Thursday, July 18, 2013

MOOCs, Transdisciplinarity, and Thinking Big

In his 2004 Phi Beta Kappan essay entitled Thinking Big: A Conceptual Framework for the Study of Everything, self-described contrarian educator Marion Brady writes that "the main task of educating is to help students make more sense of the world, themselves, and others" (p. 277). He attacks the current state of knowledge as represented in the plethora of academic subjects and disciplines and insists that such a fragmented approach to knowledge will, in the words of Buckminster Fuller, "be the undoing of the society." He quotes Fuller again in a marvelous 1980s complaint to American educators: "What you fellows in the universities do is make all the bright students into experts in something. That has some usefulness, but the trouble is it leaves the ones with mediocre minds and the dunderheads to become generalists who must serve as college presidents . . . and presidents of the United States." I truly wish I had said that, but … well, he was Buckminster Fuller.

Brady then identifies the basic theory of education that underlies the fragmented, disciplinary approach to knowledge:
The present curriculum, made up as it is of separate, specialized studies, exerts considerable pressure on teachers to make major use of what could be called “Theory T.” Theory T dominates American education. … T stands for “transfer.” Those who accept Theory T believe that knowledge is located in teachers’ heads, textbooks, reference materials, and on the Internet and that the instructional challenge is to transfer it from these locations into the empty space in students’ heads. The degree of success of the transfer process can be measured with relative ease, which helps explain its broad appeal. … Evaluating performance is simple enough to allow student responses to be scored by a machine. (pp. 279, 280)
 He then contrasts Theory T with what he calls Theory R:
Theory R assumes not that students’ heads are empty but that they are full. The primary instructional challenge, then, is not to transfer new knowledge but to help students reorganize existing knowledge to make it more useful, consistent, or true and to supplement it with insights and skills that will help explain more fully what they already know.… Students in Theory R classrooms must be active processors of information. Theory T emphasizes recall; Theory R requires students to engage in every known thought process. … Theory R requires students to make connections, to perceive relationships, and to synthesize ideas. It sends students searching the far corners of their minds without regard for the artificial, arbitrary boundaries imposed by academic disciplines.
Brady gives here a neat precursor to Connectivism, I think. First, he emphasizes that each student already possesses all the neuronal networks needed for making connections, perceiving relationships, and synthesizing ideas. We teachers do not transfer anything into the imagined empty memory slots of student brains; rather, we present them with a, hopefully, coherent and engaging series of artifacts and experiences to which they may connect, perceive relationships, and synthesize ideas, or not. All too often what they connect to, perceive relationships among, and synthesize are ideas that we never taught, or didn't know we were teaching. And each student makes these connections and patterns within an ecosystem (their own life stories) that we teachers know little to nothing about, and that ecosystem, that context, provides almost all of the meaning for whatever new connections and patterns the student is weaving. This reminds me much of Paul Cilliers' definition of knowledge as "information that is situated historically and contextually by a knowing subject" (Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely in Capra, Juarrero, Sotolongo, and van Uden's Reframing Complexity: Perspectives from North and South, 2007, p. 85). In other words, while information may exist apart from our students as data, it does not become knowledge until the student situates that information within a context that includes themselves and that necessarily informs the information in ways we teachers cannot predict or control.

But what most impressed me about Brady's article was his observation that this process of making connections (mapping, as Deleuze and Guattari say) "sends students searching the far corners of their minds without regard for the artificial, arbitrary boundaries imposed by academic disciplines." It seems to me that Connectivism and MOOCs are wonderful vehicles for transdisciplinarity, which transcends the "boundaries imposed by academic disciplines." I know that the MOOCs I have joined have had a marvelous, transdisciplinary reach in content and participants. Though I have had some of the most engaging and rewarding conversations of my professional life, as far as I know, I have actually had no conversation with another writing teacher, aside from one colleague who shared an office with me and a few MOOCs. Almost all of my conversations have been with scholars and practitioners outside my discipline, which makes my engagement in the MOOCs most transdisciplinary.

I think I will explore this a bit more in the next few posts.

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