Can we quantify learning?

“The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road. Indeed, most of the scandals and misbehavior that have seemed endemic to modern life involve shortcuts.”
― Daniel H. PinkDrive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Last year I had 2 pivotal experiences: the first related to my own learning and the second to the learning of students I was working with.

In January 2013 I began, with 1000’s of other learners from around the world, #etmooc. I won’t call it a course because it wasn’t. It was a strange and fabulous journey. For a start, there were no specific goals to the event. Other people also thought it unusual as evidenced by this Tweet:

We were invited to create and declare publicly our own. Unusual (for me) but OK. I would give it a try and trust this seemingly ambiguous learning process. At the start, the wide open empty black space ahead gave me anxiety. Literally. I felt as a fish on the dock; floundering to survive in an unnatural environment. I floundered on and through.

There was no grand end or culminating moment of achievement. No certificate, no exam. In fact, it was…quiet.

Until.

Something happened, something shifted below and within. A massive boulder, that was lodged between me as a pseudo-learner (primed to follow instructions, take notes, please others, meet expectations) and the authentic learner from my childhood, moved. The trapped forgotten learner slowly but determinedly seeped out, as smoke might, through this narrow but open space. At first, she was faint, transparent and vacuous, not definable or consistent, a friendly ghost who haunted occasionally. Slowly, she grew bones, skin, a heart and became a fully embodied person…again. Re-connected to the flow of learning from long ago; joyful, no questions asked, intoxicatingly open…

The black faded to brilliant colours. The quiet tuned to a loud exuberant symphony. My fear devoured by a ferocious insatiable appetite.

Everything toppled upside down.

Simultaneously to this personal renaissance, I was working with a group of students in a non-traditional way. We meet when and how we could. It was sporadic. We spent a lot of time in conversation about learning. Again unusual, but…Ok. During times apart we Google doc-ed, texted and Facebook messaged in groups. And of course some students were more involved than others. But what emerged was a very peculiar thing; I saw students begin to take up topics and projects on their own and of their own choosing. I began to see them differentiate themselves for themselves. For example one group took it upon themselves to write a poem and turn it into a video…over the summer.  Another took it upon herself to raise funds and sign up for a 2 week leadership camp.  I saw students who wanted to continue to learn, continue to connect and continue to make meaning for themselves but together. Strange, strange, very strange. Over the summer students contacted me to ask if we could continue to work on our plans and projects yet “the course” had ended in June. This fall students asked if we could meet on Sundays to continue to co-construct our understanding around our work on digital leadership, citizenship and learning.

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Meanwhile.

We rip learning, with its long rooted tendrils, still growing, tentative and twined, and clinically drop it on our stark metal scales to measure and quantify it without a glance upwards into the soul of who it belongs to.  We then haphazardly slap a number on it, as a bar of soap gets stickered with a price tag at the dollar store.  The heaving disembodied mound is returned to the owner: “Here, here, here is your learning, back.”

65%

Do we really wonder why, then, the person who gave birth of themselves, of their humanness…do not want it back?

Do not rush to put this ripped, torn and damaged piece of them, back into to their own schema?

When we have the audacity (and I did) to tell students that this process will in fact help them in the future, but meanwhile, they see their souls leaking outwards, a visible puddle, on the floor. And they hear the crushing sound of their own curiosity being ground in gears of the system. Are we not telling them, don’t trust yourself, your inner voice, don’t listen to who you know you are and who you want to be. Instead rely on…us.
The boulder. Rolls into place. The passage closed and blocked. Slowly, we forget. Slowly the subterranean learner is asphyxiated and becomes comatose.

****

While it may be possible to quantify a course, a laundry list of items to “learn”, a finite set of skills, that end, are finite, are helpful externally to the person (like crutches may help you with a broken leg) to maneuver the system….

I wonder with increasing uncertainty and frequency: can quantify learning?

Instead learning:

  • Is created within space and the opportunity to choose.
  • Is something vital, integrated and contextualized within being human.
  • Is not just something reserved for “geeks” but as normal, essential and integral to life as breathing.
  • Is not containable to books, institutions, courses or academics.
  • Has a language that is owned and created by the learner.
  • Is vastly complicated and marbled throughout our humanness, connected and influenced by our emotions, our experiences, our dreams, beyond and outside of anything that can be quantified.

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“… the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.”

                                                John Holt

 

 

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On sharing to learn and learning to share.

Back in week 2 of #etmooc Dean Shareski did a session on sharing, at the time I was a bit distracted, I was packing up to head out to #educon early the next AM. I listened along noncommittally…Dean presented several seemingly simple suggestions, which successfully lodged in my brain (think tapeworm cyst in meat, later hatching when conditions are optimal, sorry, Biology teacher metaphor). I  will only focus on one of his suggestions on sharing although his other suggestions did impact my thinking and actions around sharing.

But this one sneaky slide was the one that stuck, in that splinter-y way, that new ideas often do.
At the time I thought: Just what does he mean…we could “distill this thing down to 2 things?”

learn share

and…Professional learning (what is professional learning? Learning is personal, no matter what I learn about?) comes with an obligation to share? What?? I share lots and lots, at least I think I do? Learning is mine, I don’t need to share it….unless I want to…it’s completely personal, like private property, no way…does not need to be shared…ALL THE TIME.

I didn’t get it….AT ALL…and in that harried moment, I was just kind of annoyed…NEXT.

Over the past month, I began to see how profoundly accurate this deceptively simple, but deliciously nuanced, slide was and is. As I scanned my life for evidence of sharing and learning, I discovered, I shared most regularly and openly about my learning, in the classroom with my students; my learning is shared in my teaching, through my teaching, while teaching. I also noted working IN the classroom with living, breathing, reactive teenagers, was where I experienced my richest most insightful learning.

Huh, interesting…maybe.

As I carried along with this observation, watching for more data on learning and sharing in my daily life, I noticed that occasions where I shared my learning most openly, were also the ones that (seemed to) afford students wider doorways into their own learning; nodding heads, alert body language, focused eyes. My clearest teaching moments (those when in the flow with kids and class) were ones more closely associated with moments of sharing from my own learning and then the very natural chain reaction of students building on the sharing-learning to share insights of their own or trying new activities, habits, patterns. Maybe this is old news to you and I have been living in a cave, but this was a new shiny insight to me, no splinter or tapeworm cyst!

What connects my learning, be it professional or not, and teaching, is sharing openly; open heart, open mind, little i (as opposed to big I). Sharing as teaching, with an interactive audience, pulls me back quickly (like that last kiss goodbye both surprising but joyful) and frequently to learner mode; a rolling ball down the growth continuum, always pulled by sharing between, learner-teacher, learner-teacher.

share

Do you see it? Does it make sense? Is it like this for you?

Where in your life do you do you share “no holds barred”? Is it the same place you do your best learning? Is your learning and sharing evenly distributed over all areas of your life?

Would love to know!

And…thanks for sharing!

Habits of mind à la Twitter.

I could go on about how Twitter has expanded my practice, my point of view, and my edu-buzzword vocabulary. Alternatively, I could debate whether or not educators should get connected via Twitter.

Instead…I have been considering my Twitter-use-fallout “habits of mind” that until recently I was not clearly aware of.

My top three habits provided à la Twitter training are:

1. The Habit of Backchanneling

I vividly remember 3 years ago, talking with a student as he received a text from a student across the room. I could not, for the life of me, fathom what on earth they were doing; talking to each other across the room via text? It was baffling and mind-boggling behaviour. However, it fascinated me, so much so, that I wanted to understand what exactly was going on. Similarly to travelling to Mexico and spending 2 weeks ensconced in a 4 star all-inclusive, you can’t really claim you understand the local customs. As a tourist in a foreign country you cannot judge social norms and customs until you have experienced them in context. I understood that I had to immerse myself before I could decide.

Now looking back I understand what students were doing; they were participating in a form of backchanneling. They were backchanneling class, back channeling their lives…I finally get it. Only now, because I have experienced it.

Using back channels at conferences, meetings and in class has caused me to think and communicate with clarity and precision, making my contributive puzzle piece clean edged and meaningful. When students Instagram their lab set up or Tweet out a funny comment made in class, I see how integral to creating a healthy and thriving learning environment each act is; they are selecting what is important about their experience then sharing and archiving it…they are actively participating in their learning!

2. Habits to tame the stream; thinking fast and thinking slow.

When I started teaching, I perceived information as an immobile mass sitting rigid and captive in a textbook. Occasionally an article would surface, making small scratches on the large marble statue of content. Now content no longer sits for long, content flows like a raging river during spring run off. Nowhere is this more apparent than out on Twitter. First immersion into this flow, can be mentally painful and overwhelming, like using a power washer on your face, blasting you backwards and putting you off-balance.

David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale, writes:

“This lifestream — a heterogeneous, content-searchable, real-time messaging stream — arrived in the form of blog posts and RSS feeds, Twitter and other chatstreams, and Facebook walls and timelines. Its structure represented a shift beyond the “flatland known as the desktop” (where our interfaces ignored the temporal dimension) towards streams, which flow and can therefore serve as a concrete representation of time.”

To work in this flow effectively I use both fast and a slow thinking to navigate. Thinking fast is needed when I am in the midst of the flow; I need to be agile, nimble and maneuver my way through the deluge of tantalizing tidbits. I need to instantly decide what is relevant and what I can ignore. I need the help of tools (Hashtags and Twitter lists are such tools) for sorting and efficiently storing the information for later processing.

Different Flows of Water.

The thinking slow is not an immediately obvious consequence of Twitter’s training. Thinking slow happens over long periods of time and may require back tracking, swirling in an eddy until the stream brings something new down that pushes me out and on. Fast and slow thinking complement each other, and I find fast thinking actually slows my slow thinking down, making it deeper and richer (see habit 3 below). Both these speeds are needed for my overall progress down the stream, one is not dominant or better, they travel together in the same river bed, just as the water pictured above travels at different speeds in the same river bed. Deliciously I (think) I finally get this sentence that has been a brain knot I have been working on for several weeks from Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age by George Siemens : “The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today.”

3. Habit of consuming “more concentrated” information.

Not watered down, not shipped in from Chile and tasteless…rather…ideas and content fresh from the source.

In the past ideas, initiatives and visions for change were “shipped in” from far away. By the time the message or idea arrived at my doorstep it was dilute, watered down or modified. Just as in broken telephone, each transaction had altered the original message every so slightly and the message that finally arrived was mangled and distorted.

In this new era of information distribution, I can go to the source, maybe even talk to the author on the phone to clarify (true story) and ask them to give pertinent and related examples.

I have acquired a taste for information in its purest form, undiluted by interpretation or agenda.

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What mad skills or habits of mind has Twitter given you or made you aware of?