Know Thy Limit – A Reflection on Myths and Solutions

Quote about Mythologies

This post is a reflection on the wolves introduced into Yellowstone National Park and the problems associated with focusing on supposed simple solutions

I recently came across this post from Aaron Hogan reflecting upon the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. I too have written about the connections between rewilding and education, discussing the possibilities of removing barriers designed to limit top-level predators. Hogan three points about the impact the wolves are:

A pack had an unmistakable impact on the park.

These wolves had no idea about the scale of their impact.

The wolves can’t not have an impact on the park.

Basically, it seems that the wolves worked collaboratively to make a difference. That seems pretty fair. The only problem is that, as with most things, the reality of the wolves is so much more complicated.

In an article in the New York Times, Arthur Middleton unpacks the great American myth surrounding the wolves in Yellowstone. He believes far too much has been invested in the role the wolves have had.

We now know that elk are tougher, and Yellowstone more complex, than we gave them credit for. By retelling the same old story about Yellowstone wolves, we distract attention from bigger problems, mislead ourselves about the true challenges of managing ecosystems, and add to the mythology surrounding wolves at the expense of scientific understanding.

Middleton instead seeks to paint a more complicated picture:

A few small patches of Yellowstone’s trees do appear to have benefited from elk declines, but wolves are not the only cause of those declines. Human hunting, growing bear numbers and severe drought have also reduced elk populations. It even appears that the loss of cutthroat trout as a food source has driven grizzly bears to kill more elk calves. Amid this clutter of ecology, there is not a clear link from wolves to plants, songbirds and beavers.

I think that this same concerns could also be raised in regards to education.

Hogan makes the point that:

A pack had an unmistakable impact on the park.

It is often assumed that doing things together makes a difference. The problem with this is that it is not the doing things together which makes the difference, rather it is what is done and how. As Alma Harris states in Distributed Leadership Matters:

Too much of what passes for professional collaboration equates with loose or unfocused professional groupings, partnerships, or networks.

Take a simple example, holding a meeting with two or twenty will make no difference if those in the group are not adequately given the opportunity to add their voice, where instead only one person speaks the whole time. In some ways this touches on John Hattie’s argument that class size has little impact if it is not also attached with a change in pedagogy.

This then leads to a second point, that Of change. Hogan states that:

The wolves can’t not have an impact on the park.

However, what is overlooked is everything else that can have an impact as well. Here I am reminded of Pernille Ripp’s recent reflection on reading programs. Too often, like the wolves, they are seen as the solution, a point made all too clear in a recent EdTech survey. However, as Ripp highlights, they are only one part of a bigger puzzle. This is something made clearer using the Modern Learning Canvas:

Using this sort of framework means that there is nothing outside of context. Everything is a part of the assemblage, as Ian Guest recently highlighted:

Bringing a sociomaterial sensibility built on actor-network theory to this study positions me in a particular way. This eschews the notion of a pre-existent reality ‘out-there’ waiting for the knowing subject to discover and explain it. Nor is reality constructed by the distant researcher through a set of discursive practices. Instead, reality is performative, brought into being as a result of the relationships which form and reform when actors, both human and nonhuman, intra-act. As a researcher of and with teachers using Twitter then, I am entangled with a heterogenous mix of educators, software platforms, digital devices, terms of service, time zones, screens, hashtags and notifications. What emerges from the study depends on the knowledge practices which are brought to bear, but these do not solely involve a researcher, research participants and standard qualitative methods, but also an eclectic mix of other nonhuman actors. Together their relational performances constitute ‘methods assemblage’ (Law, 2004), where different realities become enacted depending on the actors which participate. One implication might be that this should not be statement of my positionality, but of ours.

This sphere of influence includes both humans and non-humans in an interconnected web of influence. Therefore, everything has an influence and to isolate one part will always be problematic.

Reading the work of people like Benjamin Doxtdator, Naomi Barnes, Ben Williamson, Jon Andrews, Audrey Watters and Maha Bali has taught me the importance of being critical. I am not saying that teachers do not have an impact or that collaboration does not have the potential of being positive, but it is difficult to separate these things from the wider context. In some respects, Middleton’s post left me wondering what impact Yellowstone itself has had on the wolves? As Yellowstone can’t not have an impact, right?

As always, comments welcome and webmentions too.

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What Type of Relationship Do You Have with Learners?

flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

In his attempt to develop a more sophisticated understanding of pedagogy, Richard Olsen developed the Modern Learning Canvas. Olsen separates the different factors that impact learning and teaching into nine parts. See my attempt to represent my school’s instructional model for more elaboration:

flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Although there are differences throughout, whether it be in regards to outcomes or beliefs, it could be argued that the area with the greatest variable is that of the educator. As Olsen explains,

In highly didactic instructional classrooms Educators have total control and make all of the decisions. At the opposite end of the education spectrum with counter-culture student driven education where Educators have little control and make few decisions about student learning. The reality is that for most learning models the Educator Role sits somewhere between these two poles.

What stands out about these variables is change in relationship that exists between learner and educator. I was reminded of this connection yesterday while I was watching a new television series Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music.

The particular episode I saw investigated the recording artists and the producers behind them. What was most interesting was the relationship each producer had with the artists they were working with. The show touched on four particular producers: Phil Spector, Sir George Martin, Dr, Dre and Rick Rubin.

The Wall of Sound: A pioneer in the recording industry, Phil Spector had the ability to push the technology to its limits. He had the ability to hear things and imagine different possibilities. Innovative, he turned the traditional orchestral outfit into a rock band. This organised chaos came at a cost as he was very demanding on the artists he worked with. What kept many there though was that you always knew he would produce something amazing.

The Fifth Beatle: Unlike Spector who led the show, Sir George Martin worked along side The Beatles. It was for this reason he was described as the fifth Beatle. He would listen to what the band would bring and provide a different take on things. Something akin to what Cathy Davidson calls ‘collaboration by difference‘. The example given in the show was his suggestion to include strings in Yesterday or to create the Psycho-inspired Elenor Rigby where strings and vocals were the only instruments at play in.

Artist as Producer: Whereas Martin was a guide on the side, Dr. Dre represents the move to the producer as a meddler in the middle. Building on heritage of those like Sly Stone, Dr. Dre worked both sides of the desk. What is most significant is that Dre’s success was built around capturing things that nobody else heard, whether this be in the records he sampled or the music he recorded. This change was in part enabled by improvements in technology, making production more accessible.

Conditions to Flourish: The producer behind artists from Metallica to the Dixie Chicks, Rick Rubin’s interest was not about creating a particular sound, but rather fostering the conditions in which the artists could bring out their potential. The example given was his work with Johnny Cash in regards to the American Recordings. After being dumped by several labels, Rubin worked with Cash to reimagine the legend. For more on Rubin’s unique approach, I recommend listening to the lengthy interview with Tim Ferriss.

Coming back to Olsen, it is interesting to compare different relationships between the artist and producer with the relationships between the educator and the learner. It is not hard to think of an educator who continually celebrated about the results they get, even if the strategies that they use seem questionable. Or of the educator who works alongside learners helping connect their work to what Seymour Papert describes as ‘powerful ideas‘. Then there are learners/educators who take control of their own learning and publish it to the world for validation. Or those educators whose success is hard to measure or make sense of, rather it is about connecting with the passions of each learner and starting there. In the end, maybe it takes all types of relationships to support all types of learners.

In part this post was inspired by the continual work of Deborah Netolicky on educator identify. I highly recommend listening to her interview on the Teacher’s Educator Review.

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The Tree – A Metaphor for Learning

creative commons licensed (BY-NC-ND) flickr photo by sachman75:
I remember in Year Four Ms. Bates teaching us about how trees grew. She explained that they reach to the sun and it is for that reason that they are not always straight. I am sure there is more to it than this, but Ms. Bates story really stuck with me, maybe because of its simplicity, but I think because it completely changed the way that I looked at the world around me. Thinking about it today makes me think that learning might be the same.
I remember when my wife and I moved into our house we planted a series of lilly pillies down the side of property. The thought was that they would provide some screening and a bit more privacy. Clearly we weren’t going to let them grow to their potential height of 100 metres as the tag suggested that they could in their natural surroundings, rather we would mould and shape them. As a plant, they are not only hardy, but they grow relatively straight and never lose their foliage. 
Since planting them, it has been interesting watching them grow. The first thing that I learnt was that they were not all the same stock, with two distinct different types, while one seems to have an ailment which affects the leaves, meaning that although it continues to grow, the leaves often curl up and bubble. 
Initially we staked the trees to support them, but also to make sure that they all looked the same. It did not take long for the trees at the end of property to outgrow their supports. Whether it be due to the quality of soil, the fall of the land or direct access to both the morning and evening sun, they both prospered quickly.
In regards to the other trees, they have each travelled their own journey. Growing ever so slowly, with some even giving up the ghost. They would often depend on additional support. No matter how much fertilizer I have given them, how many times I have pruned them in the hope of spurring on new growth, provided them with additional water, they continue to develop at their pace, in their own way, although each looking similar, but also each looking different in their own ways. No matter how much I tried to shape them, they still manage to do their own thing.
I think that in some respect learning is comparable with the growth of a tree. Too often we wonder why students are not straight and elegant, that they don’t learn in the prescribed manner. Too often we only recognise the trunk, when in fact many trees have numerous branches in order to help them prosper, some even without any discernible trunk at all. 
In an interview with the +Ed Tech Crew+Alec Couros made the suggestion that to think about MOOC’s in regards to drop-outs and success rates, fails to recognise all of the other learning that we don’t always recognise. In the same way, trying to control, manage and structure learning can stifle the potential and possibility. Although a garden may look nice and suit our own purposes, a forest has little constraint and allows the world to blossom to its full potential.

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The River – a Complicated Metaphor for Education

Image drawn by Bryan Mathers

Image drawn by Bryan Mathers

Reform needs Team

I was in a staff meeting the other day, the start of which focused on auditing the curriculum in regards to a whole school initiative that had been progressively implemented over the last few years. The task was divided into year levels. As staff all sat down together, many looked at each other wondering who had sufficiently incorporated the different modules in their planning. There were a few cases of ‘it doesn’t fit into our learning in …‘ and ‘I just did it informally‘, while others simply had a blank look of ‘what are we talking about here‘. The one thing that did become apparent was the necessity to work as a team, crossing all learning areas, focussing on the student at the centre.

The River of Education

Being in a somewhat unique situation of having both ‘Primary’ and ‘Secondary’ classes in the same school – and having taught in traditional ‘Secondary’ schools in the past – it can sometimes give you an insight into the different ways things work (and sometimes don’t work). For example, in my view, it is often easier to implement a cross-curricular program in a primary environment as there is usually a core group of staff responsible for the majority of the learning. Juxtapose this with the Secondary scenario where students can have anywhere up to 7+ subjects, creating a sense of consistency across the board becomes a more fraught process.
To me, this whole difference in structure is analogous to the path of a great river. Initially students feed into the main stream from different points, with different backgrounds, different interests, different experiences. More often than not though they are progressively consumed in the main current that slowly meanders its way to the sea. This has its benefit with all students presumably benefiting from the same learning opportunities. However, something happens in the Secondary situation where the once uniform river starts to spread out into a delta where students are invited to start choosing divergent pathways as they make their way to the sea. The problem that arises in this situation is that sometimes, some things are missed out, overlooked, forgotten about. They start becoming somebody else’s problem. It is in this scenario that having a strong sense of team and support is so important, where everyone works together, picking up what the other might have missed, so that no student is missed.

Complicated or Complex?

I guess this leads me to a greater concern though, where to now? In thinking about this whole scenario, I can’t help but think about Sir Ken Robinson’s many discussions about 21st century learning. It makes me wonder, is this it? Is continually auditing, reviewing and managing curriculum really reforming learning or is the idea of a river not some slight more organic portrayal of the age old mechanistic factory line? I have been reading a lot recently about different models of curriculum reform from around the world. The one thing that seems to jut out is glaring problem that to fix many of the problems involves finding a complex solution. +Peter DeWitt suggested in talking about Common Core’s attempt to solve the poverty issue in the USA: “Poverty is a complex issue and it needs a complex resolution”. Continuing with this, it makes me wonder, are our solutions really that complex or are they just more complicated versions of what we have done in the past?

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