(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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


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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.

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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…

20140413-172820.jpg
Image source: CC-NC-SA License by Theophilos

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