Anarchy & Agency

Mindstorm Robot

There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.

Everyone lets the present moment slip by, and then looks for it as if he thought it were somewhere else. No one seems to notice this fact. But grasping this firmly, one must pile experience upon experience.

– Yamamoto Tsumetomo, Hagakure

Last week I went to the Digital Media and Learning Conference in Long Beach. Normally, I blog my presentations for conferences, and that should be easier now that I have trimmed my conference schedule a bit. (That is really hard for me to do, since I learn more at conferences than through most other forms of scholarly communication, but I need to refocus some of my attention on my own research and practice.) I was on the hook for two things at this conference, a workshop on setting a research agenda for badges, and an ignite talk on killing the traditional transcript. The first went better than expected, but needs a bit of digestion. The second went OK, but also needs a lot more thought.

The accidental talk

But I am going to write a little about the third. I had been scheduled for an Ignite talk on Friday, as I said. Ignite is a bit of a variation on pecha kucha–you have to present using 20 slides, each of which auto-advances every 15 seconds. It is a formalism that leads to some great presentations. There are informal elements as well: a culture of fast talk and high energy. It seems like a rhetorical form ideally suited to our shortening attention span.

On the day of my presentation, we had joked that we should switch decks and present each other’s work. Given the first presentation, given by Erin Knight and Philipp Schmidt, was on badges, which is part of what I was presenting, this wasn’t a completely bizarre idea. This came back to haunt me the next day when the ignite MC, danah boyd, called on me to fill in for a missing presenter. Never one to say “no” to a challenge like that, I jumped in, trying to riff off of slides I’d never seen before.

Now, as the short clip of the end of the talk shows, it wasn’t a very good talk. I ended up not staying with the slides as well as I would have liked. And the argument, formed as it was on the fly, lacked not just nuance, but cohesion. But despite the carnivalesque nature of the presentation, with me as geek, I actually found some stuff in my own meandering that I liked. As a fan of bibliomancy and similar randomized approaches, this is hardly surprising. But I thought I might flesh out some of the ideas that came up as a part of the talk.

The power of surprise

I may have already told this story. As a graduate student, I liked to really over prepare my lectures. I probably spent eight or ten hours of prep for every hour in the classroom. This meant that my research productivity went way down, and I went without much sleep. More importantly, although I think my lectures were generally fairly interesting and thought out, they were essentially performances. They demanded the attention of the students, but I suspect they lacked the excitement and interaction of the classes presented by some of the other grad students in my department.

For a time, another graduate student by the name of Dougie Bicket worked just outside my office. On more than one occasion, I would come out of my office a bit flustered, not having managed to stuff my eight hours of prep in before an afternoon class, and Dougie, would say something along the lines of “why not just have them form dummy media companies that have to deal with the current issues surrounding content ratings,” or something that sounded equally sensible, off the cuff. And these class ideas were successful–not invariably, but often enough to make them worthwhile.

The time crunch became more pronounced when I started as a professor, but I quickly learned that the courses for which I prepared the least were often best. Yes, there needed to be some structure, and the lack of knowing just what would happen was a bit nerve-wracking, but the lack of planning created a gap that both I and the students needed to fill dynamically.

Process vs planning

I tend to be very outcome oriented. I think a lot of that comes from a background in traditional systems development: figure out what it is you want to make, break it into its constituent pieces, and build it out. 

At least in places where people know what they are doing, software development rarely follows this linear path these days, but these sorts of systems-based approaches remain the dominant ideology for course design. We specify objectives, break them into their components, attach assessments, and once the entire course is planned, we “deliver” them. This is particularly true for online courses.

I also should say that I tend to recoil a bit when people say they are process-oriented. This probably comes from an aversion to consultants who come into an organization with no content-specific knowledge, and require a bunch of meetings that have very little to do with actually getting work done. I don’t have a lot of trust in a “talking cure” for most organizations. In theory, I certainly agree that process is important, but as a practical matter, a process-orientation is too often an excuse for not really knowing what you are doing.

Just do it

So, if I am not a big fan of structured, hierarchical planning, and not a plan of more organic, process oriented planning, you might reasonably ask what sort of planning I am a fan of. I won’t go so far as to say “none” because that isn’t true, and I will explain the sorts of preparations I think are worthwhile below, but generally speaking, I think a flexible response is most important. 

Judo is different from many “soft” martial arts. It does have a small number of kata–or “forms”–but there is a much greater emphasis on applying techniques and combinations of techniques in response to the current situation. A major part of the daily practice of judo is not endless repetition of abstract forms, but randori–a sort of random play that trains the judoka to be aware of her situation and respond accordingly.

This, after all, is what we want from students, and what we should model in our own behavior.

The “teachable moment” is much pursued among teachers. My aim is to fill my days with teachable moments. But to do that means opening yourself up to surprise, and risking utter failure. It means being willing to fall on your face at any moment, and knowing that you will on a regular basis. It is not a conservative stance, by any means. If you are doing it right, it should make you nervous when you walk into the classroom. What’s going to happen? 

Again, if you are doing it right, your students will also not know exactly what to expect. This can be a little unnerving for some of them, but frankly, life is about not knowing what is coming, and choosing the path that may not always be safest.


How do you get where you want to go without planning it? Pay attention to where you are looking.

That may seem a bit too obvious. As each year passes, I realize more and more that everything I ever needed to know about teaching I learned in a judo dojo. Although I no longer practice judo, I was very lucky (and it was mainly a result of happenstance) to study with some very gifted teachers in the United States and Japan. One of those teachers was Rick Bradley, who made certain that we looked the right way when executing a throw. The natural tendency was to look down at the floor, where you intended your opponent to fall. Instead, it is important to look almost in the opposite direction, as this determines where your head is, which in turn guides the position of your body, which ultimately causes your opponent to end up where she belongs.

Something similar has probably been said to dancers and baseball players, but rarely educators. We too often have our eyes on the goal, and not our head in the game.

So the most important element of an unplanned course is to be as actively aware of your environment as possible. That means thinking at every moment about what might be learnable in the current situation, and be ready for that to change at every moment. This means less focus on your plans for two months, two weeks, two days or two hours, and to focus on the next two minutes. How do you fill those two minutes with surprise and discovery?

Of course, you will still plan a bit; humans are planning animals. All I am suggesting is paying more attention to what you can do in any particular moment to illuminate lightbulbs. Education should not be a war of attrition, but a series of lightening surgical strikes.

Reusable patterns

What sort of planning do I endorse? The creation of objects and tricks.

Objects are thing to learn with. This certainly applies to physical objects. I am not alone in seeing Legos as not just as excellent learning objects, but as an example of the form. Do they have a specific object? You could certainly identify some developmental goals met by playing with Legos, but it is also an activity that is very open ended, offering more than a single desirable outcome.

Yes, clearly these include open educational objects, but they also include simulated and real environments. Museums and zoos, of course, but also malls and  theme parks. Not to mention urban areas, farms, and nature preserves. Although most virtual environments do not provide the richness of these physical environments, they still provide a learning context. Most classrooms represent nowhere near as involving an environment.

Power of expectations

Students react to this in a couple of ways, sometimes simultaneously. Many are excited by the opportunity to shape their own learning. Many are anxious because they cannot predict just what is expected (since the main expectation is that they find their own way). Many students have spent so much time in 19th century classrooms that they don’t know how to operate outside of those constraints. As a result, they have difficulty not just in my classes, but also in most working environments that are not likewise stultifying.

So, I try to make that transition as easy as possible, but only to the degree that it doesn’t compromise on the ideals of taking risks and finding new paths. Teaching in the moment doesn’t mean you have to toss out the syllabus, the textbook, or the classroom–though it helps! It does mean being open to disruption, and inviting tangents. And if you ask any one of my students, they will tell you I love a good tangent.

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