Sunday, June 08, 2008

Complexity is a Bitch! Root hog, or die!

I wrote this as a comment in Will Richardson's Weblogged as a response to a post about change in education. 

Humans as a race have always found a way to adapt.  That is a very fair statement and one backed up by evolutionary history and biology.  Our many-layered brain is a physical text of this adaptation. Given this premise the question remains: how will we adapt?  More specifically, how will teachers adapt to this changing environment.  We can continue to game and tweak the status quo.  We can strike out toward some new 'thing' that we cannot call 'school' but can claim is learning.  Or we can do both:  lay tracks for the new right next to the old. Or we can try a million other new new things. Nicholas Taleb says that the only certainty in these scenarios is that we cannot predict which one of these new parallel tracks will be the right one.  In other words, what we as teachers need to do is to remain learners, to be bloodhounds for this new scent, and to be ready to try on and cast off many of the trails we discover before we find one that works for our learners.  And then keep doing that.

It means (to switch metaphors) that we need to value the adaptive over the institutional model. An adaptive teaching model in our current predicament most probably requires a wildly adaptable institutional model.  We need a  way that says the only charter a school needs is to help its students learn and to be accountable in some reasonable way for that learning. What we need is a way to make schools-of-one just as viable as schools-of-many.  What we need is a world full of learning brokers or coaches or entrepreneurs or what-have-ye who can coggle together a virtual architecture of formal and informal systems to help us learn. 

I can think of two examples that exemplify this:  Ravelry and Stronglifts.  These are both 'convivial' tools in the best Illich-ian sense.  The former is a knitting site that is so much more.  It is a school where you can learn to knit.  It is a place to teach others.  It is a place to ask questions and provide answers.  It is formal (the site has a structure and rules) but it is also informal (the site has as many forum on as many topics as can be imagined).  My wife is a better knitter because of it.  Plus, she is now much better versed in the tools of our socially networked metaverse.

The latter, stronglifts, is a personal training website specializing in showing its participants how to get stronger.  I have been reading this site from its inception where it has gone from zero to 15,000 subscribers in a year.  Its owner/blogger/manager is a Belgian named Mehdi.  Recently, he started doing personal training.  One might well ask how someone can teach weight lifting over the web.  He combines some old school and some new.  He has a forum on his website run on good ol' phpbb.  He has a paying forum within that site for his students.  In this weight lifting academy he has individual training logs for each student.  I keep diet and training logs every day or nearly so and he comments daily.  The most interesting part is that I make videos of myself as I lift and then upload them to YouTube.  I mark them private and send a share invite to him.  He watches the vids and makes suggestions.  This dance of feedback and change works for me (although he is a fierce taskmaster whom I have nicknamed Torquemada). 

Root hog or die.  That's what one of my music acquaintences, Mojo Nixon says.  I know that this is hard.  I spent $150 on gas last week for my various vehicles.  I am going to have to learn how to reduce this burden or find other work, but I am already moving towards that change on several fronts.  What I am saying is that school can no longer afford to look like it does any more than I can tolerate 30% increases in transportation each year.     Garmston's suggestions in your post, Will, are all well and good, but I don't think most folks will tolerate the consequences that flow from it.  It's like the suggestions in the new book, Brain Rules.  We know what we ought, yet we do not.  I do believe that as our affordances change so too will the ways out.  Just like a real hog, schools will find a way, but I guarantee you that they will appear to us in ways that are unexpected, new, surprising, and perhaps both better and worse than what we now have.  Complexity is a bitch.  Get over it.

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