Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Seven Personae - English Journal Nov. 2009

In the November 2009 English Journal, Jim Burke outlines the seven personae students will need to learn to master the future. These seven personae are “necessary [for success] as students, employees, and citizens” (Burke, 2009, p. 13) in the 21st century. Burke (2009) claims that these personae are derived from Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future. I mention this bit about Gardner only to make sense of my next thought. Often when I read Gardner, I find myself looking for a way to connect it to classroom practice. Despite Gardner’s frequent assertion that Multiple Intelligences are not intended for educational assessment or lesson design, I, like many other teachers, see potential for a way into students’ minds. That is why Burke’s article was so intriguing. His framework is simple, yet developed in a way that invites discussions of implementation in curriculum and lesson design.

Burke’s idea is unassailable. These personae represent many extant frameworks for new 21st century job skills. Take Daniel Pink’s (2006) book A Whole New Mind, wherein Pink outlines the six senses of the right brain and how to develop them. His reasons for these new skills include the usual trifecta of “Abundance, Asia, and Automation” (Pink, 2006, p. 30). The jobs that people could get without a college diploma are being reduced dramatically. Students must be educated to think, but they need more than the typical left-brain approach that is given high value in the test-score driven high school system. If students are to be successful, they must go to college; if they are to go to college, they must know what we ask in the academic standards and be able to imagine new possibilities and uses for this information.

Let’s look at the seven personae. Burke’s (2009, pp. 13-14) framework outlines the following:

  • Storyteller: “everyone must be able to use a range of means and media to tell the story of an experience, an event, a situation, or a problem and its proposed solutions;…we must be equally able to understand and analyze the stories…others tell us.”
  • Philosopher: “[students] must be able to understand and grapple with [complex ideas] by posing questions and considering a subject from multiple angles;…they must be able to convey their own perspective on and response to these ideas through words, images, numbers.”
  • Historian: “we must know how to gather, assess, and apply background knowledge relevant to the text or task at hand in order to comprehend its ideas and arguments…[students] must also know how to reason like a historian.”
  • Anthropologist: “[students] must all develop the ability to understand not only our own but also others’ cultures…developing the ability to observe, examine, and communicate insights about these cultures, for such skills are fundamental to our personal and economic success.”
  • Reporter: “Everyone today must be able to watch for, locate, evaluate, and analyze a remarkable amount of data from different sources;…we must develop and continually refine our ability to investigate, research, and navigate…[the] sea of information…[and] convey the results.”
  • Critic: “We all need the skills critics use to evaluate and analyze a text…[and] now it must also…examine retirement plans, medical options, and competing products and services.”
  • Designer: “Design is such a crucial aspect of any text…we need to know how to ‘read’ for it, noticing the features used to invest the text with meaning…we must consider design when we compose documents, create online content, produce videos, or otherwise communicate with people.”

These personae are well-framed and highly adaptable. I can think of a number of lessons and assessments I use that feed into one of these. This fusion of Gardner and educational practice is easily understood, seems to be perfectly suited for thinking about the goals of instruction, and can be used to design assessments.

The first thing I notice is that there may be a way to streamline the seven personae. For example, the Reporter persona seems as though it could be the Storyteller persona; also, the Anthropologist seems as though it could replace the Historian. This overlap could be beneficial for the implementing instructor or it could hinder implementation. The benefit would be the specificity with which each persona discusses the outcomes of English education. Thus, a Storyteller becomes a creative writer while a Reporter becomes a non-fiction writer or journalist. The hindrance of the overlap comes from the openness of each persona. An Anthropologist could not study culture without understanding that culture’s history; moreover, the “thinking of a historian” is part of how Anthropologists make sense of their findings. Perhaps some streamlining could make these personae easier to keep in mind when thinking about how to design lessons that develop each one.

I assign some projects built on a rubric I constructed from Daniel Pink’s six senses of the right brain (2006, p. 65-67). This rubric assesses student creativity in each of the six areas: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. Jim Burke’s personae represent a set of right brain skills that can be used to create a classroom consciousness of assessment and assignments. In these creative projects, I could use the skill set Burke presents to even more specifically describe what I am looking for within each rubric heading. For example, my design column could have varying levels of “considers how the features of his or her project invest it with meaning” or some such.

Think about essays. If these seven personae were part of how you approached creativity and imagination in assessment with your students, you could remind them that the narrative essay should draw most on their Storyteller skills, while the expository essay (depending upon the content) should draw on their Reporter and Historian skills. Using these personae to discuss imagination and creativity in student assessment and assignments could result in much more insightful and developed papers that would allow students to demonstrate how much they really understand.

My head has been buzzing with ideas since I read this article. These personae offer such an opportunity to discuss how we approach creativity and imagination in the era of the standardized test. Using these personae when we think about lessons and assessment can help us honor the right brain while still educating the left. Education does not have to flatten out; students can be well-rounded in an era of standardized testing.


Mr. Burke said...

Thanks for such a detailed, thoughtful response to my article! It's exactly what you dream of when you write such a piece!

Dan Bruno said...

Not a problem. Thanks for giving us something to think about.