Sunday, October 26, 2008

Storyteller's Concert in Lough Rynn Castle

So we were down in Leitrim for the weekend and didn't we discover as we arrived that this was the most interesting of weekend's to be in Mohill. The Storytelling festival and the horse fair were both on. Maire and I went to a storytelling concert in Lough Rynn castle and it was an enthralling experience. What struck me above all was the manner in which we become mesmermised by good stories and how the craft of storytelling is still very important in the modern world.
Coincidentally the previous day we had a Friday lunchtime seminar on learning and teaching in the College and the importance of stories and good case studies was emphasised. The role of narrative as a vehicle for learning has always been important -it is perhaps the oldest way of education.
Often I come across instrumental approaches to teaching -the idea is to break up the content and to distil the important points and 'give' notes to students for later reproduction. We then seem baffled when there is little retention or deep level learning. The stark presentation of abstract concepts is of little value to students grappling with these concepts for the first time.
Old wisdom was handed down through generations embedded within the stories of the time. These stories act like egg yoke providing nourishment to the knowledge and ideas buried within the narrative.
Of particular interest was the genesis story as told by Clare Muireann Murphy which she attributes to a fellow story teller from Spain. In that story God creates man and women and makes them blind and set apart across a river in huts surrounded by noisey leaves so that He could hear if they got up to anything. Inevitably lust plays its part and they are cast out and as in other versions we have woman as crafty instigator and man as mindless instinct.
I believe that genesis stories are archetypes describing the nature of human learning and development. A kind of 'curiosity killed the cat'. Except that the place where Adam and Eve start out Eden -a garden or as in Clare's story a hut by a river is usually portrayed as nice but empty. Something is missing? And surely what's absent is inquiry, questioning and curiosity -in the Spanish story the two participants find their eyelids covered over by skin. When they release their eyes (which were always underneath) they get up to devilment. But its pleasurable and compelling and eventually they are cast out of the place of tranquility.
This is the human prediciment -we strive to change and progress and with these strivings we bring risk upon ourselves. But this is what we do -this is what we've always done and for all the Edens I prefer to take my chances with curiosity and spend my time out here outside the garden.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

An Organic Approach to Teaching and How Digital Media Make it Possible

In recent years the trend in digital media design has been toward extending the natural reach of human capacities.
Digital cameras for example are not just getting smaller and lighter but they are becoming easier to use. Background technologies now compensate for low light levels, camera shake, poor composition and other errors. All the user needs to do is point and click.
The irony is that increasingly complex technology often gives rise to simpler and more natural functionality. Give a camera to a six year old and watch what happens.
The same trend can be seen in other designs -technologies such as the wii controller, voice recognition and intuitive Internet interfaces are helping to hide technology and foreground functionality. Ironically, these advanced digital technologies are becoming more transparent and users take them for granted. These designs give rise to new possibilities in teaching and learning.
Traditionally, we've organised much of school teaching around the development of essential skills the so-called 3r's -reading, writing and arithmetic. There are few who would deny the importance of these skills for the modern world and because they are important we can't wait to get our children up to speed as early as possible. The progress of children in learning these skills is constantly measured and we've developed standards such as reading age -we can even compare these standards with those of children in other countries.
Our school system has an end point -the Leaving Certificate for most. Once again there is much measurement and comparison at the output stage. This sorting and grading process helps decide who will progress to what courses in higher and further education.
Why is our education system structured in this way? It is a combination of multitude of factors and influences historical, cultural and practical. Class rooms of today have changed little in the last one hundred years both in the layout and in the activities that take place within.
This is not to deny the great advances that have been made in terms of pedagogic innovation, the professionalism of teachers or the excellent work of the numerous bodies associated with educational reform and continuous improvement. However, relative to other areas of society schools and specifically the craft and science of teaching has not been permitted to achieve it's full potential in preparing our children for a future where the only certainty is that it will be radically different from what we know today.
I argue that just like modern farming we have over-engineered our education system, we have over-relied on fostering narrow skills, we are obsessed with measurement, we continuously intervene in learning, we confine the site of learning to the classroom and we strive to make people homogeneous in their thinking. All of this leads in the end to economic and social perils.
Just like farming we need a new approach and what I call for is a kind of organic movement in learning and teaching.
We need to recognise that learning is a natural process, that all people are curious and have a desire to be competent and connected in society. We need to appreciate the inquiry cycle of ask, investigate, create, communicate and reflect. Above all we need to provide children with the tools that help them learn the world through inquiry.
Why has this not happened before and why is it possible now? The answer is simple about a hundred years ago we removed the site of learning from the lived-world and placed it within the confines of the class room. While many students cope by acquiring there understanding of the world through the abstract processes facilitated by the 3 r's -many others are left behind. Without the essential skills they are left out, unconnected and disengaged.
Until now that is. Well designed digital technologies afford connection, engagement, expression, creativity and learning. They facilitate these transparently -without the need for complex prerequisite skills. Children now have access tools that extend their natural capacities to communicate, participate and make meaning of the world. In the classrooms we've observed as part of the Digital Literacy in Irish Primary Schools (DLIPS) research project we've seen this process in action. Like the example we witnessed of inner city 8 year old boys working in groups making banana splits and recording the process -a role for each child one on the camera, one peeling and slicing, one sloshing on the cream and one writing down the process. Later their picture story set to music, projected and replayed in celebration of all that had been achieved and most significantly achieved by all.
And at last, either now or in the very near future, teachers can get on with what they do best -making learning happen. These teachers who harness the natural conditions of learning will better prepare students for the future.
And yes we will still have the 3r's but they'll stand for something different -R for real questioning, R for relatedness to community and R for reflection on practice. This will be organic teaching made possible with digital media. Watch this space.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Great Music and Quick Fingers

Had a call from Tom with an out of the blue to join him and his son Shane at a gig in town -part of the Ireland Guitar Festival. Josco Stephan and his band and later joined by Tommy Emmanuel were the bill for the night. I have to confess that I had not heard of these before and was not sure what to expect. As the small theatre filled up (The Suger Club) I was convinced that everyone attending was a guitar head and was a little worried that the show would be my taste. How wron I was! These guys were brilliant! and one of the freshest sounds that I've heard in years. Technically the musicians were awesome but more than that they lived every note and made the music meaningful engaging. Have a look at the you tube videos and see what I mean and watch out if they ever come your way. Afterwards Tom, Shane and I had a really interesting conversation over dinner on whether music and art were historically situated in culture or more fundamentally rooted which minds me to point the reader toward this podcast from Benjamin Zander addresses the same issue.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Ed Tech 2008

Attended EdTech 2008 held in Dundalk IT (DKIT) and presented my own paper on Conceptions of Digital Literacy posted on slideshare. Quite an excellent conference and a good blend of practical and research content. Of note the GOAL project on adult learning
and the extensive use of in other institutions.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Web and the Unconscious

Most psychoanalytical models of the human mind use a depth metaphor to suggest the division between the conscious and the unconscious. Typically Jungian approaches use the idea that the mind is like an island jutting out of the sea with only so-much showing above the surface. The visible component represents the conscious, the tidal zone the personal unconscious and the zone below the collective unconscious.
A sense of depth is itself a value laden construct. We envisage the bottom of the sea with ugly fish and black darkness. That's a scary unconscious.

There is another way of looking at this what I think is a more useful metaphor.

Look at the following system -the Internet. We could, metaphorically, view this as a form of cognitive consciousness. Alongside this we have individual and societal processes that build, shape and grow the Internet system. This other system is not overtly evident on the Internet it is only accessible through the symbol system of the net. If we were to imagine an alien species that had no way of contacting humans but by some fluke of science could find access to the entire Internet we could ask -what way would they 'model' human beings from the evidence available to them? How accurate would this be?
In the same way we do not have direct access to our unconscious and we rely on language and symbol systems to model it.

Monday, April 14, 2008


We are all storytellers and we are the stories we tell
The above is a quotation (in fact it's the opening line) from a book I'm reading called Identity and Story Creating Self in Narrative by McAdams Josselson and Lieblich (2006) APA Washington.
Why do we tell stories about ourselves?
There are always at least two people involved the storyteller and the listener. I like to think about a self-story as a type of connection between two points in time and place. A bridge between two sets of events the narrative and the present -the moment of telling.
Self-stories are constructed in the telling and they are an important fabric in the perpetual process of self-identity formation.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Jacques Lacan

French psychoanalytical theorist who' s influence continues today most notably advocated by Slavoj Zizek.
in turn, reinterprets Freud and in particular, the difficult concept of the unconscious. Lacan links language and the unconscious and suggests that the unconscious is structured like a language. This resonates with some of Freud's ideas as articulated in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious and his earlier work on The Interpretation of Dreams.

Lacan is also known for his theory of the Mirror Stage. This occurs in infants who at that stage develop a capacity that is evidenced by their reaction of recognition when they see their own image in a mirror. What is this capacity? It is a conceptual act, the establishment of 'I' (the ego) and an essential foundation for social functioning and a precursor to language. (Why do we use language? To communicate with others!)

Lacan proposes that reality for humans is comprised of a trilogy of levels the Real, Imaginary and Symbolic orders.

I see these as registers of the mind ways of knowing.

Zizek provides a useful analogy - consider the game of chess: at one level, corresponding to the Symbolic, we have the rules of the game, at another level we have the representation of the pieces as, for example, a knight or a pawn, this is the Imaginary and at the third level we have the actual game itself, all aspects of it, including the thinking of the players , the physical surroundings etc..

Language works at the level of the Symbolic and it is always influenced by the big Other.

Language is not a passive exchange - when we communicate we operate within a frame of reference (a concept from Mezirow in turn from Habbermas). Lacan reifies this as the big Other - he gives it a form that recognises how we think. For example, a religious person may process thoughts as what God would like me to say or do, or perhaps a person has a strong ideological framework as with communism - this will shape all that is uttered.

What then of the Real and the Imaginary?

The Real is usually recognised by an absence rather in the same way that we respond to a disequilibrium. We don't perceive it directly but rather through our responses.

So here's an example of my own making that gets at what I think Lacan was attempting to point to. I met a colleague recently and I said "Isn't it terrible what's been happening in Limerick yet another gangland murder yesterday"

He responded "Shocking when will it ever stop".

This is just a small part of a typical verbal exchange that takes place between people every day. Look at the levels or registers, or as Lacan would say 'orders' of the discourse.

There is the Symbolic order this comprises the words exchanged and our shared cultural understanding of, for example, what we mean when we say 'gangland' and further our shared collection of connotations for Limerick.

I would describe the Symbolic order as a form of literacy.

The next level is the Imaginary order. When I say "Isn't it terrible I am referring to a specific recent murder the most recent in a spate. I have a way of imagining a murder it's certainly a very sanitized format.

Let me call it a visualization but note that the perception may not all be visual in nature. This visualization for me is tame, very tame for a murder. I leave out a huge amount of detail - so my imagined form is constructed by me in a way that I can use it and not get too upset by it. Notice, that the Imaginary order is not a complete picture, such a picture would be unworkable in everyday life.

Now consider the Real order. This is everything that is not part of the Symbolic or the Imaginary. I call it the inconceivable. What's our way of knowing this? We indirectly detect by imbalance or absence-as in when we use the phrase 'the breakdown of law and order'. There's lots left out - the fragility of life, the sociological crisis in areas of Limerick, injustices, capacity for evil.

This is as far as I will go for now with Lacan.

There is a link to a good web site on Lacan above.


Some notes Carl Jung and Motivation

Jung and others emphasise the unconscious.
The suggestion is that we need to question the contribution of the unconscious to motivation. Jung uses the terms psyche and psychic rather than mind and mental.
Jung sees the unconscious aspect of the psyche as different but complimentary to the conscious. Jung sees the psyche as a dynamic system, in constant flux and self-regulating . He calls the psychic energy libido acting out a form of opposition and compensation. Forward (progression) and backward (regression) movement of the libido -think of adaptation (to one's environment) and accommodation (change in mind). Some idea of flow between the conscious and the unconscious. And by the way regression (which often gets a bad press) is not a bad thing.
Jung also talks about symbols and signs. A sign as a substitute or representation of a real thing while a symbol is a wider representation.

The conscious aspect of the psyche may be compared with an island jutting out of the sea. The island could be seen as the ego the bit above the water. Now there's lots of stuff that we either forget, have repressed or suppressed; all of these occupy the personal unconscious. The island metaphor places the personal unconscious as just beneath the surface theoretically recoverable.

What lies deeper still is the collective unconscious.
The tendency to experience the world in a manner shaped by the collective past history of mankind is what Jung called archetypal and archetypes are a form of human blueprint for intuition.

A complex is a type of grouping of ideas around a basic nucleus.
There are dispositional and environmental contributors to complexes. Complexes can arise in the conscious and unconscious. Unconscious complexes can appear to act or drive independently of the ego.

So what is the drive through life -the propulsion?
Jung found the answer to this question gradually evolved itself during years of work with patients, and borrowed the word 'individuation' to describe it. There were, he found, a relatively large number of people who, while cured in the ordinary sense of the word, either persisted in continuing their analytical treatment, which he defined as 'the dialectical discussion between the conscious mind and the unconscious', people were seeking a goal, something like a quest for wholeness.

Conscious and unconscious do not make a whole when one of them is suppressed and injured by the other. If they must contend, let it at least be a fair fight with equal rights on both sides. Both are aspects of life. Consciousness should defend its reason and protect itself, and the chaotic life of the unconscious should be given the chance of having its way too -- as much of it as we can stand. This means open conflict and open collaboration at once. That, evidently, is the way human life should be. It is the old game of hammer and anvil: between them the patient iron is forged into an indestructible whole, an 'individual'. This, roughly, is what I mean by the individuation process. 15

15. 'Conscious, Unconscious, and Individuation' (C.W., 9, i), pars. 522-3

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Question of Psychoanalysis

I face a challenge every time I engage with psychoanalytical theories and theorists. I'm never really sure as to the substance and value of the approach. I remain detached and skeptical and tend to apply a higher degree of critical appraisal. On the other hand I sense that there are some very important ideas in this field and that part of the challenge is the complex and intimate nature of what's being studied.
In this series of blogs I propose to review psychoanalytical thinkers and their theories and to work through their ideas to see what stacks up in. To begin with, I intend to look closely at three of the founding theorists Freud, Jung and Lacan and to provide an overview of their main ideas and work.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

No Country for old Men

Went to see No Country for Old Men with J. Quite a good film typical Coen brothers. Lots of open country and murders. Yes murders!
But what of the plot. Well quite a story really and a puzzling ending. We talked about it afterwards always a sign of a good film.
What else can be done on a wet day.
What about the ending. I think it’s courageous for a box office type movie to take on such a creative ending.
The sherif Bell tries to sort out his world as he begins his retirement. Here is a section from the script:
... How'd you sleep?
I don't know. Had dreams.
Well you got time for 'em now.
Anything interesting?
Well they always is to the party
Ed Tom, I'll be polite.
Okay. Two of 'em. Both had my
father. It's peculiar. I'm older
now'n he ever was by twenty years. So
in a sense he's the younger man.
Anyway, first one I don't remember so
well but it was about meetin' him in
town somewheres and he give me some
money and I think I lost it. The
second one, it was like we was both
back in older times and I was on
horseback goin' through the mountains
of a night. Goin' through this pass in *
the mountains. It was cold and
snowin', hard ridin'. Hard country.
He rode past me and kept on goin'.
Never said nothin' goin' by. He just
rode on past and he had his blanket
wrapped around him and his head down. *
And when he rode past I seen he was *
carryin' fire in a horn the way people
used to do and I could see the horn
from the light inside of it. About
the color of the moon.
And in the dream I knew that he was
goin' on ahead and that he was fixin'
to make a fire somewhere out there in
all that dark and all that cold, and I
knew that whenever I got there he
would be there. And then I woke up. *
By the way although the book is by Cormac McCarthy the title is obviously a reference to the poem Sailing to Byzantium by WB Yeats.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees -
Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
-- William Butler Yeats