Friday, September 21, 2018

Having been a teacher 

I used to be a teacher, a primary school teacher, but unlike some of my colleagues I don't really think of myself in that way any longer. I've often heard people in teacher education say 'I'm still a teacher, really' meaning that they don't really consider themselves to be a lecturer, an academic or a researcher - part of them is still in the classroom. It's one of those funny things about identity, no matter what you actually are, it's what you think you are that counts, that guides you or gives you anchorage. Moving into a university environment relatively early in my career and into research rather than teacher education perhaps gives me some distance from the classroom and helped to forge my particular professional identity. I think of myself as an education academic, researcher and writer rather than a teacher. Of course a lot of my work is still rooted in schools and classrooms but I'm not a teacher, although I could probably still do it - at a stretch. As a result, visiting a school I used to teach in, as I did last week, was quite a strange affair. Now I've been visiting schools most of my working life and so going in, signing the little touchscreen and wandering around was all quite familiar. That said, the usual sort of atmosphere and environment was in this case overlaid with a memory of how things looked forty years ago, which teachers used to teach in each classroom and a strange bodily sensation of standing again where I'd stood many times before, separated only by the passage of time. And in amongst all this I could just about recall something of what it was like to be a teacher or at least to feel like a teacher. Never mind the fact that they'd closed down some of the spaces we'd opened up, and that looking around it all seemed far more old-fashioned than it had forty years ago - there was an embodied memory. But there were also stories - histories if you like, readily prompted by the shape of a particular room, the look of a corridor, a doorway or stairwell. These were stories about people all of whom seemed to have disappeared without trace. In fact it was if they'd all been wiped out, all except for the young teacher, a contemporary of mine, who'd taken his own life. For a small plaque announced that a large and colourful mural had been commissioned in his memory and a riotous assembly of characters from children's literature clambered up one wall - just dull brickwork in former times. It was a fitting tribute. Of course no-one in the school had the faintest idea who he was, but it was moving to think that he'd left his mark in the way that nobody else had, even though we were all teachers once.

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Friday, September 07, 2018

Rethinking the library 

'Digital communication and new media have rapidly become an important feature of daily life for all age groups. Although the global spread of new technology has opened new opportunities for many, public institutions such as libraries, schools and universities still have an important role to play. Librarians, as gatekeepers and stewards of information, are uniquely placed to encourage new forms of reading for pleasure and the kinds of critical habits of mind needed for the information age.' That was the headline for my keynote at the Innovatics conference in Chile last week and I made a bold attempt to connect what I know about children and young people's digital practices with what I'm rapidly learning about libraries. In all honesty I've given little thought to libraries during my research career - and my most enduring engagement with them is through my own institution's digital library, but I do believe that new practices and new habits of mind are reconfiguring what it means to know and what it means to find out and that this has profound implications for how we think about learning, information and knowledge - and that's got to include libraries and librarians. I support the move to reinvent libraries as welcoming, comfortable and user-oriented community spaces where you can 'take your shoes off'. Santiago Villegas-Ceballos illustrated that well with vivid examples from Colombia of new library spaces. Access is obviously a key concept for libraries and one that works on many levels, but the other keynote Cristina Azorín focused more specifically on digital repositories, based on work she's been involved in at the Universitàries de Catalunya (Catalonia). As someone with vested interests in academic publication some of what she said about publishers, open access, and peer-review was challenging, but food for thought. Perhaps in some ways I've grown used to the status quo! Regardless of all this I came away from my visit with some great memories - meeting Carlos from the world's southernmost city, Puerto Williams who has found out how videogames can work to attract teenagers into the library was great. And then there's stories of quirky sociomaterial arrangements that bring books to remote communities. All I have are mental images of what a donkey-library or a canoe-library might look like, but maybe there are some open access free-to-use pictures out there somewhere!

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Saturday, July 14, 2018

Doing data differently 

Reading that 8 million horses died in the First World War or that 200,000 were slaughtered with the collapse of the equine market after the Second is extremely disturbing. More so than if it had been a 'large number' or a 'great many' - and so, in such matters, numbers count. Being a literacy scholar with a background in the humanities and qualitative research often puts me in a particular position with respect to numbers. When paradigm wars break out, as they do from time to time, I repeatedly find myself in opposition to the bean counters. But as Jackie once pointed out to me, quantitative studies can be really useful in offering a broad view of trends and patterns. I just didn't listen. But now, working on the British Academy funded project Doing Data Differently I'm beginning to learn the error of my ways. In fact I'm learning a great deal, most of which I'm still mulling over. But here's a random collection of thoughts. First - and central to the Doing Data Differently project, is the significance of what you measure and what you don't (the shadow side if you like). Second, and related to this, is the sheer power of numbers, the 8 million horses effect as I shall now call it. Third is about how you visualise data. Visualisation is representation, and as a result it can highlight, it can exaggerate or it can distort information And finally, in this whole quantitative field it's all about relations, what can be mapped on to what, who or where. This can be a highly creative act (highlighting new relationships), or a selective act (implicitly suggesting that some relationships are more important than others) and probably much more, too. I'm guessing that this sort of critical perspective is all very familiar to those working in this tradition and it's probably part of the basic mathematics that I've conveniently forgotten - but it's a useful antidote to the intoxications of post-qualitative theory and is certainly helping me to think about educational data differently and equally importantly, we're sharing this journey with a wonderful group of teachers.

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Saturday, June 23, 2018

New media in the classroom 

Over a number of years and across a variety of projects Cathy Burnett and I have been working with groups of teachers to develop authentic ways of using technology as literacy in primary school classrooms. Along the way we have developed a set of principles for 21st Century Literacies (with Julia Davies and Jennifer Rowsell and published in New Literacies around the Globe). We like to think of our work with teachers as a partnership of equals and are always mindful of how challenging classroom life can be. Yet we are continually reminded of the enthusiasm, commitment and creativity of primary practitioners - and, of course, the children they teach. Our new title New Media in the Classroom: Rethinking Primary Literacy is hot of the press. Published by Sage it describes a lot of this development work, unpacking the nine principles of 21st Century Literacies and setting them in the context of our ongoing work on sociomaterialist approaches to understanding literacy. We've tried to write it in an accessible style so that it speaks to student teachers, practitioners and literacy scholars. There's more work on the way, but in some senses this gives an overview of our recent work together. Am I trying to sell it? Yes, I am - the royalties won't make us rich, but it is a celebration of a number of collaborations and we hope it captures some of the enjoyment and some of the surprises of the journey - and of course we want it to be useful, too.

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Friday, June 01, 2018

Dwelling in error 

Creative processes can be as interesting as their final products and that's partly because they are occasions in which thinking really is live, where something different could always come into being, or fail, or just remain in potentiality. I was reminded of this listening to dramaturg Ruth Little speaking about her collaborations with award-winning dancer and choreographer Akram Khan. Part of a Radio 4 series Behind the Scenes followed the development of their project Xenos, the story of the 1.4 million Indians who fought in the Great War. It is reported to be Khan's final outing as a dancer. The process of developing the piece is all about exploring possibilities, working on a difficult theme with a challenging set design. 'It's dwelling in error that takes us forward' explains Ruth Little, working with 'things that are right on the margins of possibility, or likelihood, or logic, in order to discover where they collapse.' I'm convinced that all the experimentation somehow gives weight and texture to the final performance. In the process, though, there's a wonderful sensitivity or faith in what emerges out of uncertainty. What's more, the very idea of dwelling in error is very appealing to someone, like me, who's always making mistakes!

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Fifty years on 

In the recent history of radical progressive politics the student unrest of the late '60s holds a very special place. The momentum for social, cultural and political change, although diffuse in its aims, spread like wildfire particularly across Europe and North America leading to sit-ins, demonstrations and student occupations, often resulting in fractious clashes with the State. This unrest was relatively short-lived but arguably it sowed the seeds of some more lasting social reform as well as a variety of struggles which continue to this day. One of the more colourful, violent and potentially revolutionary manifestations of unrest took place in Paris - culminating in civil disturbances between May 15th and May 29th, 1968 - fifty years ago this week. The dissatisfaction of a growing student population, subjected to archaic regimes and routines was vociferously expressed. Their protests were supported by many public intellectuals, artists and cultural luminaries. At the same time a simmering resentment of the economic conditions under the Gaullist government led to a General Strike and for a short while, at least, France teetered on the edge of revolution - or chaos, depending on your point of view. Les événements (the events), as they came to be called, had a profound effect on French intellectual life. Those working in the social sciences that look to contemporary European thinking - and particularly to what is sometimes dismissively referred to as 'French theory' could, and perhaps do, reflect on this. Like it or not, les événements profoundly influenced Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari and many other too. Given that we are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of these events it's hard to work out whether we should mourn the lost opportunity, celebrate their impact or draw a veil over those heady times. I half expected more media interest. The BBC's Vive La Revolution was rather disappointing being more about Joan Bakewell than anything else. An extended interview with one-time student leader Tariq Ali is a lead feature in this month's London Review of Books. Although That Was The Year That Was is both informative and analytical it again tends towards the autobiographical. Hazanavicius's movie Le Redoutable (or Godard Mon Amour) adopts a different approach by explicitly focusing on New Wave filmmaker and political activist Jean-Luc Godard, offering a humorous and rather unflattering portrait of his political activity. This has the effect of lampooning the political rhetoric that circulated around the events May '68. History is inevitably selective and what matters for one generation may not for another. However, it would be a loss if les événements ended up being the story of a few individuals. In fact it would be a grand irony.  The very least we should expect is a reprint of Julian Bourg's excellent study 'From Revolution to Ethics'.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018


One of the things I admire about Virginia Woolf's writing is her precision in describing uncertainty. The most obvious example is her first published piece, The Mark on the Wall, but I suspect it was an ungoing preoccupation or predisposition in her writing life. It's something you can't do so well in academic work where claims, warrants and certainties are only slightly softened by talking about caveats, limitations or alternative perspectives. No matter how uncertain I feel, the writing I do often sounds certain as I read it again. So here is an arena of uncertainty....when I hear about 'data as the new oil', I get that not sure sort of feeling. Of course the analogy - data as oil - has well-rehearsed shortcomings, but I think it may be in danger of missing the point (although note the same theme of exploiting natural resources is found in 'data-mining' and 'harvesting'). The Cambridge Analytica story seems to me to be more about exploiting and monetising private information than about data itself - that comes later. And this monetising is made possible by the ways in which we leave trails of personal information. The way we overtly make our private lives public on social media couples up with the surreptitious tracking of our online activity and that's how we come to produce data - which some argue is the digital labour that fuels a new sort of capitalism. All this may be the case, but where does that leave the poor knowledge worker who is now continually required to update his or her academic profile, to maintain a healthy score on Research Gate, accumulate impressive ratings on Google Scholar and use Twitter to generate impact? I suspect that sort of performativity may be beginning to eclipse the actual contribution made, although I hope not. But that's not the source of my uncertainty. No, it's more about who benefits from such activity as institutions, colleagues and publishers all encourage us to market ourselves. Does our labour just become someone else's data, and someone else's profit? Or is it genuinely a good idea, a more open gesture to draw things to people's attention? Well if that's the case, then I'm encouraging you to look at our piece on reading for pleasure in the digital age, and the paper that's had a longer gestation period - literacy as event. Which leads me on to a whole string of other uncertainties, but you'd have to be Virginia Woolf to get into all those.


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