Having just finished re-reading Pullman’s trilogy “His Dark Materials” it was a nice coincidence to come across the outline of an intriguing paper written by Hamish McLeod and Jen Ross, both of Edinburgh University. The paper is entitled: “Structure, authority and other concepts: teaching in fool-ish spaces” and was presented to the ICE3 conference which took place at Ross Priory, Loch Lomond, in March 2007. Unfortunately, the link to the full paper is broken and so I can only refer to the outline of the paper on the conference website — I believe the full paper would be well worth reading.
The coincidental aspect was in the mention by Hamish and Jen of Pullman’s notion of the daemon, the familiar that is an integral part of what it to be human in Lyra’s world in the trilogy. The intriguing aspect was in the playful, and yet entirely serious, suggestion by Hamish and Jen, that the teacher’s role in an online space might productively reflect a relationship to learners based on something akin to the relationship between the daemon and his or her ‘owner’. Or, to take a different tack (yet with evident similarities), the role might be modelled on the Loki from Norse mythology, or the figures of Coyote and Raven from Native American culture, or the court jester of European renown.
In the sense suggested by the notion of the daemon:
“The teacher must be a presence that the learner can create and control to a certain extent, and yet be a real and autonomous virtual other with whom the learner can interact, collaborate and conflict.”
And if we look to the Jester model:
“The responsibility of these characters is to poke fun at the established authority, and to ask questions about what would seem to be the obvious, natural order of things. The fool is an irritant in the society around — like the proverbial grain of sand in an oyster. S/he.…..is a maker of mischief and a creator of tension, occasionally with actively malicious intent, but more often than not s/he is also responsible for the resolution of the tension by fun and foolery.”
Anyone involved in thinking through the implications of the changing context for education inherent in the embrace of social media or Web 2.0 or online distance learning must be well aware of the discomfort that teachers will inevitably feel at the shifting role brought about by those changes. Helping learners to learn, or shaping the environment that makes learning more effective or more relevant, or prodding and discomfiting learners to provoke them into thinking in fresh ways — all of these and others are valid roles for the teacher today. As Hamish and Jen note:
“These roles are not easy to sustain — they are uncomfortable and, perhaps, quite lonely. By embracing discomfort and loneliness the teacher/fool can therefore also perhaps gain insight into their students” sense of being lost in online spaces.“