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Learning: Risk and Respect

An interesting topic came up in the GroupJazz Forum. Ann Lawless from Adelaide, Australia posed some interesting ideas and questions about the role of risk and respect in learning (online and offline). It's an important issue. Here's my forum response...

What is the Role of Risk and Respect in Learning?
Let me start with some personal thoughts and recollections. When I first started as a teacher I was an expert on a mission to distribute "my" expertise. My basic approach, back then in those days of delusion, was to transfer my knowledge to others so they could recall, remember and repeat it in some manner. I was the "one" in front of the "many." Foolish and immature as this sounds, that's precisely what I did. This is an example of how not to respect people. It's also an example of how I created and fostered unacceptable risk - the risk of not listening, the risk of not reacting to what the moment requires. This can happen online or offline.

What started changing all that was getting to know those people in my class not as students but as people. When I finally got around to actually listening to them, I realized that each one of them has a powerful narrative to tell. Yes - each and every single one of them without exception. I realized that each one of them was unique, intelligent (regardless of how the education system wanted to judge them), and wanting to communicate - despite the exteriors that some of them presented (and some were pretty difficult to say the least) due to circumstances in their lives beyond their control (we all share this risk - it's called "living"). In behind the facade of teaching I created for myself was a wonderful and mysterious world of happiness, tragedy, joy, suicide, achievement, broken families, kindness, and sudden deaths of a loved one. My "expertise" needed to change and this involved accepting that fact that all that knowledge I had accumulated may not be anywhere near as useful as I once thought.

Your reference to Paulo Freire resonates with me. I have not yet read the Pedagogy of Freedom, but one of my favorite quotes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed is:

"Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all."

Unless we adopt, believe in, feel deeply and take action on this intense faith in humankind we cannot build a deep sense of respect, and especially humility, in our work as educators - or human beings for that matter. For me, respect for another human being is far more about giving, providing, encouraging and has little to do with telling, informing and judging. Their stories, their narratives that form their identity, must be respected otherwise having faith in them isn't possible.

In a weblog entry called CyberTracker Conservation Project, a project from what I can tell (I haven't actually been there to see it for myself) is superb. At the end of this entry I quoted another favorite author of mine:

"Learning, then, is one of the basic activities of life, and educators might have a better grasp of their art if they would take a leaf out of the book of the early pioneers in descriptive linguistics and learn about their subject by studying the acquired context in which other people learn." (Hall, Edward. The Silent Language)

Now why is this important in talking about respect and risk? " Learning, then, is one of the basic activities of life - notice he didn't use the word "education" or "training" which are not basic activities of life. And this - studying the acquired context in which other people learn - is equally crucial. This is very similar to what Marshall McLuhan was saying about the effects of media (which, by the way, has also profound implications for learning): "Environment are invisible. Their ground rules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns elude easy perception."

Being respectful of another culture, then, requires an intense faith in humankind, authentic experiences in it so that the context can be respected and appreciated and the humility to realize the limits of our knowledge. This is not profound I know, but it is still surprising to see the extent to which we believe we can "learn" about something without ever having any authentic experience in it. I think we can push the idea of mobility in this direction.

This is why I stated in the Experience Designer that the idea of mobility needs to describe both the ways in which we travel out into the world as well as the ways in which the world can travel to us. A network learning environment would involve not only digital mobility (PDA's, wireless this and that, etc.), but physical mobility (legs, cars, airplanes, trains, etc.), cultural mobility (cross-cultural experiences, cultural exchanges, etc.). Without these other "non-digital" elements of mobility, the learning experiences are quite limited and perhaps even deceptive. If a "collaborative network" is an important goal, then the strategies and methods used to evolve and nurture that network must extend far beyond its digital manifestations. Cross-cultural medicine would be fascinating ground for such a network.

I'm not sure how the medical community is perceived in Australia, but I do know that here in Canada the General Practitioner is commonly viewed as an individual that dispenses pills in order to mask symptoms and not necessarily deal with the underlying cause (this is an over-generalization, but it has some truth to it). In an entry called Marketing: Conversations of Great Quality I described a conversation I had with a stranger (who is now no longer a stranger and we continue to talk). It was obvious that: a) his doctor did not respect his pleas for help and lacked humility; and b) his doctor placed his life at great risk. This is not a kind of risk that is acceptable.

Face-to-130 Faces and Online Environments

When I am designing learning experiences, one of the first questions I ask myself is, "What will the concrete and practical outcomes of this network be - not in digital terms, but in human terms?"

Of course, there is no way I can imagine everything that will happen in a network learning environment. Emergence is a wonderful thing. But whether face-to-130 or online it is important to have a sense of direction. For example, when I designed the CITD program, the concrete and practical outcomes I was looking for were:

  • To build and implement strategies that expand and diversify communication across new linkages (education, business, local community, and politicians) in coordinated and focused projects - this was a means to overcome traditional barriers that serve to isolate schooling;
  • To have empower students to design their own networks in the pursuit of learning experiences - this was a means to alter the fundamental nature of power and authority in the school system in a positive way;
  • To empower teachers with new approaches to education that centered on the idea of a school as a centre for knowledge creation and cultural development - this was a means to change the assumptions embedded in traditional approaches to instructional design and evaluation.

You can see that the approach I took is not without risk, but I also believe that there is much greater risk in not making the attempt. Respect, courage and the necessity of risk cannot be fully expressed on a website or online network alone. The source of design in CITD are the students and teachers themselves, not an imposed curriculum or system of evaluation.

So perhaps the idea of respect, courage, risk, and learning involve identifying what the source of design in education really is and how people can be helped, guided and provided with assistance to produce results that will have a meaningful and beneficial impact on their own lives and the lives of others.

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