(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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


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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 🙂

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Hangout continued: reflections after-the-event

This is my way of continuing the conversation that started in y/day”‘s #rhizo14 hangout… It was the most “watchable” hangout because Dave brought people in to discuss (what a “hangout” usually is) in the main room, which was recorded and therefore viewable after-the-event.

The main really important points (to me) that came up, include
1. I joined this course because I wanted to think of ways of supporting others in thinking about designing their curricula in less traditional/rigid approaches than traditional instructional design. As several people said in the course, each of us as teachers have our own approaches to embracing uncertainty and helping our learners do it, but it is not easy to articulate this approach to others (as Sarah and others said), partly because it is v contextual and depends on one’s own personality and comfort; but partly also because talking about it, even if we do, sounds like nonsense to someone hearing it but who never experienced it; which leads to…

2. Dave’s hidden curriculum in #rhizo14 was for us to learn about rhizomatic learning by experiencing it. Well, that’s been my approach from the beginning (let’s not get into that again)… But is this a paradox? That what Dave thinks was his goal of the course, was also mine, therefore I had the “right” answer beforehand? No! First, because how I experience rhizomatic learning in the course, and how he imagines it, might be different. Also, because i learned a lot more in the course than just that… But this all leads me to my epiphany…

3. Bingo! If I want to convince others that rhizomatic learning and uncertainty are “the” or at least “a” way to approach learning, modeling (not in any perfect model capacity, but trying it out) is the key… This means when giving extended workshops to faculty on now to design their courses, to not over-structure the course and create conditions and space for uncertainty and rhizomatic connections and growth to occur. This seems really obvious to me now, but was not beforehand and is not that easy to apply in real life!

As Vanessa said, there is a paradox of the Greek who says “All Greeks are liars” (no offense to Greeks) in that if you believe him, he’s a liar, and if he’s a liar you shouldn’t believe him. Same goes for uncertainty. If i am the authority and tell others “certainty and authority are not to be believed”, then you should not believe me, since I am an authority making a dogmatic claim to certainty… That’s why saying it is of much less value than doing it (as Jolly was saying). Learners need to experience learning from uncertainty and the reduced need for authority and find themselves learning, in order to embrace these ideas and run with them. To take this learning and use it in life beyond formal edu.

Now, a few other random thoughts post-hangout:

That despite uncertainty and rhizomatic learning (which several ppl agree is the way things mostly “are”) we must not forget that there is some structure around in some form or other. Just because things can and do branch out of whatever structures are imposed or reflected, does not mean structure is not there (i cannot articulate this as well as Keith did, but i think they mentioned something Cath wrote earlier about seeing the arbors/trees between the rhizomes). This was a new way of looking at things: beforehand, we talked about how institutional structures restrict rhizomatic approaches… But another way of looking at it is to recognize the human need for structure within the realities of uncertainty and rhizomy (this sounds like the name of a gene hehe) and just be comfortable creating space for people to break away from the structure… So that structure provides some safety but does not restrict potential for growth… Hmmm

I also liked Dave’s statement (building on Keith’s thoughts) that education sometimes creates “certainty through scarcity“, when the reality has always been uncertainty, and that social media now allows us to deal with this abundance (am not explaining this well, just watch the middle part of the hangout! I should have done a vialogue but i don’t have time and blogging was faster)

Soooo I was extremely disappointed to have missed the hangout but this was a very watchable one and I feel like I was there (though we all know I would have tried to over talk it). Funny enough, i ended up watching it at 5am!!


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We Are Nerds. So how do we reach our students?

It suddenly struck me, a couple of weeks after I finished my PhD, that I was a nerd. This should not have come as a surprise, since I have been a high achieving student throughout school and college, and loved learning in those contexts enough to pursue a master’s and PhD.

I cannot be too different from most academics. I assume we share some common characteristics: we love reading (we chose a career that requires so much of it, after all) though we might differ in how much we love to write. We are passionate about teaching or research, or if we are truly lucky, we are passionate about both (though whether we ever manage to find the best balance for our own personal fulfillment is another matter). Many of us (those who enjoy teaching) are probably not the typical nerd you see on TV. We are probably very social with good interpersonal and communication skills. But we are still, deep down inside, nerds. And the reason I want to point this out, is that this “nerdiness” can stand in our way when we try to “reach” our students, motivate them to learn what we ourselves are so passionate about. Because most of our students, I am predicting (going out on a limb here), are not nerds. They do not already love the subject matter we are teaching. They may not be interested in pursuing a PhD in it. At least not yet (ha!)

How often have I heard during faculty development workshops the odd faculty member who says “well, we must get our students used to doing so and so, because they need those skills for graduate school”. Well, hello! Most of our students are probably not planning to go to graduate school (I probably shout this out before anyone in the room has the chance to agree, so I am unsure how widespread this sentiment is). Yes, it is important to prepare students for graduate school in case they do eventually plan to go. This is our medium-term goal. But our immediate goal is to help them through THIS course that they are taking for whatever purpose they have for taking it.

Which gets me to my second point: do we teach the way we like to learn? I love noise and humor and group discussions and disagreements in my classes. It is how I like to learn, and it is how I like to teach. It is my comfort zone. However, I often need to remind myself that this is not necessarily the way all my students prefer to learn. Occasionally, I will stop my class for individual written reflection before doing a larger group discussion. Occasionally, I will do some more quiet pair work. Occasionally, I will recognize that (oops) not everyone is as comfortable with conflict in my classroom as I thought. And that (oops) sometimes students who deep down inside dissgree with me are not comfortable doing so in class, no matter what assurances I give them that this is something to be desired. It may be desirable to me, but it is not always desirable to them. Occasionally, I will discover that my own culture is slightly (or very?) different from my students’ culture, which reminds me of the importance of “culturally relevant pedagogy” (great pedagogical concept if your students are diverse or very different from yourself).

I really also like the idea of “differentiated engagement” proposed by Michael Feldstein, which proposes that we as teachers consider providing space for our students learn according to their motivations and learning preferences. It has elements of what is called a process-oriented approach to curriculum, where your focus is not on the “myth of the unified learning goal” and not on the product of learning, but rather, the focus is on the learner’s own engagement and the teacher’s judgment of how to use the learning moment to take these particular students’ learning further in this particular context. It puts the actual learning and engagement as the center of discussions about curriculum, rather than any arbitrarily pre-defined goals set by one person or a group of people separate from the individuals in the classroom and separate from its context. The idea of “differentiated engagement” also has elements of the notion of “differentiated instruction” which builds on the idea of addressing different learning preferences (usually about multiple intelligences specifically, but the concept extends to all sorts of learner differences). Feldstein’s concept, as I understood it, focuses on learner motivations and preferences for engagement, and though he begins talking about it with reference to MOOCs, I agree with him that it should be something all teachers think about when thinking about their courses.

I also love Sean Michael Morris’ statement as he discusses contemplative pedagogy (is that his own term?):

“one of the most important skills a teacher can possess is mindful attention, and a willingness to see where a class is really headed, and not stick so tenaciously to his plan that he misses the brilliance of collaboration possible with his students”

(quoted from his website).

I’ll stop here. I hope this blog post keeps reminding me that I may be different from my students, and, because of that, I need to be mindful of what engages them, how they want to learn, so that I can direct my energies and passions in ways that satisfy us all.

Do you have a story to tell about how you taught in ways outside your comfort zone in order to motivate your students or help them learn better? How do we do this while still staying true to our ourselves? I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts.

But are we really nerds?