(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me

Community as Curriculum: where i come from, where i am going


I am so glad that this week’s #rhizo14 topic is this: the community as curriculum. What it means to me has connections to my past, my present, and my future. I think the topic flows nicely from the one about books making us stupid… I don’t think the connection is clear, so I will try to make my own…

In the past, my teaching has always had two main characteristics:
1. I can never really conceive of a course I am about to teach without really knowing my learners. I do not mean by this knowing their characteristics (e.g. Whether they teach language or science, whether they teach in a private or public school), but who they are.

2. Most (all?) educational institutions I have worked for asked for a syllabus within the first couple of weeks of classes. I always wrote one. I never followed one all the way through.

Well and one third characteristic is that I don’t lecture. It’s not because I have nothing to say, but that I think we all learn better from whatever everyone in the room has to say as well. As a student, I am very talkative and I run the risk of overtalking; strangely as a teacher, I don’t like talking too much. I do talk, but I enjoy listening and facilitating so much more. If I am to talk for more than 10-15 minutes straight, it is often at the end of class, summarizing the discussion and moving it forward or something.

My general view is that I hope the course would benefit participants, and that is almost impossible to do without knowing them. Not just characteristics, demographics, goals, but more: who they are, how they like to learn, how they respond to certain learning environments and situations.

All the above meant that I never taught the same course the same way to another cohort, even if I thought I would. I constantly negotiated with students (and myself) to make the course more beneficial to them. I don’t necessarily claim to have always succeeded, and some students get confused in the middle… There is that need to embrace uncertainty and become independent again!

I thought I was a weirdo, that my overly spontaneous teaching (sometimes I change my plan during class time; the same plan that I had created two weeks before but modified two days before class, sometimes two hours before class), until, while doing my PhD I read about curriculum theory. There are lots of great books on the subject but a great intro can be found here and I no longer felt like I was crazy.

First, traditional approaches that make “content” central to curriculum are problematic on so many levels. Thankfully, I never center a course around content. I make deliberate decisions about content as I go along to try to make sure that content is suitable for what we are trying to learn, rather than assume any content is inherently valuable in and of itself. I am also careful as to how comprehensible and relevant the content will be to my students. More on some of my views of privileging certain content in an earlier post here

Second, outcomes-based (technical/product) approaches to curriculum, common in higher education and needed for things like accreditation and quality assurance are also problematic: they wrongly assume neutrality of the outcomes, and wrongly assume that articulating outcomes well would somehow help the teacher design one curriculum for all students that would help them reach that outcome, a false linearity that ignores differences among students in where they are, how they learn, and where they want to go in the end.

Third, process-oriented and emancipatory approaches to curriculum are closer to what I have always done: centering on teacher judgment and working with students and negotiating the curriculum with students throughout the course – that is what they are about. An emancipatory curriculum goes a step further and centers discussions around issues of social justice and aims to challenge the status quo (something I have started to do, but still find quite complex and difficult)

Soooo… This is where I was before I started #rhizo14

How Rhizo14 Took This Further
So, I was discussing with the Hybrid Pedagogy folks my need to find instructional design approaches that were more similar to my own as yet unarticulated philosophy of teaching – and they pointed me to Dave Cormier’s ideas on rhizomatic learning. I am so lucky they did. But let me articulate specifically how this course takes “community as curriculum” to a whole new level for me.

Mainly, it is because even though we all have similar pedagogical paradigms, we are still diverse and this diversity helps us all learn from each other. The similarity helps us understand each other, I think, though some of us are more radical than others.

We all have different goals for why we are doing this, and yet we are learning from each other and supporting each other.

I am learning from both the process of living through this (5th week now, wow! I feel like I have known you guys and been doing this for years now) and the possibility of research it, as we discussed on facebook. Am a bit busy living it and still having a f2f life in between hehe.

Finally, if we talk about content, the actual content, the reading I do for the course, all comes from the community, not Dave. This means I am learning from the content that folks post, both their blogs about the course topics, and the discussions we have e.g. On facebook, and the additional links of interest people post on facebook or twitter. I am learning from other people’s teaching experiences, such as Frances Bell and Sarah Honeychurch, parenting experiences, and more theoretical musings of Keith Hamon and Cath Ellis, for example. I am learning about ways of building community from the way Jenny Mackness blogs, like here, i have learned from the creative processes of people like Tellio/Dogtrax . I find myself often using examples or terms I got off this course, like just y/day i was thinking “words steal my intent” and i know i read this on Jenny’s blog but unsure where it all came from. I am constantly reminded of the different perspectives one can take on an issue and how challenging it is to get one’s head around those different views. I like Jaap’s shorter reflective pieces like this one, and Scott’s pieces that make me think differently.

I am enjoying the FutureEd MOOC mainly because I am discussing it (incl shortcomings) with colleagues on the rhizo14 facebook group. I was anxious about a new class I am teaching this semester, so I posted about it, and got some great support and tips- and I used Mark’s suggested “Goha story” with my students!

The link to books…
I was recently thinking that textbooks are pedagogically a horrible choice. They deceive learners into thinking learning can come from one organized comprehensive source of all you need to know about a topic. Whereas knowledge is messy and we learn more by getting input from diverse sources. We also learn from finding those sources for ourselves then having a community to discuss them with to help us put things in perspective.

There have been discussions on whether we are a community,a network, etc. these distinctions are helpful when we all agree on what something means. To me, community is when a group of people are loosely connected by some common purpose or circumstance, and communities seem warmer than networks for me, because it implies a sense of caring for others and supporting them, whereas networking implies only interacting when it is beneficial to oneself. It is what these terms mean to me. And for some of us, I felt rhizo14 community built really quickly, even though some people had done MOOCs together for years and years, whereas others were brand new. That is why I would like to study it… How does community develop in ways that help further everyone’s learning?

Enough for now 🙂


Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

13 thoughts on “Community as Curriculum: where i come from, where i am going

  1. lovely pulling together of threads Maha, really enjoyed reading that 🙂

  2. I find myself chanting the rhizomatic mantra: community is curriculum, embracing uncertainty, enforcing independence. Why? Because I don’t really have an intellectual/conceptual handle on it. I get a feel for it in use even though someone came to my website and told be that what I was doing was really constructivism. More ‘isms’ I do not need. So I do value that you specifically describe the community and the tone of it. I really believe that philosophies must be embodied, must be a proper fit, must have a feel to them. That is why so often I push back with poetry and other media–to get that feel from a different place. The theoretical discussion of rhizomatic learning leaves me very cold and oftentimes on the outside looking in–not a very rhizomatic communal feeling.

    I have been trying to draw together a post that will focus on what people are doing in the community with the theory, if it can even be called that. Thanks for inspiring me to keep on with that this week.

    • Thanks,Terry. I think I feel the same – if it is a social phenomenon, I learn more by experiencing it than theorizing about it, though some people are great at doing both. Curriculum theory would have made no sense to me had i not experienced the different kinds myself. Btw, Dave somewhere or other says lots of intersections betw rhizomatic learning and constructivism and also connectivism but …will check that out to remember the differences he points out. I think sthg related to age of abundance of info and connectivity, and also messiness vs neat lines. I also think Keith Hamon’s recent blog post explaining why he sees rhizomes as metaphor not model is a good one. I also see rhizo as a way of describing what already happens in learning, not a theory to impose onto a learning environment, but a way to understand learning as it happens. And soooooo it is more useful to live it than talk about it (as i just did, very badly)

  3. Lovely – is this post a map of your rhizome at #rhizo14?

  4. Good posting Maha. It just came to me that we trip over the “community” and “network” terms and we might need something that indicates participation with a less formal ring to it. In the past our “know qualities” in a net were the resources we husbanded or leads to to facts and experts–like we were boxes of goodies in a particular category. Now, in the world of everything-out-there we become more than keepers of facts and contacts*.

    Consensual participation in a living being that grows / lives in the internet feels more like care-taking or the sustaining of a spirit that resides in the background of the term “community.” Our roles in this are suggested in how we participate but we are held to a different accountability by our unpredictable contributions–as in we may not “know” anything on the subject but are good at creating confusion when people become too clever and decided. There could be a huge list here but the idea of an open group is probably better kept at arms length from having a specific purpose. I’d like to think how cool it would be to be a member of a group where anything was ask-able.

    *Have a friend Harold who is “Keeper of the River Otter” for the Coastal Salish community on Eastern Vancouver Island. His job it remember community wisdom entrusted to River Otter and this includes creating images of Otter (and sometimes Mink) for display so his people will themselves remember. This is an active process that reaches beyond memory as Harold also goes to the river to speak with Otter for advice and opinions, and tell jokes about Mink.

  5. Really enjoyed this. I am a chemist. I am in a constant balancing act between the monolithic content I need to get through and the fact that lecturing doesn’t work. The answer I deliver at the moment is flipping and peer instruction. But I dream of facilitating a course in which everyone brings something to the table and can choose want they want to take away.

    • Hiya, thanks for bringing that up – it is always much more difficult to do all these things (teaching without centralizing content) we talk about if we are teaching sciences, where really, there are some things students need to learn, and some courses are prerequisities to others, etc. It looks like you’re already doing a good job of trying what might work best for your students. I hope they appreciate it!

  6. You did it again. One of your excellent posts again. You write about the curriculum that does not exist as a curriculum. You write it down and change it when in the classroom, that is what I did too, it is common among good teachers. haha. It is a theoretical exercise, useful for the teacher to think about work.
    And you write about the group, network community words. What is rhizo14 and what is a bunch of online learners? We do not know.

    And what does this imply to the question of Dave of this week? ” the (fill in what you like) is the (always changing theoretical exercise)”
    I will copy this on FB.

  7. Wonderful post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I’m personally looking for the balance between meeting national norms which have to be meat summatively by our students and giving enough “freedom” to the students to “become owner of their own learning process”.

    I suppose it’ll be a constant battle.

  8. Thanks Jaap and Ronald

    I keep forgetting how privileged i am to have control over my own courses. Anything connected to external standards is much harder to keep flexible

  9. Ahhh,I finally was able to take the time to read your post …. stellar summary as well as a jumping off point 🙂 Going with the flow in learning situations and applying improvisation when suitable is, for me, the best way to facilitate learning. All the outlines and plans we make are merely organizations of our own learning and how others learn flow from their personal styles … I am a guide, not a leader in discovery and development in learning. Thanks for highlighting in the context of Rhizo14. 🙂

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