You can’t measure learning?

Dave Cormier says we live in a world obsessed with measurement. This is true, many have seen the potential for monetization in measurement, and that has led to a lot of meaningless measurement dressed as utility. But part of the reason why that has worked is that, in a world of uncertainty, many find measurements comforting. Rhizomatic thinking with its hefty dose of uncertainty is not exactly mainstream. Dave maintains that learning is a non-count noun (Speakers of other languages do speak of “learnings” might dispute that). But his key point is that you cant measure learning, even that you shouldn’t. I’ll take the bait.

You can measure learning, and we all do, and we need to. We are measurers, assessors. Not necessarily bean counters, but evaluators. You skim this post to gauge the reading time, and judge according to previous assessments you have made, perhaps unconsciously, of your capacity to engage with and process blogs in this space. You wonder to what extent you can engage with D and G to get under the skin of this rhizo thing. You quietly assess the different posts and messages to try to get a hold on what you should filter in or filter out. Managing participation in a cMOOC with the firehose full on requires continuous assessment of everything against your own subjective rubric, and not least your own progress: of course it is ipsative, we are all free to be subjective. But we do  assess our learning, and we do that competently, and regularly, making decisions on the basis of the results. Every fork in the path, every opening rabbit hole involves a micro-assessment, sometimes analytical, sometimes intuitive, sometimes the decision is to simply jump, but it is a decision. These are formative, sometimes transformative, assessments.

What is resisted is external measurement. We detest that. Because we feel that only we ourselves are capable of assessing our own learning meaningfully or legitimately. This is not negotiable from a rhizomatic perspective. Others cannot see the whole picture, lack the information to take those decisions for us. If they do, or when they do, it feels like an aggression, a judgement that fails to do justice to our learning, or our learning process. Summative assessment aims to encapsulate and package the learning, the transformation we have lived through, for external consumption. But in free range learning, the idea of an external summative decision is anathema.

At this point there comes a coyote moment.

Learning is rhizomatic. We can influence the growth of the plant, we can attempt to build channels and free spaces for it, and sometimes simplifications, potted rhizomes, will work (as Dave Cormier readily points out) but the kudzu keeps growing.

And in the end the rhizome takes us out beyond the edge of the cliff. Deep down in the warm earth we are free to muse and explore and root, we are even free to make privileged spaces in our classrooms and institutions for learning to take place, but at some point, the transmissionists ask as to prove it, to provide evidence. We have no framework for evidence, no structure, no scaffolding. The very notion of evidence is questionable. But we seem to be avoiding the question. Is there no possible framework for conversation about our rhizomes (not about the notion of the rhizome, but specific rhizomes, named rabbitholes)?

There are a whole load of things we can measure, ipsatively, formatively. We can develop rituals and conversations that enrich our growth, expand our curriculum, our community. The beacons we light, our campfire on the beach may attract others, and the idea may spread. But at some point we will have to address the fact that the notion of the rhizome is largely incompatible with formal learning. We can create privileged spaces. I have done what could be termed rhizomatic projects in formal education spaces and seen substantial transformation, but moving from the small success to widespread change is immensely challenging. There is a lot of inertia.

Some might say the idea of the rhizome is like kudzu grass, slowly undermining the foundations of formal learning. I would love to believe this, but I think that current conservative narratives, folk pedagogies around education, are extremely resilient. Models and examples will help, but formal funded education has to show evidences to parents, politicians and employers. We can’t avoid the need to measure “learning”, and as I have suggested I think we know how to measure, but we do need to reframe what kind of evidence is legitimate, and what kind of “learning” is valued.

Those are however political issues. But then learning, and education always have been political issues.

Post script:

Evidence is mostly understood as static, for the most part evidence is a dead letter from the past of the individual. Could new ways of providing evidence be structured around dialogue?


Cartographic conversations

Ellie Lighthouse in the Rhizomatic Learning theoretical discussion group on Facebook wrote a very interesting post about tracings and maps as ways of looking at learning objectives and subjectives respectively.
She quotes from a Thousand Plateaus (p.12): “The tracing has already translated the map into an image; it has already transformed the rhizome into roots and radicles. It has organized, stabilized, neutralized the multiplicities according to the axes of signifiance and subjectification belonging to it. It has generated, structuralized the rhizome, and when it thinks it is reproducing something else it is in fact only reproducing itself. That is why the tracing is so dangerous. It injects redundancies and propagates them. What the tracing reproduces of the map or rhizome are only the impasses, blockages, incipient taproots, or points of structuration.” She points out that the tracing could be seen as one of the “worst effects of goal setting/ assessment/ goal setting cycles in institutionalised learning“.   I see the tracing as a useful image, though perhaps these days less accessible than another that Simon Ensor pointed to in the comments on that thread. The Satnav, which gives you a single route, or at best a selection of three. Leaving aside the occasions where the route is not appropriate, the problem with satnavs is that that they are drvien by assumptions of efficiency. The scenic route is rarely an option, redundancy is impossible, and serendipity is an accident.
Ellie also quotes from a Thousand Plateaus (p.13) on maps: “A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back “to the same.” The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged “competence.“” She suggests that a map may correspond to a learning subjective. I am not so sure of this. Though it is more linked to performance and has a multitude of potentials, the map is perhaps one of the outcomes of a process that begins with subjectives. The map is what emerges as the learner explores the territory, and as each rhizome curves and turn and sprouts differently, so each individual map will be different. (And, obviously, the map is not the territory, as Borges so elegantly pointed out.)
The set of subjectives, rather than a map, is perhaps more akin to what a cartographer carries in her bag. These might include tools for viewing, tools for orientation, tools for sampling, tools for representation, probably some kind of prior impression of what the territory may involve (mountain range, tropical jungle, estuary etc) and a set of intentions (or at least a rough direction in which to direct one’s steps at the outset).
The challenge is perhaps the tendency for territories to collapse into maps and from there into tracings (or satnav routes). The tracing is a complete collapse, but the map that emerges from our exploration also exhibits this tendency, and however much we may label it provisional, it always involves a partial closing. It is natural to want to represent and summarise our learning, if only to be able to speak of it, and thus consolidate it, as well as share it.  But to do this is always to discard, and ignore some of the richness of what we have explored.
How can we sustain the potentialities that flower during a rhizomatic exploration of the territory… what conversations are possible between our emerging maps?


I am back in rhizospace again.

This week we are to explore the notion of “learning subjectives”, and more specifically focus on this question: How do we design our own or others learning when we don’t know where we are going?

The notion of “the learning subjective” appears to be a way of questioning the idea of learning objectives. Though there are wonderful semantic rabbit-holes to run down here, I shall save them for later. In the term learning objectives, the word objective is largely synonymous with goal, or aim. A learning subjective would therefore in some way be the opposite of a goal. This might be some kind of non-goal, something that has no “goal-ness”, or an absence of goals.
But the focus is on design. The assumption is that something has to be designed.
This assumption could be questioned, we could focus on the value of aimlessness, of not having goals. We could sit under the Bo tree…
Bo tree
But for the moment, the question is how we design…
The notion of design inherently implies intentionality, we design for a purpose.If there is an intention involved then there is a vision of some kind, an end, however nebulous, We can’t do “design” meaningfully without it.
This implies that in some way we “do” know where we are going. The question is perhaps more about whose way it is, whose intention? The word “subjective” implies a self-defined intention. The rhizome sprouts upward through the rich patch of nutrients known as critical pedagogy.
If we do know where we are going, what do we know about it, we know it is unpredictable, perhaps uncharted, it is a place where the usual course structure and linearity is not present, a place where we make the road as we walk it. Designing then is about preparing ourselves for the unknown and the unpredictable. It’s about providing the tools, resources and companions that will help us deal with the unexpected, filter and select what we find, choose paths, orient ourselves. This rhizome emerges into a thicket called metalearning.
But there is another assumption underlying the question, which is that at some point we actually do know where we are going. On the face of it we might, but from some perspectives the linearity of learning through courses looks more like a seductive fiction. Though a curriculum may be set out on paper, and a set of learning objectives defined and later assessed, what is actually enacted in the learning space is usually divergent from that formal curriculum, and the lived experience of the curriculum for each learner is likely to be even more divergent. Our formal assessments focus on compliance with curricular objectives but fail to explore all the other learning that takes place. Every classroom is full of the invisible rhizomes of learner’s thoughts, growing in and outside, beyond and through the syllabus.
This learning is something we can only guess at, in this respect as “designers” we don’t know where we are going. We may draw elegant maps with learning objectives and a set path, but the mind of the learner may well decide to explore the lonely mountains at the corner of the map, or the whale-monstered sea-bottom, or look at the hand holding the map, and the person behind it. We and they need equipment for that journey, and the equipment involved is largely emotional and attitudinal, a mindset. We need to help them, and ourselves, develop the wherewithal to thrive in uncertainty, and the autonomy to stray, and bloom.

May the road rhize with you!