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The Unweek of Uncertainty & Unlearning

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I tweeted this earlier today:

This is the unweek of unMOOCS, with uncertainty theme in #rhizo14 & unlearning theme of #futureEd. I am unworking unhard in all of it

I say all of this jokingly, but also in seriousness, both at once (yes, very postmodern of me hehe). “Unweek” because I believe these are the topics of my life, not this week. Our entire lives nowadays are uncertain, we live in postmodern times (or if you dislike the term, you can use Ron Barnett’s age of supercomplexity) where truths are not certain anymore. You could argue (as Barnett does often enough) that embracing uncertainty is the highest level of intellectual development or critical thinking. This is not the same as relativism in the way William Perry describes intellectual development (where contextual relativism is an advanced stage but not the highest). Embracing uncertainty seems to me to fit with postmodern paradigms of seeing the world (think quantum mechanics). As dynamic, but also as indefinable. Richardson uses a beautiful metaphor of “crystallization” when describing research, as opposed to “triangulation” which was traditionally used. “Crystallization” is about recognizing the partiality of our views of anything, the multiple possibilities that different angles illuminate, the infinite possible patterns that can occur from looking at a crystal in different ways. It is a great way of describing the postmodern view/condition. It reminds me of the title of Cathy Davidson’s book “Now You See It”. Haven’t read the book yet, but I assume this is a play on the saying “now you see it, now you don’t” which is the case when you change angles looking at a crystal, right? As Dave Cormier’s intro video says, it is about embracing the uncertainty: uncertainty of not having one correct or even multiple finite answers, of not even necessarily being certain of our learning goals or the outcomes possible, but embracing this uncertainty. To me, this opens us up to serendipity in learning: when you keep a part of you “open” you allow yourself to learn unprecedented things, talk with people you may never have approached before, etc.

The same applies to “unlearning”… I think it is the order of our times, not just a topic of the week. The quote Cathy Davidson uses in #FutureEd is the very popular:

β€œThe illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ” ― Alvin Toffler.

Both #rhizo14 and #FutureEd are sort of unMOOCs to me, not only because their facilitators claim them to be something else, but because to me they are opportunities to build long-term relationships by engaging with people about important and deep educational ideas. They are more than just MOOCs to me, and That is why I am investing so much in them both. I started engaging with both the facilitators and their previous publications ahead of the courses as well (that, btw, fits with Shaimaa Otify’s comment on promotion/marketing of professional development experiences in my blog post here)

Thinking about this week’s MOOC ideas made me realize that I have unlearned a lot (will blog parts of my assignment for #FutureEd later, or maybe i will reflect on other things i have unlearned over time), but for now, I will reflect briefly about Dave’s prompt for this week of #rhizo14:

How do we make embrace uncertainty in learning? How do we keep people encouraged about learning if there is no finite achievable goal? How do we teach when there are no answers, but only more questions?

Eh?

The reason I embrace uncertainty is because I think that is the way things are (I am certain of uncertainty). I embrace it in my research and work and teaching, even though it can be frustrating, but I deeply believe in it. But how do I keep others encouraged to learn without a finite achievable goal, no answers, just questions? I have absolutely no idea! I am very uncertain πŸ˜‰

The first thing that comes to mind, though, is that anyone who becomes a parent is “forced” to embrace uncertainty. It is an experience you have never had before, even if you temporarily took care of other people’s kids or younger siblings. I wouldn’t know coz I did neither, but I am pretty sure there is nothing like the uncertainty of being a first-time parent. Of the conflicting advice you get from veteran parents, your parents, books, TV, etc., and then you find yourself responsible for this unique little individual who does not fit anyone else’s notion of children and you find yourself unable or unwilling to “conform” to any external standard of what “good” parenting is. Where you try to reconcile your philosophy with your instinct with your capacity with what is feasible and come up with something inherently messy and incredibly frustrating but at the same time amazingly exhilarating.

Now if only I could convince my students that this is actually a good thing in formal (and informal) learning! They would have to unlearn quite a lot. I think maybe thinking of it as serendipity instead of uncertainty would put a more positive spin on things, but that might be misleading because uncertainty also entails risk. It is just that I believe those risks are already there, it is just time to embrace them.

I have huge problems with deterministic, technical, approaches to curriculum. The myth that setting some quantifiable goal and taking steps towards achieving it will result in student learning. They myth that verbalizing it and making it measurable will be a good thing, and cover the important aspects of learning. We all know that each learner is different and has different motivations, needs, goals, some of which are not yet clear to the learners themselves, let alone to us as teachers. It is one thing to try to plan, to write it down, etc., but another to actually believe that any of that really works. I am rather happy to keep modifying my syllabus as I go along, change the content, including readings and activities and focus of projects, change the rubrics according to students’ participatory input, change so many things, according to needs that arise throughout the time I am teaching them. I usually draw for my students a version of Pedler’s visual of learning communities, and it looks something like this:

20140128-171840.jpg

The political situation in Egypt epitomizes uncertainty, you never know who will be in power tomorrow and what they will do, or how the ousted will react. You never know which day you will be able to go out safely and which not (this has been the case in more extreme ways in other countries in the region, but because it is new to Egypt, we are still adjusting and figuring things out). I never know if next week my students will be able to make it to class.

Sigh.

So the biggest uncertainty facing me soon, the situation where I will need to teach others to embrace uncertainty, is my teaching next semester. I have been asked to teach two courses in one course. Two different sets of externally-defined standards (which i modify in interpretation, but still, two different courses) while meeting the students at the same time. This all would have been relatively simple online. Have a group of them use one fb group or discussion forum, while the others do another, and have a few activities in common. But no, I have to meet them face to face the majority of the time if possible. More on this riddle here

I am thinking it is the perfect opportunity to tackle these issues of unlearning what a traditional course is, and instead unpacking what a good learning experience really is for a professional (my students are teachers). It is an opportunity to open up the discussion about rhizomatic learning and Pedler’s learning community – where different learners clearly have diverse goals but they work together, each taking their own chosen path, interdependently, sharing resources along the way.

I have not really answered the question Dave raised. I don’t think it has a generic answer, but must only have a pool of contextual, temporal potential solutions that may or may not work. I cannot know what will work with my group of students until I meet and get to know them, I will not know each day until its circumstances become clearer to me. But I have ideas… Festering. And am hoping for inspiration from everyone here. Negotiated curriculum? Definitely? Discussion of unlearning? Definitely. Diverse learning goals? Definitely. Rhizomatic learning? I hope so! All these things I am definite about? They are the embracing of uncertainty, but whether I can help my students embrace them while not making them feel I am shortchanging them, not giving all of myself, this is my concern.

Looking forward to seeing what others have to say about this…

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Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

17 thoughts on “The Unweek of Uncertainty & Unlearning

  1. I love serendipity, much better than chance. It’s all about keeping your mind open and not missing opportunities, isn’t it? Coincidentally (not!) I have used “serendipidously” twice in two days πŸ™‚

  2. Yeah, beautiful word, isn’t it? (The chick flick also helps keep it in mind hehe)

  3. Oh, meant to say – love your image. Pretty πŸ™‚

  4. Your struggles certainly resonate with me. I don’t mean to use it as a cop out when I say that my own past experiences are a huge impediment to clearly seeing some of the possibilities open to learners. I have a lot of unlearning to do and it is great to hear others who are going through this same thought process. Where I work, we are somewhat hampered by the standardized testing that takes place and many choose to focus on preparing students for the test rather than providing them with some of the deeper learning opportunities that are necessary to foster the sense of independent learning that will allow our students to thrive wherever the road may take them.

    As Dave stated in the week two video – “People need to self-assess and self-remediate. They need to be able to say that they don’t understand something and then be able to figure it out. There is no freedom until people can do this(unfortunately) we have crushed it out of our education system.”

    How can those of us who work in the system really create the meaningful learning experiences that our students need and long for?

    • Thanks Patrick and Mark… So much harder to encourage independence, openness to uncertainty, etc when teachers for ed to work within rigid structures and standard assessment… Then ppl get used to learning that way and it is harder to change the mindset later on… But possible, right? The “how” is complex, of course!

  5. I see at least three kinds of uncertainty here but who’s counting? The important one has to do with boundaries drawn artificially around “content” – that is the closed curriculum of anti-learning. It tells you, “Stop right there! Don’t go on. You won’t understand anyway.”

    Today, I found three brilliant students in my class – it is only our second meeting. I had turned everyone loose on GoogleDocs with a vaguely described assignment to find a common interest to write about much later. This is the “silent dialog” in a shared reflective space. I sent them away to work in a corner and ignored them while I goofed off with the less motivated ones, talking about Play Station, Zombies, and the Mary Shelly’s demonstration of the limits of technology.

    Later I noticed them sitting facing one another in a little triangle, totally silent, writing on their shared document, each in a different color. They had written a lot, but still they asked, “What is this we are doing? Why are we doing this? How will this help us?”

    We talked about their biology course and the difference between knowing about content and knowing about things. The first stops at the end of the chapter but the second recedes into infinity. They agreed and they wanted to do the infinite thing.

    Your class sounds like a blast. I love to do that kind of thing.

  6. Wow. Great thoughts. The Toffler quote reminded me of The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman.

  7. “un” all the way around fits here too…sometimes this feels almost as though I am starting connectivist moocs all over again for the first time. Processing will take time (although I’m not sure I ever fully processed the preceding experiences). No sooner do I feel as though I’ve formulated thoughts well enough to write a post or comment on one…whoops, comes a swerve to upsets that apple cart and I’m gathering thoughts all over again,

    This is what unlearning feels like…instead of being told we need to unlearn — as in #FutureEd — we dove — or were shoved — into it by design.

    Not just parenting alone but life itself (unless lived in hiding or total denial) is continual uncertainty…embracing is both lifeline and connection.

    PS I’m still planning on getting back to the PD post to comment

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  11. “. . . but whether I can help my students embrace them while not making them feel I am shortchanging them, not giving all of myself, this is my concern.”

    I can relate, oh boy, can I relate, Maha. The saddest evaluation I ever got was from a student who wrote: “I had to teach myself.” She was describing how she had to learn digital storytelling tools in our online Creative Inquiry class. In her mind, I failed because I didn’t deserve credit for teaching her. She had to teach herself. Forget all the tutorials and studio times for help. In my mind, I failed because she failed to learn that teaching yourself, and unlearning and learning and unlearning again may be the most important lessons from the class. Sigh . . . Good luck with your bold teaching!

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