Rhizomatic learning, knowledge and books

We are in Week 4 of Dave Cormier’s open online course – Rhizomatic Learning: The Community is the Curriculum – and the topic is ‘Is Books making us stupid?

Dave Cormier has said in his introductory video:

There is something about print I’ve never trusted. There’s something about it that encourages objectivity and distance and remove and impartiality, something that is less participatory, something that is more towards the definite and not towards the relational.

There’s something about the written word that makes the journey of learning a finite one, an ended one, one where we can have an impartial judge who will decide, a jury who will tell us whether or not we’ve won.

I think I know where this is coming from. Last week Sarah Honeychurch in the Google Hangout asked whether nowadays all knowledge is up for grabs? Dave in his 2008 paper about rhizomatic learning  – discusses how – in the light of information abundance and the speed of development and change – we now have to think differently about knowledge. He writes:

New communication technologies and the speeds at which they allow the dissemination of information and the conversion of information to knowledge have forced us to reexamine what constitutes knowledge; moreover, it has encouraged us to take a critical look at where it can be found and how it can be validated.

For me, whilst it can’t be denied that we live in an age of information abundance and the pace of change is so fast that we can’t keep up – I’m not sure that we should be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, i.e. don’t throw out your books. Whilst of course we need to be critically engaged with and questioning knowledge, the socially negotiated learning of communities, communities of practice, and communities of enquiry, is enriched by their history and reified knowledge. For me they would be weaker, shallower and more superficial without reference to this history.

In his seminal text on communities of practice (1998)  Etienne Wenger highlighted the duality of participation and reification and the role of history in the shared repertoire of a community. Books, including Etienne’s, are part of our history. Are we going to ignore or throw away our books and so throw away our history? Doesn’t our past inform our present and future?

But this was not the first thought that came to me when noting this week’s topic. The first thought was to question whether its books that are the problem. Over the past couple of years, I have spent quite a bit of time, on and off, discussing with a friend from my CCK08 days – Iain MacGilchrist’s book – The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

It’s ironic that the topic of this week should bring to mind, so forcefully, a book! Whilst the title of McGilchrist’s book suggests a polarisation between the left and right brain – this is not the case. He is at pains to point out that we need both hemispheres of the brain – but the thrust of his book is that we have become over dependent on the left hemisphere, the hemisphere of abstraction, to the detriment of the right hemisphere, the hemisphere of embodied learning. Here are some quotes from the back cover of the book:

… Ian McGilchrist argues that the left and right hemispheres have differing insights, values and priorities. Each has a distinct ‘take’ on the world – most strikingly, the right hemisphere sees itself as connected to the world, whereas the left hemisphere stands aloof from it. This affects our understanding not just of language and reason, music and time, but of all living things: our bodies, ourselves and the world in which we live.

… McGilchrist argues, the left hemisphere has become so far dominant that we’re in danger of forgetting everything that makes us human. Taking the reader on an extraordinary journey through Western history and culture, he traces how the left hemisphere has grabbed more than its fair share of power, resulting in a society where a rigid and bureaucratic obsession with structure, narrow self-interest and a mechanistic view of the world hold sway, at an enormous cost to human happiness and the world around us.

So I would suggest that it’s not books that are the problem. We need books. We need our history to be able to critically engage with our present and think about our future. McGilchrist’s powerful book depends heavily on history and what has been written in the past. We need a balance between participation and reification. Books do not make us less participatory. The written word does not make the journey of learning a finite one.  I have been discussing McGilchrist’s book for two years with my friend. That is participatory. We still have many unanswered questions. The journey is not yet ended.

Books are not the problem – it is us and the way we think – our lack of ability to critically engage with learning – the way we allow ourselves to think in black and white, to be persuaded by polarities instead of keeping a balanced perspective.

We need books, but we also need to engage with them critically. We need text, but we also need to be able to see its limitations. We need abstraction, but we also need embodied learning. We need to exercise both the left and right hemispheres of our brains.

23 thoughts on “Rhizomatic learning, knowledge and books

  1. Nomad War Machine February 5, 2014 / 9:22 pm

    Cheers, Jenny, nice post. I’m half way through one and I’ve begun by saying that books don’t make us stupid, we do that for ourselves.

  2. dave cormier (@davecormier) February 5, 2014 / 10:08 pm

    I left his comment to the post in facebook for some reason, copying it here at this is probably the better context.

    I’ve not said we should throw out out books. I’ve said we should distrust it. Which you have suggested yourself in your own rebuttal (to my throwing out books) when you suggest we should engage critically. You have created a straw man which you have successfully slain with my own position.

    I have not said that our conversations should not be informed by reified knowledge but have suggested, rather, that the reified knowledge encourages us to ‘remember’ or ’emulate’ rather than create new knowledge.

    Not absolutely. Not necessarily. But encourages.

    Your negative response to the course has been a strong pattern. While I have found your critiques of the course helpful, I wonder if there isn’t some other underlying critique that has kept you from trying on the ideas in the course. I would very much appreciate it if you would address this underlying critique.

  3. dave cormier (@davecormier) February 5, 2014 / 10:24 pm

    I have had it explained to me by the inestimable Frances Bell that I have not made myself clear… Here is my clarification from the facebook convo

    “My request for more information is not a rhetorical flourish. I’ve followed Jenny Mackness ‘s work for years and would like to better understand what it is that concerns her if there is a deeper issue involved.”

  4. francesbell February 5, 2014 / 10:30 pm

    I am amazed that you could characterise Jenny Mackness response to the course as negative. I have seen her contribute measured blog posts that include the contributions of others via links and interpretations.

  5. dave cormier (@davecormier) February 5, 2014 / 10:45 pm

    Hi Frances,

    I’m certainly not suggesting she has had ‘a negative impact on the course’ but rather ‘has a negative impression of the course’. I’m hoping for a meta-critique.

  6. dave cormier (@davecormier) February 5, 2014 / 11:23 pm

    hmmm… the more I let Frances Bell’s comment sink in the more I’m starting to think I’ve been eating too many rhizomes. I never meant any offence to Jenny or her work… rather the opposite. My comments seem more personal when i look back at them than I meant them.

    My apologies.

    I was hoping to get a broader sense of how to make the course better, not complain about a colleague’s work.

  7. Simon ens February 6, 2014 / 6:30 am

    I have the instinct that at heart of this stream is a scare-crow. I withdraw my ‘balanced post’ it is an image I have been playing with which revealed my/our imbalance. The article read which Jenny’s blog post sparked off was a reaction against her ‘left-right’ brain ‘balance’ which instinctively I feel is wrong and which the article I have the impression confirms.

    Our emotional responses are revealing of deep issues of identity/self defence. I think Dave Cormier has no need to apologise. I think Jenny Mackness may perhaps need to see that well-crafted edifices need shaking. I shall be perhaps looking at grafting more rather than just letting it flow. Thank you all, I am always keen on posts which can enable me to learn. Through design or accident that is undoubtedly happening. I am enjoying your challenge. Our intentions are often in contradiction with underlying reasons for choosing a particular mode of play. God! I have many scare-crows myself.

  8. balimaha February 6, 2014 / 7:35 am

    Hey Jenny, Thanks for this post. I wonder, though, if we might need to question the ways in which focusing on history could actually limit our capacity to see other possibilities? For example, in trying to do research on MOOCs participation, I wonder if trying to look at categories created previously might blind us to new patterns or unique ones? I like doing my research the other way round: observe, think, then refer to literature… Of course previous knowledge and literature biases our observation and interpretation, but not putting it first allows us to see more widely, i think.
    And so i do think you sort of did make a strawman out of Dave’s post, but i think it is ok to do so in order to clarify your stance against an extreme view (which i don’t think Dave was making)

  9. helinur February 6, 2014 / 10:21 am

    For me this thread seems to be an example of usual misunderstanding. Perhaps we have more than one generations participating in these open online courses.

    I “know” both of them, Dave and Jenny since 2008. Jenny oriented herself to MOOC research soon after the CCK08 and she has -in a team – developed one of the most innovative frame to describe learning (Footprints of emergence). Jenny doesn’t live in history, I want to say that to newcomers 🙂
    Dave was technological assistant in 2008 (don’t remember the term, but he helped when there was problems with Ellumination). He has been in a shadow of the two gurus of connectivism, I suppose. I was glad when he built a course of his own now, because I appreciate Dave’s abilities in interaction. I have admired him many times during last years.

    And I have admired Jenny’s way to build up team work. So I am sure that they can handle with these misunderstandings without my help.
    We have the right to tell honestly about our impressions. Interaction dies if we speak aloud only positive things, it is lällälää we say in Finnish. Echo chamber is not a place for emergence …

  10. x28 February 6, 2014 / 10:22 am

    McGilchrist says about books “Life can certainly have meaning without books, but books cannot have meaning without life. Most of us probably share a belief that life is greatly enriched by them: life goes into books and books go back into life.” (p. 195)

  11. Terry Elliott (@telliowkuwp) February 6, 2014 / 11:49 am

    I apologize for the length of this comment, but I wanted to get it down here in the time I had so here goes.

    Rhizomatic learning, knowledge and books | Jenny Connected

    “don’t throw out your books…”

    Perhaps it is not the books themselves but the power we grant them just because they are books. There are lots of reasons why we did this: they were the best technology available for carrying information, they are the tools of power for status quo and revolutionary alike, they have are now the traditional, default method. Yet we are at the beginning of an age which has other methods that are even more ubiquitous. The mobile device is becoming preeminent because it not only carries words but also images, moving and static, and sounds, ours and others. It is immediate and easily reproducible.

    “Are we going to ignore or throw away our books and so throw away our history? Doesn’t our past inform our present and future?”

    No, we are not going to do that, however we are going to put them in their place. To situate them in the power context, into their new community alongside images and sounds and the digital hierarchy of tools.

    “Iain MacGilchrist’s book – The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.”

    I am a real fanboy of MacGilchrist’s book. If you hadn’t brought him up, I would have. 😉

    “he traces how the left hemisphere has grabbed more than its fair share of power”

    Yes and what has been the instrument of that power grab–books. Cormier’s distrust comes from the valorization of yet another master of the holist part of our mind. Books are colonizers aren’t they?

    “We need books, but we also need to engage with them critically. We need text, but we also need to be able to see its limitations. We need abstraction, but we also need embodied learning. We need to exercise both the left and right hemispheres of our brains.”

    I say give books the comeuppance they deserve. Who is the boss of the mind? Mine is reactionary sloganeering here, so let me be less molotov. I, meaning my whole self, am the boss, the master. I am weary of being told and of accepting as writ (holy irony that) that the written word is supreme. I find myself revolting (please no Henny Youngman jokes) against words by my frail attempts to use tools that are decidedly not books–zeega, vine, photography, video, soundcloud, augmented reality–to wrestle control from literacy and return to my control, my orality.
    I think the work of James Scott fits in and harmonizes what you and Cormier say. On Cormier’s side, Scott argues that the state has always siezed power from the people through the making of ‘legible’ (I read literate) objects and tools. Venkatesh Rao has a marvelous post about this concept that has really informed much of my understanding of this seminal concept: http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/07/26/a-big-little-idea-called-legibility/
    On your side Scott would agree that it is not books who are at fault. Please let us not shoot the messenger. It is our use of books and our abdication to their organization, to their legibility that is our downfall.

    Who is the expert and who is on top? These are distinct questions and I think both of you are approaching them from different directions. You will meet in the middle like two lovers working from opposite ends of the spaghetti strand until…

  12. cathleennardi February 6, 2014 / 1:45 pm

    This blog reminded me of RSA animates YouTube clip on the right Brian/left brain. I was delighted when I saw it reflected MacGilchrist’s work. http://youtu.be/dFs9WO2B8uI. I agree with Terry that books are about the power we give them. After all, when the uninitiated were able to read the Bible, no longer needing the church for interpretation! it brought about a revolution of thought. As more and more people became literate it changed the world in many ways. What revolution will our digital literacy bring us?

  13. danceswithcloud February 7, 2014 / 7:38 am

    The trouble with books in HE could be exactly that weight – that sense of reified knowledge – that implacability – and of course the Reading Lists. I have seen students on just one module (of four) expected to read 8-12 books per week before each new seminar. Of course the lecturer probably means ‘dip into’ rather than read in depth – but the task is impossible and makes the students feel like failures every week. It also leaves them in no doubt as to their role: shut up – read this – you will have nothing to say here… So – we have this juxtaposed with the more fluid, potential space of the oral – and of the quasi-oral which is the web. It feels more participative, engaging and engaged. Unique among media it invites broadcasting rather than just consumption. We evoke the camp fire and the elders telling their tales of a shared collective history. An ever-present. Cool. But let us not forget who gets to tell the tales – and who gets to hear them. These societies were/are hierarchical also. They too ‘other’ the inconvenient and rebellious. But again – a grat question!

  14. keith.hamon February 7, 2014 / 5:16 pm

    What a fun conversation! I’m amazed at how easy it is for us to slip into either/or thinking—I do it all the time, and usually require someone else pointing it out to me to see it. Old patterns of mind seem never to fade completely, and they are so difficult to see from the inside.

    I’ve read enough of most of the writers here to know that they are not limited to either/or thinking. Mackness and Cormier, especially, have both expanded thought and scholarship well into the realm of the complex, but it seems to me that text, especially in print but even in a post, has a tendency toward either/or thinking. I don’t believe, or perhaps I hope, this is not a natural, given tendency of text. Rather, I think it is a consequence of three centuries of Enlightenment thinking that has privileged the left brain, as MacGilchrist explains, disembodying the living, breathing, interconnected Word, and leaving us with boring formulae that are either right or wrong—two choices with no chance for the included third. It’s a reading that puts on different sides, in competition and conflict, even when we don’t think we are. I often find myself unexpectedly in an argument that I didn’t even know was happening. I think that is a function of either/or text that seems difficult to avoid slipping into.

    This could be a rich conversation to deconstruct … well, if I have time. Anyway, thanks, guys.

    By the way, I think you are all right and alright.

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