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Found reform: (Re)imagining possibilities

Randall F. Clemens

I originally posted this blog on September 14, 2010.

Bricolage (bree-kuh-lahzh), n. 1. a construction made of whatever materials are at hand; something created from a variety of available things. 2. (in literature) a piece created from diverse resources. 3. (in art) a piece of makeshift handiwork. 4. the use of multiple, diverse research methods.

When I was an undergrad, some of my favorite moments included sitting in my art history class with the lights dimmed on those early crisp fall mornings, looking at projected images of 20th century art. In one class about found art, my professor displayed images of Dadaism, such as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. I remember feeling a little uneasy, but also excited. After all, Duchamp repurposed a toilet for art. But that class also sparked my imagination. How could I re-imagine the world using ordinary objects? Since then, I’ve read and crafted a bit of found poetry, but have just recently linked that inventive spirit to the world of education reform.

A clear connection exists between art and education. Just like there is no shortage of detritus to rework into art, there is no scarcity of failed reforms to re-purpose into something meaningful. Principals and teachers bemoan the incalculable amount of reforms at a school. Lawmakers target previous failed projects to attack their opponents. And taking a long view of education history, reforms occur cyclically. But, what if, rather than replacing reform with reform and furthering the problem, we took a look at previous initiatives and re-imagined those?

The means by which this new method may be accomplished is bricoler—the cobbling together of extant resources (regardless of their original objective) to achieve a purpose. That is, innovators locate and mobilize available reforms, resources, and stakeholders to achieve sustainable reform.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” is an oft quoted expression, and yet, it is exactly what education reformers frequently do. Bricolage is not revolutionary and is, no doubt, familiar to qualitative researchers. What I want to emphasize is the spirit of bricolage, the spirit of possibility. It’s time for policy-makers to renew the contracts with the communities they serve. If solutions didn’t work then, they aren’t going to work now. It’s time to re-imagine possibilities.