Thursday, July 5, 2012

Phenomenology - Education Of The Unexpected

Source: Obey Giant
Perhaps the most effective viral visualization of the past 20 years has been the OBEY propaganda pop-art phenomenon. Long before Twitter and Facebook manufactured memes, this grassroots graffiti campaign stirred surprise and admiration from San Francisco to Brooklyn. Ostensibly an underground poster movement, the OBEY image featured a bare-bones black-and-white lithograph of Andre The Giant, the legendary professional wrestler and authoritarian powerhouse.

Starting in 1989 in Providence, Rhode Island, the image began to appear on urban alleys and billboards, urging passersby to "Obey!" in a totalitarian message of conformity. The movement was initiated by artist Shepard Fairey, who would later achieve acclaim with his WPA-inspired "Progress" poster for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. Fairey imagined a street spreading of agitprop design that would enforce obedience in the absence of an obvious message. The directive and source would be unknown. Only urgent would be the aggressive dispatch, without a discernible motive.

It would succeed mightily. Soon the OBEY graphic would find itself in all pockets of the country, leading eventually to a commercial empire. The thrust behind the art movement, though, was phenomenology. As described by Fairey, "the first aim of Phenomenology is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one's environment. The OBEY campaign attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the campaign and their relationship with their surroundings."

Source: Obey Giant
In philosophy, the definition of phenomenology is "the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view." In education, the notion of "stimulating curiosity" is precisely the purview of every Early Childhood teacher. They inspire young minds through new exposures, such as a first bird's nest or a homemade pretzel. The OBEY Manifesto notes that, "people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the motive is not obvious." Yet in elementary education, the visual encounter and hands-on experience are themselves the motives. Making sense of visuals is graphicacy at its best, and there need not always be deeper rationales.

The OBEY mission, underground yet in-your-face, has been perpetuated by recent street artists such as Banksy. But don't teachers do this all the time? They craft rich bulletin boards for children to stumble upon. They show political cartoons, videos, and maps and let students reach their own conclusions. Project-based learning (PBL) is itself a study in phenomenology. PBL, of course, must be based on explicit steps and rubrics so students can meet the goals. But sometimes unexpected encounters can offer moments of illumination and teach children to deal with what is unforeseen. Occasions of self-discovery and trying to make sense of environments offer true independent thinking.

Source: Banksy
Our former English colleague, for example, used to describe a lesson where she would stage a simulated shouting match in front of a class of startled students. Two teachers would arrange to meet at her doorway and engage in a heated mock argument, yelling vaguely specific terms like "benefits schedule" and "lesson approval." After 30 seconds, the faux fight would disappear, and the teacher would ask the children to write down exactly what had happened. She would then read their accounts aloud. Invariably, the students were shocked to hear that their classmates had recorded drastically different versions of the same event. The lesson would then transition to a discussion of eye-witness accuracy in legal trials and newspaper stories. But the immediacy of wrangling with a confusing display left a lasting impression on the kids.

Source: Over The Airwaves
Other possibilities for phenomenology in the classroom could be to spring surprise evidence during a Mock Trial crime scene visit. Or, for example, our fourth-graders each year reenact a trip on the Oregon Trail, encountering new dilemmas at stations and drawing "fate cards" to deal with real-world decision-making. The art of the unexpected reinforces the benefit of simulations like Constitutional Conventions or U.S. Senate sessions. Not everything must be spelled out to students. In fact, grappling with the unexplained makes for proactive, genuine education.

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