Answers on a postage stamp

In my first teacher training course, back in 1987, I watched a video of a man giving a 2 hour class. During the whole session, which involved extensive group activities and learner participation, there was no lecture, and he used just one piece of “content”. A postage stamp.

postage-stampsOf course we didn’t call it “content”, it was resource or material, or part of the contents of a textbook.

I may be mistaken, but there seems to have been a shift in the understanding of the noun “content”, around the mid 90’s, roughly with the rise of the internet and the emerging need for business models for the Internet. From being simply what was inside something else, a container, it became something that could be packaged, and sold. Prior to this, what was sold was the container – the book, for example.

As things went digital, the container remained important for a while, so that though it was clear that the contents of a CD were tiny bits of information it was still felt to be necessary to package this, in a large, useless (hard-backed size) cardboard box. Packaging is important.

As the Net became the container, it became necessary to find other ways of thinking about selling the contents. When the Net is the container, the package is not often clearly visible and identifiable. This was of course disastrous, inimical to effective commoditization of the experience of going online. For example, if you buy an online course, it is hard to say where that course is. To get a “purchase” on the course you need something visible, something concrete.

So the contents of the package became the package. And what was a plural noun, as in “Table of Contents”, became singular. It became a concept. It became “King”.

This shift, from the perspective of education at least, has been pernicious. It has led to mistaken understandings that the material/textbook/video/syllabus/etc used in an educational experience, is the same thing as the educational experience, or as the learning that takes place. How many times have you heard a student say: “I missed the class, but it is OK I have the notes/slides”? It might be an easy mistake to make, given the pervasive presence of transmission perspectives around learning in our folk pedagogies, but it is still pernicious.

In 2002, when MIT launched Open Course Ware, the same conversation about content took place. The decision they made, to put their content online free, was accompanied by clear declarations at the time by Charles Vest, then MIT President, that MIT content was not at all the same as an MIT education. But the identification of content with the course, or worse still, with the learning goes on. Because it is necessary for those who wish to commoditise and control learning.

In this sense, it seems to me vital to question and contest the use of the word “content”. The very word shifts the frame of the conversation around learning. The term drives us to believe that learning requires “content”, neatly packaged, of course, by your vendor of choice. And that without Content, our work is incomplete. Thinking of content as a kind of conversation with the people who created it is a useful way to shift our thinking, it might also be valuable just to stop using the word, and go back to using words like “resources” or “materials” or “texts”, which are words that help to reframe the conversation.

Somewhere south of Wellow

2014-04-02 15.38.22We went riding today, out between the hedgerows, wending our way down leafy corridors. When the path opened out to hillside, we galloped, wind in our manes, until suddenly both horses veered, right, past the scattering lambs, away from the route we had planned…they were excited and fractious, tossing their heads, anxious to be moving forward. We gave them their head, they know these ways more than we do; each startle, each twitch, is a memory. They led us deep the woods, down a bridle path that was new to us, and as we went we tried to work out where this was leading, which track it would connect to, how close we were to the road, to the village. As we talked, relaxed, at the rhythm of horse and hips, we discovered how our mental mapping diverges.

She sees landmarks, fragments of experience; that hay-bale that shone in the sun, spooking the horses, that sign that says “Slow! Free range children” just at the edge of Faulkland. A pointilliste network of loosely located reference points.

I seem to focus more on the hills, and the curve of the valleys, and a sense that our starting point must be more or less “that way”.

As we rode we learned, about the landscape, and about how we learn the landscape, how each of us finds our way. We drew our maps in the air between us, made the learning visible.

All around us the brambles, the grass, the birches, kept up their slow movement through the earth. And the horses found our way home.


This is a response to Ellie Lighthouse’s thought-provoking post on mapping learning. Thanks, Ellie!

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!