A space to collect articles, talks and guest blogs from the Community of Praxis.
#PGCEUCO – University Campus Oldham Specialist Conference 6.5.14
A inspiring day and what a wonderful opportunity to talk about the rhizome, social purpose education and the Community of Praxis. Thanks for inviting me. Here’s a narrated slide show of my keynote (with all the bits I missed), transcription below:
Hello everyone, I’m Lou Mycroft. Thanks for inviting me to open your conference this year. It’s an honour and I’m looking forward to a good first hour together. I used to have a boyfriend from Oldham, so it’s brilliant coming back to an old stomping ground J
I’ve been asked to talk about Rhizomatic Learning and the work we do at The Northern College in Barnsley around Social Purpose Education. But firstly, I’d love some of your sea of faces to swim into focus for me a little. Could we invest five minutes in finding out your names too?
(Opening round: Your name and one thing you love about Spring. Keep it succinct though otherwise we’ll use all the time and I won’t get my fee ;-)).
That’s brilliant, thank you. That took [ten minutes]. My belief is that the connection we have now is worth that investment of time…but more of that later. Do feel free to tweet from this session too!
I’m a teacher educator and this is the place I work – Northern College in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. You’re probably thinking coalfields and steelworks and you’d have been right at one time, call centres and new housing is probably more accurate now. We’ve always had green space though, even when it was black. The Northern College is based in Wentworth Castle which stands at the top of a hill outside Barnsley looking down on all of that. Built on the proceeds of slavery and coal, naturally, but we’ve been trying make amends as a centre for second-chance education since 1978.
[click – Social Purpose Education]
Our mission at The Northern College is the transformation of individuals and communities. Since those early days of teaching political and social studies to coalminers on trade union education programmes, we’ve diversified into working with those educators who teach in non-traditional settings ‘for a social purpose’ – ie, to change the world. We don’t lack ambition J Our trainees tend to work in children’s centres (with parents), community projects, rehab organisations, pupil referral units and suchlike. They might work with particular learning groups, such as students with learning disabilities, or with asylum seekers; typically they will work with the most disenfranchised. Not (usually) in colleges, sometimes in schools. We’ve done teaching observations on barges, in kitchens, on football fields, under canvas, in theatres…always worth having a pair of wellies and a smart coat in the boot of the car.
This model of education arose from our thinking. We wanted to represent what social purpose educators do (and need to do) in order to change the world.
– Teaching from your Values. We explicitly identify our teaching values and connect them to the practice principles we hold dear. We do this at the start of every course and we keep this discourse explicit in all our engagements. Knowing we have a shared values base holds us together and keeps us strong.
– Reflexive Practice. We define this as figuring out why you do what you do. We try to go deeper than the seesaw of ‘I did this, it didn’t work, so I did this, it didn’t work,’ which ultimately we use as teachers to beat ourselves up I think. Reflexion with an ‘x’ makes that connection with values: ‘I did this to bring some more equality into the room. It didn’t work this time, but it was still worth trying.’
– Win Win Win. Social purpose education is ultimately about trying to change the world. If you’re teaching from a sound values base, your students will be able to be present absolutely as themselves, because diversity will be valued. They will get more out of the learning and they will take this out into their own communities – everyone wins.
– Embedding Diversity. The assumption that the world is unequal is a fairly safe assumption to hold, we think. We believe that embedding diversity in our teaching is at least as important as anything else we might be required to embed, if anything is to change. We plan for embedding diversity, evidence it and take every opportunity we can to learn from the diversity ‘gifts’ that many sessions bring.
[click – Community of Praxis]
A couple of years ago, we started a Facebook group, to help keep in touch, because we don’t meet every week. Our pattern is to have intensive study days every six weeks or so – we’re a residential college. It was a student’s suggestion, I set it up and got loads of stick back at the ranch, from colleagues who thought it was OK to call me unprofessional publicly, for using social media. That was a bit shocking, but I’ve realised Facebook is like marmite – you love it or hate it and I’ve lost patience with trying to convince people of its benefits. It’s never the only option and it seemed to work. Students were using it to support one another. I started a blog, we began to build a presence on Twitter; tentatively I began to post TED talks and session plans up onto Facebook and noticed the beginnings of a shift in what we did in class, as a consequence of what was happening online. I didn’t ‘flip’ the classroom in any strategic, thought out way and I want to be clear about that. This wasn’t about saving money, or reducing contact hours (which is about saving money). It wasn’t inspired by horizon scanning or top-down policy drivers. At this point I did not in any way see myself as a pioneer or champion of tech. I still panicked when I had to plug something into the back of a computer (I still do!) – worrying about the tech is a massive part of the anxiety I have before any ‘live’ event. Sat at my kitchen table, I don’t worry about tech at all. This was genuinely organic. It just seemed the right thing at the right time, to take the community online.
The name ‘Community of Praxis’ arose out of a discussion in those early days of the Facebook group. We’d been aware from the start that we were forming a community of practice – naturally – and actually I’d rethought Lave and Wenger in the light of these developments, having forgotten that, long before Facebook was a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, they were talking about digitally connected spaces. By the time we picked up on the communities of practice idea, they’d been reduced in many applications to ‘buddy study groups’ and that never felt right for us, not least because our students could literally come from anywhere in the country. I got told we couldn’t be a community of practice, too – this time on Twitter, by a very notable academic in our field. This was because I was involved, apparently that was against the Lave and Wenger rules but don’t things grow, don’t they become whatever they need to be? So we thought of another name, in honour of our heroes Paolo Freire and Antonio Gramsci, those professors of praxis. We called ourselves the Community of Praxis, acknowledging the power that those reflexive spaces had to impact on how participants were in the world. It was good, it was an exciting time.
[click – picture of Dee]
And then my dad got really sick, it was his end of days. I took time away from work to help my mum care for him at home. It was about a year ago, when Cert Ed/PGCE students were in final submission panic mode, the very worst time (but when is the right time?) What happened was that the Community of Praxis stepped up to fill the gap I’d left. Queries that would be sent directly to me began to be posted online, where everyone could answer (those who didn’t participate online had a phone or text buddy – nothing formal – just a shared commitment to making sure no-one got left out). I kept an early-morning watching brief before going to my mum and dad’s for the day, to respond to anything that needed my input. Classroom time became self-directed: we’d meet at 9.30am with the question ‘What do you want to do today?’ and plan a day in which I wasn’t the only person taking responsibility for the content, so I could get away if I needed to. This was 50 people. 50 people organising themselves to get what they needed out of the learning platforms on offer. Out of all the amazing learning during that time, three learning points stand out:
[click – Community of Praxis outcomes]
– The grade profile improved as self-responsibility increased. People were thinking for themselves.
– My email overwhelm reduced by about two-thirds; we got more done and more creatively, as every question was attended by diverse perspectives.
– The nature of what we did in class was changed forever. We stopped wasting time on stuff we could do online and focused on being present with one another. We used philosophical inquiries, Time to Think Councils and critical friendship groups to reflect deeply on practice. And attendance improved!
Only at this point did we begin to work strategically in this way – and we still didn’t have a name for it. We began to analyse how it worked and why – and what we could do better. We ran a Summer Reading Group (bell hooks), started monthly Twitter chats and developed the TeachNorthern blog as a central hub of activities. The Facebook detractors came up with a challenge we couldn’t refute – that Facebook will steal your soul or at least your personal preference data – so we went with Yammer for Certs groups from September, boldly making it compulsory (in the sense that the weekly email bulletins would stop, so if people wanted to know what was going on, they had to go on Yammer.) Facebook is still there, and still very much used, though its personality has changed a little. We started a Google+ blogging group.
Then at the turn of this year, we found out that what we were really doing was Rhizomatic Learning: The Community as Curriculum. Well, hello?
[click: Thinkers are our Friends]
Just as an aside. The relationship between theory and practice is an odd one. It’s a bit like that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – have you seen it? – where the workers are harvesting mud in the mud fields and King Arthur comes along. A little bit British Leyland 1975 (and I say this as a socialist). There’s a huge ‘us and them’ thing, where each side thinks that the other is out of touch. Chips on both shoulders, for sure. We are practical academics and we realised early on that we’d need to nail this sort of mutual snobbery if we were going to get people thinking for themselves, so we’ve always taken the Thinkers are our Friends approach which is about us all being equal as thinkers. We don’t talk about Freire, we talk about Paolo. We don’t talk about hooks, we talk about bell. Sir Ken Robinson is ‘Our Ken’. Here’s me with Nancy.
So you’re getting the picture that we play fast and loose with what other people write and think and say and all the power imbalance inherent in that, in our academic world? We love all these different perspectives, but we don’t assume that they know more than we do about our practice – we’re the experts in our own professional lives. This gives us permission to be critical and to find our own voices.
So I make no apology for finding out about Rhizomatic Learning not from seminal theorists Deleuze and Guattari (I must get round to reading their stuff properly), or even from international people-connector Dave Cormier, but from seeing a hashtag in a tweet by Peter Shukie just after Christmas, when I was feeling a bit jaded and in need of something to sharpen my appetite. #rhizo14 was Dave Cormier’s ‘uncourse’ experiment and that’s what introduced me to the metaphor of the rhizome.
[click: Rhizomatic Learning]
Have we got any gardeners in the room? Well I’m a bit of a rubbish one, so I had to figure out the metaphor first of all – a rhizome is a plant which spreads by moving unseen, underground, through a series of roots and tubers. Tubers aren’t very attractive – think potato – but this gorgeous picture of the ginger plant shows what I mean. Rhizomes are persistent, they are invasive and I like to think of them as subversive, getting paid for one thing (eg Work Programme) and delivering another (confidence and self-respect building). I quite like that rhizomes are often weeds! Rather than being a learning theory in itself I see the rhizome as providing a vehicle for all sorts of approaches which are at the heart of social purpose education: praxis, connectivism, social learning. That sense of cultural and political connectedness with what’s going on.
The way the rhizome works is to provide fertile spaces for people to get together and think. Given the right conditions, that just happens. Gardeners, think couch grass. You don’t exactly plant it, do you? Intentional rhizomatic learning is like a really good fertilizer (shall we avoid the obvious puns about what we call ‘muck’ over in Yorkshire? ;-)) When Dave Cormier started his #rhizo14 experiment, what he put together was a sort of accelerator pack – a hashtag, a Google+ space, a Facebook group and an introductory podcast every week (hosted on an open access MOOC site). He published how long it was going to last (6 weeks), a topic for the first week (something like, ‘Is Cheating even possible?’) and let it flow.
It was fascinating. I caught up with it at the end of Week 1 and threw myself into it for a couple of weeks, blogging and tweeting. It was all about me for a bit, I was noticing who was agreeing with me and reading their stuff, then that lovely moment when you start to read stuff written by people who see things differently – that’s criticality, diversity, your own thinking starts to shift…wonderful. There was a really good energy about the whole thing. It wasn’t without conflict – at one point we were back in the mud harvesting field of Monty Python, with King Arthur saying, “Of course, we’ve all read Deleuze and Guattari”, and the mud collector saying, “Workers don’t need to read! We are the theory! I’m at the cutting edge etc etc.” It was all done very nicely, in that way professional people have of saying, “That’s interesting,” when sometimes they mean, “I want to kick your teeth in.”
At one point, Dave Cormier was appealed to, to come and sort out the squabbling children but he said no, “The community is the curriculum”, and let people get on with it, he wasn’t in denial, he referred to it in his weekly podcast and the next week’s title became, ‘Embracing Uncertainty.’ He did not compromise that principle of self-responsibility.
So, it wasn’t perfect. It was messy and uncertain and sometimes uncomfortable. People got out of it what was right for them, in direct proportion to their level of openness to new ideas. Across the world, people started writing and blogging, figuring out what they thought. 500 people signed up to #rhizo14 and 200 of us posted at least something. 50 were ‘regulars’ in various places. That’s pretty vast. We expanded our personal learning networks, we read things we didn’t agree with (and things we did). Some people left, I expect, new people joined in, energy ebbed and flowed. We spoke different languages, from different viewpoints, modelling the usual human behaviour but – crucially – thinking together and for ourselves.
We’re trying something similar at the moment – our ‘uncourse’ follows the Dave Cormier model with extra built-in support for blogging and is called #TDReflex14. It’s part of a project we’ve got running, funded by the Education and Training Foundation, called The Reflexion Programme. What ETF actually fund are the study days at The Northern College; since we started running those we got the idea for the uncourse and it started last week, it’s running throughout May. We just thought it would be cool.
The week one theme was ‘Finding a Voice’ and people have been contributing to that in all the online spaces:
[link to] On Twitter, using the #TDReflex14 hashtag, we’ve been throwing various bright ideas around. Tonight it’s our monthly Twitter chat and we’re using the hashtag to discuss how teachers can make their voices heard louder (that’s our Week 2 theme).
[link to] In the TDReflex14 Facebook Group, we’ve literally been discussing the voice, how voices sound and the social coding people attach to them. You’ll see I was anxious about speaking here and how much of that is connected to how I think my voice sounds to you. We talked Paolo and his notion of the ‘dominant syntax’ and how we can surf that with confidence.
[link to] In our TDReflex14 Writing Room on Google+ (where the pages are more or less public, depending on personal preference) there are so many amazing, personal, heartfelt blogs that I can’t summarise them. Once a week for the next few weeks, we write together at 8pm on a Wednesday and comment on each other’s work. Being in that – wow. And it’s fine to write at other times too. We’ve identified a summer project where we self-publish some of these, where we ‘write the book’.
[link to] On the TeachNorthern wordpress site, we stole Dave Cormier’s idea of an ‘unguided tour’ to the uncourse. Each week I blog a summary and set up the topic for the following week. We hope that people can navigate anywhere, from here.
That’s just the formal part of this informal learning experience. People are blogging elsewhere, bringing their experience in. They are connecting offline and using good old-fashioned email. They are making friends, and critical friends. Two people went together to the National Teacher Enquiry Network in York at the weekend, and I tweeted in over a glass of wine at the local folk festival (because I wanted to). There’s a buzz. Join us!
So that’s what we do, and how it came about. I hope to have painted a picture of that rhizomatic growth: invasive, persistent, subversive. By working this way, we connect our networks, not literally underground but via the back channels of social media, and we take strength. Through a number of action research projects this year we’re figuring out what we’ve learned and here, in no particular order, are some highlights so far.
- People are good. Apart from a bit of academic and anti-intellectual ego preening, I’ve seen no-one oppress, bully or disrespect anyone else, though there’s been plenty of disagreement.
- People will resist stuff like this because they don’t want to change. Well sorry, sister, the train is coming. If the Government accepts the recommendations of the FELTAG Report, published recently – and it looks likely – 50% of all courses will have to be online by 2017. That figure includes 50% of each course being online. Already, Colleges are being asked to say what proportion of their provision is online, in their annual return. All the political parties are signed up to this and neither or workforce nor our organisations are ready. We want to help you get in shape, but not everyone wants to hear that message. There’s a lot of fear out there and it manifests itself in different ways when we talk to people about this, from outright sabotage to something I’ve come to think of as the ‘comfort of aspiration’, you’ll recognise it – I’d love to do that, but… The devil is in that ‘but’, as it were, a whole raft of assumptions about why not. If that sentiment is in you, think it through. What are YOU assuming about online learning? You might not be able to do exactly what I do, in this time, in this place…but is that reason enough to not try?
- All of the above refocuses what we do in the classroom. I’m no advocate of entirely online learning – I’m currently failing to complete an online learning course myself and not for the first time (yet I’m on social media all the time). Blended learning is the way forward and that means spending the precious time you do have together as a group actually giving one another attention, in order that everyone can be present as themselves. You remember that I asked you at the start to introduce yourself? That simple technique is one of the applications of a Thinking Environment, Nancy Kline’s philosophy of communication, and we use those applications all the time when we’re together, to get the best out of everyone.
- We’re also finding out lots of practical stuff. Online communities massively slash email traffic, for example (if you remember to turn your notifications off). One of the key practical things we’ve learned is that what makes publicly available social media more effective for engagement that any College’s VLE is the ability to tag people in – to make them feel included so that they are more likely to get involved. You can build trust, rapport and engagement online just as well as you can in class – especially if you’ve met in class first. We’ve learned that lurking is fine. But there’s so much yet that we have to figure out. What IS online teaching, for example? We’re noticing that going online blurs the line between teaching and assessment. I don’t know what your organisation is like, but Northern College pays tutors at half the rate for assessment. How do we figure all of that out without being exploited?
- It works because people share a value base. This provides the foundation and makes it worth putting the effort in. That’s why the values work we do together in class and which underpins every conversation – more or less explicitly – is so crucial. It’s dangerous to elevate one value above others, but I’d suggest that equality is the value that most needs to be present in rhizomatic learning (the rest will follow). Every little wobble we’ve ever had has been because someone has chosen not to feel like an equal. I also believe that the equality present in the community of praxis is what is most threatening to our detractors.
In a culture where teaching is over-regulated and publicly undermined, where profit margins drive education and inequalities are widening, we need the rhizome more than ever – in all its forms, whether that’s a CPD initiative for teachers, as we have here, or a community-inspired open online course, such as those our colleague Peter Shukie is involved with. Where equality is present, the rhizome will thrive.
My family were beyond proud when I became a teacher. It’s a fine job, a tough job, a job of sophisticated judgements and utter integrity. The digital revolution does not mean that we are needed less, but it does mean we’re needed differently: as facilitators, trouble shooters, communicators, connectors. Teaching has to change. Are you up for the challenge of changing what you do, to seize the day?