My title alludes to Don Shebib’s iconic Canadian movie version of the Iliad—the classic account of the collective journey brought back from beyond the margins of the known—from the creature comfort of the status-quo or the cozy confines of the Hobbits’ shire, in the case of J.R. Tolkein’s novel, The Hobbit.
Teaching, for me, is a story of adventure, of audacity and derring-do. The complimentary aspect of teaching is, of course, learning and the two are mutually interdependent aspects of the same thing—a journey of transformation that, necessarily, brings tectonic shifts in our collective worldview that in turn changes the way we see ourselves and the way in which we engage the world. It is a process of invigoration whereby our lives are given deeper meaning and purpose.
I suppose I chose the awkward, Canadian version of this iconic journey for its allusion to the film whose lack of polish gives it a certain honesty and rawness that lacks the gloss of something that has been overly refined. Refinement and process for me are anathema to the sort of real and visceral learning that typically happens when we wade into uncharted territory—all else is sophistry and formulaic to my mind and this can be the source of some philosophical inconsistencies teaching in a Community College with its traditional emphasis on what the Sophists referred to as “techne.”
I am greatly influenced by the Greek philosophers and, although I derive inspiration from pioneers in holistic education like Rudolph Steiner, I am a Platonist at heart.
I see my role as a catalyst in the ongoing process of the personal transformation of those with whom I am privileged to share time along the path of an incredible adventure that leads us ever forward toward the unknown horizons of a shared dream. Along the way, we listen and help to draw out one another’s hopes, fears and dreams in order to facilitate the process of mapping the route that we have travelled and to reflect on that journey in order to provide a contextual narrative that will help to ground our decisions for setting course for new, uncharted shores. I embrace the wisdom of Poet Robert Frost in his classic “The Road Not Taken.”
I encourage my fellow travelers to be explorers as opposed to tourists—to eschew the proven, vicarious and rote in favour of the novel and risk-laden experiences that enrich the threads of one’s personal narrative and make life and learning interesting and engaging. I encourage trust—trust in oneself, in others and in the possibilities of meeting the unknown. Trust in oneself breeds confidence in one’s abilities to face the unscripted challenges of life. School can too often be nothing more than a “canned experience” that mitigates risk and seeks to contain and restrain by delivering standardized, routinized and predictable outcomes that are at odds with the unpredictable and intractable nature of everyday existence. Trust in others is an essential ingredient of our collective identity. It is the glue that binds us and enables us to do things collectively in a way that transcends the limitations of the individual and allows opportunities for our collective energies to be given sublime, concrete expression. It engenders a form of free and responsible citizenship whose greatest goods come from active participation in the co-creation and co-stewardship of the common good.
A long history in improvisational theatre has taught me the value of collaboration and the importance of both giving and receiving of offers of talent and ideas and how, when we collectively surrender our egos and allow for a space where co-creation can occur, the results can often be sublime. I have learned to accept that failure is an inevitable and important consequence of this sort of experimental and experiential approach to collective creation. I am not interested in what one knows, rather, I am more interested in learning about what we don’t know today—tomorrow and sharing in the process of how we achieved these insights—the narrative of the road. To that end, collaboration is an important dimension of the learning activities in my environment.
Teaching and learning for me constitute an environment that is complex and highly interdependent. It is a whole that transcends its mere constituent parts. It brings many entities into highly complex relationships that, when cultivated, help us to find who we are in these relationships and to experiment with different aspects of ourselves in relation. It is an ecology of deep personal—even spiritual growth and revelation that intertwines relationships forged in a communal search for meaning.
The ecosystem of learning is not limited to clichés of Teacher, Student, Class, School, etc.. I believe that it is an integral part of the broader social, political, psychological and spiritual ecosystem that serves as a space where all dimensions of our collective lives from the rote and banal activities of the everyday meld with our boldest experimentation, where failure and triumph, grieving and celebration meet one another with the sole purpose of allowing us to collectively dream of a brighter tomorrow and to set about investing in this belief through audacious creative endeavours that will bring our dreams to fruition.
The learning ecosystem is an economy of transformation that values the sharing of ideas and earnest effort as its currency. It is an engine of change that facilitates our collective migration from the status quo towards a more sublime ideal. It is a story that has been in the making since the dawning of humanity and one that we continue to write. It is a collective narrative that takes form in informal discussions with faculty and students, formal strategy and planning meetings within the institution, negotiations between management teams and union heads, assignment creation and execution, marking, revision, daily communications with all stakeholders, writing job and grant recommendations, counseling, performing and participating in surveys, posing and answering questions, listening, speaking up, advocating, admonishing, facilitating, meeting, joining, refreshing, participating, excelling, failing, observing, reporting, measuring, analyzing, phoning, emailing, SMSing, Facebooking, Ryppleing, Reaching out, liaising, apologizing, owning, etc..
The reductionist, hierarchal and categorical view of this economy of transformation that sees only teacher, learner, class, school, etc. is an anachronism of the industrial era—a mechanistic view of reality and is out of touch with the hyper-connected 24/7 internet age. The age of instant, ubiquitous and searchable knowledge challenges us to see ourselves in new ways, governed by new relationships in this new techno-cultural milieu. We have been radically interconnected to a degree where paradigms of time, place, authority and knowing take on a radically new dimension that I have heard referred to as a “digital pentacost” in reference to the Christian tradition where people are born into a new time wherein all nations share in the discovery of life changing spiritual vision that cannot be predicted or contained—allowing them to break from status quo ways of being and moving to a new ethic that embraced an open mind to the possibilities of the future. This was a time when traditional paradigms of knowing and communicating were superceeded by new (spiritual) abilities that could transcend barriers of time, space and even language.
We live in this time where embracing the comfort of the known ways of being and doing will certainly result in a continuation of our unsustainable destruction of our ecosystem and our very humanity. There is a pressing need for us to be brave enough and audacious enough to wander down a new path together and the teaching and learning environment can create the sort of climate that is appropriate for seeding such a transformation.
I don’t think that this is something that we can teach in the classic sense of filling the empty cup, rather it is a decision that we must invest in together on all levels by all stakeholders and that we must have courage to move quickly and decisively to walk the walk together and take “the Road not taken!”
To this end I have spent the last 9 years struggling with the challenges that our new ecosystem presents for teaching and learning. During that time I have worked on developing a teaching methodology dubbed RISK-based learning (Rapid Integration of Skills and Knowledge) that uses collective, crowd-sourced approaches to dealing with rapid technological change and its corollary of obsolescence. I have given over 12 presentations to University and College educators from Montreal to San Jose on this topic and was recognized with the McGraw-Hill Award for Innovation in Teaching & Learning in 2007.