When we can’t see the trees for the wood

Frances Bell CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
I can see trees – Frances Bell CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Martin Weller posted a post on the role of personality in education that has attracted many comments. I could have written about many of the thoughts that the post and comments have sparked for me but I thought I would concentrate on one perspective- how we can view an educational experience, as either generalised or particular rather than both.
Martin argued quite powerfully that the OU (and as commenters pointed out, quality systems) try to  eliminate the personal author voice from course materials, and that this might be a bad thing. This seemed to me about creating generalised course materials and whilst the elimination of an author voice from materials can be seen as detrimental in some ways, I would argue that it does not need to be an obstacle to the subjective appreciation of learners (and may even offer them some freedom) as they experience learning. When we hear about the OU ( a brilliant UK institution, complementary to not a replacement for other HE institutions) we can tend to think of the central, the course materials, online resources whereas I suspect that many OU scholars might think also about their more distributed experiences, attending local face to face  study groups, small group interactions, private study. Aren’t these opportunities for tutors, but more importantly learners, to inject their own subjectivities, as they interpret materials, argue, re-present ideas, and hear about the subjectivities of others on the same course? These learners are able to see each other’s trees.
For me, in overly identifying Jim Groom with DS106 and Dave Cormier with rhizo14 (I know little of rhizo15) he is playing into the myths of the lone creator and innovation, as if any of these phenomena sprung fully-formed from the loins of their ‘creators’.  As Kate Bowles pointed out, there is something gendered about this view of personality as cult. For me, this focus on the personality of the leader/ inventor figure can hamper inventiveness and experimentation by freezing agency in a single personality, downplaying what went before and what goes after. It generalises the phenomenon in a way that obscures very important particulars such as learners’ behaviours and contributions.
We become so stuck on the wood, the naming, the labelling, the individualisation of a complex phenomenon, that we can’t see the beautiful trees. We are standing outside the wood, unable to hear the tree that falls – it makes a sound but not for us.

11 thoughts on “When we can’t see the trees for the wood”

  1. France’s, this is such a thoughtful posting about something that happens quite commonly, IMHO, when we reduce terribly complex systems and experiences to one aspect of them. Granted, the experiences you mentioned with Dave and Jim may not have happened without their facilitating those systems, though we like to clear through the clutter and box them, perhaps to save us from facing their true complexity and messiness. Reminds me of some actor-network theory is used to address, namely that these things hold together even long enough for us to name them.

  2. I was following a line of thought Jeffrey and trying to connect what was being said over at Martin’s post and comments with my deeply held views on the need for teachers to leave the gaps where learners might become. Of course teacher presence can be productive and important see my comment on Kate’s post http://musicfordeckchairs.com/blog/2015/07/09/what-would-stampy-do/#comment-896 but I certainly found as a teacher that it was much easier for me to have too much presence, to inject too much of my personality into class interactions than to stand back. One thing that teachers can model (and this is easier face to face than online) is active listening. For me one of the pernicious problems of cults of personality and leadership is that not only do they tend to reinforce existing norms that can discriminate but they are also modelling really counterproductive learning behaviours.

    1. Thank you for this very thoughtful post Frances. I think your point about the role of listening as an active form of engagement and part of the process of becoming is really important. I recently met and encountered the work of Tanja Dreher (http://tanjadreher.net/) who explains in powerful ways how listening is or can be enacted in different settings. It is not simply a personal act but a political one too.

      1. Listening as a political act – that’s intriguing Laura. I have encountered a dilemma in one of my most significant learning experiences during the last year – my witnessing of #blacklivesmatter on Twitter that has taught me so much about the extent of my white privilege. My dilemma is action – I can change my own understandings and reflect on my actions but my capacity to contribute to change is limited. Thanks for the links to Tanja’s work – maybe I can find some possibilities for action there.
        Silence is such an important part of listening but I have seen some less good attributes of silence, and its bad sibling silencing, online.

  3. Hi Frances

    Something that hasn’t really been drawn out in any of the conversations now happening around this rich topic is how the perceived personality of any leader gets amplified by others, and why. So when you say “this focus on the personality of the leader/ inventor figure can hamper inventiveness and experimentation by freezing agency in a single personality, downplaying what went before and what goes after”, I wonder: whose focus? It rarely seems to me that the charismatic or figurehead leaders that we see emerge from MOOCs or social media have courted this status for themselves.

    So what converts ordinary, mutual appreciation—gratitude for the hard work of making stuff happen—into the elevation of one above all? Is this something that groups do in order to confirm membership of a group?

    Sometimes I wonder also if people who hang around in universities are deeply habituated to rank in the way that is often claimed of military personnel. So we try to be collaborative and distributive, but really we’ve been trained from a very early professional age to believe in orders of merit, and our institutions continue to extract more from us than they pay for because we’re not just earning salary, we’re also trying to earn rank.

    Many dishevelled thoughts about all this.


  4. This is very interesting Frances. I know that in the rhizos Dave Cormier made herculean efforts not to play the “leader/ inventor figure” but yet I saw criticisms somewhere of “hero-worship” going on! I’m no psychologist but our finite brains seem to be super-efficient at creating shorthand hooks for complex ideas and the human interest angle is evidently one of the best ways it does this. Thus in the brains of many (including myself) lurk equations like CCK = Downes + Siemens, DS106 = Jim Groom and I dare say, WW2 = Churchill v Hitler, etc etc, quite regardless of simplification and the truth or falsity of the implications. I don’t think anything can be done about what’s probably an unconscious type of raw coding apart from a conscious filtering action when a concept is taken off its hook and dusted down – then hopefully avoiding the dangers of “overly identifying” that you cite.

    As for gender, I love the xkcd comic strip on zombie Marie Curie! http://xkcd.com/896/

    1. Thanks Gordon – loving the Marie Curie comic. Both you and Kate have identified that a leader can be centred without that being their intention. Maybe that centring behaviour is more likely in online spaces – I don’t know. But my hopeless optimism, and reluctance to see a tide turn in what gains in equal opportunity have been made (whilst #blacklivesmatter reminds me of the huge chasms that still exist) – these all encourage that education is somewhere that we should be constantly challenging contradictions and exclusivity. I don’t know if you remember the CCK08 discussion forum from which these words came (I animated a collection of contributions into a composite conversation) but I can still remember laughing the first time I read them http://www.tubechop.com/watch/6420255 Stephen Downes was gracious enough to take the video in good part.

  5. (OMG – seem to have written another blog post as a comment)
    Your thoughts are positively shevelled in comparison with mine Kate:) I wrote a reflection on my own experience as a teacher, lost it with a careless click, then got sidetracked into etymology of disshevelled. Now Laura (thanks) has introduced me to the work of http://tanjadreher.net/ on listening. Weirdly, that related to the example of realising the cultural diversity within a class as a resource for learning that I had just lost 🙂

    My best (and worst) experience with a MOOC in the last couple of years has been in researching one:) This led to a lot of reading and discussion and for me, learning the little I know about the ideas of DeLeuze and Guattari. I was very struck by what Elisabeth St Pierre said about a sort of Nike (Just do it) approach to theory. She writes about how her students’ used Deleuzian concepts without feeling anxious about having got them right. She related this to Deleuze’s elimination of the personal, saying of her students ‘What is exciting for those who plug a Deleuzian machine into another machine is that different assemblages become possible that could make available the ‘nonthought within thought’ that some of us long for’. A delicious marriage of the objective and the subjective.

    And now, briefly looking at Tanja Dehrer’s web site, I am reminded of another use of DL & G recounted by Le Grange who found their ideas helpful in problem-solving by people from different knowledge traditions in South African context “When a researcher trained in western traditions and someone knowledgeable about indigenous traditions are brought together to collaborate in solving a community problem, the deterritorialisation of both knowledges occurs.”

    What you said here Kate “Is this something that groups do in order to confirm membership of a group? ” chimes with a lot of my thinking recently on MOOCs. If there really is a shift in HE towards homogenised content and standardised testing, I wonder if MOOCs are part of the problem if norming pervades reified content and participation.
    One of my observations has been that it’s not always what is said but who is saying it that makes the difference but maybe it was ever thus http://punch.photoshelter.com/image/I0000eHEXGJ_wImQ

    I get really excited by the possibilities of sharing of knowledge and ideas on the web. When I think of Jim Groom, I think of the excellent and practical work he does with Tim at Reclaim Hosting (rather than a cult of DS106) to enable people to manage knowledge, ideas and participation with not too much reliance on the sugar highs of Facebook, etc.

    Le Grange, L. (2007). The “theoretical foundations” of community service-learning: from taproots to rhizomes. Education as Change, 11(3), 3–13. doi:10.1080/16823200709487174
    open at https://innerweb.ukzn.ac.za/scer/Journal%20articles/Le%20Grange%20Theory%20roots.PDF

    St.Pierre, E. A. (2004). Deleuzian Concepts for Education: The subject undone. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 36(3), 283–296. doi:10.1111/j.1469-5812.2004.00068.x

  6. Hi Francis

    Your reference to “the myths of the lone creator and innovation” reminded me of Brian Eno’s notion of the “scenius”:

    “So I thought that originally those few individuals who’d survived in history – in the sort-of “Great Man” theory of history – they were called “geniuses”. But what I thought was interesting was the fact that they all came out of a scene that was very fertile and very intelligent. So I came up with this word “scenius” – and scenius is the intelligence of a whole… operation or group of people. And I think that’s a more useful way to think about culture, actually. I think that – let’s forget the idea of “genius” for a little while, let’s think about the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work.”
    — Brian Eno http://goo.gl/V9LDjU

    It’s never been about the wood, or the trees, but the living, dynamic, ever-changing ecology of the forest.

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