Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Embrace Uncertainty (by declaring something?)

So, we've entered the half-way point of #rhizo14.  The original  topic title had something to do with Declaring your Learning. This of course brought on memories of jokes of airports and questions like "anything to declare?" and smart-alec responses to this question.  Declaring is also Stage 3 of a success in a MOOC, so I guess it made sense in a way that this was during week 3.  That said, the topic has changed to "Embrace Uncertainty." I wonder if this was by design, one topic disappearing, and another appearing, thus epitomizing uncertainty, or if it was purely coincidental.

In any case, one of the thinking points this week is how do we embrace uncertainty in learning?  I guess, my first question is "from whose perspective?" From the perspective of the learner?  Or from that of the Instructor?  I know, from my own perspective, I have a ton of books at home on teaching, learning, and linguistics that I would LOVE to just stop everything and read and put to good use, but I don't have a ton of time. Well, I guess I could if I weren't MOOCing so damned much, but I guess at the end of the day it's a fine balance between a lot of  different factors.

From an instructor's perspective, I think it's important to embrace uncertainty  in a variety of ways.  In instructional design we want to have a completed course before it runs (or at least a completed design document!) but things can happen in any given semester that don't allow you, as an instructor and designer, to go down the path you aimed to go down when you started teaching your course.  I would say embrace the uncertainty and go with it (so long as the goals of the course are met!). This can mean a lot of  work for instructors, after all you have committed all that work ahead of time, it's a shame for it to go to waste, and to be in a position that you might have to admit your ignorance. Admitting that you don't know something is pretty hard, especially in our (western) culture.  Of course, instructors are not the fount of all knowledge, so it would be good to say, on occasion, "I don't know, and let's explore that together.  How would we go about figuring x?"

From a learner perspective, it's hard to embrace uncertainty for a variety of reasons.  Again, going back to the western mentality (and all of my own schooling, both here and in Greece), people go to school to learn certain knowledge (declarable facts) that they can then tell other people about, thus showing that they are certain that they know certain things. Of course, knowing facts and putting them to use are different skills.  Students think they are going to school to learn facts, when in reality they should be going to school (or class) to "sharpen the brain" (as the Greeks would say) in order to be able to deal with just such uncertainty. If you are comfortable with uncertainty, and the fact that there might not be clear cut answers, I think you are in a much better position to think outside of the box and think creatively about solutions.

So, the question then becomes how do we  keep people encouraged about learning if there is no finite achievable goal? I assume "we" in this question posed means educators and those in the education field.  Well, I guess at the end of the day, schools are peddlers for a certain type of intangible product. People can make tangible things with that product, but the product itself, education, is not tangible.  Part of the answer to this question, for me, goes back to internal motivation of each individual learner.  You can lead a horse to the well, but you can't make it drink. Education is the same.  We (at least in the US), are pushing for everyone to go to college, even though college is not subsidized in our country. Not everyone is motivated to go through a compulsory, yet not legally compulsory, education.  Heck, not everyone is motivated to go through legally compulsory education either :) So, at the end of the day, how do you encourage people to continue to learn if learning is not a finite deal?

Well, I would say that while learning, as an endeavor, is life-long, we do have certain waypoints in this process that help us get something out of it.  For some people it may be a badge, or a certificate, or a diploma.  If a certain cluster of learning centers around a specific topic and things connect with one another, why not motivate people with something tangible, like passing a mile marker on the highway on the way to a long journey?  I know that when I start running in the spring I am very out of shape.  The way I measure my success, and the reason I keep running my 2-3 miles a day is because I pass certain markers and I push myself to get to the next one.  If I thought of the entire distance as one whole thing, I would most likely just give up. Another possible way to motivate people is to give them something tangible that they can do having completed certain aspects of learning. So, if you can do x with what you have learned, imagine what you can do if you continue learning!

Finally (for this post anyway), how do we teach when there are no answers, but only more questions?  That is a good question.  The way I see it, there are certain plateaus that need to be reached in order to be able to grapple with certain types of questions.  I think that learners need to be scaffolded to a point where they understand certain things, know certain jargon and vocabulary, and are able to deal with certain concepts in order to grapple with those questions.  Since not all questions reside on one plateau, it is is possible to teach and coach people to get to those plateaus to be able to wrestle with those questions.  Some of it may be didactic in nature, some of it may not be. It depends on many factors.  That said, just because there are only questions doesn't mean that we throw in the towel.  Going back to my running example, the road is almost infinite (when you are running).  I wouldn't just keep running, and I certainly would just run on my first day out in the spring.  I would stretch a bit, maybe jog, take those legs and lungs out for a test drive before I go in full throttle.  Once you've identified limits, you are then able to work your way up to bursting through those limits.

Your thoughts?
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