Just What’s a “Bricoleur” Anyway?

In “Opening Spaces of Possibility: The Teacher as Bricoleur,” Mary Ann Reilly explains this term, clarifies the concept, and relates an effective example of bricolage in today’s English classroom. She shows how in real life the lines separating genres such as poetry, fiction, and essay are blurred, giving as evidence student successes in a New Jersey middle-school where the teacher helps students using tools like “tuning ears” to understand “voice” and “breath,” “collaging cards” to generate poetry themes, and “picturing place” to re-frame observation techniques.

Reilly references The Savage Mind, where Lévi-Strauss defines “bricolage as the make-do activities a handyperson employs while working,” “the bricoleur is one who tinkers with the materials at hand. . . [and further explains that] ‘the materials of the bricoleur are elements which can be defined by two criteria: the have had a use. . .and they can be used again‘ (35 italics in original, as qtd in Reilly). This picture of today’s educator as jack-of-all-trades–often having to optimize less-than-ideal situations, work under many constraints, and scrounge for supplies–seems unpleasantly accurate for too many classrooms.

What strikes a chord in me with Reilly’s observations and conclusions about this particular classroom are the holistic approach and underlying ideas. People are multi-faceted, not single-focused, as much current curricula and pedagogy presume. The STEM-focused programs now in vogue are built to turn out a variety of “products”–scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians–who conform to standards in their respective fields. This approach, however, has too much in common with franchise or assembly-line training–it turns out terrific burger cooks and bicycle builders, but neglects attention to critical thinking involving cross-discipline knowledge and ideas. The roundedness of a liberal education is its strength, not just in creating experts in the different disciplines but in helping students learn how to gather and process the vast amount of information involved in being an effective member of today’s society.

So bricolage, recycling what’s on hand to provide new functionality, in the classroom is a patchwork of whatever available learning tools fit the situation and allow for holistic learning. And bricoleurs are just educators doing the best job they can to cobble together opportunities for their students no matter the circumstances.

Levi-Strauss, C. (1962/1966). The savage mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1962).

Reilly, Mary Ann. “Opening Spaces of Possibility: The Teacher as Bricoleur.” JSTOR. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 52.5 (2009). 376-384. Web. 23 March 2011. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27639206

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One Response to Just What’s a “Bricoleur” Anyway?

  1. Glad you enjoyed the article. It is a terrific teacher I write about. Thanks for commenting on it.

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