For a variety of reasons, some closer to home than others, I’ve been trying to pay attention to the dynamics and politics of power, especially in the arena of teaching and learning. How we opt into systems and practices that compel, constrain, control, and commodify learners. How we are so often willing to wield subtle brands of  force in the name of compliance and accountability, how lightly and conveniently we dismiss what should make us deeply uncomfortable, how central the blind spot that allows us to miss seeing vulnerability victimized by power.

In organizations where a command-and-control philosophy is running the show, everyone’s sense of identity is threatened. Everyone ends up living, as Parker Palmer puts it, a divided life.  Command-and-control may be in charge above ground, but the underground is really where it’s at. It’s the resistance movement. It’s where creativity and humor and honesty and trust go to ground. It’s where people go to keep alive the other half of their divided life, and where they make plans for stitching it all back together.

One of my friends—an experience, dedicated, caring, smart teacher—teaches in a setting where power politics run rampant and trust is absent.  Our conversations often circle back to the question of how to cope, survive, hopefully thrive in a toxic place. Going underground is one way. Finding a more generative source and definition of power is another.

She gave generous permission to share these reflections. They’re not necessarily easy to hear, but I think they’re important. And, yes…powerful.

It’s been interesting (and sometimes painful) to see how my principal  has managed (or mismanaged) the power he has to influence and effect  and affect change.  At first, I got the feeling there was a naivete  about what he was doing.  I thought of Zeus as a teenager – who  suddenly discovers he has lightning bolts and flings them around  arbitrarily, unaware that the “little people” on earth are being hit  by those bolts.  Now – I see that he is fully aware of his power and  uses it to bully, intimidate, alienate, and squash anyone who has any  type of opinion or thought that varies from his own.  It’s immensely  sad and frightening to watch – and very painful when you are the one  being targeted.

And along with this, I’ve learned a lot about my own response to and  need for power.  I’ve had to examine what “power” and control mean to  me – and realize that I have an immense amount of both –  and very  little of both –  all at the same time.   Right now, I am stuck in a  hostile environment of distrust, where the rules are constantly  changing, and I am always in “trouble” even when I’m trying to follow  what I thought I was supposed to do.  I work in a state of “eggshell  fear” – never knowing when I am going to say or do the wrong thing and  be humiliated or reprimanded for things I used to be praised for.   It  would appear that I am completely powerless, completely at the whim of  a teenage dictator, an absolute victim.   And that has made me turn  within and really examine how much personal power I have and how much  power I still retain (in little bits) to positively impact the lives  of my students.  That is where I still feel that I do have power and I  do have control.

Although I’ve always had a keen understanding of (and respect for) the  power I carry as a teacher, I have become even more aware of that –  and careful of how I utilize power in my classroom with my students.   I have spent the last three years being a student myself, thrown into  a situation where it is important for someone else that I feel  powerless and victimized and “know my place” and I have become even  more aware of how my students feel as children in an adult world of  power.

It’s been an incredibly difficult few years  but I feel like I’ve arisen as a stronger, better, different person.   I’m finally starting to feel like I’ve found my center again –  something I wasn’t sure, until just a few months ago, that I would  ever reclaim again.

Strength is its own kind of power.

Carl Anderson is looking for examples of informal learning experiences.

I think I know what he’s up to. Then again, I may not. Either way, I approve of his crafty ways.

In no particular order and with all due humility, here’s mine, experimentally patched together using Bookr. Mind the duct tape and rough edges, please.

Suddenly, a new signal is detected in the noise.  It’s still barely audible beneath the enthusiastic din of PLN hoopla, but a crankily skeptical note has been sounded. Too much harmony and joy can’t be healthy, can it? Time to break up the good vibrations with some  old-fashioned Schoenbergian dissonance. Let the fistfights erupt in the galleries.

TRUMPET THIS

But first, let’s trot out a tired metaphor that’s already yesterday’s news. Enter the vuvuzela, that horn-shaped stadium noisemaker traditionally used by South African soccer fans, source of the endless televised buzzing that became the soundtrack and symbol of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. O vuvuzela! We celebrate your monotony, your single-minded drone, your undifferentiated ever-presence. Your daddy was a kazoo, your mama was a bugle, and your uncle died of a profound lack of imagination. You buzzed our days and nights like a vengeful mosquito.

Cheap, plastic, disposable: I offer the mighty vuvuzela as handy symbol and signifier of  noise in the PLN movement.

Image: Vuvuzela-Loesje

THE FIRST RULE OF FIGHT CLUB

The PLN doesn’t really exist – we all learn from various and organically shifting sources, and contribute likewise. Defining a PLN is overly simplistic. –D’Arcy Norman

My excitement about networked, informal learning and its potential to change absolutely everything absolutely has been tempered lately, my torrid love affair with the PLN dogged by a  sense of semantic creep.  Seems like you can’t swing a lolcat these days without hitting somebody’s PLN, or somebody talking about their PLN. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But is there something wrong with that?

We well-meaning humans suffer from the irresistible urge to take complex,  idiosyncratic ideas like “personal learning” and boil them down into simple, spreadable packages. Idea-nuggets go down easy, but all the useful roughage is gone. The impulse to bottle it, to capture and replicate and share it, is understandable. Laudable, even. But off the mark. Like many others, I’ve played around with various bottling techniques. Jury’s still out, but I suspect they’re all doomed to some flavor of failure. Jennifer Dalby gets it, and especially gets what it is that’s worth getting:

And I do think it’s important to promote the formal recognition of informal learning.  I’d like to see tools developed where we can truly measure professional development and application of new knowledge through open personal PD plans and peer participation and evaluation.  I “get” the value of professional and personal networking in online spaces.

I’m concerned that the nascent PLN movement has unconsciously adopted the rhetoric of the self-help movement. I cringe at the thought of this powerful learning engine turned into little more than a glorified self-improvement regimen. The PLN Diet! Grow Your PLN in 10 Easy Steps! Before we know it, our sense of our own learning veers dangerously close to territory already staked out by rock hard abs, slimmer thighs, and a revitalized sex life. By giving it a snappy acronym and reducing it to lists of tips, tools, and steps, we strip informal learning of its mystery, of necessary effort, of personal discomfort, of friction. We gut it, pulling out the bones. We infantilize it. We standardize it, commodify it, package it, put it into a box. We bottle it. We’re only trying to be helpful. This is what educators do. But we have to be careful: the bottled notion/potion we so enthusiastically pass around could be mistaken for Kool-Aid.

Jennifer goes on:

I’ll define the Cult of the PLN as a group of people who’ve turned the PLN concept into a commodity and fetishized it through socialization around it…

That’s fearless and important and worth paying attention to. If personal learning is truly personal, ergo private, ergo mysterious, sacred, inviolable, and inexplicable, what’s a good social constructivist to do? What do we socialize about? The process. About the mystery itself. That’s a song that will always resist being sung by one voice.  In edu-discourses great and small, the echo chamber trope crops up like clockwork—usually in the context of a complaint about insularity.  Karl Fisch thinks the echo chamber is a myth. He’s a smart guy and probably right, but since we’re wholly committed now to this vuvuzela metaphor, we’ll soldier on. We conjure up the latest incarnation of the echo chamber, and we are surprised to find that it now more closely resembles a soccer stadium: crowded and noisy, vuvuzelas blaring in unanimity, all honking the same note.

Diversifying the echo chamber is a nice idea, but it’s just another recipe, another prescription. By interrogating the language and norms we’ve built up around PLNs, I think Karl and Jennifer have their sights set at bedrock level. What does it all come down to? There are no shortcuts, no easy answers, no skirting meaningful efforts. We learn individually, by doing the personal work of learning, but we can do that in community. We do it by seeking questions more than answers, by embracing the particular and resisting generalization.

Karl shows us the silver lining:

Communities of similarly-minded people, passionate people, working in concert, can accomplish amazing things. We shouldn’t denigrate that, we should celebrate it.

Right. Right. And here’s where my cranky house of cards falls gloriously to pieces and I reveal myself as a softie with a heart of gold.  Because here’s the deal: nobody, including me, really cares about my Deep and Serious Litmus Test of Personal Learning Authenticity. Those communities of passionate people working in concert may sound like vuvuzelas—but maybe the rest of us have tin ears. Maybe they’re making beautiful, creative, mysterious, idiosyncratic music. Only they know for sure.  Only you know for sure. Only I know for sure.

A PARTING WORD ABOUT BANDWAGONS

Jumping on bandwagons is great exercise. Jumping off again is even better. Steering them is impossible. I realize that this entire polemic about PLN-as-bandwagon is clattering along on wagon wheels of its own, a much smaller rhetorical vehicle going in the not-quite-opposite direction. Must be about time to jump off.

The ISTE conference is a giant machine, a massive moving structure/tool/network/gathering, a meta-technology about technology, among other things. A collection of tools grafted onto a collection of gray matter—or the other way around. A conference is designed to do and be many things: teach, advocate, build community, pay for itself, promote itself, ensure its own survival, advance its agenda. Same diverse story for participants and presenters: they come to learn, to score swag, to meet new people, to find collaborators, to build their resume, to be challenged, to be surprised, to discover new ideas, to hang out, to have a family vacation. And the vendors come to sell: their product, their agenda, their view on the role of technology in education.

But beyond—or beneath—what it’s designed to do is what it’s NOT designed to do. Remember, we’re talking about unpredictable humans here. Plug them into a structure like a conference and they’ll immediately start misbehaving and getting up to all sorts of no-good goodness. Their attention will wander. They will not follow directions. They’ll make up their own. They will be snarky. They will criticize. And they should. They will tinker in the margins, in the aisles, at the back of the room, wherever they can find a place to plug in. They will invent ways to make it fit their learning. They will hack the structure.

Hacking Example 1: With ISTE Unplugged, ISTE has built in a DIY conversation-within-a-conference.  It’s like a mini Educon, a free, dynamic space that floats untethered in the larger program of scheduled sessions and events. Presenters sign up on the Unplugged wiki for a 30-minute slot and lead a conversation about whatever’s their passion. This is smart.

Monday’s Unplugged highlight was the Edcamp Philly organizers sharing their unconference playbook. These are passionate educators who get the power of teachers teaching teachers, and who are fearless about relinquishing control and seeing what happens. That’s what a barcamp is all about, after all.

The delicious hacking irony here is that they were using a conference session (albeit one on the fringe) to distribute unconference blueprints.

It could be fun to do an Unplugged session about hacking ISTE. Flash mobbery and hijinks.

A related hacking notion: Chris Lehmann wrote yesterday urging us to connect the dots between the Educons and COLearningsEdcamps and other passionate DIY events sprouting out there. and

But let’s network the events. Let’s aggregate the ideas. And, in the words of Arlo Guthrie, “Friends, they may call it a movement.”….People all over the country have amazing ideas. Let’s come together and talk about them where we all live.

When you see the growing list of new edcamps on the Edcamp wiki, you start to see what Chris is talking about. He’s proposing a watershed approach where we gather in local contexts. But how to network the watersheds?

The Higher Edison Strike Team has landed in Denver for ISTE 2010. Commence Operation Blue Bear.

COVER STORY: I’m presenting a session tomorrow afternoon called Enhancing Active Learning wth Technology with Carl Anderson, Cara Hagen, and Vivian Johnson. Earlier in the day, Carl and I are also doing an ISTE Unplugged presentation on Web 2.0 and Connectivist Learning. That’s to say, Carl will present while I play the part of  tough-guy bouncer. Gotta run off the riff-raff.

My overt self-assignment is to attend and glean learning from sessions on professional development and open education models.

UNDERGROUND: Be on the lookout for instances of the traditional conference experience subverted. Even the ISTE experience, as it responds to the pressures of barcamp and unconference, is still pretty firmly in the mainstream. I’m interested in spotting occasions this week where it’s being reinvented, tinkered with, hacked. New affordances found, workarounds devised, improvisations.

PITCHING OUT CORRUPTS WITHIN

Edward Tufte, godfather of statistical graphics and beautiful evidence, wrote a 2005 essay in which he indicts the “cognitive style” of presentation slideware—especially PowerPoint—as weakening reasoning and analysis. PowerPoint is to critical thinking and communicating as kryptonite is to Superman. Lives don’t usually hang in the balance depending on the clarity and rigor of our argumentation and case-making presentations—but sometimes they do. Tufte’s essay is based on time with NASA as a “consultant on technical presentations for shuttle risk assessments, shuttle engineering, and deep spaceflight trajectories,” and notes on findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and the Return To Flight Task Group. Specifically, he analyzed PowerPoint reports prepared by Boeing for NASA decision-makers to assess the threat to a still-in-flight Columbia shuttle after the foam-debris impact was discovered.

Even while getting down to serious points, Tufte is pithy and often hilarious. His side comment about velocity:

Velocity squared is like shipping and handling: it will get you every time.

Tufte argues that PowerPoint’s slide templates, with their declarative headline-ish titles, hierarchical bulleted-outline structure, and line and space limitations, deform, skew, and limit the presenter’s message—and the presenter’s ability to think analytically and deeply when preparing the message. Tufte again (specifically critiquing the Boeing slides here, but let’s go crazy and take the liberty of generalizing his remarks) :

The rigid slide-by-slide hierarchies, indifferent to content, slice and dice the evidence into arbitrary compartments, producing an anti-narrative with choppy continuity….The format represents a common conceptual error in analytic design: information architectures mimic the hierarchical structure of large bureaucracies pitching the information. Conway’s Law again.

In other words, we tend to organize our arguments to mirror the structure, language, and culture of our organizations. And, in packaging our messages as simplified, summary “pitches” for external audiences, we run the risk of drinking our own kool-aid and forgetting the necessary technical nuance and rigor that informed the pitch in the first place. Pitching out, Tufte says, corrupts within.

AN EPIDEMIC OF BULLETS

In an apparently unrelated development, Jon Becker recently tweeted an existential yawp of frustration at the growing epidemic of bad PowerPoint. How do we feel your pain, Jon? Let us count the ways in a numbered or bulleted list. Jon’s mock public health notice about PowerPoint sparked a conversation about the constraints and affordances of presentation tools in general, and the challenge of communicating complex ideas through slides. Which led to this:

http://twitter.com/jonbecker/statuses/8603023408

CURRICULUM AS A KIND OF INSISTING

Heavy irony acknowledgment due here, as I baldly use Jon’s point about linearity to come full circle to yesterday’s post about curriculum. His comment speaks to frustration with artificial limitations; to hopes raised for freer, more organic alternatives; and to resignation at the persistence of linear, sequential modes of thinking. I heard similar frustration about the idea of  curriculum echoed by participants in Sylvia Martinez’s tinkering session. If curriculum is a path, it insists on being followed.

Does our insistence on a path exclude other possibilities and side-paths?

How many detours will a pathwise curriculum tolerate,  and how far off-course is too far?

When is insistence a steadying hand, and when is it coercive?

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