Playing with bricolage and boundary objects for new learning spaces

According to many learning theories, it will be key to our future that we all acquire four so-called future skills – these are typically said to be the skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Taken together they will enable us to work together in ways which emphasise our human skills, which can be augmented, but not replaced by new technologies like AI. They will also enable us to make progress in achieving the grand challenges expressed by the UN sustainable development goals – like reducing world poverty, increasing opportunities for decent work, while considering the environmental impacts of our actions.

But how can we learn this? Andreas Schleicher from the OECD has said that the biggest problem for education is that many of the new skills and competences we will need for the future are so difficult to teach. Moreover, I would like to add that it is not enough to only think of the younger generation, when we consider these demands – it is important that we all have opportunities to exercise these skills in a safe learning space.

This was the topic I chose for my workshop at the event entitled stARTcamp meets HOOU in Hamburg on 6 September 2019. With the title “Bricolage with boundary objects: Exploring how open educational resources and open design can contribute to future-proof skills learning” I wanted to pick up a few educational concepts and discuss with the participants how these might together create such learning spaces, where future skills can be exercised.

Open educational resources and open design are both about encouraging critical review and bricolage or ‘making’ as part of the learning process. These are central skills for a digital world in which agency to criticise, play with and create our surrounding world will help us build a sustainable and equitable society. But a further central concept for learning is curation! It is the fifth C – i.e. in a world of abundance of information, learners need to learn how to focus, select and explore.

The 5 C’s of future skills: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity – and curation

This workshop started with an introduction to concepts and provided examples, including for critical review of information the Damien Hirst exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable and for creativity and bricolage the open design WikiSeat and how this came to be used in education.

The workshop asked participants to think of how they could also create learning spaces, which encouraged debate and critical review – and preferably would occur outside of the normal institutional settings for learning. As an inspiration, I introduced the concept of boundary objects from Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer, which take a sociological view on how collaboration and discussion occurs even in groups, where there is no consensus of meaning, since this seems like the perfect kind of learning space for this activity. The participants grouped themselves spontaneously into 4 teams, each with quite different focal topics and made notes on a common etherpad, which was projected at the front of the room:

  • The team “Little Buddha” took as their inspiration the statue Little Buddha from the MARKK Museum in Hamburg.  Their goal was to use this object to discuss its use inter alia as a figure in pop culture. This would promote the participants’ understanding and comprehending global interconnectedness, cultural heritage and religion as part of one’s own self.
  • One team, without a name, agreed after a long discussion period to focus on Cola cans as their boundary object. The idea is to discuss with participants ten different can designs for Cola from different countries and different years. The topics could be the design, the information contained on the cans, the ingredients etc. This group thought that such a session might even encourage the participants to look more closely at other objects in museums. So they had the idea that one could even pit this ‘trained’ group against and ‘control’ group, which didn’t take part in the session and see if they spent their time differently, when going through a museum or gallery. The hypothesis was that the first group would spend more time on details of the museum objects, having been made aware of those shown in the simple Cola can.
  • The team “Heine reloaded” took their inspiration from the public statue of Heinrich Heine in front of Hamburg’s town hall. Their goal was to sharpen the awareness of public space and to discuss its significance. They also argued that Heine can be a reference for current youth, as he was also involved in striving for political change and more democracy in Europe in his generation. But he needs to be re-awakened through methods such as asking learners to express some of his ideas and texts in a rap or through bringing statues to life like in this Instagram post. A live event could be staged at the Heine Monument where the videos would be presented on a screen next to the monument.
  • Finally, the team “Bremen Artists’ Controversy” focused on a controversy about the significance of modern art and about the influence of gallery directors, art critics and dealers on the development of German painting at the beginning of the 20th century. With the emergence of reform-oriented forces in politics and culture, the conservative view of art that had previously prevailed in the Hanseatic city, influenced by the merchants and the upper middle classes, was called into question, which in turn prompted the traditional forces to vehemently criticize the new developments. They chose two objects to encourage discussion between learners: Van Gogh’s Field with Poppies and Otto Modersohn’s Autumn on the Moor. This discussion would focus on reform and change in society and how even the choice of paintings can be seen to reflect a society’s struggle with change.

All participants thoroughly enjoyed their own discussions on what kind of learning space they would like to offer and how to use art and design to encourage reflection about society. We had a retrospective discussion at the end of the session and came to three conclusions for encouraging new learning opportunities like the ones developed in the session:

  1. A learning approach, which is inspiring for teachers and participants, starts from re-thinking familiar things from a new perspective.
  2. It would be nice to encourage teachers (both in and outside of formal learning institutions) to collect their ideas, which could be used to inspire others. It would be a kind of development of Neil MacGregor’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects” – perhaps called “Ideas for Wide-open Learning Spaces with 100 Objects”.
  3. Any documentation should encourage bricolage and “tweaking” (remixing) of ideas. So, it shouldn’t be too strict on Of course, it should be openly licenced (OER) and continue to be extended. Do not formulate learning concepts completely, because that restricts and does not invite to tinkering. The concepts should be further used and developed by very different people – like an online recipe book. 

I really look forward to any further developments like this! I would like to thank stARTcamp meets HOOU for inviting me to do the workshop, to thank the participants for their engagement and – last but not least, my daughter (Lia Orr) for helping facilitate the session. My full presentation can be found here.

Image taken from: Tate Britain.

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