Two Perspectives: Reflection on “Urgency of Teachers”

I read Sean and Jesse’s book, Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy by the lingering light of day (on the shortest daylight days of the year) during a massive power outage that arose from British Columbia’s most devastating windstorm in decades. The multi-day power outage presented me with a gift of uninterrupted time to read, reflect and think. Yet how fitting it was during this absence of technology that I spent time critically thinking about technology!

I’ve been teaching and thinking about teaching with digital tools and technologies since they came into in our schools and classrooms (decades ago), first as an outdoor educator, then as a K-12 teacher and finally as a university instructor. I have also been supporting faculty on designing/redesigning learning experiences with or without technologies – also for decades. Somewhere between K-12 and university teaching I dove into two graduate degrees on education and technology – and remember now how forward thinking many of my professors were around challenging the status quo around how technology was being used for learning. So, I read this book already on board with many of the calls to action, understanding the journeys Sean and Jesse have experienced and already had debated many of the inequities, injustices, dilemmas, challenges and issues that confront learners each day.

Two Trees at Florencia Beach, Pacific Rim National Park, Tofino, British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Florencia Bay, Pacific Rim National Park, between Ucluelet and Tofino, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

That didn’t mean I still had much to learn – and it meant I had more messiness and complexities with the topics and pushed myself harder to figure out what the writings meant to me now. I read the book from two perspectives: one as a somewhat experienced educator and one as a somewhat experienced administrator of a university teaching and learning centre supporting faculty members in the very topics and issues, Urgency of Teachers, explores. At times I found myself re-reading sections to consider my thoughts and responses from both perspectives. Sometimes it was a jarring experience – but a worthy one.

Educator Perspective

I liked the format of the book – a collection of published writings composed over six and a half years that showed Jesse’s and Sean’s understandings as they explored and experienced the many facets of digital pedagogies. Each ‘chapter’ or narrative has much to dive into and reflect upon. The writings triggered memories of activities I had done as a less experienced educator and helped me trace how I have evolved my perspectives and actions on digital pedagogies. Each of their narratives has something for every teacher to ponder whether it be the LMS, MOOCs, plagiarism software, teaching online, ethics, assessment, open education, instructional design and so on.

From my teacher perspective I felt that their words were echoing what was in my head but had never made it to paper or computer. I started thinking about my future self as an educator returning to the classroom. How would I approach digital pedagogies with what I know now? What would I change? What do I want to try? How would I engage colleagues in developing a more critical perspective about learning with digital tools? How could I weave my love of ungrading with open pedagogies and inclusive learning environments? How could I have students co-create a course from scratch or build a non-disposable assignment leveraging digital technologies to give them their own identity and voice? What do I still need to learn? Ah, so many questions and still so much learning to do.

Tofino Harbour, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (Photo by Liesel Knaack) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Tofino Harbour, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (L. Knaack)

Administrator Perspective

For almost twelve years I’ve been exploring the field of faculty development – building supports and services to assist faculty with core pedagogic knowledge and skills, creating environments for reflection and reaction and consulting with educators when they hit roadblocks or want advice. It is a tough gig and takes years to hone. But it is also the other perspective through which I read this book.

Recently having done a scan of the literature about leading an open education movement at the post-secondary level and not finding much about the roles teaching and learning centres (and their leaders) can play, I read this book to glean any ideas around supporting change at the institutional level. I understand the calls to action so nicely woven throughout the whole book – and agree on their importance – but am thinking more strategically and tactically about how critical digital pedagogies can be woven into culture and context at my institution. Being more critical about our pedagogies and our digital pedagogies I feel is a core activity any educator, department and institution should be doing.

As faculty developers we know the point when educators go from talking about the ‘whats’ of teaching (describing teaching practices, explaining assignments, outlining outcomes and assessments) to embracing the often messy and challenging state of making change in your practice. The ‘so whats’ and the ‘now whats’ of the reflection process create dissonance and uncertainty, but are a necessary part of being a critically reflective practitioner (Dewey, Schon and Brookfield). If we can move faculty to this state of reflection we can also engage in more purposeful conversations about student learning.

I have similar thoughts as Jesse and Sean do about the need for being more critical (or I might say more inquiry-oriented, necessary, investigative, reflective, focused, purposeful, etc.) in our work with digital pedagogies. In both K-12 and post-secondary education there is a need for more meta-level discussion and extended thinking (critically) about what is going on with digital tools, technologies and learning experiences.

I closed the book thinking about how to build more critical dialogue about teaching and learning across the institution. I pondered how to infuse more inquisition and probing into why and what we are doing both with my own staff and with faculty. I desperately want to encourage more faculty to think beyond the LMS as a storage depot or quiz and assignment collector, or aggregator of grades. I want our centre’s offerings and activities to have critical digital pedagogies embedded within. I would love to have a faculty learning community keen to challenge their own and others’ uses of learning technologies and push into new ways of creating more authentic, accessible and student-authored learning experiences.

So now what? In my head, I am formulating what might be a companion document of strategies, activities and initiatives to begin planting the seeds of critical pedagogies across any post-secondary institution. This is going to take more time to flesh out, discuss my thoughts with other leaders, and explore more at the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Toronto. I have also created a faculty learning community on digital pedagogies and am taking them all to the Lab in Toronto hoping to build the movement slowly across a variety of program areas. But for now the book, Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, confirmed I am not alone in my thinking. But I have much more thinking still to do.