Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reclaiming Public Learning Spaces: The Long Tail Meets the Rhizome

from Occupy Wall Street (Reilly, 2011)


I reread with much interest an older post by Will Richardson from 2011, "How the Hell Could They Let this Happen?".  In the post, Will quotes a section from an Alfie Kohn post.  Kohn writes:

We are living through what future historians will surely describe as one of the darkest eras in American education — a time when teachers, as well as the very idea of democratic public education, came under attack; when carrots and sticks tied to results on terrible tests were sold to the public as bold “reform”; when politicians who understand nothing about learning relied uncritically on corporate models and metaphors to set education policy; when the goal of schooling was as misconceived as the methods, framed not in terms of what children need but in terms of “global competitiveness” — that is, how U.S. corporations can triumph over their counterparts in other countries. There will come a time when people will look back at this era and ask, “How the hell could they have let this happen?”

Dem-o-cra-tic public education.

Say it slowly.
A mouthful of words.


I think about this often--how public education is so much more than the content taught to children.  It's what helps us to become (other)wise--to try on unfamiliar perspectives. Amidst the standards and accountability movements, we have lost sight of aims of education. 

We have settled for far less. 

So how do we reclaim what does seem to be slipping from our collective hands? How might we do this reclaiming without colonizing one another?  Without forcing our will?

A way to reclaim public education as a public institution is by leveraging the long tail, the rhizome. The traditional view of education situates schooling as a function of transference from teacher to student of expert-determined content--such as the content specified in state and national standards. As such, U.S. public schools tend to rely on hierarchy as the method used to organize and distribute content and pedagogical practices, most often in the form of sanctioned programs. 

Think assembly line.

In contrast, a rhizomatic learning community is a fluid collective where participants dwell in the middle of things and where learning is a blend of explicit and tacit knowledge. As Dave Cormier has written: the community is the curriculum. Cormier writes:

Rhizomatic Learning posits, among other things, that the community is the curriculum. That being able to participate with and among those people who are resident in a particular field is a primary goal of learning. 

Think an endless sea of middles.

Think affinity groups.
Think choice.


There's no single model of learning that represents wholly all that we are becoming. We are so much more and less. As such, the choices for what constitutes becoming in 2014 are fuller than the the single model we rely mostly upon: the school house. In a connected world, the opportunities to learn need not be limited to what we have done before. 

For example, in this brief video that chronicles the work of Charles Raben, a ninth grader, we can see that the locus of learning is not limited to the place we call school. Raben was able to make use of a passion of his, photography, and apply this passion to framing an urban problem. What strikes me most when I listen to Raben is the agency he asserts.  He is not the receiver of content, he is the maker. 

Charles Raben, 9th Grade Student at Quest to Learn from Institute of Play on Vimeo.

Raben's moment of learning that is actualized via his petition offers us a glimpse at the long tail.  And at the heart of the long tail of learning is the understanding that learning can and does happen anywhere, everywhere, all the time.  

We are never not learning. We are always (un)learning. 

This is a shift in thinking that leaders most need to consider--a shift that asks us to disconnect learning from causality.  I don't need to cause you to learn as you are doing so without me.  A teacher may assist you.  A teacher may help you to shape your thoughts. But frankly, you are learning without the teacher too. You may find that you are learning through chats, social media. You are learning via learning walks. You are learning through play. You are learning through dialogue. You are learning via observations. You are learning through trial and error. You are learning through YouTube videos. You are learning through books. You are learning in connection with others. You are learning by doing and making and reflecting on what you have composed and failed to compose. You are joining and breaking with others and learning during these transitions, these disruptions. You are learning via the courses and workshops you take and give. You are learning though work. You are learning at your dining room table, from the front seat of the car, or bus, or subway.  

It feels rather endless, yes? 
It is.

Learning is not limited to the domain of schools and leaders must embrace this reality and open the doors literally and figuratively.  In fact, some of what gets done at schools in the name of content, standards, and high stakes testing may well limit and suppress thought.

Leaders need to be bold.  Let's open our eyes and catalog the many ways learning is happening and then let's leverage social media to share, reinvent, revise those ways. 

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