When Stanley was a puppy he loved to “table-shark” stuff that wasn’t his. And after sharking he would race recklessly around the house often spilling out into the garden to avoid his outraged pursuers.
He is a much larger Labrador now. Visitors often imagine they have stumbled over an elephant seal when they spot him snorfing on a rocky outcrop in the back garden. Regardless of his girth Stanley still loves to bounce around with stuff that isn’t his. And it doesn’t have to be edible stuff. An incautiously placed iPhone, a Firefly DVD, a discarded Danger Mouse sweatshirt, all capture his attention to the same degree as the pile of grated cheese, freshly baked foccacia, and the charred BBQ sausage.
His problem solving strategies have been refined over the years and he can shift from a seemingly comatose Labrador to a verticalised and surface hoovering Labrador in microseconds.
In turn we have refined the problem solving strategies we use to Stanley-proof our possessions. From impossibly high surfaces to a panopticon-like kitchen design we have upped the expertise needed to successfully table shark.
Stanley is an expert problem solver with “many powerful domain specific problem solving techniques at his “paw and nose tips”. Furthermore these problem solving techniques have been refined through solving the many opportunities we have presented through our incautious placement of sought after items on accessible surfaces. [I note that my experiences with Stanley mean my definition of “accessible” is under constant revision]
As his table sharking expertise has built so the distinction between “real problem” and “routine exercise” has blurred. Pulling on a tablecloth and nosing up shutters, once innovative solutions to real problems are now in truth routine exercises for Stan.
This distinction between the “real” activity and the “routine” activity is frequently misunderstood in schools where we are encouraged to provide students with the real over the routine – with “challenging, open-ended, ill-defined and ill-structured problems”.
However there is a problem with this pedagogical prompt. As Stanley’s experience reveals - the distinction between “real” and “routine” does not lie in the activity itself. The distinction lies in the domain specific knowledge of the learner – a routine problem for one person can be a challenging, open-ended, ill-defined and ill-structured problem for another and vice versa.
Real and routine is an “in the eye of the beholder thing”.
If learning results from an interaction between student (a) and learning activity (b), and one persons real activity is another person’s routine activity it makes no sense to isolate the activity from the student by labelling it real or routine. In doing so we privilege activity over individual and this may not be a good thing if it means we ignore the intersect.
I guess what I am trying to say is that labelling activities can limit both teaching and learning – when we eschew learning experiences labelled as routine for learning experiences labelled as “real” (and rich and authentic) we neglect the nuance that should capture our attention in the interaction between the learning activity (b) and the learner (a).
I am thinking about what happens when we privilege the activity over the individual (by labelling it as real/or routine).
How is the labelled activity perceived by students?
How is the labelled activity perceived by teachers?
How do these perceptions (of teachers and students) interact?
What are the outcomes of this interaction?
How is the labelled activity approached by students?
How is the labelled activity approached by teachers?
How do these approaches (of teachers and students) interact?
What are the outcomes of this interaction?
It helps me to think about this in the context of student writing – in the NZ Curriculum – the genres - descriptive, explanatory, information report, narrative, persuasive, procedural and recount – have identified surface and deep features. Showing audience awareness and purpose through deliberate choice of content, language and writing style for different genres is a literacy challenge for our students.
We have commonly labelled student writing as “real” when it is done online in a blog that is accessible anytime from anywhere by any one and “routine” when it is done in an exercise book where access is individual and invited. But I am not sure that we know how a student perceives the writing activity when it is done in an exercise book or online or how the teacher perceives the activity? What are the similarities and differences in perception between what is labelled real and routine – what are the similarities and differences student and teacher perception?
If we label student writing as “real” when it is done online in a blog and “routine” when it is done in an exercise book, then how does the student approach the labelled activities? How does the teacher approach the labelled activities? Just what are the similarities and differences in approach to an activity labelled “real” or “routine”?
When students lived experience blurs the real with the routine – as it does and will - and students find writing (and commenting) online “routine” – how will students and teachers respond to the mislabelling of an activity (a school requirement to write posts on a student blog) as real when to students writing online for an audience may be a routine exercise?
How will teaching and learning be influenced if as teachers we continue to believe we can label activities as “real” or “routine”?
I wonder if we will we hang onto the pretence of the label “real” long after it has become “routine” in the eye of students? I suspect so - the edu_twitter stream is choked with tweets from teachers touting for comments so as to make their students’ blog writing for an audience experience appear “real” in a Potemkin Village kind of way.
It is more fun to imagine that we will we look for a new “real” for student writing – perhaps will we simply reframe genre to include learning how to write for Wikipedia as has been happening for a while at the University of East Anglia
Wikipedia - banned by some academics as a source for student essays - has been made compulsory reading (and writing) for a new course at the University of East Anglia.
Students are assessed on editing and writing articles on Middle East politics for the online encyclopaedia, which is open to contributions from anyone.
Or maybe to keep it “real” we will we embrace retro writing – and prepare students for a “World Made By Hand” like future - where preparedness for re-engineering available resources will ensure that students can continue writing and showing audience awareness and purpose albeit that this involves scratching text onto home-made parchment with nibs crafted from found materials using pigments extracted from the bark of native trees.