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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

In which I avoid the phrase “running aMOOC,” address the personal, and serve hotdish.

How do you approach a party where you know few people, if any? Chat with anyone? Loiter near the potted plants? Maybe the hosts can offer some initial introductions, circulate, and foster conversational ease, but they can’t be everywhere at once. They’re not really there to entertain you; instead, the event is simply an end in itself. And there’s almost always food. Maybe the hosts kindly provide snacks, but in Minnesota, it’s often the guests who bring hotdishes.

 

A variety of party preferences

 

Inevitably, some people leave the party earlier than others. Some people hang around for the “after party.” Some people gather to play strange instruments in the den. Me? If I have a good conversation somewhere along the line with two or three people, it’s been a successful evening—usually for all three or four of us. Hosts or other guests may choose to drink merrily, play strip poker, or sing with the karaoke machine; if these excitations become expectations, people might be disappointed in me. I understand if they don’t invite me again… but it probably isn’t an event I’d attend again, anyway.

This party-oriented digression is really a follow-up to what I wrote two years ago about my thoughts on participating in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). While find my thinking at this point is roughly the same, I would offer one newer observation: that a MOOC designation might cause unnecessary concern among new participants and lead to an expectation of differentness or magnitude that distracts from the small, cumulative learning moments that such opportunities create.

I have begun to wonder if a MOOC creates AIA, or Acronym Induced Anxiety. With the MOOC known as PLENK (Personal Learning Environments, Networks and Knowledge) steeped in examination of PLEs and PLNs, maybe the desire to capture complex concepts by catchphrase and abbreviation—the desire to create an identifiable banner around which people might rally– might interfere with the very concepts being promoted. Might these terms be OBN (OverBurdened Nomenclature)? Learning in a massive open online course sounds…big and scary. How about learning as an open, online salon, or an open, online party… with an abundant buffet (on)line? Might take some pressure off of everyone.

In a similar vein of trying to communicate a vision of the MOOC concept, Stephen Downes recently sounded a call that those with experience in these courses/parties/buffests should take responsibility for assisting newer learners, rather than leaving this to the “teachers.” In other words, perhaps, he’d like guests to share more hotdishes.

“…my thinking was that more experienced people should be creating introductory content to help people new to the material… traditional learning … leads to a selfishness in learning, as you are encouraged to focus only on your own learning (even when you are working in groups) and not on helping other people (that’s “teacher’s job”)…”

One thing I know after years of hotdish exposure: they’re not always to everyone’s taste, and nothing distracts from an elegant buffet more than tater-tot topping framed in Corningware. And while I agree that unique understandings contribute to the overall whole, given the bountiful smorgasboard available to everyone in PLENK, I’m not inclined to presume I have any recipe of helpfulness in this environment that others cannot– or perhaps would better– arrive at on their own, following paths that are more meaningful to them and their own circumstances. In understanding various communication styles, it has been helpful for me to recognize that an expression of concern or frustration or confusion or annoyance is not (necessarily) the same as a request for help. And often as not, one person’s “helpfulness” can be another’s “interference.”

 

Choosing a personally meaningful path to learning

 

Along the lines of putting on one’s own oxygen mask before assisting others, I’m pretty sure that an emphasis on one’s own learning is not really an obstruction to helping others’ learning. Far from the idea that “personal learning” or a personal focus embodies a selfish approach to learning (since this seems to be the underlying concern), the “personal” in learning for me recognizes, among other things, the imperative of taking personal responsibility for learning, as opposed to externalizing the responsibility for learning (or the blame for not learning) to a course, an institution, a delivery style, a system, another person, or even a network.

I agree that this should not result in focused development of “my” learning, and my learning only, forever and ever. I would, however, gently observe that just because learners’ outreach and artifacts are not visible in one community or network at a given time does not mean they do not exist in another. Quid pro quo is a problematic calculation in a temporally and geographically dispersed and diverse world (and in recognizing the diverse agendas brought to a MOOC), and technology is not always the answer. Additionally, I am inclined toward heutagogical views that suggest effective adult learning is largely achieved through challenging and understanding the self, and suggest that the act of self-challenge, more than any resulting artifact, is a useful and empowering model for others. (True,”ROI” or “assessment” folks aren’t going to find enough nourishment here.)

In this potluck environment, I do think a note of caution is needed here. I have been concerned when ideas about support and connection and openness and separateness and independence and learning that is personal (in any context) are placed into boxes of mutual exclusiveness or opposition. While the approaches of mapped, quantitative, “show me the openness” social connections are considered to be social visions based in positive community development and generosity, I could also see the elevation of these values as an effort to address fears about loneliness or isolation. In a related vein, I am concerned that too great an emphasis on the communal and a rejection of the personal and the idea of the independent self in connective learning may not respect developmental processes, including those related to adult learning. While it is not necessary to swallow such concepts wholesale, I would be reluctant to ignore theories related to individuation and psychological differentiation, and am led to wonder if the insistently communal prevents us or allows us to avoid peeking into the conceptual existential abyss of aloneness – a process which has been posited as a necessity for adult maturation. I continue to consider whether or how connective learning theory might need to recognize quieter and qualitative connective intimacy (or resonance) and self-efficacy.

 

Like all learners, adults have developmental and affective–dare one say "personal"– learning needs

 

(As a side note: George Siemens observed in an Elluminate session last week that advances in neuroscience are providing groundbreaking new understandings about learning psychology. Much of this work addresses so-called “abnormal” mental functions in learning and decision-making, but this work, Rifkin notwithstanding, is relatively new – and is controversial–  in its approach to empathy, mindfulness, and other tenets of the humanistic psychology referenced here.)

Ultimately, I believe the concepts of support, connection, independence and the personal are not so much ends of spectrums or dichotomies as they are ingredients in the worldview stew of complexity and ambiguity we are attempting to pin down (perhaps too narrowly?) through the alphabet soup of learning referenced above.

By the same token, since we all have different seats around the living room, I can see where a host might see the benefit of more or different fare to expand the party buffet and atmosphere. So I will share here three recipes I have used in my learning– MOOC or no MOOC– that have provided some nourishment.

Play

A playful mindset has been a pretty important element not only for its own sake and for enhancing learning in unconventional ways, but also as a way of leavening some of the deeper and darker considerations that learning about learning brings forth.

What’s your problem?

I find myself inclined to look at new ideas not as a totally separate land, as a topic to be mastered, or as a simple disciplinary expansion, but as a set of concepts and approaches to be sorted through, applied, adapted and/or discarded in order to solve a problem. Indeed, without the existence of a problem, conundrum, issue, or puzzlement to apply new learning to, I’m not sure I’d see the point in pursuing a MOOC—or any course, for that matter.

This might sound like a slippery slope to anti-intellectualism—bypassing learning for learning’s sake, and all that—but as far as I’m concerned, life’s busy and I’ve got important things to do—including nurturing others in learning. In this context, I’m willing to entertain all ideas, no matter how initially bizarre, as long as I can ultimately subject them to a rather ruthless evaluation of what works at this moment in time for a given set of particular circumstances. That I am also filing away ideas that don’t work for future reference, knowing that time and circumstances change, is both a bonus and an essential part of any creative process, contributing to the incubation of further ideas.

 

Incubation doesn't create a lot of "artifacts"

 

And, should it be helpful to other learners, I will defend the quiet and slow process of incubation as a known and legitimate stage of learning, intuition and creativity. (I suspect that creativity and wisdom are potentially states that both result from and go beyond connective learning, but that’s a different conversation.) While I cannot guarantee that the bigger and less easily captured/more complex/ill-defined/wicked any given problem is, the more incubation it takes, I do know that producing artifacts for the short term can take away time from the longer-term processes related to creative development. (See also: “one good thought a week.”)

And to the immediate objections that a “problem” not discussed in an open environment is cutting off its nose to spite its face, let me counter that complex, creative and even social problem solving draws on elements well beyond the metrics of sharing and connecting. I don’t think that sophisticated thinkers in this area are claiming otherwise, but I do think we have a gap in how this is being communicated to broader publics. I’d suggest that any complex problem includes the qualitative, the affective and even the psychological within a community, and that process evaluations based on openness/not open or connected/insufficiently connected are overly-simplistic measures when working with human beings.

Working in translation

A third approach I take to learning is related to the first in instigating a problem scenario, and is an oldie-but-goodie: make a commitment to communicate or “teach” what I’m learning. This doesn’t necessarily mean hashing out my developing view of the fine points among the like-minded or similarly curious within the MOOC. Rather, testing and translating new concepts among more diverse and less familiar communities and contexts offers a different set of emergent challenges. Yes, few of us are “experts” in the acronymic concepts here. But I’ve found no better reality check than taking even the basics to the local street corner.

While I appreciate the idea of learning from the modeling of masters and in conversation with similar peers, I also find much of my learning occurs in trying to understand others’ not-understanding, and in trying articulate my understandings in the face of reasonable skepticism (but preferably stopping well short of evangelism). Relocating to another’s viewpoint, adopting the beginner’s mind, and working to understand how and why people think about, believe, and react affectively to new ideas helps me understand what essential elements or worldviews might inhibit or incapacitate shifting conceptions of learning, and perhaps to discover some unexpected conceptual compatibility.

That said, discussing my learning in relation to others’ learning efforts and conversations in any detail offers an ongoing ethical conundrum, inherent in the ambiguous dance of qualitative, participant-observer situations. So ultimately, I do more listening at parties than talking. As noted in a previous post, this “silence” is not necessarily demonstrating a lack of participation or support.

And to return to the OBN of the MOOC: as far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t really mattered if the party is massive or not. If the party is small, I may have more conversations as those fewer people maneuver around the room, but might find less resonance as the array of ideas and expression is usually quantitatively smaller. Among bigger events, it’s always entertaining to hear the range of conversation, and the statistical chances of finding resonance are often higher, but it takes time and persistence to filter through the ambient noise… or to adequately sample the buffet.

So, whether PLE, PLN or OBN, here’s my hotdish buffet approach to a MOOC like PLENK:

Play…

Work a puzzle…

Translate…

…and party on.

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In which I follow up on the exhortation to “just connect” by noting an additional approach to connective learning.

“Play, which is more prevalent during the periods of most rapid brain development after birth (childhood), seems to continue the process of neural evolution, taking it even one step farther. Play also promotes the creation of new connections that didn’t exist before, new connections between neurons and between disparate brain centers. It is activated from and organizes what I call “divinely superfluous neurons.” These are neural connections that don’t seem to have an immediate function but when fired up by play are, in fact, essential to continued brain organization…

"...don't seem to have an immediate function..."

In playing we foster the creation of those new circuits and test them by running signals through them. Because play is a nonessential activity, this testing is done safely, when survival is not at stake….

Play isn’t the enemy of learning, it’s learning’s counterpart. Play is like fertilizer for brain growth. It’s crazy not to use it. As we grow older, we are taught that learning should be serious, that subjects are complicated. These serious subjects take serious study, we are told, and play only trivializes them… [But] sometimes the best way to get a feel of a complicated subject is to just play with it…

"... we are taught that learning must be serious..."

When play arises out of innate motivations it is also likely timed to occur when we are primed for the most synaptic neural growth. That is when we are embracing the issues that grab us most, the ones we may not even be able to voice logically…

Play is nature’s greatest tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties… Stepping out of a normal routine, finding novelty, being open to serendipity, enjoying the unexpected, embracing a little risk, and finding pleasure in the heightened vividness of life. These are all qualities of a state of play…

"... stepping out of a normal routine..."

The world needs play because it enables each person to live a good life…”

From: Brown, Stuart and Vaughn, Christopher (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery.

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In which I might be onto something, and in which I make an initial stab at trying to pin it down.

I’ve been journeying rather far from home for quite some time to explore a strange but compelling land where “learning” and “technology” and “education” and “change”… and people… seem to converge.

I travel with biases. We all view the world through personally honed lenses, ground through psychological inclinations, experiences, academic training, etc.

And so I find I’ve begun to frame/articulate what I (think I) have been seeing in those travelled lands as something familiar, something with similarities to the land in which I generally reside as an observer and participant of culture.

"Carved by the hired hand on the farm."

Folklorist Henry Glassie writes about art and culture:

“We have drowned ourselves so thoroughly in our own tradition that we casually mistake its intricate artifice for natural process.”

I suggest that this applies to learning as well. And when stripped or relieved of all the imposed mechanics and quantifying measurements and manufacturing goals of “modern” education, the iterative processes and communicative acts and products of learning are, in essence, forms of creative expression.*  **

To justify this explanation, I am tempted to take a pretty big detour—one that explains the territory of folklore (from whence, in part, I come)  to the legions who are baffled by the very idea… but that’s what links are for, aren’t they?

So, moving on…

One form of creative expression familiar to most people, and perhaps therefore easy to understand, is the creation of objects—of craft. I use this word a bit hesitantly, but trust it will serve simply as a relevant and “graspable” example of creative expression and not bring forth too many biases. (Paula Owen notes: “The ambiguity of the word ‘craft’ is troublesome because for the majority of people it connotes hobby-level kitsch, which nullifies significant achievements and ideas. It is [also] troublesome because many young artists have grown up in a world of cultural fusion and no longer find the classification relevant.”)

Nonetheless, for the sake of example: in creating—crafting—a quilt, or a chair, or a “found object” sculpture, the creator employs a wide variety of decision-making process, all of which vary in emphasis and importance due to the complexities of the interrelationships between the choices.

  • A craftsperson has choices of materials, of tools, of subject matter.
  • A craftsperson makes choices about how much to adhere to a tradition, and how much to vary or innovate within and beyond it.
  • A craftsperson works with varying sources of information and inspiration, in different contexts of time and space, with differing demands and responses from one or more audiences.

This sounds to me much like the options available to learners today, for those who choose to choose.

Along the same lines, E.M. Fleming suggests that material culture (i.e. artifacts, such as craft objects) can be analyzed through developing understandings of an object’s:

  • history
  • material
  • construction
  • design
  • and function.

At the parade. Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

I would suggest that in working to understand others’ learning and resulting communicative products (especially as they develop outside formal educational boundaries), these are equally useful lenses.

A further thought is that by understanding how creative expression such as craft functions, we can also understand the potential of, as well as current resistance to, viewing learning as a creative process. For example:

  • Craft as a process of creative expression creates its own emergent structures of authority or non-authority; learning can be formal, informal, non-formal…. (Perhaps so subtle as to be “invisible.”) Mentorship, apprenticeship, being “raised in the tradition,” formal instruction—all are viable processes. Choices regarding this are frequently the province of the creator.
  • Creative expression is an emergent, “design as you go” process (one of bricolage, as Graham Atwell has pointed out in his explorations of personal learning); one which is multi-directional. Henry Glassie writes: “The process is a common one, known to every cook and carpenter. It is a matter of reorganizing materials. As more and more that matters is pulled into the process…it gathers more into itself and so gains the strength to reach out more broadly…” This pulling and reaching supports both tradition and innovation.
  • Craft expressions are best understood as processes and products of the interplay among the intent (motives and motivation) of the creator, her community, and other context, rather than as “masterpieces” of an individual artist/genius working in splendid isolation.

Among the difficulties:

  • The idealized perfection of uniformity promoted by mass production. (Interestingly, the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century was in many ways anti-factory-production, but its adherents were not necessarily anti-technology, nor were they opposed to efficiency in production.)
  • A cultural bias devoted to promoting the supposed moral superiority of “high art” and assumptions (indoctrination?) of an “educated elite” about the presumed, innate, and absolute “quality” of such art over craft.
  • Tacit and explicit lack of respect for cultures and communities which bring craft expressions into being; whether cause or effect, craft is associated with populations which have been marginalized, particularly based on gender and race. These populations and their creative expressions have been called “naive” and even “unschooled.”
  • A cultural view that suggests domains reflecting Cartesian worldviews– math and science, for example– are more valuable (economically, politically…) and worthy of transmission than domains of craft/creative expression. (I do not claim that math or science is purely Cartesian nor that these pursuits are not creative. Nor do I mean that learning within these realms cannot result from learning as a result of the same choices of creative process noted above—only that this is currently not/rarely the case.)

Presently I’m feeling a bit like a hunter who has stalked prey across unfamiliar stretches of savannah, wrestled it to the ground in a bruising but respectful battle, and is now dragging the bounty back to the comforting campfires of home, a dietary enrichment for the tribe…

Or, potentially a little less bloody in extended metaphor, here’s where I seem to be travelling now: through a messy roundabout of learning, education, technology and the enticing potential of “hand-crafted learning.”

* Please, please, please do not read this as “students should do a project/learn some stuff and write a song about it.”

** This observation is distilled from a multi-page rambling I’ve been stuck on for a couple of months, one which inspired me to post an equally distilled summary comment recently on Dave Cormier’s blog discussing factory education– an important “getting over the hump” step to this post, for the record of those who are tracking connective processes 🙂

Works consulted:

Fariello, 
M. Anna and Owen, Paula. Objects and Meaning. New Perspectives on Art and Craft. Scarecrow Press (October 2005).

Glassie, Henry. The Spirit of Folk Art. Harry N. Abrams (February 1, 1995).

Schlereth, Thomas. Material Culture Studies in America. American Association for State & Local History (June 1982).

Toelken, Barre. The Dynamics of Folklore. Utah State University Press (May 1, 1996).

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In which educationalists should feel free to roll their eyes….

CCK09: Guilty as charged– lurking. It’s a factor of time, schedule, and attention, but also perhaps one of sloth. While writing for academic and literary purposes needs to be approached as regularly as any serious work  (a friend compares it to laying pipe), writing about something immediately compelling is… so much easier. And after CCK08 I figured that, even with a low and random level of monitoring, CCK09 would probably prompt a few compelling thoughts somewhere along the line.

Hark! Whilst peeling fava beans in my Midwestern kitchen on a rainy fall day and listening to this week’s Elluminate session, some thoughts converged. In this mundane setting and in the midst of this mindless task, I realized that one of the difficult things about connectivism is the large amount of imagination and creativity it requires. (Online resources for these topics are really fluffy, but work by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi seems a reasonable entry point, and this resource at the Open University provides some toeholds.)

tomatoesThese aspects have come into play on several levels. On one, I’ve needed on several occasions to transcend language/linguistic conventions and limits in order to understand the entities and concepts being described. So many of the terms in use here, as in most of education, are highly connotative, perhaps particularly so for those most versed and expert in various related fields. Groups, networks, teacher, school, knowledge, learning… Instead of mincing descriptive and definitive language (and I do differentiate these) down to even more precise levels (and I’m usually among the first to appreciate precision in language), I’ve found it useful to abandon or bypass the mental pictures these words first bring to mind from various perspectives of understanding. It has been important to clarify my own underlying assumptions about whatever term is in question, and then to be able to recognize that they might not be applicable here, even if they seem to have the contextual hallmarks of conventionality or use within a discipline.

This doesn’t mean dismissing all previous conceptualizations out of hand, but it does mean putting them at least temporarily on hold, no matter how tightly we are wedded to them. Take the basic associations for the term “networks,” for example. From the lay/popular culture side: way too overloaded and intermingled with “networking” as a self-promotion strategy to be useful here. On the technology side: way too mechanistic and clear cut. (True, these are unsophisticated examples, but they serve for the purpose of illustration.) Jenny Mackness mentioned last year that network visualizations seem to need a third or other dimension. For me this idea was, to use a current turn of phrase, resonant, and is indeed descriptive how I satisfy my “sense” of what is described. My mental image of the relationships and manifestations of networks and groups is still much more amorphous and multi-dimensional than anything that I’ve seen on a page; it’s more of a sculpture or some form of art installation (with lights, I think, yes, colored lights… that move, and with a range of emergent sounds…) than any type of graphic illustration. Attempting to understand connectivism has become, in this respect, an almost synesthetic experience.

On a second level, creativity and imagination have been needed to edge into the realm of innovation; that is, to identify how and where the implications of connectivism are realized. Connectivism is a descriptive entity (realm?) rather than a tool or an approach or, heaven forbid, a program. And yet it seems that some come to CCK manifestations with an idea of “applying” connectivism “in practice.” And so here’s another epiphany (it sounds easy, but it was rather grinding, really) I needed to have: The implications of the concepts under consideration, whether packaged under connectivism or some other understanding, are not necessarily something that one can work towards. They are something we have to leap to, and then, only after this leap of imagination and the fundamental revisioning of the possible, does it become fully clear where the understandings of connectivism are “applicable.”

In some ways, my understandings (which I don’t claim to be comprehensive or completely accurate) come from a process of working backward to accommodate existing realities, rather than working forward to an envisioned potential.(See also: backcasting.) And so something like “How can I use/apply/integrate connectivism in my classroom?” becomes, from this perspective, a totally irrelevant, and perhaps misguided, question. I would encourage anyone struggling with connectivism to work hard at inventing a mental world where connectivism makes total sense and is completely feasible… and then work back through the details. A quote I enjoyed today:

Society is not always quick to understand game-changing innovation. In fact, according to MIT professor Lant Pritchett, there is a very particular pattern of acceptance and understanding we go through that can be summarized as “Crazy. Crazy. Crazy. Obvious.”

I’d say connectivism is at least nominally easier to grasp if you envision a world in which it is “obvious” first, and then work back through the layers of crazy.

As a bit of a tangential disclaimer, I would note that I don’t have much interest in science fiction or fantasy literature, should anyone see this as the approach I am taking. Instead, in studying culture, I have an innate interest in unpacking the layers of understanding and meaning within events, stories and objects. That means “seeing” the invisible, the worldview, contained in or implied by such entities. And this is how I tackle connectivism. Connectivism requires and supports creativity as it becomes both an object of interpretive study, and a viewpoint that inherently encompasses personal narratives/constructions of learning processes. (Out on an intuitive limb here.)

Finally, one other thought about connectivism, creativity, and the sense of “different” participation this year: There is an association between creativity and risk-taking, and yes, novelty. And for intellectual risk-takers and novelty-seekers in a number of related fields, whether lurking or dueling (or engaging in scorched earth warfare), the CCK08 MOOC was a pretty compelling place to be/play. So if participation is down/different, I don’t think it’s a referendum on the course or connectivism itself. Indeed, after adrenaline junkies finish the parachute jumping, someone has to inspect and fold the chutes. Many jumpers pack their own, I hear, but for the sake of metaphor, let’s say that might be what CCK09 participants are doing. That said, it’s still early. BASE jumpers (gratuitous video) could still be lurking.

Coda: We had “Gigantes” once in a restaurant and found this to be a tasty dish. I’m not big on recipes, except for broad outlines, and my dislike of big box grocery shopping stands in the way of any precision in ingredients required for authenticity, but this is what I do with the aforementioned beans:

favaplateCook and peel 1 lb of fava beans or large lima beans while listing to CCK09.  Chop one or two (depending on how close it is to carpool time) onions and sauté in a small pan with olive oil; simultaneously roast two or three red peppers on another burner, steam in paper bag. Return from driving to wake up the computer; peel and chop peppers and five or six farmer’s market tomatoes. Do not drip on the keyboard while occasionally waking up the screen with your wrist in order to read the chatroom comments.

Mix all of the above (minus the paper bag and the computer) in a baking dish with olive oil, pepper, salt, oregano, marjoram and crushed garlic. Bake for about an hour or until household citizens are done practicing their instruments. Add liquid as needed  if there’s a jazz combo still rehearsing in the basement. Mix in whatever fresh, chopped parsley the first Minnesota frost hasn’t wilted, and crumbled feta cheese. Serve with some form of green vegetable, because it makes a pretty picture on the plate.

Favaclose


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