The roads we make

We all agreed we had to start learning from the people we were working with, and that we had to learn from each other.

Myles Horton, #HortonFreire , We Make the Road by Walking

So I’m in a pop-up book club, which is probably the only kind of book club I can manage, as I’m a terrible reader. I have a vision of book clubs that is part Oprah, and part my friend David the philosopher who tells me stories of Melbourne book clubs with wine and erudition and sustained relationships over time. I harbour unfair conclusions about both, and “join book club” is not on my bucket list. Worse, my own practice of opposing assigned readings when I teach makes me a peculiar candidate for synchronised reading even in a professional context. I can barely bring myself to read the agenda.

But I came across a group planning to read the transcribed conversations between critical educators Paulo Freire and Myles Horton, published in 1990 as We Make the Road by Walking. And this is a book I actually read, and care about, and keep by the bath, and go over and over like a well-thumbed bible of sorts. Bryan Alexander is at the head of the line, and you can follow his thoughts here. Beyond that there are posts by Adam Croom, Amy Collier and Ben Scragg that are extraordinarily rich companions to the first couple of chapters. There’s a schedule and a Twitter chat. As a demonstration of what group reading can do, it’s compelling.

So I’m in, figuring that if I have only one book club in me ever, this could be the one. And of course, Bryan is on chapter 3 so I’m already running behind. But I’ve been here before, thinking about how we learn from walking together, especially with people who don’t walk the way we do, or the way we think is right. This is from 2014:

If you’ve ever watched 8 year olds walk a school route, you’ll know that their progress is circular, wandering, attentive and distracted all at the same time. They stop to pick things up. They run about in circles for a bit. They dawdle and notice things you miss. Adults and older children nag at them to do it properly, to pick up the pace and make orderly, timely, productive progress. There’s an implicit schedule which we think they should follow, so that everyone achieves the walking-to-school outcomes on time.

But suddenly I realised that what they’re doing is learning: they’re learning about their community by making tracks through it, remembering that yesterday there was a lizard here or a dropped bit of trash there. And this is exactly the point smart people like Patrick Masson and Mark Smithers have been quietly making about online learning and MOOCs: what really threatens the privilege of universities as regulators of approved learning is the internet itself, because this is where we all go to learn, to “make the path by walking”. (Update: I remembered Bon Stewart talking about this, and she has now helpfully reminded me where. It’s in a beautiful post on her blog, and she’s taking up a point from Horton and Freire.)

Horton and Freire’s conversation about their shared histories of becoming educational activists begins with their own experiences as children, learning to read. In the chapter “Formative Years” (see, I’m really book clubbing it now) Freire talks about learning at home, sitting among mango trees, drawing in the dirt with a stick. Horton doesn’t remember how he learned to read, but recalls the transition from know-how reading to reading for meaning.

I remember learning to know-how read, my mother’s finger running along the words, the picture covered over with a brown window envelope so I wouldn’t guess. Next she was big on flash cards, and stuck them onto the appropriate items around the house, so we lived briefly in a labelled environment like people who might at any moment lose their minds and forget which was the door and which was the window.

Then my dad, the trained teacher, came home one day and switched all the labels around — Semiotics 101.

I did all right.

2.

“If I need a road, then I’ll make a road!” says Toad.

Start over.

When our older kids were little, my mother loaded us up with the Usborne phonics reader series. Slim little volumes of incredible tedium introduced us to phonics, rhymes, flattened cartoonish illustrations, and some modest relief hunting for a little yellow duck on every page, The girls loved them.

But there was one I also loved. Toad Makes a Road is the story of an enterprising and independent character who hops happily into her new house on a hill (brought to you by the h sound, get it?). Time ticks on (I’m quoting now, from ground in memory of those long nights) and the removalist truck can’t get up the hill, so (short version) Toad carries all her furniture up by herself, and then waits for her friends to appear, teapot in hand. One by one, they all tell her that her hill is too steep, and that she needs a road. She tells them brightly that she’ll make one, and is of course dismissed as a fool.

Illustration from Toad Makes a Road, Usborne Books
Illustration from Toad Makes a Road, Usborne Books

So I inwardly cheered every time when we turned the page and found Toad with her fully provisioned road building machinery—the really big earth movers, in the proper shade of yellow—laying the road, making it flat, and putting up a big billboard of welcome to all comers, all by herself.

Sometimes we make the road by making it. And this is hard work too.

3.

Why do we try new things? Very often it’s because of a recommendation. We’re social learners, it’s a survival skill. And so it is that this week I followed a pilgrimage of travellers led by Paul Prinsloo to try a new kind of social network. The result has been heartwarming, surprising, and something that will take more than this post to explain.

Here’s what I have learned briefly. There’s tremendous energy in the open source community to build social alternatives to Facebook and Twitter. There are some quite niche reasons why particular groups are drawn to these alternatives at the moment, and like any communitarian energy, it’s generating a lot of work thinking about boundaries and rules and ways of getting along. If you’ve watched enough post-apocalyptic survival fiction, you’ll know what this is about.

Entering one of these communities, even accidentally, is about practising the reciprocal hospitality of the guest, and I’ve been watching colleagues and friends manage this with real care and respect, engaging with a host community that self-represents as marginal and in many ways at risk. We’re not the only ones thinking about how to act well in relation to strangers, how not to trip or trigger. It’s going on all the time.

Many small technical things that Twitter has made (suspiciously) easy are harder in this space. It navigates like Moodle, and looks like a darkened cave. But what has really surprised and engaged me is the rewarding labour of learning from strangers–the time that people give to one another to work in collaboration. It’s reminded me of many things about the cooperative, curious, clunky internet of 1995, animated with the urgency of figuring out the paths we need to make in the swampy ground of 2016.

You can read more about it here and here (Daniel Lynds and Sundi Richard on its potential for higher education users) and here (Maha Bali in ProfHacker) and here (“Everything changed when the marxist anime twitter arrived”).

And I’m truly glad to be involved in thinking about the world we might make by learning from each other.