(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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


Mess in education. Mess in research. Mess in ethics

Mess is life
Mess is my life. I have a toddler, after all, and there are few things that toddlers enjoy more than mess. I wear about ten different hats in my life and while some of them synergize, the overall effect is quite messy. People tell me I am pretty organized in my mind (little do they know!) but I am pretty messy otherwise: my desk, my handbag, etc.

I have thought for a long time that life as a whole is not neat, it is messy. And I have thought for a long time that education should replicate life’s messiness to a great extent if it is to prepare learners to deal with the mess outside the classroom. I recently gave a workshop on authentic learning which is based on that same premise. The entire rhizo14 experience was a big beautiful mess of embracing uncertainty, etc.

But let me track back a minute: not everyone is as comfortable with mess. For some people, to deal with mess, they need to impose some kind of order. They do not embrace mess and uncertainty openly. These can be scary.

I think back to my toddler. And as much as she loves her messes and messing about she also loves her routine. She seems to need some kind of order, and if I am not creating it for her, she’s creating it for herself. She makes connections between things and then continues to tie them together. For example, I once got her a souvenir bell and snow globe. She managed to break the snow globe. Now, whenever she plays with the bell she says, “snow broken”. One day, I was feeding her rice and veg while there was some sliced cucumber on the table. She decided to feed me one slice for each spoon I fed her. She then made that into a routine, so she would feed me cucumber every time I was feeding her lunch. She rarely eats on her feeding chair (which is a booster seat i now placed on the floor of her room) but she she sits on it, she demands to play with particular toys and to drink a particular kind of milk. She makes those connections all the time, then she breaks them and makes new ones.

She is imposing artificial structure on messy realities. I haven’t read the psychology behind it, but I am wondering if adults feel the same? Do they need the same? (I cannot answer that question definitively)

Mess in Education – Collier & Ross
I was generally pretty happy with the presentation Amy Collier and Jen Ross gave about mess in education at the #et4online conference. As I said earlier, I believed mess to be what life is like, and that education should mimick that. But some teachers they quoted brought up some interesting things: maybe education should be organized or structured to counter the mess in real life. Maybe structure is a way to help learners approach mess. I don’t know that I agree with that, but it is an interesting idea to consider.

The last class I taught was a bit messy. Well the whole semester has been messy, because I am teaching two different classes in one class, with some common material and some split. But last class was messier than usual because there were several technical things to be done and people kept messing up their passwords. It was frustrating and took up loads of class time unnecessarily. When I got back home, I thought of how to deal with this, and I emailed my students some tips on how to avoid that kind of waste of time again, how to avoid losing time when your passwords don’t work (this was a combination of tips on how to set good memorable passwords, tips on resetting passwords, etc.). What had I just done? I had provided some kind of structure to deal with what I considered unnecessary mess. Because, hey! Not every kind of mess is valuable – it is not valuable just because it is.

There is learning value to a toddler when she takes her food and spreads it around and sees what will happen to it. There is a value to her. Not so much to me. Which means I will allow it to some extent but I will reach a limit when I feel the need to stop her for my own sanity. Or I will put her in the kitchen so that cleaning the mess is easier. Those are ways of dealing with mess.

Someone in the audience asked Amy and Jen how to apply this mess thing when teaching maths. Many philosophical discussions of.better” pedagogy fall apart when confronted with STEM disciplines. This, I feel, is a function of several things:
1. STEM disciplines, at least at earlier levels, tend towards rules/formulas, etc., and have pre-requisites, etc., so there is less room for open approaches (I do not consider Mazur’s think-pair-share and ConcepTests that “open”, though they do seem to me to be an improvement on lecturing and individual problem-solving)
2. There is an assumption about universality – why should we assume that every idea we think works for social science teaching should work with sciences? Why assume it is just a matter of tweaking and imagination? (This reminds me of the red line video!)

But seriously: I do think there is “mess” in STEM disciplines. Of course there is, the world is messy. The world does not give you neat mathematical problems (usually not) and we all have heard of the stories of inner city kids who couldn’t do math in school but intuitively did the statistics for basketball games. It is an example of how a less-than-orderly situation, because it is authentic and of interest to the learner, can motivate them to do math, even though they don’t seem to be formally learning it in school.

When talking about critical thinking and authentic learning, we often talk about the importance of posing ill-structured problems for student to work with. Complex case studies, with no clear answer. That’s life. Those are the kinds of decisions engineers and accountants and journalists and psychologists and doctors and teachers are faced with every day.

Image source: CC-NC-SA License by Theophilos

Mess in Research
Research, of course, is another of those messy realms of life. Even science research, don’t tell me it’s not. If done the way scientists do it, rather than prescriptive text or lab books, it’s messy. Things can happen like explosions. Little mistakes can affect results and you have to repeat them to be sure. I still do not know how medical research gets done given the immense number of uncontrollable variables that can “interfere” with any causal relationships.

Social science research is even messier, and Ross showed some data from their master’s degree at Edinburgh that shows how each individual’s circumstances and feelings affected how they approached the course. I recently read Apostolos’ blog about his MOOCing, and the complexity of his personal experience defies any neat statistical conclusions consisting of abstract theorizing about numbers (I will not name names).

Rhizo14’s collaborative autoethnography arose from an attempt to find a participatory approach to allow individuals who were/are part of rhizo14 to describe their own thoughts, feelings, interpretations of how rhizo14 was for them. We are still not sure what we’re going to do with the stories we have there, how to represent them, and how to integrate all the other data from blogs to artwork to everything else… But our idea is to keep it messy, because it is messy, and attempting to make it legible might lose authenticity and stop representing the reality (not that we could ever really represent reality whatever we understand it to be). Keith has been blogging about rhizo-rhetoric and finally took me up on the “legibility” thing and wrote about it 🙂 terry will be so happy as he’s the one who brought it up originally.

Mess in Ethics
So, one important thing, though, is that Collier and Ross quoted from the rhizo14 autoethnography raw document. It was a public document that we tweeted and linked to from our blogs, but it was not a published document… And so it was a bit surprising that they did so. I personally did not mind (nor was i personally quoted) but i became more concerned about how others would feel:
1. What if I had not tweeted about it?
2. What if Rebecca Hogue had not been present at the conference?
3. What if they had quoted more extensively, what if they had “misrepresented” or “misinterpreted” us?
4. What kind of rights should authors of parts of the collaborative autoethnography need to be retained? We thought of a “no derivatives” license but that does not protect us from people citing us – and is that what we want to do, when this was meant to be published anyway?

I won’t go into the details here (so much going on privately and I won’t write it publicly). But ethical questions are almost a always messy, especially when many people are involved, and i feel each person should have the right to decide how their data can be used. This rarely happens in traditional research. What if someone wants to withdraw after you’ve published the results in an academic article? Exactly

This has been a messy post of incomplete ideas…

Image source: CC-NC-SA License by Theophilos

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How We Look at Education

So… I’ve been reading some vastly different things about education and just wanting to connect all that’s rushing through my head.

I was in a private facebook discussion with a friend who pointed me to uncollege, so I shared it on rhizo14 and Scott Johnson wrote a few very quotable things that I got his permission to blog:

“education has allowed itself to be pushed around like it didn’t matter”

– will probably quote this for the rest of my life!

More from Scott, when I asked to use the quote (and later if I could use the below as well):

Go ahead and use that quote Maha, I could be famous. Almost all the “failure of education” focus on the individual, quote famous people who aren’t us and ignore the fact that education is a social activity that we all share in supporting. If things have gone bad then we all need to be ashamed. We’ve let ourselves down, if that makes sense and we’re so sophisticated we can feel cool about walking away from the mess. I read the article and as a self-employed and self-taught person who struggled with school I still think that as a social value school matters more than the “success” of a few self-centered individuals. School is an imperfect expression of a desire for a better society and giving up is just selfish.

And after bringing up Illich:

As for Illich, I appreciate what he has to say but somewhere recently I picked up the notion that school matters and it involves all of us. It’s a problem to be engaged, not walked away from. Plus, his critique is as much about the society our schools reside–hard to walk away from that. I think Freire tries to address the problems as fixable and necessary. I wonder what teachers think about the ability of ALL their students thriving in the world of un-college?

Wise words, Scott. Will always remember them and re-use them. It made me realize why I want to read Illich but am not in as much of a hurry to do so as I thought I should be.

Separately, a friend pointed me to the book “Finnish Lessons” and I bought the audiobook in my excitement, hoping to get inspired. I just started it, but so far I’m disappointed. I promise to “review” it again on my blog when I’ve finished the whole thing, to be fair.

While a lot of what’s in it sounds great (like emphasizing trust in the teacher, going away from market forces influencing education), I am also sort of stumped each time the author talks about how they measure the success of Finnish education using PISA scores.

Each time he mentions this I grimace. You reform education in considerably radical ways (which I am yet to understand in the book) and then you come and measure it with standardized universal tests? Are you kidding me? I mean, I understand that’s how the world might see it, but I would have hoped the Finnish had other measures of success they preferred? (maybe this is coming later in the book)

The author also goes into lots of detail about why what he’s saying should transfer beyond the Finnish context. In principle, this is good and important, of course, or else why read the book? But he keeps focusing on how similar Finland is to other countries (and, in my opinion, it is not done very well)… rather than how the actual reforms done in Finnish education would transfer to other contexts. It seems to me that the approach itself needs to be considered holistically and then to convince me that it’s transferable, take examples from a couple of different contexts and show how it might transfer. But trying to say that Finland is similar-enough to other countries because its population is similar to that of a state in Australia and its size is similar to Massachussetts… Really? He also does this strange thing where he seems to be talking about the global North needing to reform education but not the global South. Ummm. OK. Maybe the contexts would be too different if you went there? Not sure.

I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be mean. It’s just the rhetoric of universalism is getting to me. I keep hoping there will be a turn around in the book, that I have misunderstood something major, but nothing yet. Will see how it goes (it’s a little impulsive to start talking about this when I have not finished the book yet, but this thing is actually turning me off the book a little. Note to self, if ever I am writing a book, to be clear early on what kind of book it is and what kind of approach it is taking, no big surprises to the reader near the end because you cannot assume the reader will ever reach the end or read linearly).

So let’s end this on a lighter note. Barney. Yes, Barney. I heard that Dora is better for your kids than Barney (more interactive) but there it is and my daughter loves Barney, so 🙂 Anyway. There is this episode she loves watching called “Play Ball”. Now what’s interesting about it is … Barney has four kids of different “ethnicities” (White, Black, Asian and someone who could be Hispanic or Arab). The episode is about balls being the best toy of all. It’s a nice idea because balls are available and easy and everyone supposedly can play with them (barring huge disabilities, I guess). There is a song where they say things like “balls are for boys, balls are for girls”. Whatever. Anyway. There is a part where the kids “pantomime” playing particular games with balls and the others guess what they are. The three games they pantomime are baseball, basketball and tennis. It’s interesting how US-centric that is, because most other countries don’t play baseball. It all also reminded me of one day when I was watching tennis on TV and my housekeeper came around and said (in Arabic) “are you watching basketball?” and I explained to her that basketball has a basket in it, whereas this one had a racket (Tennis in Arabic is more like “racket ball”). Anyway, just making the point that sports are not universal, either. Here’s the Barney episode 🙂

This also reminded me of the time I tried in my class to do a gender activity where I shared photos of Disney Princesses and asked students to think of the gender stereotypes in their stories. Unfortunately, I had not factored in that my students did not necessarily watch Disney cartoons (especially men), though most of them did know the famous Snow White and Cinderella stories – they just did not recognize the graphic Disney representations of them. Anyway, my point again: you cannot assume universality.

I’m hoping the below image is not copyrighted. I got it from:

Disney Princesses criticism

Disney Princesses gender stereotypes


The Main Responsibility of Teachers? Make yourself dispensable!

When I read this week’s prompt for #rhizo14, my first thought was “but isn’t that the point of teaching?” – I always thought it was our responsibility as teachers to eventually make ourselves not needed, obsolete – for our learners. I was just telling my students last week (hey, just days before Dave’s prompt went live) something I have always told my students: “there will always be new things to learn, but there won’t always be Maha” – and especially in a field like educational technology, there is almost always something new to learn, almost every day. My role, as I have always seen it, is to help my students figure out how to learn these new things without needing me to show them.

More importantly, while my students think it is about learning how to find new things, and figuring out the technicalities of how to use them, I think what my role as a teacher really is, is to help them develop the judgment to choose what works for their context at a particular moment in time. Barnett & Coate (2005) make this really important point about the emphasis on skills and performativity: that using a technical approach to skills education forgets the importance of helping learners develop this judgment about how to use a skill and when to use it, how to adapt it to context.

Now I think this whole idea of the “planned obsolescence” of the teacher works with all the ideas we’ve been talking about throughout #rhizo14. (The next part sounds more linear than I intended) It connects very much with independence (if you’re going to disappear eventually as teacher, you should probably work on helping learners become independent); if they’re going to be independent, they’ll need to embrace uncertainty, because that’s the way the world is; if they’re going to be independent embracers of uncertainty, they’ll need the support of community. And Apostolos mentioned on his blog an idea that had come to me: that what we really want to achieve as teachers is to make our learners eventually less dependent upon us, so that they become our peers. In that way, we are teaching so that our learners become part of our learning community in future. This is easier to imagine when your students are adults, but I am also now a “peer” of people who were once my professors.

@Jessifer in y/day’s #moocmooc chat said:

@Jessifer: Education privileges knowing rather than championing not knowing. We need to wear our not knowing more openly on our sleeves. #moocmooc

Once we embrace and value not knowing, once we help our students embrace it, we become peers on a journey to navigate the uncertainty that is the world (even while we are still in the formal course together, but recognizing that learning does not begin or end in any course). A world that is complex but that we often try to make legible (and I owe Terry Elliott a separate blog post on that! Coming soon) and lose the reality of its complexity while doing so.

Every model, every metaphor is limited. It is a representation of reality, it is not reality itself.

I look forward to research (hopefully a collaborative autoethnography) with some participants of #rhizo14 , on #rhizo14, as a way to continue our learning journey here. I hope this research somehow, in some way, manages to represent the richness and complexity of this experience. It will be a representation of our individual realities and how they intersected from our perspectives. Sure, we’d like the course leader to participate, and it would be great if he did. But it will be great either way.

Now one last point: how is it that we supposedly want our students to become independent, for our teacherliness to become less important for them, and yet we continue to remain there? As Jaap said in a comment on Apostolos’ blog – it is not just about the teacher giving students permission to stop depending on him/her, but also the students giving the teacher permission to do before the formal course “ends”.

I love Dave Cormier, I don’t remember seeing him much around during week 4 of rhizo14 (maybe I was too busy myself?) but I know that I did not feel a sense of loss for his absence, and that means something went really “right” with #rhizo14! That I did not feel the need to seek him out. I don’t think I even tweeted to him or tagged him on a facebook post last week. I just noticed all this now as I finished writing this blog post…


Why @HybridPed is my Favorite Journal

On the upcoming two-year anniversary of the journal Hybrid Pedagogy, I thought I’d share why this has been my favorite journal for the past few months (and probably for many more years to come).

There are many reasons I love the journal, but foremost among them is its digital agnostic approach (is that a term they made up?) – unlike a lot of other writing about educational technology, that tends to be  overly positive or overly negative (utopian/dystopian, as we discussed in #edcmooc), this journal provides a balanced and critical approach: in their words, they “avoid valorizing educational technology”. The journal is a reflective hybrid of “critical pedagogy” and “digital pedagogy” (though digital pedagogy is not their only focus). I think it is wonderful to find a journal that has an underlying social justice approach, that offers dissenting viewpoints, while also being critical in the most beautiful sense: where the end of the criticism is constructive (don’t take my word for it – check out the journal itself). They do all of this in accessible language – whereas much critical pedagogy work is not written in ways accessible to your average practitioner. It is a journal with an alternative perspective, a radical approach, but through it all, it does all of this in an accessible manner.

It is also not just a journal. The two individuals whom I often connect with it (Jesse & Sean) also lead other creative online pedagogical experiments, some of which I have participated in, such as ReadMake (I made this video reflecting on the creative chaos of it). They also lead monthly discussions on topics of interest to a variety of people, via the Twitter hashtag #digped, and have done lots of other creative experiments that you can read about in the journal.

Insight into their supportive/collaborative peer-review process made me wonder why most peer-reviewed journals take on an antagonistic double-blind peer review process, when it is pedagogically much more constructive to do open and supportive peer review! Jesse recently tweeted “I’ve a staunch no mean reviewers policy @HybridPed. Ironically, it’s the thing I’m ruthless about.” [which reminded me that I was recently tempted to tell someone “by the way, I was one of your peer reviewers for that article you just published – the nice, supportive reviewer, not the mean one!”]

I also love this recent post on promoting open access publications that also reflects on their process, which concludes with “The work of scholarship should ultimately be about generosity” and that we should champion the work of others as well as our own (and, I just realized, I am currently doing just that in this blog post)

Hybrid Pedagogy recently published a list of lists, a great way to navigate the treasure of articles in the journal. However, my favorite article of all-time was not mentioned in that list. That article, Beyond Rigor was the first journal article I read (and shared) after successfully defending my thesis. That might be why I have such a strong emotional affinity for/with it. But there is more to it than that. The article does a great job of articulating an idea I’d been trying to convince my colleagues of for a long time: that outcomes-based approaches to designing curricula are problematic. For some reason, when my colleagues read this article, all of them agreed with it. I am continually amazed by the power of well-articulated discourse and rhetoric. I will expand on this article later in a separate post.

I was recently introduced to the idea of “intellectual love“, and I recognized immediately that I am in deep intellectual love with this journal. It may be that this love stems from a compatibility in world views, but the journal still manages to challenge and stimulate me and push me beyond my comfort zone, which is, I believe, even more important.

A mentor once told me to try to publish in journals I liked to read, and @HybridPed is it right now! I look forward to one day soon being able to make a contribution to scholarship similar to the great quality reflective and provocative work this journal already does.

Join the fan club 😉 and enjoy