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

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

The foil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google + Google makes the same mistake on the three questions for tech adoption

Google has just released a new social networking system that allows you to connect with people in your network… you know… social software. This is the latest in a long string of efforts by the smart people at google to try and break into the social market. A company that has been so fantastic at figuring out how to get people to click on their ads and search for things, has always struggled with the social.

Close to ten years ago, I started using my first discussion forum in a classroom and became the computer guy. I was never a computer guy before, i didn’t make any kind of transformation that i could tell… but i became the person people asked about stuff like this. In the time since, my life has moved me to a point where i’m ‘the computer guy’ for a lot of people. I do a fair amount of talking to people about what they can do with technology to help forward their projects… and i have come to realize that there are three questions you need to ask.

Do you have ten hours in your schedule, right now, where you’re thinking “wow, i really wish I had something to do”

This is always my first question. Will you commit TIME to the project. It separates the dreamers from the people who are actually willing to commit to a new project. Most projects, tech or otherwise, are mired in details that need to be sorted out in order for them to get off the ground and stay there. The technology is, for the most part, just a question of trial and error. You need to dig into it for a while, then it clears up. But you need to commit the time to it. And most people don’t have piles of time lying around that they are looking to give away. Which leads me to my second question

Are you willing to figure this out for yourself?

Faithful readers of this blog (are there faithful readers of this blog?) will know that I think of good learning as a messy process. You need to wander around an idea and get a sense of it. Figure out what it looks like. See where it stretches and where it falls down. You need to figure it out for yourself. This is true of tech as well. Following a list of instructions or watching a video is NOT going to help you when things fall apart. *TRAINING* can be nice and everything, but it’s not going to allow you to succeed with your own ideas. It can be a stepping stone, but, at some point, you need to dig in on your own.

Are you willing to train everyone else?

There are very few systems that explain themselves. Twitter is one. It’s a brilliant system that allows you to go to a single place, do one job, and walk away from it. This is what i’ve always thought allowed google to win the search engine wars. You didn’t need to understand google to use it. Most people don’t want to understand most things in order to use them. Many people are willing to understand some things… but probably not many. It’s like thinking about the mechanics of a car while you’re driving it, it’s distracting and might get you killed. Just drive the car. If you’re running a project, you have to be able to set things up so that most people can use your project without thinking about it.

What’s all this have to do with Google +?
I remember when google wave came out. It was awesome. Nothing short of a revolution in the way that you could communicate. I was playing with many of best technical people i know… and we struggled to get it. I think we came close a few times… but we struggled. We couldn’t fit it in our existing project timelines, it didn’t do work more efficiently than google docs. But you needed to put that ten hours in to get a feel for it. You had to be willing to ‘understand’ it. And, worse, i would need to teach people how to use it in order to be able to do a project with them. And, finally, as Harold Jarche just said on twitter… show me the value. It was exactly the kind of awesome thing that people aren’t very much interested in.

In its long journey towards social media supremacy (which i figure they’ll get someday) google seems to have misunderstood the very thing that made them successful. If I were to guess, I would say that they believe that their algorithms were a huge part of their success in the search engine battles. I would posit that it was the simplicity. You don’t need to understand google to use it. You don’t need any time investment… ask any librarian how they feel about most people’s ‘search skills’. And you can just send it along to your best friend, and they can use it to. (my mom, on a weekly basis, says “why don’t you just check that up on the googles Dave, they’ll know the answer”)

With google+ we have something far simpler than wave. It allows me to pull together my networks, allows a nifty video conferencing feature and to sort people according to who they are in my life. But who’s going to use them. I might. Some of my friends might.

  1. Will they carve the time out of their schedule to understand it?
  2. Will they be willing to learn it themselves?
  3. Will they be willing to teach others how to use it?

The first time i try to get my boss, or friend, or mom to use it… will it be good enough that i’ll want to try and convince them to figure it out? I doubt it.

Facebook was, when it came out, software that I hated. It was ugly and confusing… but it had one thing going for it – human nature. Grandparents wanted to see grandkids, people wanted to know if their old flame from high school was fat, and the loneliness that is so much a part of the human condition needed an outlet. What human condition is PLUS going to capitalize on? I already have a place for kid pictures, i’ve seen the pics of my high school flame, and I have all you folks to connect to (as well as some other nice ones here in charlottetown).

Google+ is cool. But i don’t think its cool enough to get people to put the time into figuring it out. It doesn’t have the leverage. As @mjmontagne just said on twitter, it might threaten salesforce… but not facebook. As part of the google suite? maybe. But i don’t think that’s what it was built for.

It’s not about how cool the technology is… it’s about humans. And I don’t understand why lots of humans would choose to use it.