Posts Tagged ‘folklore’

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:

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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Whereby I commit logical fallacies, reference ideas far outside my area of expertise, exhibit ignorance of many aspects of connectivist theory, place groups, communities and networks in a single bag, and potentially annoy a number of people.  In other words… thinking out loud. 

Whenever something new and cool and incredibly smart floats across the computer screen or appears materially at our gadget-enhanced home, there is a standard response for paying homage to this new incarnation of genius: 

“Ooh, shiiiny…” 

I admit to being just as easily distracted by shiny objects as any other not-quite early adopter. But there’s also always a little voice in the back of my brain reminding me that some covetable, shiny objects are made in China, with all the attendant issues, or that sixty-seven other people who have come up with something similar won’t get credit, because this one has a sleeker interface.

And so I have spent some time wondering how much connectivism is really shiny, and what this means for the folks in China, so to speak. 

Oversimplification is one of the dangers in trying to capture new information of this complexity. And yet I find I need to make some generalizations to myself as I try to situate this new knowledge. So I plead for tolerance as I think out loud here, particularly as I try to grasp the implications of viewing technology as integral to connectivist theory, and understanding connectivism as a network-only theory.

Clustering nodes doing their thing

Clustering nodes doing their thing

Flash one: The idea that knowledge lies in the network, that learning is the negotiation of a network resulting in change, sounds a lot like the idea of emergence that I’ve encountered elsewhere. Folklore analyses, for example, posit that storytelling in the context of performance exhibits emergent knowledge/understanding, where (off the top of my head) the “nodes” that inform this understanding could be defined as including the text, the teller, kinesic elements, ritual elements, the audience as a collective and as individual members, the setting, and the pulls of cultural tradition and personal and group innovation. It is within/out of the multiple channels involved in “telling” that the story informs.

Flash two: In a paper on “Collaborative ways of knowing,” addressing adult learning, Randee Lipson Lawrence and Craig A. Mealman note that: “Africentric and feminist pedagogies as well as Native American traditions place high value on collective knowledge through the sharing of rich stories and the cultivation of relationships.”

Flash three: Mary Field Belenky’s A Tradition that Has No Name  discusses how women develop their learning and their “voices” by being “connected knowers,” defined as those who engage with dialogue, role-taking, and contextual analyses (sounding a lot like networked learning?), with a heavy dose of constructivist meaning-making. And this jumped out: “Connected knowers focus on what is coming into being…” It also notes: “A leadership [learning] tradition rooted in maternal practice and maternal thinking [“connected knowing”] has gone unnamed… [D]evelopmentally focused leadership is seldom acknowledged, [whereas] leadership organized around paternal metaphors has been meticulously recorded…”

On one hand, these ideas are out of context for connectivism; even their authors may argue this. And clearly, labeling something with “connect + suffix” doesn’t mean it’s related to connectivism as a theory. And collaborative and collective is not the same as connective. And, yes, these descriptions are arguably applicable to communities and groups, and not, based on course definitions, networks.

On the other hand, there is enough overlap here that I can’t escape a sense that these notes reflect some sense of ubiquity for one, or possibly many, features of connectivism, depending on interpretation.  In fact, this “dependent on interpretation” is where I come back to where I started today, and to where I was last week, where technology was identified as a key aspect of the rhizomatic model and connectivist knowledge.

What if the flashes above suggest that a pattern of learning through connecting has been widespread even prior to the existence of technology, but has not been widely named, identified, or acknowledged by the “powers that be?” The above examples apply to populations generally marginalized, and certainly underrepresented in academic spheres that produce taxonomies and formal epistemologies. 

So I have to wonder:  what if it is not that technology has made connectivism possible, but that technology has made connected knowledge visible/palatable/appealing/exciting for a population that was otherwise dismissive of this way of thinking and working?

What if it’s the shiny factor that has brought a rich tradition of knowing and learning into the folds of academe?

I appreciate connectivism in the abstract. I know that it’s descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s a learning theory, not a life philosophy (although I sometimes wonder what the difference is in my own life).  I do not need connectivism to be “all new” (I realize nobody is claiming that it is) to be not only valid, but also extremely valuable in understanding learning.  I recognize the “truths” of connectivism (as I understand it so far) on a daily basis. 

But I wonder if connectivism makes intuitive sense to me not because I’m already living as a node on a network, but because I’ve been socialized as a “connected knower,” and trained in appreciating emergent performance?  Right now, connectivism somehow lacks the “get your hand dirty” aspect of some of my learning — and my children’s learning. It seems focused on the ether. I can’t help but think that I need some “ands” here, some acknowledgment of the connectedness and valid knowledge emerging within communities and groups as described above, to prevent connectivism from being an unfortunately limited worldview.

(The language used to discuss the “connected knowing” of women in-depth is quite emotive, whereas Dave Cormier mentioned in an early session — according to my notes — that “connectivism isn’t really personal.” Some classmates have expressed a discomfort at not feeling “connected” to the class. Is this because they misunderstand connectivism, or because they understand it differently, and therefore place different demands upon it? Or is their desire to be personally connected completely unrelated?)

Uploading to the matrix

Uploading to the matrix

To be clear, I don’t feel that connectivism’s fearless leaders have been in any way dismissive of others; G.S. began his introduction to networks by noting the many types of networks in social systems, for example. But the idea that there will be nuances that separate some networks from other social forms, whereby the multiplier effect of technology is inherent to the definition of the knowing, makes me worry that this will — for some, but certainly not for all — justify or inadvertently support ignoring forms of knowing operating beyond the technological sphere. As there are populations today who are creating knowledge without benefit or use of technology, is their knowledge somehow going to be seen as less valid or valuable? Is technology seen as so ubiquitous that they are they simply encompassed in the idea of “weak ties?” What happens to nodes and learning that won’t/can’t upload to the matrix?

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi suggests there is a difference between “big C’ creativity and “small c” creativity — the difference between earth-shaking innovation and brilliance and daily, small scale problem-solving. He also posits that that Big C work has more impact on society, and I struggle with this assignment of value. But maybe it offers a model for a parallel approach here. Maybe it helps to see connected knowledge developed through network theory and technology as a ‘big C’ thing, and connected knowing developed elsewhere as a “small c” kind of act? … And yet, this type of division is exactly what I’m wrestling with and against.  Connected but non-networked learning is not necessarily an old or outdated model; it still exists, and is still valuable. Maybe Jenny Mackness‘  idea about a “3-D” network depiction might help to integrate the idea of “connected knowing” with “connective knowledge.” And maybe I just need to hear “more cowbell”  on this particular issue, and am running amok, trying to tackle things too fast and too soon.

In any case, questions abound — of the causal relationship between technology and knowing; of the difference between connective knowledge, connected knowledge, and connected knowing; of the role of volition in connectivism; and the role of emotions in “big C” connectivism. And, if we were to make the leap to saying that there are various forms of connected and/or connective knowledge that have existed as a widespread, but heretofore underground or largely unidentified phenomenon, what implications would this have for figuring out how to practice this knowledge generation with learners of all ages and backgrounds? 

Connectivism, so far, is clean. It’s reductively sleek. It is a beautiful machine.

But is it shiny?

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