Engaging with Geetha Narayanan’s proposal of slow and whole learning (last week in change.mooc.ca) was an interesting exercise of trying to make sense of something so far removed from my present context, that I was left feeling disoriented for a huge part of last week. [Actually I was born disoriented so these feelings are not necessarily new :-)].
In her paper, Geetha shares the fact that her proposals are often met with disbelief. Her ideas are furthermore described as “heretic” and “dangerous”. She writes: “Dangerous ideas … go beyond merely questioning fads and fashions, or even challenging memes, [and] can be powerful ideas; ideas that foster creativity and spawn innovation in the truest sense of the word”. Although I can identify with her positioning of herself and her ideas as being on the margins of the dominant discourses of the day; I was left disoriented trying to make sense of her ideas in the context of a mega open distance learning (ODL) institution with more than 400,000 students (and growing).
Geetha shares the basic tenets of the “Coalition of Essential Schools” which drive the “small schools movement” in the US and shares her discomfort with the idea that “small” will necessarily address the problem of the lack of meaning in mainstream education. “Project Vision” was therefore born as counter-narrative celebrating the notion of “small” but also to embed and integrate these small schools in local communities, often in underserved, marginalised and slum areas.
Project Vision “addresses … fundamental inequities by shifting the notion of a school from a fixed place to a set of spaces that exist and operate simultaneously within and without the community” (emphasis added). These spaces include Community Learning Centres within each slum community; Idea-Media centres (serving different purposes and are common and shared spaces); the Expedition (real and natural sites for introspection, contemplation and active, participatory learning); and the Network (wired/wireless links that integrate community members with one another and the rest of the world).
I completely agree with her that “changes in structure and form are meaningless without corresponding changes in pedagogy”. [Also see the article by Ertmer (2005), “Teacher pedagogical beliefs: The final frontier in our quest for technology integration”].
Geetha therefore proposes “slowness as pedagogy” to allow “students to learn not at the metronome of the school day or the school bell, but at the metronome of nature, giving them time to absorb, to introspect, to contemplate, to argue and to enjoy). Learning opportunities are co-created and encompass looking and listening, exploring and thinking, as well as making and being. “The goal of our slowness pedagogy is to generate the more creative, more lyrical and the playful aspects of learning and represent it in the many languages of children”.
Particularly interesting is the “learning arrangements” which promote and foster slowness such as themes or topics for study are not prescribed but are emergent, project-based, using large blocks of time grouping learners in collaborative, vertical heterogeneous groups.
I find her proposal a necessary and timely counter-narrative to the industrialised character underpinning and guiding much distance education where economies of scale result in massive enrolments, often with scant formative assessment, even lesser learning and most probably resulting in disconnected graduates – disconnected from themselves, their communities and the broader issues such as sustainability and increasing inequalities.
So far so good – albeit slowly.
Making sense of Geetha’s proposal in my own context is however another story.
Enrolments in higher education in South Africa increase annually as higher education is seen and sold as the panacea for all our country’s problems. My own institution’s enrolment figures are well over 400,000 this year and growing. Our undergraduate modules are offered in two semesters per year, each entailing a 14 week tuition period. This barely leaves enough time for postal delivery in a developing country and two assignments before a summative examination. Most students take too many modules (courses) due to many factors including the general need to graduate as soon as possible in order to join the throngs of other unemployed graduates. Many students are not interested in learning and growing but in passing the examination before moving on to the next registration period.
Faculty and professional staff are not aloof to this madness and face meticulously scheduled course development cycles and often massive (and relentless) administrative burden and performance management systems. Often faculty and professional staff, inundated with the industrialised character of their institutions forget (and forsake) their original dreams of making a difference to other people’s lives through education.
Sadly, even open distance learning (ODL) which is supposed to celebrate the different spaces in which education can be possible, succumb to the meta-narratives inherent in drop-off-and-go industrialised education.
Geetha’s article prompted the following questions:
How possible is it that ODL institutions can allow for curricula to emerge from student contexts and communities where student learning needs within specific contexts determine curricula and assessment? How possible are creative, lyrical and playful curricula and pedagogies in an industrialised model of education? How possible and viable is a counter-narrative in a higher education system which is sold out to the highest bid of neoliberal market ideologies and academic capitalism?
My disorientation and depression deepens…