Navigating Uncertainty #rhizo14

uncertainty (2)

Image shared on Flickr by Matt Curr

The best learning prepares people for dealing with uncertainty.

                                                                                      David Cormier

In week 3 of #rhizo14 we have been invited to “come down the rabbit hole” to a place with “no centre. Multiple paths. Where we have beliefs and facts that contradict each other. Where our decisions are founded on an ever shifting knowledge base.
Our challenge this week: how do we make our learning experience reflect (and celebrate) this uncertainty?”
In my exploration of uncertainty I describe what I see and feel inside a system that to a large degree is defined by certainty. This is in no way meant as a criticism of the people and efforts within the system, rather as an observation of where we are at, at this uncertain point in time.

Meanwhile…the exoskeleton sits propped up like a swaying circus tent; the exterior imposingly large but inside vacuous and lifeless; sucked clean as learning has leaked out…into other spaces. Obsessive data collection (aka certainty) the main mechanism of propping. The tyranny of busyness baffling the pained creaking and cracking as the propped structure precariously sways. If we were to let go, the facade would collapse, leaving those inside flattened and trapped. In the name of accountability we nail learning to us and in doing so we suction out all the raw materials necessary for learning to thrive and flourish….curiousity, questioning, uncertainty, mystery…banished.

We are certain…so certain we keep all the feedback loops dialed on the status quo of certainty. New behavior patterns eradicated if they disrupt the system’s ability to maintain homeostasis; the life of the system extinguishing any uncertainty it meets.

Meanwhile. Here we stand Education. Standing on hierarchical particle based shores; silo-ed groupings guarding their meager piles of sand as the grains rush out to sea, lost to the abyss.

Stand here! We will not venture into these unknown waters! We are certain! Foot stomp. Arms crossed. 

Meanwhile…uncertainty continues to grow, and like fog, rolls in. We on the shore, statues of “analysis paralysis,” growing ever more hesitant to launch into the uncharted dark waters.

We can’t launch…now. We need more…more…more certainty. Produce it and THEN we will launch.

Meanwhile…classrooms remain centered around asking, teaching, memorizing Google-able factoids. The primary focus to provide “bits” of just in case certainty to students, who remain decidedly uncertain about their relevance.
The message unspoken but loud:
You will get something interesting later on (when and if you deserve it) but first jump through these hoops. This is training for what REALLY matters (life, job, university)!  Later you will see why and how it matters; we are doing you a favour!  We are here to indoctrinate you into certainty. We are certain that all the facts in this book matter and are relevant. Don’t venture beyond this book and you will be successful! 

Meanwhile…students are holding massive garage sales, piling and reallocating the treasured chachkas of our silo-ed disciplines, only to have them sold off again for far less than we want to imagine possible (What do you mean you copied this!; What do you mean you want to use Google on the test?) Like trinkets we lug home from Mexico to proudly show family, only to have them silently wonder: “Why the heck did you buy that?”  Students wonder the same: “Why the heck am I learning this, it’s worthless!” In Mexico the trinkets WERE treasures, in context the knowledge was relevant.


It’s cold and wet, dark. I finally and painfully decide to launch. I lie prone against the cold surface. I paddle, I paddle for dear life. I will, I will, leave the shore…for the open, interconnected fluid ocean beyond, even seeing the immense dark of it.

And then…”it just goes. It goes where the environment allows it to go.


I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

                                                                                                                                                                                                           John Keats



On Enforcing Independence #rhizo14


Photo shared on Flickr by gyst

In nature nothing exists alone.
― Rachel CarsonSilent Spring

Never mind polar vortex…how about a mental vortex created by #rhizo14’s week 2 topic “enforced independence.”

Dave Cormier’s provocation this week was to consider how we get people to be responsible for their learning and more importantly how do we allow for true self-assessment and self-remediation.

Can independence (as it relates to learning) be enforced? How do we as educators demonstrate our enforced independence?

This week as I wrestle with this seemingly paradoxical idea, I had to first self-assess what I did and did not know, think or feel about the topic (not much it would seem). Then I had to make a plan to self-remediate accordingly. As I did not have any significant understandings on enforcing independence to start, I had to create and seek out situations that might help some emerge. I had to track down useful people, who through conversation might help flesh some productive thinking out. I had to search out materials to further inform my thinking on the topic. Finally and most challenging of all, I had to sit down to explain what all these activities had produced…in a clear manner for others to understand.

This independent process demanded a set of skills (competencies, mindsets, literacies). For example, I needed to know where and how to find relevant and useful materials. I also needed to know people who might be helpful towards developing my thinking. Also it took time to examine my own experiences as a teacher and parent, then consider how these guide my thinking. Moreover I had to be motivated to carry it all out. I had to feel I could get somewhere with the topic (i.e. if the topic had been black holes I might have felt no inclination to carry this process out).
But it was completely up to me to choose, how, when, for how long, etc.

Imagine if Dave had demanded we have a final product by Sunday afternoon? Imagine if he said HE would evaluate us on our thinking? I would not have had the freedom or space to be independent. By telling us very little on the topic he enforced my independence. If he had said, he was going to evaluate me…I would have, in that second, lost my independence and become dependent on him to tell me…and I would have wanted to depend more on him…for the best or right answer (i.e. the answer he wanted or would evaluate favorably).
Ahh…so deliciously complicated, I would be lying if I said the process was easy.

As I track this process I wonder: Do our students have these skills?; Do we explicitly nurture these skills?; We say we want independent learners but do our actions support this possibility when students are told what to learn, when to learn it and how they will show their learning?; Can they ever become independent in these conditions?; Are we implicit in their inability to become independent learners when everything is prescribed for them?; Can anyone ever become independent when held accountable?

Have we, in our need to simplify and make efficient, ignored the complexity of conditions that allow independence to develop and thrive? Is “the answer” to enforced independence perhaps, to borrow Tony Wagner’s words, more “ecological than logical?”

Do independence and motivation have an inexplicably complicated relationship? Does each one foster and nurture the other?

Psychologist Edward Deci’s work highlights “that feelings of competence will not enhance intrinsic motivation unless accompanied by a sense of autonomy… people must not only experience competence or efficacy, they must also experience their behavior as self-determined for intrinsic motivation to be in evidence. This requires either immediate contextual supports for autonomy and competence or abiding inner resources that are typically the result of prior developmental supports for perceived autonomy and competence.”

He further explains in Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being, that “teachers who are autonomy supportive (in contrast to controlling) catalyze in their students greater intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and desire for challenge research revealed that not only tangible rewards but also threats, deadlines, directives, pressured evaluations, and imposed goals diminish intrinsic motivation because, like tangible rewards, they conduce toward an external perceived locus of causality. In contrast, choice, acknowledgment of feelings, and opportunities for self direction were found to enhance intrinsic motivation because they allow people a greater feeling of autonomy.”

To feel motivated we need to feel independent, and moreover to feel motivated we need to feel supported as Deci explains: “humans are liberally endowed with intrinsic motivational tendencies, the evidence is now clear that the maintenance and enhancement of this inherent propensity requires supportive conditions, as it can be fairly readily disrupted by various non-supportive conditions.”

So even though Dave has invited us in #rhizo14 to be independent, I felt motivated to do so because I felt supported and have skills that allow a certain degree of competence. There it lies for me…to be independent does not imply we are no longer dependent, but rather it is how we are dependent and on what. Lastly, each of us has a unique formula for independence determined by the skills, connections, networks we do or do not have. Is this not similar to the exquisitely magical interplay of organisms in an ecosystem being simultaneously independent AND dependent on each other?

As I hobble to the end of this week, still feeling at sea, ecologist Eric Berlow’s eloquent words offer a bit of solace:

We’re discovering in nature that often simplicity lies on the other side of complexity. So for any problem, the more you can zoom out and embrace complexity, the better chance you have of zooming in on the simple details that matter most.

Cheating and the new value of knowledge #rhizo14


Shared on Flickr by Yannis

Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self. 
~Yohji Yamamoto

In this first week of #rhizo14 we were invited by Dave Cormier to use “cheating as learning as our weapon.” As I examined my thinking around the topic, I struggled to find solid ground. All I could muster up was a pile of uncertainties. Hmm…I would prefer to find somewhere solid to stand…but as the week progressed, I realized and finally succumbed to the truth of the situation: we are at a cross roads between a historical view of acquiring knowledge and the contrasting way we acquire information in a networked world. The resulting tension has created an immense amount of uncertainty and with it a fear of standing on the unknown, just as we might fear standing on quick sand (I stand on it and I sink…yup I did).

David Weinberger explains:

“the Net can scale that large only because it doesn’t have edges within which knowledge has to squeeze. No edges mean no shape. And no shape means that networked knowledge lacks what we have long taken to be essential to the structure of knowledge: a foundation.”

In schools we ask students to copy notes, copy the right answer, and even copy trains of thought. We present “knowledge” to them as foundational and integral to everything else they will need to do cognitively in school and life. As you need bricks to build a house, students are told they need to acquire a stockpile of knowledge before they build thoughts. We use these knowledge pieces as a ticket to an event; no knowledge then no entry into understanding or synthesizing. We treat knowledge as hard-won and valuable.

Historically, as Wienberger explains In Too Big to Know :

“facts were relatively scarce both because they were hard to obtain and because they were hard to get published…The internet’s abundant capacity has removed the old artificial constraints on publishing…and this is changing the role that facts have played as the foundation of knowledge.”

Facts were once valuable and hard to acquire. Considerable effort and resources had to be expended to accumulate and publish them. Valuable items are worth stealing: the energy invested to “steal” is balanced by the potential return of acquiring something valuable (think of Watson and Crick’s use of Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction images of DNA in determining DNA’s structure). Cheating (or stealing of knowledge) in a time when facts were rare and valuable, was a calculated strategy, a balancing of risk with a possible return. This led institutions to create rules around how knowledge was distributed and used. Since considerable effort and time were needed in acquiring knowledge pieces (Darwin’s spent years amassing facts), value was placed on these efforts. Cheating, was defined by our institutions, as stealing: using knowledge we had not acquired for ourselves was considered wrong.

But do we still need to expend energy to acquire knowledge? Is there in fact value in acquiring piles knowledge for ourselves, owning and hoarding it? Should children have to work hard to amass a body of knowledge before entering the hallowed halls of deeper thought? Is this hierarchical view of knowledge as foundational still relevant and useful? Or is it just a historical hangover from a time when filtering of individuals who could enter disciplines was both a quality control and a way to maintain homogeneity? As Wienberger points out the challenge lies in on the one hand:

“echo chambers are a requirement for the discussion and collaboration that advance knowledge, and even echo chambers with solid walls can serve some purposes…But we also know that we make ourselves stupid when we restrict ourselves to tolerating only the mildest disruptions of our comfort.”

And moreover:

“in this world of abundance, knowledge is not a library but a playlist tuned to our present interests. It is not eternally truthful content but subject matter good enough for our current task. It is not a realm but a path that gets us where we’re going.”

What if instead of teaching our children ways and means to acquire and amass knowledge, we need, as Wienberger suggests, to:

“educate our children from the earliest possible age about how to use the Net, how to evaluate knowledge claims, and how to love to difference.”

In this information age, he explains: “learning how to evaluate knowledge claims – is never-ending. Now that the temple priests don’t control what we encounter” we need “critical thinking skills more than ever”. 

Wienberger explains:

“The net lowers the barriers to encountering and interacting that which is different. The barriers that remain are not our technology’s but our own. We have lost every excuse not to embrace difference.”

Is our challenge, not to crack down and prevent “cheating” or to indoctrinate and inoculate our children with subject knowledge but rather as, Erica McWilliam challenges in Creativity or Conformity in Higher Education?, to create: “a pedagogy in which teachers and students work as co-creators and co-assemblers (and dissemblers) of trans-disciplinary knowledge” instead of a culture in which curriculum and pedagogy is fully ‘locked in’ in advance of engagement.”

Bring it.

Let’s: argue about whether our new knowledge will bring us closer to the truth” as Wienberger invites.

Let’s raise our tolerance to differences to create new views and practices around how we interact and portray knowledge. Let’s cheat our way forward…as we map our way through uncertainty. 

Into the dark #rhizo14

We want you to take from us. We want you, at first to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you.
                                                                                                                                                             ~Francis Ford Coppola

We head off into the woods. It’s dark. Ink dark. We drag in large powerful lights to blast away the darkness. But still pockets remain. We are told not to venture there. But in the dark we whisper. To survive.
We are just in case hunting.  We hunt alone.
Out there are a handful of prey (or so they tell us…we are not certain of this) we must try to acquire. The tools we have or do not have are unimportant. Acquire the prey…how is not relevant.

we run, we scatter, whispering over

The hunter who gets the most prey will be rewarded. Praise, riches and glory will be lavished upon this talented person who is able in this time of scarcity, to take control. To win and to be.
The winner.


We head off into the woods. It’s dark. Ink dark. Darker than ink. We no longer hunt. The prey are numerous we don’t need to hunt them. We take what we need when we need it.
Instead we are learning to navigate the dark. Together.

Why Not? 

I am heading off into the dark. Ink dark and full of uncertainty. I am scared. I am not sure how to navigate this uncharted terrain. I know I can’t do it alone. I know I can’t remain in the artificial light any longer.

So here goes.

Of course it’s scary to give up what we know, but the abyss is where newness lies.
~Margaret Wheatley