Thursday, May 8, 2014

Experience and the Ludic in Rhizomatic Education

I've recently read from two of my Rhizo14 colleagues a couple of posts that kept pulling at my head, but I couldn't tease out what I was thinking. It had something to do with experience and education or education as experience, or something. Then I read a Wired post by Rhett Allain entitled Three Science Words We Should Stop Using, which concluded:
Science is really about making models and about playing. Yes, playing. Playing isn’t just for kids, adults just get better toys. … There is no point except to play. … I just wish grade level (and some college level) books would move away from defining things and stating pieces of science and focus on the playing part. Many science classes as they are taught now are like studying the different parts of a clarinet, but never playing any music.
Studying the different parts of the clarinet, but never playing any music. Well, yes. That seems to be what much of my schooling was like. I think too many classes still work this way. Well, let's play some clarinet, then. I understand that Artie Shaw was among the best, so enjoy some old skool while you read:

In her post An Awkward Encounter – Larossa's Thoughts on Experience & Knowledge, Clarissa Bezerra discusses an article Notas sobre a Experiência e o Saber de Experiência (Notes on Experience and the Knowledge of Experience) by Jorge Larossa Bondía in which Larossa argues that education is becoming more about information and less about experience. Bezerra notes that
the contemporary obsession with information, as well as information overload, is actually a counter-experience, in that it has caused a shift from quality to quantity, from existential depth to fast processing. We have access to an endless universe of information, yet nothing really happens to us anymore. … [W]e have become fast consumers and processors of information, taking it all in and promptly emitting opinions about all things, as if learning, or at least the deep kind of learning, were actually taking place in that process.
We learn all the parts of the clarinet—see? the information is at our fingertips—but we don't play. I can now pass a test on the parts of the clarinet, but I'll bet I couldn't get a sound out of it, never mind a real note. All that information and no Artie Shaw, no experience. I think I see Larossa's and Bezerra's point.

Then I read Maha Bali's post Curriculum theory, outcomes/objectives, and throwing the pasta out with the pasta water, in which she argues against two traditional approaches to education:
  1. a content-approach to curriculum is one where the teacher (or some central body) chooses the content beforehand and develops syllabus around it.
  2. the technical or product approach to curriculum … centers on learning outcomes, making them explicit and measurable, then designing assessments to measure them.
And I see her point: we put the information ahead of the experience, or worse, we substitute the information for the experience. It's like getting the tee shirt instead of actually visiting the Pyramids. You can pass the test, but you seem to have missed something important.

At the end of her post, however, Maha says, "although I am passionately opposed to outcomes-oriented approaches to curriculum, I don’t completely ignore learning outcomes, they have their place. I put them in the syllabus, but they are just not supreme for me, lest I miss out on the more valuable learning that can and does take place in a real classroom." This is a good point that provides balance for me: I am not opposed to information, I am just opposed to substituting the information for the experience.

I learned this lesson years ago when I was earning my license to coach futbol. In the critique of a practice training session that I led, the trainer told me that I talked too much. "Mostly, just let them play and watch them," he suggested. "When they do it right, encourage that." He was right. I was putting the information before and above the play. I was using both a content and a product approach to training: they need to know how to dribble the ball with the inside and outside of the foot, so teach them how to do just that before moving on to shooting the ball. Then I would set up some cones and have them dribble in and out of the cones, around and around until they just hated futbol. I'm glad we don't teach sex this way, or as Jerry Farber once noted, the human race will die out.

And this brings me to a main point: play is about the best way to get experience into the classroom. Trauma and great hardship are also rich experiential teachers, but I don't recommend them for the classroom. Play works. Few things are more rhizomatic than play. Just watch a futbol match: basically the same ingredients in the same space, but no two matches are ever the same. A match is a fractal, bounded infinity. Good classes are also fractal, bounded infinities. The idea is to give your students space to play in, and watch for when your objectives emerge. Encourage that while remaining open to the possibility that something even better than your original objectives might emerge as well. That's when education becomes magic.

I think that I learned all the really important things in life through play, with just enough trauma and hardship thrown in to keep me emotionally balanced but, fortunately, not too badly damaged.

I need to end this by pointing out that Rhizo14 encouraged play, created spaces for play, and that play is yielding some of the best learning that I've done in a long time. Rhizo14 put the experience before the information. Indeed, it went to an extreme by providing all experience and almost no information. The group provided its own information and objectives. And is still providing it. Thanks, Clarissa and Maha.

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