Saturday, January 25, 2014

Encouraging Autonomy in "#rhizo14

I've guests today, so this post will, out of courtesy to them, be too long, not having the time to make it shorter.

Dave Cormier has challenged the Rhizo14 MOOC to think about how to enforce independence in learners, and I have followed the lead of Frances Bell, Jenny Mackness, and others to amend Dave's terminology to something like encouraging autonomy. This could be viewed as mere rhetorical play, but I think there is some real thought behind it.

To my mind, one of the most potent strategies for encouraging autonomy is creating space. This is the strategy that the connectivist MOOCs such as Rhizo14 employ most often. Creating space is not something taught in most educational programs where detailed lesson plans seem to hold sway. Space is counter-intuitive for most teachers to employ, and it is damned near impossible to explain to students who do not intuitively see it.

For example, when I coached soccer, the most difficult concept to teach players was space—the empty part of the pitch where the ball and the other players are not, where nothing, no-thing, is happening.

The poorer players can not see it. For them, the game is elsewhere. All the potential and power is with the players and the ball, and that potential and power is the game. For them, the space is nothing, silence and emptiness, vacancy, accidental, impotent, irrelevant at best and frightening at worst, and therefore they cannot and will not see it. Such players can be highly skilfull, but they are creative only by accident. For them, everything is a potential expression of power, dependent on the arrangement, trajectories, and capabilities of the players and the ball distributed about them, already committed to a certain direction, with no possibilities beyond more or less skillful, competent execution in the face of a given configuration.

On the other hand, the best players, the creative players, see the space, and they intuitively know that all the possibilities of the game are in the space where the ball isn’t, the space that the other players are not just ignoring, but are unaware of. They know that the crowded part of the field is already committed to some direction, some orchestrated dance (some curriculum), unlike the space which is the point of most opportunity, as one of my soccer mentors John Dattilo says. The space holds all the possibilities, and the creative players (not always the most skillful) see it, and they take the game in new directions, literally. They embrace the chaos that the other players studiously avoid, focussed as they are on competent execution, or what Deleuze and Guattari call tracing. The creative players are willing to map the chaos of open space.

The best, most creative players play into the space. Of course, as soon as they do, they begin to limit the space, defining it, giving it shape as they, the ball, and other players move into the space. The game then emerges in this now restricted part of the field. Players take on specific roles more or less well, execute certain tasks more or less skillfully, and like magic, the game emerges in what had been just moments before space. To use Deleuze and Guattari's terms, the game deterritorializes in one part of the field only to reterritorialize in another part. The creative players can see this happening before it happens and they embrace it. The poorer players can't or won't see it, and they avoid it. They think the game is only where the ball is now.

Of course, the game is in the crowd where the ball is, but the game is also in the open spaces. The best players play a rhizomatic game, squirting into the open spaces to move the game along. And this is some of the magic of rhizomatic soccer and rhizomatic education: when a space becomes more closed and defined as the game/lesson moves into it, new spaces open elsewhere on the field. The field is never empty of spaces, it is only ever empty of players who can play into those spaces, making for very predictable, scripted, boring games, much like lessons in a traditional curriculum.

Connectivist MOOCs are really good at creating space within which learning can emerge, just as good soccer matches create space within which game can emerge. And note that creating space through a rhizomatic, community as curriculum approach does not mean that a teacher cannot supply some beginning ingredients. All soccer matches are held on a prescribed field with absolute boundaries that have meaning and that are even more absolute than the strictest curriculum. The game must have a ball, certain numbers of participants, and a few rules, but even within this rather narrow field, a rhizomatic approach focuses as much on the open spaces as on the rules and boundary lines. Traditional education focuses only on the rules and boundary lines. Teacher education focuses too much, I think, on the rules and boundary lines. After all, it's really difficult to teach and test empty space.

Rhizomatic education, then, like a fine soccer match, starts within a capacious, but bounded field, and then emerges as players/students identify and exploit the almost infinite possibilities of open-ended spaces, enjoying the tensions between the closed, defined spaces where the ball is currently (what we know) and the open-ended, undefined spaces where the ball can go (what we don't know). On the other hand, traditional education is like a soccer match in which every move is scripted and monitored by the teacher and the final score is determined, focused solely on what we already know. Only the most pathological enjoy games in which the outcome is fixed.

Of course, open spaces can be intimidating for most soccer players and many students. A skillful coach/teacher will introduce the concept of space/the unknown in a small area with fewer players. To teach space in soccer, I start with 2 players with the ball versus 1 defender in a ten-yard square. The open space is easier to see and the chances for success are very high. Likewise, I start my writing classes with small assignments with a high chance for success, but that emphasize the space beyond the class. For instance, I often have students text a friend about what they are doing in class.

Well, I'm being rude to my guests, but this was on my mind, so …
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