Expos as sites for learning and engagement July 29, 2013Posted by christinefjohnston in Community Engagement, Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Social Ecology.
Tags: creativity, ecopedagogy, Education and community, education and transformation, holistic education, social ecology
by Karin Mackay
On a Sunday morning in 2008, I was standing at the front of a small community gallery in the midst of a women’s arts and ecology festival in The Blue Mountains. I was watching belly dancers, choirs and African Drummers and Dancers tell stories of place through movement and song. In the gallery behind me were over sixty diverse artworks and stories about life, love, loss and resilience from the diverse women’s community group I was part of. This was “Earthspirit” festival day where all were invited to come and view creative work exploring relationship with water, people and place. Surprisingly the audience was not only women but younger guys and mature men, teenagers and young kids.
The opening addresses had just finished. One of these was a poem by an Aboriginal artist about her relationship to ancestral place at La Perouse. The other speaker was a local academic who had been asked to talk about the significance of water. The academic’s talk was not well received…..she lost people midway but barrelled on regardless. I felt terrible for her as I had asked her to come and talk but it seemed like it was not the right venue for her ideas to reach the light of day. I mused on this, anxious about this mismatch and was thinking how I would reassure her, it was not her fault. Perhaps it was just not a receptive audience. Instead the words that came out of my mouth were very different. I turned to her and said, “This is how learning will happen in the future”. She looked at me just as bemused as I was about what I had just said. What on earth did I mean? Why would people come to a festival to learn? This is not proper academic learning. Weren’t we just a few women mucking around with art and performance?
I had recently enrolled in a Doctorate with the Centre for Cultural Studies because I wanted to know what kept the women coming along to creative groups at The Women’s Room and what kept audiences returning to the community festival, beyond the superficial aspect of entertainment and curiosity. At the first showing of art works at the galley in 2006, the organising committee expected friends, family and a few curious passers-by to show up. Instead 300 people crammed into a small gallery space and overflowed into the gardens. The six women organisers of the event were totally overwhelmed but also ecstatic and invigorated by the whole process. There had been no plans to repeat this event however, after this success, they wanted to do it all over again.
It began to unfurl for me many years later, that what I had been doing in the community groups and festivals, was not just mucking around but was a powerful and potential site of learning and engagement. My own anxiety and shyness in an academic setting made this realisation slow in coming. It is only now, six years later and after teaching about diverse pedagogies to beginning teachers that I can reflect upon my initial comment and witness the emergence of expos, as valuable and legitimate pedagogical approaches in teacher education. Not only do creative project settings like festivals and expos develop important adaptive skills to cope with a rapidly changing globalised society, but learning in real life community settings develops highly desirable collaborative skills needed in 21st century classrooms.
The expo format is an emerging assessment tool in several of the UWS academic units I am involved with such as a market place in the M.Ed. Learning and Creativity unit and the inaugural Education for Sustainability Unit Expo held in May 2013. What I witnessed in the organising of both the community festivals and expos in the university context was a nexus of concepts, challenges, ideas, problems, failures, tryouts, adaptions, solutions and hands on skills that culminated in one event. It seemed to be a messy chaotic process in the beginning but through careful planning and scaffolding, discussion and negotiation the expo or festival seemed to create itself into being. The end result was a synthesis of knowledge and responses, addressing and identifying specific problems or themes, which became manifest in a culturally constructed artefact. In other words the learning became visible in a physical three dimensional way and was reflective of who had made it and what cultural, religious and political values and discourses participants bought with them. Herein lays the value of expos and festivals as a legitimate pedagogical practice. Participants are able to construct learning from their own unique cultural and grounded perspective and bring their experiences into the community, opening a dialogue where aspects of “otherness”, diversity and place can be negotiated. Of course negotiation is still reliant on which leaders exert what kind of power and so there is the continual need for both teachers and students to “critique their social and institutional positionings” when engaged within community contexts (Gannon 2010: 9).
Using Expos as a pedagogical tool has the benefit for teachers, students and researchers of challenging us all to adapt content and present this in creative, engaging ways to a highly critical audience. This is clearly one of the important roles for all of us to develop as 21st century citizens where boundaries of supposed static systems require constant and timely adaption. This can be a ‘sink’ or ‘swim’ experience in an expo format. From my intimate experience of failure and flourishing in a community festival context, I have learnt that if people are not engaged they just walk away. You have to think on your feet quickly and find alternate ways that work to inspire interest. Once interested you need to hold an audience’s attention and give them something they will remember while not taking away from the depth of learning you want to encourage. I have also learnt that collaborative practice is necessarily challenging, requiring flexibility, strong leadership skills and mediation in relationship breakdown. It may seem like a tough gig but as evidenced in the recount of my community group experiences, satisfying, invigorating and empowering when it works.
In a classroom, students may not be able to physically walk away when they feel disengaged but they will walk away mentally and the consequences of disengagement are well documented (McGregor 2011). To engage this generation we can choose to use culturally responsive and adaptive pedagogies to remain relevant in the visually saturated fast paced globalised life that young people are used to (Kea et al 2006). Using adaptive pedagogies is not a simply pandering to the next generation’s needs but a carefully thought out strategy to meditate the parallel words of disembodied cyberspace and the intimate sensory cues that face to face interaction expresses. Expos allow participants face to face experience of the life story firsthand by becoming fully immersed in the moment, rather than being distracted by the promise of being at a better place in the past or the future by social media (Rushkoff 2013: 118). I also agree with McArthur (2010: 73) who suggests the need for embodied interactions alongside online communication as “face-to-face experience challenges the notion of cultural otherness by confronting students with the realities of one’s essential humanness”. McArthur’s (2010: 74) research suggests that;
Culturally adaptive pedagogy creates collaborative platforms and spaces where students, educators and institutions can begin to envision creative ‘whole world’ solutions to societal challenges via open-ended inclusive methodologies.
Perhaps instead of falling head over heels for the expo as peak sites for learning and engagement delivering an assured promise of open dialogue, congenial collaboration, equitable and deep learning, we also need to be aware that like any pedagogical tool it can be misunderstood or misused. An expo is not the learning itself. It is the container and the outward manifestation of a larger process. The expo or festival is a moment in time and its success is not the result of linear planning but rather systems thinking. When assessing the learning through the experience of the expo, it is important to remember that just assessing the expo moment or event will not be an authentic measure. The value of the expo experience lies in active participation, regular reflective practice before, during and after the event and a recognition that the assessment is for learning rather than of learning (Flowers 2010). In other words the expo assessment design needs to be able to facilitate learning in process, not just an allocation of a mark for an end result.
It is a philosophical leap to use expos in academic settings and one that I welcome whole heartedly. Reflecting back to my initial recount of the academic’s disengaged audience, we too need to heed the lesson of engagement and relevance. Our world is shifting from institutions being the only legitimate sources of knowledge to a radical pedagogy of knowing from below, a pedagogy of the people. In my experience, this pedagogy is still able to provide a critique of worthwhile ideas but the decider of what is worthwhile has shifted and the space where learning happens is not fixed in one location but is agile and flexible. The expo as assessment tool acknowledges that learning is part of life rather than something that only occurs in the classroom. Expos offer a way for us to put into practice theoretical ideas of learning, critique how power is played out, negotiate relationships and develop projects that may become active beyond university and school gates.
My immersive experience in the community Earthspirit festival has helped develop within me, a greater appreciation for expos and festivals as sites of learning and the inherent challenges they ultimately bring. In support of culturally adaptive pedagogy and open ended methodologies my next adventure into this arena now awaits me in the Simply Living Expo at the Winmalee Public School in the Blue Mountains on Saturday, 5th April, 2014. This project crosses the boundaries of community, academia, institution and social media to explore how one community engages in sustainable practice. It is not a research project but a passion that I share with others in my community. In the spirit of open ended inquiry and culturally adaptive pedagogy, I will remain curious and wondrous about what this new experience will unearth and what pathways this will lead me down. I’ll be sure to let you know.
Flowers. R. (2010). Climate advocacy and climate organizing: Should we be interrogating our theories and practices more? CARG Conference, 5th March 2010 Draft working paper for discussion 1. Available at: http://www.ccs.uts.edu.au/pdfs/flowers-2010-carg.pdf
Gannon. S (2005). I’ll be a different sort of teacher because of this: Creating the Next generation. Australian Educational Research Association. Available at: http://publications.aare.edu.au/05pap/gan05103.pdf
Kea. C., Campbell-Whatley. G. D., Richards H. V., and Peay, A. (2006). Becoming Culturally Responsive Educators: Rethinking Teacher Education Pedagogy. The mission of the National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (nccrest) http://www.nccrest.org/Briefs/Teacher_Ed_Brief.pdf
McArthur. P. (2010). Creating Adaptive Pedagogy. Cumulis Creative Thinking Conference proceedings. 69-79. Available at: http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/30857482/Cumulus_Proceedings_Shanghai.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIR6FSIMDFXPEERSA&Expires=1374985425&Signature=2F3Ws5BLlYp7PdF5BP5bM6gDr3I%3D&response-content-disposition=inline
McGregor. G. (2011). Engaging Gen Y in schooling: the need for an egalitarian ethos of education Pedagogy, Culture & Society Vol. 19, Iss. 1. Retrieved from; http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14681366.2010.510803#.UfStYLF-_VI
Rushkoff. D. (2013). Present Shock: When everything happens now. Current: New York.