Sunday, December 19, 2010

Beatles vs Stones: Google Gives the Facts

I know Google takes some hits in the press from those who fear that the company is taking over the world, but for what I pay them — which so far has been zero — I think they are a wonderful company that has offered the world some extremely valuable resources, often at no cost. I'm playing now with Ngram Viewer, one of their latest freebies, and within 10 minutes, it has helped me resolve one of the longest running intellectual questions of my generation: who was the greatest rock band: the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?

At last I have some hard evidence to counter the silly, often drunken or stoned (pun intended) opinions of those who thought the Stones were the greatest. Clearly, the Beatles are the top rock band ever. And not only do they beat-le the Stones, but they also beat-le Elvis and Michael Jackson. You want proof? I got proof.

Ngram accesses a huge database of about 500 billion words printed over the past 200 years. As the New York Times reports: "Google has made a mammoth database culled from nearly 5.2 million digitized books available to the public for free downloads and online searches, opening a new landscape of possibilities for research and education in the humanities." Using Ngram Viewer, anyone — a 4th grader, for instance — can research the frequency of terms and phrases within a body of literature for a given time period. I chose to look at English between 1950 and 2000 to see how often the Beatles were mentioned, especially in comparison to the Stones, Elvis, and Michael Jackson. As you can clearly see in the graph below, the Beatles are mentioned far more than the other performers.
The Beatles vs the Pretenders
Despite the dip in the mid-70s after their breakup, the Beatles never lost prominence over their rivals. I conclude, then, that the Beatles were culturally more important and more prominent than the Stones, Elvis, or Michael Jackson. To my mind, that makes them the greatest rock band.

I did a bit more research in Ngram Viewer and discovered that John Lennon was wrong when he said in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ and that Christianity would fade away. As you can see below, Jesus Christ is far more prominent in the literature than the Beatles or any of the others or all of them together. Jesus Christ is the Superstar, at least in this analysis, and the Beatles are a far distant second.
Jesus Christ vs the Pretenders
And I did all of this in about 10 minutes. Really. Using Google's Ngram Viewer to access their database of 5.6 million books and over 500 billion words, I was able to generate an enlightening view into the long, strange journey that we've all been on since my birth in 1951.

Thanks, Google.

And what does this have to do with complexity and critical thinking? Well, just a quick note: aggregation is one of the keys to critical thinking. You must be able to gather data from a wide range of sources to have a chance of capturing the complexity of any slice of reality. And then you must be able to slice and dice that data to look at it from a variety of perspectives to illuminate it, to inform it, to give it meaning. Ngram Viewer gives us access to a collection of data that none of us could have ever hoped to have access on our own, and it gives us a tool that allows us to manipulate that data in ways that highlight and clarify it without ever destroying the context from which it comes. This is very powerful.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What's Wrong with Critical Thinking?

In my last post — sad to say, over a month ago — I began the process of questioning whether or not my writing about complex thought was loose and vague. To my mind, it is not. However, I do believe that it is a bit too abstract, and I wish to bring it down to earth, to the specific classroom, to specific people trying to learn specific things.

My colleagues and I in Albany State's QEP program have just spent two months talking about how to integrate critical thinking into the college classroom. We ended the discussion with a specific deliverable: a statement about critical thinking for our QEP syllabi that would be intuitively obvious to the average college student, accompanied with an evaluation rubric that detailed how we teachers intended to assess the students' use of critical thinking in the class. I think all of us were surprised by the intractability of the issue. We found it quite difficult to identify just what we meant by the term critical thinking for our own specific classes, and we never did arrive at a single definition that satisfied all of us. We also had difficulty finding language for the students.

However, all of our various definitions of critical thinking shared the common assumption that critical thinking is the function of a single mind acting upon ideas, arguments, and evidence with the intention of clarifying, ordering, and assessing them. We accepted the Cartesian separation between subject/knower and object/known and the resultant reductionism and fragmentation of knowledge that separation leads to. I am dissatisfied with this consequence of our work, and I want to explore Morin's ideas about how to develop complex thought.

In his short book Homeland Earth, Morin calls for a reform in thinking as a necessary precursor to saving humanity and our planet. He grounds his shift in thinking in very practical terms and towards very practical goals, and his example may be useful to me. First, I am attracted to his discussion of the problems with the scientific and technical systems of thought that have dominated much of the world and almost all of the Academy for the past three hundred years. According to Morin, reductionist, fragmented thinking has given rise to specialization of knowledge, along with the subsequent specialization of research, work, business, and too much else of life. This specialization abstracts knowledge from its context, essentially removing it from that which gives it meaning. The bit of abstracted knowledge becomes incredibly clear in its isolation, but also increasingly meaningless. As Morin says:
Specialization abs-tracts, that is, it extracts an object from a given field, rejects the links and interconnections with its environment, and inserts it in the abstract conceptual zone of the compartmentalized discipline, whose boundaries arbitrarily break the systemicity (the relation of a part to the whole) and the multidimensionality of phenomena. It leads to mathematical abstraction that splits itself off from the concrete, in part by favoring everything that is calculable and formalizable and for the rest by ignoring the context necessary for the intelligibility of its objects (123, 124).
Thus, a discipline such as economics, "which is the most advanced of the social sciences in terms of mathematics, is the most socially and humanly backward of the sciences, as it abstracts itself from the social, historical, political, psychological, and ecological conditions that are inseparable from economic activities" (124). The resulting blindness and incompetence with the economy, Morin insists, is a major problem for our world. The skin-on-skin exchange of money in a business transaction cannot be reduced simply to numbers and cannot be separated from the psychological, social, environmental, and spiritual context in which one person meets another person to trade money for a good or a service.

Of course, it is easy to see this same blindness and incompetence in education. The visceral engagement of a student with her world in order to learn about that world cannot be reduced to a number or letter grade and cannot be separated from the psychological, social, environmental, economic, and spiritual context in which that student engages her world. Meaningful learning for the student depends both on the discrete, individual chunk of knowledge engaged AND on the links and interconnections that embed that chunk of knowledge into an ecosystem along with the student. And this embedding into an ecosystem is complex as it extends equally into the external ecosystem, the world, and the internal ecosystem, our bodies, especially our brains. This complex embedding results in each of us being embedded into the world through our learning, and the more we learn, the more we are embedded into — not separated from — the world we are learning. We ingest our learning, literally into our guts and brains, and through that learning, the world ingests us.

The problem I see with critical thinking is that it mostly encourages and serves this reductionist, fragmented way of thinking. The role of analysis, for instance, is to reduce any issue or thing into its constituent parts, to separate those parts, to clarify them, and to arrange them logically. This makes great sense, as I have said in an earlier post, and can provide genuine insight, but ultimately it leads to what Morin calls a blind knowledge. This is most easily seen in the biology class as the professor dissects an anesthetized but still live frog into its constituent parts, naming each, describing its functions, and telling how it fits into the other parts. All the while, the professor is blind to the fact that the frog is no longer a frog. It was no longer a frog the moment it was removed from its frog ecosystem. There is so much more to know about the frog than its weight. And we can see this same reductionism at work in the literature class as the professor dissects an anesthetized but still live sonnet into its constituent parts, naming each, describing its functions, and telling how it fits into the other parts. Again, the professor is blind to the fact that the sonnet is no longer a sonnet. It was no longer a sonnet the moment it was removed from its sonnet ecosystem. There is so much more to know about a sonnet than the name of its author and its meter and rhyme scheme.

Now, am I attacking analysis? No, I am not. Analysis is incredibly useful and can provide genuine insight into both frogs and sonnets. As Morin notes, "thinking that compartmentalizes, divides, and isolates allows the specialists and experts to be very effective in their compartments and to cooperate efficiently in noncomplex areas of knowledge, especially those having to do with the functioning of artificial machines" (124,125). However, by itself, analysis can lead only to blind knowledge that has incredible acuity and efficacy within a very narrow discipline, but that is benignly meaningless or randomly harmful in life with all its rich, complex, and unpredictable interconnections and interactions. We need a complex critical thinking that can reconnect the products of our analyses into the interconnected, rich ecosystems of mind and world. In my next post, I want to explore what some of those kinds of thinking might be.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Gaps Between Galaxies: Learning in MOOCs

(I started this post, then published it unfinished. My apologies to any who saw that unfinished, briefly published post. I know better.)

I involved myself in a wonderful conversation over at Dave Cormier's blog about #PLENK2010 and PLEs, and I want to reflect on that experience and draw some lessons for myself. Also I want to move my comments back to my blog and not clutter Dave's blog, though the links are still here if anyone wants.

First, I think that such conversation is among the best things that can happen in a MOOC (massively open online course) such as PLENK 2010. The organized sessions and the prepared spaces on the wiki are also quite beneficial and educational, but nothing quite matches the spontaneous learning that happens in these open web spaces. Deep space, the gaps between galaxies, that's where the best learning is for me.

As often happens in such conversations, we conversants formed some agreements and some disagreements. While I found the agreements satisfying and validating [I'll have to explore later the role of agreement in supporting knowledge formation], I found the disagreements more stimulating, as they forced me to look again at my thoughts. I think that agreement can sometimes close a discussion too early. The main complaint that grabbed my attention was that Dave and I were engaging in a bit of hand-waving and loose talk about the nature of PLEs, which I interpret to mean that we had slipped into arcane, esoteric pedantry at best or into sloppy writing at worst. So I looked back at the conversation and found that it still struck me as relatively clear writing (writing can ALWAYS be clearer) about an important issue. So what was I to make of the complaint? Why did three seemingly bright people NOT see the same issue in the same way, consider the same evidence and arrive at the same conclusions?

It occurs to me that this is a fine illustration of the kind of rhizomatic learning that I have been trying to talk about. Let me explore this with the help of a metaphor: people and groups as galaxies. PLENK 2010 is a massively large galaxy (a rhizome) composed of 1,500 people, massive content, the Internet, computers, languages, theories, and so on. I visualize it as a galaxy not from on high, as a god might, but from the inside, as I do the Milky Way. Moreover, each of those 1,500 people and other points of light (content, Net, etc.) is itself a galaxy just as large as PLENK 2010, or larger.

To my mind, this is not loose talk. This metaphor is quite pointed (in the complex way that all metaphors are pointed) in addressing a misconception that most of us struggle under: what Edgar Morin calls the simplified thought of reduction and disjunction. We are in the habit of speaking of people or knowledges as single things, closed units, when we know that they are not. Each person is a complex constellation of physical and mental points, each of which is also a complex constellation of yet other points, and each of which is a point within some other complex constellation of points. This is a fractal, complex way of envisioning reality, and it is quite scientific and hard-headed. Quite concrete. And yet quite foreign to the way we've been thinking for the past several hundred years of scientific positivism and reductionism.

Actually, this complex view of people and classes seems to account best for the confusion many expressed when first trying to engage PLENK 2010. They seemed to view PLENK 2010 as a massive field of stars, a galaxy, that at first seems like so much white noise, an undifferentiated background. They frantically look for a Northstar to get their bearings, and if they don't find one, they panic. This is where Dave Cormier's advice about clustering comes in handy. When approaching a new galaxy, we must pick a point of light or two and map to those to see if there is a match to any points in ourselves. If not, we move on until we find some points that map. We then connect with what we can recognize. We anchor to a couple of points of light: to people, concepts, theories, or interesting conversations. It hardly matters what so long as we anchor. If we never find those anchors, then we fall away (as many seem to) and turn our attention back to the other galaxies (rhizomes) to which we are already linked: work, family, etc. etc.

But if we can and do anchor, then we change the galaxy, the rhizome, to which we anchor. In this case, we change PLENK 2010. As we come to know it, map to it, it comes to know us, or map to us. We change the group, and the group changes us. To use other metaphors, we exchange energy and DNA and fluids. Or as I said so loosely before: “The individual learns from the environment, and the environment learns from the individual. In the interplay, they shape and reshape each other, learn and relearn from each other, teach and reteach each other.” This is precisely what happened in this conversation on Dave's blog. This happens all the time among cells, and it happens to us as cells in a society, or a class. To quote perhaps too much from Morin:
The intelligibility of the system has to be found, not only in the system itself, but also in its relationship with the environment, and … this relationship is not a simple dependence: it is constitutive of the system. … This connection is absolutely crucial epistemologically, methodologically, theoretically, and empirically. Logically, the system cannot be understood except by including the environment. The environment is at the same time intimate and foreign: it is a part of the system while remaining exterior to it. … Theoretically and empirically, the concept of an open system opens the door to a theory of evolution, that can only come from the interaction of system and eco-system … In other words, it is a theory of living systems. (On Complexity, 11)
To my mind, then, education is a theory of living systems, and as such, it must include both the individual system and the eco-system, considered together as a meta-system, both dependent on the other and both autonomous. Morin is, of course, approaching his topic in the above quote from the point of view of the individual system (person, cell, star, whatever). Later, he adds that the eco-system cannot be understood except in terms of its included systems. In short, a learning theory must account for the individual system (the learner) and the eco-system (the world), and it must account for the complex interaction between the two, or among the many, to be more precise. It must account for the knowledge within the system and the eco-system and how the interplay (including the random and the black swans) within the eco-system changes the knowledge flowing in both systems and eco-system.

As near as I can tell, Connectivism has as good a chance of explaining this kind of complex learning as any learning theory that I know of, and that is why I'm attracted to it. Finally, it's this kind of complex learning that interests me. While behaviorism has taught me a few things about learning, in the end, if learning is no more than stimulus-response, then let computers do it. They don't get bored.

I suspect that I'll continue to write about this, but I have a paper to finish for publication. Later, scholars, and thanks for the wonderful ride. And special thanks to Dave Cormier and Scott Leslie.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Complexity and Personal Learning Environments

In a recent post to Dave's Educational Blog, Dave Cormier made a number of comments about MOOCs (massively open online courses) in general, #PLENK2010 in particular, and personal learning networks/environments. Most of what he had to say was, as usual, quite insightful and very much in line with the way I tend to think about these issues, but he expressed a rather forceful caveat about the phrase personal learning environment (PLE). In short, he does not like its potential emphasis on the personal, or individual learner distinct from the group. He says:
It is easy to see the transition to PLE as the ‘rebel yell’ of education. The splitter leaving the fold to strike out on their own to a place where they can make their own decisions, commune with knowledge on their own terms, thank you very much, and not be under the evil yoke of a power mongering educator and not have to suffer the ignominy of working in groups with other classmates. The lone learning warrior, learning on their own, without guidance. It is an easy vision to have as the discussion around PLEs is often put in opposition to LMSs and this often degenerates to “institution bad, learn on your own”. While this is a very interesting debate, it is not the same as the debate around learners managing their own learning content.

I see learning as a social activity. I don’t care if you’re engaging with dead white men in a book, it’s still a conversation. (albeit one sided in that case) The problem with the PLE (when contrasted with the LMS) is that it can easily move the focus to THE LEARNER and not THE LEARNERS. In this way the move from LMS to PLE can be seen as a move from with people, to without people. We don’t learn much alone. We need to keep the focus of the discussion on the disaggregation of power, not the disaggregation of people.
I appreciate his concern that the debate around this phrase "can easily move the focus to THE LEARNER and not THE LEARNERS' and his conviction that "we don't learn much alone," though I worry that he overstates his case. I think most educators recognize "the lone learning warrior" as a romantic myth somewhat akin to the myth of the starving poet, scribbling away in his lonely garret overlooking the smokey rooftops of Paris, plumbing the depths of the human soul in a fearless and solitary obscurity. If such creatures exist, then they are such black swans as to be outside the theories of either learning or writing. They are gunslingers, high plains drifters, steppenwolves, and like black swans, we cannot account for them.

Dave is right that we do not learn much alone, at least not until we have gained sufficient learning apparatus and context (language, heuristics, concepts, worldview, etc) from our group that we can begin to make some discoveries on our own, and even then, we almost always take this somewhat solitary learning back to the group for verification and validation. However, I think his efforts to avoid defining learning as primarily the work of an individual (the personal in personal learning environment) has blinded him to the rich and complex potential of the phrase personal learning environment, and I'd like to offer an alternative reading that explores that complexity and avoids reducing learning to the exercise of a single, solitary, individual mind. My discussion here is informed by Edgar Morin's short book On Complexity (2008), and I am perhaps as much trying to understand Morin as I am trying to illuminate personal learning environments. Complexity has its rewards.

If I understand Dave correctly, then he is arguing against the tendency to reduce learning to the exercise of a solitary brain. This tendency is shared by many learning theories which view learning as something that happens within each individual. Behaviorism focuses on the change in the behavior of the individual, and even social constructivism places learning in the minds of the individuals of the social group.  Most learning theories tend to see learning as some operation an individual mind performs on the external world of objects, internalizing ideas, concepts, behaviors, or patterns that existed independently in the objective world. These theories, in turn, are institutionalized in an educational system that issues individual grades to individual students, and those educational institutions are couched in a culture that preaches and rewards individual achievement, as if Bill Gates alone was Microsoft.

If Edgar Morin is correct, then this tendency to reductionism is part of a scientific habit of mind, or paradigm, that we have inherited from Descartes. "Descartes formulated this master paradigm of Western civilization by disjoining the thinking subject … and the thing being thought of … and by positing 'clear and distinct' ideas as principles of reality" (3). Science has bought into this paradigm of simplicity, and the results have been stunning, in all the connotations of that word. As Morin says: "This paradigm has dominated the adventure of Western thought since the seventeenth century. It has without doubt allowed for very great progress in scientific knowledge and in philosophical reflection. Its ultimately noxious consequences did not begin to become clear until the twentieth century" (3).

For Morin, this reductionist tendency works in two ways, both quite familiar to us today: we either reduce reality to a collection of discrete parts, logically arranged, and logically interacting (scientists do this) or we reduce reality to a unified New Age Whole, Gaia, the Force, God, or the Big Soup (spiritualists do this). In terms of personal learning networks, we either reduce learning to the personal and lose sight of the network, or we reduce learning to the network and lose sight of the personal. For most of us, reality is either/or: either all interacting parts (a unified field theory) or one big, vibrating w/hole (a different unified field theory). A thing is either this or that, but not both; either here or there, but not both.

Morin says that both reductions are too simple to account for the complexity of reality. Rather, we need to keep both in mind. We must replace the connectors either/or with and/and/and. To my mind, this line of thinking is strongly reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari's complaint against arborescent thinking in A Thousand Plateaus (1987): "One becomes two [Unity and Parts]: whenever we encounter this formula … what we have before us is the most classical and well reflected, oldest, and weariest kind of thought. Nature doesn't work that way" (5). For D&G, reality is a rhizomatic multiplicity, and "multiplicities are rhizomatic, and expose arborescent pseudomultiplicities for what they are. There is no unity to serve as a pivot in the object or to divide in the subject. … A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions" (8).

Perhaps a simple (too simple) illustration is in order.  I'm an English teacher, so this example comes easily to mind.
Consider the period (punctuation mark) at the end of this sentence --> I made it big and supplied an arrow so that you would notice it; otherwise, you might not. We can address this period as a discrete element of punctuation, a subset of grammar, itself a subset of semantics. It has a name, period, which gives it a unique identity. It has a definition, a role, a verifiable existence. Clearly, a period has scientific meaning as an entity all unto itself. It is an individual.

Yet, all by itself, its meaning is trivial to the point of meaninglessness. On a line by itself, it's just a silly little dot:

.

Ahh, we say, right! The period means nothing as an individual. Only the whole sentence/paragraph/post/blog (whatever holistic level you wish to use) has meaning. And so we merge the period into the whole, and again we see that it becomes meaningless (it also raises hell with spell check and word wrap):

Considertheperiod(punctuationmark)attheendofthessentence.Imadeitbigandsuppliedanarrowsothatyouwouldnoticeit;otherwise,youmightnot.wecanaddressthisperiodasadiscreteelementofpunctuation,asubsetofgrammar,itselfasubsetofsemantics.ithasaname,period,whichgivesitauniqueidentity.ithasadefinition,arole,averifiableexistence.clearlyaperiodhasscientificmeaningasanentityalluntoitself.itisanindividual.


Obviously, reduction of the period into either scientific objectivism or holistic subjectivism (or any other duality you choose) destroys the meaning of the period. We must see the period as both itself and as a part of the whole. Both these simple views are at times expedient and even enlightening, yet if they become the only approach to the period, then we lose the meaning. In Morin's terms, we lose the complex reality of even something so relatively un-complex (I won't say simple) as a punctuation mark. According to Morin, individuals must have a complex autonomy based on dependence rather than freedom. We must see that the period emerges from the ecosystem of language. Though it draws its energy and structure from printed language as a whole, it must maintain its integrity as a period. It cannot droop into a , or rise into an i. The individual and the whole have a recursive reciprocity that defines them both. The period defines the paragraph, which defines the period, which defines the paragraph, and so on, back and forth.


Brains are like this. They are composed of neurons, all of which must remain individually unique, and yet all of which must be organized into a functioning brain. By itself, a neuron is almost as meaningless as a period, though not as un-complex. And if enough neurons join together into enough brain, then mind or consciousness emerges out of the interplay between micro and macro. This is where the magic happens, and as of yet, we do not have the language that captures this complexity. Still, reducing mind either to the interplay of discrete neurons in the brain or to some cosmic consciousness or Soul misses the complex, concrete reality of mind.


So what does all this have to do with personal learning environment? I'm so glad you asked. I was beginning to think I'd never get there.


Learning as simply a personal activity or as simply a group activity misses the complex reality of learning. Though it can be helpful to look at either the individual or the group, learning is the interplay of the individual with her environment. The individual learns from the environment, and the environment learns from the individual. In the interplay, they shape and reshape each other, learn and relearn from each other, teach and reteach each other.


Thus, as personal learning environment suggests, learning is framed by personal and environment and cannot exist without both. Another way to interpret this phrase is that learning is one of those activities that joins the individual to his environment. Or perhaps a better way to say this is that learning describes a particular kind of interplay, a particular dance, between the individual and the environment. And if that isn't complex enough, then imagine that all six and a half billion humans are all engaged in a similar dance—each with her own nuance, steps, rhythms, intensities, or determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions—world without end, one hell of a whopper rhizome.


The problem, of course, is that we don't have much language yet to talk intelligently about this kind of complexity. Our notions of critical thinking (interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, self-regulation, and so on) are all pretty much individual mental exercises aimed at reducing complexity to simple clarity. We need new ways to examine and think about complex, rhizomatic structures. Morin mentions three ways to think, or principles, that help us approach the complex: a dialogic principle (dia-logic), the principle of organizational recursion, and the holographic principle (by which I think he means what I would call fractal). Deleuze and Guattari mention cartography and decalcomania. I was pleased in our Elluminate session yesterday (Wed, 2010 Oct 06) when George Siemens spoke about mapping learning and knowledge to real life and listed resonance, synchronicity, wayfinding, amplification, and learning/knowledge symmetry aspects of connectivist learning. I don't know if he intends them as critical (or perhaps higher order) thinking skills, but they resonate with me that way. Recognizing and engaging pockets of resonance in an environment seems to be a critical thinking skill needed for mapping the rhizome.


Anyway, I think Cormier would do well to reconsider and find another way to read personal learning environments.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Critical Thinking and Blind Intelligence

I have real concerns about the ability of traditional, Western critical thinking heuristics to be sufficient for negotiating the rhizome, any rhizome.

My primary issue is that all of the CT heuristics that I've found in my research are limited to one mind: mine or yours, but not to both. Critical thinking seems to be a function of the solitary mind as it contemplates and analyzes the separate universe. Most of the scholars I've read so far tacitly assume that critical thinking is a set of operations performed by a discrete subject, the Knower, upon discrete objects, the Known, buying into what Edgar Morin calls the "paradigm of simplification." Morin says that Descartes created this paradigm by "disjoining the thinking subject … and the thing being thought of" (On Complexity, 3). This paradigm of simple thought has "dominated the adventure of Western thought since the seventeenth century" and "has without doubt allowed for very great progress in scientific knowledge and in philosophical reflection" (3); yet, according to Morin, it has led us to a blind intelligence that "destroys unities and totalities" … that "isolates all objects from their environment" … and that "cannot conceive of the inseparable link between the observer and the observed" (4). Simple thought has created a pathology of knowing that is taking a "cruel toll on human phenomena" (5), and as Morin concludes about this "mutilating, one-dimensional vision:"
The inability to conceive of the complexity of anthroposocial reality, both in its micro dimension (the individual being), and in its macro dimension (the planetary collectivity of humanity), has led us to infinite tragedies. … Political strategy requires complex knowing, because strategy plays itself out by working with and against uncertainty, chance, the multiple play of interactions and retroactions (feedback loops). (5)
I like little metaphors when I'm trying to think through an idea, and to my mind, this mode of thought is akin to dissecting a frog, a live frog. If I am skillful enough with my scalpel—my analytical reason—I can neatly divide the frog into its constituent parts, reducing it to a collection of discrete, identifiable, and classifiable parts that will, in fact, help me understand the way the parts fit together and function in frogs, but along the way, of course, I've killed the frog, and I have no skill in putting it back together. This putting back together is not a trivial issue (certainly not for the frog). Moreover, the clean, hierarchical, explicit order that I imposed upon the frog's parts is not only useless for trying to reassemble the spaghetti-mess harmony that had been the living frog, but the hierarchical structure appears to work against reassembly.

This reminds me that for Deleuze & Guattari hierarchical thinking is a type of overcoding of reality that attempts to force all the relevant points of an object into neat little rows, each point occupying one, and only one, neat little place. As D& G note: "A rhizome or multiplicity [such as a frog, or a universe] never allows itself to be overcoded, never has available a supplementary dimension over and above its number of lines, that is, over and above the multiplicity of numbers attached to those lines" (9). I see critical thinking as an overcoding, in this sense, as blind intelligence. Intelligence, yes. Blind, yes. Therefore, of limited use for approaching rhizomatic reality.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Critical Thinking: A Definition

I've started thinking much about critical thinking in preparation for a series of workshops that we are doing at my school, so of course, I asked myself what critical thinking has to do with life in the rhizome. As is almost always the case, I'm finding connections, but then, isn't that what the rhizome is all about? The very first characteristic of the rhizome as described by DnG is: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be (7).

The first connection that I want to explore is the role of critical thinking in cartography and decalcomania, the two mapping heuristics that DnG discuss. I think that these have been the two most difficult principles of rhizomatics for me. Perhaps critical thinking will give me a way to wrap my head around these concepts.

Let me start with a definition of critical thinking, not such a trivial task, as I have found out. Critical thinking tends to be one of those catch-all terms that everyone uses, nodding to each other in presumed agreement, while meaning slightly or totally different things. To my mind, critical thinking is a cluster of mental heuristics that increase my chances of reasonably and scientifically observing some slice of the world and deciding what to do or to believe about what I observe. Critical thinking helps me more skillfully respond to my world. What are these mental heuristics? I've found several lists, but the 1990 Delphi Report from the American Philosophical Association (Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction) provides perhaps as solid a starting point as we are likely to get. The Executive Summary of APA's Delphi Report says:

  • We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. CT is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one's personal and civic life. While not synonymous with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair- minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society.

They later list 6 primary skills with sub-skills:
Critical Thinking Skills
Interpretation
  • Categorization
  • Decoding Significance
  • Clarifying Meaning
Analysis
  • Examining Ideas
  • Identifying Arguments
  • Analyzing Arguments
Evaluation
  • Assessing Claims
  • Assessing Arguments
Inference
  • Querying Evidence
  • Conjecturing Alternatives
  • Drawing Conclusions
Explanation
  • Stating Results
  • Justifying Procedures
  • Presenting Arguments
Self-Regulation
  • Self-examination
  • Self-correction
This is a fairly workable list and grouping, but a tighter grouping is provided by Sohindar Sachdev in the book Critical Thinking Through Technology in Science and Mathematics Education (2001). Sachdev groups 19 different critical thinking skills into three categories:

  1. Interpretive Reasoning - "the cognitive processes by which we begin to understand the information that has been remembered or observed."
  2. Strategic Reasoning - "the cognitive process by which we develop the conclusion provided by interpretive reasoning."
  3. Adaptive Reasoning - "the cognitive process by which we extend the knowledge beyond the criteria established by strategic reasoning."

Of course, I immediately see ways that I differ from these definitions. I start my critical thinking with observation, which neither of these definitions seem to do. To my mind, observation is an interpretive act, and if you are not observing in some systematic, critical way, then you are likely to see or not see most anything. But I don't choose to quibble about this just now. I think the above definitions of critical thinking form a useful starting point for my thinking about critical thinking, so I'm willing to see how far this boat will row.

In short, then, critical thinking is one way that I increase my chances for coming to know my world and positioning myself within it. If I think with some skill and grace, then I will better align with the world and make my way through it. As I mentioned in my previous post about the work of becoming an individual, "you work out the meaning of your life by the constant positioning, realignment, connecting and reconnecting of yourself with all the other selves in the rhizome." Critical thinking is one of the ways that we position, realign, connect, and reconnect ourselves with the world. It can be a fine way. It is the academic way, the path of Western intellectualism and science. Is it a rhizomatic way? I have my suspicions, but more on that later.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Death of Individualism?

I promised to talk about how Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome and Siemens' connectivism connect (pun intentional). I'll start with a quote from Matt Ridley's TED talk that was in my last post. Near the end of his talk (14:55), he sums his argument about the central role of trade and cooperation in advancing human culture when he says:
  • That's one of the reasons why I'm not interested in the debate about IQ … It's completely irrelevant. What's relevant to a society is how well people are communicating their ideas and how well they're cooperating, not how clever the individuals are. So we've created something called the collective brain. We're just the nodes in the network—we're just the neurons in this brain. It's the interchange of ideas—the meeting and mating of ideas between them—that is causing technological progress, incrementally, bit by bit, however bad things may happen.

Ridley is dismissing the usual emphasis in Western culture on the individual (IQ as a measurement of intellectual intelligence in a single, discrete individual) in favor of an emphasis on the network, or rhizome (how well people are … [connecting and] cooperating). This may very well be at the heart of connectivism, and I can easily connect it to my understanding of the rhizome.

When I point out this shift in a context such as a workshop with university faculty, I'm often asked if this is the end of Western Individualism. I don't think it is, but it is perhaps a rethinking of what individualism means. I believe that we have defined individualism atomistically, as something that is discrete, indivisible, stable, with an intrinsic essence and identity. We contrast this notion of individualism with group, in which the individual is lost, subsumed, made continuous with the whole, with only an extrinsic, shared essence and identity. Ridley could be interpreted as suggesting this very loss of individual identity when he says that "we're just the nodes in the network—we're just the neurons in this brain." I think his use of the somewhat pejorative and certainly limiting adverb just is unfortunate, as it implies that we are no more than an interchangeable part of some whole. I don't think this is what he means at all.

Rather, he captures his meaning earlier in his talk when he discusses the difference between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens. In some ways, Neanderthals were more gifted than we: bigger, more powerful bodies, bigger brains. They were imaginative, intellectual creatures with language, art, religion, and tools, but for some reason, they did not develop commerce as we did: the interchange of ideas, tools, goods, and services that requires a marketplace and a degree of specialization. Commerce requires BOTH that we individualize into arrow-makers, axe-makers, farmers, etc. AND that we connect and collaborate in a market of some kind. In short, we must be completely individuals, completely in a group. At the same time, we must maintain our integrity as an individual, and we must find our place within a group. Our meaning depends on it.

Unfortunately, Western culture, especially the late American variety, has emphasized the individual at the expense of the network and created a false dichotomy: you are either an independent, discrete individual or a drone in a hive. No, this is wrong. It is not either/or; rather, it is both. You are an individual in a rhizome, and you work out the meaning of your life by the constant positioning, realignment, connecting and reconnecting of yourself with all the other selves in the rhizome. The rugged individualism of High Plains Drifter and Rambo may make for good movies, but it makes a very poor, dysfunctional myth for a culture.

Or for a school. Our educational systems are overwhelmingly informed with the myth of the individual. Our testing regimes, grading regimes, pedagogies, epistemologies, and learning theories are all based on the individual, ignoring the role of the network, or rhizome, in the creation and management of knowledge. From their different perspectives, both D&G's rhizomatics and Siemens' connectivism explore the shortcomings of this narrow focus on the individual. Connectivism, of course, focuses primarily on the shortcomings in education, while D&G take a broader, more philosophical approach, but both of them suggest that we risk confusion and misunderstanding when we ignore the dynamics of the rhizome when trying to explore and explain any slice of life, even education.

What pleases me most about Ridley's discussion of the Neanderthals is the implication that rhizomatic, network structures have been important to human progress long before the emergence of the Internet. George Siemens bills connectivism as a learning theory for the digital age. While I think the Internet, and all that technology associated with it, has highlighted the poverty of extreme individualism and has heightened the ways and the ease with which we can now interconnect, the Internet is but the latest iteration of the technologies humans have devised to heighten their ability to connect and collaborate.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sex in the Rhizome

I am, of course, horrified that I've written nothing on this blog for two and a half months. This is unforgivable. I don't know what to say, but I do know what to write. So let's get to it.

As often happens, I am inspired by a TED talk, this one by Matt Ridley. Let's listen first to the talk:



See what I mean? Don't you see the rhizome in most everything he says? No? Hmm. Perhaps the problem is me, then. I see the rhizome everywhere. It's my new lens. I could throw in a bit of connectivism also. If the rhizome is my right lens, then connectivism is my left. I'll tell you how.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Trends in Education: Multiplicity

A second key trend in education can be described by the third and fourth characteristics of rhizomatic structures as discussed by Deleuze and Guattari in their book A Thousand Plateaus:
  • multiplicity
  • asignifying ruptures
In this post I will use the single term multiplicity to speak of both characteristics, except when I want to speak of asignifying ruptures by themselves. 

Multiplicity is a complex concept that we might approach first from the ideas of connectivity and heterogeneity. Every point in a rhizome can and must connect to everything else; thus, we cannot understand any single point, except in a most abstract and academic way, without considering and accounting for all its connections. This brings us directly to holistic, environmental, systemic, relativistic, organic, fractal, chaotic thinking, and is in direct tension with the kind of rigidly reasonable individualism that has dominated much of Western thought and almost all of American thought for the past two centuries. In terms of multiplicity, then, any thing is best thought of as an assemblage of multiple assemblages—both near and far, now and then and yet to be, in and out, up and down—themselves assemblages of multiple assemblages. Thus, at whatever level or scale we consider any thing, we see assemblages of assemblages within assemblages, all interconnected in a fluidly orderly fashion, like a beautiful fractal image.

Orderly brings us to a key second feature of multiplicity: any multiplicity is self-organized. This is self-evident from a modern scientific point of view. If we consider the Universe—the uber-Rhizome—we see that most everything in it has self-organized. The initial spray of light coalesced into hydrogen and other atomic structures, which then organized into stars, then into planets, then into … well, us and eventually into this class at edfutures.com. We ourselves start with a couple of cells and then self-organize into an infant within another rhizomatic structure, or multiplicity, that we call mother. A star has its own light and gravity and self-organization, but that light and gravity extends throughout the universe, and to understand that star, we must consider both its own light, gravity, and self-organization and its relation to all the other lights, gravities, and organization. Any rhizomatic structure, then, contains all the facts and all the mystery possible, and to understand it, we can neither limit ourselves just to the facts or just to the mystery, but must consider the star in all its multiplicities. Clearly, we'll never completely understand any single star, or any single flower or person, and I take great comfort and joy in that. The Universe and everything in it is an infinite multiplicity.

A third point, also self-evident, is that rhizomatic structures are dynamic. They don't self-organize into static entities. They morph, they shift, they merge and sheer, they reorganize. They are susceptible to asignifying ruptures, those exchanges with and sheers into other rhizomatic structures that can so rearrange the rhizome that it appears to lose its significance and signification for us. It becomes asignified, no longer matching the language we've used to signify it. We try to capture rhizomes in language, establishing signs that point this way and that, walling in this space or that, but then the rhizomes shift and the signs point the wrong way. As Robert Frost so plainly says: something there is that doesn't love a wall.

And signification brings us to the final point for this post: our languages for signifying a rhizomatic structure are themselves multiplicities, giving us multiple ways to speak of and to signify any thing, each language with its own value and utility and each language interacting with and engaging the thing differently than another language will. We can start measuring anywhere in the rhizome, on any scale, using any language. Any measure will be more or less useful than others, more or less skillful, more or less salient, more or less common. No measure will be absolutely right or wrong.

To my mind, a multiplicity is easily envisioned in Blaise Ag├╝era y Arcas' wonderful demonstration of Microsoft's new Photosynth technology. Basically, Photosynth is provides the technology to collect images, say of the Eiffel Tower, from around the Net, aggregate those images, and produce one, far more complete, multi-dimensional image that is far richer and more informative than any single image. Thus, the multiplicity produces an image that far exceeds the sum of all the parts.



So what is the point for education? That no student, no teacher, no subject is reducible to a single term. All statements about any student are provisional. "This is John, an exemplary A student, and this is Mary, a problematic F student" are both provisional, and do not say all that can be said or measured about either John or Mary or about ourselves for measuring and saying such things. That to teach any thing, we must define that thing, but our definitions are always provisional, always subject to change, usually sooner rather than later. That crowd sourcing in the style of Photosynth will produce a far richer image of reality than any single teacher or textbook can produce. 

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Trends in Education: Connectivity and Heterogeneity

I am enrolled now in an Open Course in Education Futures taught by Dave Cormier and George Siemens. I'm interested in the course for several reasons:

  1. I want the experience of taking an online, open course that connects educators from around the world.
  2. I want to learn how to systematically think about the future, especially the future of education.
  3. I want to work with Cormier and Siemens. I'm familiar with their work, and I like their takes on education. Cormier has some insight about rhizomes, and Siemens has developed a new pedagogy called connectivism. I want to know more about both.
One of our first tasks in the class is to identify trends in education. To my mind, the emergence and success of rhizomatic structures is a key trend to watch, especially in education. In short, rhizomatic structures are network-like structures that have always existed, but that are becoming more explicit in human culture as we develop the technology, especially the Internet, to extend them and use them for our purposes. Rhizomatic structures subsume and replace hierarchical structures, which have formed the basis of human culture for the past five thousand years. A quick scan of the six features of the rhizome mentioned by Deleuze and Guattari (D&G) will outline my thoughts.

Connectivity & Heterogeneity
These first two features of the rhizome, which D&G group together, tie closely to technology, especially to the Internet. D&G say that "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7). This simple statement has profound consequences, especially in light of traditional hierarchical structures. Hierarchies are command-and-control structures that define 
  • clear, enforced boundaries between inside and outside the group (a vetted, verified member of this class or not),
  • clear, enforced, discrete roles and positions for all those within the group (teacher or student), and
  • clear, enforced homogenous identities for those in the group (Education 101 students).
Connect-and-collaborate rhizomatic structures ignore those boundaries, roles, and positions. Anyone can and must connect to anything or anyone else. This is incredibly disruptive to orderly hierarchical structures and disorienting to those who are accustomed to functioning within hierarchical organizations.

This class could be a fine example, I think, of the effects of connectivity and heterogeneity. The boundaries between who is in the group and who is not are quite fluid, and the barriers for entry are extremely low. Anyone with Internet access can join (though Siemens and Cormier have perhaps done some gatekeeping, it certainly is not the gatekeeping of traditional universities). The roles between teacher/student are quite blurred. We have almost no homogenous identity other than being educationists, and I'm not sure about that. The course content is supposed to be the futures of education, but I think we can already see that 500 curious people can quickly sheer off into different directions (see asignifying ruptures below). In short, this class is free to connect to anything or anyone else, and we do not have to be the same or have the same goals and aspirations.

And as we've already seen, this disruption of normal, hierarchical structure is stressful to people who want to know who is in and out, what content is in and out, what roles we are to play, what tasks we are to perform, and who is going to tell us that we've done it correctly. These familiar signposts are gone, and we are not sure how to proceed. This can be invigorating, or terrifying. Most of us are still not quite convinced that groups of people really can connect and collaborate on their own—self-select and self-organize—to accomplish anything of value, despite the evidence of Wikipedia and Linux and, perhaps, of this Education Futures class.

This trend, of course, is not limited to education. We can see expressions of connectivity and heterogeneity in discussions about inclusion, the Commons, privacy, wikinomics, digital piracy, the flat earth, immigration policy, information overload, and more. But education is grievously stressed by the emergence of connectivity and heterogeneity. We simply do not yet know how to work with the ability of students to connect to whomever, whenever, whatever, and wherever they want. As the technology director in a public school system in the United States, I spent way too much time keeping students away from YouTube and Facebook, and not enough time connecting them to their imaginations.

To my mind, then, connectivity and heterogeneity form one of the most potent trends in education. They have the potential for disrupting everything we do and enabling everything we want to do. Schools and their societies will hate and resist the disruptions, while at the same time yearning for the possibilities. This will not prove easy, but I think—I hope—connectivity and heterogeneity win out.

I realize that this is a trend in and of itself. I will discuss the other features of rhizomatic structures as separate trends.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

PLN: Connect to Others

Another step in creating a personal learning network is to connect to others. You have a starting point and an identity in the Net wilderness, you have some tools for cutting paths through the bush, so now it's time to start blazing a path to some other points of interest. Don Juan tells Carlos how to do this:

Go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away. Watch the crevices made by the runoff, and from them determine the direction of the flow. Then find the plant that is growing at the farthest point from your plant. All the devil's weed plants that are growing in between are yours. Later … you can extend the size of your territory by following the watercourse from each point along the way. (88)

This is the best practical advice I have seen for navigating the Net, and it graphically captures my own sense of how I explore my own personal learning network: watch the crevices, determine the direction of the flow, follow the watercourse from each point along the way. It fits nicely with what Cheun-Ferng Koh says about mapping the rhizome: a process of active construction based on flexible and functional experimentation, requiring and capitalizing on feedback. Follow this crevice, often to a dead-end, back up, float further downstream, follow another crevice, find something interesting, and link it to my blog, reader, social bookmarking tool, or all three. Gradually, over time, my PLN has emerged with some well-worn pathways between me and others, and with a wealth of offshoots still to explore.

I want to stop for a quick aside. I started this exploration of how to build a PLN with Step One: Create an Online Identity and Presence. Well, I had to start somewhere, but I must note that I could as easily have started here, with Step One: Connect to Others. In some ways, it makes more sense to start here, but either way, it really doesn't matter. Indeed, you might as well start with both steps, doing both simultaneously. Writing demands something of a linear progression in describing a process, and most of us want a clearly delineated Step One, Step Two process, but that strict linear progression does not really capture the dynamic, experimental approach required of navigation in the rhizome. Strict, classically arranged process papers do not allow for asides, such as this one, but descriptions of the rhizome demand it. So start with whatever step makes sense at the time.

Actually, our decision early on to emphasize either creating an identity or connecting to others depends a great deal on our own status. If we are already professionals with a firm professional identity and a grasp of the scope of our professional conversation, then we may begin our PLN with establishing our own online identity. If on the other hand, we are students with an embryonic professional identity and only a shaky grasp of the profession's conversation, then we may begin our PLN with an emphasis on connecting to others more experienced than ourselves. And in true rhizomatic fashion, we will sometimes emphasize one approach and sometimes the other, depending on the PLN we are creating. When I started both my professional and my personal PLNs, I initially emphasized my own identity, having a fairly strong sense of what I already thought about connecting and collaborating in online environments on the one hand and my role in my network of friends and family on the other. I was confident that I already had value to add to both those networks, so I emphasized my stuff. However, when I began to develop a network about creating online videos, I emphasized connecting to others who knew much more about video cams, storyboarding, filming, editing, and YouTube. I had no identity as a videographer, so I wisely kept my mouth shut and read and watched until I was familiar with the conversation.

And this brings me nicely to what could be a separate point about creating PLNs, but I'll include it here as an aside to an aside: Step One: Learn the Conversation.

When you find an interesting conversation on the Net, spend some time learning the scope and tone of the conversation before you butt in. This is obviously important for newbies and students, but it is just as important for professionals, who can assume that they know where the conversation is going when they really don't. Nothing will annoy an existing group more than having a new person speak in a loud voice either about something they don't understand as well as the group does or about something that the group has already discussed and closed. If you don't want to get a curt RTFM or an annoyed bugger off message, then read the freaking manual before you talk. Review the group's FAQ, scan the blog's archives, google the people in the conversation, look at the group's video channels, attend to the group's tone of conversation. Form some idea of who you're talking to and what they're talking about and how they want to relate to each other. Then jump in if the conversation still interests you.

Well, let's return to connecting to others. How do you find interesting sites to begin with? Lots of ways. Make note of sites that you hear about in the actual world from your colleagues and other experts—at this conference, for instance. Net links are a ubiquitous and common aspect of professional life, and if you are attentive, then you will have no problem picking up the addresses of more interesting sites than you will have time to visit.

Then, conduct your own network search. Google your favorite passion, something such as massively multiplayer online role-playing games to connect to more than you will ever want to know about Second Life and World of Warcraft. Google a noted scholar or personality. Use more than one search engine. As fine a tool as it is, Google is not the only way to search the Net. Want to find music files? Try MP3Realm and TuneFind. Want to find videos? Use ClipBlast and Blinkx. And don't overlook the other general purpose search engines: Yahoo!, Bing, and WolframAlpha. Each of them can do something that Google doesn't. Study the advanced search techniques for the various search engines, and become more adept at extending and refining your searches. Trust me: with more than one hundred terabytes of information on the public Net, you'll have no problem finding something about anything.

While using the search engines are wonderful, they have one shared problem: they too often lead you down unproductive paths. A more focused method for finding new connections is following the connections your connections follow. Most every blog that I read avidly has links to other blogs that share similar interests and orientations, or often better, to blogs that provide a rich and fertile access point to an entirely different conversation that can still contribute to the current conversation. These cross-boundary links are often the most productive for me.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

PLN: Add Value

Don Juan counsels Carlos to "go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away." This is a subsequent step in mapping the rhizome, or building a PLN: distribute seeds, add value.

Building a PLN requires that we determine our own value-add. What do we bring to the conversations we are exloring? Networks are built on value, both what we take and what we add. At first, we may be more interested in taking value from the work of others on the Net who are exploring topics that interest us, but that is only half a network, with value flowing only in toward us. If we want a vibrant, lively, sustainable PLN, then we must add value back to the Net. This is very important. A node that adds no value to the Net will eventually be ignored, dropped, isolated, and in a network structure, an isolated node is a dead node. Connectivity between you and others requires that you add value. You must bring something to the conversation, or eventually, people will quit talking to you.

So how do you add value to the Net, thus increasing your own PLN? There are more ways to add value than anyone of us will become accomplished with, but you begin with your own interests and with your familiarity with the various Web 2.0 tools. If you are interested in writing, then you could consider building a blog, such as this one. There's a huge network of over 126 million blogs out on the Net for you to fit into and a variety of blogging tools such as Blogger, Wordpress, and Posterous. It's a rich environment, but it is far from the only one.

The Upside Learning Solutions Blog has a fine image that captures just a bit of the range of tools available for constructing a vibrant PLN:


Are you interested in building a PLN that gathers, vetts, and shares online information? Then look into RSS readers such as Google Reader, Bloglines, or Newsgator and consider social bookmarking tools such as Diigo and Delicious.

Want to build networks not around the written word but around images and videos? Then consider image sharing tools such as Picasa, Photobucket, and Flickr and video sharing tools such as YouTube and Vimeo. Again, this is a very rich environment, with YouTube alone serving up over one billion videos per day. You can find a place for your interests, whatever they are.

Want to host your own talk show? Then consider podcasting tools such as iTunes, Audacity, and Winamp. Your thoughts about the role of Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome in modern social networks can sit on iTunes along with lectures by professors from Berkeley, MIT, and Oxford. It's a very rich environment with lots of room for you.

Want to talk face-to-face with people? Then look into video-conferencing tools such as Google Chat, Skype, DimDim, or one of the instant messengers. There are millions of people out there who are also looking for someone like you to talk to. You can connect.

Want to connect through a game? As too often happens in the serious world of education, business, and government, games are overlooked as valid tools for connectivity and collaboration. Note that they don't have a place in the pretty graphic above, but games are serious business, so consider World of Warcraft, Battlefied 2, or Second Life. They all have millions of online players, and they have proven both their entertainment value and their connectivity value. Many major universities are holding online classes in Second Life, and BestBuys' Geek Squad unit uses BF2 to facilitate online connectivity among its agents. In the book Wikinomics, Tapscott and Williams include an account from Geek Squad founder Robert Stephens about how his geeks were self-organizing themselves through BF2 even as he was trying to create a sophisticated company wiki to help keep them organized:


    Then one day Stephens asked a deputy director of counterintelligence at corporate how things were going in the field. “I worry about those agents in Anchorage, Alaska,” he said. “There’s about twenty of them there, and I worry about them staying connected to the mission.” The deputy director said to Stephens, “Oh, those Anchorage guys, I talk to them all the time.”
    Curious, Stephens prodded him to reveal more details. So the deputy director sheepishly told him that they all play Battlefield 2 online. “With each server you can have 128 people simultaneously fighting each other in a virtual environment,” said the director. “We wear headsets and use Ventrilo software so that we can talk over the Internet while we are running around fighting.” Stephens, who now joins in himself from time to time, says the agents taunt each other, saying, “Hey, I see you behind the wall. But then, you know, while we’re running along with the squadron with our rifles in our hands, one of the agents behind me will be like, ‘Yeah, we just hit our revenue to budget,’ and somebody else will be like, ‘Hey, how do you reset the password on a Linksys router?’ ”
    Stephens was aghast when he first learned of the agent’s antics. “I just stood there in the hallway going, ‘Oh my God,’ I’m sitting here trying to build this shiny playground with all these tools for collaboration and I failed to notice what the agents were already doing. While I had my head down doing this in preparation to open the wiki’s floodgates, the agents had self-organized online in probably the most effective and efficient collaborative tool that’s already out there.”
    Stephens says that the agents now have up to 384 colleagues simultaneously playing at any one time. “They’re talking and they’re hanging out, and often they’re talking shop and swapping tips,” Stephens said. Geek Squad agents had just unofficially added another collaboration tool to the palette. Stephens says the experience changed his thinking completely. “Instead of trying to set an agenda,” he said, “I’m now going to try and discover their agenda, and serve it.” Stephens even muses that he may get the agents to hack Battlefield 2 into a Geek Squad video game that he can use for training and recruitment.


There are more tools, but you get the idea, so I'll conclude with some good news and some better news and some best news: The good news is that Web 2.0 has an incredibly wide range of tools that will help you create and navigate a vibrant PLN. The better news is that most of them are free and rather easy to use. The best news is that you need use only a few of them.

For instance, I have built my own PLN with just a few tools:

  • a blog (Google Blogger),
  • an RSS reader to track online information (Google Reader),
  • a social bookmarking tool to capture, annotate, and share online information (Diigo), and
  • a wiki to include others in building new information (Google Sites).
On reflection, I notice that I left out email, but I think I'll leave it out. Email is so standard, so expected, that it is hardly worth noting, though that doesn't mean that it is not important. It is.

PLN: Fix a Point

In the book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Don Juan tries to help Carlos get his bearings in this new, strange world of the Yaqui shaman that Carlos is exploring, having left the familiar security and terrain of the university. In some ways, then, Carlos Castaneda is like those of us who leave the familiar learning environment of the university for the unfamiliar environment of the Internet. And like Carlos, we often cannot quite figure out where we are or how to proceed. Don Juan gives Carlos some advice that may help us as well.

First, fix a point on the Net. Don Juan says to Carlos, "Go first to your old plant." To my mind, this is key, and so I want to explore fixing a point for yourself and creating an identity as one of the early steps to building a personal learning network, or PLN.

We always build our personal learning networks from the center, from where we are and what we are; thus, defining ourselves is a key early element in constructing a PLN. Constructing the self is a lesson far outside what I want to discuss here, but we are all familiar with the task. Perhaps the first practical question for us to ask is, "Do I want a public, professional self or a private, personal self?" If you want to create a public, professional self, then perhaps gravitate toward a blog, such as Google's Blogger. If you want to create a private, personal self, then perhaps gravitate toward a social network such as Facebook. Or do both. Or build a professional self on Facebook and a personal self on Blogger. You can easily have multiple selves on the Net, but for the rest of this discussion, I want to talk about building a professional self, fixing a professional point.

In general, we should decide what we are about on the Net, and we should be authentic. We must ask what we are truly interested in learning more about and talking with others about. Being authentic is as much practical advice as moralistic. Building a PLN is hard work, and most of us will grow tired of cultivating a false interest and identity. For instance, I want to explore and talk about how the emerging world network is affecting the way we live, think, and communicate. This blog is the center point of my online professional identity. It is ground zero of my professional PLN. It is where I synthesize the information I glean from the Net and where I create new and hopefully valuable insight into how networks (or what I'm now calling rhizomes) are changing humanity, especially education, though I feel free to wander along any crevice like Carlos Castaneda to follow any asignifying rupture into whatever looks promising to me at the moment.

This blog gives me a known reference point from which I can branch out to other places and people on the Net. With it, I don't feel quite so lost, as I know how to get back to here, but this blog does more than just provide a reference point for me: it also provides a reference point for others on the Net. This blog is a beacon that signals my interest in social networks, personal learning networks, rhizomes, Deleuze and Guattari, education, writing, and so forth and that demonstrates whatever competence or expertise I have in these fields, assuming any. Others can readily enough decide if they want to stop here for a moment, testing the site before they decide whether or not to connect to it and to me. If they like the content here, if they find an interesting voice, if they find some value for their own PLNs, then they will connect, and both their and my PLNs will grow. If they don't find some value, then they will move on. No offense implied, none taken. In a PLN, no one is ever stuck in a boring class that adds no value to their education.

Building a Personal Learning Network

I have become quite interested in the emerging concepts of personal learning networks, personal learning environments, and social learning environments. For me, the phrases are somewhat interchangeable, but I most commonly use the phrase personal learning network, or the acronym PLN. Whichever phrase we choose, I think all of them refer to our creation and exploration of rhizomatic spaces, and building a PLN can be disorienting for students who are schooled in traditional hierarchical structures that tell them what to study, when and where to study it, with whom to study, and why, and then tell them when they have studied enough, and finally, validate that study for the rest of society. The hierarchical institution, whether K12, university, or yeshiva or madrasah, provides all the signposts and pathways for a student's learning. In the words of D&G, the institution provides the tracing onto reality that the student demonstrates competence in following. Seldom are students encouraged to explore on their own, with or without an experienced guide, and yet, that is exactly what a personal learning network demands.


Landing in the middle of the Internet with the notion of building a personal learning network can be quite disorienting, somewhat similar to being set loose in the middle of a virgin rain forest. We know that the forest teems with life both wonderful and dangerous, with great treasures and equally great perils, but we do not know where we are or how to navigate to someplace we want to be, while avoiding places we don't want to be. What do we do? How do we proceed? How do we navigate the forest?


Or how do we map the rhizome? Deleuze and Guattari are of some help. They provide us with a quote from Carlos Castaneda's book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge that may be instructive. In the quote, the Yaqui shaman Don Juan is trying to teach Carlos how to determine the extent and shape of his garden of hallucinogenic plants:


Go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away. Watch the crevices made by the runoff, and from them determine the direction of the flow. Then find the plant that is growing at the farthest point from your plant. All the devil's weed plants that are growing in between are yours. Later … you can extend the size of your territory by following the watercourse from each point along the way. (88)


For my purposes here, Don Juan seems to be teaching Carlos how to map his way through the rhizome, and I think we can draw a nice Sunday School lesson from the given text. Note first that Don Juan is not telling Carlos to follow a tracing onto reality. He does not say, "Measure out a plot of land twenty feet by thirty, plow straight rows two feet apart, and then plant seeds every twenty-four inches atop each row." In educational terms, Don Juan does not provide Carlos with a set curriculum to follow, with tests and measurements at fixed intervals along the way to measure progress, and a certificate of achievement at the end of the harvesting season. Rather, Don Juan's advice is to proceed by fixing a point (the first, old plant) and then following crevices from that point. Carlos is to proceed with mapping reality, not tracing over it. Remember the quote from Chuen-Ferng Koh in Internet: Towards a Holistic Ontology that mapping is an “active construction based on flexible and functional experimentation, requiring and capitalizing on feedback. The map is not … a blueprint whose workability has to be taken on faith; the map is never fixed, but a changing flux of adaptation and negotiation.”

This seems to be exactly what Don Juan is telling Carlos, and to my mind, this is good advice for building a personal learning network. Let's follow it for a few posts and see where it takes us.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

More Maps

I am horrified at not having written since the end of January.

Anyway, I was spurred to action when I read a marvelous post today by Dave Cormier. I left a long comment that I want to republish here, slightly edited, though my best advice is that you surf on over to Dave's original post and read it before you read my comments. You'll be glad you did.

Dave's essay talks about the rhizome as a new model for how education might structure itself in the online world. He seems to be addressing what, for me, has been the most problematic aspect of Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the rhizome: cartography and decalcomania, terms they use to describe new strategies for building useful maps for negotiating our way through the rhizome. The big rhizome, of course, is this universe, reality, and losing their map to reality seems to cause most people problems.

For thousands of years, we have built knowledge in hierarchical structures: from the general to the particular (deduction), or in reverse, from the particular to the general (induction). Deleuze and Guattari are recommending a new way to structure knowledge (along with all the other institutions and structures based on that knowledge), a rhizomatic way. This can be most disorienting and confusing.

I find that many people are somewhat more comfortable with the rhizomatic ideas of connectivity, heterogeneity, multiplicity, and asignifying ruptures, but they become nervous when they lose the familiar sign-posts from an established canon of knowledge, their hierarchical maps, or tracings, in Deleuzianal terms (sorry, I couldn’t resist). You hear them asking, “If I can’t tell which way is north, definitively, then how can I construct a map to tell where I am, where I’m going, and where I’ve been?” Or in the terms of educators, “How can I measure the learning?” Most of us are very reluctant to give up our tried and true fictions.

For me, the key question is quite practical: how do we map the rhizome? How do a group of people gather, form a working entity,scan and mine the rhizome (any rhizome: literature, math, physics, even business), and build a useful body of knowledge? As Chuen-Ferng Koh says in Internet: Towards a Holistic Ontology: “Rhizomatic links … are formed through mapping—or active construction based on flexible and functional experimentation, requiring and capitalizing on feedback. The map is not … a blueprint whose workability has to be taken on faith; the map is never fixed, but a changing flux of adaptation and negotiation.” This flexible and functional experimentation has not been a hallmark of our Western education system, at least not below advanced graduate school or in isolated pockets. Most of us don’t know how to engage reality through this constant experimentation with its feedback loops. We expect reality to stay put.

To my mind, the practical techniques are being developed by those thousands of people working their personal learning networks, both f2f and online. And in those learning communities they are building not only the curriculum but also the methodologies, and it looks very rhizomatic to me.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mapping the Rhizome

As with the first two characteristics of the rhizome, connectivity and heterogeneity, Deleuze and Guattari group the last two together: cartography and decalcomania. I think they do this because both characteristics have to do with our attempts to create a structure for, or a network of pathways through, the rhizome. Perhaps a better way of saying this is that these two characteristics speak to the practical problem of orienting ourselves within a rhizomatic structure and negotiating avenues for navigating through the rhizome from wherever we happen to find ourselves.

The capitalismandschizophrenia.org website defines Deleuze-Guattarian cartography as "the method of mapping for orientation from any point of entry within a 'whole', rather than by the method of tracing that re-presents an a priori path, base structure or genetic axis." Decalcomania is a method of "forming through continuous negotiation with its context, constantly adapting by experimentation, thus performing a non-symmetrical active resistance against rigid organization and restriction." Hierarchical thinking traces a pattern onto reality, overpowering points to fit the tracing and discarding or attacking those points that do not fit the pattern; whereas, rhizomatic thinking allows the structure and pattern of reality to emerge through our interaction with and testing of reality, accepting all points as part of the pattern. Hierarchical thinking is painting by the numbers, by the pattern imposed on the page; whereas rhizomatic thinking is painting by pressing paint between two pieces of paper to see what pattern emerges from the interaction of the textures, shape, and porosity of the papers, the viscosity and colors of the paint, the pressure, firmness, and steadiness of the artists' hands or the blocks pressing the paper.

Anyone who is part of an organization large enough to merit an organizational chart (a hierarchical tracing) is aware day-to-day of the functional differences between hierarchical tracings and rhizomatic mappings. To request IT support in the Purchasing Department, for instance, one could send a request up the Purchasing Department line to be approved by the department head and then over to the head of IT who would then push the request down to the IT Support group for response. Or one could pick up the phone and call ones friend in IT support and ask them to check your computer the next time they are in the building. The first course of action follows a hierarchical tracing, a pathway imposed on a collection of people by the logic of the organization's managers, while the second follows a rhizomatic mapping, a pathway that emerges from the asignifying rupture of friendship, a relational category that appears nowhere on anybody's organizational chart.

As Chuen-Ferng Koh says in Internet: Towards a Holistic Ontology: "Rhizomatic links … are formed through mapping—or active construction based on flexible and functional experimentation, requiring and capitalizing on feedback. The map is not an image from which reality is to be traced … or a blueprint whose workability has to be taken on faith; the map is never fixed, but a changing flux of adaptation and negotiation. It is intimately and mutually tied to all the other principles of the rhizome." The strategy of mapping as opposed to tracing makes explicit the connection of heterogenous points, the multiplicity of a point as a line or arc or intersection with various speeds and trajectories, and the asignifying rupture of any point from this line or arc to another line or arc in another rhizomatic structure.

How do we map a class rather than trace it? By following the flows and lines of the class participants beyond the boundaries of the classroom, or the flows and lines of the conversation beyond the boundaries of the course content. By inviting the class participants to create the syllabus, perhaps at the end of the class as a description of what each did in class rather than at the beginning as a prescription for what they will do.

How does the introduction of a social network into a classroom encourage mapping? As a rhizomatic structure, social networks connect students to people and information far beyond the small, hierarchical group called Keith Hamon's English 101, Section 32, Spring, 2010, with its little collection of readings, smattering of exercises and papers to write, its twenty-five registered students, and single instructor. When both the instructor and the students realize and accept that they are no longer corralled into a confined, hierarchical space, but that they are free to roam in the entire World Wide Web, then the tendrils and shoots of the class can extend to anyone, anywhat, anywhere. Points can proliferate. We can start from a multiplicity of points and pursue a multiplicity of points. We can wallow, or we can run. We can be here and jump there through asignifying ruptures that will challenge the identity, the signification, of the class.

We can follow our creativity and passions, or create them if they don't exist.

And especially for the writing classroom, this passion and creativity is most important. Over a career spanning thirty years, I have read more than my share of bland, vapid, mindless prose written merely to satisfy the requirements of an assignment—an assignment that I made, so I've no one to blame but myself. I really don't want to read anymore of that writing, so I am hopeful that the introduction of rhizomatic structure into the classroom may help connect me and my students to our passion and our creativity and to each other.