I have many "Aha" moments in the shower crying out for documentation.  I will also use this blog to document my new startup, "Going One to One", an online course for schools who need help doing three big shifts at once: purchasing computers for each student, promoting student-centered learning, and adopting Google Apps for Education.

- Bram Moreinis

Constructivism, Communities of Practice, and Arthur

One of my best friends, Arthur Joseph Kushner, was a poet / mystic / scholar / handyman  who died at 57.  His brilliant life and early (and lonely) death inspired me to create a website about his ideas (arthurjoseph.org) and publish a book of his poems.  Arthur's mind was always working at the connections between things, drawing meaning between local and global contexts. 


A great and entertaining example is Once I Killed A Mouse, where Arthur describes a house cat who can't hunt his own mice as an "evolutionary cul-de-sac." and characterizes the mouse as God's servant, not only for spreading grain but (as the proto-rodent who ate the eggs of dinosaurs) populating the Earth.

What I want to write about here is Arthur's educational theory, which he pronounced as "Ropework" though it was based on the letters RHPE.  This acronym stood for "Representations of Human Participation in Environments", and addressed the necessary components of what he called "the educational transaction." I see his theory as the joining the frameworks of Lev Vygotsky's "Constructivism" and Etienne Wenger's and Jean Lave's "Communities of Practice". I feel that both of these theories are critical foundations for meaningful, student-centered learning, and was fascinated to discover both in Arthur's Ropework. 

Arthur required that educators connect (hence "rope") their presentations to what real people do in real places.  Communities of Practice, similarly, "are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor." 

Wenger also pressed schools to situate learning in contexts that include community participation, identity formation, and invitation to relate to domains, with three domains of challenge:

  1. Internally: How to organize educational experiences that ground school learning in practice through participation in communities around subject matters?
  2. Externally: How to connect the experience of students to actual practice through peripheral forms of participation in broader communities beyond the walls of the school?
  3. Over the lifetime of students: How to serve the lifelong learning needs of students by organizing communities of practice focused on topics of continuing interest to students beyond the initial schooling period?

In justifying his RHPE requirement, Arthur made these declarations, which to me come straight out of "Thought and Language" by Vygotsky (whom Arthur had not read):

  1. All human learning influences the development of identity and depends upon the acquisition of modes of self representation.
  2. The language available to any participant is conditioned by the possibilities of particular environments.
  3. Language becomes a menu of potential participations reinforced by a particular environment.
  4. Environments are represented, and thus perceived, by sequentially reinforced participation.

Wegner similarly characterized Communities of Practice in constructivist terms,  as socially organized, intentional activity in an environment:

...a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope.

She specifically invoked the the derivation of identity from participation in an environment:

Membership therefore implies a commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people.

Arthur developed RHPE in response to public schools which he saw as institutionally constrained to exclude identity and context from what is presented to students.  This "overly abstracted" curriculum was not only less meaningful as a result, but less personally accessible to the student.  

The current movement in public education and universities to "personalize learning" is often connected to the recently debunked idea of "Multiple Learning Styles,"  but for Wenger, Vygotsky, and Arthur, the real focus of personalization is to situate learning in the sphere of personal meaning, social context, and human activity. 

For more on these connections, view a wiki entry I discovered on "Situated Learning Theory" after writing this post, from which I borrowed the image below.