What Can Teachers Learn from DIY Cultures: An Interview with Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel (Part Two)

A central goal of the book is to help teachers to understand how DIY practices might inform their engagement with their students. This DIY media production has historically been something young people do on their own, outside of school, so what do you see as the value of bringing it into the classroom?

The first point to make here is that becoming a bit familiar with DIY media practices can help inform teachers’ teaching and learning interactions with students without the practices necessarily having to come into the classrooms. There are two aspects we would like to touch on here before looking at what the value might be of bringing such activity into classrooms.

Many years ago–in the mid-1990s–we were doing research in a Grade 7 classroom in which there were migrant students who were having to learn English while trying to navigate the content of the curriculum. The teacher remarked how difficult it was having English language learners mainstreamed into “regular” classrooms where there was no accompanying specialist support. She referred to one student, Tony, who had produced during the class’ regularly scheduled independent writing time what appeared to be a 20-page manuscript. He’d been working on it for about a month before showing it to his teacher for feedback. His teacher dropped the tome onto the desk with an exasperated sigh and declared that she “didn’t know what to do with it” because none of it made any sense, and she simply didn’t have time to help him fix his sentences. The length of Tony’s narrative and his dedication to writing it piqued our interest, so we took a copy home. The teacher was right in that the text had a fair number of grammatical and spelling glitches, but we’d actually seen worse in the writing of some of his English-only peers. What seemed to be the biggest problem for the teacher, then, was the narrative itself. At first glance, it was very dialogue driven and set in some medieval-like set of kingdoms, with events and characters suddenly appearing and then disappearing, wars suddenly erupting and being just as quickly resolved, and so on. What we soon realized as we began to read Tony’s story was that he’d actually produced a really rich and complex narrative that drew on a wide range of popular culture storylines. These included characters, settings and events from video games such as Doom, Mortal Kombat, Dungeon Keeper II, and The Ultimate Evil, and a range of novels from the Fighting Fantasy Gamebook series (e.g., The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Caverns of the Snow Witch). He’d produced, in other words, a really engaging and epic fanfic. It included all the things teachers want in students’ creative writing: a strong plot line, interesting narrative structure, dialogue, characters with depth, descriptive language, and the like. But none of it “made sense” to or was valued by his teacher because she was unfamiliar with the practice of fan fiction writing, and most likely unfamiliar with the original popular culture resources on which he’d drawn to craft his story. If she’d been able to recognize the text for what it was, her construction of Tony as a student and as an English-language user would’ve been entirely revised.

The second point has to do with what we think of as cultures of learning. When students enter formal education they enter a new and very strange “model” of learning, compared to what they have experienced in their pre-institutional learning lives. For a start, they move from a learning world in which what they come to know and master is acquired in concrete contexts – is grounded in authentic relationships, purposes and situations – to a learning world in which what they are supposed to come to know and master is to be got from largely abstract and decontextualised “learning opportunities”. There is a discrepancy for all young people – this is a dimension of the distinctions James Paul Gee makes between people’s primary and secondary discourses, and between acquisition and learning – but the discrepancies are much greater for learners coming from some social groupings than it is for those who come from other social groupings (so, for example, students who are familiar with question-response-evaluation patterns of interaction between an adult and child–where the adult already knows the child knows the answer before posing the question–will find this same pattern at school very familiar and understandable). Often, the discrepancies are so great that young people just can’t get onto the school learning wavelength at all: they just don’t get it; which means that they can’t “get” the curriculum as well as those students for whom the gap is less extreme. One of the things educational researchers who draw on sociocultural lines of theory often say is that the more teachers can understand and make connections to learners’ pre-school ways of getting to know things, and the things they get to know about, the better the chances are that teachers can help get learners “onto the school learning wavelength”.

What we are now finding is that learners who have already been at school for some time are getting a double dose of discrepancy. This is coming from their experiences of learning within what you and others, Henry, call participatory culture: involving “affinity spaces”, low barriers to joining in, peer-to-peer interactions of sharing expertise, and where participants do not think in terms of failure (among many other features). So, they spend large amounts of time outside of formal education learning very effectively, with much passion, with a sense of personal purpose, where there is usually effective guidance close to hand, and so on. Then they turn up to class the next day and are thrown into something completely different. Even those who can handle “classroom ways” increasingly experience considerable disaffection.

In our work within teacher education we constantly are amazed by the extent to which the teachers and teacher education students we encounter have little or no familiarity with the kinds of learning cultures young people with DIY or DIO media learning experiences encounter on a regular (daily, hourly) basis. As we’ll go on to mention a little later, we are speaking here of young people who are learning how to do media work through peer-based interactions with others, whether these are fan-based practices or more like hobbies and interests that are not necessarily built upon specific fanships. The thing is that young people nowadays have built up a “modus operandi” for learning that is different both from what they get before school and with what they typically get in school. It is, for very many aficionados of DIY/DIO media practices, a way of learning that they find very effective and pleasurable. Moreover, it is a way of learning that can easily be drawn upon to augment the limited forms of peer-teaching/learning buddies arrangements used in classrooms. The thing is to be aware of this way of learning and to get familiar with it and, hopefully, comfortable with it, as a teacher involved in learning and doing outside the classroom. The more familiar and comfortable it becomes, the easier it will be to find productive and seamless ways to integrate it into classroom routines in ways that are effective, and not just some kind of add on. To be able to make this kind of connection means getting to know the modus operandi in the first instance.

In many ways, for us, this is what the book is mostly about, rather than bringing the actual DIY/DIO media practices themselves into classrooms. It is about taking the time to experience the kinds of learning interactions and “ways” that have become second nature to so many young (and older) people, because by such means we can begin to generate all sorts of creative means for counteracting the “double dose of discrepancy” so that we can actually augment curriculum learning.

Having said all that, like you, we do also see a lot of potential value to be had from integrating DIY/DIO media practices into formal educational activity. To talk about this we have to take a bit of a detour into some work we have done with various colleagues over the past 15 years or so. This involves questions to do with what formal education is about and what it is (or should be) for: some kind of philosophy of education.

At a time when so much of formal education seems to be dominated by standardised testing of standardised curriculum content there seems to be little space for seriously raising and addressing questions about what kind and quality of learning formal education should be concerned with – especially when jobs get scarce and qualifications seem to count more than ever. But these questions are crucial and we get lazy about them at our peril and, especially, at the peril of those who have to endure 10 and more years of compulsory schooling. Working with Jim Gee and Glynda Hull in the mid ’90s on the theme of the new work order, we got a new angle on the importance of education being connected to the larger enterprise of living well within the contexts of our times and worlds. We focused on the idea that education is not about children learning in schools but, rather, that education should respond to the needs of human beings who are living lives that can best be seen as trajectories. Every person is born into some milieu in which they will live and, by means of a more or less diverse range of social practices, within a range of social institutions. Education should be about enabling people to do that, and yet we all know that much of what we learn in school simply does not connect well to our lives beyond and after school. Instead, students get inducted into “school versions” of knowledge and social practices. Instead of learning to think and interpret like, say, an historian does, learners get to memorise dates and names and to write essays that weld these dates and names into standardised kinds of five-paragraph essays, and rarely get anywhere near to the kind of “raw data” that historians deal with. We learn history as bits and pieces of content, and as “essay writing”. We don’t get an introduction to “being, or becoming, an historian”, or to “thinking historically”. The same holds for pretty much every subject slot on the curriculum or timetable in most schools.

By contrast, as argued in The New Work Order, if we want formal educational learning to be “efficacious” we should be trying to ensure as educators that what someone – whether a child or an adult – does right now in their learning is connected in meaningful and motivating ways with “mature” or “insider” versions of the larger social practices in the world beyond school to which the current learning is supposedly related. In other words, if you’re going to learn something in science right now, it should be conceptualised and approached in such a way that the present learning task is a step – to be followed by further steps rather than random bits and pieces of content or ideas – on the way to becoming the kind of person who addresses the world scientifically. Otherwise, what’s the point? Today, decades after learning the periodic table, we both can recite by rote the first 10 elements in that table, but haven’t got a clue what to do with them. They are inert baggage; wasted synapses. Their only potential use – which is statistically close to impossible – would be if we were on a game show staring at a million dollars and were asked what the 8th element in the period table is (but it would be game over for us if they asked us about the 11th or 12th element!).

Now, from this perspective, one of the major virtues of DIY/DIO media practices is that they exemplify the possibilities for efficacious learning. Participants in these practices are wanting to emulate good practitioners. They are wanting to become like the cultural producers they look up to. When they post a work in progress to get some feedback, or go online to get some “just in time” assistance, or closely examine someone else’s work to see how they did what they did, they are taking an active step on a trajectory. When someone takes the time to feed back to others, or to give assistance or to make a suggestion, or to make a resource available, they are making a move in the enactment of being an insider to their social practice. They are learning how to do it, or are refining their learning, or are becoming more of an accomplished participant within a media cultural domain. They are learning to become more of a particular kind of identifiable person in the process of living a good, interesting human life. If education should be about anything, it should surely be about that. Educators, then, can learn much of value for effective pedagogy by experiencing ways of learning with which their students are often much more familiar than they are.

This is not to say, however, that if we integrate DIY media practices into classroom work it should just be for the sake of learning how to make a music video, say, or creating a space for young people to “do fan stuff”. Clearly, there is already abundant space outside of school for that to go on. Rather, we think there are larger and deeper educational goals that can be realized by leveraging DIY media interests and proficiencies within school settings. One way of approaching this is via the concept of Knowledge Producing Schools, which we encountered in the course of working with Leonie Rowan and Chris Bigum prior to leaving Australia in the late 1990s.

This is the idea that schools can harness the relationship potential of digital technologies to move away from being based mainly on consuming knowledge and information within subject-based learning, and move in part to becoming involved in producing knowledge that is useful for their communities, and that will be used, valued, and acted on as appropriate by the community because it is good quality knowledge. Under this model learners have to learn how to produce expert-like knowledge, since if it is not good quality and expert-like it will not be valued by the wider community and the relationship will break down. The knowledge production must be efficacious and, therefore, the learning involved in that knowledge production will likewise be efficacious. Typical examples include students learning mathematical operations by tracking and then analysing vehicle speeds through a school zone using professional equipment in the company of transport officials and recommending changes to the speed limits to enhance students’ safety, producing a public service video on bullying and how to best respond to bullies, and producing a research-based documentary on the history of a beef sales yard to help the city council promote the town’s annual Beef Expo (the latter had actually gone out for public tender, and the students won the bid over other applicants).

The scope for media work within such an approach is enormous, and could project students’ informal media production and expertise into the knowledge mastery role of schools in such ways as presenting knowledge via podcasting, videos, games-based movie making, image archiving and curating, audio archiving, and so on. Depending on the kind of knowledge being produced, DIY media proficiencies can enter the process at different points: such as for archiving data, interpreting and representing findings within the process of producing the knowledge, and/or in the process of disseminating or reporting knowledge outcomes.

Of course, ideas like building at least some curriculum work around ideals of efficacious learning and knowledge production will remain pie in the sky if teachers and teacher educators and caregivers and community leaders and other constituents don’t put up some effective resistance to the dominance of standardised curriculum and testing. We believe, however, that it will be easier for educators to find spaces for productive take up of media production and sharing within bona fide knowledge work if they become “culturally fluent” with some DIY/DIO media activity.

Michele Knobel is Professor of Education at Montclair State University, New Jersey. Her research examines new literacy practices across a broad range of contexts. She is joint editor, with Colin Lankshear, of DIY Media: Creating, Sharing and Learning with New Technologies. They have also jointly edited A New Literacies Sampler and Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices.

Colin Lankshear is an Adjunct Professor of Education at McGill University in Montreal, and James Cook University, in Cairns, Australia. His research interest is in sociocultural studies of literacy practices and new technologies. He is joint author, with Michele Knobel, of The Handbook for Teacher Research and New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Classroom Learning.

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Comments

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