Explaining Rhizomatic Learning to my five year old.

I was challenged by Dean @shareski today on twitter. I’ve decided to believe 🙂 that he honestly just wants a clearer explanation on what rhizomatic learning is… so he posted the Einstein Challenge

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
? Albert Einstein

I’m going to try and do him one better, I’m going to write an open letter to my boy… Oscar, who is five.
This is him.

This is also him… from our podcast about dinosaurs. (i swear he really does know all these words…)

Hi Oscar,

I want to talk to you about charlottetownosaurus #3. I think you did a wicked job of explaining what we know about dinosaurs. I really enjoyed doing the examination of the dinosaurs with you… and am really hoping we can get to number 4 sometime this week. We did ramphoryncus, metriacanthosaurus and pteradactylus. I loved it so much I watched it for a third time today.

There’s something about your dad’s part in Charlottetownosaurus that has been bothering me buddy, and I want to talk to you about it. My part was mostly about asking questions… but i don’t think i did the best job I could. You know how we looked really closely at the dinosaurs to see what we could observe about their features – And we discovered that one Metriacanthosaurus had three toes and one had five? Daddy said “what’s wrong with the [five toed] dinosaur”? You gave a great answer… but i don’t think it was a good question.

I don’t think that’s a good way of thinking about it. We know what the books say about dinosaurs right? We have SIX dino-encyclopedias. And we compared our dinosaurs to those books and to the internet and we found our that metriacanthosaurus was a theropod and, therefore, had three toes. The five toed one was ‘false’. But you know the older books… how they talk about brontosauruses and about three fingered tyranosauruses? Our ideas about things change… we get more evidence… and we get a new hypothesis.

When daddy said “what is wrong with those dinosaurs” what daddy should have said was “How are those dinosaurs different from what we know about them”?

Here’s the problem. Did we talk any more about those dinosaurs after we said “wrong”? Nope. We just put them aside, and moved on. And picked up the next one and said “wrong/right” about it too.

What if I’d asked a different question… like “what would a five toed metriacanthosaurus be like?”

We could have kept talking. Made a new story… and still found out more about how toes are made, the difference between a theropod and an animal with five toes. We could have kept moving… kept talking, kept figuring stuff out.

Instead, daddy decided it would make for an easier show if we just talked about ‘right dinosaurs’ and ‘false dinosaurs’. My bad buddy. I’ll do better next time.

The problem is I should know better. All of the work you see daddy typing into the computer, when i go on trips or when i’m chatting with people on skype… this is what i tell them. We shouldn’t decide beforehand what we’re going to learn. We shouldn’t decide what’s ‘right or wrong or false’ just to make it easier. When we do that… we stop having fun. We stop making stuff up. And we stop creating.

You know those nasty weeds you helped me with in the flower garden? The ones you use the cutters to cut last summer? Those are a special kind of plant… just like the big ones in the backyard that daddy is always digging out…

They’re special because of the way that they spread, because of how hard they are to get rid of. You can pull the tops off them, you can dig down with a shovel like daddy does, but it doesn’t matter… the tiniest piece left in the ground will let it grow back. It’s not like a tree… You’ve seen daddy cut a tree… Is it going to grow back? Yeah… not so much. Those rhizome plants though… they just keep growing and spreading. (that’s what people call them… rhizomes. It’s the part of the plant that helps it make new plants)

That tree, that’s the way that daddy was asking you questions about the dinosaurs. Single ‘false’ questions that just ended when we were done. Daddy decided what would be easier, or what would make sense, and then asked you that question. Those questions ended the conversation. What daddy should have done was taken a lesson from those nasty weeds, follow the toes! Keep moving… follow the story. Pretty hard to stop that, we’d probably still be talking about the journey of the five toes metriacanthosaurus. You got to show that you knew the answer… but we didn’t learn anything new.

Daddy will try harder buddy. That dinosaur box is like our flower garden. We just need to fill it with rhizomes and our stories will never end.


I’ll tell oscar this story tomorrow… we’ll see what he says.

Rhizomatic learning – Response for day 2 and 3

I knew i wouldn’t get it done every night… but here is the second attempt at pulling together some threads of feedback and organizing them here for later. (see my intro post if you don’t know what i’m talking about)

A carving Bon brought back from her 2 years in the arctic

A metaphor too far
Terry Anderson layed a pretty heavy critique on the session from yesterday and it falls into three parts all three of which seem to position rhizomatic education and the people in the discussion as people OPPOSED to us having an education system. I don’t think there’s a single person taking time our of their day in that discussion when they could be doing anything else in the world who aren’t DESPERATELY PASSIONATELY devoted to the idea of learning, to having some kind of education system and to education as a concept.

In his critique is of the negative responses to the question “Why do we educate students?”. He notes that there were no responses that said ‘for learning’. I will note that many people in the session suggested that were positive: for innovation, creativity… stuff like that. Here is a link to the slide if you would like to make your own judgement. We were trying to get to the reason behind it… the thing that drives the ‘kinds’ of things we teach. It’s entirely possible that in doing so… we were focusing too much on the negative. A good lesson for all of us… focusing on the negative does not forward a discussion.

Educating for Nomads was being posited as a goal FOR THE EDUCATION SYSTEM

That does leave us with the unanswered question as to why such an eminently experienced, intelligent educator got the impression that we didn’t care about education. I don’t know.

George – Rhizomes, back to basics

In his back to basics post, George challenges me to help him understand why the rhizome metaphor is useful. He describes what he sees as an existing division between formal/informal and facilitated/student driven learning and asks “how is it more than this?” Now that… is a good question.

I see Formal learning is something bound tightly to objectives, outcomes and (power) systems. Informal learning not so much… I see informal learning as the stuff i learn from my buddies. It was this ‘stuff i learn from my buddies’ that had me start this whole rhizomatic thing in the first place as i was trying to understand how the informal community of practice that i was in was responsible for so much of my learning. And, more importantly, how i could devise a way to do it on purpose.

It’s super easy to learn when you find just the right people at just the right place. This, it seems, doesn’t happen everyday… so i set out to try and find a way to explain it so i could have some theory to back up what i was trying to do in the classroom… replicate the ‘learn from your buddies’ style of teaching.

The conclusion that i came to, through reading Deleuze and his rhizome metaphor, was that i was looking at the whole thing backwards. I was thinking that courses were about CONTENT and what i was trying to do was bring people together with the content. What the rhizome metaphor is meant to impart is that the learning process is rhizomatic, it moves, shift, sprouts at different times and places (and different for different people). It’s many. I used to try and restrict the knowledge in a given field so i offered fewer options to my students… now i do the opposite. By starting without a set curriculum, by thinking of the learning process (and by extension the content) as growing OUT of the learning process, i offered up all the options, the ways of seeing things to my students… allowing them to find their own paths… (to be nomads).

This, i would argue, is what the rest of life is like. Why should we teach any other way?

Rhizomes and collonization
Two excellent posts one from one of my favourite online people and the other from my favourite person. One i’ve never met face to face and one i’ve lived with for 10 years. I won’t try to restate what either of them say, but rather try and entice you to read their blog posts with a snippet from them

For instance, the metaphor of the rhizome is a fine antidote to our tendency toward reductionism. This reductionism lies in the background of the interviewers’ attempts to define rhizomatic learning, I think. Like most of us, they want a handy nugget that says, “Oh, yes, that is rhizomatic learning.” The metaphor of the rhizome, however, helps us to see that reductionism is always a fiction. No thing can ever actually be reduced to a discrete thing, or not in reality. We can think of ourselves as discrete and alone in the Universe, a train of thought that usually leads to all sorts of misery and suffering, but none of us are discrete, however convenient or persuasive the reductionist fiction might be. Keith Hamon http://idst-2215.blogspot.com/2011/11/change11-defining-rhizome.html

and this one

We live in a culture and time where our minds are colonized by education. Most particularly, by education as a system. We go to school, almost all of us, and are taught from an extraordinarily young age that school equates with learning. Our cultural concepts of education and learning are intrinsically interwoven with notions of schooling. Bonnie Stewart http://theory.cribchronicles.com/2011/11/09/the-rhizomatic-learning-lens-what-rhizomes-are-good-for/

Broad responses from me
It’s been an incredible few days of learning for me. I’ve heard from many thoughtful voices on ideas i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about… some supportive, some critical all well thought out and focused. I really appreciate the time and effort people have taken to interact with the subject and with me.

There are tons of other cool blog posts and links out there… but i trust you have other ways of finding them. Search for the hashtag on google, follow the daily, follow the tag on twitter, join the Facebook page. There is little that is more rhizomatic than a MOOC 🙂

Rhizomatic Learning – Responses for day 1.

So I’m facilitating this week of discussion on some stuff i’ve been talking about… and people are talking back. This openness stuff is for the birds 😛

Wow. some kind of a day. I make no promises of being able to do this all this week… but i’m going to try. I know if i don’t make some comments about stuff right away, I will lose it. And there have been some amazing things created yesterday and today. (don’t know what i’m talking about? I’m fascilitating an open course this week… see the course page)

Giulia Forsythe (and cogdog)
First nod has to go to the breathtaking bit of work pulled together by Giulia Forsythe. If you ignore her overly kind bio, you’ll see a stunning piece of artwork describing her feelings about rhizomatic learning. She’s challenged people to add a new soundtrack.. AND Cogdog took her up on it. If you’re unfamiliar with what a ‘remix’ is… this will clear that up for you. I’m working on my own overlay for Giulia’s work which i hope to have done by the end of the week… but i’d like to address something in Cogdog’s video.

Roots vs. Rhizomes.
When Deleuze and Guattari chose the ‘rhizome’, and the reason i find it appealing, is that it is always a multiple. There is no ‘plant’ (singular) or tree or some single entity that starts and ends. No roots of a tree that serve that single tree. A rhizome moves and expands twists and turns, throws down roots and pushes up shoots as the context allows. When you look at a patch of japanese knotweed or aspen… you are seeing something that is many. I think this distinction is important 🙂

Several comments in yesterday’s post inquired after ‘motivation’ in rhizomatic learning. What encourages the learner through the process… what gets them to engage? This is certainly a challenge. Of course, its a challenge for any model. The big obstacle, i think, is that most students are accustomed to an entirely different model. Some general comments

  1. ‘successful/good’ students have decided, in many cases, that their motivation is ‘doing things right’. My classes are a struggle for those students.
  2. In the best cases, motivation is something that is part of the learning process. It is the REASON the student is there… but this is not usually the case.
  3. I’ve found that rhizomatic learning motivates those not motivated by ‘doing it the right way’.

Facts Facts Facts
suifaijohnmak wrote a very interesting, penetrating response to rhizomatic learning. There is a point at which we started talking about facts… and i have funny feelings about facts.

Basically… i don’t believe in them. I know that’s an odd statement… but i mean it directly. I don’t BELIEVE in them. I don’t think that the things we point to as simple components “WWII started in 1939” or “Two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen” exist on their own. Implicit in them is a whole bunch of things unsaid. What does it mean to start a war? War for whom? Does it make sense to call it a World War? Do we actually understand what is happening inside an atom? etc…

Yes. They are good shorthands for everyday conversation. Getting students to be able to repeat this ‘facts’ allows them to be part of a discussion that could allow actual learning.

Community vs. Peer Review
There were a few comments about the validity of ‘just getting stuff from the community’. Many, many people in my community get their research peer-reviewed. Some of them also apply equivalent rigour to the work that they post on their blog. Some of their blogs are reviewed (mine certainly is toughly enough by times) by the same people who do the peer reviewing for journals… except that it is done in public. ALL KNOWLEDGE is created by people. Saying that you are getting your curriculum from the community doesn’t mean, in any way, that what you’re working from has less rigour.

Challenge in rhizomatic learning
A couple of comments about this… which i can’t seem to find right now. The model breeds challenge… lots of it. Come out to see the event tomorrow…

I love the title of this blog. Music for deckchairs. A nice (if tangled) set of comments on the reality of the standards agenda and how this conflicts with rhizomatic learning. Yes. There are realities that we are bound by… this is how i handled grading during the last ‘graded version’ of a course like this.

I read lots of interesting posts today, many of which i did not do a good job keeping track of… sorry for those folks who didn’t get cited here. I’m sure there are some i didn’t read, but there were lots that i read and pulled together for these responses… lets see what tomorrow brings.

Rhizomatic Learning – Why we teach?

It’s my week at #change11. My topic? Rhizomatic Learning.

Rhizomatic learning is a way of thinking about learning based on ideas described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in a thousand plateaus. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-relicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process. I wrote my first article on the topic ‘rhizomatic education: community as curriculum’ in an article I wrote in 2008.

I’ve been talking about rhizomes and learning for about five years now. I have spent the better part of the last three months trying to collect all those thoughts together and organize them ‘properly.’ The problem with that, of course, is that the whole idea of rhizomatic learning is to acknowledge that learners come from different contexts, that they need different things, and that presuming you know what those things are is like believing in magic. It is a commitment to multiple paths. Organizing a conversation, a course, a meeting or anything else to be rhizomatic involves creating a context, maybe some boundaries, within which a conversation can grow. I’m going to try and create some context for a conversation about rhizomatic learning by offering four questions about education… and explaining how i’ve tried to answer them with this theory.

  • Why do we teach?
  • What does successful learning look like?
  • What does a successful learner look like?
  • How do we structure successful learning?

Why do we teach?
I refuse to accept that my role as a teacher is to take the knowledge in my head and put it in someone else’s. That would make for a pretty limited world :). Why then do we teach? Are we passing on social mores? I want my students to know more than me at the end of my course. I want them to make connections i would never make. I want them to be prepared to change. I think having a set curriculum of things people are supposed to know encourages passivity. I don’t want that. We should not be preparing people for factories. I teach to try and organize people’s learning journeys… to create a context for them to learn in.

What does successful learning look like?

the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectible, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 21)

It is that map that I think successful learning looks like. Not a series of remembered ideas, reproduced for testing, and quickly forgotten. But something flexible that is already integrated with the other things a learner knows. Most things that we value ‘knowing’ are not things that are easily pointed to. Knowing is a long process of becoming (think of it in the sense of ‘becoming an expert’) where you actually change the way you perceive the world based on new understandings. You change and grow as new learning becomes part of the things you know.

Sounds a bit like networked learning…? The rhizome is, in a manner of speaking, a kind of network. It’s just a very messy, unpredictable network that isn’t bounded and grows and spreads in strange ways. As a model for knowledge, our computer idea of networks, all tidy dots connected to tidy lines, gives us a false sense of completeness.

What does a successful learner look like?
In a recent blog post i tried to offer three visions for ‘what education is for’ to help provide a departure point for discussion. Workers take accepted knowledge and store it for future reference. They accept that things are true and act accordingly. The soldier acquires more knowledge and becomes responsible for deciding what things are going to be true. The nomads make decisions for themselves. They gather what they need for their own path. I think we should be hoping for nomads.

Nomads have the ability to learn rhizomatically, to ‘self-reproduce’, to grow and change ideas as they explore new contexts. They are not looking for ‘the accepted way’, they are not looking to receive instructions, but rather to create.

How do we structure successful learning?
Establish a context
As we approach any new endeavour, we need to understand how we can speak about it. We need to learn the language, our timetables… the shortcuts that allow us to be part of a conversation. This goes into our memory. This is good. It helps us see the local context. It is not what i think of as learning… it is one of the building blocks of learning. I think of this as an open syllabus.

Community Curriculum
Gone are the days where we need to painstakingly collect information, package it up in time to send it to the printers and await the return. A curriculum for a course is something that can be created in time, while a course is happening. The syllabus becomes a garden space, a context setting within which learning can happen and the curriculum is the things that grows there. The tidiest example of this I’ve done are live slides which attempt to give room for the learners to create slides for a presentation.

As an activity for this week I’d like you to take a piece of your own practice and think on it rhizomatically. Does it mesh with what I’ve described here? Are there goals that you want to accomplish that would not be served by a rhizomatic approach? Is there a way to change what you are doing to make it more rhizomatic? What impact would that have? Good? Bad?

I need not tell anyone that they are free to critique these ideas, they are in the open, and critique is one of the biggest reason that I post my ideas. So please, critique away.

I am one of many who found Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the ‘rhizome’ as a useful framework for talking about learning, education and what it is to know. Appropriately, I suppose, there is no ‘rhizomatic learning’ that you can cite and define specifically. You could take Maryanne’s view or like Glynis Cousin use it to critique the VLE or delve into this interesting series of journal articles from 2004. I should probably apologize to these scholars for not having cited their work… but, to be honest, i didn’t know about them until sometime this summer and I have been exploring the rhizome since 2005. For those of you interested in broader exploration of Deleuze in education, google is your friend. I have none of those smart people to blame for these ideas… it’s all me borrowing and twisting some of the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari, and, really, from all my network, for my own ends. 🙂

Workers, soldiers or nomads – what does the Gates Foundation want from our education system?

This is the first draft of the thinking I’ve been doing lately, it draws on a recent article from the gates foundation about learning being like working. It also relies very heavily on the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, particularly through a thousand plateaus.

The why of education should be the first question that we answer in any discussion in the field. The answer to the ‘why of education’ question should be debated, mulled and hammered, on and on, and be at the centre of the work that we do. Sadly, it seems to be very difficult to say anything about “what learning is” and “why we educate our children”. We tend to end up saying something like the following

  • We are preparing our students for the future
  • We need to get them ready for university
  • We are trying to make good citizens for our society
  • We are trying to instill cultural values
  • We are trying to teach them to learn

There are any number of ways to say this, and, by saying it, say nothing. These answers have content, maybe, for the people saying them, but there’s no way for me to know what you mean. What are the cultural values you’d like to pass on? Is it likely that a vast majority of people are going to want to pass on those particular values? What would a good citizen do in our society? Are they law abiding or do they fight injustice? I’d like to think that they are both, but it’s pretty tough to create a system that both trains people to do what they are told and to also critically assess their culture.

I’m going to propose three different outcomes from an education system. They are, of course, meant to be exemplars. Any person would likely have bits of each, but the question is, which is the one that we value the most. It is easy to say that we want to have our children to ‘have their own minds’ but harder when confronted by uneaten broccoli. We want them to have their own minds, but come to the conclusions that we want them to come to. This is a subtle business. For now lets accept that we have many different parts and look at the landscape that our three outcomes live in.

Memory is the representation of the things that we ‘know’ as a culture. It is a repetition of the patters that we have established, the rules that we have made the ‘way things are done’. It is the status quo.

The worker
The worker was the original goal of the public education system. How can we create a workforce that will show up to work on time, accept tasks and complete them. The worker needs to remember things without understanding them. They need press a button at 2:15pm. They don’t need to know what happens when the button is pushed. They just need to press it.

The worker is easy to measure. You develop expectations and then you ensure that people can meet those expectations. This is one of the outcomes of the Gates vision of education.

At Microsoft, we believed in giving our employees the best chance to succeed, and then we insisted on success. We measured excellence, rewarded those who achieved it and were candid with those who did not.

Learning for a worker is about compliance. Assessment is an assessment of compliance. The worker collects facts and information that it can then trade with other workers. Our education system currently does a very good job of creating workers.

The soldier
In order to create this kind of model, where the employer (or teacher) decide what excellence means, and then measure someone against it, you need a separate class of people who are responsible for creating the measurements. The temptation here is to call those people ‘managers’ but i’m calling them soldiers here for a specific reason. They are the defenders of memory. They are the ones who establish what things we currently know that the worker should remember, and then establish the system by which we will measure that knowing.

They are the ‘we’ from the quote above. They decide which parts of the past will be valued. One of the sad side effects of this is that the soldiers really can decide what they want to have valued. There are any number of cases where we see this in curriculum now, where we are ‘valuing’ things like intelligent design as science.

Soldiers defend the status quo. They check for compliance. When you learn the rules and why they are used, you move from worker to soldier. These people KNOW MORE. We have a number of paths through our education system where you can learn enough to be someone who can check for compliance.

The nomad is trying to do what I call ‘learning’. Not the recalling of facts, the knowing of things or the complying with given objectives, but getting beyond those things. Learning for the nomad is the point where the steps in a process go away. Think of parallel parking. If you think of the steps, perform them one at a time, you almost inevitably end up on the sidewalk. There is a point where you stop thinking of facts or steps and understand the act.

It is what Wynton Marsalis calls ‘being the thing itself’. It is the difference between playing a succession of notes, thinking of one after the other, and playing music.

In order to create an educational system that allows for nomads we can’t measure for a prescribed outcome. The point at which a new idea (even if it’s only new to that person) forms is going to be different for each nomad. This is about encouraging creativity over compliance.

Rhizomatic learning
Is an educational model whereby we create an ecosystem where nomads can learn(create). Where facts and data and knowledge and connection are pulled together in order to allow the nomad to create their own understanding. It is designed for a world where there aren’t ‘things people should know’ but rather ‘new connections to be made’. The knowing of things is there, but it is not the thing of importance.

If we want a society of innovators, of creatives, we can’t think of success as an act of compliance. Success is a break from the past. A new idea, a new context, a new vision.

This is what i want. From what i’ve read from the Gates foundation, they seem to want better workers. What i find so confusing, is that this was not the path that Gates himself took. He was (and maybe still is) a nomad.

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.

MOOCs as ecologies – or – why i work on MOOCs

Finally a few minutes with me putting down my new guitar attachment, the cottage plans and the general fun of having a two and a five year old and a partner doing her phd to talk about some of the interesting work coming up. I haven’t been engaged in much of the debate around where the ‘massive open online course’s (MOOCs) and am going to try to not get too chippy here. Actually, I’ll get that out of the way in the pre-amble.

  1. No. MOOCs wont do everything. I would never do an ‘academic writing’ mooc, nor would i do one for beginning singing. Some things need lots of feedback and guidance because there’s a very well established “RIGHT WAY” that you should understand before you go breaking the rules.
  2. I, at least, don’t know what i’m doing yet (assuming i ever will) with MOOCs. Criticizing the concept because i haven’t done it right yet is like hating “friend of the devil” because you heard me play it on the guitar.

So what are we trying to do when we teach?
In my last post I was talking a little about how the learning experience is heavily impacted by how we feel about knowledge. I used the example of the new food plate (which has replace the food pyramid) for two reasons. First, it shows how the things we would like to think of as ‘true’ tend to change over time. It’s also a really good example of how we tend to ‘bureaucratize’ what we know in order to be able to market it. We all know that there are people who are vegetarian, who can’t eat wheat or milk, or who, for some reason or other, don’t fit into that generalization about food. There is a vast, wide ranging field of opinions around food and eating, and the food plate represents the a sort of broad concession. And while I agree that following the ‘food plate’ is better than eating chips and soda for breakfast, it doesn’t exactly invest us with the power to make our own decisions does it?

So what are we trying to do when we teach?

A. Are we trying to pass along the arcane habits of academic writing or do, re, me… these are things that have accepted standards, the knowing of which is necessary for some things. This is accepted knowledge we can point to.
B. Are we trying to encourage people to come to know something… about themselves, about the world. This is the kind of thing that will be different for everyone.
C. Are we trying to do B by acting like it’s an A thing? Are we trying to have people come to know about themselves or the world, to have an opinion or get their mind around a concept by pretending that there is a ‘true’ way to do it.

To go back to our food plate example. The food plate is an A type piece of knowledge. It says ‘eat this way’. I, however, would say that there is no ‘right way’ to eat. Different things work for different people. We all have different bodies, different budgets, different families, different lifestyles and different climates… all these things impact what we should, can and will eat. Eating is, by our chart here, a very B type activity. What the government can’t do, though, is have that ‘tell me about yourself’ conversation with every single person, so they resort to the C approach, they shove some of what we know into a chart and send it out across the country… into schools. We take the network of knowledge, shove it into a graphic, and send it out. This also makes things much easier to assess whether someone ‘knows how to eat”… but i’ll leave that to my next blog post.

My first post on ecologies for learning comes is from 2007. In it i describe how a coffee shop that i spent alot of time in at university ended up being the place where i learned the most. I was thinking of that coffee shop as a metaphor for Edtechtalk, which, six years in, continues to be an ecology in which teachers come to learn every week about themselves, about others and about how people feel about issues and technologies in the field of education. It is a place where that B style learning takes place. There are many people in those discussions who are considered experts and others with very little experience, but there is no ‘right way’ of what and how to learn established there. It’s messy and sometimes difficult and I can’t imagine how you would measure it, but most people agree that they learn lots.

And it’s a community. I can’t just tell it what to do. I can’t say “look, I want to focus on this particular topic over here for the next ten weeks in order to further my understanding of that field.” It resists being directed not out of spite, but just because it’s not that kind of thing. Imagine trying to tell all of your friends that instead of heading to the movies, you’d like them to sit around for six hours and read Foucault. For ten weeks. Well… maybe your friends, but i don’t think i could get away with that here… So… MOOCs

There are times when you want to focus on a certain thing and when other people want to learn about a certain thing. This is why we have schools and courses and stuff. There is a demand to learn something, and other people fulfill that demand. The problem is… I want things to stay like they do with edtechtalk. I want people to be able to come to the ‘course’ and get out of it what they want to get out of it, and possibly come to conclusions very different from mine. But, at the same time, I want to keep on the topic long enough to understand how i feel about it.

During our PLENK2010 course last year, this is exactly what happened. After about five weeks of writing blog posts, I finally understand how I felt about the idea of “personal learning environments“. As you can tell from the comments in the blog post and the ones previous to it… not everyone agreed with me. And that’s just as it should be… for most things.

MOOCs provide an ecology for sustained engagement with a topic without resorting to bureaucratizing knowledge

That’s only for experience learners
In two blog posts… David Wiley positions the challenges to MOOCs very nicely here and here. I encourage you to see George Siemens’ response over on his connectivism blog… I am only going to take up one part of David’s comments. David seems to be suggesting that it is the job of an teacher to both present a structured view of a domain or field AND present it in the way that bear the most resemblance to an INDIVIDUAL learners existing knowledge network. In his words…

Hiding inside the word instruction is structure. This is what teachers are supposed to do, I believe – present a structured view of a domain. Even though there is more than one way to invision the structure of the network, that doesn’t mean that novices are ready to deal with that level of abstraction right away. They need a help. A great teacher is someone who manages to present the view of the structure which bears the closest resemblance to a learner’s existing knowledge network.

This could only be possible if… 1. Every learner had the same knowledge network (or, say, life) 2. The teacher had an unlimited amount of time to figure out what each individual learner had going on in their head (assuming this is even possible) 3. The thing that people needed to know was very easy to pin down.

I would contend that as we can’t modify the learner, or the time, what we do is MAKE the knowledge easy to pin down… and break it in the process.

If the MOOC challenges anything, it challenges the idea that a teacher can decide what people need to know, how much they currently know and what they should get out of the learning process. You can’t. You just can’t do it, not consistently, not over time, not for the majority of your students, not for millions of teachers. The solution presented by the MOOC is that the learner should begin to take control of how and what they are to learn.

I don’t think that the MOOC favours “sufficiently prepared” learners. It actually really irritates and confuses lots and lots of people who are considered VERY prepared learners. And, well, i guess I’ll find out how that works out when we do our “MOOC on Basic Skills for university” in the fall. It’s specifically intended for the people I think David is talking about. Success in a university is partially about knowing what some things mean (see the videos we’re making). They need to know what a syllabus is, what a professor is, what social contract they are getting into. But the path of their success is something that will be very individualized. I can’t tell 30 people, at one time, what is going to make them the most successful. There are broad generalizations that are helpful… going to class is better than not going to class… but they really need to find their own strategy.

The learner needs to develop their own path. MOOCs, hopefully, provide enough structure, an ecology even, in which they can do that. At least… that’s what I’m trying to do.

Coming to know – the path of the rhizome

A couple of weeks ago google told me this week that someone had cited my 2008 ‘Rhizomatic Education‘ article. It was my first academically published article and, looking back at it now, I can see some of the embers of the ideas that i’ve been mulling around lately. I wrote the article at the prompting of two of my favourite sparing partners online – @gsiemens and @lawrie. They are both central nodes in my online network and people I am always very happy to see when i run into them, online or off. They both encouraged me to take ‘that rhizome idea’ and crystallize it using the academic publishing mill. Both as a means of putting my own stamp on it (though, admittedly, lots of other people have done very interesting things with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome) but also in an effort to put some serious thinking into something that i had been babbling to people about for a while. It was always meant to be a first volley, a chance to set some ground work for talking about what it means to come to know.

This week i read the blog of a kindred spirit, Mary Ann Reilly, who’s post opens like this

For several years now, I have been considering how the rhizome might function as a metaphor for learning and a model for education. I tend to agree with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (2002) who in writing about the tree as the long standing metaphor for knowledge and learning said, “We’re tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They’ve made us suffer too much” (p. 15).

In their stead, Deleuze and Guattari offer the rhizome. Rhizome? Yes. You know rhizomes: think ginger. A rhizome is the horizontal stem of a plant, usually found underground. From the plant’s nodes, it sends out roots and shoots. The rhizome is all about middles. The tree is a symbol of hierarchy.

Her rhizomatic classroom is going to be a scary place for many… it requires leaving the students to make a great many decisions that could, under the wrong circumstances, exacerbate problems of discipline, socio-economic disparity, literacies… if not handled just so. Simply put… it sounds exhausting. “In the rhizomatic classroom, thinking resembles the tangle of roots and shoots, both broken and whole. Problem framing and decision-making rest with all learners: teachers and students. ” And, at the same time, I wish Oscar and Posey were in that classroom. And it describes the way i teach. Trust me… lots of people find it frustrating.

Turn the button with your left hand
Hello, my name is Joe
I have a wife and a dog and a family
I work (all day) in the button factory
One day, my boss came up to me and said,
“Hey Joe, are you busy?”
I said, “No, heck no!”
“Then do this…”[turn this button with your left hand] link

This is the bleakest view of what we call education. It is a way in which we indoctrinate future generations with the ideas, rules and truths of the past. We take the things that we ‘know’ and we hand them, like tasks on a giant machine, off to students to ‘do’. It is a cold and marrowless view of the world, destined to improve test scores and kill creativity.

A Rhizomatic view of knowledge is inherently anti-hierarchal. It doesn’t allow to tell someone else what to know, nor does it like being in the position where the ‘right way’ established by someone else can be identified. The machine from our Joe model doesn’t exist. There is no giant platform upon which we can simply move buttons or secret special information, the knowing of which makes us knowers. There is only us, connected, and the tenuous bits of knowing that shoot off in various directions.

food plateThe machine way of knowing is, to me, just a shorthand we made up. Its a framework for talking about the world, the same way that language is. And it can be a useful framework… if you’re trying to pass along a simple piece of information. A good example of that might be the food plate. It’s replaced the ‘food pyramid’ as the new, true way of eating. It is the new ‘knowing’ from the powers that be. “They” have told us that, really, there was a bit more dairy maybe in that earlier ‘pyramid’ and the ‘plate’ metaphor is way more ‘eating like’. This is the ‘theory state’ of all the things we know. It’s a combination of all the different ideas published in journals by real people, an intersection of the different rhizomes of knowledge shooting off from a industry. It doesn’t work for the lactose intolerant, for the glucose intolerant, doesn’t make sense to the paleos, or the vegans… but it’s still ‘right’. Take a majority view, distill it to a picture that can spread the word that chips and pop do not a dinner make, and you’ve got something you can teach.

(and, of course, pyramids are tough to clean)

Sometimes the plate can be a nice starting point. An introduction to the language of knowledge in a given field. And, maybe most importantly, it’s MUCH much easier to test. The rhizome part, the underneath connection of the ideas of all those researchers, the voices of those who can’t or won’t comply with the majority view… that lies underneath. It resists being defined, is almost impossible to test for, and like the damn japanese knotweed in my back yard, impossible to get rid of.

The challenge
I’ve been trying to get to the third of my rhizome articles for over a year now. I’ve been trying to distill the balance between certified knowledge and rhizomatic knowledge so that i can talk about what it would really mean to teach this way. It is, essentially, the difference between ‘food plate’ and the subtleties of diet. People need to understand the underlying language of an industry before they can engage in a debate about varying degrees to which given ideas are useful. And, at the same time, i think its silly to wait until people have gotten a doctorate before we reward them for thinking that way.

In the process of coming to know… we need to have some sense of what the words are… and then we need to be able to follow the paths that the rhizomes have made. You can start at the food plate… and then follow down the paths of knowing to a discovery of the fact that you feel awful because you are glucose intolerant. Or, as @robpatrob has discovered for himself, the paleo diet.

I want my kids on the coming to know path… to understand the surface and dive in after the messiness underneath. What i don’t know, is how to make an education system look like that.

Syllabus – Educational Technology and the Adult Learner ed366

The term ‘educational technology’ is a difficult one to pin down. There are some who would argue that every tool we use, from a ballpoint pen to an electronic whiteboard, is an educational technology. Others strive to pin down best practices with choice technologies and advocate for this or that brand of technology enhanced pedagogy as scientifically proven to better the learning process in some way. Some people think that social networking is faddish, or, worse, a sign of the decline of our civilization. Others will argue that if we do not bring it into our classrooms we are doing our students a disservice and becoming increasingly out of date.

As an educator working on such slippery foundations, I have taken the position that all these things are true. Social networking is both faddish and dangerous as well as critical to moving forward. Our tools are both simply a reflection of the same tools and methods of millennia and complex mechanisms fraught with implicit pedagogy. This course takes all opinions on education and technology as valid and mixes them together, to be interpreted by our own class as well as being validated by a wider network of educators.

This method, of taking all ideas and having them peer reviewed by a wide network of peers, is hardly revolutionary. The big difference in how it is approached in this course, is how quickly that reviewing is done, the degree to which certainty is required (or even desired) and the degree to which a given perspective can be personalized. The curriculum of this course will be made by, and I would say the curriculum of this course IS the people that will be engaged in it. That will include me as the facilitator, the learners who have chosen to take it, as well as a wider network of educators drawn from my own community and hopefully found and added by the students over the two weeks of the course.

Students taking this course come from a wide variety of contexts. Some will be classroom teachers from the k-12 system, some trainers in the corporate world or faculty members at a university. The needs and requirements of different participants will not be the same and learners in the course will not be required to come out of the course with the same thing.

Student success in this course will be measured by how well a student has planned for their own context. Students will be assessed on three specific ‘projects’ (for lack of a better word), each reflecting the work that they have done in trying to take the concepts, the examples, the activities and the reflections of this course.

30% – Learning network plan
Throughout the course students will be expected to gather people, tools and approaches that will help support them in integrating educational technology into their own context. Students will be responsible for handing in a draft learning network plan by the halfway mark of the course and a final version on the last day. These should be between 500 and 1000 words and, ideally, be full of links, commentary and ideas for how they can continue to learn, network and use technologies after the course has ended.

30% – Classroom project
The majority of the second week of the course will be taken up by class projects developed and taught by the learners. These projects should involve the integration of a technology into their contexts that had not occurred to the students when the course began. The idea is to workshop an idea with the whole class while introducing an approach to using a technology. Students will be graded less on the ‘success’ of their classroom project, but to the degree in which it demonstrates an effort to integrate the models of the course into their own context.

40% Reflections and collaboration
Students will be expected to maintain a personal log of their reflections on each day of the course. Ten days. Ten reflections. They will also be responsible for engaging with other people’s reflections. Half of this grade will be the students ‘pitch’ for how they were effective members of the learning network that we tried to create in the class. The ‘pitch’ will be 300-500 words and should contain the same type of ‘links’ and ‘commentaries’ as the learning networks plan.

Notes (you should still probably read these)
No significant prior knowledge of technology is expected for this course. Students with broad technological backgrounds often find this type of course more challenging than students who come with less pre-described standpoints with regards to technology.

This course will also involve the use of a large number of technologies. We will try them out, do projects with them, hopefully have fun with some of them, and learn together. The course will happen (almost) entirely out in the ‘open’. While you may choose to use a pseudonym for the course, all students in the course will know the identity of other students, and work will be (almost always) done in the open. We will be using the googledoc suite for some of our work, which will allow for a backup communication system as well and semi-private space when necessary.

We’re going to be using twitter. Alot.

This course is based on my own research in the field of open education, the nature of knowledge and the intersection of education and technology. This research is ongoing, and critiques of the approach are not only welcome they are encouraged.

I can’t wait to get started.

Community as Curriculum and Open Learning

wow… sometimes the different threads of work that you are doing converge into the same place… it does make me wonder if they aren’t all just reflections of the same thing. anyways

Over the last few months i’ve been focusing much more on the idea of open learning and finding a practical foundation for my rhizomatic education and community as curriculum models. I’ve been lucky enough to work with George Siemens on a couple of projects, including the Edfutures course. When this is combined with my realization at Northern Voice that the entirety of my critique of knowledge and learning hinged on the tyranny of the moment… well… I decided to start writing a book. Which I’m doing.

As part of that process, I’m going to try and clean out the different ideas that I have, to explore them deeper and try to make them more transparent. The following video is my first attempt at drawing the threads together between open learning and community as curriculum… the method of learning with the way that we decide on what we learn. In it… you’ll see some books turn into people… this is related to the tyranny of the moment.

I know this is all jumbled up. But this is how it is in my head right now.

Community as curriculum – We are the learning. We learn from each other, through each other, from each other’s learning, from our ideas, our shared and unshared contexts and, maybe more importantly, we learn to continue to do this… because that open collaborative spirit is going to be the curriculum of success as we move forward.

Open Learning – We’ve got a paper coming out soon that explains this better, but openness in the sense of transparency of practice, of opening the doors and giving access of allowing people into our work. Of sharing.

The tyranny of the moment – Print is responsible for our retaining a massive number of things. It underwrites many of the advances we’ve made, it’s dreadfully important. But the technology that makes print forces us to think in terms of final drafts, of ended thoughts of things that are defined and finished. This is holding us back…

I don’t actually mention the latter in the video… but you can see it in there…

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