Friday, May 1, 2015

Content in #rhizo15

It's Week 3 in #rhizo15, and Dave Cormier has asked us to consider content and its role in education. He says:
I’ve always been a little confused by the word ‘content.’ There is something lonely and unconnected about the word somehow, when i hear it used with reference to what happens in learning. I imagine a lone student, huddled away in a dorm room, reading sanitized facts in the hopes of passing a multiple choice quiz. The content somehow merging with the learning objective and the assessment to create a world where learning is about acquiring truth from the truth box. … So what happens when we peek under the word ‘content’ to see what lives there? What does it mean for a course to ‘contain’ information? What choices are being made… what power is being used?
So what can we say about content? Consider this post that I am now writing and you are now reading (different nows, but that is relevant). Is there any content in this post? If there isn't, then what am I writing and what are you reading and why?

If we look at Google's dictionary, we see that the word content has two distinct clusters of meaning. The first cluster has to do with satisfaction and satisfying, being content with a situation or causing someone else to be contented. This is not the meaning Dave has in mind, but it may be relevant, so let's keep it handy.

The second cluster is more to the point: the stuff contained inside something. It could be an ingredient in a mixture (contents of a cake batter), an object in a container (contents of a barrel), or an idea in a communication (contents of a blog post). I suspect that Dave means mostly the last, contents of a communication, but the others are also relevant. A course could, of course (sorry), actually contain some objects: handouts, textbooks, performances, events, classrooms, chairs, desks, pens, papers, computers, tablets, phones, and so on. It can even contain virtual objects: blog posts, Twitter, Facebook, LMSes, chatrooms, etc. All of these objects are not irrelevant, but I don't think that's the content Dave was asking about. Those objects, that content, does not seem particularly well-aligned with learning objectives, though I suspect most of us would argue that they should be IF we are going to mess with learning objectives at all.

Still, I don't think Dave is asking about objects in a container, like stones in a crate; rather, he is asking about knowledge in our minds. I believe his concern is that we usually treat knowledge in our minds like stones in a crate: an object to transfer from the teacher's crate to the students' crates through the apparatus of a course of study. Knowledge is not transferred from teacher to student like a stone. There is no nugget of knowledge that I can give you, for instance, in this blog post. We speak as if there is, but it is only a convenient manner of speaking. Too often, it is a misleading manner of speaking. It leads us to ask of education: did you get the stone, the chunk of knowledge about fractions that I gave you? did you put it in the correct slot in your hierarchy of stones? and can you retrieve this stone upon demand on a test? I think this pretty much sums up traditional education. Dave doesn't seem to like it, and I don't either. It's stone age education. Actually, it isn't. Calling it stone age seriously denigrates the Stone Age. It's simple, mechanical education, and it works only in very limited situations for very limited objectives.

Knowledge is not an object like a stone. Actually, I don't believe a stone is an object like a stone, but that's another post. Knowledge is not composed of discrete, individual chunks. Knowledge is more like a weather system, and I cannot give you some weather. I can give you pause to consider the weather, but I can't bottle (container) some weather (contents) and transfer it to you. Knowledge is a thing like the weather, a different kind of thing.

Consider this blog post that I am currently writing and you are currently reading. This juxtaposition of two different nows points to the different kind of thing that I mean when I say knowledge. We want our things to cohere in one place and time, not to smudge across different spaces and times and scales. We don't want things to be in multiple places at multiple times on multiple scales, yet here I am writing now AND here you are reading now. Your reading is already in my writing, as my writing is already in your reading. The knowledge in this post—indulge me here—smudges across my here/now AND your here/now and in some way coheres. It is not as if the knowledge is here like a stone with me now/earlier, is transferred along the wires of the Internet, and is then with you now/later. The knowledge is here/now and enfolds both you and me, like the weather.

And like the weather, I can write of raining and you can read of raining, and we will behave as if some chunk of meaning about raining was transferred from me to you, but it wasn't. It's just raining all the way from me to you, but I see only my bit of rain and you see your bit of rain. And of course, we don't see the same bit of rain nor do we see all the rain. Actually, I don't want to say it's raining all the way from me to you. It's more that we are both enfolded in the raining. That's what I mean about knowledge, about content. It isn't a collection of stones to transfer, but a weather system that enfolds us.

So how do you design the weather and what are your learning objectives? And welcome to the rhizo-storm.
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