Mapping Learning

The last line of my last post:

“In my next post, I will write about moments in my life that demonstrate each of these different ways of conducting relationships.”

I’m not going to do that.

Goal setting is important. It reminds me where I’m headed, and reminds me that I’m going to have to do some work to get there.

The down side is that as soon as I set a goal, it represents where I thought I was when I set it, not where I am now. Sometimes (a lot of the time) I change course.

So much of the language we use to describe learning is connected to travel; look how far you’ve come… they aren’t quite there yet… am I on the right track?… you’ve lost me! Just the word progress has that double meaning. We see learning as a journey because it’s a useful way for us to visualise the incomprehensibly complex process of change that happens when we learn (ooh, there’s another one… process… procession).

Davis and Sumara explain in a similar way how Euclidian geometry has formed our understanding of knowledge in their wonderful book Complexity and Education. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

Goals for learning (or objectives) help us to understand the learning ‘journey’ by plotting a point on the map to which we need to get to. We head towards it, measuring the distance until we’re there. Then once we’re past the spot, we can look back and know we’ve ‘been’ there. A test score in that sense is a fixed coordinate on our journey. Confirmation that we have reached our intended destination.

This desire to ‘see’ our learning is an important instinct, but plotting coordinates is only one way to describe the journey. In fact, it doesn’t describe the journey. The only information you can really get from two fixed points is the distance from a to b. And doing that is pretty easy; all you need is a long enough ruler.

Objectives are useful for measuring ‘distance travelled’ in learning. We need a whole lot more information in order to figure out how to get there, or looking back, to explain how we arrived.

Maybe we need a map.

Or maybe we need subjectives. Goals that start where we are. Ideas that begin within our own understanding of ourselves and our place in time and space, then push outwards, not knowing what we might find. Just knowing that change and discovery are compelling enough to move towards. Trusting our own compass to point us in the right direction(s).

In an early discussion during #Rhizo15 I was captivated by Giles (Deleuze) and Felix (Guattari)’s concept of ‘maps not tracings’.

“A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back “to the same.” The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged “competence.””

p14 A Thousand Plateaus

I hope that the drawing of maps could be an alternative way to ‘see’ learning that doesn’t fixate only on fixed points and measurement.

This post has been inspired by the #Rhizo15dg facebook conversation I initiated by my excitement about maps and tracings, and by a brilliant blog post by Nick Kearney

It has also been inspired by my journey to the forests of northern Sweden. Both the space it afforded me to think, and what it taught me about travel and terrain. I left a little piece of my heart there in exchange.


A Student Inquiry

This afternoon I am multi-tasking.

I am reading a few texts about militant research and worker inquiry.

I am having a facebook conversation with someone who is finding doing an MA stressful.

I’ve been emailing a group I’ve been doing some action research with.

All these things are connected.

Here is some questions I wrote, inspired by Karl Marx’s ‘A Workers’ Inquiry, by my conversations today and oh, a million other things and people. They, like Karl’s questions exist both to discover the conditions of the people who answer, but also to expand the answerer’s understanding of their own conditions. I think this is a fascinating concept because it implicates everyone in the process of learning. If I had a single goal in life it would be to implicate everyone in the process of learning. Ok here we go… (again these are hurried sketches and aren’t very concise. In my defence, Karl’s questions aren’t exactly brief!).

How much time do you spend reading per week?

How much time do you spend writing per week?

How much time do you spend thinking about the subject matter outside of reading and writing time?

How do these times compare to each other?

Do you feel you have enough time to think through your ideas during the reading to writing process?

If you were designing the course, would you give yourself more, less or the same amount of work?

If you had more or less work, what effect would that have on the quality of your thinking?

Do you think the timetable of deadlines is conducive to your best thinking?

How much time do you spend trying to understand what your lecturers expect from you?

How much time do you spend trying to understand what is most important / useful to you?

How do these compare?

What are your goals for the course? Do they match the expectations of lecturers?

If there is a mismatch, is there anything you can do to remedy that?

What would success on the course look like to you?

What do you need to do now to achieve that?

Is your definition of success related, the same or different to the university grading system?

If there were no grades would you behave differently?

Would you produce different work?

What effect would that have on the efficacy of your work and its broader application?

If there were no deadlines would you behave differently?

Would you produce different work?

What effect would that have on the efficacy of your work and its broader application (beyond the course)?

Do you feel the work you are producing has a broader application?

If yes, please describe

If no, why?

If no, what would you have to do differently to make it so?


I am thinking about the importance of sketches. And in that spirit, I will post this in an hour, regardless of what state its in.

A week or so ago I was in white room full of almost silent, mostly middle aged, mostly white people. I was staring at some brush strokes on a very old piece of paper(?). Heart racing. This was one of JWM Turner’s ‘studies’ of waves and a distant horizon. After he died, hundreds of unfinished pieces were found in his studio. While he worked up his masterpieces, he would experiment. He could be freer outside of the pressures of genius and patron’s expectations. It seems obvious to me that not only were these experimental sketches vital to his polished masterpieces, but that with a few exceptions – Snow Storm is indescribably brilliant – the sketches contained more life. Looking at the simple brush strokes, I could start to imagine his thought process. Could join the dots between human effort and the sea spray he was trying to invoke. In the masterpieces, this humanity is hidden. He wanted us to think he was a magician genius, set apart from us mere mortals.

Maybe this is why I became a teacher not an artist. I am not interested in playing along with the myth of genius. I am only interested in tearing it down.

Virginia Woolf shared JW’s passion for sketching. When writing her most conventional novel Night and Day, partly as a way to contain the chaos of the war swirling round her, she worked on essays and short stories that freed up her thinking. She gathered up those fragments later to write one of my favourite books of all time, itself a collection of fragments of observation, gathered together to form a great sweep of life.

Virginia had a way of exposing her character’s unexamined thoughts, usually extrapolated from her own. JW had a way of painting living things to life in just a couple of brush strokes. These tiny examinations made possible the grand scale and impact of their context but also, if you look twice, give us a chance to see through the show.

Oliver Burkeman reminded us in the Guardian the other day that everyone is totally just winging it, all the time. He quotes Action for Happiness saying “one of the biggest causes of misery is the way we chronically compare our insides with other people’s outsides”.

JW didn’t manage to throw away the last batch of his thousands of hard won experiments and mistakes before he died, allowing us to see some of his insides, stripped of the (equally hard won I’m sure) magic tricks he’s famous for – and love him all the more for it. Through her stories, essays, letters and diaries, we can piece together how Virginia wrote her own swirling insides into her masterpeices. How all she did was look hard, ask questions, then write with unflinching care.

Oooh I think I’m finished. With 22 minutes to spare. See ellie, its not so hard.

I’ll take my spare minutes to do some referencing…

I saw Late Turner – Painting Set Free at Tate Britain in London. GO SEE if you can, its on till Jan 25th 2015. Anything I wrote about him here was learnt in that exhibition. There is a book to accompany the exhibition that I almost bought but didn’t.

My favourite book by Virginia is The Waves, but more and more I’m appreciating the shorter stuff. At the moment I am reading A Haunted House and Other Short Stories. It is delicious.

I just read Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris. That, a talk by Ali Smith at the Portrait Gallery called ‘Getting Virginia Woolf’s Goat’, and the exhibition Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision all helped gather these threads together. As did working on getting over my inverted snobbery that held me back from fully declaring my love for that particular posh woman.

Ok times up. Screw harvard 😉