Friday, February 21, 2014

Coda and #rhizo14

Well, didn't we have a party! I really enjoyed Rhizo14, and I thank everyone who joined in, especially the lurkers, who play a much unheralded role in the community as curriculum. I think they are the ones I most want to talk about.

Rhizo14 had such a wonderful wealth of marvelous conversations that I could not track them all. As Dave Cormier said in our unhangout yesterday, he will likely spend the next year hiking his way through the conversation, picking up the trail of things that he passed too quickly during the ride (a term I will steal from Clarissa). Like many others that I've read, I was greatly challenged and enriched by the conversations; yet, through it all, I felt some tension that I couldn't quite surface, but now that I'm a little quieter, I think it had to do with lurkers, those who join a MOOC but aren't vocal. If the statistics about MOOCs are correct, then roughly 80% of people fall into this category, reinforcing the overworked and generally misapplied 80/20 rule. I want to tease this out a bit.

For me, the tension surfaced first as issues with power and causality. Early in Rhizo14, a bit of controversy emerged about comments that appeared to exclude some in the MOOC. The controversy seemed to crystallize into an academics vs. non-academics argument and became something of a power struggle over who could legitimately be in what learning space. I didn't engage that conversation, but it created some tension for me as I wondered why such a boundary would emerge in what I took to be a fairly open learning space with room for all, but as I say, I did not engage the conversation closely enough to gain any clarity.

Then in a comment on one of my posts about the role of space in education, Scott Johnson made a comment about his struggles with the concept of potential in space:
The idea of a potential residing in space is very compelling and also hard to match with my notion of causality as an overarching power determining everything. Maybe we seek to send students in a productive path through a fertile field and need to back away and watch? What was caused by us and what emerged as a result of the students' balancing their path in an unfamiliar setting is hard to know.
 I was keenly struck by his comment that potential residing in space is "hard to match with my notion of causality as an overarching power determining everything", and a wheel turned just a bit. I began to wonder if our view of causality is what prevents us from seeing the community as curriculum. I think it's worth exploring.

As I can see it, the tension I felt is linked to our ingrained habit of thinking of causality as exclusively local. In other words, everything (an effect) is caused by something else (a cause) that is local, or nearby in space and time. The corollary of this definition is that nothing happens that is not caused by another local event. Things that have no local cause are relegated to magic and, thus, to unreality by our classically oriented scientific minds. For us, a body floating on the stage (an effect) must be supported by some wires somewhere (local cause).

In his book Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity (2002), Basarab Nicolescu says that modern complexity theory has "expanded the field of reality" by showing that local causality is not the only kind of causality, and he notes both global causalities and circular causalities. I have to expand my field of reality with these additional causalities to make sense of something like Rhizo14 where the community is the curriculum. Expanding my field of reality also helps me see the value of the 80% lurking in the shadows of the group.

As near as I can understand it, global causality refers to the pull of a larger ecosystem on a system. I sometimes think of local causality as a push, as when one billiard ball pushes into another ball and causes it to move. Global causality, then, is a pull, and I see this kind of causality in groups all the time. Studies show that if we put a group of students together for some task and leave them alone, the group will begin immediately to self-organize itself, rank ordering and grouping various students. This self-organization does not have to be locally caused by a teacher. The group will just do it almost as if by magic, but it is magic only if we lock ourselves into the push of local causality. If we open ourselves to the pull of global causality, then we see how any system (a group of students, a human body, a business organization, or a galaxy) will self-organize itself as the whole system pulls itself into functioning sub-systems, depending on the local pushes of the parts and the global pulls of the whole. The jostling of all the parts into useful arrangements can only be partially explained by local causality alone. We need global causality to expand the explanation. The mechanisms for this push and pull (local and global causalities) vary from system to system, but the dynamic interaction appears to hold across all systems, from the inanimate to the animate.

Unfortunately, 400 years of Newtonian physics and Cartesian science has focused us almost exclusively on local causality, relegating global causality to the mystical and magical. The only language we have for global causality is poetic, religious, and metaphoric. Fortunately, complexity theory is providing us with verifiable concepts such as emergence which are just beginning to help us say with more precision and confidence just what we mean by the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Complexity theory, which I use to encompass all the disparate ideas from relativity and quantum mechanics to information theory and post-structuralism, is expanding the field of reality and the vocabulary with which to map that expanded field.

Circular causality is another aspect of complexity thinking that expands the field of reality and helps me make sense of Rhizo14. In local causality, cause-effect interactions are regular and repeatable. A billiard ball strikes another ball in the same way if the locations, speeds, and trajectories are the same, and neither ball is essentially changed by the interaction. This is not the case in living systems, and probably not in the case of the billiard balls. When living systems push against each other, they change each other, and those changes are fed back into the subsequent interactions, or pushes, changing them essentially. As I interact with the Rhizo14 community, I am changed and Rhizo14 is changed, and those changes are fed back into our interactions so that the trajectory of our interactions cannot be explained solely by the pushes (local causality) but must include the nonlinear feedback of circular causality. Again, I have to expand my field of reality beyond local causality to understand what is happening in Rhizo14.

Local causality causes us to focus on the push of individuals in any group, so in something like Rhizo14, we tend to think that everything depends on, or is caused by, the few most active individuals (usually, that's whoever is talking the loudest and the most). Using the 80/20 rule, we focus on the 20% and ignore the 80%, just like in business, where we heavily compensate the 20% and barely compensate the 80%. Even in a group with a name like The Community as Curriculum, with community in its name, we habitually focus on the few. This is a mistake, I think. The few cannot make a community without the many. We privilege the few at the expense of the many. I continue to do it, even though I intellectually know better. As a soccer coach, I KNOW that the whole field of players is the most important feature of the game, but as a spectator, I still tend to follow, to privilege, the player with the ball. The player with the ball makes no sense without the other players on the field. Imagine the other players suddenly absent, and what are you left with? Some guy running and dribbling the ball around the field. Time to go home.

I think I can say my tension now: I still tend to privilege the individual, especially the loud, active, powerful individual, over the community. I still privilege local causality at the expense of global and circular causalities. I still unreasonably restrict my field of reality. For instance, I still want to say that Steve Jobs invented the iPhone and to privilege him with money and fame when I KNOW that it really took all of Apple and the rest of the electronics industry to do it. I want to say that Dave Cormier made Rhizo14 happen, when I know it was the community that did it, including the 80% who lurked. To really make sense of Rhizo14, I have to expand my field of reality to include the whole community and to find ways to privilege all parts of the community.

This sounds as if I want to minimize a Steve Jobs or Dave Cormier, but that is not the case at all. They, too, must be included in the field of reality, but I cannot understand the iPhone or Rhizo14 if I limit my vision to local causality, looking simply to those two causes to explain the effects. They are both necessary causes, but not sufficient. Likewise, the other active voices in Rhizo14, mine included, are necessary but insufficient causes. If I want to understand Rhizo14, I have to explore the global and circular causes (and likely other kinds of causes) that help illuminate a complex system. Focusing on local causes is easier, but including all causes provides a better picture, and that's what I want.

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