Friday, January 13, 2012

Bold Schools: Part I - Learner as Knowmad

Knowmadic Learner (M.A. Reilly, January 2012)

Recently, Will Richardson wrote about the search for bold schools and the qualities of such 'places'. Will's questions nudged my thinking too, leaving me to conceptualize the bold learner as knowmad, his/her teacher as time traveler, and the community in which they learn as rhizomatic.  One constant [t]ruth that underlies this trio of concepts is that for boldness to be achieved, the very way we conceive of time inside learning spaces will need to shake loose its Cartesian roots and embrace multitemporal understandings.  Such changes will alter how we think, what we think about, how we participate, who participates, and the academic and social competencies such differences engender.  Simply put: the bold 'school' exists when a learner's agency is primary and participatory, and time is represented in multiple manifestations.  In this post, I will be writing about the learner as knowmad operating within multiple representations of time. I am going to dig deep to reveal the shifts in thinking that bold learning spaces require. In the next post I will explore teacher as time traveler and will conclude in a third post about community as rhizome.

Learner as Knowmad

John Moravec (2008) defines knowmad as 'a nomadic knowledge worker." He adds that this knowledge worker is :

…a creative, imaginative, and innovative person who can work with almost anybody, anytime, and anywhere. Industrial society is giving way to knowledge and innovation work. Whereas industrialization required people to settle in one place to perform a very specific role or function, the jobs associated with knowledge and information workers have become much less specific in regard to task and place. Moreover, technologies allow for these new paradigm workers to work either at a specific place, virtually, or any blended combination. Knowmads can instantly reconfigure and recontextualize their work environments, and greater mobility is creating new opportunities.
When we conceive of learner as knowmad, the traditional roles assigned to teacher and student become less relevant, necessary, and linear.  The knowmad is mobile and learns with anybody, anywhere, anytime.  As such, the place we now know as school may be too small and perhaps unable to contain the range of learning engagements necessary for those with nomadic tendencies.  Rather, think of the extended community--one that is physical, virtual, and blended-- as potential learning spaces that our knowmadic traveler composes, accesses, participates in, abandons, and changes.

Imagine now that you are standing on the virtual edge of such a learning space and have been given the capacity to see and hear the range of learning that is occurring.  One of the first things you may notice is that organizing time in any one manner makes little sense.  Gone is the adherence to inflexible periods, rows of desks, strict arrival and ending times of the day and 'school' year, the bus schedules, and the like. Such exclusive ordering will not serve the knowmadic learner, nor his/her time traveling teacher.  You may notice that there are multiple concepts of time happening simultaneously among the learners and that the learning locations are social and multiple. Some learners are physically present, while others are not. This has become so common that 'seat time' is simply a remembrance and is no longer thought of as useful descriptor of academic or social accomplishment.

Let's linger a bit here.

Pekka Ihanainen and John Moravec (2011) write that about multiple types of time that populate such learning spaces, especially when information and communication technologies (ICT) are in use. Ihanainen and Moravec write that in addition to traditional linear time (think sequential: periods, rows, etc.), there is pointillist, cyclical, and overlapping times. To these times, I would also add duration.

Pointillist Time

Pointillist time is characterized as discontinuous acts that learners can return to.  They explain it as such:
When one sends a tweet about what one feels or does, to tell others about an idea, or to let them know about an interesting Internet item (blog post, video, podcast etc.), an experiential time point for the readers of the tweet is produced. Online readers and followers can retweet that expression to others, producing a new time point. When one person follows the tweets of others, he or she jumps into their time points for a while. This kind of microblogging is pointillist both in a temporal sense and as an activity.
In conceiving of bold schools, learning that stems from pointillist acts will require significant learner agency, as the learning engendered will not and cannot be directly taught.  As time is discontinuous, learners will need to determine the pathways to make/follow, and will also need to manage and leverage ambiguity in order to re/construct and/or re/mix point-to-whole understandings.  Many years ago, when I was a writing my dissertation, I conceived of this type of learning as folding conceptual space.  Post-Einstein, the quickest way between two points is not the diagonal line, but rather the fold.  Pointillist learning is the act of folding space.  No longer must we progress from point A to B and so on making each learner follow an identical path. Pointillist learning allows learners to determine points and fold/unfold/refold conceptual space at will.  Prediction is pointless as these types of acts (i.e. twitter example) occur in non-orientable time.

Learning spaces where pointillist activities occur are spaces where learner agency is social and primary and learning to frame emerging situations is not only probable, but likely necessary. We see a shift from situating literacy as personal skill to understanding it as a set of social skills and cultural competencies (Jenkins, 2009) that allow for complexity. Instead of an input-output model (teacher assigns concepts A, B, C, and D), pointillist learning is more about what gets occasioned by the learner and the teacher.  Ihaninen and Moravec demonstrate this shift when they write:
A pointillist activity requires the learner to have spatial and temporal independence in the different contexts of (virtual) responses and events. This capacity also creates sensitivity to hectic communication processes and fragmented content items. Within these situations of cognitive uncertainty and obscurity, the question of emotional certainty and trust emerges for the learner.
Inherent in Ihaninen and Moravec's description is a significant shift in what constitutes 'important' content/learning and actor. Presently content is often determined for the learner and in many cases also for the teacher by an external entity and usually represents explicit types of knowledge. In a pointillist construct, the 'content' is determined by the learner at points of learning, in collaboration with other--and it is emergent, participatory, and often tacit.

Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) explain that the tacit dimension "is the component of knowing that is assumed, unsaid, and understood as a product of experience and interaction" (location 960 of 2399). Pointillist learning is dialogic: meaning is composed in dialogue with others at points of utterance. The instability of knowledge is understood in these bold learning spaces and as such, explicit knowledge no longer reigns supreme. Whereas broad multidisciplinary frameworks (see Jenkins, 2009) may guide learners, strict adherence to voluminous lists of national or state standards and objectives is consider at best naive, and certainly misguided.  Henry Jenkins's (2009) articulation of new media skills represent an anchor one might tether such indeterminancy. Specifically Jenkins outlines 11 social skills and cultural competencies that include: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking and negotiation. He further articulates five conditions necessary for a participatory culture:
  1. relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, 
  2. strong support for creating and sharing creations with others, 
  3. some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices, 
  4. members who believe that their contributions matter, and
  5. members who feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least, they care what other people think about what they have created) (location 86).
In a world where knowledge is understood as being unstable, trying to name all that must be learned would at best be foolish.  Thomas and Brown observe that "[t]he twenty-first century...belongs to the tacit. In the digital world, we learn by doing, watching, and experiencing" (Location 1002-1003). The presence of pointillist activity represents a seismic shift in power from the Cartesian classrooms of today to this bolder and multifaceted expression of learning. At present, emotional certainty and trust fail to show up on national or state standards. 'Important' learning is understood as being variable.

Cyclical Time

Ihaninen and Moravec next describe cyclical time. They write:
Cyclical activity and learning is connected with the ability to observe intensive periods of online interaction and join them. New competencies emerge in the perception of pulses from emerging processes of thoughts, emotions, and understandings (among others). It is also very important in cyclical learning and activity to be aware of and understand the role of intervals. When participants take part in these cycles of processes, they develop individual perceptions of the artifact explored. Participants therefore develop a new competency, gaining the ability to perceive and acquire new knowledge within intensive peaks of learning.
Again, like pointillist time, the learner engaged in a cyclical activity requires significant agency to determine what constitutes important learning, what aspects of the work to emphasize, and how time is to be used. Cyclical learning, unlike pointillist activities, will likely include some predetermined goals. During cycles, learners re/produce the content in novel and personal ways, and in doing so come to understand with increasing depth. An example of cyclical activity might be found in the act of curation. Imagine if a learner was curating a specific topic for an audience, perhaps using a tool such as a Scoop-it. With each iteration, the texts that were reviewed and either included or discarded in the publication would potentially deepen the learner's knowledge of the curated topic. At some point, there might be a range of texts (one leading to the next) that constituted a significant collection of reading/viewing/listening and this coming to know might lead to additional insights and understandings. At other times, the readings might lead to little being included. Perhaps a curated piece is re-scooped by another and this act allows for our learner to re-see the concept in a new way as it is now situated against other texts and perhaps even concepts. These pulses of activity constitute a cycle. Although there is emergence present in the work, there also is a stability associated with specific topic and/or goal.


In addition to Ihanainen and Moravec's conceptual construct, I would add duration.  Duration is not movement, such as a pulse or a flowing across, but rather it is presence. Think of duration as a 'suspended' time when a learner falls into the work and as such, time becomes regulated by the work, not the clock. Learners experience this when they are deeply involved in creating (art, love, friendship, theory, problems, etc.)  and the passing of clock time ceases to be informative.  Alan Lightman, in Einstein's Dreams conceptualizes such time as body time and contrasts it with mechanical time.  Here is the dream sequence from the text:

24 April 1905
In this world, there are two times. There is mechanical time and there is body time. The first is as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. the second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay. The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along.
Many are convinced that mechanical time does not exist. When they pass the giant clock on the Kramgasse they go not see it; nor do they hear its chimes while sending packages on Postgasse or strolling between flowers in the Rosengarten. They wear watches on their wrists, but only as ornaments or as courtesies to those who would give timepieces as gifts. They do not keep clocks in their houses. Instead, they listen to their heartbeats. They feel the rhythms of their moods and desires. Such people eat when they are hungry, go to their jobs at the millinery or the chemist's when they wake from their sleep, make love all hours of the day. Such people laugh at the thought of mechanical time. They know that time moves in fits and starts. They know that time struggles forward with a weight on its back when they are rushing an injured child to the hospital or bearing the gaze of a neighbor wronged. And they know too that time darts across the field of vision when they are eating well with friends or receiving praise or lying in the arms of a secret lover.
Then there are those who think their bodies don't exist. They live by mechanical time. They rise at seven o'clock in the morning. They eat their lunch at noon and their supper at six. They arrive at their appointments on time, precisely by the clock. They make love between eight and ten at night. They work forty hours a week, read the Sunday paper on Sunday, play chess on Tuesday nights. When their stomach growls, they look at their watch to see if it is time to eat. When they begin to lose themselves in a concert, they look at the clock above the stage to see when it will be time to go home. They know that the body is not a thing of wild magic, but a collection of chemicals, tissues, and nerve impulses. Thoughts are no more than electrical surges in the brain. Sexual arousal is no more than a flow of chemicals to certain nerve endings. Sadness no more than a bit of acid transfixed in the cerebellum. In short, the body is a machine, subject to the same laws of electricity and mechanics as an electron or clock. As such, the body must be addressed in the language of physics. And if the body speaks, it is the speaking only of so many levers and forces. The body is a thing to be ordered, not obeyed.
Taking the night air along the river Aare, one sees evidence for the two worlds in one. A boatman guages his position in the dark by counting seconds drifted in the water's current. "One, three meters. Two, six meters. Three nine meters." His voice cuts through the black in clean and certain syllables. Beneath a lamppost on the Nydegg Bridge, two brothers who have not seen each other for a year stand and drink and laugh. The bell of St. Vincent's Cathedral sings ten times. In seconds, lights in the apartments lining Schifflaube wink out, in a perfect mechanized response, like the deductions of Euclid's geometry. Lying on the riverbank, two lovers look up lazily, awakened from a timeless sleep by the distant church bells, surprised to find that night has come.
Where the two times meet, desperation. Where the two times go their separate ways, contentment. For, miraculously, a barrister, a nurse, a baker can make a world in either time, but not in both times. Each time is true, but the truths are not the same.
Duration, or body time, is an essential way of learning and requires the necessary space to dwell. I want to suggest that this type of 'time' is essential for depth to occur and I think that Lightman is right when he observes that a learner cannot exist in both times. In bold spaces of learning, learners are permitted the right to determine such occasions when they reside in the work--when they dwell at the exclusion of other tasks and obligations. This is what passion-based learning feels like and these are the conditions necessary for its actualization. Passion cannot be squeezed into a predetermined time slot.

Chaordic Time

Ihaninen and Moravec conceptualize these various time depictions as being co-specifying insomuch as they overlap, and are chaordic--blending chaos and order.   They provide two examples of chaordic activities: Mashups and massive open and online courses (MOOCs). The differences and similarities are illustrated in the following chart:

From Pointillist, cyclical, and overlapping: Multidimensional facets of time in online learning.
In addition though to Mashups and MOOCs, I want to reference specific work done a year ago at a public high school in NJ where students and teachers engaged in learning via a newly formed Classics Academy. You can view Ben Donnellon's film about the Academy here. Viewing the film provides background about the Academy, the use of technology, the public exhibition of student work, and the autonomy enjoyed by teachers and students.  At the end of the year I conducted an interview with four students from the Academy. During the interview, two students commented:

J: Well because all of the courses, especially the English and Symposium they all tie into each other in a certain way and for me all the way up until junior year I would come to into school go through the motions, do whatever I had to do and outside of school I was a different person almost.   This year I found that not only am I making connections in different classes to other things I learned in other classes, but also outside of school I am still thinking about stuff I learned that day or past weeks. I remember during the left brain, right brain lessons we were doing in Symposium, that stuff was going through that mind like two weeks and I was trying to figure out how to balance my left brain and right brain not just in school but also outside of school.  A lot of the stuff we are learning is so applicable I find myself thinking about it not just in school, but outside of school too.
M:  I was thinking about what J. was saying.    This year is a lot less like high school  than other years have been. I felt like this was not high school. Maybe this is a lot more like high school should be like. The kind of classes we have I’m thinking back.  I didn’t realize how weird it was. How different my year would have been had I not had Classics Academy…This was such a change. Such a shift. I don’t have any classes (this year) like chemistry, 'Go memorize things' and then you go home and you don’t think about it.  We leave symposium and G. and I walk home and the only thing we can talk about is what we were just doing in Symposium.

Bold learning places are spaces where the division between there and elsewhere is blended and technology is used to accentuate and complicate that blending. In such places chaordic time is a method, not an anomaly. There discussion about homework are interesting, less combative as the work being done is not forced, but rather is experienced as essential.  J and M allow us a glimpse at how their reality of school shifted from the previous years to their last year in the Academy. In important ways they assumed more knowmadic tendencies at school. I want to suggest here, that I think these tendencies are ones learners live, but often are not permitted to do so within the traditional manifestation of school. G's musical composition featured towards the close of the film did not occur because of specific content learned just at school.  Rather, because she learned in a blended environment where she could be whole, her passions were assets she could tap, not distractions to be avoided.  In a brief conversation with G's mom, she explained that much earlier in the year (late September) G was seated at her piano at home and the opening notes of what would become her composition were played and replayed. At the time G didn't know the significance, but tacitly understood something significant was occurring. This knowledge became foundational.

In addition to interviewing the students, I also surveyed all students (sophomores, juniors and seniors) who had been issued an iPad 24/7.  Similar to the autonomy that J and M point to, survey responses also supported the idea of the emergence of an integrated self. Student comments included:  
It opens so many doors and possibilities inside and outside of the classroom. It extends the classroom and the learning outside of just a specific time block.
Rather than being restricted to learning solely from material provided in class, the Ipad provides unlimited sources and tools for me to utilize in and out of class. 

Having the iPad has changed how I consume and produce information, because it has forced me to be more critical of sources.

The iPad, surprisingly, has really turned the class towards discussion and understanding, instead of just reviewing homework. With google docs and moodle, etc, homework answers can be checked at any time, which has, i think, makes class time more efficiently used for actually learning.

The Academy film also points to the next blog post as I consider the role of teacher in this changing environment. I want to suggest here that the teacher's role is both ancillary and essential. In many ways the teacher in this bold new space of learning is a time traveler, moving forward and backward in narrative time among learners.

(Thanks to Rob Cohen who helped me think through much of this.)

Works Cited

Ihahainen P. and J.W. Moravec. (2011). Pointillist, cyclical, and overlapping: Multidimensional facets of time in online learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12, (7).

Jenkins, Henry (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lightman, A. (1992). Einstein's Dreams. New York, NY: Vintage.

Moravec, J. (2008). Knowmads in society 3.0Education Futures.

Thomas, Douglas; and  Seely Brown, John (2011-03-12). (KA New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. CreateSpace. Kindle Edition.


  1. I am a big fan of your research and the deep level of concern you have for individual learners. Your writing has moved me to become a better teacher. That said, certain points in this post confuse/trouble me.

    You refer to the agency of the learner. You quote a high school student "... I don't have any classes like chemistry..." At what point do we attend to the liberal arts education (which includes math and chemistry... painful as they may be, do you agree?) or do we simply attend to the learner's "agency" and allow them to pick and choose courses at their full discretion. As teachers, we know that when a student says "Why will we ever need to know this?" they are really saying "I don't understand this and I feel dumb." Do you suggest we attend (succumb?) to this "agency" by allowing the student to avoid a math and science education?

    As a middle school teacher, I am often buoyed to meet former students visiting from the high school. I am no longer surprised to hear stories from students who struggled with math in the middle school and are now swelling with pride over the fact that they are pursuing/aspiring to collegiate studies in technical disciplines that will require mathematical/scientific competence. My memory informs me that had some of these students been given the choice of deferring/avoiding math/sci coursework, they would have jumped at the chance to exercise such agency. On the contrary, they seem happy that they "stuck it out" and worked through the "pain" and reached a goal that they previously thought was unattainable.

    Were athletes free to pursue their agency, many (granted, not all) would seek to avoid the routinized practice, painful repeititions, exhausting baseline work, that ultimately lay the foundation for creative excellence on the playing field. Yet they can feel the immediacy of the "game" and it is close enough in the tangible future (i.e. this week) that they trust their coaches and persevere.

    The fundamentals of math and science are just as important to many of the "games" these children will ultimately play, however there is no perceived "immediacy"... the game of an adult career seems to lie in some future "eternity" and pales in comparison to more immediate pursuits, pleasures, and interests.

    I can hear your response already... that I am misinterpreting your posit of agency. I welcome your comments.

  2. Dear Anonymous (Wish you would y use your name:),

    Agency need not be confused with responsibility. The student who wrote about chemistry oddly is now at college studying to be an engineer. His point (and mine) is not about the subject matter but about the empty courses that fill students' days at school where they "play at school" instead of studying deeply. Ensuring that both explicit and tacit knowledge are experienced frequently and deeply is more the issue. Really this is about teaching well, which does include occasioning learners' interests and passions. That does not preclude helping learners develop new interests and passions. That is what fine teachers (from all walks of life) do. In my schema, the teacher remains central. The issue though is not everyone who teaches does so well and there are those who do teach but do not do so at schools. I would like to occasion these guides/teachers in this work with learners. Really only the best will do: those who are deep learners, love kids, and have a passion for the work.

    1. Ah! You've just provided me with wonderful imagery and words that speak to how I'm extending this notion into organizational learning and leadership. "...the teacher remains central." (the imagery of "middle" emerges again)

      As nascent as I am in my journey in connecting these ideas, I cannot express how grateful I am for your words and ideas. Extremely helpful. Thank you!

  3. excellent Mary Ann - and Rob.

    bold schools, yeah, what does that really mean. what is agency. what must we do. what can we not do, even though we feel we must. how bold is bold.

    ran across these guys a couple years ago.. wondering if you've mingled around their realm:

  4. I really enjoyed reading your post, and when simultaneously in a way by-red it, following "heuristics" emerged into my mind.

    - a time traveler teacher: a peer-attitude intentioned fellow, who finds her/himself in "time-machine stops" beside learners and searching for/putting up settings of/for dialogues.
    - a rhizomatic learning community: unique learning spaces popping-up like mushrooms (time-machine stops).
    - duration: a complementary for my expression of (sense of) intervals in online activity(?); a kind of time-space (a floating zone) in which points, pulses and lines of time rest. And it is important to recognize and get touch with it.

    The comment as a drawing, see

  5. @Monika, I do know knowmads. I actually sent a tweet with the link to John Moravec as his work so heavily influenced this. He read and responded. Think I am going to write a post about agency.

    Always appreciative of your responses.

  6. @Pekka, Wow. You have given me much to consider--to think about. I haven;t written the teacher as time traveler yet and really didn't know what I would make of it, just that it somehow felt right. Your response gives me some ideas.


  7. Can´t wait, want to read about your time traveler teacher ... :)

    b, Pekka

  8. This is a very thoughtful post... and, with a wonderful image, too! We're putting together a book on Knowmad Society, which should be available as a free download later this summer. Perhaps we can talk about tying in your artwork?


  9. @Pekka, bennthinking about it. Think it is a post in the making. Thanks:)

  10. @John, Given how influential your work was in my writing the post, I am honored that you think so. I will contact you about the art. How exciting a prospect:)

  11. You quote John Moravec on ‘knowmads: ...
    technologies allow for these new paradigm workers to work either at a specific place, virtually, or any blended combination. Knowmads can instantly reconfigure and recontextualize their work environments, and greater mobility is creating new opportunities.
    Great. What strikes me is that just as public and private spaces are reconfigured, intersect and clash, so too ‘work’ and ‘learning’ spaces start to merge, mashup, bump into each other, and leave digital traces, texts, resources, conversations all over the place, which we can pick up and use/reversion/re-disseminate. We have always thought about about all sorts of things (including ‘work’ things) at all sorts of places and times, but in the past it has been just toooo cumbersome to write, capture, trace it. Now a lot of that is done for us, in the digital inscriptions / imprints that we leave around us, automatically. (Some downsides to that, too, but that’s another story).
    I never took to the ‘point’ approach, but I loooove your ‘folded time’.or ‘origami time’. The idea that we folding times and planes of time make so much intuitive sense. It also allows for the two (or many more) planes to rub up against one another and merge into one. Wonderful.

    More anon ...
    in the meantime, you might like to look at Karen Knorr-Cetina's 'post-Weberian' structures of time, interaction, and social organisation (in Theory Culture and Society 2005). I use is extensively in a forthcoming chapter on Affodances and the new Political Ecologies, see:

    1. @Roy, Thanks so much for such a thoughtful response. I hadn't been thinking about Discourses (Gee, 1996) until I read the blog post you wrote about affordances and now I am wondering how our rather situated selves might be figured within the idea of knowmads.


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