Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reclaiming Public Learning Spaces: We are Pando

I read with much interest Will Richardson's recent post, "How the Hell Could They Let this Happen"? Will writes:
As Kohn suggests later in the article, educators need to drive these conversations, not politicians and businessmen. And I get the sense from the comments on my last post that people are looking for ways to do just that but are frustrated with the lack of scale. We can only start so many wikis…
He closes by asking what we might do.  I began my response by writing:
I think the way public education is reclaimed as a public institution is by leveraging the long tail, the rhizome. There is a movement of people who are designing public learning spaces that offer a public alternative to for profit and industrial schooling. Via internet we are connecting. It is this type of force that can and hopefully will counter the for-profit scheme being foisted on the public as the only alternative. It will be the average person who will make this decision--this choice.
Will's comment that there are only so many wikis one can compose is interesting. In some ways I think the underlying approach of raising voices in protest and in guidance is an approach we have known.  In doing so we attempt to meet force with equal force.  But these times may no longer require such strategy, or at least such single strategy.  I've been puzzling over the issue as well (as I suspect you too have done) and I want to suggest that a way (not the way) of response is to leverage the Internet to connect us and to begin to build a rhizomatic response to our government and the corporations that seem to own our government.  Every day via Twitter and those I have met on Twitter I am learning about some amazing responses to industrial education.

For example, there's Monika Hardy in Colorado, Ian Chia in Melbourne, Rob Greco in San Diego, Thomas Steele-Maley in rural Maine, Thedisruptdept in St Louis, Mission VHQ and Liam Dunphy in Ireland, Pam Moran in Virgina, Ira Socol in Michigan, Cristina Milos in Romania, Michael McCabe in Wisconsin,  Rob Cohen, Scott Klepesch, Mark Gutkowski, & Micheal Doyle in NJ, Mike Ritzius from NJ/PA and more and more than time and space can permit.  It's a very long tail when you consider that these people are connected to so many others and those people are connected to others, and so on.

Chris Anderson explains:
The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail.
As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers.

Oddly,  public schools are being squeezed more and more into a one size fits all through standardization, standards, national curriculum, Race to the Top, and national and state testing.  We have been too long trying to find a single reform. To disrupt such established power requires a long tail revolution which is inherently a rhizomatic response.

From Leaf and Limb Tree Service Blog
It's not about being the reform answer or being at the top of something as a way to maintain power, but rather remaining in the middle where connections can be made and remade.  It's about each of us doing great work, not work that needs to be replicated, but rather work that is unique, native to its own ground.  The challenge is to know we are there and to connect our work. To connect great work is an antidote to mass standardization.

Leveraging social media to share stories and work, to try on tentative ideas, and to establish patterns are all critical.  Connecting and showcasing the small triumphs that by themselves may feel insubstantial, represents a mass. This is the work before each of us.   

On my own, I am Mary Ann Reilly.  Alongside you I am  Pando*, a rhizomatic triumph.

Let's do great education work, local to our ground, informed by Wendell Berry's 17 rules for a sustainable local community.

Let's value local funds of knowledge as Luis Moll's most important work has taught us to value.

Let's connect with one another and act as conduits connecting others.

I hope you'll join me as I am making my way.

I'll be looking for you...waiting for you.

*"2. Pando: Also known as the Trembling Giant, Pando is a clonal colony of a single male Quaking Aspen located in Utah. Each genetically-identical individual tree (or “stem”) is connected by a single root system. Spreading across more than 100 acres, Pando is believed to be over 80,000 years old and collectively weighs over 6,600 tons, making it the heaviest organism on the planet, as well as one of the oldest." from Leaf and Limb Tree Service blog


  1. Just a little typo, you may want to tidy up...not sure if it was in Will's original.
    "that offer a pubic alternative" (spot the missing 'L"?)

    Don't forget little Geoff (@scratchie) in Shepparton Australia...fighting for personal passion driven learning...

  2. I didn't forget you. I originally had a list that went on too long and shortened it up, rather arbitrarily. Thanks for the typo info. Appreciative :)

  3. I think "the" answer rests also in the community. This is not a blame-game, but we cannot overlook the fact that the very community we fight for deserts us. And it deserts its ideals and hopes in the process.
    No teacher came into this profession for the income (?) or privileges (?). Still, teachers strive to re-learn being learners, to become better educators, to bring meaning and joy within the school walls again. They blog, they interact, they learn how to master social media and technology for the sake of their students. They take away more and more family time so they can become better.
    And while they do this, the community steps aside. And takes sides - with this or that politician. And is preoccupied with standardized testing and push their children to the limits, to ensure their "success" in the academic life.
    Is it hypocrisy? Is it ignorance? Is it a simply apathy to fight the system?
    I don't know...Maybe none of the above or all three in different doses.
    What I do know is that it takes a village to raise a child. And it is time the village reclaim its role.
    *Thank you for the mention. I enjoy learning with you and be part of the rhizome.

  4. We are the community too. So much depends upon local interepretations of learning. The mass standardization that is now a part of schools is the dissatisfaction the public feels. The govt's antidote is more standardization. We need to break out of this rut and many are. That;s the rhizome moment: connecting like to like that is not standardized but is excellent, native to its own ground. Enjoy learning witih you too:)

  5. I agree that long tail innovation or disruption on the edges is where the work of educators needs to be when it comes to rethinking the model. But I wonder how long that will take to affect the neediest of kids in the inner cities and elsewhere. I feel like we need to change the larger narrative around education at scale before innovation can really take hold and flourish. Right now, the media dominates the narrative...we may feel a frustration from standardization, but as long as the message of reform is all about raising "student performance" or "achievement" from within, then I think most are too scared to risk doing it differently regardless the problems they see. So my point is more how do we turn all of these soloists into a choir that articulates a compelling case for change? Certainly, there must be some politicians and media moguls who could be convinced to take up that more relevant story of reform. Right?

  6. we're kind of thinking you could be one of those spokes people Will.
    we think we have a larger narrative...

  7. I hear you Will. And yes it is about engaging. I think the politicians who most matter though are local ones--ones who can come in and see and not simply show up to claim a photo or 45 sec spot on the local news. The power is the poeple. We simply don't exercise it in a coherent way.

    But I do hear a rumbling. It's how to mass that energy into something positive that we need to better understand, strategize.

    We also need to get honest about our public schools. Standardization is killing everyone's spirit. It's why some charters are appealing in concept: they are formed by people local to a place.
    I'm hoping Michael Doyle and I get the chance to create with teachers a livable and dynamic learning experience lodged in science via the NJ Commissioner. It's a slight way to make a dent in the standards will get us gold myth.

    We all need to be working, networking--doing what I know you are doing as your influence has influenced our district and so many others. We are moving ahead because you spoke on a June morning and a September day and your message resonated in ways powerful enough to motivate.

    Along the way the media will do what the media does--latch on to the story. Where I work I believe there is strong support for public schools by the community and an equally strong desire to enhance our schools through support.

    There are those rhizomatic entities among us with more clout, better positioned. They need to keep on the national story while those of us who work at the classroom, school, and district level make excellence our priority and work to clear out the national and state obstacles.

    I invited the governor to our senior student public exhibition. No response from Christie and he didn't show. Doesn't mean I won't keep trying. But he's not my focus. It's who we elect next I'm working on. We have to be smart at local, state and national levels to make viable candiates who get it and aren't owned. Lessig's work interest me in this regard.

    Keeping the faith while working.

  8. @monika Thanks for that. I feel like there is a larger, different narrative, but I struggle with how to make it media ready. Maybe we should all engage in a conversation around that 2-3 minute elevator pitch is for this new story. We need to find the words to articulate the difference but also motivate people to action. Not saying it can't be done, but the visions are so starkly different right now. Hard to wrap my brain around.

    @Mary Ann Thanks for that, too. ;0) We do all need to be working in our individual spaces, with our individual governors, etc. But it would be nice if we were at some level delivering a coherent message. I just think the long tail approach, while important, will be perceived by most as too random to bring about the cultural shift we need in the time we need it.

  9. Sorry Mary, I don't have anything more profound to add, other than I agree with this sentiment:

    It's about each of us doing great work, not work that needs to be replicated, but rather work that is unique, native to its own ground. The challenge is to know we are there and to connect our work. To connect great work is an antidote to mass standardization.

    and I am doing my best, even at a corporate international school from from the US.

  10. I know you are. Your work helps all of us to keep going, experimenting. Thanks.

  11. Very late to this conversation (thank you for pointing it out again Mary Ann). While I think the long tail is something that is of great benefit, I think it's also important to tackle the other side of the power law curve.

    I agree with the thoughts here that we need a bigger narrative. From my observations, I believe we can build that narrative from a range of angles. One important distinction that we can make in contrast to the wide ranging negative discourse is to approach it very differently.

    These two posts from Seth Godin and Chris Mooney have been in my mind as I've been talking to various folk about building this "other" narrative, combined with ideas of leveraging the power of the network to build a collaborative media presence, to do what Seth Godin describes as "selling a new vision".

    The fact is we are pando. Or as @royanlee put it, "I cannot be who I want to be without these other people". It's the passion, diversity and richness that affords strength and skills to take us there.