Missing the point – why a philosophy of learning is everything.

This past week, there have been several references made to how the long debates over what knowledge is, what we mean by knowledge and what we are trying to do with learning is, well, garbage. This has lead me, naturally, to dig in further. I decided to dig back into my Deleuze and Guattari and refresh my understandings of why i think rhizomatic learning/knowledge matters to education and how exactly I think the breathtaking claims of some of my betters… well… might be misguided.

The foil.

The fact that academics are incapable of recognizing that 99-some-percent of all the learning that happens in the world is pure and simple knowledge transfer is what leads people to believe that we live in ivory towers disconnected from reality. David Wiley – http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/1882

The claim, then, if i’m to understand it, is in almost every instance the learning process is a question of taking something that is absolutely, clearly, factually true and handing it to someone who hasn’t had access to this information yet.

My initial response
I believe that the vast majority of the things that we teach are approximations, half-guesses, short-hands and generalizations. That, my friends, is what I think our lives look like. There are a few things that I am comfortable in saying are right. I’m typing on a keyboard. Yup. that’s a keyboard… i’m not making some silly ‘disconnected’ claim here. I’m saying that communicating the human experience is VERY, VERY difficult. Talking about the things we know is very hard. Trying to get someone else to be able to do them is even worse.

Think about a driving test. Real simple right? STOP means stop. A full stop i might add. And you parallel park: signal light, pass the car, shove in reverse, wiggle steering wheel one way and then the other, stop. But if you can parallel park you know that if you stop to think about when you should wiggle that wheel, it makes it harder. There’s a flow and a rhythm there, a sense, an expertise, a habit a something… that is actually what parking and what driving is all about. THAT is learning. The facts are so much wood and nails for your house. Yup… you need them, but they aren’t your house.

The submission of the line to the point
Now, i tend to believe that David’s interpretation of the world is the more common one. It’s certainly a more comfortable way to look at the world and, if it were true, the process of education would be WAY easier than I think it is. If it were the case, checking for what he calls ‘knowledge transfer’ is easy… in 99% of the cases, all i have to do is check and see that the learning objective “learn how to parallel park” has been transfered to the learner by seeing if they have received the transfer of this information. I’d probably test for it by asking them to do the “signal light, pass the car, shove in reverse, wiggle steering wheel one way and then the other, stop” thing. Teacher training, too, would be the simple process of finding the best ways to transfer this information from teacher -> learner once i’d identified that the teacher themselves ‘had’ the correct information.

This viewpoint is what Deleuze and Guattari call arborescence, or, if you like “the submission of the line to the point” (Thousand Plateaus, p. 293) . The word arborescence, as they use it, is meant to summon the idea of the tree (also graph theory, but I’ll leave that ’till next time). The idea of the free standing piece of knowledge. The point. The fact. The item. The thing you need to know. The way a thing is done. The right decision to make. Things that we can point at as real and right and in front of our faces. The tree of knowledge as it were. The thing that is the answer. A whole thing.

The line, in their view, is the wiggle from our parallel parking from earlier. (Something similar to what i called ‘curvy knowledge‘ talking about open content as imperialism.) It is the rhizome. The anti-tree. If you’ve ever cut down a tree, and, sometime later that day, try to weed a rhizome-weed from your garden, you’ll know what i mean. It’s not ‘a weed’, not something you can point to and cut and get rid of. It’s a distributed organism. I think of the spaces between the things we can identify (the points) constitute real learning and the best kind of knowledge. There’s a reason why doctor’s intern before they operate. Why practicing parallel parking is more useful than reading about it. Why I tell my son that i don’t want him to obey because there are ‘rules’ but to understand why there are rules, and why, even as approximations, they make life easier to live.

I challenge you to look at the things you teach other people… and to search out the ‘points’ of knowledge and the ‘lines’. I remember a friend of mine telling me that twice in his academic career, once at the beginning of his PhD (in Chemistry) and once when he started working in the field, did he realize that the things taught to him as ‘true’ before were approximations, ‘lies’ in his words. Our own habit of seemingly purposefully misunderstanding the word ‘theory’ in the scientific sense leads to all kinds of craziness. Is global warming ‘a proven theory’? Well yeah, in a manner of speaking. The vast majority of scientists are vastly almost sure of it. But that’s as close to true as we ever get with anything. Remember the Bohr Atom? Or phlogiston? The Atkins Diet? The Food Pyramid? These are all points. The lines are elsewhere.

A theory of knowledge, of subordinating the points to the lines
I’ve been trying to get my father to teach me to sharpen knives for 15 years. Now… i haven’t always been the best learner. And he, by his own admission, sucks as a teacher. He once started out a lesson by explaining that the way i’d seen him sharpen knives for 25 years was the wrong way, and try to show me the right way. His knives are like razor blades. I can think of several people offhand who wont let him sharpen their knives because they’re afraid to hurt themselves. I know the details, the points of the matter, the angle of the sharpening steel, the direction, when to use a sander, a stone… but i don’t have it. I may never. It’s a frickin’ line. As he clearly has demonstrated, following the ‘rules’ is actually mostly not necessary. Yes, you need to have a knife. Yes, you need something to sharpen a knife… those are facts. The real learning is somewhere else.

What I have accidentally fallen into (with Edtechtalk… and MOOCs) and consciously tried to do (with my own courses) is subordinate the point to the line. I want people to focus on the feel of the knowledge. I don’t care if they learn how to use a certain tool, whether they remember what it was, or what they used it for. It sure is easier for them if they do… but those are just points. They’re approximations. The tools themselves are shorthands for ways of thinking, for approaches, for knowledge. In the world we live in, the points are becoming more available, and they are getting more changeable. Two weeks ago, if you did a search for “MOOC” online, you would not have seen the critiques of the last few weeks, you would have seen a few articles, a few videos, and some reflections from people who had taken them. Now that with the influence of David Wiley have weighed in on them in the way they have, you will get a different impression. The ‘point’ of MOOC has changed. And will probably continue to do so until people forget about it and move on.

Why?
It is the belief in the point that makes standardized testing possible. (among other things) It is the commitment to the line that led me to be involved in edtechtalk and MOOCs and lots of other cool stuff. Points produce replicable models. Lines lead to creativity. The way we feel about what knowledge is, about what we are trying to impart/share/reveal, is the WHOLE of the project of education.

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15 thoughts on “Missing the point – why a philosophy of learning is everything.

  1. ‘I tell my son that i don’t want him to obey because there are ‘rules’ but to understand why there are rules… I don’t care if they learn how to use a certain tool… I want people to focus on the feel of the knowledge’

    What a lovely concept: ‘feeling’ knowledge. Suggests a role for the subconscious in learning, for an elevation of the status of intuition in practice, and a role for the body in our digital age (which my legs are reassured by!)

    So what are the implications for pedagogy: I’d like to hear more about how this view plays out in the modern learning environment. How do you foster a sense of purpose with this as your outcome? How do you assess whether someone has got a feel for knowledge? What about knowledge that we have that we haven’t yet acquired a feel for – is it of lower value?

  2. This treatise seems to be based on the question – what is knowledge?

    Knowledge itself can not be pinned down to having one defining feature. Can we really say that knowledge is or isn’t this or that and that some people are wrong in their definitions of knowledge, their definition of learning as it is linked to knowledge?

    I see a polemic being created here. Can THAT help us in our task of creating learning, kind, creative, …insert descriptor here…students/children/people?

    Whatever definition of the stuff of learning we choose, whatever our content – what it is we impart to our students – as long as it is couched in relationship we will succeed in shaping our students to be good people, with a thirst for learning from each other.

  3. @peps you can wander through some of the other ‘rhizome’ posts on this blog. they cover the majority of those questions. I’m hoping to pull all that content together soon. http://davecormier.com/edblog/2010/07/12/syllabus-educational-technology-and-the-adult-learner-ed366/ this one comes to mind.

    @Tracy It most certainly is based on the question what is knowledge and, more importantly, what are the things we are trying to teach. Your claim of it ‘needing to be couched in relationship’ reflects a certain view of what’s important that I share. But learning ‘what’ from each other? How do we decide what becomes the curriculum? It would seem important for us to figure out what kinds of things we might want to ‘impart’.

  4. I’ve discovered that the ‘what’ is not nearly as important as I used to think…Whatever ‘what’ I am given or even that I have decided to teach (when I’ve been lucky enough to make that decision for myself) usually morphs a) depending on who I am teaching and b) depending on the conversations we have and the depth of our relationship as teacher/learners.

    Alternatively, when it is a high-stakes state mandated ‘what’ I can even look at it as making my job easier. This way I have the content given to me and only need to worry about building our relationship and modelling my love for learning and for my students around that context.

  5. Perhaps in a sense, though I refuse to take a side in a polemic debate like this. It does nothing beyond furthering divides.

    What I was trying to get at is that debating over what is knowledge is like a sideshow. It gets in the way of building relationship, of the love that is teaching.

  6. And what i’m trying to say is that your “building a relationship” position is a side that you are taking. Saying that teaching/learning is building a relationship and that the content is not central IS EXACTLY what i’m saying. It is taking a ‘knowledge’ position whether you want it to be or not.

    Saying “i have a position and I don’t want to fight about it” is not avoiding taking sides. It IS taking sides.

  7. Ok, you are intent on bringing me into a debate ;)

    I disagree, Dave. I am not saying that this is the best way to teach in comparison to teaching about specific content knowledge.

    I’m not saying it is one way or another.

    If I choose to teach about specific content knowledge (passing on of nuggets) fine. If I choose to teach about how to think about learning, fine. All of this happens within a backdrop of relationship – EVERYTHING human happens within relationship.

  8. For me, the basic flaw in Dave’s comment is the assumption that knowledge can be transferred. I really don’t think it can. Every person who interacts with a knowledge artifact (book, article, conversation, lecture, instruction) perceives it in a unique way and then creates an internal abstraction of that artifact. It’s no wonder we have these kinds of conversations and arguments, with 6 billion perceptions of reality inhabiting the world.

  9. @Harold I am not even sure what knowledge means in context of knowledge artifact but then again I am not sure that matters. I like the pragmatic tone of Dave’s blog post. So we are sitting in a room at something that we call a table and we acknowledge that this table means something different to all of us but we can somehow suspend these differences and have a worthwhile conversation about the table that increases our personal knowledge of the table as long as we acknowledge the differences and are listening to each other.
    In the part of the recent MOOc discussion I saw, this was not always happening.
    My reflections whipped me straight back to my own personal contrasting experiences of CCK08.
    1.Once the disrupter had left, there was some great discussion on the (disapproved) Moodle forums where I was learning and observing others (appearing to be) learning. There was a great tolerance for different views and pragmatism of approach.
    2. External speaker sessions where new ideas could be introduced and these may have sparked discussions in the chat window on blogs or in forums (suggesting learning).
    3. Friday sessions (I think you moderated these Dave) which tended to be broadcast only by George Siemens GS and Stephen Downes SD, slightly quizzical moderation from Dave) with a bit of lively chat window interaction often strangely disconnected from the monologues (at least in the ones I observed before giving up on the Friday sessions).
    I think that 1,2,3 are in order of greatest to least learning taking place.
    If we look at each in terms of who was (apparently) learning: in 1 participants learned frequently in 1, GS sometimes, SD rarely; in 2 participants sometimes particularly if followed up, GS and SD more likely than in forums, presenter very little if at all; in 3 if learning was taking place here I couldn’t see it except in chat window interaction.
    OK, these are my own very personal views that are probably highly influenced by my own reactions to the different environments, and by my own growing certainty that connectivism was something to be tossed around and critiqued not ‘learned’. MOOCs and connectivism are organic phenomena that are not ready for being tied down and ‘judged’. Useful questions are:
    How are they like and not like other phenomena X Y Z?
    How do people make effective use of them?
    What can the protoganists learn?
    I think that Dave’s pragmatic approach might help – that OK we know knowledge isn’t really ‘transferred’ but sometimes that simplification of what is really happening can move things forward a bit. Attempting for precision of definition of things that are still a bit fuzzy for everyone doesn’t always help matters.
    It was interesting that Dave referred to parent/child intereactions where provisional/revisional approaches to ‘knowledge’ are most helpful for learning.
    I would question every letter of the MOOC acronym with the possible exception of online but that’s not to say I think they are a bad thing – I am just not yet sure what they are going to be.
    I think they can really maximise learning when participants can tolerate different philosophies of learning (including “I don’t have a philosophy of learning”), be good-humoured and willing to learn.

  10. The only bit of Frances’ comment I would disagree with at all is the comment “Attempting for precision of definition of things that are still a bit fuzzy for everyone doesn’t always help matters.” and even then, I am only “disagreeing” on the basis that I think the remark may give some people the wrong impression.

    It is a true statement – it does not *always* help matters to attempt precise definitions of fuzzy concepts. On the other hand, there are almost always people who will find it helpful to engage in the debate involved, just as there are almost always people who will find it unhelpful, or, indeed, help-neutral.

    One thing I have noticed is that there is a tendency for people to get involved in these discussions about a subject X, and then say they aren’t going to be drawn in to the debate, or aren’t prepared to discuss the meaning of such-and-such, despite there clearly being a difference in people’s understandings of whatever X is. It reminds me so much of someone I know who says they don’t care /what/ anyone tells them because they know they are right – a line used almost to exclusion, I am afraid to say, when they are demonstrably wrong.

    With particular regard to the ‘what is knowledge’ and ‘what is teaching/learning’ discussions, I think it is very important for the debates to be had – not, necessarily, because any conclusions or consensus will be reached, but because it demonstrates that the questions are still open, and that there are passionate views held. Passion is a remarkable resource, and if it gets people thinking, that is a good thing, surely?

  11. Harold, you are, of course, correct that knowledge is not transferred in the strictest sense of that word, yet if knowledge isn’t transferred, then how does the knowledge that Cormier put into his post now appear in my mind?

    Your answer is that it doesn’t. Rather, the meaning in my mind was constructed through my own interactions with Cormier’s post as I created an internal abstraction of that artifact, but somehow this doesn’t quite satisfy. For instance, in this post Dave talks about points and lines in Deleuze and Guattari, and I suspect I get what he means, so how did I do that? How does the knowledge in his mind now appear in my mind if there is no transfer as most people seem to think?

    Deleuze and Guattari have some other concepts that may help. Their concept of decalcomania suggests that patterns echo through nature as impressions made by pressing some media between two surfaces—think of children pressing hand prints on paper. The process is never exact, and it is susceptible to smudges, smears, and mistakes as we vary the impression, the media, and the surfaces, but usually, the impression that appears on the paper is more or less recognizable by all parties as, say, a hand print.

    And it could still be interpreted as a transfer. Another, better example might be chameleons whose skin echoes the colors and patterns of nearby foliage. No color is transferred from the leaf to the chameleon; rather, the chameleon echoes the color. Human minds are most sensitive structures, amazing canvasses, that respond to and echo the environment in incredible detail—never precisely, but usually well enough.

    So my reading of this post was a pressing of mind against mind through the medium of a blog post. The impression, or knowledge, that bloomed in my mind likely is similar enough to the knowledge in Cormier’s mind that we could sit down over a couple of pints and discuss Deleuze and Guattari. Of course, my knowledge depends as much upon the qualities (tone, texture, malleability, etc) of my mind, so that the knowledge I now have is certainly different from yours, Cormier’s, or Tracy’s, all of which have different, perhaps radically different, qualities. Still, the knowledge we all formed of points and lines may be similar enough that we can still say that Cormier communicated knowledge to us.

    D&G also use the concept of cartography to talk about the reiterative process by which we humans map reality in our brains. Like all metaphors, both cartography and decalcomania have limitations, but they go a long way towards helping us understand how more or less similar structures can blossom in different minds often enough for us to communicate—and fail often enough to provide all the humor and angst that we humans seem to value so much.

    Good conversation, and Dave, I look forward to reading more of your thoughts about Deleuze and Guattari.

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