Friday, 31 January 2014

Uncertain, Uncertainty and I don't know!

I sometimes wonder why I bother to write my thoughts down as there are so many thoughtful responses and replies to the "uncertainty" question Dave Cormier posted this week in #rhizo14. Often I write to clarify my own thoughts on my path to figuring out the "I don't know, but I hope to find out/understand." And I read from the community to help me in that process and also from the sheer delight of seeing how other people think, because it is not how I think.

There is Kevin's excellent post on how he views uncertainty which marries nicely with my ideas about change. It helps that one of the books that was recommended during ETMOOC (I think) was the "The Half Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know has an Expiration Date" by Samuel Arbesman. What we learn changes and mutates over time, as does what we teach. Where's Latin, for example? I only got one year of Latin because there were not enough students who wanted to take it ( I loved Latin too!) And yet Latin was the staple of higher education 100 years ago.

I loved Jaap Bosman's post about the place of wonderment in uncertainty. I know I feel anxious and frustrated as I learn new things, but also exhilarated and I am soooo pleased with myself when I finally understand how something works. Learning something is rather like opening a present (and I rip my presents open rather than try and save the wrapping paper, though that has been changing too as I grow older!)

Lou Northern's discussion about the place of ego and it's barrier to being open to uncertainty was a great read but I, like Frances Bell, was struck by this phrase "What am I assuming that makes me so sure that I’m right?" I love this.

But really, I am not sure about the idea of embracing uncertainty. Life is uncertain at its core and the only way we have to deal with it's very unpredictable-ness is by clinging to certainties. When we teach in the elementary panel, we are encouraged to create a place of safety for the learner. Isn't that in conflict with the idea of embracing uncertainty? For life and sometimes learning are not safe. Can we only embrace uncertainty at a certain age? When we have internalized the reality of living in an uncertain world?

Certain things are certain for now. The sun will rise and fall, everything born will die, gravity still works, ice is cold. So should we only teach the concrete, for only that is true and all else, fleeting and ephemeral?

I don't know.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Enforced Independence/Learned Helplessness

So this week in Rhizo#14 (Rhizomatic Learning) we've been asked to discuss Enforced Independence or what happens when we give people the opportunity to make educational choices in what they choose to learn, how they approach tasks and complete/not complete the given task. Dave said, "Once you give people freedom it's hard to take it back." To me, the question also seems to be "how to get people to reflect about the education system as a whole." Lately I think the education system is more about teaching learned helplessness than teaching independence.

So this is the starting point: Dave Cormier's video

There are so many good ideas to discuss in this vlog it's hard to know where to start. I found myself nodding my head as I watched the video. So many of his observations are in tandem with the way I view the education system. Here to me is the meat of the discussion. I've paraphrased what Dave has said.

"They need to be independent , they need to be responsible for their own learning. They need to be able to self assess and self re-mediate. They need to ask, "I don't know how to do this. I am going to figure it out.
I don't know what this is. I am going to find out what it is." So they can participate in a community.
You can't have any type of freedom unless you're independent enough to do those tasks."

"We have crushed that out of our education system."

We, as educators, take small children, whose conversation can be summed up with "why, what, how, etc." and Dave's question of "I don't know how to do this. I don't know what this is. I am going to find out what it is," and knock it out of them so that we can add it back at a later date. And then we wonder why it's so hard to do this. We, as participants in the current system, help create learners who are helpless, incapable of exercising their curiosity and afraid to ask questions and explore. This is why some elementary teachers are now focusing on issues of self regulation in the class. And students turn around when you do this. But it's not enough to hand kids back the ability to regulate their physical bodies (though the idea of having a classroom of 7 year olds glued to their chair all day never made sense to me.) What about what they want to learn? Genius Hour is one example of allowing students freedom from the curriculum. And students learn to self assess and self re-mediate. How to ask good questions and find resources.

And isn't that really what our job as teachers, parents and mentors are? To be able to show children how to do something and then stand back and watch them learn?

So the real question we need to ask is, what are we afraid of when we hand over the task of learning to the learner?

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

'The underbelly of education according to Karen'

I learn best when I work with others. I talk my way to learning. I need the discourse to help me refine my ideas and to open up new avenues of thought and connections. My entire learning history is based on fusing my thoughts with the thoughts of others. So from that perspective I've always been a "cheater." In the spirit of my need to connect I ran my ideas by Mariana Funes who has turned me onto the blog of Jose Luis Serrano and my good friend Rhonda Jessen where she also writes about cheating as a weapon in school.

So, I am a complete failure as a student. Just so you know upfront. My report cards in elementary school read something like this: Term 1- A, Term 2-B, Term 3-D. This started in Grade 1. I knew school wasn't really for me when I got into trouble for writing my own sentences, instead of copying the ones that Mrs. Lynch had written. And I was so angry that I couldn't write my own sentences and still get credit for it. I banged my head against that particular wall for years. Every report card read "needs to apply herself." And I talked too much. I didn't "try" hard enough.

Well, of course I didn't try! What was the point? I wasn't allowed to learn what I wanted to learn and express myself in the way I wanted to express myself and don't get me started about my inability to finish projects on time because of my obsessive compulsive need to make everything "perfect" (I've sort of got over that-maybe.) So I "failed" my way through elementary and then "failed' my way through secondary. It's not that I couldn't do the work, I just didn't want to do it. I did what interested me and left the rest. I made sure that I would pass all the exams and when I could, I would negotiate with my teachers a different way to do the assignment- something that made sense to me and was interesting to do. I was learning some of the time, but I wasn't happy and almost left school (only the threat of not being able to go to university kept me there.) I was the despair of my teachers. I was told that I would be incapable of completing university. But I applied anyway and got in. I explained my erratic marks to "stresses" at home. (Which was true enough, but not the real reason.)

So finally I was at university, the promised land of learning. Where I would be able to speak my mind, write what I really thought and pursue all of my various passions (according to my mother, who had gone to university in England.) Ha! Was I sold a bill of goods! Same old, same old. No, I was not allowed to disagree with the professor, no, I was not allowed to modify an assignment so it was more meaningful to me, no, do not write what you think, hand everything in on time, you must take this course to graduate, etc. etc. My undergraduate experience was shaping up to be a repeat of K-12. Except, as I took year three and year four courses suddenly I was allowed, no encouraged, to start writing what I was thinking, to modify assignments, to question (but not disagree with) the professor (as my sister says, you are allowed to savage other students with your intellect but not the professor.) But the damage had already been done. I had failed so often that when a legitimate life issue caused me to need to leave some courses mid-term, I was rusticated. A big academic black mark! I went back, finished up and thought, "no more university for me."

Less than four years later, I was back, starting my first Masters in a completely separate field. How? I was admitted on an undergraduate basis and just slid over to the Masters while no one was looking. I never completed that Masters because we moved before I could finish it. When I applied for my teaching degree I was admitted on probation. (I had that big black mark! And I didn't have any university credits in English and I had too many in science!) By then, I was in my thirties, and knew how to game the system.

The first thing to understand about school, and by this I mean all school, is that in its present iteration it's a power game. You, as the student, have no power. You may think that you do, but you don't. Always hand your work in on time, even if it is not as good as you would like. Disagree with your professor at your peril (I still did it (do it!) but I knew there would be consequences and there always are.) It's always better to nod and agree. Keep your answers short and don't explain your thinking, except in an essay format and even then, don't venture into territory that might lose you marks. Be thankful for the professors who are open minded, not into power games and willing to discuss ideas with you. Find a good study group that understands your need to talk out your thinking and share. Drop a course as soon as you see A) the professor doesn't like you because they'll mark you down or if you start B) getting sleepy when they talk (My Cultural Anthropology professor had a soft monotone voice and class was right after lunch in a darkened auditorium (I ended up taking it three times!) or C) You violently disagree with everything they say. You'll fail. I meet with professors before a class now to vet them to see if we'll mesh.

And be prepared to cheat. Because you have no power, how else do you balance the system? Some students copied others work (sometimes without permission), others shared past exams they'd managed to score (guilty!), we all ended up in study groups to support each other, still others had friends do their homework for them (I've done friends homework). Coles Notes? Used them. I passed an exam using them and never read the book. I abhorred those who go the library and clear out the bookshelves of resources or deface books so no one else could have access to the information but I understood the reasoning. It wasn't right and it wasn't fair, but I did understand. Because, as I've said before, the education system really isn't about inspiring a love of learning, it's about understanding who holds the power and doing what you need to succeed since your future is often based on school success.

You see, this is the problem. We're told as children to share, work together, help each other, that life is fair and equitable. But it's not. You can play by the rules, follow a rubric, swallow your ideas and still find yourself wondering "What did I do wrong this time?" Because the system isn't fair.

So how could've my educational journey been different? How might my story have changed if the system had been more aligned to supporting actual learning and creativity instead of some government/business idea of what education should accomplish for the betterment of society? I still ended up being a life long learner and even a teacher, despite knowing that the system is warped. (Though I did think of quiting half way through the teaching program because of the possibility of becoming "one of them." Sort of like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) And isn't sad that, while people participating in Rhizomatic Learning 2014 and the open education movement are trying to smush students lightly, the vast majority of our colleagues are still trying to wedge their students into that tightly controlling box called the education system. #rhizo14

Thursday, 16 January 2014

ETMOOC Anniversary and Noam Chomsky

Well, Tuesday January 14th was like old home week as the ETMOOCers gathered around our twitter feed (#etmchat/#etmooc) and chatted about what we had accomplished since starting ETMOOC. Quite a buzz! Some people described it as a high school reunion! As always it was a pleasure to share and discuss different ideas.

After the chat, I was energized as I always am after an ETMOOC exchange of ideas. I am currently reading Noam Chomsky's "Chomsky on Mis Education" and after the twitter chat several of the ideas he was discussing really struck a chord with me. They explain why the ETMOOC community is so strong and why we all feel that it has been such a powerful learning tool. Chomsky mentioned, while writing about John Dewey and his approach to education that, "education is not to be viewed as something like filling a vessel with water but, rather, assisting a flower to grow in its own way...In other words, providing the circumstances in which the normal creative patterns will flourish." (pg 38)

Everyone learnt that one in teacher's college, right, but how often do we see it happen? Well, it happened in ETMOOC and it happens in DS106 everyday. So using social media tools to connect, share and collaborate allows for the 'normal creative patterns' to flourish. What connected communities like ETMOOC and DS106 allow to happen is for us, as academics, teachers, administrators and trainers is to throw off the shackles of curriculum, 'what you should learn/do/know' and actually play and make our own meaning without fear of judgement. It allows us to grow in our own way.

The other interesting aspect of ETMOOC and other connected learning I've participated in (CLMOOC, Open Spokes, Headless13, etc.) is that it promotes a "free association on terms of equality and sharing and cooperation, participating on equal terms to achieve common goals that were democratically conceived." (pg 39) ETMOOC had us working, playing and learning on the same level. The hierarchy of the school structure vanished and we all worked together for both common goals (lipdub) as well as our own personal learning goals. According to Chomsky this produces "free human beings." Certainly I feel as if I've been released from bondage. I may never go back to regular school again! (Oh well, no PhD for me!) I wonder what elementary school would look like if we approached education in this manner? And would society be willing to let children play their way to learning?