ICT as Political Action

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The framework of political action

I have previously referred to Arendt’s (1958) examination of ‘the human condition’ where she offers new ways of looking at the world and at human affairs based on justice. At this point I want to engage more fully with Arendt’s ideas and show how they can form the basis for a reconceptualisation of ICT as a transformational medium with the potential to support individual human agency rather than how it is commonly seen: as a productivity tool.

In Arendt’s view human activity can be divided into three types. She calls these labour, work and action and she represents these as a hierarchy. Labour is the activity that is not undertaken for its own sake but in order to provide the necessities of life (Arendt 1958: 83). Labour can be seen as those everyday activities that we undertake to get by: those that we do not necessarily choose to do but which we have to do. I am reluctant to name activities which constitute labour because I am aware that another might see a higher order activity in those that I describe as labour. Nonetheless, I will offer these suggestions tentatively and invite you to consider them and we can engage dialogically with them. In the introduction I have indicated how I engage dialogically through the thesis, and I ask you bear those ideas in mind now.

It seems to me that from the point of view of the teacher in a school, mundane tasks like maintaining the attendance rolls or organising the classroom furniture could be seen as labour. From the perspective of the ICT teacher or the ICT administrator running the virus scanner or ensuring the network or email works could be seen as labour. This is effort that leaves nothing behind and the ‘result of this effort is almost as quickly consumed as the effort is spent’ (Arendt 1958: 87). These are vital jobs that need to be done and need to be repeated day after day but they are not core functions of the teacher or ICT administrator. Frequently as a teacher of ICT I find my time taken up by mundane activities. Many other teachers of ICT report the same difficulty. If a student cannot access a working computer or if the Internet connection is unavailable it is difficult for the student to get involved in transformational activities through the medium of ICT. For me as a teacher of ICT I need to find ways of working with ICT that go beyond labour. The activities that I detail later in relation to building a robust ICT infrastructure form an important part of moving beyond ICT as labour. A robust and dependable infrastructure provided me and my students with the tools required to explore ICT in more life-affirming ways.

Arendt’s second form of activity is work. Although the terms ‘work’ and ‘labour’ are often used interchangeably in everyday discourses, Arendt (1958: 80) argues there has always been a difference between them. Her argument is on the etymological basis that every European language, ancient and modern, has separate words for work and labour. If we proceed on the basis of her distinction, the ‘work of our hands’ can be seen as the production of durable artifacts (ibid: 136). People who undertake ‘work’ are often craftspeople and artists who make objects which are durable in the world. A key contrast between labour and work is that labour does not produce lasting goods; but work produces the ‘sheer unending variety of things’ which constitutes human artifice (ibid: 136). In common with many others I have acknowledged the superiority of work over labour and the importance of the ‘work of the hands’ when I encourage students to bring home the clock that they made for the mini-company or the rain detector constructed in Technology class. An important aspect of these items was their durability. For some students the clock was still on the kitchen wall many years later. When I provided opportunities and supported my colleagues and students in developing multimedia presentations or web sites I was supporting them in developing ‘durable artifacts’ (ibid: 136) which in many cases had a ‘use value’ and could be used repeatedly. These activities could, in Arendtian terms, be judged ‘work’. In moving my conceptualisation of ICT from labour to work I am making some progress toward a reconceptualisation of ICT but this is some distance from a transformational conceptualisation of ICT.

Arendt’s third type of activity offers an interpretation that could support a transformational view of ICT. She proposes a type of activity which she calls ‘action’ and she associates speech with action (Arendt 1958: 175-243). In Arendt’s view action is a public category, a worldly practice that is experienced in our intercourse with others, and so is a practice that ‘both presupposes and can be actualised only in a human polity’. Action is primarily about the disclosure of the agent in speech and action (Arendt 1958: 175). She makes the link between action, speech and disclosure clear in her initial framing of the chapter where she addresses the concept of action. Arendt starts the chapter by citing Dinesen: ‘All sorrow can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them’ and Dante: ‘…nothing acts unless [by acting] it makes patent its latent self’ (Arendt 1958: 175). By using these as initial references for her treatment of action she links action and speech with the narrative form. There are suggestions that the use of the quotation from a self-proclaimed story-teller is in contrast to the Latin quotation from Dante and to the discussion of Greek philosophy and politics that follows (Wilkinson 2004). On the contrary I believe that Arendt was making the point that storytelling plays a key role in the life of the polis.

The link between action, speech and self-disclosure provides an important model for my work with students. It suggests that the highest from of activity that can be undertaken in class is not learning by rote or through abstraction or by hiding behinds roles like teacher and student but by revealing oneself as a human being. That self-disclosure is revealed though speech and action. While working with my students on their web design projects I engaged with them in dialogic processes of deciding what work we would undertake. By choosing to design a particular web site and publish it my students were self-disclosing: they were saying ‘I have an interest in doing this and in making my interest public’. By writing reports of their experiences they were reflecting on what they had done and revealing their inner thoughts. One student revealed his insecurities at the outset of the LCA programme but his sense of satisfaction and achievement is made clear in his reflections:

When I was just starting I would never have thought I would be able to use a computer at the level that I can use a computer today. Even things as simple as typing was hard at first, and when we went onto the other things it took a good while to get my head around it…I learned something new nearly everyday since the start of LCA. In the past year and a half I have learned so much about computers that I did not think it was possible.

(Clifford 2004: 2)

Another student gained deep insight into his own abilities and gained the confidence to articulate his own realisation of his capacities and inclinations.

I found out that I am capable of learning on my own initiative. I found out that I am capable of learning things when I write them down.

(Kearns 2004: 5)

By developing an innovative approach to the personal reflection task and other ICT based activities I was enabling my students to engage in political action through the medium of ICT. By choosing to support my students in this way I was self-disclosing. I was revealing the ways that I preferred to work with my students: in emancipatory processes involving dialogue and action. I believe that these reflections indicate that I have learned how to teach in a way that enables others to learn. In my approach to teaching I use ICT to enable others to learn. At the same time I teach them to use ICT to develop their own agency. ICT is used in a productive sense by my students, colleagues and me working collaboratively. We each position ourselves as agents who are using ICT to realise our own potential. This enablement shows that I value these young people and my colleagues.

In Arendt’s terms, action is the activity undertaken by people that enables them to take their place in the world (Arendt 1958: 176). Central to the idea of action is the idea of ‘plurality’. Plurality is often taken to refer to the diversity among people. Plurality in some respects is a contradictory term in that it refers to the sense in which we are all the same as humans: that we are all different. So plurality has the character of both equality and distinction (ibid: 175). Within my work I attempt to value plurality by valuing the differences between people. As a novice teacher and occasionally later, my actions in excluding students from my class from time to time suggests that in practice I valued conformity rather than diversity. In hindsight I believe that students who refused to conform to ideas that they should dress in a particular way, sit in a particular way or speak at particular times threatened my need for a particular conception of order. I punished these students in a variety of ways. As I came to understand that people come to know in different ways and learn in different ways and have different inclinations, I have begun to value their plurality by opening up ways of learning and acting that support them within diversity. By rejecting normative assumptions about how people are and should be I am working toward providing greater equality among people by recognising people’s individualities, or in Arendt’s words ‘distinction’ (Arendt 1958: 176).

In more abstract terms if people do not have equality they cannot understand each other or see the needs of each other. If they were not different they would not need speech or action to make themselves understood. It is the plurality among people that is the basis of action. Each person is capable of new action and new perspectives and they will not fit a tidy predictable model. Only the experience of sharing a common world with others who look at it from different perspectives can enable us to see reality in the round and to develop a shared common sense (Canovan in Arendt 1958: xiii). Let me take these propositional ideas and present them in a living way.

In one of his personal reflection task assignments Matthew (Reilly 2004) choose to carry out his task by using a web site that provided ideas on writing a covering letter to accompany his curriculum vitae in support of a job application. In the assignment I asked Matthew to select the three most important points made in the online article and discuss them with three classmates. In Matthew’s reflection he wrote:

I discussed these points with three members of my class… D. and S. agreed that they think they would use these points but M. said they weren’t the points he would have went with.

(Reilly 2004: 1)

Matthew’s account shows him entering into dialogue with co-learners. By entering into dialogue they were expressing their equality. Within dialogue they encountered plurality: they did not have the same perspective on what was the most important point in the online article. Matthew does not give a full account of the discussion that took place but from the equanimity of his account it appears that he accepted that there were different points of view. While engaging with the members of his group on an equal basis he recognised the distinction among the membership. The particular innovative approach that I had taken to the Personal Reflection task enabled Matthew and his classmates to decide on the content of their own learning, to make their own decisions on what was important in their learning, to engage dialogically with each other about that learning and through this process embody the principles of plurality in the form of equality and distinction.

In addition to plurality, Arendt claims that of the three activities, action has the closest connection with natality. Natality is the new beginning as a result of birth that holds out the prospect of further new beginnings by the new born acting. Essentially natality can be seen as the recognition of the uniqueness of the individual, not as a result of some special talent or ability, but simply because they were born. All humans as a consequence of their birth hold out the possibility of starting new things. When I enter a classroom I can choose to stifle those new beginnings or I can choose to enable new beginnings. In my own practice as a teacher I have often stifled new beginnings by seeking conformity rather than creativity. I have justified stifling new beginnings on the basis that I have a course to cover, or we don’t have time. However, through the activities described above and later in this thesis I explain how I have supported new beginnings. One of the consequences of this is that I have started to expect the unexpected because people are capable of action, of beginning something new. Natality points to the uniqueness and ‘specialness’ of every person despite what the appearances may be sometimes. The implications of this for me and for other teachers and students of ICT is that ICT can be conceptualised as action when it involves the use of multimedia tools and technologies to support original human agency – this can be ‘action’ in the Arendtian sense and within this action in the context of ICT, the unexpected can be expected. In the brief account of Matthew’s activities above, Matthew was accounting for the new born acting. By his action he was starting a new beginning; in his speech he was disclosing himself. In the web of relationships that he formed in dialogue he started a process which eventually emerges as the unique life story of the newcomer as he affected the life stories of those around him (Arendt 1958: 184). I will present these life stories in greater detail in Chapter 5.

Arendt’s conceptualisation of human activity, although presented in a propositional way, offers an analysis that could form the basis for my living theory of practice. It seems to me that school activity that I have difficulty with could be seen in Arendtian terms as labour and occasionally work but rarely action. The challenge from reading Arendt is to develop school practices which are in the nature of work or action rather than labour. A key question is: does traditional didactic teaching provide scope for action? It seems, to me, not. Within our schools quiet classes are often prized but this is in direct contrast to Arendt’s conception of being human. In Arendt’s terms, action is the pinnacle of human activity and action is primarily about the disclosure of the agent in speech and action (Arendt 1958: 175). On that basis the silenced class may be inhuman. Excluding students from class is often because of the student’s unwillingness to conform. Arendt’s emphasis on plurality emphasises the difference between people. This suggests that striving for conformity is inhuman. For me, as a practitioner, trying to develop practice which is human, Arendt provides a unit of analysis against which to test the validity of my practice. Within the detailed account I give later, evidence is provided of changes in my teaching practices that start the process of moving away from labour, and into work and on to action.

Arendt speaks about how action allows each individual the opportunity to give meaning to human life. In recognition of people’s natality, educators have a responsibility to support those that we work with ‘to be the best’ (Arendt 1958: 19). That responsibility lies, in the first instance, with themselves. My first responsibility as an educator is to be the best that I can be. I can be the best that I can be by supporting others in their struggles to be the best that they can be. This responsibility is not a consequence of my work. It is a part of my natality. I carry this responsibility simply because I am alive. The responsibility lies with me in the various places that I live with my students, my colleagues, my family and friends. The responsibility is to support others to realise their own natality. I have given indications of how I do this in the previous paragraphs and I will address this in more detail in Chapter 5. Arendt’s ideas hold out the prospect of challenging traditional views of education by providing a model based on action within the world, rather than one of conformity to the institution. Moving from existing practice to a new model is not a single change event but a wide range of differing responses in varying circumstances. My initial attempts to address the dissonance in my practice focused on moving my work towards practices that enabled students to exercise more control. In the later section dealing with the development of self-instructional guides I will indicate how this approach, while still being restrictive, offered students the opportunity to exercise a greater level of control over their own learning. By taking this approach I removed myself from being the focus of attention, teaching from the top of the class, to a situation where I was in a position to give attention to individual students. This fundamentally changed the relationship between students and teacher. This is an intermediate stage in moving students towards greater autonomy. When I eventually initiated the Setanta project and an innovative approach to the LCA personal reflection work (see Chapter 5) I provided much greater autonomy to students.

No source given. It may be paraphrased from a comment made by Isak Dinesen alias Karen Blixen in a telephone interview published in The New York Times Book Review on 3 November 1957 (and reprinted in 2000 in a collection of interviews and talks edited by Else Brundbjerg. Samtaler med Karen Blixen [Interviews with Karen Blixen] Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 254-55).

Dante, no source given. A later reference (p 208) suggests that this is Arendt’s translation of a quote from Dante De monarchia i. 13


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