Archive | January, 2014

A Twitch in the Void

Tomorrow is the first day of the Spring Semester and I have a new class. I’m excited about this because I’ll have a chance to try out Dave’s ED366 method and put some of what I’m learning on #rhizo14 into practice. I know I’ve only been doing this MOOC for one day but I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants guy and I hear opportunity knocking.

There are a couple of things in my favor. First, I’ll have a small class, about 14 students, and I’ll be with them 14 hours a week, in three hour blocks most days. Then they all failed this course in the first semester and are repeating. This means they’ve already been goose stepped through the “standard curriculum” once… no need to repeat that.

This morning on FB, I saw a link Ma Bali posted to one of Dave’s 2011 blog posts Rhizomatic Learning – Why we teach. I had been distracted by the Academic Elitism brouhaha and ended up at a 2008 post on Dave’s blog, Rhizomatic Education: the community as curriculum.  Both those were very interesting, but scrolling down further I found a ping back in the comments from Hybrid Pedagogy.  This pointed back to a post by Tanya Sasser titled Bring Your Own Disruption: Rhizomatic Learning in the Composition Class.  

If you’re interested in teaching writing, then have a look at her post. She says that writing students – or student writers if you like – need to begin to see themselves as writers before they can write. In another context, you cannot learn to swim by watching swimmers. You need to be a swimmer first. If you are a swimmer, you will swim. If you are not, you will sink.  To do this, you need to overcome your fear and Tanya reminds us that “We cannot ignore the fear that writing engenders in many of our students. And we cannot assume that autonomy is desirable or solely effective for motivating and inspiring all of them.”

We can offer students autonomy, but many do not like this. They want to be told what to do. They want a good grade.  They do not believe that they can do what we are asking them to do, and in any case, why should they learn to do anything that is not on the test? 

While I was rummaging about, a couple of things were rattling around in my brain: First, there was Cath Ellis post about Deleuze and Guattari, and Ma Bali’s reply to Cath, Academic Privilege. Then, there was Dave’s ED366 Course, and how he had built that using easy tools: WP and GoogleDocs. I had earlier poked around on his GoogleDrive folder for that and thought – “I can steal this for my course.”

sumerian homework 2400 bc

Sumerian Homework, 2400 BC

In discussing the “essay” – the standard assignment in writing classes – Tanya quotes Mark Sample who says, that the student essay is  “is a twitch in a void. A compressed outpouring of energy (if we’re lucky) that means nothing to no one.”

Teachers have been doing this for a very long time: old habits are hard to break. Students have old habits too. Tanya also mentions this, saying “Many of [students] don’t think they can write. Some of them don’t wish (or think that they have anything) to learn about writing. These are nodes of thinking that are often, ironically, created in K12 English classrooms and, unfortunately, sustained in the college-level FYC [First Year Composition] classroom.”

Before arrested students can move forward, they may need to losten these nodes that bind them. The twitch in the void haunts them. Nothing comes from nothing.

So, I’m looking forward a rhizomic semester with my new class. Who knows, some of them might learn something. All of us will learn something. Who knows what that will be?

Independence Enforcement

This is week two of #rhizo14 – Rhizomatic Learning – and Dave is asking,  “How can we take people who’ve spent their whole lives believing that this is ‘learning’ and MAKE them independent?”

He explains this a little more in the video intro for the week and places this in the context of his own course, ED366, Educational Technology and the Adult Learner. Even though this course is aimed at teachers, he says that they have difficulty understanding that what happens in institutionalized instruction is not necessarily learning.  (Dave makes a box with his hands and peers through it).


Well, the idea is that you hop from door to door. There are lots of metaphors here… keep to the beaten path, the wolf eats the wandering sheep, and so on. The general mood is of danger lurking – so do what you’re told.

So, to paraphrase Dave, How can we compel people to take responsibility for their own learning?

Teachers are planners and planning assumes control. One of the hardest things I’ve had to do is relinquish control of my class – give them control of their time and their space. I have not been completely successful… but I’m getting there.  I don’t think we can talk about students becoming free until we are willing to set them free.

Dave says that teachers set objectives, assess progress and give direction. How can people believe that this is ‘learning’ – and if they believe it, how can they ever learn anything?

This is interesting. Dave’s ED366 course, according to its course description, is about “the integration of current and future online computer technologies into today’s and tomorrow’s classroom [and provides] an overview of current computer based technology (e.g. multimedia applications, streaming audio, streaming video, online audio chat, online discussion forums, web conferencing, blogs as well as other evolving technologies),” [ ED#366 Revised Course Description ].  A teacher could make a lot of choices here, but Dave’s designed his course to be reasonably unstructured.

I teach English. My course is structured by colleagues who think that learning is the same as covering material in textbooks. They believe that if we cover the material students must learn. If students don’t learn, then it’s because someone didn’t do something right – teacher didn’t cover, or student didn’t do.

I don’t think my subject is much different than Dave’s – it is vaguely contained in a parade of important sounding nouns, but it actually rests on development and mastery of a limited range of skills: we do not stream video, we use video to say something that is worth saying. We do not write to arrange 500 words in 5 paragraphs; we write because we have something worth saying. Everyone has something worth saying.

Coverage doesn’t bother me anyway. I can uncover whatever my colleagues have covered, and by doing this I think we have a chance.

Dave says that making people independent means that they learn how to self assess and self re-mediate. If you are familiar with language teaching then you might have heard of Stephen Krashen. Krashen talks a a lot about self-assessment and self-remediation in the context of language development and literacy.  Krashen’s monitor hypothesis is all about this. One of the techniques he promotes is free voluntary reading. I think it goes like this: to learn to read, you must read. To read well you need to enjoy what you’re reading. To enjoy what you’re reading, you must choose what to read yourself. To read well, you must have no reason for reading other than your desire to do so.  Then you will enjoy reading. You will read, and you will learn.

Krashen has been saying this for at least 30 years. It’s the only thing that works. But education is not evidence driven. This is why you’ve never heard of it.

So, I think we can help people to become free and independent learners but to do this we need to be patient and caring. It can be like re-introducing a wild animal into the bush, after it has been reared by people … like Born Free. (Musical Interlude here)

And it can also be a personal journey, the answer to a call, as with Buck, in Call of the Wild. It can happen with a mentor, or without, but its happening unfolds naturally once we unlearn whatever it is we learned in school.


Cheating as Learning

Last week one of my students came to ask me for his final exam mark. I told him, then he said, “And what did so-and-so get?”

I said, “You’re asking because you copied off his paper.”


“Well, he complained to me about that. I told him not to let anyone copy from his paper again. I can’t tell who’s copied what from who, so you should both get zeros, really.”

He said, “Yeah, but what did he get?”

I work in Saudi Arabia. Cheating of this sort is very common here and I’ve wondered about it for a long time – not so much about the cheating as about the attitude toward it. Students almost expect it, and getting caught is like, well, like loosing a football match.

I also wondered about this as I moved my own kids from school to school. Every year we’d try a new one and all were just about the same: seven weeks of soporific classes followed by a two week hazing of exams, then repeat the cycle.  About two weeks before a new battery of exams, prep started, and the closer the exams got the more kids crammed. Every year in May, following the last day of school – and the last exam cycle, kids poured out of the schools and literally ripped their books to shreds, scattering the pages all over school yards, spilling out into the streets.

Parents whose children struggle in school simply move them to another school where they do better. There are schools where students work hard and get reasonable marks, and there were schools where students do little or nothing and get great marks. Of course, the best schools are those that give the best marks. University entrance officers look only at the GPA, and GPAs are calculated from first grade. I have seen primary school reports with grades calculated to five significant figures after the decimal point. With a granularity of 1/10,000th of one percent, marks would seem to matter, and matter a lot.

cheating to learnIt took me ten years to figure this out. School has little to do with learning. It’s mostly a power game and the GPA is the goal keeper. The object is to score a goal. The rules are customary, arbitrary, invented by committees, by people who are players themselves, by people who don’t understand the game, or care to. Like most traditions, no one really knows where it all comes from. this is just the way it’s always been done.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Our students are players, and they play to win.

Our students are such good cheaters. They collaborate skillfully and easily to overcome any challenge. They co-operate and they help each other. They share what they have, and they contribute what they can, when they can. They are expert learners. I’ve stated marking them on their learning, on their collaboration, and I don’t worry about cheating. I give work that makes them better collaborators, that makes them better learners. They can’t cheat – they have to be players.

Cheating is learning, especially when it is socially supported. Sure, you can cheat alone but that is not often seen here. Local cheaters almost always collude… they co-operate and they collaborate, and they solve their problems collectively. In industry we strive to build these skills.

So, maybe it’s time to mobilize students’ collaborative and co-operative skills to support their learning, to stop policing them and start teaching.

He said, “Yeah, but what did he get?”

“He got a B and you got a B-. The grades mean nothing and I’m not policing anyone. That’s not my job.”


Scientific Humanities

Bruno La Tour

Here’s a new MOOC hosted at FUN – France Université Numerique – and taught by Bruno La Tour.

This looks MOOC quite interesting.

According to La Tour

“Scientific humanities” means the extension of interpretative skills to the discoveries made by science and to technical innovations. The course will equip future citizens with the means to be at ease with many issues that straddle the distinctions between science, morality, politics and society.

For more on FUN and the Scientific Humanities MOOC go check out La Tour at FUN.

This MOOC is in English and runs for eight weeks, 10 February, 2014 to 16 March, 2014. Organizers estimate a 3 hour per week commitment.

For more about La Tour, Science, Knowledge and modernity, listen to this talk between Will Pollard and the Standup Philosopher on SoundCloud


La Tour, B. A Cautious Prometheus: steps toward a philosophy of design

Visions of Students – Ethnography in Action

Michael Wesch and the students of Kansas State University’s Digital Ethnography Research Team produced this video collage about what it means to be a student today. Over 200 submissions went in to this remix.

Here are some excerpts from the voice over:

  • Discovering knowledge is beyond the power of the student, and is, in any case, none of their business.
  • Recall is the highest form of intellectual achievement, and the collection of unrelated facts is the goal of education.
  • One’s own ideas, and the ideas of one’s classmates, are inconsequential.
  • There is always a single, unambiguous, right answer to a question.
  • The voice of authority is to be trusted, and valued more than independent judgment.
  • What students mostly do in class is guess what the teacher wants them to say.


Sounds like not much has changed since the 19th century.

Education is still about power, submission, paying your dues… bricks and walls.

Also check out Wesch’s YouTube Channel.