrity of we don’t interrogate the roots of our ideals, values and assumptions?
To conclude, I’m going to sample a line from Spider-Man folklore (that no doubt has been inspired from somewhere else along the line)
‘With great sampling comes great responsibility’
There were no easy answers or clean solutions to the ethos of sampling, and as you can see from my ramblings above, we really did dance across modern history. Debates raged on whether or not and why Kanye West might have sampled ‘Strange Fruit’ to riff on his personal tribulations and relationship issues, and consensus was not reached. But that’s the point. Sampling and intertextual play is an invitation to friction, where context bubbles to the surface in the debate over artistic intent and ideological integrity.