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 …

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Enforcing Independence in #rhizo14

The challenge in Week 2 of Rhizo14 is to explore enforcing independence in education. Frances Bell has noted problems with these rhizomatic concepts in formal educational settings, and Jenny Mackness and others have reasonably objected to independence, favoring interdependence instead. They both address real issues with rhizomatic education: creating space for the rhizome. Higher ed doesn't seem to mind ivy on the walls, but they don't much want it in their classrooms, and what sense does independence convey in a structure where every point can and must be connected to every other point. If independence is to keep its classical liberal sense of the discrete individual, then there doesn't seem to be much room for it in the rhizome which Deleuze and Guattari characterize more as a swarm or a pack—not strong images for the rugged, self-sufficient individual of American mythology.

I agree with Jenny Mackness that interdependence is the better term for what happens in a rhizomatic structure such as a MOOC—this MOOC, for instance. I am not alone here, not even discrete. I have joined Rhizo14, and how I choose to express myself is up to me but always expressed within the context of the MOOC. I ignore that context at my peril. I have independence in terms of dependence.

I am independent in the sense that I bring to the MOOC my own professional and personal trajectories, interests, and goals, but no sooner do I engage the MOOC than it begins to shape, feed, and mold me. I express myself, but that expression is tempered and fed back to me, and that feedback changes me. Of course, I feedback into the MOOC to change it, but the MOOC is much larger than I am, so I'm betting that its influence on me is larger than my influence on it. I help create the MOOC, but it also helps to create me. I cannot conceive of what I learn in the MOOC apart from the MOOC. It isn't my own learning, though of course, I own it and am responsible for it. In short, the MOOC and I are interdependent.

In what sense, then, can I have some kind of autonomy in a MOOC, or any other rhizomatic structure?

First, I have to own my internal integrity. In educational terms, what I accept as knowledge is really up to me, or ought to be. Of course, I immediately see a point of contention with traditional education which gives me almost no say in what I can claim as knowledge. This MOOC is different. The knowledge that each of us takes away from our engagement with the MOOC is ours, kind of like the food we eat, and we are responsible for it. Though that knowledge is created through interdependent activities, what stays inside and is taken away is my responsibility (even though I am not totally aware of my knowledge and how I acquire it, but that's another post).

Then, my degree of autonomy depends on how well I can manage my boundaries within the MOOC. The more that I can decide what info comes in and what I put out, what exchanges I make and don't, then the more autonomy I have. Again, I see tension with traditional education which overpowers students' power to manage their own time, space, and knowledge, unlike this MOOC in which I pretty much control what info I take in and put out and when and where I engage it.

Next, my degree of autonomy depends on how free I am to grow and express myself within this space, this MOOC. Of course, traditional education is a master at channeling the growth and expression of students. In contrast, I sense encouragement on the part of this MOOC for me to expand and express myself. Unlike traditional education, I don't learn beneath the shadow of censure and power.

This does not imply at all that the MOOC does not exert a force on me. It does. It must. If I enter the gravitational field of the MOOC, then it of necessity exerts forces on me as I exert forces on it, and those forces change both of us. I think of this something like a card game: I'm free to play my hand as I please, but I would be foolish to ignore the other players in the game or the value of the cards I'm holding. I can express my autonomy only within the dynamics of the game. The game itself, then, exerts a force on me and modifies how I play my hand, but this is quite different from another playing pointing a gun at me and telling me what bet to make next. That's power, not force. It seems to me that traditional education is big on power, and rhizomatic education is big on force. Autonomy can deal with and thrive in relation to force. Autonomy is destroyed by power. The harmonious dance between the Earth and Moon depends on the forces each exerts on the other. Power would destroy that dance.

Well, I'm not finished, but I have to go teach a class. Tomorrow I will take up the issue of autonomy and space.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A More Practical View of the Rhizome for #rhizo14

Well, I intended to write a practical view of the rhizome in my last post, but I basically ended up giving my take on the place of the rhizome metaphor in the general development of Western thought over the past few centuries. That seems too general and abstract to be practical, so I want to try again in this post to make the rhizome—as I understand it—concrete. To help keep me grounded, I'll latch onto a specific discussion that Dave has started in this first week: learning as cheating.

I glanced through lots of the comments on the #rhizo14 site and on Google+, but I'm mostly responding to the discussion between Dave Cormier and Jenny Mackness. It seems to me that Dave uses the intentionally flagrant concept of cheating to get us to rethink our assumptions about education. As he says in his unhangout response to Jenny's blog post Rhizomatic Learning and Ethics, "I'm trying to make the assumptions we have about learning a problem." He's done that.

But I would say it slightly differently. Dave doesn't need to make our assumptions about education a problem—they are already a problem. As I suggested in my last post, most of our assumptions about education and almost all the working assumptions of our educational institutions are grounded in and shaped by the reductionist, mechanical view of reality that we inherited from the Enlightenment. It does not surprise me, then, that our concepts of cheating will vary depending on our context for defining it. If we view cheating in the framework of the social contract of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, then cheating means one thing. If we view cheating in the framework of Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome, then it means something else. For me, cheating in a clockwork universe is not the same as cheating in a rhizomatic universe—though I insist that cheating is a useful concept in both. How they differ will help me explain something practical about the rhizome—I hope.

I'll start with a common definition of the word cheat:
  1. act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, esp. in a game or examination, "she always cheats at cards"; deceive or trick. "he had cheated her out of everything she had" synonyms: swindle, defraud, deceive, trick, scam, dupe, hoodwink, double-cross, gull; informal be sexually unfaithful. "his wife was cheating on him" synonyms: commit adultery, be unfaithful, stray; 
  2. avoid (something undesirable) by luck or skill. "she cheated death in a spectacular crash" synonyms: avoid, escape, evade, elude; archaic help (time) pass. "the tuneless rhyme with which the warder cheats the time"
I want to explore cheating as a boundary issue to show that the mechanistic view of boundaries is quite different from the rhizomatic view. First, let's note that cheating is a human activity—rocks and animals don't cheat. Even when animals play games—and they frequently do—we usually don't say that they cheat. Similarly, we would not likely say that a mare cheated on her stud. Animals may trick, deceive, hoodwink, and steal from each other, but it doesn't carry the same stain of cheating as it does with us, so in this discussion, I'm talking about human behavior across human boundaries.

The mechanistic view of classical liberalism assumes that humans are discrete individuals with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, to use the words of Thomas Jefferson. Classical liberalism defines humans as unique, independent, discrete individuals, it defines clear boundaries separating individuals, and it defines the acceptable and unacceptable exchanges across those boundaries. It can do this, in part, because it sees society as a large mechanism, with clearly defined parts that interact in clearly defined ways. Violations of those definitions of parts or interactions are sanctioned legally, while adherence to those definitions are reinforced in myriad ways. One can change the role one plays (move up or down in the organization), but one is still expected to play the role correctly. One must accept the boundaries between themselves and others and make proper exchanges across those boundaries, just as the parts in a clock do.

This is nice for clocks, and we wanted it to work for schools. We defined parts/roles: student, teacher, administrator, counselor, etc. We defined knowledge: curricula, subjects, disciplines, etc. We defined learning times: school day, periods, terms, etc. We defined learning spaces: classrooms, labs, etc. But we always defined in a certain way: from the outside in, or as Dave Cormier says we defined by locking things up in little boxes, with clear boundaries. This is how definition works in a mechanistic worldview: clearly defined entities within clearly defined boundaries making appropriate exchanges with other clearly defined entities across those boundaries.

If schools were really clocks, then this would work wonderfully, and cheating would be a clear concept. If I as a student look on your test paper, then I am violating a clear boundary to unfairly steal your knowledge, or at least your answer. Such cheating is policed and punished. Only the teacher can look on the students' test papers. We were all born and raised with some subset of this kind of thinking. It makes sense to us, and we don't like it when our cherished boundaries are violated or moved or upset—at least, I don't.

But schools are not clocks. They are messy rhizomes, and in a complex rhizome, boundaries are not such clear and obvious entities. I've written a fair amount in this blog about boundaries, so I won't repeat all that, but suffice it to say that for modern science, boundaries are not at all a clear issue. For instance, in the traditional view, I should be clearly defined by my body, yet modern science says that my body is about 90% bacteria which I apparently share widely with others, even others of different species, and they share with me. I regularly exchange the energy and information that constitutes my body with my eco-system. My boundaries are fluid, interpenetrating me and others (human and non-human alike), and it is becoming increasingly difficult to say just where my body, much less the more nebulous my self, begins or ends.

Cilliers says that we can create boundaries because we are always working within a context, but then he notes that when the context changes, the boundaries change. This lands us directly into the problem of relativistic, situational ethics that fundamentalists hate so much. We have no absolute knowledge, but we do have knowledge.

So what is cheating in the rhizome? I would tell you if I knew, but I don't. The problem with rhizomatic/complexity thinking is that we are still figuring it out. We do not yet have—at least, I don't have—all the concepts and language we need to talk about ethics in the rhizome. I have faith that ethics makes sense in the rhizome, but I'm pretty sure that it won't be the ethics that work in a clock.

Still, I think we have some pointers. First, we define differently in the rhizome: from the inside out, rather than the outside in. I can see this clearly in terms of DNA. If we define from the outside in, then our DNA (color of skin, height, IQ, etc.) is the endpoint and it defines or limits who we are. A mechanistic definition locks us in a tight little box bounded by our DNA. If, on the other hand, we define from the inside, then our DNA (color of skin, height, IQ, etc.) is the beginning point of who we are. A rhizomatic definition opens us to an ecosystem in which our DNA can unfold, finding its own space and limits. It's kind of like a game of cards: you don't have to be defined by the cards that you are dealt (something that you have no choice about); rather, you can be defined by how you play the cards you are dealt (something that you DO have a choice about). Of course, it's likely that you are defined a bit by both your DNA and how it unpacks itself.

Of course, we recognize in this shift in how we define people echoes of the civil rights movement, the women's movement, self-actualization, and lots of other social movements of the past 50 years, including the MOOC movement. MOOCs open the learning space so that students (that's you and me) can define ourselves from the inside out rather than having the school or teacher (that's Dave Cormier) define us from the outside in. I'm being unfair to Dave. He's trying valiantly NOT to define us, but rather to challenge us to define ourselves—to become our own curriculum.

A second pointer toward ethical behavior in the rhizome has to do with rethinking boundaries. Boundaries are not rigid lines that separate and limit, as the mechanistic world view suggests; rather, boundaries are flexible zones of engagement. We cannot insulate ourselves from others and our environment; we can only engage skillfully, intelligently, and honestly. We can join a MOOC and then connect to people, exchanging ideas, exploring the conversation, propagating knowledge.

Of course, we hear in this echoes of all those organic concepts that have arced through society over the past 50 years. Indeed, most of what has been noteworthy and newsworthy over the past century—even the fundamentalist, reactionary backlash—has been this monumental shift in human consciousness from a mechanistic mode of thinking to complexity thinking, from the clock to the rhizome. For myself, I enjoy being part of something this big. All of us in this #rhizo14 MOOC are exploring this shift, and Dave kicked it all off with cheating. Nice rhetorical move, that.

Well, was that any more practical? I can't tell from the inside. But it's a beautiful day here in south Florida, so I'm going outside. You come, too.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Practical View of the Rhizome for #rhizo14

I've joined Dave Cormier's MOOC Rhizomatic Learning - The community is the curriculum (#rhizo14), and I want to respond to his challenge for Week 1 to provide an immediately accessible idea of what the rhizome is. This is quite a challenge because I'm not sure that the rhizome as a metaphor is so easily accessible for many people, in large part because it ignores so much of what we in Western culture take to be fundamentally true about the world. We might be able to paraphrase Nils Bohr's comment about quantum theory by saying, "Anyone who is not shocked by the rhizome has not understood it." Still, Bohr made that comment some time ago, and much about quantum theory and the rhizome (I see them as aspects of the same intellectual train of thought) has crept into popular consciousness. Anyway, I suspect that most of the people in Rhizo14 are already somewhat receptive to complexity thinking, or they wouldn't be in a MOOC such as this.

The rhizome as a metaphor for how the world structures itself comes from the 1980 book A Thousand Plateaus by French authors Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Because it is a metaphor, its meaning is more figurative than literal. For many reasons, I find it useful to contrast the rhizome as a metaphor for the universe to the Enlightenment metaphor that the universe is a clock. Of course, the universe is literally neither clock nor rhizome, but starting with either of those images will lead you to very different ideas about how the universe works. It will change your world view. The rhizome has certainly changed mine and continues to do so as I work deeper into it.

In general, Western culture has been shifting from the clock/mechanical metaphor to the rhizome/organic metaphor for understanding the world. For Descartes, Newton, Locke, and those others, the universe was a large mechanical device made up of distinct parts, moving and interacting in precise, measurable ways. Life was complicated (many parts, many interactions), but ultimately understandable and describable. To understand any system, all you had to do was break it down to its smallest parts and interactions (analyze it), and then put it back together. As Morin has noted in his book On Complexity (2002), this mechanistic/reductionist approach to the world and knowledge has been wildly successful, leading to the rich, technologically advanced, modern societies that we all now enjoy.

But it wasn't perfect. The insights of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and others have shown the limitations of the mechanical clock metaphor. Most importantly, the clock metaphor leaves out Life, which turns out to be really important to most people. We've noticed, for instance, that when you analyze a frog—breaking it down into its many parts and tracing the interactions—you learn lots of useful things, but you also lose something: Life. The frog is dead, and you can't put it back together as you could a clock. This is a big problem, and not just for the frog. We need a new metaphor for the universe that includes Life. The old clock metaphor is killing us, literally and figuratively. The rhizome is a really good organic metaphor for the universe and how it works, though you can find others that may work just as well.

So for me, the rhizome is a useful metaphor that is part of the shift in thought from the complicated (mechanical clock) to the complex (organic rhizome) that has been going on for the past century.

Unfortunately, most of our thinking and almost all of our institutions are still based on the clock metaphor. As Sir Ken Robinson shows so well in his RSA video, we still mostly construct schools on the archetypal mechanical model: the factory. Life does not work well in a clock model. In fact, it hates it. No one wants to be "a cog in something turning" (as Joni Mitchell sang), so we had Woodstock and quantum physics and relativity. The transition is still underway.

Even more unfortunately, this transition has not been orderly. It has proceeded rhizomatically rather than mechanically, with lines of flight going this way and that, connecting hippies with quantum physicists with soccer moms. My mechanical retelling of the story here leaves out all the interesting, rich, nuanced life of the tale, but I suspect that all of us know some part of it. Fortunately, a century or so into the shift, we can begin to see some of the broad arcs a little more clearly than even Deleuze and Guattari could see, but it can still be a disturbing view. It's why so many still have trouble shifting from the traditional, sequential, mechanical course of study to a new-fangled, networked, organic MOOC. All the old, familiar structures are gone, and the new structures are seldom obvious. This is almost always disturbing, unless you're one of those who like jumping out into the void without a parachute. Most of us don't, fortunately.

I came to the rhizome through building electronic networks for colleges and school systems, an approach that I share with Manuel Lima, a network design engineer at Microsoft, who in the RSA video below, provides an excellent and well-illustrated introduction to rhizomatic thinking—the kind of thinking you have to have if you want to understand how to make the Internet work. The video is also cool because of its mention of the rhizome and Deleuze and Guattari, if only in drawings.

I think Lima understands the rhizome, and he touches on a number of themes that you will find in complexity studies, especially how we are shifting from a tree structure of knowledge to a rhizomatic structure. (Note the problems with giving metaphors a too literal interpretation: both trees and rhizomes are organic, complex, living entities, but the tree is often used metaphorically to represent a rigid, hierarchical, mechanical view of life and knowledge. Avoid being too literal with any of these metaphors). The complicated view of knowledge breaks everything up into disciplines, while the rhizomatic view reunifies knowledge in an over-arching transdisciplinarity.

And note at the end of the video that Lima comes very close to saying that the rhizome is a universal structure that echoes from the micro scale to the macro scale, from neurons in a mouse brain to galaxies in a region of space. Thus, the rhizome is about as absolute a concept or structure as you can get a post-structuralist to commit to. I do not know if the rhizome will hold up for very long as a metaphor for reality, but I am convinced that it greatly expands the narrow, reductionist clock metaphor and can correct some of the imbalances, faults, and limitations of that metaphor. The rhizome gives us more places to go and more ways to get there than ever before. We can continue to construct and run schools on the model of factories, but we should not be surprised when the students and the knowledge, and even some of the teachers, squirt out the side doors (deterritorialize in lines of flight) and head naked for the hills, connecting to all those oh-so-interesting things outside the curriculum.