Kalantzis and Cope on Changing Society, New Learning

The changes occurring in the world around us are pervasive. The challenges we face as educators, profound.

Take something so ordinary and pervasive as narrative. In everyday family and community life, the narratives of gaming have now become an even bigger business than Hollywood. From the most impressionable of ages, children of the Nintendo, PlayStation and X-Box generation have become inured to the idea that they can be characters in narratives, capable of determining or, at the very least, influencing the story’s end. They are content with being no less than actors rather than audiences, players rather than spectators, agents rather than voyeurs, users rather than readers of narrative. Not content with programmed radio, these children build their own play lists on their iPods. Not content with programmed TV, they read the narratives of DVD and Internet-streamed video at varying depth (the movie, the documentary about the making of the movie) and dip into ‘chapters’ at will. Not content with the singular vision of sports telecasting of mass TV, they choose their own angles, replays and statistical analyses on interactive digital TV. And not content with being mere receivers of media content, they are creators and sharers of identity laden content, at Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or on blogs.

Old logics of teaching and learning are profoundly challenged by a social context in which these changes in media are mere symptoms of a broader and deeper change. Old-style schools are bound to fall short, not only for disappointing young people whose expectations of engagement are greater, but also for failing to direct their energies to developing the kinds of persons required for the new domains of work, citizenship and personality. At work, school leavers will find that the crude command structures that their parents experienced in the past are being replaced by a more sophisticated cultural co-option – the co-option of teamwork, vision, mission and corporate culture, in which everyone is supposed to personify the enterprise, to think and will and act the enterprise. ‘Any colour you like, so long as it’s black,’ said that heroic command personality, Henry Ford. Not only did he order his workers around, and get away with it. He also ordered around the consumers of his products. Today, there can be no entrepreneurial heroism because the customer is always right and products and services need to be customised to mesh with the multiple subjectivities of niche markets – the big SUVs, the smart sports cars, the spacious family cars, the environment-friendly hybrid cars, the micro cars for crowded cities, cars of any hue and trim – so many permutations, in fact, that sometimes an individual order has to be placed before a vehicle is manufactured. This is why Fordist mass production is being displaced by today’s mass customisation.

Whether it be in the domain of work, governance or cultural life, the command society is giving way to the society of reflexivity in which agency is more evenly balanced. Or so we might say in moments of strategic optimism. In moments of pessimism, we might experience these same phenomena as fragmentation, ego-centrism, randomness, ambiguity and anarchy. And when this pessimism turns to fear, we might want to return to earlier, simpler command structures – in nations, workplaces, households and schools.

Pessimists and optimists alike might agree that we are in the midst of a transformation that is creating new forms of subjectivity and new kinds of personality. These transformations can be viewed both from within a systems perspective and beyond it. From a systems point of view, these are the kinds of governance structures, the kinds of organisations and the kinds of people required today, for the most conservative, small government and pro-enterprise points of view. We hear these points of view expressed in the public rhetoric of innovation and creativity, the knowledge economy and individual autonomy and responsibility. Notwithstanding the high-sounding rhetoric, left to run their course these transformations may only legitimate and even exacerbate systemic inequities.

History, however, is more open-ended than that. Inevitably, human systems are so complex that they allow possibilities outside the scope anticipated by their progenitors and apologists. For every moment that the ideologues of small government succeed in shrinking the state, there is another moment in which people learn the civilities of self-government in their various communities of practice; for every moment that command structures in workplaces are replaced by structures asking workers to ‘fit’ in with the workplace culture, there is another moment in which people acquire the collaborative competencies of socially directed work; for every moment that compliant personalities are replaced by the ego-centrism of individualism, there is another moment in which new relationships of co-dependence and mutual reliance are created and the bonds of sociability are extended and deepened. Whatever the domain, there is a shift in the balance of power and in the moral economy of agency that favours egalitarianism and liberty. And this, despite and beyond prevailing systems and structures of power. From this something genuinely new could emerge.

The trends, however, are always contradictory. Just as agency is passed over to users and consumers, power is also centralised in ways that become more disturbing with time. The ownership of commercial media, communications channels and software platforms is becoming alarmingly concentrated. Besides, to what extent are the new media, such as games, an escape from reality? And for every dazzling new opening to knowledge and cultural expression in the new ‘gift economy’ of the Internet (whereby content can be accessed for free) – and Google and Facebook are prime examples of this – there are disturbing new possibilities for the invasion of privacy, cynically targeted advertising and control over knowledge sources and media.

Meanwhile, differences that had been hidden away in private lives are now being exposed more publicly. Everything has become a potential subject for media discussion. Discourses that were once confined to the private domain – the sexual lives of public figures, discussion of repressed memories of child abuse and intimate moral struggles about life, sexuality and relationships, for instance – are now made public in all their sometimes compelling, other times lurid detail. Important issues are at stake, and often they need a public airing. In more and more ways people speak publicly to their identities – when, for example, something once so introspective as a diary becomes a web log for the world to see. Some of this can be regarded as cynical, manipulative, invasive and exploitative, as discourses of private life and community are appropriated to serve commercial ends. At other times, it can be regarded as an opportunity to air matters of moral inclination and concern that were once suppressed, repressed or ignored. The result is that a thousand and more identities find voice and a thousand lives make their differences poignantly felt.

Against the comforting simplicities and certitudes of the older modernity, some fear irretrievable social fracturing; the creation of worlds unto themselves without any of the former geographical constraints and assurances of locality. Others see a lowering of barriers to access, where more and more communities can become media creators rather than media consumers. The auto-creative potentials of the digital media and the ‘semantic web’ have been opened by the Internet. These potentials create new economies of cultural scale, geographies of distribution and balances of cultural power. The costs of owning the means of production of widely communicable meaning have been hugely reduced and, with this, the small and the different have become as viable as the large and the generic.

With this, we witness a burgeoning of cultural diversity in any number of guises – more and more finely grained ethnic diasporas, professional associations, coalitions of expertise and affinity groups of fad and fetish. The tools of self-creation allow lifeworlds a degree of autonomy not possible in the earlier media regime. Over time, these communities diverge – by way of knowledge, style and modes of representing the world. The challenge is to make space available so that different lifeworlds can flourish; to create spaces for community life whereby local and specific meanings can be made. To harness the new forms of agency for scientific breakthroughs, economic solutions and cultural creativity that produces cohesive sociality and sustainable communities.

In a bleak view of these differences, they remain as that; as fragmented and fragmenting. Cultures in the plural make for a voluntary form of apartheid spurred on by isolationisms and separatisms of one kind or another; from the ethno-nationalisms of the post-Cold War world, to drop-out communities and new-age alternatives, to defeated, defiant and lawless ghettoes. And insofar as persons invariably live in many, now deeply personalised, sub-cultures, personality heads in the direction of a metaphorical schizophrenia. Underlying all of this is an increasingly fractured and de-centralised consciousness. The individual subject of an early modernity often found themself submitting to the authority of mass culture. They were a person more spoken to than speaking. However, the rise of the new more active subject is also accompanied by cultural relativism, with all the chaos and amorality of ‘anything goes’ and ‘live and let live’. In the world of high culture, this form of consciousness is often labelled ‘postmodern’.

The moment one allows more scope for agency, one invariably finds oneself facing layer upon layer of difference– in workplaces, markets, self-governing communities, amongst, between and within personalities. One discovers agencies actually existing in the massively plural, and not in the fabrications and falsifications of the command society with its one-people, one-state nationalism, its regime of mass production and uniform mass consumption, and the pretensions to cultural homogeneity of the old mass media and mass culture. These go far deeper than simple demographics, uncovering deep and ever-diverging differences of experience, interest, orientation to the world, values, dispositions, sensibilities, social languages and discourses. And insofar as one person inhabits many lifeworlds (home, professional, interest, affiliation), their identities are multilayered.

If diversity is a fundamental fact of our moment in modern times, an integrating inclusiveness is a necessary antidote to this fragmentation. Diversity may become the paradoxical basis for cohesion. In personal life, the place to start is with the person as a social being, and the integrating potential of multilayered identities. This is a strategically optimistic response to the end of mass culture and the increasing fragmentation of community.

The more autonomous lifeworlds become, the more people seem to be free to move in and out; whole lifeworlds go through major transitions; there is more open and productive negotiation of internal differences; there are freer external linkages and alliances. The more scope we are given to be ourselves, the more different we make our selves. The more different we can be, the more sociable we become. The more we are allowed to be the source of our selves, the more we connect with others.

This logic of divergence linked to tighter and more expansive sociability has become a paradoxical universal, a distinctive characteristic of our times. The kind of person who can live well in this world is someone who has acquired the capacity to navigate from one domain of social activity to another, who is resilient in their capacity to articulate and enact their own identities, who can find ways of entering into dialogue with, and learning, new and unfamiliar social languages and who is able to reinvent themself as contexts and circumstances change.

One of the fundamental challenges schools face today is to create the conditions or learning that support the growth of this kind of person, a person comfortable with themself, as well as flexible enough to collaborate and negotiate with others who are different; to work on common projects and forge shared interests, and able to learn and to transform themself in new and changing situations.

In a world of endemic divergence, the old, one-size-fits-all, on-the-same-page curriculum is no longer a good idea. Heritage modern schooling did all it could to remove or ignore differences. With the teacher at the front of the room and the test at the end of the term, everyone had to be working on the same thing at the same time. This was the communicative basis of its key technologies of homogenisation – separatism (by age, ‘ability’, culture, language, social destiny) and assimilation (remember this stuff, demonstrate you can think this way, become the kind of person we want you to be).

Look at all the differences in school today, so visible and so insistent: material (class, locale), corporeal (age, race, sex and sexuality, and physical and mental characteristics) and symbolic (culture, language, gender, family, affinity and persona). The New Learning has little alternative but to recognise the social realities of pluralism and develop strategies for inclusion that are without prejudice to that diversity.

Using digital media, for instance, all learners do not have to be on the same page. At any one time, each can be doing what is best for them given what they already know. And how can a teacher know what a learner knows? A much more graphic, realistic and detailed view is possible in a digital environment in which actual performance is recorded in portfolios rather than by means of bald test scores. Complex, multi-perspectival assessment is possible, which continuously feeds back into the process of appropriate learning design for that student. If students are knowledge creators, they can be asked to link the particularities of their life experiences closely into the knowledge that is being made. By this means, their knowledge making becomes re-voicing, not replication. Students can also work together more readily in digital sharing environments. Lesser or greater contributions are visible for what they are (and this could be appropriate), and differential perspectives and knowledge can be valued as the basis for collective intelligence.


Adapted from: Kalantzis, Mary. 2006. “Changing Subjectivities, New Learning.” Pedagogies: An International Journal 1:7-12.


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