“Never Let Schooling Get in the Way of Your Education” and Other Stories

For those readers who don’t get enough of me in my daily posts here (I know that must describe, maybe, three or four people out there who seriously need to get a life), I guest blogged yesterday and today over on PBS’s Media Shift site. If you go there you can find two posts dealing with the relationship between education and participatory culture, which touch on some of the work we have been doing through our New Media Literacies Project.

Here’s a sample of what I talk about in Thursday’s post, “Learning Through Remixing”:

America’s children are become media-makers: they are blogging, designing their own websites, podcasting, modding games, making digital movies, creating soundfiles, constructing digital images, and writing fan fiction, to cite just a few examples. As they do so, they are discovering what previous generations of artists knew: art doesn’t emerge whole cloth from individual imaginations. Rather, art emerges through the artist’s engagement with previous cultural materials. Artists build on, take inspiration from, appropriate and transform other artist’s work: they do so by tapping into a cultural tradition or deploying the conventions of a particular genre. Beginning artists undergo an apprenticeship phase during which they try on for size the styles and techniques of other more established artists. And even well established artists work with images and themes that already have some currency within the culture. Of course, this isn’t generally the way we talk about creativity in schools, where the tendency is still to focus on individual artists who rise upon or stand outside any aesthetic tradition.

Most of the classics we teach in the schools are themselves the product of appropriation and transformation or what we would now call sampling and remixing. So Homer remixed Greek myths to construct The Iliad and the Odyssey; Shakespeare sampled his plots and characters from other author’s plays; The Sistine Chapel Ceiling mashes up stories and images from across the entire Biblical tradition. Lewis Carroll spoofs the vocabulary of exemplary verses which were a standard part of formal education during his period. Many core works of the western canon emerged through a process of retelling and elaboration: the figure of King Arthur goes from an obscure footnote in an early chronicle into the full blown text of Mort D’Arthur in a few centuries as the original story gets built upon by many generations of storytellers.

The post goes on to discuss a range of media literacy projects — include our own work teaching children how to rework the Cantina scene from Star Wars — are teaching kids to understand how culture works by breaking down familiar texts and putting them back together again. It builds on some of the issues raised in my interview with Renee Hobbs on Monday.

Today’s post, “Never Let Schooling Get in the Way of Your Education,” talks about home schooling, “unschooling,” and informal learning, tapping James Gee’s concept of “affinity spaces” to talk about such groups as fan fiction writers, gamers, and poetry enthusiasts. (I plan to write more about the later group over here in the next week or so.) But it starts with a more personal account of our decision to home school my son for a year:

Some years ago, my wife, my son, and I came to a parting of the ways with the Sommerville Public School System. We felt the schooling process was failing our son. The science teacher conducted no experiments but simply had students write answers to study questions while he worked crossword puzzles in front of the class. The literature instructor had managed to walk them paragraph by paragraph through a single, not particularly challenging novel for the entire school year. And the history class had not progressed much past the American Revolution after 9 months.

The social environment of the school was hostile. When the other kids were taunting my son by throwing basketballs at him during gym, we suggested he spend a period sitting next to the teacher. When my son’s abusers accidentally hit her with a ball, she asked him to move rather than dealing with the bullies. The school was neither going to nurture his curiosity nor protect his dignity.

My wife and I had decided we wanted to take action but weren’t sure how our son would feel about it. One day he asked us if he could stop going to that school and we shocked everyone by saying yes. He had mixed feelings from the start but we plowed forward anyway.

We had been reluctant to add to the ranks of Cambridge faculty members who were not supporting the public schools. We had both been a product of public education ourselves. But at the end of the day, the needs of the child came first. We were reminded of what my father used to say, “never let schooling get in the way of your education.

Anyway, I thought these two posts might interest some of you who regularly read this blog.