Teaching through the Screen and the Necessity of Imagination Literacy

The rules are undoable.

Teaching through the Screen and the Necessity of Imagination Literacy

On December 3rd, 2020, I was invited to deliver a plenary talk at the OEB Global online event out of Berlin, Germany. Below is the transcript of that talk.

Lois English was the vice principal at my middle school. She appeared to everyone as a formidable educator, buttoned up in a smart suit jacket and matching skirt, blond hair put up on top of her head so that, when she walked down the hall or stood before you, you had no choice but to notice she towered over most students. She wasn’t quick to smile, and her presence demanded a quiet like that of the hush in a library. Not that she was threatening—she never seemed cross just as she never seemed jolly—only that she was… formidable. I always wondered why she wasn’t the principal instead of the vice principal. I barely had any idea who the principal was, in fact, aside from his occasional red-cheeked stroll through the main hallway—a hallway that Ms. English owned when she walked it.

I owe my entire academic life to Lois English. I would have failed out of middle school, and most likely missed high school altogether. I may have tried college, but I doubt it. I would not work where I work today, in the Learning Design and Technology program at CU Denver; nor would I be standing here.

You see, as soon as I entered the seventh grade, I started skipping classes. My mother would drop me at the south door of the school and no sooner had she pulled away than I walked out the north door. I had loved school in my earlier years, but middle school was different. In middle school, I had to navigate multiple classrooms and multiple teachers. I had to make sense out of graduation requirements. I was confronted with weird concepts like home room and lockers (and combination locks) and not walking in a neat line to lunch and not having recess. No one told me what it would be like, and no one prepared me.

One spring, I knew everyone in my class and loved my 6th grade teacher, and that Fall I didn’t know anyone, including my teachers.

Add to this that my parents were in the middle of a divorce. Add to this all that puberty brings. Add to this that I was slowly realizing I liked boys the way I was supposed to like girls. Not one of these things is particularly uncommon for new middle school students; but for me, they were overwhelming and so I walked in one door and right out the other.

The failing grades that were the result of my truancy came, somehow, across Ms. English’s desk. And one fateful day, she called me and my mom into her office. She asked me what was going on, why it was so hard, what worried me. And then she bent all the rules in order to keep me in school. She put in place a curricular life preserver that buoyed me up through 7th and 8th grades, so that by the time I reached the 9th grade I had learned to enjoy school again. And more: I had learned that the “rules” of education can, and must, be undone for the sake of learning.

That undoable-ness of education’s rules has formed the backbone of my pedagogy since I first walked into a classroom. In sync with Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, my work for the last decade and a half has been to loosen the restrictions around learning in higher education for the benefit of students. (And also the benefit of teachers.) Because I have worked in primarily online environments, my project has been foregrounded by digital technology. The learning management system. Discussion forums. Open educational resources. Screens like the one I’m speaking into right now.

Except I have always sought to dismantle the screen, or to see through it. Because critical pedagogy, or critical digital pedagogy, is a humanising pedagogy—seeking the human behind the screen, the human behind the bureaucracies of education, the human behind behaviourist technologies.

When the pandemic hit, all learning suddenly became online learning. Teachers, faculty, administrators, staff—even technologists and learning designers whose job it is fashion learning online—were wholly unprepared. Digital and online learning, while more appreciated and given greater credibility than two decades ago, had remained a fringe interest at most universities. A few teachers dabbled, a few administrators supported development of online courses, and a few specialists in digital learning pushed the fringe even further with open pedagogies, design for justice, critical digital pedagogy… until the fringe had a fringe all its own.

This fringe on the fringe is where my program at CU Denver teaches from. There, we have long been concerned with asking questions about digital teaching by teaching digitally in ever more progressive ways. As with leaders in the field—Jesse Stommel, Chris Gilliard, Amy Collier, Ruha Benjamin—the Learning Design and Technology program has pushed against convention to seek out more equitable, just, and creative ways to facilitate learning online. And until this year, we were among the crowd of quietly happy innovators doing this work in schools and colleges.

But between January and March 2020, everyone joined the fringe. Everyone became an online learner… a learner of things online. What once was the purview and special interest of a relatively small crowd became every.single.educator’s concern.

And in many cases, education rigoured. It clutched its rubrics tight to the chest. It tucked in with quality concerns, remote proctoring and other surveillance technologies. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on tech—hardware and software—in answer to the fear that the rules of education would be broken by students who went unseen. Educational technology whispered into our ears: students will cheat more now, and the integrity of the academy will crumble.

However. On the ground, in their living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens and cars, a bevy, a flock, an urgency of teachers realised there was another way. Or rather, they realised there could be another way. Not apparent. Not obvious. Not something anyone had prepared ahead of time. But something not this or that, not rigour not rubric, but something otherwise. Something the imagination could perceive… and that started with a tenet not often heard in the hallowed halls we could no longer frequent:

“Start by trusting students.” (Jesse Stommel) And the rest, digital or not, will follow.

Maxine Greene wrote that “Our obligation today is to find ways of enabling the young to find their voices, to open their spaces, to reclaim their histories in all their variety and discontinuity.” (Releasing the Imagination, 120). Greene was a scholar of the arts, and she used critical pedagogy to explore the function and utility of the imagination. For her, the imagination must be understood as something different from the creative impulse, different from art or craft or inspiration, though it flows freely in those spaces. Imagination is not a doing, an action. Imagination is perception, a way of seeing. Knowing without knowing why. Guessing that turns out to be exactly correct.

And the imagination serves a critical function in education, especially if we consider education as bell hooks invites us, as a practice of freedom. In learning, the imagination reminds us always that students are the producers of knowledge, not its consumers, that it is with them that the future of our fields rests.

Imagination understands that what is now will not always be, that things change, and that change brings conditions that are mostly unpredictable. The world we live in, this historical moment, this climate, this culture, the language we use to express ourselves, the maths we rely on, the sciences we ascribe to, the relationships we cherish and the relationships we struggle with, the insecurities we have, the best practices we’ve been taught and that frame our praxis—these are not only not-permanent, but they are unquestionably questionable.

The rules are undoable. A teenager who is failing can succeed. Online learning can be intimate and engaging. A pandemic does not need to push us to surveille when it can encourage us to trust.

“We who are teachers,” Greene writes, “have to strive against limits, consciously strive” (52).

In speaking to teachers over the years, and especially this year, I have encouraged imagination as a way to see through the screen. Not to pretend to understand students or students’ lives, but to peer through the screen to the desks beyond, the rooms beyond, the bodies beyond. To consider that the classroom now, rather than being the orderly, sanitary image on the screen, is various, located in a multiplicity of places.

Teachers can no longer control the seating arrangement of this dispersed classroom, nor can they expect that everyone will leave their children, their dogs, their spouses at the classroom door. Likewise the sounds of traffic outside the window or the construction going on down the street. Nor can they leave at the door their worries about feeding their family. Nor their hopes that their company won’t close, leaving them unemployed. These all enter into the new classroom, for the new classroom is ever also the home and all it contains.

No learning, I’m fond of saying, is online because “online” is not what we think it is. Online is found in physical spaces. No one takes classes online, but they may take them in their kitchens, on the bus, or on break at work. When we type into our computers a message or upload a lecture or pointedly mark a grade, there is a body on the other side of our work who receives that.

School can be a notification at dinner. And just as it can be a notification at dinner, so it can also be silenced during a movie, or forgotten at home during a trip to the grocery.

To really understand how to teach or work or learn online, we have to remember that every learner is human, and there are no humans existing in digital space. The screen is not a venue, it’s a tool. We don’t ever teach to a screen, we always teach through the screen.

The pandemic has made this abundantly clear, with new awareness coming to light about the conditions under which students try to learn. Poor or no internet at home. Limited time and resources. Disability has surfaced in ways we cannot overlook. The screen cannot accommodate difference, cannot veer and turn and move the way a student’s mind does. “Our students...live in a world of constantly shifting perspectives and horizons,” Greene (55) tells us; but the screen is flat, static. Once programmed, it responds as its programmer means it to. It goes dark even when human intellect and curiosity never do.

And our understanding of all of these things requires imagination. Not as a visualisation of our students’ lives, nor even a cognitive recognition. The imagination’s utility is in seeing the otherwise. It doesn’t as much acknowledge that the classroom has changed as it embraces that fact and spurs us on to re-create school as a result.

This can get all pretty heady. But there are clear practical implications, and even practices. And these practices can lead us to a literacy of imagination which may be part and parcel with a pedagogy of imagination.

Take for instance the skeins of data that educational technologies provide us. We can know how long a student has watched a video. How often they’ve been online. With eye tracking and facial recognition, we can tell if they’re paying attention during a videoconference lecture. Learning management systems like Canvas and Moodle and Blackboard purport to use this data to tell us about our students’ behaviour, to flag students who may be falling behind, to catch students out when they cheat or plagiarise.

This data is convincing. It’s meant to be. It frames a believable world of instruction and learning that, we’re told, arm us against breaches of academic integrity, guarantee student success, and make teaching efficient and learning “better”.  But the problem with being convinced is that being convinced drains us of any inclination to question. “Whenever we are shown a report,” Greene observes, “or a statistical account… this becomes evident. It is as if automatic processes were at work; it seems impossible to look at things as they could be otherwise.” And yet, “imagining things being otherwise may be a first step toward acting on the belief they can be changed” (22).

The more we know, in this case, the less we imagine. And the less we imagine, the more likely we are to simply accept things as they are. Such that, when things suddenly aren’t “as they are,” as has been the case this year, we are left without data to help us make sense of the world; and yet we have also not exercised our imaginations, which might save us.

All those years ago, Lois English used her imagination to see how things in my young, promising life could be otherwise. She found a way for me to find my voice in all my “variety and discontinuity.” Had she simply sent me back to class, had she enforced punishment, had she surveilled me to keep me in line, I might have stayed in school, but I would not have thrived.

When the usual way doesn’t work, we must have another way to go. Without a literacy of imagination, without the acknowledgement that all problems have human beings in their middle, we will sooner than later find ourselves facing a wall in confusion and despair. A pedagogy of imagination encourages us to always look for the otherwise, the maybe, the what if? instead of the what now?