Embracing Uncertainty and the strange problem of habituation

For five years now i’m been trying to come up with a way of summarizing what Rhizomatic learning means to me. It is one thing to have a number of students trapped in a room, or tied to me by a grade, who are forced to listen to me for hours on end until they come to some shared understanding… it is quite another to explain it to someone in the street. “Hey Dave, what’s your presentation about” “well… it’s kinda hard to explain, you see, there are these plants that live undergound… ” and then i go off and start to talk about how i want students to be nomads and ask semi-rhetorical questions like ‘why do we teach‘.

If you have been following along on my five year odyssey, you’ll have been through all these chats and will know that I haven’t always been clear about it. If this is your first time here, and by some strange happenstance you just read those three links, you might still be wondering what exactly i’m on about. The challenge is that the rhizome, and rhizomatic learning is not exactly something i WANT to define. Defining it restricts it, and stops it from being a story that is useful to others – a story they can make their own. At the same time, i’m sure there are things that rhizomatic learning ‘isn’t’. So, given that, I’ve been looking for a way of talking about it that furthers the discussion, but doesn’t go about simply retorting to George’s serious criticisms as expressed last year during my presentation for the change mooc.

Rhizomes then, are effective for describing the structure and form of knowledge and learning – bumpy, lumpy, organic, and adaptive. But they fail to describe how learning occurs, how novelty happens, and how a rhizome becomes more than a replication of itself. Rhizomes can be a helpful way to think about curriculum, to think about how we develop educational content when we are connected (dang networks again) to one another and to information sources. However, beyond the value of describing the form of curriculum as decentralized, adaptive, and organic, I’m unsure what rhizomes contribute to knowledge and learning.

Embracing uncertainty
Rhizomatic learning is about embracing uncertainty. That’s the goal. Getting to the point in oneself, or helping someone else to get to the point where they are able to confront a particular system, challenge, situation whatever not knowing the answer and feeling like they can decide about it. I try to thinking of teaching, then, as mimicking the process of being confronted with uncertain situations, that develop the literacies required to deal with uncertainty. There are alot of good words that go along with this… responsibility, self-reliance, creativity… but I’m starting to think that it all comes down to uncertainty. My students want ‘the right answer’ and i want to to be comfortable with an answer. Not because they shouldn’t work their tails off to come up with a good answer… just that it won’t be ‘the right answer.’

I think lots of things about curriculum construction (or lack thereof), of how we should keep curriculum as the communities that we have, but those are really what I’ve been talking about in other places. If someone were to gather up the excellent work of folks like Tobey Steeves, Mary ann Reilly, the ‘sweedish rhizomatic folks‘, I have no doubt that you could pull together something that someone might call ‘a learning theory’ for rhizomatic learning. Others would disagree. I am not concerned.

[note: ‘the sweedish rhizomatic folks include @BPJoh @tusenpekpinnar @widaeus @DanSvanbom and @perfal]

Uncertainty in our cultures has been covered by convention for many years. The veneer is peeling. To teach someone ‘the way things are’ is only to play power. Uncertainty is something that needs to be in our teaching, in our curriculum and set as a goal for our students.

The strange case of habituation
Now, saying that… there are tons of conventions that we need to have our thoughts so that we can talk about anything. I am currently learning how to make furniture. I have some sense of what people mean by a through mortise and quarter sawn oak. It took me about ten times reading through the same material before i came to understand what those words might refer to… at least enough to understand, for instance, how hard a particular chair might be to make.

I’m starting to think of this as ‘habituation’. Of getting to the point where i have become so worn down on trying to visualize what a thing might mean, that it starts to come without me thinking about it. I have a pavlovian response to that word (sign). I found myself using the word ‘mortise’ in conversation with someone today before I remembered that it was a special word that they might not know. I no longer ‘think about it’. These are the kinds of habituations that are required before and during any learning venture. They are the stuff that discussions of uncertainty is made out of… but they often need to be approached very differently.

I have to say… i’m not a hundred percent convinced on this usage of the word. I mentioned it in our Change11 conversation with Dave Snowden and got quite abruptly brought up short. He responded by talking about how cab drivers in London, after several years of remembering the streets, actually have their brains ‘changed’. I’m not talking about this level of expertise at all… the VAST majority of the things we learn never become something that we do 8 hours a day. In the case of the cab driver… the fact that streets have names, the words used for directions and the idea that times and fares are important are a more apt comparison. That is a more usual level at which we take people into new domains of thinking.

I tend to think of the habituation as best done as ‘cold water immersion’. Dive in… the conventions will become second nature as your body adjusts. You will start to become inured to the shock of the new context. Once that happens, you can bring your literacies to the point where you can prepare yourself for uncertainty.

A note on replication and rhizomes and networks as metaphor (from George’s post)
(this is really a note for myself so that when i look back at this, I’ll remember my response)

I am not troubled by the idea that we ‘replicate ourselves’ through rhizomes. Replicating ourselves is what being alive is all about. The rhizome talks to a ‘way’ of thought not to the content of it. George believes that networks are ‘real things’ in the world. I think they are conventions that we build up that allow us to talk about things. This is an epistemic difference in our views of the world. I think we wander through a sea of conventions, trying to share our experiences with each other. That we find new and more interesting metaphors that better approximate the world around us. That is, for instance, how I see science. Get a theory, keep trying to disprove it. There’s no ‘true’ in that… only current convention. George thinks things exist. For me it’s all metaphor.

The rhizome is uncertainty. That doesn’t mean it ‘isn’t’. It has no start and no ending. It is complex… and as such, it resists definition. As a model for learning, it resists ‘core principles’ or ‘final outcomes’. It is an ongoing process of growing, of surprise and of change.