Saturday, July 2, 2011

Being in the Middle: Learning Walks


Image made on Learning Walk 7.1.11

So imagine a commitment to learning that involved making regular learning walks with high school students as a normal part of the "school" day.  Now, these learning walks should not be confused with walking tours, which are designed based on planned outcomes.  One walks to point X in order to see object or artifact Y.  The points are predetermined, hierarchical in design.

Instead, learning walks are rhizomatic.  They are inherently about being in the middle of things and coming to learn what could not been predetermined. Learning walks are part of the "curriculum" for instructional seminar (which I described here).  Instructional seminar--a service, not a course--will replace Lab Classes at a NJ high school this September (2011). Lab classes are a hold over of a factory model where students were deposited into generic English and/or math courses and "remediated."  Knowledge transfer was the belief that fueled the efficacy of lab classes.   Instructional seminar affords a more consistent opportunity for students to access fluid academic services and to do so with agency. A vision statement for Instructional seminar might well be: Experimentation Matters. 

Learning walks represent one aspect of instructional seminar (they are scheduled for every possible block across a rotating schedule so there are lots of IS sections) that at least a few of us (Celeste Hammell, John Madden,  @doumakara, @shklepesch and I) intend to experiment with during the upcoming school year.  It's our intention that ownership of leaning walks will shift from teacher-initiated to shared between teacher and learner as the school year progresses. Although physically our learning walks will have start and stop points and be constrained by time, the potential learning that is engendered will not be confined to the walk itself, nor will the walk have a route that is determined.  There are any possible walks on any day with the same and different people, as well as learning that is both predictable and unpredictable. The process is nomadic intentionally.

A Trial Learning Walk

Contact Sheet of Images Made While Walking
Yesterday I set out on a "trial" walk.  I gave myself one hour to walk about Morristown, NJ and document what I saw using my iPhone.  I knew learning would happen, but not based on a prescribed lesson.  Instead my trial learning walk would epitomize the premise, "We know more than we can tell" (Michael Polanyi as quoted in Thomas & Brown, 2011).  Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) describe, in chapter six of The New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, the tensions between explicit and tacit knowledge. They define tacit knowledge as: "the component of knowing that is assumed, unsaid, and understood as a product of experience and interaction" (np, e-book).  I had hoped that my walking about would provide a brief occasion to experience a city-town I work in, but really don't know or understand very well. 

So I walked for an hour and snapped pictures along the way, as well as filming a bit too. I have included a contact sheet of 20 images I made while walking and a very brief film.  It's still early to make much of the images or film, but I know that there's an emerging sense of differences within the city and how geography of place gives way to neighborhoods. These may well be ideas that I will explore more, contemplate--or not.  I imagine how different the walk might be alongside others or if instead of filming and image making, I only captured sound.  I think about what it might mean to interview those I meet along the way.  Or what might happen if I and others captured (video) stories of people on the street and learned them well enough to perform a walk as an ethnodrama.


Possibilities happen when you remain in the middle of things.

Tacit Knowledge & Rhizomatic Learning

One of the outcomes sought via instructional seminar from an institutional point of view, is that students will deepen their capacities to read, write, and problem solve. Initially, invited students to seminar have been "identified" by teachers and based on former course and state test performances.  I think of this year as a bridge year: a way to span the great difference between the factory model of lab classes and a more rhizomatic understanding of learning.  As the practice embodied in seminar becomes better established, any student could opt in and out of seminar.  Seminar is not an assigned course as no credit is earned, but rather an academic service. One might think of academic seminar as a learning center.

What is different though about instructional seminar is that tacit knowledge is critical, not ancillary. And so one might ask, how would walking about help a student to read, write, or problem solve better?  These cognitive processes are deeply influenced by our tacit knowledge.  For example, I can engage in complex reading, writing, and problem solving based on the narrative my reading of the images I made on the learning walk suggests. The walk may well anchor future expressions and inquiries.  Instead of beginning with explicit knowledge, learning walks allow for embodied learning. This difference is critical and may well be difficult for many to understand. Learning is not determined but encountered within the experiences and as such is rhizomatic.

Thomas and Brown (2011) explain that:
In the old culture of learning, educational institutions and practices focused almost exclusively on explicit knowledge, leaving tacit dimensions to build gradually on its own, over time...Knowledge was valued in the old culture because it was seen as stable. It was thought to transcend time and place...The twenty-first century, however, belongs to the tacit. In the digital world we learn by doing, watching, and experiencing (np, e-book).
After the Children Went Home
Much of what we know about knowledge has been (in)formed by education and those of us who have not only attended school but have made our living working at school may find it difficult to even imagine learning that is not causal.   We have organized schools based on the belief that knowledge can be transferred from one individual to another, predicated on the belief that "knowledge" was considered to be a stable matter.  In truth, knowledge has never actually been a stable regardless of century, but dominant cultural beliefs have for the most part been the single player on the "what counts as important learning" stage and so a prescribed body of "explicit knowledge" was privileged.  Just considered the teaching of American history and the differences about what counts as knowledge as expressed in a traditional textbook, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, or Marco Torres's students' films (SFETT).  With the presence of cultural revolutions and information technologies what counts as important learning appears to be a less certain affair. Perhaps now, especially with information access via the Internet, it is easier to recognize that knowledge is never stable, but constantly changing, and so too must our ideas about learning evolve.

Learning walks, like the one I took, are not about naming already determined facts, although these may well play a role in the learning and the expression of learning. Rather learning walks are about blending what we may have learned explicitly and tacitly with what we are coming to know.

Works Cited:
Thomas, D.s & J.S. Brown. (2011). The New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.


  1. i love it Mary Ann. kids did that this year. funny - one of the first ones.. they thought they were being bold in finding a pole and measuring it's height via trig.
    i think they thought they would impress me, being a math teacher. but when we talked after, about how authentic that was, they started seeing a walk as more legit. we pointed out the parts of their video that would have been way more alluring, way more intriguing, to everyone, but esp to them.

    if we give that space of permission up - physical and mental.. walk more, follow your fancy more, ... no doubt in my mind, more kids will be falling in love with mathematical thinking and scientific inquiry.
    that's way different than the math we teach in school.

    if you fall in love with something, you can't not share it. communication becomes huge. tacit knowledge is the most difficult to share. so you find yourself learning to communicate in ways you probably would have never tapped into. at least not with such zeal.

    i absolutely love your writing and thinking Mary Ann. thank you so much for all you are doing for ed.

  2. This is a great way to replicate, at a developmentally appropriate level, the explorations a very young child makes to learn about her environment. For me, it brings up all sorts of questions about mediation--is there a difference between the early-learning mediation that a child needs(?) and the mediation that can/should occur when the student is entering or solidly within formal thought?--are there ways that children whose learning is weakened by too much or too little mediation can recapture or awaken their ability to learn through exploration?--what mediation is most helpful for rhizomatic learning? Does it vary by the individual or by the matter of the learning? Is self-mediation better than other-mediation? Or the other way around? This seems to be taking constructivism to a new edge, for me. The difference is between knowing where you are going as you find ideas and not knowing, but letting the ideas flow and form the destination. Then it turns to making connections between the discovered knowledge. Very cool perspective shift...

  3. Monika, I am reminded how much we all want to fit in as we enter something new. It's why having multiple ways to express matters when learning is authentic, rich, complex, contradictory.

  4. Nancym Love your questions and I too am wondering about transitions at this time for those who have been educated in traditional systems and what may be foundational knowledge. Thinking about H and how he was guided to learn how to edit film with direct physical assistance (teacher's hand atop his, until it was no longer needed). I don't think another method would have held his interest. Also wondering in these types of tacit learning collectives, how much more we might learn by studying the products learners creat. Imagine what we might learn from viewing a film H made given his limitations of talk.

    The middle matters in ways we simply have not explored.

  5. This is a grand post! Walking is powerful work and embodies a critical node in creating new learning ecologies. I love how you have demonstrated so much in this posts design. I see your theory, design and ideas for iteration....This is participatory action at its finest, thank you.

    I appreciate where you are moving with the ideas of the ethnodrama!

    Jo Guldi
    recently rekindled a passion in me regarding the walking academics (History, sociology, anthropology) of the 1970-1990's

    Initially I would suggest this work if you have not looked through already:

    Beyond "Culture": Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference
    Akhil Gupta; James Ferguson
    Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 1, Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference. (Feb., 1992), pp. 6-23.

    A. Gupta and J. Ferguson
    Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and grounds of a field science (1997)

    In Handbook of Material Culture

    Discipline and practice: “The field” as site, method, and location in anthropology (In google book above)

    Beyond this do you know of Collin Ward?

    Rob Greco keeps a through bookmark archive here:

    Walking is so vital in my mind and praxis because it weaves participation and action, humanity and learning. Thank you for contributing so vitally to the deliberation on learning with this excellent post.

  6. This is a wonderful post that beautifully articulates the need to let go, to stop trying to control everything our students do and, for that matter, everything about our own lives and experiences. And while in some ways it would seem to be the opposite of flow, I think these learning walks that you describe are the physical equivalent of being in flow on the web.

    Your post has my head spinning, as it often does with topics that I am passionate about. In this case you cover something that I’ve worked on with students, but not exactly in the same way. (See the idea and one result.) So, please excuse me as I bombard you with a variety of resources related to the topics that come to mind, including tools that might help students learn to get the most out of learning walks like those that you describe. Note that some of the examples are more controlled, but they can either serve as a bridge and/or a model for more specialized walks that students might be want to take to help them pursue individual interests or collect ideas for specific projects.

    To start, I have tagged numerous bookmarks with 'noticing' and 'observation’. Other sets of bookmarks that apply are those tagged 'flâneur’ (see also) and 'dérive’ (see also) and 'psychogeography’ (see also). I think those cover what you’re going after in the learning walks.

    If there is a need for tools at all, maybe as students are first becoming accustomed to the idea, there are several that might be helpful. Three iOS applications come to mind, all from the Situationist tradition: Serendipitor, Situationist App, and the yet-to-be-released Drift Deck (more, including a non-digital version)

    Hototoki might be a great tool for documentation. (It uses Twitter.) RjDj might be a fun way to filter the sounds, if there is a need for filtering at all. And (now closed) might inspire someone to build something similar for collecting and sharing the photographs collected on learning walks.

    [To be continued in a second comment — I just bumped up against the character limit.]

  7. [Continuing from previous comment]

    There is also some value in giving students the opportunity to place their own constraints on what they are looking for. An example of such might be Sister Corita Kent, who used to go out looking at vernacular signage to use in her work. There’s a great documentary about her that includes some footage of her out on walks with students. Likewise, John Stilgoe takes his universities students out on walks to observe the landscape. 60 Minutes did a segment on him back in 2003. There’s no wonder (to me) why he’s one of the most popular professors at Harvard.

    Another set of more constrained walks comes from Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim. Their walks are concerned with how urban environments are being “transformed by the presence of networked computation.” They call these excursions “walkshops” and they’ve released a free guide to the concept.

    There are many books that I could recommend. These might make a nice resource library to go along with the learning walks. First is Will Self’s Psychogeography (more here on his blog). Three Rebecca Solnit books also come to mind: Wanderlust: A History of Walking, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and, as an example of maps that could be made as a product of walks, Infinite City, A San Francisco Atlas.

    Two other books related to the concept of seeing and/or exploring are Ways of Seeing, by John Berger, The Art of Looking Sideways, by Alan Fletcher, and How to Be an Explorer of the World. Actually, any of Keri Smith’s books would make a great addition to a resource library.

    And finally, to riff off your final line, I recommend the Lawrence Wesch biography of artist Robert Irwin, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. That is one of my favorite books.

    Sorry to blather on so long. Leaving this sort of comment is really mostly for me, a way to sort through my thoughts that were inspired by yours. Thanks for sparking that and thanks for indulging me.

  8. Ugh… I've already found several errors. Those are the hazards of writing with HTML tags littering the text. I won't correct the minor errors here, but I do want to note the author of Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees is Lawrence Weschler.

  9. @Thomas Wow. Thank you so much for the very thoughtful and resource rich reply. Some of my graduate work was in anthropology so the two links to Gupta & Ferguson are much appreciated. I haven't read Collin Ward but see that I need to. Between you and Rob I will be busy reading. Again thank you. It's interesting isn't it how evolutionary it is to be privileging walking. Curious about what other basic ways of being might matter so much.

  10. Rob, Well I have wandered through your comments and will return to wander some more. I took some time to read your students' reflections about their urban adventure. As a mom of a 12 year old (begins 7th grade in fall),I had hoped for a teacher like you for him. Appreciated the thoughtfulness and kid-like quality of the reflections I read. I downloaded the apps and also contacted Drift Deck. I have seen film about Stilgoe but hadn't connected it to the work I am describing.

    Hototoki is rather amazing and I will return to it again and again. It reminds me of Kawabata's The Palm of the Hand Stories.

    I have ordered the book your kids are reading this summer and Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. Eager to receive and read both. Thinking Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees may be my next Walden read.

    Surely your response was a gift. I thank you.

  11. Replies
    1. A lovely work.

      "HAVING therefore decided that I would describe the habitual state of my soul in this, the strangest position in which any mortal can ever find himself, I could conceive of no simpler or surer way of carrying out my plan than by keeping a faithful record of my solitary walks and the reveries that fill them when I let my mind wander quite freely and my ideas follow their own course unhindered and untroubled. These hours of solitude and meditation are the only time of the day when I am completely myself, without distraction or hindrance, and when I can truly say that I am what nature intended me to be.

      Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Russell Goulbourne (2011-07-14). Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Oxford World's Classics) (Kindle Locations 670-674). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.