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?

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

Pedagogy, Not Outcomes – How to Do Maker Models for Language Arts

In PEI we are working towards bringing ‘maker sensibility’ to our classrooms and trying to come up with a functional approach to getting this done. I’m hoping to help support the pockets of creative projects that currently happening in our system with maker/tech and pedagogy supports that can allow teachers to feel as comfortable as possible putting student lead creativity at the centre of their classrooms.

I’m working towards a model I’m calling STELAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Language Arts, and Math). It takes STEAM sensibility and embeds it deeply into the language arts classroom.

What do the words really mean?
The acronym STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math) means different things to different people. The usage of the acronym STEM (without the arts) is fairly recent, its really only come into fashion in the last 10 or 15 years. It’s a response, partially, to the concern that some people have that we need more science-type people being trained in our schools. There is a great deal of debate around whether this is true. I am comfortable, however, claiming that the kind of critical thinking that can come from exploring STEM style projects can be useful to students. Let’s take that as a shared premise and move forward.

The addition to the A (Arts) in STEAM is a recognition that there’s more to being a successful STEM person than just the STEM. You need creativity and the ability to communicate. I think of it as a way of mapping the STEM concern to the Maker movement. When you combine the research skills that come from STEM with the creativity that comes with art, you end up with the potential for a rich classroom experience that creates some connective tissue between our curricular silos. That’s when this gets really exciting.

Maker movement in education
There is a great article in edutopia about the maker movement.

In a day when everyone thinks, “There’s an app for that,” many educators believe that we’re missing the point of technology if we think its best use is programming kids to memorize math facts. Students don’t want to use apps — they want to make them.

The maker movement is committed to putting students at the centre of their learning. That learning ‘may’ involve the use of technology, or it may be building things out of cardboard, but it brings a hands on, student lead flavour to how we explore our curriculum.

Maker carts
Here in PEI we are taking a maker cart approach. Imagine a cart that you can roll into you classroom with everything from cardboard screws to 15 Microbits on it. That number ’15’ is relevant because we’re looking to populate the carts so that kids can work in pairs. The carts will also have an age appropriate collection of other things that can help you make things, both tech and craft. This gives us a bit more flexibility in terms of scheduling, and it is WAY easier to get one cart down the hallway, then to get 24 kids down a hallway :). You can also imagine the contents of a maker space divided into four or six carts that could be used at the same time by different teachers.

Custom Educational Furnishings
Here’s one from Custom Educational Furnishings

STELAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Language Arts and Math)
So what are going do with this stuff? In a real classroom? Excellent question, thank you for asking. I want to work it into language arts. I mean, not only language arts necessarily, but its the real focus of my interest. i want kids to create an elephant out of cardboard, and build a robotic interface inside of it that lights up its eyes, or makes it roar when you get too close or… whatever. But i want them to use it as a communication object.


I have zero interest in measuring creativity
I have no interest in measuring how creative a kid is. I’m happy to encourage creativity all day. Reward particularly interesting bursts of it. Take pictures of it and post it online. But i have no interest in giving your cardboard elephant a 92 and your cardboard treehouse a 78. None. If we think of the maker process as a pedagogy… then i don’t have to. It’s the WAY that we go about learning something, not the something that needs to be learned.

More time for being creative
If I’m in a language arts classroom, working on a personal reflection about my elephant, or doing procedural writing about how to build it, or explaining to someone else what the elephant’s backstory is and turning it into a story – i have TIME. I have time to work on my creative process. I have time to get comfortable with the coding I’m using to make its eyes flash red. I have time to allow my project to iteratively improve. Too often these kinds of creative projects are rewards before Christmas break, or march break or after a long stretch of hard work. I want to provide the possibility to have it integrated into the work we’re doing. Weeks not hours.

Because it totally makes sense in language arts
But the journey of maker into language arts isn’t just a matter of finding time in the day. It makes sense because of narrative. So much of the creative is about coming up with a narrative for what you’re doing. Whether that’s just the name of the thing that has evolved out of your creative process or a whole story about it. The communication. The writing. The collaboration. The reflection. These are key skills that are needed for citizenship. Team that up with some coding and some maker skills and you’ve got a killer combination.

How does it work?
This is still emerging, I figure it will continue to evolve as we get more and more people involved in thinking about it. At the current time, we’re thinking about putting a clear guidelines for achievable tech projects (make the lights blink, launch an elastic band) in with the maker carts. We’re also working towards having trainers in the classroom (and the staff room) to help teachers work through things their first time or two. They would be flexible projects that you can build around. This figures that once teachers get their minds around it with projects that are maybe a tad more scripted than a traditional JUST MAKE classroom, they’ll be able to take it from there. We’re also talking about graduated carts that help kids develop (say, in grade 1) the skills they’re going to need (maybe by grade 5) for doing the programming, wiring and building up required for these projects.

The key, though, is to design these projects so that it isn’t just the geeky teachers that get involved. We want LOTS of teachers to think “hey, i can get started with this”. That diversity will bring more art, cooler LA projects and more practicality to the maker process.

I’m super excited.


Supporting Digital Practice – making time-for-learning

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks here in PEI. We’ve launched the first part of the training and discussion for our maker cart project. We’ve been working on pulling together all our information pieces on supporting technology in the system. We spoke with the principals about our work and have had a fair number of them reach out excited to get involved. We’ve been thinking about how technology can support language arts. We’ve been working towards better basic training in technology in the form of google certified educator. We’ve been thinking about how we can improve our wireless infrastructure in the long term. The digital strategy committee approach (yup, I suggested we solve a problem with a committee) has been fantastic. As always… getting the decision making worked out is a critical step in the process, many thanks to the leadership in k12 here for letting us set it up.

Digital Practices
Dedicated time-for-learning is critical for digital transformation (or, really, any change project). While we are planning learning events with teachers for both the maker work and with google, getting time-for-learning with the curriculum consultants and the coaches is just as important. This week we start a 2 month-ish course on digital practices. The course itself is based on the ed366 course I taught at UPEI for years, but modified for smaller class sizes and the more specific use case of being within an education system.

‘Digital Practices’ are the things that I do that are born out of the affordances of our digital communications platforms. It is an assemblage of the digital skills i might have mediated through the digital literacy and habits that i have acquired. Or, to put it more simply, it’s ‘being digital’.

It’s tricky business, talking about this stuff, and it inevitably leads to some contradictions. One of the biggest advantages of digital spaces, from my perspective, is the return to orality. When we depend on a finished text (say, a printed book) to arrive to us in the mail, we are the receivers of the knowledge that is contained therein. I can certainly work through that text with my other, previous learnings, but I never get a chance to contribute, to ask questions that can get answers… I’m not part of the knowledge creation process. When we think of an oral discussion (at least, a good one) there is a chance for both sides to contribute, a chance for us to move together to a new understanding. Digital spaces allow for this to happen with text. We can collaborate on something that becomes knowledge through our interactions with it.

It’s not all sunshine and roses of course. Collaborative texts tend to reduce themselves to consensus… which can be nice, but can sometimes privilege existing ideas over new ones. There is much greater safety in sending out a printed text that people read when you’re not in the room. If the reader hates it, or it makes them angry, you are not in the immediate line of fire. These advantages and disadvantages need new social norms… new practices to make them effective and still maintain our own healthy relationships. These digital practices need to be negotiated, they need to be talked about out loud in ways that many of our 20th century practices don’t. I’m going to run a course about this. It’s going to be fun. A few opening thoughts…

Tools vs. practices
Years of teaching courses like this have lead me to believe that most people are coming expecting to learn ‘how to use a bunch of tools’. I can totally understand this. You see people using tools, they claim to be effective with them, you too want to use the tools. Truth be told the ‘how’ of these tools has simplified (in most cases) to the point where the technical using of them is an almost incidental part of the learning process. There’s all the world of difference between ‘learning how to use a hashtag’ and ‘knowing how to use a hashtag to avoid getting it hijacked’. One involves knowing that when you put a character (#) in front of a word it becomes a tag, and the other involves hours of working in an environment to come to understand how twitter spam/trolls work. People will probably learn how to use tools in the course, but I probably wont be teaching much of it.

I’m still pretty stuck on the idea of complexity being important when teaching digitally mitigated practice. I think that separating things to learn out into simple, complicated and complex concepts allows us to make space between things that are easily accomplished by more rote means and those that require us to settle into a concept and work our way around inside of it.

There’s always been a maker strand in my work, but I’ve never formally acknowledged it. I was uncomfortable with the term, but the last six months preparing a maker project here in PEI has led me to feel much better about it. I’m expecting to have a big solid maker section in this course and to use it to demonstrate differing analogue/digital approaches to learning/teaching with it. Do I need to have ideas for the kids before I arrive? How do I structure student lead ideation so that all my students can succeed and I don’t make it teacher centric? Is the internet really full of good ideas? How can I work with other teachers to create more relevant ideation spaces?

Community as Curriculum
It always come back to this for me. I feel more strongly about it now then when i first wrote it 10 years ago. The goal for me is for each person in this course to be able to be able to become a member of a conversation in a community of knowing in the subject. Can you pass? Can you engage? Do you know how to ask questions? Do you speak the language? Can you help? We learn to become members in a community of knowing by practicing and learning together. When the community is the curriculum.

At the end of the day practices lead to citizenship, as they do in the rest of our lives. The ways in which we interact with each other, with our community, our schools ourselves… these all make up our actions as citizens. As more and more of our communications are mediated through the internet, more and more of our lives as citizens are mediated through it as well. If our schools prepare citizens, it is essential that they prepare them for being good citizens, online or offline.

Building a worksheet for rhizomatic learning in the k12 classroom

The first paper I wrote on rhizomatic learning turns 10 this year, and if you’d told me that I was every going to write the word ‘worksheet’ and ‘rhizomatic learning’ in the same blog post i would have coughed my coffee on my keyboard.

And yet, here I am.

Two years ago I committed to using the Arduino to model rhizomatic learning and, for the last year, I’ve been leading the digital strategy for k12 in my province here in PEI. Next week we start the next phase of our work and start looking at how we can integrate microcontrollers and maker activities (and coding) into various parts of the curriculum in our schools.

But how to teach it?

And, more importantly, how do we support teachers (many of whom don’t currently use these approaches) in such a way that they don’t fall back to step by step approaches to using it. Because, i have to tell you, it’s really REALLY hard in the real world not to just tell people what to do with a microcontroller. I’ve found that each time I have this crazy urge to just go “look, plug this in here, nail that over there…” Technology is hard. The multitude of travelling road shows that make this stuff look attractive in the classroom might look snazzy when you see them, but the practicalities of using this stuff in the classroom can be overwhelming.

And yet… I want students to be able to follow their own paths with this stuff. To create a curriculum by interacting with their community. I want them to build connections to what they already know in an organic, authentically student lead manner.

To design things we can’t ourselves imagine.

Some challenges
Technology projects are hard
I have yet to find a limit to the possible impediments to a wide open “lets play with this to make something cool” approach to using microcontrollers in the classroom. I’ve had people straight out panic at the ideation point. I’ve had people go down a rabbit hole of something that was entirely impossible (at least, as far as i could tell). I’ve had people with full circuit boards with one wire out of place that we couldn’t find. lack of tools/resources appropriate to the task. Boredom. Frustration. Fine motor skill challenges. Organizational weaknesses. I mean… I could do this all day.

Error identification
lets assume that someone has a reasonable idea and a reasonable path to get there… sometimes it doesn’t work. Why doesn’t it work? Well… if i had time to sit down with it for 5 minutes I might be able to figure it out, but when 10 other people need my attention, i never get 5 uninterrupted minutes to look at it. Troubleshooting these things is partially about experience, but its also about process. Once your other students become more proficient, this isn’t such a problem… but first day… the day that will convince the teacher that this is really a terrible idea… those other kids aren’t always a whole lot of help.

Knowledge gaps
Some of that knowledge gap is simply mine as a teacher. Hey dave, any idea what voltage this is at? Hey dave, can i plug this in here? Hey dave… you get the idea. And, of course, in a rhizomatic classroom this should be student lead. But the internet is not generous to the uninitiated in this kind of technology. The forums can be terse and distant and, in some cases, totally unresponsive. Can i really let a kid wait 2 days for an answer to a question? And, as that question is a fact “what voltage does this thing need to be at?” finding it is not discovery (outside of effective searching practices which are important…) doesn’t it make more sense if i can save their time for the truly explorative part of this. Plus… I want lots and lots of teachers to be able to do this. Some structured resources are going to make creativity easier? Right?

Concepts of success
So much of our schools system is built around things being finished. Success is having a project done and presenting it. Finishing the paper. Finishing the test and getting a grade. many of these projects will not work OR get finished. The existing social contract does not really favour this. We need to provide a scaffold on which students can build their own sense of success.

All kinds of other feelings

“Educational research says:” you need to give people a clear sense of what success looks like. While I agree that having people understand the contract under which you are using your power as a teacher is important its that word ‘clear’ that gets me into trouble. I like learning to be messy. Like life. When you don’t give people a clear sense of what success like, we enter a whole realm of real (and super important) human feelings that we need a way to address. WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO!!?!?

A worksheet
So I’m working on a worksheet for a core project. (it’s setup for comments. Feel free to go ahead and tell me what you think)

The project i’m designing this around is an elastic launcher

Arduino project unlocked. Attacked by my own children

A post shared by Dave Cormier (@cormierdave) on

It’s a pretty simple project from a tech perspective. At its core is an arduino uno, a button and a servo. Combine code from two into one… ur done.

Project management
The left side of the worksheet is for the project management pieces. What are your goals? How will you know you’ve reached them? What approaches are you going to take to get there. What will you actually do and when?

Put simply, I’m imagining giving this to teachers fully filled out. At least for one version of the project.

Goals (what change are you trying to make)
Main goal
Build an elastic band launcher
Accurate? Beautiful? Easy to use? Sturdy? What kind of launcher is right for you?

Success Measures (how will you be able to measure that change)
If it’s accurate? (i can hit a target five feet away)
Ease of use? (how quickly can people use it?) (Can a five year old use it?)

Approach (what approaches will you use to shape tasks)
Copying a list of actions from an existing model
Working with partners to fill out my task list
Ask for help

tasks and timelines
Process stuff
Getting the thing plugged in
Checking the arduino works (blink)
Checking the button works (button)
Checking the sweep works (sweep)
Building stuff
Trying to combine button and sweep
Building a gun
Getting a base
Attaching the sweeper
Finding a front peg
Attaching both in a reasonable space

The process from here, then, is to have teachers remove the pieces they wish to to allow for more student choice. You might hand out the worksheet with the sub-goal section blank. You might focus on strategy development one day. This approach allows you to develop different kinds of skills and limit the points of complexity on any given project.

Socio Emotional Learning
On the other side of the worksheet is the narrative. How are things going? Am I panicked at the ideation stage? What did I do when I couldn’t get the stupid thing to work? It’s a list of Writing prompts that you may or may not include… but the idea is to create a place for the discussion around the feelings that people are having related to the projects. Are you nervous about building? is it really just boring for you? Do you feel like its a rote process?

Ideation challenges
What if my goal isn’t cool enough?

Success measures
How do i measure things like beauty
How accurate do i need to be?

My partner isn’t doing any work
Aren’t i just copying their work?
How much should i have done before i start working on that?
I can’t get the teacher’s attention
What should i know to ask for help as effectively as possible
Is this too much work? Can i make it easier?

Tasks and timeline
OMG what are they saying? I can’t read this
What are these little lines for on the resistors?
What happens when i can’t get it to work
What materials should i choose?

What I’m getting at
What I’m trying to do with this worksheet is scaffold the classroom experience so that 25 kids can all have some kind of success in the work they’re doing. They could be really successful in their reflection on feeling helpless when faced with this task. Most (all?) should be able to do the initial rote work that will be part of the testing phase for the technology. The tracking of their timelines and tasks will give them success markers and also allow them to return to the work two weeks later and find the place they were at.

Does this still retain enough creativity? Does it still allow learners to learn rhizomatically? Well. It still depends on the teacher. If you do a few like this will you be able to remove the shackles and let them just build? I hope so. Maybe they’ll be able to translate these skills to home and take a more rhizomatic approach there.

What I do know… is that the scaffolding is necessary. It wont be fair to teachers or students without it.