On Community as Curriculum & Absolute beginners #rhizo14


Just as week 5 draws to a close, I finally found the time to do some catching up on some ‘fiery’ blog posts, among which are Jenny Mackness’s and Frances Bell’s, and kinda grasped Jaap’s jokingly (or not) warning me about joining #Rhizo14 over half-way through as I did. Apparently, things got a bit messy in the scholar/ignoramus interplay, and funnily (or happy-go-luckily) enough, I myself made a comment on FB in which I expressed my astonishment at the degree of erudition I’d been encountering in the course. I had no idea at the time I made the comment that all that frisson had been developing, although I began to grow suspicious that there was something in between the lines of the hush-hush tone of the replies to my ‘erudite’ comment. “Down with the power structures!” was my humorous reply to the thread. I hadn’t yet lost my innocence at that time. I have now…

Little did I know that, at the moment of my verbal fist, I’d already been tapping into an underlying issue regarding the very nature of Moocs – that which in the context of TEFL we refer to as a mixed-abilities/mixed-levels groups. How does one go about teaching any curriculum to a group of absolute beginners, plus a couple of lower-int, upper-int, and a handful of near-native speakers (a CEFR letter soup, literally)? That, to me, seems to bear some resemblance to what I’ve been experiencing with you guys, among whom I’ve found myself to feel like an upper-int student (at best!) Taking this course with such a richly varied collection of individuals is an absolute privilege, and one hell of a ride, I tell you. I have been exposed to more hard-core theory in this course than I ever was, say, taking Anthropological Theory 2 back as an undergrad. Not that I was able to decode a lot of it, but still, as much as I, too, feel a bit ‘cold’ when theorizing ensues, I also appreciate the fact that these guys are exercising their vast academic knowledge and I’m getting to be an avid listener, sometimes even an interlocutor in my own terms, of course. I deviate a bit… but back to the point I am trying to make here, it takes one extremely self-confident, experienced and flexible individual to fulfill the role of the ‘teacher’ in a group of this nature.

Again in the universe of TEFL, having a ‘misplaced’ student in a group may generate an array of issues, one of them being that an obvious approach from the part of the teacher will need to involve catering to that specific learner’s needs, customizing the input and trying out different approaches to see which one will engage that learner and hopefully bring about some learning. How would that play out in a massive open online course, in which “absolute beginners” find themselves shoulder to shoulder with “educated native speakers”? Easy. Instill a sense of community among them. Get them to engage with each other, disagree with each other, share seemingly unrelated content with each other, and you just might end up having some sort of assemblage of individuals that share a sense of belonging, an intuition that there are no dumb questions, that the scholar may learn a thing or two from the absolute beginner, that insights may spring up from such conversations, and breakthroughs might be just waiting to happen to some of us. What a wonderful aura of potential!

A lot has been said about the meanings of ‘community’ and ‘network’ this week. My impression is that the word ‘community’ implies affective bonds that commonly ensue among people who occupy neighboring/common spaces. ‘Network’ has a more dynamic feel to it, in that it pressuposes connections with a purpose in mind. Having said that, I am left wondering whether the attempt at defining these concepts is at all helpful (or even useful) to an understanding of community as curriculum. One thing is certain, a communal feeling of unity is fertile ground for relationships, which could possibly result in strong connections. People (as opposed to machines) are socially-oriented. It is in their nature to look for supportive environments, for it is in those environments that they feel comfortable enough to be. Be whoever they are, whoever they want to become, modified and improved by the connections made with others.

The journey of Rhizo14 has made me think deeply and intensely about the meanders of the learning process. It has also made me challenge the established system in which education has been commodified, primed and packaged as something unattainable by the masses. Coming from a country in which 85% of its population spend their free time watching television, such issues speak closely to me, both as an educator and a citizen. I don’t wish to be naive to the point of believing that there are no power plays in the network society. However, I find it rather positive that more and more educators, scholars and absolute beginners alike, are using the available connections to think, to converse, to theorize, and hopefully begin spinning the wheel of change.

Thank you to all scholars and absolute beginners that have enticed me to learn through cheating (from you all), to enforce my own independence (and go looking around for connections and sources so as to acquire new literacies), and to question the status-quo of print media (which made me linger towards the tribal campfire). It’s all worth it. It’s co-constructed learning, and what’s more communal than that?


Absolute beginner


  1. Thanks for the thought-provoking post! How does one foster community amongst a varied group of individuals, indeed. I missed out on most of the discussions about theory because they took place on FB, I think, and I’m only on Google+ (or maybe it’s also b/c I’ve only had time to be participating in this course on the edges!).

    The idea of having such a diverse group of people talk together and learn from each other is the ideal. I wonder how often it’s likely to happen in practice. It seems to me that those at different levels of understanding and experience with a particular topic or method will be wanting, at least in part, to speak with each other because their conversations can take place at a different level than with beginners. This is not to say that those with more experience won’t listen to beginners at all, it’s just that I wonder if people naturally tend to gravitate towards certain conversations, especially when they have limited time in which to engage in conversations! But your post reminds me to not just do this, to extend myself to conversations with lots of different people on lots of different levels, so thanks!

    1. Thanks for the lovely comment, Christina! You’ve actually made me remember Dave’s allegory of the fire on the beach when you mention that it is only natural that like-minded people will tend to cluster and have certain conversations. I guess academia is a language in itself, and it is also interesting to point out that it’s sometimes difficult to communicate if you don’t speak the same language, or at least doesn’t have the same level of proficiency as your interlocutor. Pretty perplexing, but always interesting!

  2. I have taken to heart the invitation to ‘use’ rhizomatic learning. I do this for my own sake and for the #rhizo14 community. I demonstrate my own beginner’s practice in this very vague theory on my own blog, three blog posts so far describing my practice, fails and little successes. I think that you will see whether we have much of a community in the next weeks–do we practice, talk about practice, comment on practice,help each other with practice. Theory is nothing unless engaging, community is only a network with a lot of spaces unless there is fuzz and mess and feel. I will be scouring for practice all week in those spaces.

    I am glad to see some of that messification in your post: problems of heterogeneity in classrooms and in rhizo14, the problems of beginner’s mind/misplaced learners, the perennial problem of engaging this diversity. And I would love to see more on how you do this, warts and all. Best to you. Remember: experts on tap, not on top.

    1. Hi there, Terry. Thank you for the thought-provoking comment. I find that the experience of rhizo14 has been sneaking up on me as a teacher in the classroom, in the way I see my teenagers, in the way I`ve been planning my lessons, and excuting them, and going off of the plan when one of them brings something new and unique to the table of learning. It`s crazy how often I have caught myself actually embracing messiness in the classroom lately, and at the same time, being surprised that my teenage students appear to be rather energized by this mess. I do want to make more sense of how rhizomatic learning has been sinking in and coming out of me in all shapes, sizes, and directions. I will certainly pursue that, and am glad to feel I have found an interlocutor in you, so thanks.
      Experts on tap, not on top… love that.

  3. Lovely post Clarissa. I’m taking fiery as a compliment;) But seriously, one of the things I have taken from my tiny reading of De Leuze and Guattari is the potential for rhizomatic thinking to help in dialogue between people with ‘different knowledges’ (there was a link at the bottom of my post that you referenced). Seeing knowledges as ‘different’ is more freeing to me than thinking about experts and beginners. As people have acknowledged it’s hard work.
    Have you seen Danielle’s post? It’s very rich http://daniparadiseducation.wordpress.com/2014/02/19/wrapping-up-rhizo14/

    1. Hello, Frances! Thanks for dropping by and for the compliment! Please, by all means, take it as a compliment, which is how I meant it! 🙂 I’ve tried to approach the D&G reading but haven’t yet been able to wrap my brain around it. Will do, in time. I read Danielle’s post just this morning, and I really liked it. Was still too drowsy (before my 5:30am cup of coffee) so didn’t get around to actually leaving a comment. I’m glad you mentioned it here.
      I’ll be seeing you around even after rhizo14 is finished, I hope! I’m following you on Twitter already, and I really like to read your stuff.

  4. Reblogged this on Becoming An Educationalist and commented:
    W19 ctd even further!
    This post explores so many ideas relevant to us as educationalists. How do we foster a sense of community among the diverse people who are our students? How do we engage all of our learners – even the ones who don’t want to engage? How do we set off the busy, fizzy, messy business of real education and real learning? How will we know when we get there? Read this post – tell us what you think!!

  5. Thanks so much Clarissa – and all the others by this fireside – really enjoyed this conversation – and invited my first year students to have a look and a think about it all… Let’s keep the #rhizo14 flying, I don’t want to lose contact with the wonderful!

    1. Sandra, thank you for being close by the fireside, and for the reblog (Wow!?!)
      It’s funny you used the flying analogy for #rhizo14… just this morning, as I was driving my girl to school and heading to work, I listened to a song which struck my artsy chord (so many, many times has that chord been struck lately…)
      Serendipity? Maybe. Maybe not…
      Let us never lose contact with the wonderful. Hear, hear!

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