(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

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Authentic & Sustainable Assessment: openly brainstorming workshop ideas

I’ll be co-facilitating a workshop with a colleague on “alternative assessment” and I have chosen to make my part of it about authentic and sustainable assessment. I plan to ask participants to brainstorm ways to modify their current assessments to make them more authentic/sustainable. (My colleague will then discuss pedagogical strategies for implementing these abstract ideas that I will discuss).

Thought I’d write this post to share my thoughts so far and see if anyone out here has good examples they’ve done in their courses that I could share. Also any ideas you have for making the workshop activities more interesting. I could then, in sharing these ideas, show by example why a sustainable, authentic piece of writing (like this blog post) can help develop ideas (and share with a wider audience) beyond doing the research all on my own and not sharing it. Does that make sense? Would this be considered crowdsourcing my workshop? (I already have books and of course google full of ideas I could use, but I have discovered I can sometimes get much more valuable stuff from people directly, like here or on twitter).

I just saw this wonderful statement by Dave Cormier where he is encouraging “blind sharing” because

It is next to impossible for you to know before you’ve shared whether it’s going to be useful to someone else.

So true. Now, moving on so I can “blind share” and encourage you to share.

So how do i define my terms?

Authentic assessment is one where learners try “real-world” applications of what they are learning. Two definitions mentioned in the Authentic Assessment Toolbox are:

A form of assessment in which students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills — Jon Mueller

“…Engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively. The tasks are either replicas of or analogous to the kinds of problems faced by adult citizens and consumers or professionals in the field.” — Grant Wiggins — (Wiggins, 1993, p. 229).

One way to look at it is to consider important skills/tasks/values a “professional” in the field does, and design an assessment close to that.
An example pf a very bad assessment was my First Aid training with the Red Cross many years ago – it was a multiple choice exam. This in no way tests anyone’s ability to perform CPR under stress. A more authentic assessment would be to simulate an emergency situation and have volunteers react. The simulation, of course, would not test the volunteer’s courage and confidence to act under real conditions (quite difficult to test in an artificial environment) but at least it tests their CPR skills directly! A truly authentic alternative to this would be difficult to do in practice (e.g. Leave them on lifeguard duty and watch them from afar! ) but I have to assume that real professional life-savers (e.g. Medical people, firefighters, etc.) get more rigorous and authentic assessments than volunteers at the Red Cross.

A good continuum used in the Authentic Assessment Toolbox is this below:

Traditional ——————————————— Authentic

Selecting a Response ———————————— Performing a Task

Contrived ————————————————————— Real-life

Recall/Recognition ——————————- Construction/Application

Teacher-structured ————————————- Student-structured

Indirect Evidence ——————————————– Direct Evidence

(Note: the word “performance” can be tricky to use because it sometimes has behaviorist connotations and neoliberal ones: i.e. The emphasis is on showing a measurable skill rather than learning it deeply; however, in this context, i think the emphasis means ability to do something rather than theoretically select an appropriate response on a test).

(And in case you’re asking why I didn’t just get examples from that same website – many of the links I followed are not working).

Sustainable Assessment is an idea I got from #flsustain, Nottingham’s Sustainability, Society and You MOOC. According to Speight the author of “Learning for Sustainability” (free, open book, downloadable from here)

assessment strategies should be carefully planned to ensure that what is assessed is the development of the individual rather than their performance. … to focus upon a journey rather than a moment. A sustainable method of assessment is one that can do ‘double or triple-duty’ – it is appropriate and valid for the learning involved, takes the long view (thus making a contribution to society), and also meets the academic requirements of the university.

As part of the MOOC, I wrote the following:

Sustainability has connotations of continuity and of doing things in a holistic manner. Because my interest is in education, I am particularly interested in sustainable learning: how to design our learning environment and community and activities in ways that use sustainable methods and materials, and also promote sustainable/ongoing learning that continues seamlessly beyond any course-constrained time and space. I am just now learning how ideas of open education fit within this framework.

My personal approach to sustainable assessment has been to have all or most of my students’ work on their blogs so others outside the course can benefit. Because the content is on blogs, I am more intentional about making it useful for others beyond the course, and have invited my international networks (aka my online friends) to interact with my students via their blogs and Twitter, to everyone’s delight 🙂

Community-based learning, when done well can be both an authentic and sustainable form of assessment: learners work with real communities in their real problems, and hopefully create something that will have benefit beyond just the course, hopefully something that could endure beyond that time and space.

And just one closing quote inspired by Sean Michael Morris’ latest post on Keep Learning:

as teachers we can never be certain that our students will choose the same walls we choose for them…the space of learning is more fluid and adaptable than we might have planned on

(Disclaimer: i am quoting him slightly out of context, but it still fits brilliantly here).

This blog post, and the workshop it prepares for, is an invitation to expand our teaching beyond the walls… And I am inviting you to post suggestions in the comments! Thanks in advance!

Update: some resources from Twitter (thanks to Andrew M and Sarah S):
I was reminded of Herrington’s work (strange I did not think of it even though I cite her often in my thesis!) and pointed to this website on authentic learning, which has an authentic assessment and also points to this other good resource from UW-Stout
Another resource was HE Academy, which apparently has good projects with sustainability at their core (have not checked them out yet; hoping they are sustainable approaches to assessing learning, rather than approaches to assessing sustainability)

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My Favorite Teacher?

Cathy Davidson encouraged us in #FutureEd to share who is our fave teacher and why… I had a couple of people in mind, but then reading other people’s responses (and also the interviews in the last video) inspired me to re-think this question.

I am thinking of several of my fave teachers and mentors, and what they all had in common was this: they cared about students as individuals. They were kind and loving and caring.

Yes, some of them also challenged me to think beyond what I thought I could think and do more than I thought I could do.

But kindness and caring for human beings? That’s priceless. That will stay with every student, whether they excelled at the course or barely made it through.

It is a good reminder for how to be a teacher myself. I have seen it more often in the older and wiser teachers, and I hope as time goes by, I will become a wiser and kinder teacher myself.


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 🙂