Open Pedagogy – A three day seminar at Digital Pedagogy Lab

Last week I had the privilege of hosting a three day seminar on open pedagogy as part of DPL Toronto. I’ve had some students ask for a number of the materials spoken of or referred to in the session so I figured I would just outline the whole thing. And, of course, it means I’ll be able to find all my notes the next time i get a chance to do an intensive course. 🙂 I probably wont remember every piece that i did… but this should cover most of the session.

I had five 2 1/2 hour sessions over three days – two day one, two day two and one on the third day. The participants got breakout sessions on day two and two rockstar keynotes from Rajiv Jhangiani and Jess Mitchell. I had sent out a very short questionnaire that basically told me that I had a very diverse group and they were hoping for some practice and some theory.

As we were working in a beautiful historic building (The Gladstone Hotel) I decided to do the entire session analogue. No digital activities. No projector. I didn’t tell students they couldn’t use devices… i just didn’t use them. I had 7 students at each of two tables and the following materials to work with.

    In my bag…

  • One stack of 500 A4 plain white paper
  • Five pairs of scissors
  • One ball of yarn (donated by the excellent Martha Burtis)
  • three scotch tape dispensers
  • One printed copy of two articles
  • My laptop for notes and potential searching
  • Two boxes of 24 colour pencils stolen from my daughter
  • Fun paper clips
  • Alphabet stamp set with one copy of each letter A through Z and an ink pad
  • other gimmicky stuff i didn’t use

Day One – The Day of Happiness
I opened the first day by explaining to the participants that our first day was going to be THE DAY OF HAPPINESS. All our thoughts about open pedagogy were going to be positive ones, and we were going to build up our understanding of what it could be through a variety of activities. I wrote “Wall of Sadness” on a piece of paper and taped it on a wall. Every time a student came up with an objection or a problem during that whole first day, they were to write/draw it on a piece of paper, cut it out and tape it on the wall of sadness. All issues on the wall of sadness could wait until the Day of Sadness (Day 2).

This totally worked. It kept our conversation moving on day one and allowed us to build together and still respect divergent opinions

Activity 1 – Differentiating between complicated and complex
One of the pre-reading I had the students do was an introduction to Lean Six Sigma. I always start my sessions by differentiating between complicated and complex (based on Dave Snowden’s distinction) and I wanted to present OER as a complicated problem (the process of getting to content) and open pedagogy as a complex problem (supporting self-determination in students etc…). By the time the session actually arrived, I had decided that opening up a conversation as big as lean six sigma was going to distract from the central mission, so I designed a simple activity to demonstrate what a complicated process problem looks like.

I gave the first group of 7 students the 26 alphabet letters and the ink stamp as well as one piece of paper each. Giving them no time to think about it, I asked them to use the letters and ink stamp to put their names on their sheets as fast as they could. I then asked the second group to study Group One’s approach and told them i would give them 2 minutes to come up with a plan to do it faster. Much hilarity ensued. Group One finished in 1:38, I gave Group Two 2 minutes to come up with a better process and then they got their names down on their pieces of paper in 1:01.

We circled around after the trash talking quieted and I laid out my definition of a complicated problem. It’s complicated if we have a clear idea of what success looks like (names on papers) and we can measure what success looks like (in this case ‘doing it faster’). A large part of the ‘resources’ conversation in OER is this kind of problem. Cheaper access to books. More people using books. Nice measurable problems that can be fixed. That’s great… but I was hoping to exclude this kind of thing from our definition of open pedagogy for the duration of the seminar. No offence to OER… it just wasn’t what i was hoping to talk about.

We used those named papers to keep ‘open notes’ throughout the two days. People left them in front of them and passed them back and forth during sharing time.

Activity 2 – group reading
This is an activity I stole from Bonnie Stewart. She likes to take an article into class and assign different paragraphs to different students. Each person is responsible for their section of the article and then comes back to the class representing their section. It’s a good way to bring research articles into class and making sure people read them without taking up too much time.

My first reading piece was Open Education in the 60’s and 70s by Christina Hendricks. It contains a number of excerpts from Open Education writers in the 60s and 70s and some commentary by Christina. I gave sections of the article to different groups in the class and asked them to use the scissors to cut the article into smaller pieces until each participant had one section. The process went ‘silent reflection’ then ‘explain to your partner’ then ‘explain to your table’. At the end of this process they were to take ‘ideas of open pedagogy’ found in the article and tape them on the “open pedagogy wall”.

The goal for this activity was to get beyond the idea of a ‘definition of open pedagogy’ and move to an understanding of it as a complex idea. None of us needed to agree on what open pedagogy was exactly, we needed to understand it as a long standing discussion that often includes words like ‘self-determined learning’, ‘student autonomy’ etc… It also allowed me to avoid conversation around the newness of the term open as it relates to pedagogy. This mostly worked, and i noticed students going back to the wall again and again over the next two days.

Insert story – I basically told my history of open story where I make a strong separation between open as in ‘open source’ and open as in ‘widening participation and open pedagogy’.

Activity 3 – Education practices mapping.
I’ve described this activity here
The purpose of this was twofold. One – to create a map of all the practices in the classroom so that we could use it as a reference during our project making activities. We didn’t really need it – the group was more than willing to talk to each other without the added supports. The second reason for doing the activity was my continued effort to make more room for introverts in my teaching. The activity gives plenty of ‘think by yourself’ time about what practices you have and how they fit on the digital/analogue and individual/collaborative continuums. This, I hope, allows for that contemplation time that I am told makes group conversations more effective for introverts. It also allows very quiet people to participate in a group activity without having to speak.

Activity 4 – Project building
The rest of the afternoon was devoted to project building. The idea was for everyone to think about a project that they would like to work on during the rest of the 4 classes and we could build our conversations around that. They came up with one – three ideas each and we devoted another part of the wall to taking those ideas and taping them up. We managed to find similarities between the projects (mostly) and get students into four working groups to discuss approaches to their projects for the rest of the afternoon. I got one person to volunteer to be the leader (for the afternoon only) of each group and off they went. This pretty much worked as described… The groups talked about challenges they had at their institutions or ideas that they had been working on.

Day Two – The Day of Sadness
People were really excited about the day of sadness. They came in with mock frowns and many jokes were made.

Activity 5
I started the morning with another group article read. This time we read Not Ready to Let Go: A Study of Resistance to Grading Contracts The article describes the various points of resistance that students had to grading contracts in three classes. I used the idea of grading contracts as a form of open pedagogy. I chose a random set of definitions for open pedagogy and wrote each of the eight on a separate piece of paper and put it on the wall. I had the students cross reference the forms of the resistance that the student exhibited to contract grading and had them look for the open pedagogy themes they reflected.

Eg… many students recorded in the article suggested that they weren’t qualified to make choices in their own grading contract. They weren’t the teacher. How could they know? Wasn’t that the teacher’s job? The class participant who read that section of the paper suggested that this is a reaction that will happen when you give ‘choice’ to students. Open pedagogy is all about choice. That will lead to resistance. At each point we discussed different kinds of resistance students could exhibit and what might be done to work around that.
This activity took two hours. The conversation was of a very high quality. It allowed us to cover most of the things accumulated on the wall of sadness from the day before and talk about how to mitigate many of these challenges. It also made it clear that, for many problems in education, there are no easy, guaranteed solutions

Insert story – history of education, monasticism, scholasticism and humanism
With only half an hour left, I wasn’t able to return to the projects discussion from the day before. The morning conversation was excellent, but it did mess up my timing. I decided I would cover some of the ‘isn’t this just active learning’ kinds of conversations that had made it to the wall of sadness. I situated the history of education (self-admitted as an oversimplification) as a battle between people who believe education is about informing people and those that think education is about helping people build their own knowledge. Objectivism vs Constructivism. Monasticism/scholasticism vs humanism. We didn’t really pick a side (though in an open pedagogy class, we clearly leaned towards constructivism and humanism) but admitted that there were circumstances when either was appropriate. I also included some notes about not ‘copying’ pedagogy. Different people are good at different things. Your own teaching style has to come from you…

Activity 6 – split afternoon
My class split in half for the first part of the afternoon. Half of the group prepared for activity 7 (detailed below) and the other half chose to go and work on their projects from the day before. They only had an hour. As for the group that stayed with me, we made placemats with each of the 8 themes of open pedagogy from the earlier piece and talked about each and what they might mean.

Activity 7 – Open Pedagogy meets the inclusion track
I had the rare privilege of working with Amy Collier on the next activity. Amy had reached out a few weeks earlier and suggested that it would be a good idea to bring the inclusion track (which she was running) and my Open Pedagogy track together. We had a number of different ideas on how that would go, but we settled on having eight tables each with a placemat with a quality of open on it (choice, self-determination, etc…). My open participants would host a table by introducing the open quality and then an inclusion discussion would follow amongst the participants of both tracks at each of 8 tables. All we really had to do was get out of the way, Amy’s students were excellent, and my students had spent 2 hours talking about the problems with open during the Spidell and Thelin discussion in the morning. They had 5 rounds of conversations at different tables (ten minutes each). Couldn’t have really asked for a better outcome for this one. We really shouldn’t ever talk about open without talking about inclusion.

Day 3 – Bringing it all back home
Morning discussion – explaining open pedagogy
We started day three by going back over the conversations at the tables the day before. All the students reported rich discussions but many also reported some discomfort in having had to explain open pedagogy to the other track. We all eventually agreed that it was a good practice session for trying to explain open pedagogy to people at their home institutions. I would like to say that I had planned the perfect training sessions for their open advocacy… but that’s not entirely true. I had a vague thought about it, but I certainly didn’t plan it to be as good as it turned out. Amy probably did though 🙂

Final activity – four slides
The last activity of the three days was a four slide pitch. The idea was to pick one person at your home institution who you wanted to convince about one part of open pedagogy. I basically had them fold one piece of A4 paper into four and draw one slide on each square. Some students just popped open their laptops and worked in powerpoint, and others drew on the paper. Some people picked an administrator, some their students and some made general info pieces for public use.

Our final discussion about our four slide projects really brought into focus some of the key themes of the week.

  • Open pedagogy needn’t be the same thing for everyone
  • Your learning situation is never going to be 100% open
  • Change towards open can/should/must be incremental
  • Open pedagogy is often harder for everyone
  • Inclusion is very big concern for open
  • Open pedagogy is worth the effort

I had a really fantastic group to work with and learn from for three days. It was super fun. Thanks to Sean for the invite!

The impact of conformity in education

In 2009 I was fortunate enough to be part of a conversation that led to “preparing for the post-digital era”. This week we all got asked to do a ten years later reflection, and, as I’m at an NSF funded retreat (at Biosphere 2!) talking about equity in STEM education, i thought it made sense to try and use the postdigital as a tool to interrogate equity and education.

Let’s start here. Social media isn’t a jerk.

I wish I could send a smack-upside-the-head to ten-years-ago-dave. When things like Twitter were still places of positive connection and occasional porn sites jumping your hashtag, we had this idea that the connection between people was somehow going to be different. We told everyone to join twitter if they wanted to be smarter, better, taller! 10-years-ago-dave didn’t understand that it was inevitable that the rest of the human experience was going to impact those spaces. Twitter was full of people in 2009 and full of more people now in 2019.

Here’s the thing… it’s not like we didn’t know the world was full of jerks. If you’d asked 2009-dave if there were jerks everywhere, he would have nodded sagely. This is why I can’t believe that he didn’t see 2014-twitter as an inevitable outcome. In 2014 the jerks found twitter. Or, at least, they found out how to use twitter in a way that allowed them to show they were jerks. They yelled at people. They abused people. People were harmed. It is still happening. They have made the internet very unsafe for many people. They were mean to people because they were different. They attacked people who weren’t totally dedicated to the privilege of the jerks. People seem to do that from a desire for power and attention. They also do it to find a sense of belonging with others who share a desire for power and attention. That desire didn’t materialize in 2014.

In my work I always say that technology reinforces pedagogy. The technology here amplifies the jerk… it doesn’t make the jerk. More importantly, the technology ISN’T the jerk. And when we see ‘social media’ as a thing, in and of itself, rather than a just a way people platform themselves – no different than the speaker platform at hide park – we miss the solutions. Our technologies are good ways to find a jerk, but the solution to that is to deal with the jerk, not the technology.

So. Social media is not a thing that needs to be fixed. People connecting with people is a thing. Jerks are a thing. Jerks are not a digital problem. Jerks are a real-world problem that has been around for a long time. We need to get past the digital and fix our real-world jerk problem. And, as we go along, we have to think about how our systems help create those jerks.

Part two – we actually can negotiate a new social contract

A thousand years ago, steel encased thugs with sharpened crowbars (swords) were wandering around the countryside in Europe punching cows. I’m not joking. They were jerks. They were literally punching cows, as well as stealing people’s stuff and, all too often, killing random, innocent people. The church, not usually the benevolent actor in medieval history tales, had an idea. They created the Peace and Truce of God movement. Local clergy would make a pile of all the saints relics they could find and try and get knights together to swear to this new social contract. Saints relics were the brand that enforced that change. The peace of god was an attempt to try and protect people (clergy were particularly singled out as people who needed protection) but it extended to property and livestock. The truce of god was an attempt to have days that violence was off limits. Sundays. Holidays.

Technology (horse + sword + armor + castle) had create a societal problem that needed to be addressed. A thousand years later you can see the impact of the PTG in our culture. They actually looked at something that was a side effect of a technology and went out and renegotiated a social contract to get it done. It actually worked. It took 2 or 3 hundred years… but it you look at what words like polite, or proper actually came to mean in that society, lots of it can be traced back to that original (admittedly self-interested) work by the church.

The church is no longer the societal institution threatened by free-roving jerks who’ve slipped the bonds of the old social contract. Democracy is, to what extent we have it.

And we need a pro-social web dammit. And we need to make it.

I honestly think that our education system can be that brand that allows us to make this change. Our education system, however, is often kind of a jerk. That education system is a systemic structure that teaches us to believe in power over people.

Deciding what knowledge someone needs is an exercise is having power over someone. Assessment, particularly, is grounded in power structures. Learning as its been traditionally perceived by our culture is a sorting process. Whether it is the way in which we separate the ‘expert’ and the novice through degree granting methods or the bell curve which either secretly of overtly lives under our % system, it is the way by which we apply different class markers to people. It is a ‘we-making’ process and it is, like all we-making processes, a ‘them-making’ process. We are literate. We have a PhD. We are the teacher. We are an A student. All of these things exclude the people who are not part of the ‘we’ belonging.

Those expectation are… not equitable. They privilege a certain background. They privilege a certain kind of thinking… or knowing. In a sense, our education system is a training ground for the privileges of conformity. A conformity that is certainly easier for many, and a conformity that is totally inaccessible to many. It teaches people that conformity to power is what belonging looks like.

So lets go back to our social media jerk. Jerks go online to exercise their power by attacking people for not conforming to their sense of belonging. The louder they yell… the more they run in a pack… the more they attract people to their conformity group and the more firmly they exclude the them that don’t conform. This is the system of power that our schools represent.

I’m not saying that our schools necessarily make jerks… what I’m saying is that the ways on which knowing is negotiated in our schools supports this way of negotiating truth. If you have power, you can be right. If you have power, you can decide who’s right. Also… there are things that are RIGHT and learning things about the world is about trying to find the right answer.

We need our schools to replicate models of inclusivity and equity that are not about the imposition of conformity. That means that we accept people the way they come in the door, and we help them come up with answers that belong to them.

Do different technologies have different affordances that allow jerks to be more jerk-like? Sure. But that post-digital lens asks us to look beyond the “twitter is a cesspool” argument. When we identify the technology and not the people beyond we missed the systemic cultural practices that are helping to shape the people who are the bad actors on those platforms.

Some questions to use when discussing why we shouldn’t replace humans with AI (artificial intelligence) for learning

I struggle to have good conversations about my concerns about Artificial intelligence as a learning tool.

I ended up in an excellent chat with my colleague Lawrie Phipps discussing the last 10 years of the Post-Digital conversation and ended up in a bit of a rant about AI tutors. Like many I have had a vague sense of discomfort around thinking of AI as something that replaces humans in the ways in which we validate what it means to know in our society. I don’t particularly care ‘exactly’ what a person knows, no one, in any profession or field of knowledge is going to be able to ‘remember’ every facet of a particular issue… or being able to balance all its subtleties. We are all imperfect knowers. But what it means to know, on the other hand, what we can look at as ‘the quality that makes you someone who knows about that’ that lives at the foundation of what it means to be human… and every generation gets to involve itself in defining it for their era.

There are many different angles to approaching this discussion. These questions, and the thought that follow, are my attempt to provide some structure to thinking about the impact of AI on our learning culture.

  • What does it mean to know?
  • How does a learner know what they want to know?
  • What’s AI really?
  • Who decides what a learner needs to learn when AI is only perceiving the learner?
  • What does it mean when AI perceives what it means to know in a field?
  • What are the implications if AI perceives both the learner and what it means to know?

Why “what it means to know?” matters
It is my belief that deep at the bottom of most debates around how we should do education is a lack of clarity about what it actually means to ‘learn’ something or, more to the point, to ‘know’ something. Educators and philosophers have been arguing this point for millennia, and I will not try and rehash the whole thing here, but suffice it to say that our current education models are a little conflicted about it. All of our design and most of our assessments are created in an effort to help people know things… and yet there is no clear agreement in education on what learning actually is. It’s complex, which is the problem. Learning totally depends on what the learning is intended for. I may be only average at parallel parking, and don’t really remember any of the bits of information i was taught many moons ago when i learned… but i can mostly park… so i ‘know how’. Would i pass a test on it? Probably not… but i didn’t hit any cars, so i ‘know how’. I’m clear about what my goal is and therefore the judgement, for me, is fine. The guy behind me last week who didn’t like the fact i didn’t signal properly to parallel park is POSITIVE that i don’t know how to park. He told me so. Do I know how?

What does it mean to learn in all situations? I don’t know. What i believe is that each time you enter into a learning situation you have to ask yourself (and ideally get students to ask themselves) “what does it means for them to ‘know'”?

Are you going to talk about the ‘real’ AI?
Anytime an educator gets involved in a discussion about AI with a computer scientist, you can be pretty much be guaranteed that the sentence “that’s not REALLY AI” is going to follow. From Wikipedia,

Computer science defines AI research as the study of “intelligent agents”: any device that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of successfully achieving its goals.

Using this simplistic definition, then, Artificial intelligence

  1. perceives the learner
  2. perceives knowledge in a field
  3. perceives the learner and knowledge in a field

and takes action based on this to help the learner successfully achieve their goal.

AI and students knowing what to ask
On multiple, painful, occasions I have asked students what they wanted to learn in my class. I have tried to follow the great androgogists by having students define for themselves in a learning contract what they want to learn at the beginning of a course. I have mostly failed… I now wait until we’ve got a good 8 hours behind us before i enter into any of these kinds of discussions. I then set aside a long time for those things to be renegotiated the deeper a learner gets into a given field of knowing. You don’t know what you don’t know… and if you don’t know, you can’t ask good questions about what to know.

So. Students come to classes (often) because they don’t know something and have some desire to know it. We, as providers of education services, ostensibly have some plan for how they are going to come to know that thing. Learners coming to a classroom often

  1. don’t know what they need to know
  2. want to know things that aren’t knowable
  3. think they know things that are actually wrong
  4. want to know things that there are multiple reasonable answers to
  5. know actual things that are useful
  6. don’t really want to know some things
  7. and… and… and…

And each one of those students comes to your class with a different set of these qualities. What is a learner’s goal when they start the learning process? I don’t know. No one does.

AI perceives the learner
So. What does this mean for AI? If AI is following the input from a student and deciding what to give them next… how is it supposed to respond to this much complexity in the learner? It does it by simplifying it. And, I would argue, there are some very concerning implications to that.

I can understand how AI can perceive a learner and adapt to giving them a particular resource based on their responses. They can use the responses of other people who’ve been in the same situation to help give reasonable recommendations. 72% of people who answered this question incorrectly improved when given this resource. Of those that remained, some were helped by this other resource… etc…

But in this case, and i can’t emphasize this enough, someone behind the algorithm has DECIDED what the correct answers are. If we’re solving for a quadratic equation, i’m less concerned about this, but if we’re training people to be good managers, I become very concerned about it. What’s a good manager? It totally, totally depends. It’s going to be different for different people. Helping people come to know in a complex knowledge space is a combination of their experience, them exploring other people’s experience and mentorship. Imagine a teacher asking an algorithm how to teach properly. Who’s answers to that question is the teacher going to get?

AI perceives knowledge in a field
Lets say that I want to make dovetail box joints.


From a simple perspective making this join is easy

  1. draw on the flat side of the board
  2. cut that out
  3. put that board on the edge of the other board
  4. cut that and they fit together.

That is a straight up answer to the question “how do I make a dovetail joint?”, that probably doesn’t leave you able to actually make a dovetail joint. So lets imagine an AI system that rifles through every youtube video with the word ‘dovetail’ in it, can exclude all the videos about birds that come back from that search and can actually see and understand every technique used in those videos. Now, lets assume that it judges the value of those videos based on likes, total views, and positive comments in the comments that refer to ‘quality of instruction’. (I have built a very smart algorithm here)

My algorithm is going to come up with a list of ‘must dos’ that are related to the creation of dovetails. Those must dos will be a little slanted to carpenters who are appealing or entertaining. It will also lean towards carpenters who show the easiest way to do something (not necessarily the best way). Once people know about the algorithm, of course, those people who want more hits and attention will start to adjust their approaches to make them more likely to be found and used as exemplar resources by the algorithm. And… you can see one field slowly drifting towards the simplistic and the easy and away from craft. You could imagine any other kinds of drift based on an algorithm with different values.

Now… that’s me talking about carpentry. Imagine the same scenario when we are talking about ethics… or social presence. It gets a bit more concerning. Algorithms will privilege some forms of ‘knowing’ over others, and the person writing that algorithm is going to get to decide what it means to know… not precisely, like in the former example, but through their values. If they value knowledge that is popular, then knowledge slowly drifts towards knowledge that is popular.

AI is sensing the learner and knowledge in the field
Lets put those two things together and imagine a perfect machine that both senses the learner and senses knowledge in a field. How does the feedback loop between students who may not know what they want and an algorithm that privileges ‘likeable knowledge’ over other kinds of knowing, going to impact what students are going to learn? How is it going to impact what it MEANS to know?

One last question.
What is the increased value of having an algorithm process youtube videos instead of you actually watching them?

Rhizomatic Learning – a somewhat curious introduction

What follows is an introduction I wrote for an upcoming edited book on Rhizomatic Learning. It’s not really an introduction, or a preface or a prologue. Frankly I’m not sure what it is. It is certainly a story I’ve been wanting to tell. It’s also too long for a blog post, for which I apologize.

Citation: Grandal Ayala, M. y Peña Acuña, B. (eds.) (2018) Rhizomatic Learning. Madrid: ACCI.

It’s a funny word, rhizome. It is a stem of a plant that sends out shoots and roots from its nodes. Many of the plants in our gardens that we call weeds actually spread by this method. You end up with a ball of roots, random shoots popping up out of the ground here and there, and a plant that you can’t really control. It’s this clever quality, one imagines, that led to it being used by two french philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their somewhat peculiar book, A Thousand Plateaus.

I have developed courses, taught MOOCs and had many, many discussions teasing out the story of the rhizome for learning. I will avoid the temptation, however, to try and dive down the rabbit hole to explain the historical context of D&Gs philosophy, or the nuance of their somewhat curious masterpiece, A Thousand Plateaus. I am not the person to make this attempt. I came across the rhizome as its roots were spreading through my network; I came as an educator looking for answers to some of the questions that I had in the classroom. Many of you are likely coming to this book with a deeper understanding of the place of D&G in philosophy, and a more literal, perhaps, interpretation of the work of these too brave philosophers. This prologue may be frustrating for you, as my intention is not (nor has it ever been) to be true to the work that has gone before me. I have stolen from D&G, magpie-like, to help me build a story for my own learning.

I have also avoided defining rhizomatic learning. When we define something, particularly in writing, we necessarily exclude some of the nuance of the meaning. We leave out the chance that the definition can get better. We leave out another’s perspective. What I want to do is tell the story of rhizomatic learning from my perspective, my personal journey. To talk a little about what the concept has done for my teaching, my learning and my understanding of the world.

So I apologize for leaving you without a definition or a clear theory of rhizomatic learning, however useful these things could be. Theories, like definitions, help create a shared common language. As we reify language into chunks it creates a shorthand that allows us to communicate faster and more effectively. It also means that we are less likely to misunderstand each other as we have a shared ‘meaning’ for the words that we are using. I am not able to provide this certainty. But with this loss of certainty of meaning there is freedom. Feel free to take this into your own hands and draw the conclusions that work for you.

I was first introduced to the word ‘rhizome’ in 2004[note: by Bonnie Stewart]. I was approaching that 4-5 year mark as an educator and had been trying to understand why we shape the learning experience the way that we do. I was starting to accumulate a set of approaches that seemed to match my style. I had a reasonable expectation, walking into a class, that it probably wasn’t going to be a disaster. And I was reading. And that reading was starting to bother me. There was a discrepancy between some (many) of the things that I was reading and what seemed to be working in my class. I was clearly not doing what other people thought I was supposed to be doing.

Teaching in a graded environment is a true position of power. You get to decide, as a teacher, what someone needs to know and whether or not that person knows it. You get to set the measures of success. I had the same sense of imposter syndrome that many of us do in that situation. Who am I to be in a position to decide what someone else should know? What gave me the right to exercise the power that I had over my students? Sure, my grading matched my rubric, but I had just made up the rubric, how was that fair? Was I ready to accept the implications of failing a student?

All the questions I had, though, fell under the category of THE question of education. What does it mean to learn? I could see it in students in my classes, and had experienced it myself, but I was looking for a way to understand it… a definition of it that I could use. I was looking for a touchstone that I could use to justify the work I was doing.

I had just started experimenting with different technology supported learning methods at the same time. The use of those technologies seemed to have a fairly significant impact on what it was possible to do in my classrooms. The work that my students were doing suddenly became more diverse and more individualized, and, at the same time, I had lost some control over the teaching process. Had the learning changed? What impact does the technology that we use (think of technology broadly here, to include things like pens and books) have on what it means to learn? Was it better or worse that my students were handing me assignments that didn’t match what I had assigned? How could I assess them fairly?

The research I was reading indicated that students were ‘most successful’ when they had a clear expectation of what success could look like. Clear goals for each learning event combined with a perfectly structured class was a clear indication of someone who took the profession of education seriously. This is what it meant to be expert teacher. I struggled to match this perspective on expertise to the new experiences that were happening in my classroom. Telling someone what success looks like seemed like a poor way of empowering students to take control of their learning.

The textbooks that were a part of the day to day of my classroom supported this very structured, linear approach to what learning should be. It set out assignments that were connected to the content. There were answers to those assignments. Clear answers. Some of those answers were hidden in the back of the book and some were hidden in the magic book that was at my desk – The Teacher’s Copy. My job seemed to be to hide the answers to questions from my students and then work with students until they could guess them. The Internet was starting to make that a difficult game to win.

But all the time I was writing lesson plans (or feeling bad because I wasn’t writing them) I was thinking about the future students I would encounter. My own academic path and that of my peers had already shown me that learners are not an homogenous group; did the literature really expect me to accept that a one size fits all approach would be successful? How could I know what a student needed to know before I met them? Was there some canon of knowledge that I could simply go to and pick the right topics off a shelf that would be applicable to everyone? How could I decide, ahead of time, what success was going to look like for a student?

I was becoming more suspicious of that textbook. How much had the technology of print (that is, the ability to use a press to rapidly add words to a page) impacted what we thought learning could be? How much and how many of our practices were shaped because of the practical realities required for the writing, editing, printing, binding and shipping of books from one place to another? How many practices, by extension, were impacted by the process of knowledge access that happens in a typical school? In a print world, a classroom is limited by what I have in my head as a teacher, what are in the books I thought to order ahead of time, the books in my school and, if I’m teaching well, in the heads of my students.

This leaves you with little choice other than to plan ahead of time. If I need a book to be in my classroom on day 1, someone needs to chop down a tree, mash it into paper, throw a pile of ink on it and send it to me in a truck. All these things take time. I need to be completely prepared with ‘content’ before the classroom starts. I have to create the uncertainty in the classroom. I, as a teacher, control the uncertainty.

The Internet has changed that. Right here and now, with the ability to search I have access to an almost limitless amount of information. It may not be the best information, it may be controlled in ways that I don’t understand, but I can access it. And, furthermore, if the information is available everywhere, what does that mean to the content I use in my class?

This is when I came across the concept of the rhizome. It moved differently than the static models that I had been working with. It felt like a radical step away from the kinds of conversations I was having. It refused to be defined in any way that made sense to me. The thought suddenly occurred to me that the reason I’d been struggling to find a definition for learning was that it wasn’t the sort of thing that could be defined. I needed a story for what learning meant to me, and I had found it in a deeply troubling book. In the story of a plant that chooses its own paths, that is resilient and difficult to control. I have spent the last 13 years thinking about that story. How has technology impacted what we think learning can be? What is that learning?

The story starts in the law courts of the late Roman Republic. Two fantastically talented, obscenely vain men, who shared one talent that was vital for success in the last century BCE. They could talk. They could convince, cajole, overwhelm and persuade people through the power of their voices. They are Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Julius Caesar.

Cicero was a ‘new man’ from a small town outside of the city of Rome. His family was comfortable but not connected. New men very rarely made a splash in the complex web of Roman Republic politics. This one did though. He made an entire career out of his ability to use his voice first in the law courts and eventually in the senate house. He wrote books about how to give a speech in public. They focused on one thing – being able to go to the hearts of people. To bring them on-side. Once you’d accomplished this, there was no fact or figure that could work against you.

Caesar on the other hand was a scion of one of the oldest families in Rome – the Julian clan. His ancestry was traced back all the way to the founding families of the city and, according to family lore, he was the descendant of the Goddess Venus herself. While privileged in a way that Cicero was certainly not, he had to navigate the waters of conflicting allegiances, family marriages and Roman political alliances to make his way to notoriety. His constant companion was the ability to convince powerful figures to trust him as a politician, convince his soldiers to follow him as a general, to inspire the people of Rome to love him as their leader.

Another thing both of them had in common is that they studied under the same teacher; Apollonius of Rhodes. He ran a school of rhetoric that was widely reputed to be the best available in the Mediterranean. Students came from all over to become the best public speaker they could be. It was no casual journey to get to see the famous rhetorician. Travel at the time period was difficult and dangerous. Caesar was captured and ransomed by pirates on his journey to the island. While I would argue that mentorship from a master is going to rival if not beat any kind of learning that you are going to attempt – that privilege, clearly, is not easily won.

In 70BC, if you wanted to learn at the feet of the masters you had to be committed.

The learning Caesar and Cicero were trying to acquire was complex. They wanted to sway, to galvanize the hearts and minds of their listeners, to make them see things through their eyes. There’s no record of what Caesar learned in his time on the island, but for Cicero it was patience. He would throw too much of himself into his oratory, tire himself out, use up his voice. Apollonius taught him to be patient, to work his way towards a conclusion. Could he have learned this from a book? Would he have had the self-reflection to see where his flaws as a rhetorician laid and found a path to expertise. It’s possible. But these learning journeys are individual, different for each of us and impossible to prescribe for all. Or even for two. Learning of this type cannot scale. It is the kind of learning that can be given from one (or many) to one.

The second part of this story takes place in the year 1270. We are at the University of Paris reading an advertisement for another university on the other side of France in Toulouse. The flyer reads,

“Those who wish to scrutinize the bosom of nature to the inmost can hear the books of Aristotle which were forbidden at Paris.”

You can see that the role of the student in the learning process at a university in 1270 is to ‘hear’ the words of Aristotle. We lost poor Aristotle about 1500 years before the University of Toulouse existed, so we’re not only listening as a learning process, we’re also listening to someone who is no longer with us. We are looking at a perspective of the world that was thought and worked through a long time ago. Content that, as Plato suggested in the Phaedrus, is dead. It cannot be interacted with.

The predominant teaching method at this time is catechetical. It’s call and repeat. I might read a passage of Aristotle and then have the students repeat it to commit it to memory. And this made sense, given what was available to them at the time. One single book of Aristotle’s Physics (the book that was banned at Paris for making a variety of suggestions about the natural world that didn’t agree with the church’s perspectives on science) might be made from the skins of 200 animals. In a world before the printing press – in a world before paper – where we rarely allow students to touch books.

This means that a university like Paris has control over access to knowledge in a way that far supersedes anything you could do today. Certainly the ability to write down and record what Aristotle said is powerful, but the limitations of the technology have a profound impact on what we can do from a learning perspective. Certainly there are more people involved in the learning than there were in our Roman example, the advent of universities certainly means that more people can ‘learn’, but it means that the experience of learning is profoundly different.

When we are dealing with a dead argument that is delivered in the catechetical approach the tendency is to work towards remembering the argument rather than learning from it. The Monastic approach is to ‘lectura’ literally “to read” and hence we have lecture, an elevated position at the front of a room from which the learners listen to the reading from the lecturer. This was a far cry from the relationship between the master and learner on the Isle of Rhodes. Success is to repeat. Not much sense arguing with Aristotle about it, as he is not able to reply. It also means that the person reading the book at the front of the class that you are ‘hearing’ might not understand Aristotle the same way that Aristotle did. They may not understand it at all. If someone’s job is to read any number of books to you there is a much, much better chance that that person is not an expert on the subject that you are listening to. Your questions as a student, then, are more likely to be of the ‘What did Aristotle say?’ rather than ‘What did Aristotle mean?’

[NOTE: There is a giant piece in here that i didn’t get finished for the release of the book about how the Scholastics and the Humanists interact in all of this. Broadly speaking, the scholastics were certainly more interactive in their teaching style, but their epistemic foundation was still iconic Christian texts. A scholastic found things that seemed to contradict in extant religious texts, and then argued until they figured out why they didn’t exactly contradict. I can’t help but see what i think of as ‘fake’ project based learning in this. We want you to collaboratively explore your way to the solution that we have already decided you will find.

The humanists were a whole other bag of potatoes. I’m hoping to write a piece on them eventually, suffice it to say that the black death (circa 1350) left some people believing that there were other sources of knowledge than the christian texts. Also, for instance, artists were dissecting human cadavers at this point and discovering that Galen was wrong as well. The first glimpses that ‘knowing’ might be more than ‘knowing what came before’. see n. renaissance. ENDNOTE]

Lets jump forward a little more than 400 years to the little country of Switzerland, nestled in the middle of early modern Europe. The year is 1800 and Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, having just failed as headmaster of an innovative school in the capital city, has a new dream. He wants to train an entire country how to read. Think about that. This is before there is a public school system. There are no teacher education programs. He had to come up with an approach that would allow regular people, with limited literacy, to teach others how to read, write and do basic arithmetic.

His solution was the textbook. We have moved on from having to slay a field full of animals in order to create a single book. We are now making books out of paper. And, even better, it doesn’t require a monk to spend half a year painstakingly writing out the book one word at a time. We have a printing press. We can decide what to put in a book, set it up on the press, and make 10000 identical copies.

At the same time, we are moving our student another step away from the content. We’re also requiring even less from the person who is facilitating the learning process. In Pestalozzi’s own words from “How Gertrude Teaches Her Children,”

“I assert definitely that a school-book is only good when an uninstructed schoolmaster can use it at need, [almost as well as an instructed and talented one].”

We’re a long way from our trip to see Apollonius at Rhodes who was evaluating the needs of every student in the terms of their journey. When we standardize not only the content but also the teaching, we’re increasingly forcing each student down the same road. We’re trading freedom for scale. Certainly the kind of one on one learning that was happening in Rome is still happening at this time, but learning, the system of learning, has become something different.

Pestalozzi’s dream is the one that most of us share. We want to be able to have a literate population. We don’t, most of us, want to limit literacy to a select group of people who won the financial birth lottery that gave them the resources and the free time to go about finding a mentor who can teach them as an individual. And we’ve expanded what we want that literacy to be. We want students to understand the world around them. How then, can we achieve the kind of student directed learning that allows Cicero to be the best that he can be and still allow everyone to do it? The experience Cicero had on the island is important, yes, but not as important as the decision to go there in the first place. It is, in a sense, the decision to learn that we are trying to teach. We are trying to enforce independence.

The influence of text, then, is profound. It allows us to scale the learning process, to allow more people to participate. In order for this to happen, however, we need to standardize first the content (in the case of the book) and then the process, in the case of the textbook. We’re creating paths in the smooth space of possibility. Because you have to kill a pile of cows. Because you have to arrange a pile of metal letters on a press. Because you have to plan months or years in advance of the learning process to assure that the content arrives, it creates a pattern of what learning is going to look like.

Those paths were a necessity of the technology that we had. They allowed Pestalozzi to try to teach a whole country to read. They allowed a professor from to stand up in front of a number of students and read the words of someone long dead. I think that we started to believe that those paths in the sand WERE learning. The goal was not for a learner to become something that they might want to become. The goal of learning in a textbook world was for the learner to become a follower of paths.

I am not interested in training a world of path followers. I know that anyone who is only going to learn when I’m watching them is not learning very often. They are limited by what I know, yes, but they are also limited by their translation of what they think I want them to know. This is a poor preparation for a life of learning. Or, to put it in more D&G friendly terms, I am looking to equip a nomad who can wander across a smooth uncertain space. I am looking to help support path makers. I can see the need for striation, for tracks, given the earlier technologies from our story, but I think the internet changes that. For good and for ill.

I used to think that what it meant to learn actually changed along with the technology. It seemed a dramatic thing to claim, but I now see that it takes away from the story. The real story here is that as we’ve needed more and more people to be able to read and write, our conceptions of what it means to be educated have changed along with it. The journey, the coming to know of the learner, remains the same.

In a catechetical classroom, we reward obedience. Obedience to the process of call and repeat and a strict adherence to the word that has been said. In a textbook classroom, we reward getting through the process. Through the path. If you follow the trail that we have set for you, and acknowledge the sign posts, you have succeeded. The passivity of the learner in our education system can be seen, at least partially, as a result of the technologies we were forced to use to scale learning.

And yet, under all this, is the learner. The learner is still on their own journey, even if they are being forced onto a striated path. They are coming to the structured event with a different background, different habits, different aptitudes and desires. However much they’ve taken a copy of what you are trying to imprint, that copy is never going to be exact. They are still gravitating to the things that make sense to them, adding those things to what they know. They are still building their own map.

I try to keep this story in mind when I try to understand what the Internet can do to my learning journey. I use it to interrogate my actions. It is the first time where the learning event can regularly contain something not planned or prepared for by the teacher, and not brought in advance by the student. It could, possibly, allow the student to allow the underground journey, that self-directed journey, to be reflected in the actual classroom.

I’ve come to believe that under that layer of technology rhizomatic learning was always happening. We can see pieces of it in the structures of our own knowledge. Follow the citations in an academic article back to their ‘source’ and you’ll find a rhizomatic web of knowing. It is self-supporting and contradictory. Always uncertain. If learning is this personal map making journey, how can we use the technology we now have to support this in our classrooms?

My job as a teacher is to create smooth space. To create an uncertain space where students have a chance to be ready to create their own map. To build an ecology within which students can grow, wander, break off and reconnect. A place where they can access the voices of the past and present and use them to learn. If my students can learn when they are uncertain, they’ll be prepared to answer questions that I cannot. And, even better, ask questions that I might not think to ask.

One of the editors of this book calls A Thousand Plateaus a walking book. It’s a book that you carry around with you with the intention of reading it, but it tends to just come with you in your bag. It requires a certain frame of mind to dig into it, a frame of mind that doesn’t occur just every day. It surprises you. It comes upon you. You need to have the book ready for when those moments occur. It is, in a sense, a good story for learning itself.

Making Change in Education II – Complexity vs. Lean Six Sigma (learning isn’t like money)

One of the facebook comments on my last post on managing change was about how the corporate world had learned many, many lessons about managing change that we should be learning from in education. A cagillion dollars has been spent and saved using a variety of change management techniques that make companies more effective, more efficient and perform better for their shareholders. And that’s fine. There are any number of processes in education that can be cleaned up. The trick is to know what it makes sense to tidy up and what actually has the kind of complexity that doesn’t respond as well to those forms of change. (spoiler alert: learning doesn’t)

I had the opportunity in the spring of this year to dig into Lean Six Sigma. It’s an approach to change management that comes out of years of work done at Toyota (and other places) meant to make the factories more efficient and the cars more reliable. It worked. Like really well. Suddenly processes were far more replicable, and the cars coming out were far more reliable. Basically (warning, gross oversimplification to come) it involves you getting together with all the people involved in a given process, collecting a pile of data, and building a new process focusing on getting rid of the things that suck. There are concepts like ‘flow’ and ‘kanban’ that run their way into modern culture that are central to the approach. 

When I was working on an LSS project in the spring I kept coming up against what seemed to be a weakness of the approach. We were working on making the time it took to get a product to a customer shorter. Ok. That’s fine. We were looking to have it take us less effort to get a particular task done, thereby costing us less money. Alright. That’s ok as far as it goes. But what happens when you are talking about the quality of the activity. How do I enter “have the client feel respected” or “make it a safe place to make mistakes” into the chart? So much of the logic of the system seems to centre around the ‘good’ being ‘doing something faster or more efficiently.’ I can totally understand that when what we are doing to keep score is checking to see how much money we made… but how does this translate to protecting the environment or improving education? What is a unit of climate protection? What is a unit of learning? And, even if you do believe that those units of measurement exist, they don’t exist in isolation. We can’t talk about improved learning without considering the impact on teacher wellness. You can buy local or organic, you might be supporting pesticides but incurring more fuel usage through shipping. 

The answer for me lies in the distinction between complicated and complex as it is posited in the work of David Snowden. A complicated process is one that is a series of tasks, some times a very extended series of difficult tasks, but still a series that you would like to being able to replicate. (think – like a factory). So you might want your provisioning of laptops for your school system to have a full LSS review reducing downtime in the system and increasing the usefulness of the laptops. Great. You could fix this problem if you apply the right kind of structured review to it (and maybe find some more money). But it forces you to ask yourself who the client is (is it the IT tech or the student for instance) and then that will guide the decisions you make it provisioning. If its the IT tech, you might have a laptop repair process that makes it the least effort to repair. The student might have to wait until ‘laptop repair day’ but that would make it easier for the IT tech to do their work. If the client is the student, you may create a process where laptops are swapped at the school level as soon as any problem is discovered, thereby guaranteeing that the student always has one. LSS for the win.

Complex problems are one where you can never really solve a problem. You work at pieces of the problem to try to make them a little better, your terms of measurement are always going to be in flux. Your variables are going to be changing. Learning is certainly like this. We have so many conflicting messages around learning. We want to develop creative, independent learners and yet we measure their obedience in doing the things we asked them to do. I give you some content, you remember it, I’ll test it to see if you did what i told you to do – but we want you to be creative. The problem, I think, is that like LSS we all want to believe that learning can be measured so that we can see if we’ve improved it. I know we need to measure learning, but needing something doesn’t make it possible. Imagine trying to measure our other deeply human experiences, like friendship… or love. 

The desire for measurement of this sort leads us away from the complexity inherent in the learning system. Learning, like love, can’t have a lean six sigma chart designed for it. Once we’ve identified something in our education space as complex (as opposed to complicated) a new set of tools has to emerge. We have to have deep conversations about what our goals are. We need to talk about what our values are and how they translate to our lives. And then we need to engage with our system in a broad based, patient way that allows us to make change. As Snowden would put it, Probe, Sense and Respond. Try some things, see how they work, iterate and try again. You’re never going to get to best practice, because the situation is always changing. 

When I think about trying to encourage a prosocial web, I see it as a complex challenge. I can’t just send a bunch of resources to teachers and say ‘teach these things to your students’. While there are certainly digital practices that I think are better than others, none of them are going to work ‘just by being applied’. They need to be part of a larger effort to make teachers aware of how they use the internet themselves, of making parents aware. We need to understand that our protectionist strategies (limiting screen time, web blocking apps) just further put dangerous and mean activities our children on the internet further underground. We need training, we need dialogue, we need courage… but most of all we all need to get together and decide that our goal is to try and make the internet a better place… rather than trying to hide from it. No LSS approach is going to do that. Only human approaches… only messy results. 

We are confronted by the complicated/complex division everyday in education. Do I want to know if a medical students has remembered the nine steps of a process of inquiry to work with a patient or do I want to know if they built a good raport? How often do we choose the thing that is easier to measure… simply because we can verify that our grading is ‘fair’. How often do we get caught in conversations around how ‘rigourous’ an assessment is when what we really mean is ‘how easy is it to defend to a parent who’s going to complain about a child’s grade’. 

It does seem like we struggle to believe in complex problems. And, for me, they are the most important ones we are confronted with. Managing complex change is the most important work we do. 

Making change in education – champions are for charlatans

I’ve been using this expression in a few talks recently and I thought I should clarify what I mean by it. These are notes for future gathering… feedback always welcome. The lists of ‘things to look for’ are not meant to be exhaustive.

Most of my professional career the standard argument for making change in education is to work with the ‘willing’ first and move your way to the more resistant. This idea of seeing very willing people as a ‘trojan horse’ or as ‘change leaders’ has been so prevalent that I never thought to question it before. In the last year, however, both working with the department of education in PEI and now with the medical school, I’ve started to realize that It’s a losing proposition. Worse, I’m starting to believe that it’s the ‘approach’ that people often turn too when they have no plan.

Who are these champions
The name itself is a little misleading. There’s a sense in the expression that these are the people who are your winners. They give 110% all the time. They keep their stick on the ice… insert sports metaphor for ‘winner’ here. These are the people who will rarely say no. They are the people you lean on, the people who will stay up another hour at bedtime to plan for the next day. They are the 20%.

There are any number of charts about change and most of them offer some separation of 20/60/20. That first 20 are on board for everything. They are the early adopters. They jump in without really checking if the sharks are in the water. The bottom 20? They’re the people who never want to do anything. OLD THINGS GOOD. NEW THINGS BAD. They want to keep the status quo the same… for any number of reasons. The middle 60 is where the magic is. If you can convince the middle 60 that they want to change something, your change is going to stick.

The middle sixty
There are any number of reasons that people end up in the middle 60 of your change chart. For some it has to do with the way they are committed to their families. For others, they may have other interests outside of their employment that take up their free time… some are lazy… some are disorganized. Some are mostly reasonable but just a bit obstinate. They are, however, by interested in the best interest of your organization. They are, in education, the teachers that make the difference between a good school and a bad school. Treated badly, they will not be happy, or effective. Treated well… things are fine.

Why we shouldn’t aim for the champions

  1. It’s not super ethical. These are the people already working extra (usually unpaid) time. If you want to keep your champions healthy and happy, don’t use them on half baked ideas.
  2. You’ll create super stars. Super stars, in a school, are that teacher that get all the toys, lots of help, and lots of accolades. No one likes that teacher. And they create a false model. Other people will look at that person’s success and either think they aren’t good enough for it… or that it only worked because they got anything.
  3. It’s not sustainable. That person will not be able to give you an extra five hours a week until the end of time. They will move on to something else exciting soon enough. You want to embed your change in the middle 60 if you want it to last.

Why champions are for charlatans
Educational technology is replete with consultants who have never managed change. They may have been good teachers or just like to take your money, but this doesn’t mean that they are going to help you change your school. I am always suspicious of the consultant who wants to work with the school superstar. (odds are they were a school superstar too before they became a consultant). Real change is hard, and slow, and takes careful planning. Superstars mostly just give you the appearance of change.

It’s important to listen to everybody. There are lots of good ideas out there. But if someone comes to you with an idea and wants to prove to you that it works because three teachers at a district used it… ignore them. That’s proof of nothing. If they tell you to get a few teachers started and that will spread… I’d ask for evidence of it. That has not been my experience.

What you should be looking for from a consultant

  1. A plan that lasts longer than a year
  2. A plan that has the hearts and minds training of the middle 60 as a core component
  3. Someone who is asking you for money to interview a variety of staff – teachers, administrators, admin assistants.
  4. A plan that solves a problem you actually have, not one that sells you a piece of technology because ‘you need it’.

Remember the opportunity cost
Just because an idea is a good one, doesn’t mean you should do it. Your middle 60 are busy. Every time you try and fail at a project you reduce the chances that they are going to work with you next time. Even if your project works, they can’t be working on other projects at the same time they are doing this one. An opportunity costs means that when your people are busy… the can’t be finding new opportunities or doing other things.

Meme Histories – Learning the Web So We Can Make It Better

The challenge I have designing digital practices activities is trying to find an authentic activity that doesn’t fall apart. One of the key literacies of a person who makes effective use of the internet is the ability to confront uncertainty.

“I don’t know what that is.”
“I can’t figure that out.”
“I’ll put that aside until later.”
“I’ll ask someone.”
“Or… wow, I only figured out part of that and I’ll just have to live with it.”

This is not how we were taught to learn. Clear objectives, clear success criteria. I mean, that’s great and everything, but my life certainly doesn’t look like that. Working on the web certainly doesn’t look like that. I believe that people sometimes need to learn to work building their objectives on the fly given what they’ve been confronted with. So how do I design activities that allow for people to learn to persist through that uncertainty and still be willing to accept half answers when that’s as far as they will get?

Meme histories. That’s how.

What is a meme?
I will leave you to your own research on the validity of the ‘scientific’ sense of the word meme and stick to the way it has been taken up in culture. Suffice it to say that many serious people think memetics is either very serious or total nonsense.

Culturally a meme is an idea (often a joke) that spreads. It’s an idea that becomes a marker of your membership in a given community. When I post a picture like this one…

Where's the beef. (from Wikipedia)

It would situate you in a community of people familiar with North American TV in the mid eighties. It’s an age group and a culture group. Lots of meme like qualities. I could, for instance, say “where’s the beef” at a BBQ where the burgers weren’t ready yet. Some people might laugh. Some people would be confused. Group A would smile knowingly at Group B and try to describe the commercial. Group B would probably not get it. Inevitably someone would say “you had to be there.” It’s a shared cultural reference. This is (partially) how our identity is built. We share cultural references, sometimes to classic literature, sometimes to TV commercials.

Memes now
It used to cost thousands of dollars to create a cultural reference. You either had to be famous, or have a giant marketing company – phrases like “cooking with gas” still exist in our culture long passed the point where people remember they were marketing slogans in the 30s. Now anyone can try and start a ‘meme’ that could spread from person to person and become part of our daily language. It happens fast. It happens often. You will not be able to ‘keep up’.

Luckily the history of some of those memes are relatively accessible on the internet and they can be quite interesting. The class I was teaching recently (ages 30-60) came together when we did the meme history on this poster

Keep calm, keep reading.

It’s a nice, mostly clean narrative. It has an answer. A quick google search will get you there. (see me modelling good digital practice 🙂 ) Another activity that seemed to work well was the ‘where are they now’ meme search. Seeing the people pictured in memes as real people brought home to everyone that, you know, the internet is full of real people. Who have feelings. A little kid pictured in a silly picture becomes a big kid some day… who’s picture is all over the internet.

[note: be careful with these searches, searching for memes can bring you to places that can put nasty things on your computer]

The answers are not all easy… or nice
There are a number of ways to track down a meme. You can go to a website like knowyourmeme that does some research on how they developed. Some of them are quite detailed, others I can’t seem to find. Any number of different google searches or reverse image searches might get you to the story of how some of these were built. They also can get you to the root meaning, and sometimes, that meaning is not very nice.

A number of these memes were originally created in some of the darker corners of the internet (arguably the ‘lets put text on an image’ sense of meme started in those spaces) and there are often some fairly ugly first meanings for those memes. They can be a way to insult, bully or otherwise demean people on purpose. That also can happen without you even knowing it if you are sharing a meme you don’t have a full grasp of.

And, frankly, sometimes I have been wholly unable to track down the original history of a given meme. It makes for a frustrating class when your students can’t find what they are looking for. My advice is to prepare a few like the ‘keep calm’ one and then let them loose (depending on age obviously) on some less certain ones.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?!? – Why meme histories are important
This is what makes the meme history such an interesting (if fraught) journey. Meme commentary (using a meme to comment on someone’s postings) is a pretty common activity. In the years that I was mentoring young adults I can think of a dozen times where I sat down with one of them to discuss the content of their meme. “Do you think that might be racist?” “Did you mean that in a kind way?” “When you say you were just trying to be funny… walk me through what was funny about it.” “Where do you think that meme comes from?”

And some of them are perfectly innocent. They are straight cultural references that allow people to share identity with each other. Others are not so much. Whether you’re doing it as a classroom activity or as something your talking to your friends or your kids about, I think thoughtful discussions on meme history offer an opportunity to bring our moral compass to the internet.

How abundance might mean we need to change the way we learn to learn

I’ve been having a transformative experience here in the Department of Education in PEI in many ways. One of the most rewarding is the digital practices course that i’m currently teaching. I’m working with some very experienced teachers, coaches, assessment folks and curriculum people. They are willing, engaged and challenging. The best kind of students. I’m learning tons about what can practically get done with change in the system. What can teachers manage? What is too much? What are they really looking for?

Abundance
One of the core concepts in the course is that the abundance of information available on the internet fundamentally changes what is possible in the classroom. It also, potentially, changes what we should be doing. I mean… i don’t think its ‘potentially’. I think it should change it. Finding and ordering are now more important than remembering.

And, to the point of this blog post, we need to prepare people to learn random things. They need practice dealing with uncertainty. Dealing with things where they might be the first person they’ve met who has ever come across it. Something we can’t prepare them for.

Learning something really new
Our classroom activity last week was hard. It was hard for me as a facilitator, and it was difficult for them as a group (one group found it more challenging than the other). I gave them random microbit parts and said ‘start’. I was trying to recreate the feeling that many people have in the world right now… people confronted with a new phone, people confronted with taxes, with a new social network, with cambridge analytica… people seemingly expected to know how to do, and how to understand, hundreds of different things. Things that we didn’t know we were going to know how to do. Things we are going to have to figure out with whatever is available to us.

Gradual release
One of the main items of feedback from the students is that they prefer a gradual release methodology to learning about things like the microbit. Some structure up front. Goals clearly outlined. Targets identified. Scaffolding in place. You acclimatize to the water by slowly lowering the temperature of the pool from a balmy 85 degrees all the way to a proper maritime 66 degrees in the summer. This is certainly an effective mechanism for getting people to acquire certain skills.

It’s also not how much of our world works now.

But i don’t like technology
This was an excellent critique from a number of participants. The challenge I gave them was not really a level playing field. If you already understand code, or you have an existing interest in tinkering with technology the activity is going to be much easier to adapt to. You’re going to dive in and play around with it.

I don’t know how to adapt this activity to this objection. More thinking needed here.

What are the new practices?
We had some talks. I don’t think I rolled it out as well as I could have. They pulled it together. Their reflections (which for a variety of reasons are not public) are exceptional. Their home activity was to do an instruction activity for ‘something’ in the microbit and write a reflection on how they felt about it. They have written amazing instructional pieces that we’ll be able to use in classrooms. They are now reading each other’s manuals and learning how to use the microbit. Student centred, student driven, student guided.

I’m torn to be honest. One part of me thinks – here is the way we need to be able to learn in 21st century. We are confronted with too many situations where we don’t know what to do and we need to learn how to get that first instructional video, that little bit of help from our friend (or whatever) to get ourselves started. We need to deal with the frustration of a task we don’t understand and use our connections. That’s the practice.

The other part of me thinks that if we can save people the frustration, shouldn’t we just go ahead and do that?

Going forward
I’ve heard lots of complaints recently that ‘kids these days’ are helpless and unwilling to try and solve their problems. They’re constantly looking for guidance and to find an expert to solve their problems. Firstly… that sounds like a survival mechanism for a generation that has 100 times more decisions to make than I did. 1000 times more personal choices and options available to them. 1000000 times more things that they could watch or read.

Also, it just might be that the way we help them learn makes them a little too dependent. Doesn’t make them struggle quite enough. Doesn’t quite manage the learning they need to do in the world.

I’m looking forward to difficult discussions with the group tomorrow.

Digital Practices Mapping – Intro activity for digital literacies course

I developed a new tension pair for introducing digital practices. Thought I’d share. Lemme know how it goes if you use it.

My planning prep for a course is to have a number of possible activities in the hopper that I can pull out and use, or make something up, or use an activity suggested by a participant. I have short canned slide decks. I have writing/chatting prompts. In class short readings. And, of course, the usual bevy of ways to get people talking to each other all designed to create an environment in which everyone can come to know. I always have general places I assume we’ll want to get to, but I think that in a post-knowledge-scarcity world, its pretty presumptuous to think that you know what a group of people you don’t know are going to need to learn before you’ve even met them.

I spend an inordinate amount of time, however, worrying myself about what the first activity for the course will be. Those first couple of moments a learner spends in a class are critical, in my view, to establish the first threads of the social contract. It sets a tone. What’s this course going to be like? What is going to be expected of me? Am I allowed to have opinions? If I walk into a class, spend thirty minutes on a slidedeck intro and goal setting, I’ve basically told everyone that they’re job in my class is to sit and listen. This is not what I want.

I tend to have have a two step process at the start of day 1 – one activity that gets people working together, right out of the gate, and one that gets them to reflect on who they are (and who other people might be) with regards to the intent of the course. This stuff is stolen and learned from dozens of awesome practitioners over the years. Thanks to all ya’ll.

First step – get people relying on each other
6 or 8 years ago i tried the most extreme version of the first intro. I walked into the class, made a brief (2min) introduction, suggested that they form groups of four to register for twitter, wordpress, the moodle course and (something else, can’t remember) and then i walked back out the door. It was a response to the consistent challenge i’d been having of people looking to me for step by step explanations. To thinking that somehow I was in the room to explain to people how to use technology. It did work. When i walked back in five minutes later everyone was up, explaining to each other what was going on and getting things done. But it’s kind of a jerk move. And it doesn’t really serve people who are not feeling safe in the classroom. So…

That… was probably taking the thing a little too far. But it does illustrate what I’m trying to get done with the intro. I want people to look to other classmates for help, for guidance, for hints. There is no such thing as cheating, there is only learning. I want engagement.

In the Digital Practices class we built things out of cardboard. We used my precious cardboard screws to build some random structures as a group. I just said “build something with the cardboard”. I was looking for a couple of different things. i wanted to see if anyone looked on the internet for instructions (they didn’t) and I wanted to get a sense of how the social dynamics would come together. It also, I hope, helped build those other social contract things like creativity, like there not being a particular thing they needed to build, independence etc… that would fold into the rest of the course.

The first activity – part two
I was lucky enough to be drawing at the table with Dave White and Lawrie Phipps when the first V&R map was drawn in a little canal side bar in the UK 10 or so years ago. I love me a tension pair. I like how tension pair maps allow you to bring together two sets of concepts into one space. If you’ve never used V&R its a model that gives people a sense of where their tool use is on the digital spectrum. On one axis it goes from personal to professional (clear enough) and the other from visitor to resident. I’ll leave you to read Dave White’s blog for a more detailed sense, but a visitor dabbles (like lurking on twitter) and a resident engages (like someone who goes to twitter and replies to people on a regular basis).

It’s a useful model… but it sets the digital apart as something that either ‘is digital’ or ‘is not digital’. I was looking for something that looked at the whole of someone’s practice rather than just the digital stuff. And V&R tends to look at things from a tool based perspective, rather than from the perspective of what someone is trying to get done. I wanted us to look at ourselves from the perspectives of ALL of our practice… and see what its digital qualities might be. I wanted each participant to be able to see what each other considered to be part of the ‘professional practice’ and where they considered that practice to fit in the mapping activity.

I popped four pieces of blue sticky note on the wall with the words from the pic above creating the map. Do you do your professional planning by yourself on paper? drop a sticky note with “professional planning” in the bottom left quadrant.

The nice thing about this activity is that it kept us focused on ‘what is a professional practice’ as a first point of interest and the digital quality of it as a secondary conversation. It also prompted any number of conversations between us about how digital a particular practice really is. Is email ‘really’ a digital practice? Write a letter, send it to someone, wait for a response? Not so digital. Lots of interesting discussion and the start of some goal setting.

It seemed to work. lemme know how it goes for you.

Beyond the Tree Octopus – Why we need a new view of k12 (digital) literacy in a Cambridge Analytica world

I’ve been very fortunate the last few weeks to have the opportunity to co-design (with learners who happen to be master teachers) a course on digital practices for education. It’s kind of like cheating. Small classes, very engaged and intelligent people, with a real desire to get to the bottom of what the digital means to the education system. These are the folks who write the curriculum, work with principals on school goals and work with teachers on their teaching practice here on Prince Edward Island. The digital strategy committee has done a ton of work here getting the systems part of things ready for a digital world and have developed some interesting ‘shiny projects‘ but the work of this course is where the important stuff happens. The day to day. If we’re going to prepare our students for the world that they live in, if we’re going to give them the habits of mind for a generation that has so many new demands on it, these are the kind of people who are going to figure it out. It’s been a real privilege.

Session 1&2 – Abundance and trust
The core premise of the course is that the digital moves us from a societal position of scarcity to one of abundance. There was a time not so long ago that a student (in a school) could only access the information from his teacher, from books within arms reach and from their friends. A teacher could only access the resources they had squirrelled away, their own experience, the experience of their colleagues and the hours of professional development that could be provided by their educational authority. This is no longer true. I can reach into my pocket right now and get just about any ‘information’ that I want.

Or can I?

There are any number of structures that were in place in the pre-digital world that made it so that ‘a’ piece of information became ‘the’ piece of information. And that’s a critical distinction. It used to be that our publishing industry, our faculties of education and our educational authority had a near stranglehold on information in our system. And I don’t mean this in a bad way. The advent of paper, of schools and of education systems did amazing things for our culture, they allowed us to take the human voice and move it around in a way that changed us from mostly illiterate farmers at constant risk of losing most of the knowledge we had (see. Dark Ages, fall of Mayan cities etc…) to groups of cultures that can build upon the past. That’s awesome.

But the controls that were in place, the publishing cycle, the education and selection of faculty, the balances of an education system, meant that the information that made it to the classroom was heavily filtered. That’s good and bad. It meant that tons of smart people had looked at the things you were going to use before you used it. That’s good. It also meant that you got less practice (and your students even less) learning how to filter. (it also means that dominant narratives stayed dominant, but that’s a discussion for a different day)

There’s a ton more to ‘learning how to filter’ than just picking information, its also about learning who to trust. If you’re information comes to you through limited sources, finding out how to evaluate those sources is fairly standardized. National Enquirer – uh… probably not. New York Times – uh… sure. That guy at the conference who everyone said was a nutball (mostly referring to myself here :)) might want to take that with a grain of salt. The professor that won all the awards? Sure, I’ll trust her. That approach has weaknesses, but on the whole, it works.

In a world of abundance, those filters are no longer in place. Pre-digital systems of adjudication for turning ‘a piece of information’ to ‘the piece of information that i need’ simply don’t work anymore. The processes that we did have for filtering were not built to handle the onslaught of stuff that we receive on a daily (or minute by minute) basis on facebook, from our google searches or in our increasingly splintered media. We retweet without thinking about it. We post a comment by reflex on something that makes us mad – thereby increasing the noise. And people are taking advantage of us.

Cambridge Analytica
I’m not suggesting that people have just started taking advantage of us. Robocalling during elections apparently started in the sixties where people would call you during an election and ask questions like “if your candidate was a murderer, would you still vote for them?” This kind of nudge suggestion doesn’t necessarily work on each individual, but it can start rumours, start conversations and suddenly a candidate has a reputation that was totally fabricated. Advertising IS the attempt of people to try and shape your opinion about things. That’s what’s happening now, the difference is the scale or, to put it in the language of this post, the difference is abundance.

Cambridge Analytica is a election data firm in the news when this post was written for helping shape the feelings voters during the US election and the British Brexit vote. Information like the things you ‘like’ on facebook and the results of personality tests you do create a profile for you. It tells the database what kind of things attract your attention. Companies like CA use this data to target you with the exact message that is likely to impact your feelings in the way they’ve been paid to do that. Take a look at how they made ‘Crooked Hillary‘ a thing. Unlike the robocalling, these approaches can affect millions of users at the same time creating a web of messages that look like something that ‘could’ be true.

It’s much, much easier for us to just pretend this is an internet thing that doesn’t effect our lives. The Trump election should convince you that this isn’t the case. Cambridge Analytica isn’t alone… not even close. There are simple tools at work like remarketing (think of how all your ads start to match up with what you last viewed on amazon). There are also much deeper tools that are constantly trying to ‘nudge’ (see Behavioural Economics) your attitudes in one direction or another. They’re not trying to make you believe that something is ‘true’ they’re trying to move opinions by 5%. That 5% gets you elected. It shapes public policy.

Why the tree octopus is not helping
In 1998 a website called the Tree Octopus was created to help students identify real information on the internet. Thousands of school children (millions?) have been assigned this activity as a way of building their skills in identifying what’s ‘true’ on the internet. It’s an initial step to building the kinds of skills that will allow students to identify ‘reliable’ data. They are going to judge ‘is it the piece of information’ is it ‘true’ or is it something that I can safely ignore. It is, in a sense, a digital ‘book’ that they are going to add to their library or not. This is an analogue view of information.

Think of it this way. Most kids will say that the wikipedia is not a trusted source. For that matter, so will most teachers. It was not created using the filters that created the items of trust from before the digital era. “anyone can just go on there and edit it.” It’s not been validated by a publisher, by a professor or by another system. Here’s the thing, wikipedia is neither ‘true’ nor ‘false’. Its a place in a large network of bits of information. It’s part of a wide abundance of information around any topic you might have a question about. No particular entry is likely to be perfectly good or perfectly bad. It’s a really great place, however, to get started building your own thread of knowing. You can read the introduction, if you’re fancy you can look at the history of the edits, but most importantly you can look at the references page to get a sense of what others have said. It’s a FANTASTIC tool if your in a world of abundance. It doesn’t pass muster if you’re still using the filtering tools of world of scarcity.

Our friend the tree octopus is one page. Isolated. Artificially created to make a point. It’s not part of a larger ecosystem of knowing, its not connected to other things that help you understand it’s background. That connection to understand, that ability to build a path of knowing IS THE 21ST CENTURY LITERACY. I would suggest that the octopus takes us down an analogue path, building habits were just going to have to break when we’re doing ‘real’ work on the Internet. We’re not building the skills that will allow the students in our system to deal with the world of nudging and data that is shaping our world.

What does this mean for the classroom?
That’s the real question here. How does this change what we actually do on a regular basis in our school systems? I’m going to leave the two questions we’re working on now here. Feel free to help us with your thoughts.

1. How does this change the interaction between faculties of education/educational authorities and teachers? How do they account for the loss of hidden controls (again, no blame here in the word hidden) that they had over the information teachers had access to?

2. How does it change how a teacher should filter information that goes to students? If we accept that students need to build their own tools to deal with a world of abundance, how does that change the way we work with our students?

The world has changed around us. You can forget teaching students for a future world of whatever. We’re going to struggle to teach them for the world we are currently in right now.

Note: a huge debt goes out to all my colleagues working on this, but especially @holden who’s work has been central to our course. Check out his book