Monday, January 30, 2012

#CCK12 - Shifting Gears

My new classes are changing the way I think about this blog, and perhaps the biggest change is in the frequency with which I write.

I'm requiring all my Composition I and Principles of Composition students to keep a blog and to post to us four times a week. I think I should do the same, but this changes the way I write. As you will have noticed if you've followed this blog at all, I write long posts, often too long. They take me hours.

So I have to speed up if I'm to post four times a week. I will. I'll try speed writing. I'll shorten my posts. We'll see how it goes.

So I'm still exploring how the rhizome affects the classroom. One of the first things that I do in class is start connecting my students to each other. Of course, lots of teachers who have heard of neither rhizomatics or of Connectivism also use group-building techniques to get students to engage each other, but I think these sorts of connections are required for a Connectivist/rhizomatic approach to teaching.

One of the keys to Connectivism is the insistence that knowledge is in the connections. As Stephen Downes says so succinctly in his blog Half an Hour, "At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks." My first order of business, then, is to start students constructing a network of connections, or a personal learning network (PLN), with their colleagues, their peers. I start with their peers, first, because a group of 25 to 30 students makes for a larger PLN than 1 teacher does, and second, because I want to undermine their conditioned reflex that the central connection in the class is with the teacher.

Fortunately, there are countless exercises for building a community of practice, a group, a PLN, or whatever you want to call it, but something as simple as having students introduce each other to the class and tell something interesting about the person they introduce works just fine. It puts the focus on connections among the students.

I then follow up with group exercises, usually very fun stuff at first, that encourages them to talk together about themselves in relation to the course content or to their experience as college students. I want very early in the class to show them that this class values their value-add and that they indeed have knowledge and value to bring to the class. Not all class value comes from the teacher. This further emphasizes that their PLNs go far beyond the teacher and the textbook. I then structure group assignments which challenge them to do something new such as set up a blog. I'm always available as a resource, of course, but if they get stuck, they must seek help from their group first. The group almost always knows. And if their small group doesn't, the class group does. This demonstrates that knowledge is distributed across a network, and not located just in the brain of a single teacher. That's good stuff, I think.

I'm putting words in Deleuze and Guattari's collective mouth, but I think they might say that knowledge is distributed across a rhizome and learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse the rhizome. Of course, they might not say that.


  1. Hi Keith,

    I agree whole-heartedly with the need to shift emphasis from the teacher as the "font of all knowledge". By the time we teach them, almost all learners have been conditioned to expect instructions, information, recommendations, assignments and assessments all to originate from the teacher. I've been trying to develop techniques to draw learners' attention to each other's knowledge and skills and to see each other as resources. I've found some inspiration from educational researchers, for example Sugata Mitra who introduces a problem, says it's very difficult and then just leaves, saying he'll be back to see how his learners got on. Or there's what councellors and psychoanalysts do; reflect questions and ideas back to the individual or group, thereby breaking the "Q&A with the sage" archetype. Then again, learners usually need validation from their teachers, to tell them they're on the right track or affirm, and this leads into being the "gatekeeper of knowledge" again; the teacher juding what is correct or wrong when it's the learners' responsibility to decide.

    It's a difficult tightrope to walk... or is it a tug-of-war with learners' expectations?

  2. I think it is more than a tug of war, Matt. It's a crisis.

    I'm reminded of a graduate course I taught in management information systems to a group of medical doctors pursuing their MBAs. I was engaging men and women who daily made life and death decisions with confidence and precision. Yet, as soon as they stepped into my class, they became students again, seemingly incapable of making the slightest decision about some rather inconsequential homework (at least, inconsequential when compared to their daytime decisions). They actually resisted invitations to manage their own learning, insisting that I tell them what to do, how to do it, and if they had done it correctly. It was a disheartening reminder of just how powerful the traditional educational model is for most of our students, especially the best students who make the best grades, such as those MDs.

    I notice that a surprising number of people in the MOOCs have complained that Cormier, Downes, and Siemens do not provide enough scaffolding and feedback and monitoring. This is a very powerful paradigm that will take much effort to shift, I think, even if we get the institutions to agree to it. Most of the students will resist.