Sunday, February 2, 2014

Uncertainty in #rhizo14

The third challenge for #rhizo14 is almost over, and I've yet to say anything about embracing uncertainty. I've been thinking about it, but I also delivered a paper at the Southern Humanities Conference in Richmond, VA, this weekend, so I've had some distractions. Still, on my way home this morning, I read Cathleen Nardi's excellent post Down the Rabbit Hole, and during the flight back to West Palm Beach, I finally had time to organize some thoughts that I'd like to explore for a bit.

I have a tendency to be too glib and cavalier about uncertainty, recommending it heartily to most any passing stranger, but my travels this weekend reminded me that certainty and uncertainty are serious issues that affect our lives. The small conference I attended was decimated by cancelled flights, especially any coming through Atlanta, in the wake of the winter storm that crippled the southeastern United States. My own flight home on Saturday was cancelled, and I did not make it home until Sunday. Sometimes, uncertainty sucks. Every time my flight hit an air pocket, I was reminded about how desperately I wanted to be certain that my plane would land safely. It did.

So let me begin by saying that I recognize great areas of my own life in which I will beg, borrow, steal, or pay for as much certainty as I can. Certainty is important, just as important as uncertainty; still, a life of total certainty is deadly boring. A curriculum of total certainty is deadly boring. Rather, life is enriched by the tension within the complex dance between certainty and uncertainty, the known and the unknown, and I am certain that traditional education does not have enough dance in it, not nearly enough uncertainty.

So how do we intelligently introduce uncertainty into a curriculum that wants to guarantee that no child is left behind? Cathleen's post gave me an answer this morning, describing for me a rhizomatic approach to education that embraces uncertainty and knowmadic wanderings while remaining a reproducible pedagogical strategy. You should stop here and read her post, if you haven't already, as I'm going to write as if you know what I'm talking about.

Note that Cathleen uses the concept of the nomad/knowmad in her post, and this made me think of the topological structure of knowledge. Space is topological, and if Michel Serres is correct, time is topological as well; thus, it makes sense to me that knowledge is topological. Thus, the knowmad is a perfect image for those who wander up the hills, down the valleys, and along the chreod of inquiry. So embracing uncertainty is like hiking into a new territory, and I think that Cathleen is saying that Rhizo14 has been like that: hiking into a new territory, or falling down the rabbit hole, but let me stick with hiking in this post.

Once in the new territory, Cathleen does what any sensible explorer will do: she sets some landmarks, both old and new, to get her bearings. She appeals first to Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodren, both of whom she has heard speak from a buddhist perspective about embracing uncertainty in life. I assume their ideas became landmarks for her. Then she sets some new landmarks with Deleuze and Guattari and rhizo14. I think these landmarks are essential, both old and new, and I think that too often MOOCs overlook this crucial first step. When entering new territory, we benefit from looking back to familiar landmarks that help us orient and then finding a new landmark. We can then triangulate to see how the new stuff is related to the old. I think this is a key to rhizomatic learning: starting where the knowmad is and then trying to move the knowmad beyond that space and helping the knowmad to identify salient landmarks, old and new. Traditional learning starts with the endpoint, the goal of learning, the place a curriculum wants the student to end up, and then lays out the steps and measures how well the student gets there. Rhizomatic learning starts with the knowmad and invites them to enter a new space. It is key, though, that the knowmad knows where they are to begin with. If they start lost, they may very well end up lost. Getting lost along the way can be okay, but ending up lost sucks. I think many xMOOCs have relied on the usually advanced students who have a good sense of where they are in the topology of their knowledge to skip this first step, but that won't work so well with beginning students, who need a chance to reflect on what they already know before they can triangulate the new landmarks they are discovering.

Then, Cathleen notes how she connects to fellow hikers such as Cath Ellis, Maureen Maher, and The Knowmadic Society. Traditional knowledge is fond of separating students, not letting them look on each other's papers. Rhizomatic education, on the other hand, seeks to connect knowmads, knowing that connected knowmads are more likely to identify interesting new landmarks that help them all map the territory. This is also a point at which cMOOCs could do more. I think we assume that all participants will automatically understand how to use the new net tools to connect and that they will have the impulse to connect, but old learning habits are hard to break and new ones may not form so quickly. I know that my students need several opening exercises before they even start to believe that I really want them to connect to their fellows to accomplish their study.

Finally, I want to note the contributions of Dave Cormier to Cathleen's knowmadic trek through rhizo14. He's done it right. First, he's identified the new territory, setting up the general area for mapping, providing ample scope for most any exploration. Next, Dave has provided highly effective prompts to keep the explorers moving along, pushing the boundaries of exploration ever outward. A good teacher pulls with attraction and appeal rather than pushing with power. Then finally, Dave has done the most important thing: he is still a knowmad himself. Stephen Downes has said that good teaching is basically modeling, and I think that is the best role for a rhizomatic teacher: a more experienced knowmad, perhaps, but a knowmad along with the others, mapping new territory. As a writing teacher, I am dismayed by how few of my colleagues write with their students, share their own writing with their students, ask for their students assessment of their own writing.

Thanks, Cathleen. This is a model that can be replicated and used widely. I will.
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