(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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The Unweek of Uncertainty & Unlearning

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:

“The 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?


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 😉

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:


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.


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…



What’s so special about @davecormier’s (or “our”) #rhizo14?

A few things I have been reading today around #rhizo14 have made me reflect on a few things that seem obvious but are not usually/traditionally considered obvious. All of which made me realize why i am loving #rhizo14

A while ago, i was having a discussion with a colleague and she said “learner-centered learning”. My immediate response was that learning is always learner-centered (i.e. Occurs within the individual in the way that suits the individual. What we try to do in pedagogy is to make our teaching or our curriculum learner-centered. But learning? It already occurs within the learner.

Tellio makes a good point in his post about whether we need new labels and terms to add to the word “learning” like “rhizomatic” or “deep”? Isn’t it just “learning”?

Bonnie Stewart commented on fb that her 2011 post on rhizomes is strangely a good response to Tellio’s post this week (Kevin built on my comment about tht on Tellio’s blog and called it a time travel blogpost haha). In her post, i liked two main things:

First, a point she makes about knowledge we gain always being partial but that we have been conditioned to think if we follow some instructor or course that there is some illusive “whole” to acquire. She articulated what we know intuitively (knowledge can only be partial) but years of formal education distorts. Second, i liked this quote:

“These rhizomatic learning lenses are not intended to make you see more clearly, per se, though you may or may not come to that conclusion about their effects. Rather they are intended to make you see differently.”

Based on other reading of Dave’s work, I take Bonnie’s quote above to mean something i had pre-conceived (correct me if i am wrong, someone) – that rhizomatic learning is a way of describing how learning occurs rather than of dictating how learning should be, and as such, “community as curriculum” is an approach to teaching that understands that learning, particularly online learning in an age of abundance, is naturally a lot more like a rhizome (chaotic, interconnected, non-linear, non-centric) than a hierarchical tree.

And apparently recognizing that learning occurs like that can have important impacts on how we plan (or rather, negotiate) our curriculum.

Speaking of which, I have been inspired by Peter Taylor’s sharing his re-working of Dave’s negotiated curriculum. As someone who negotiates my curriculum a lot, I am inspired to try some of these ideas. Incidentally, Frances also shares this post by Richard Hall which is admittedly a bit too scholarly/dense in tone at first (an interesting few paragraphs on Marx, capitalism, etc. which i could not reflect on deeply coz my toddler was playing on my lap) – but becomes more accessible and directly relevant to practitioners as the post continues and he tackles issues of negotiating curriculum and community in the classroom (or at least, that was the lens with which i read it). For example, love this question he asks (which i think we all ask):

“The soul is at work when we learn and when we teach. We place ourselves on the line as teachers and students and scholars. How might we overcome the alienation of our souls from our selves in the formalised classroom through a connection that was more than an exchange of educational goods? How do we define a pedagogy that is based on love and courage and care?”

(emphasis mine – and possibly because i think empathy is something we should strive towards developing in our classes).

Another part i liked a lot was a part about shared roles in the communal classroom. Something i had been thinking about – how each of us in the community has a role to play to facilitate the learning of others not just our own. And Jaap posted a great one on that recently.

But all of this brings me to a very important point. Knowing all of this, talking and thinking about it, then implementing in the classroom (or other learning environment) are completely different things. Nuances of practice and factors you had never considered come into play. Unexpected dynamics occur. This beautifully honest post about how parents are sometimes reluctant to let their kids be independent? She is right: teachers often have a nagging feeling about it, too.

I agree with Dave(video response to Toni) that content should not be the purview of the teacher and if we are honest with ourselves (in most fields, esp with older learners) it is clear we are not the guardians of some set canon of knowledge. Content choices in a curriculum are an exertion of power (whose knowledge is privileged? Who has access? How does that disadvantage others?)

All of these questions and more are tackled in critical approaches or curriculum theory and design (this is an accessible intro to different curriculum approaches”,mostly divided according to Habermas’ knowledge-constitutive interests).

Bur back to the point I am trying to make here (is there one? Does there have to be one?) – sometimes an idea like “rhizomatic learning” helps us look at something anew. It has intersections with social constructivism and connectivism, but Dave suggests it goes beyond them in seeing them by seeing not only learning as rhizomatic, but knowledge itself. This thinking which emphasizes uncertainty also overlaps with a postmodern, relativistic or interpretive view of knowledge (ontologically). The curriculum Dave suggests reminds me of something between a process-oriented and emancipatory curriculum (this is an accessible intro to different curriculum approache”>same link on curric theory). It has elements of Pedler’s learning community.

I could go on (it reminds me of Boud, Wegner, etc.).

You see where i am going with this? Two things:

1. It is one simple idea in two words “rhizomatic learning” that represents or is at least an intersection of all those diverse ideas in education that i mentioned in the last paragraph or two
2. This course is an embodiment of these ideas and that is its value to me, because I know from experience that practice is almost always more complex and uncertain than any model or theory.

Long post! That’s what happens when i hold back an entire day 😉


Riddle: Opportunity for Rhizomatic Curriculum

Talk about an opportunity to apply rhizomatic learning! I was planning to make my class more of a “community as curriculum” than my usual (which already is my approach, quite a bit) but I may be given a golden opportunity to do this.

I might end up teaching TWO different courses within the same class period. As in, half my students will need to be learning one set of standards, to be awarded a particular course, and the other half another set of standards.

Now, I never really “stick” to standards in a strict way, but rather define them broadly and negotiate what they mean, how we can reach them, and how they would be useful to my students throughout the semester. I try to have room for students to meet their own learning goals in each assessment we do, an assessment they can use in their context rather than just submit to me.

But having students clearly see that their objectives for taking the course are completely different (even the externally set objectives in this case!) – this will both help clarify for them the concept of rhizomatic learning, where a community can support each other but each individual can still have their own goal
it will be a heck of a challenge for me to show if I can really do this and make it work! I an asynchronous setting, this is easy. In a f2f setting… Not sure! One approach might be to occasionally hold an asynchronous online class for one group while i meet the other f2f.

Important note: half the students will have taken a course with me before. The same course title/number that the others are taking for the first time (course on ethical, legal, social and human issues in ed tech). Thankfully, i was planning to teach the course quite differently anyway! They may not recognize it from last year! Haha

The other course is a bit more defined by the institution in that it is like a capstone course for the entire ed tech diploma, where students need to create a project integrating their learning across the diploma courses. And present it to others.

I know I can do this… I don’t know exactly how, yet, and I think this will develop as I get to know my students and start working with them towards something meaningful. I am pretty sure I will need help!!!

I am asking others to brainstorm with me… I have a few ideas in my head, but would like to hear others’ ideas… Hence the blog… Putting myself out there 🙂


Cormier’s Community as Curriculum, and Rhizomatic Education

I have just finished reading Dave Cormier’s 2008 article Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum and thought I would reflect on it here. (I am actually unsure why I had never come across this before, as I have been doing lots of research on MOOCs, and he is the one who coined the term, after all!)

First, it resonated with me big-time regarding how knowledge about rapidly changing fields can no longer wait for the traditional learning/knowledge-acceptance cycle. My recent experience writing a peer-reviewed article about MOOCs was a great example! Between first draft, peer review, and second draft, a lot had changed in the MOOC landscape. Between article getting accepted and its upcoming publication, my own views about MOOCs have already changed as I have taken more MOOCs and read a lot more about others’ views, especially given the recent conference on the matter.

Second, I had been looking for approaches to online education that did not take traditional instructional design approaches, and this is definitely one of them, as it focuses on the community of learners as knowledge creators rather than an expert as central to deciding which content is valuable for the learners. Not surprisingly this sounds a lot like social constructivism and even more like connectivism (and Cormier does mention the similarities). He suggests, however, that these theories still assume

“…that the learning process should happen organically but that knowledge, or what is to be learned, is still something independently verifiable with a definitive beginning and end goal determined by curriculum.”


“In the rhizomatic view, knowledge can only be negotiated, and the contextual, collaborative learning experience shared by constructivist and connectivist pedagogies is a social as well as a personal knowledge-creation process with mutable goals and constantly negotiated premises”

Because knowledge in some fields is so fluid, he says it is like a moving target, and so community becomes central to curriculum,

“community is not the path to understanding or accessing the curriculum; rather, the community is the curriculum.”

This view has radical elements of empowerment, but I also have a tingling feeling that it might be missing something as many such approaches do: the inequalities within community. Just because all are told to “be peers and work collaboratively” does not mean they are equal. People have different levels of comfort with this kind of fluidity, they have different power to exert and confidence to exert it (e.g. Due to variations in tech skill, linguistic ability, time management, etc.), and the degree to which the are able to disconnect from traditional notions of canonical knowledge. Cormier does not by any means claim that this approach is appropriate for all disciplines and I value that contextualization.

I look forward to exploring these ideas further, reflecting on my own experiences with them (e.g.#edcmooc which I just finished, #FutureEd MOOC coming up) and how they connect with pedagogy even in less bleeding edge fields. I know there has been much more going on in the field since 2008, connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) being one phenomenon, and also HASTAC. Much more left to learn and reflect on, hopefully to bring back to my own teaching and faculty development work.