In listening to Dave Cormier’s session yesterday afternoon on rhizomatic learning (video below) I was trying to pay attention to my self-talk – that conversation in my head. Which concepts were leading me to make connections to things I (think I) know, from my own experience? What idea keeps pulling at me, like a 4-year-old trying to grab your attention?

A lot of concepts connected. But what pulled at me was thinking about shifting power – changing the dynamic between instructor and learner.

Two quick things to understand where I am, today, as a practitioner that will put this into context.

My understanding of cognition tells me I flat out cannot teach anyone anything. The best I can hope for is that learners take what I share and make their own connections with concepts and content. If successful we can all experience the act of doing something and have some common ground for sharing insights and tacit understanding about that doing. But we do not become cognitive mirror images of each other. (See my thoughts on The Reflective Practitioner for an example of what this looks like in expert-novice interactions). For example: I can look at an organizational case study on knowledge-sharing (what I teach) with a group of students. We have some common language to “see” things in the case. But no one shares exact, duplicate mental models of what’s going on in the case. Each is individual. My understanding of “tacit know-how” is different than everyone else’s because we connect it with different, unique experiences and concepts. But we can come together in a way that is generally useful for performing an act: analyzing a case study.

Insight 1: Give up thinking I have any “teaching” power.

The second bit is about complexity. Cormier referenced Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework in his talk. I also use it in my class and it is definitely worth exploring (his 2007 article in Harvard Business Review with Mary Boone is a great introduction to the model). This framework is really an elegant expression of how to divide the environment in which you operate into different contexts: simple, complicated, chaotic, complex and disordered. Let’s just say that my experience aligns with the thinking behind Cynefin. Most of what I work on clearly falls into the complex environment. And the lesson there is: There is no “answer.” Some things will work; many things may work. Some things will fail to work. But in the end you have to let go of the notion that there is a single right answer and instead learn how to probe, sense and respond.

Insight 2: Give up thinking I have any answers.

To recap: I cannot teach anyone anything. And I have no answers to the questions raised in the subject area in which I teach. So if I actually believed in some power dynamic that puts me “in charge” of what students learn – it’s either based on faulty cognitive and situational assumptions, or it relies entirely on some institutional power granted me (grading) and really has nothing to do with learning.

Now we’re starting to get somewhere.

This is actually a very freeing set of insights. I do obviously know something and I have a great deal of professional experience in the topics that I teach. But what I have come to realize is that my best instructional strategy is to design a space in which my class members and I — as co-equal learning partners — can experience exploring a particularly interesting topic. The course container is simply a contract among us involving time and topic.

Several challenges exist in attempts to execute this strategy even when you believe it is a logical “probe” (in the Cynefin sense) as I do. Grading, scaffolding, knowing when the approach is not appropriate. A lot to explore there. But the one that kept pulling at me is this:

What if you truly wish the power to shift – for learners to own their learning – but no one takes up the offer?

In the session that I attended, Cormier spoke about “keeners” — apparently a lovely bit of Canadian slang meaning the type of students who are driven to succeed, and success = doing what the instructor wants and getting a top grade. They’ve succeeded at the game of schooling. Now tell them they are playing an entirely different game. Disjuncture.

This is a real phenomenon. I have experienced it in my work with graduate students, as have my colleagues. Kimberly Scott, the director of the program in which I teach, is beginning to do some interesting work in unpacking potential links behind personality and who seems to thrive more quickly in a “you own it” learning environment and who struggles. But the underlying challenge is about learning how to learn when no one is there but yourself to say what specific topics to explore and when you should stop on a particular activity.

Let me give an example. We run two courses that are designed as problem-based learning activities. In both cases, students are presented with questions to problem-solve that are clearly rooted in complex (think Cynefin) environments. The question has some boundaries but there are a lot of potential paths you could explore to discover a good solution experiment (probe). And after you get into exploring, you have to decide when to stop. We find ourselves as instructors often doing a lot of coaching around these issues: Being comfortable with knowing which potential paths to follow and when to stop exploring.

It’s a challenge for many of us. But we do frame it as learning how to co-learn. And within an institutional, class-based setting like ours, the support structure is there to do this role-play. Yes, I recognize there is still some of the power dynamic at work here. We’re pushing the needle but that instructor-student power thing is still at play.

And that is why cMOOCs are so insightful. The scale stresses everything. In my class world there is the comfort of 25-30 students knowing that when they are struggling with finding the boundaries in my course they can find assistance from me. Not the same at #etmooc. Keith Brennan gets at how #etmooc benefits from the work of Alec Couros and Alison Seaman in his post How to respond to criticism and influence people. The dynamic is clearly not the same and Keith positions it as aspirational for educators. I agree.

But I also realized last night that I am feeling the same tension as students facing our ambiguous, problem-based learning courses. We are all clearly co-learners in this #etmooc experience. And the difficulty we are experiencing — it’s overwhelming, where do I start? stop? have I learned? — is the same for anyone who has the game changed on them by blowing up the instructor-student power dynamic. Uncomfortable, but ultimately worth the effort in learning how to learn.

13 thoughts on “Rhizome-plosion

  1. Bon says:

    “the scale stresses everything.” in the midst of a post i really enjoyed and nodded at a lot – i teach similarly to you (and Dave, i suppose, not surprisingly) – this one sentence stuck out for me.

    i thought, initially, that massiveness was the least interesting thing about MOOCs. in a sense, i’ll cling to that, because i’m not a fan of the media narratives that hail xMOOCs as transformative simply because they broadcast talking head videos (though some do far more). but i am slowly beginning to realize that massiveness and scale have their own logics and so long as there is some kind of networked, peer-to-peer capacity there, at scale, there’s something going on that really *is* new and interesting. thanks for making me think.


  2. Jeff Merrell says:

    Thanks Bonnie. Really appreciate the validation. Funny – I went into work this morning and shared with my colleagues how much Dave’s talk seemed like many talks we have had here as we wrestle with various teaching/learning challenges. So if there was nodding on your part, it was happening north of Chicago as well. More to come, I am sure.


  3. Kay says:

    I enjoyed your post Jeff. It made me think of …many things. My first reaction though was that perhaps we end up feeling too guilty of having the power to teach and guide others. This power is good. It allows us to create safe spaces for our learners to experiment in – especially with their approaches around the complex type of problems. Self-guided exploration of no-right-answer areas is a high risk venture – there is a good chance that the avenues you decide to take do not pay off. It is just the nature of the beast. In a high stakes environment such as the formal assessed classroom it is not surprising that there is reluctance to take such risks. The support you describe in your post is just the thing that is needed. Sure, they will have to let go of our hand but they are learners now, let them be learners and play in a safe place we create for them.


    1. Jeff Merrell says:

      “Let the learners be learners and play in a safe place” is spot on. And you are right – I do struggle a bit in finding some ways to put guardrails around the self-guided exploration, trying to balance the “self-guided” part with the benefits of scaffolding and other strategies. But in the end I think I keep landing on that “safe place” as a focus, I think: How do I really get folks to tackle something that is a real stretch and uncomfortable at first but still feel “safe?” You have me thinking a bit now about that balance. Thanks for the prompt!


  4. Margaret A. Powers says:

    Thanks for sharing this really thoughtful post. I appreciated your questioning of your teaching power and being able to provide all the answers to your students and I love the idea that “The course container is simply a contract among us involving time and topic.” I wonder how this idea could be applied in K12, where CCSS and other testing/standards are pushing for teachers to teach and give certain prescriptive “answers” to prescriptive inquiries/questions.


    1. Jeff Merrell says:

      Thanks Margaret – Let me just say that I am counting my blessings that I work in a higher ed environment that does not have to deal with the same level of prescriptive “answers.” I honesty have great admiration for those of you who DO innovate (even incrementally) under such constraints.

      Glad that we get the chance to connect here and explore this stuff, though. I do learn a lot from practitioners working in K12 (strategies, tactical stuff, innovative approaches). And just came from a meeting where there was a very explicit reference to the impact of all that K12 innovation giving us an upstream view of what is headed our way in highered…


  5. Lettyb says:

    “…the underlying challenge is about learning how to learn when no one is there but yourself to say what specific topics to explore and when you should stop on a particular activity” That is precicely my challenge with this MOOC. It is like a bedroom closet of time – I can’t seem to stop filling it, and there is no back wall!
    As for your questions, I teach technical skills, and it has always challenged me to decide where I must position myself with all of your thoughtful answers. My gut tells me that I would be more able to shift that way if I were teaching theoretical knowlege-based stuff. Thanks, lots more food for thought.


    1. Jeff Merrell says:

      Thanks a bunch for the comment. Love the image of the bedroom closet – spot on. We all feel that way.

      It is an interesting question re: the differences between teaching something that requires — as Dave Cormier says — “you need to know these 10 specific things” vs. something that requires that you use a toolset to deal with an ambiguous challenge. It’s really worth sharing tactics, though, in both scenarios. I learn so much from people teaching in such different contexts.


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