Same old class discussions

Back when I was teaching college courses, I found a gem of a book: Small Group Teaching - A Troubleshooting Guide. Richard G. Tiberius had compiled a wonderful set of questions for diagnosing why class discussions fizzle out. In brief, he recommended exploring:
  1. unclear goals
  2. unattainable goals
  3. unacceptable goals
  4. lack of interaction (2 way conversations)
  5. teacher dominating the interaction
  6. students participating unequally
  7. students tuning out (emotionally and motivationally)
  8. teacher tuning out
  9. students not cooperating
I've wondered if blogs, wiki, threaded discussions, comment boxes and tagging of shared content -- would changes these dynamics. Could the digital context for class participation revise how the students felt, reacted and interacted? Always the optimist initially, I assumed the answer was "yes". I presumed the Web 2.0 tools would offer more freedom of expression due to the added time to think up what to say, the 24/7 windows of opportunity and the exposure to others' contributions. The pressures to think up what to say in a hurry would be alleviated. The possibility of learning from classmates "modeling the desired performance and revealing their own preparatory processes" could make it easier to join in.

Since then I watched many online forums, blogs, wiki, etc -- fizzle out. The dynamics look to me like the same old class discussions moved into the digital domain. When I recently returned to Tiberius's protocol for interrogating disappearing class discussions, it appeared to me that the Web 2.0 tools would simply "pass through the dysfunctional dynamics". Once the thrill was gone from getting to play around with new technology, it seems very likely that the "tools for engagement" would restore the familiar patterns of student disengagement unchanged.


  1. Hi Tom, I wonder this too.

    With the projects I am working on, there are quite large numbers of people who have not discovered web 1 let alone 2 and now suddenly when large numbers of people are over the hype of web 2 they are being propelled into online communication where groups of people have already got bored and looking for the next thing, so less inclined to encourage adoption because they don't personally 'feel' the same way as when they first discovered the web. I can't remember the theories or whoever mentioned but - once we have got used to a technology we become less and less suitable for explaining it to others because we have forgotten how it feels.

    So in that sense, the people who are discovering online communication for the first time may also then be less inclined to explore further because there is not the same enthusiasm being reflected continuously ?

    I still think having 'time' as a constraint affects everything too. Imagine say with something like cck09 if it started continuously throughout the year - so each week a new cck runs - my understanding so far is that things can emerge all the time - both in collaboration and learning - so take away the time constraint and things will just flow, spark in a natural way? People may take less and less notice of how much participation is happening or not, it would not take on unnecessary significance? It could reduce the stress too, maybe?

    Too many questions I guess & whether it would be possible to achieve this within an education system, I've no idea :-)

  2. Hi Nicola
    Thanks for these insights and questions. They help me connect what I wrote to some more contexts :-)

    There's a pattern I see a lot in mentoring individuals where they want to feel understood by me, as if I get where they're coming from. When that's not happening for them, they get needy for my attention or spiteful. That temporarily eliminates their ability to reflect on their experiences and learn new concepts. That pattern could be occurring with your "newbies to the web" where the "opportunities to contribute, interact and discover on their own" do not give them the feeling of being understood.

    Chip and Dan Heath (Made to Stick) delineated a pattern they called 'the curse of knowledge" where increasing familiarity, expertise, sophistication makes it difficult to get back to a beginner's mind. I've connected that to the benefits of peer-2-peer learning and tutoring. Someone who's "almost in the same boat" is more likely to relate to the newbie's frustrations, disorientation and need to feel understood. A peer is more likely than experts to overlap the beginners' "zone of proximal development" too.

    I got an image from what you said about enthusiasm of surfers getting to the beach after the waves had subsided. They cannot "catch the wave" of enthusiasm because they arrived too late. In my view, it's the job of the presenters, instructors or mentors to "make new waves" for the learners to catch. Elsewhere, I've used the metaphor of an aircraft that should begin it's journey from wherever the passengers are at -- rather than taking off without them or starting from where the aircraft is at. Back to surfing, when we make it easy for the learners to "catch a wave of enthusiasm", they will learn more easily.

    I agree that time constraints mess up participation and freedom to "do our own thing in our own time" alleviates those issues. I've been using the web for "self study" since I started blogging in 2006 and have found that flow, spark, emergence and lower stress to all be true for me.

    I also wonder if this can occur within an educational system. It seems far more likely to me that it will take peer-2-peer networks combined with open courseware.

    Thanks again for stimulating so many connections!

  3. Hi Tom, thank you - I love reading your blog and your comments are so insightful. Regarding your pattern about individuals who want to feel understood - I really get that - I read recently a finger & moon story in Alan Watts Become What You Are and realised that I have been communicating in a way - where I have made huge assumptions and been frustrated (& possibly reacted in similar ways to the ones you mentioned) about a set of circumstances where I thought things were obvious - that it would be so easy to understand - but that was not the case.He was talking about religion and philosophy but I found that it applied to how I understand online communication:
    "If someone actually points his finger at the moon, I have no difficulty in turning & looking at the moon. But the thing at which these fingers are pointing at seems to be invisible, so that when I turn to look, there is nothing there and I am forced to go back to the finger to see whether I understood its direction correctly. And sure enough I find time and time again that I made no mistake about its direction - but for all this I simply cannot see what it's pointing at.

    All this is equally exasperating for the person doing the pointing, for he wants to show me something which, to him, is so obvious that one would think any fool could see it...And there is something even more exasperating - I'm sure many of you may, for a fleeting moment, have had one clear glimpse fo what the finger was pointing at - a glimpse in which you shared the pointer's astonishment that you had never seen before, in which you saw the whole thing so plainly that you knew you could never forget..and then you lost see the moon, you must forget the pointing finger and simply look at the moon."

    I love your concept about waves of enthusiasm - it really bothers me about participation, lurking, engagement - partly because I have to address it in my current role - where we are looking at interventions - but I'm unsure of how much intervention is suitable / natural in a network - so your p2p concept makes more sense. I was really inspired by your comments yesterday
    I've started to read Increasing Participation in Online Communities by Jonathan Bishop and realised that I have been putting too much focus on intervention and not letting some things just flow.

    (Have not managed to drop the idea of continuous weekly learning - maybe in a p2p network the week2's could help the week1's - but I have still way more thinking on that one)

    Apologies this is a long comment but I would like to tell you about my yucca plant. I had one as a student - a couple of years in - it started to die. I decided to instead of keep the bottom of it with the roots, to chop off the top and replant that instead. (I am not very green-fingered so had no idea if this was a sensible idea or not) I was amazed to find that it started regrowing - I couldn't understand how it could do that without roots.

    I them moved around a lot so we planted my yucca plant in my parents garden. I didn't know how it would adjust to both life outside a plant pot, different chalk soil and a new ecosystem & climate. Was amazed again - it grew really tall and had little baby yuccas too.

    Now in the last two, three months it looked like it had completely died, everything had gone brown - we thought - well it has been 18+ years so...however as of last Saturday I was amazed again to find out that it has started to develop new green shoots again.

    Sorry for the long story - but I am relating it to how I understand learning networks - in cck09 with Ailsa/Roy talking about ecosystems, rhizomatic education - it seems to be that networks spark into life in the most surprising ways.

    Thank you ! I'm going to go and find a copy of Made to Stick too :-)

  4. Hi Nicola, Thanks for all the appreciation! I'm inspired by our interactivity too.

    Like you, my experience with caring for plants makes them seem like teachers to me. They point out how I'm over or undoing the care. They show me how "all is not lost" when it appears it is. They reveal how they are networks within themselves and networked with their surroundings.

    It's a big challenge to see something for ourselves when someone else is pointing it out to us. Our ability to recognize patterns, connections, purposes and possibilities takes personal reflection. Sometimes the moon is symbolic of all that reflecting we must do, since it does not shine its own light, but reflects the sunshine. I know from my own experiences with "not getting it" that it's more difficult to get when it seems like there's "one right answer", "bad mistakes to avoid" and "pressure to conform". One the other hand, I find it's easier to see what's getting pointed out when there is more than one right answer, mistakes that help refine my understanding, and freedom to find my own way.

    I've been wondering lately if "intervening in a network" might be more effective, making waves that more people catch, etc - if we considered our own knowledge as a network. Then we'd simply be connecting our own cognitive network to the social network that "needed the intervention". Instead of telling people things to know, we'd show them connections we already make for them to consider making on their own. That approach might end up being a really valuable takeaway from CCK09 if it holds up under scrutiny.


  5. Tom & Nicola thank you for this thoughtful & thought provoking exchange.

    I'm picking up on one phrase here - making waves.

    To NOT make waves is advice that people will give to one another - as in don't make a fuss, lay low, don't draw attention to yourself, just get the job done & get out.

    The surfing metaphor is often called on to illustrate cyber matters & what is often discarded in the interest of a clarity is the turbulence that one experiences in any encounter with waves. ( I bodyboard) Even in the safe sort of turbulence which I ride there is an exhilaration in accommodating chaos.

    So, what if we upend the anodyne advice, & yes, show them our linkings & then actively make waves & let them choose their rides?

    It's an intervention; modelling & sharing occur; autonomy is conceded; exhilaration, even with a wipeout, is available.

    Rippling connections, turbulence in the network, cascading thru chaos in search of coherence - oops sorry :)

  6. Hi minh!
    Thanks for this synthesis of the solutions we explored. I'm very much in favor of the learners choosing their own rides and feeling those thrills from the turbulence. Besides "showing them our linkings", a more open-ended approach would show them the end points that need connecting and then see what they come up with. Either way is modeling the desired behavior of connecting :-)

  7. Hi Minh & Tom, I wondered if I could ask your expertise on this a bit more in relation to the emotions experienced with the waves. E.g. with canyoning - you do have an immediate loss of control which is exciting but also with the water - it is this amazing clear, cold, crisp - as you plunge into waves, you can feel this hitting your eyes and this volume of water just - powers on top of your face then a few seconds later - you can see the surface above you & faintly hear voices but you are down deeper than you ever expected but you spring / whoosh up through the surface and suddenly become conscious of everyone and your body temperature too as you continue being propelled along with others.

    Is it possible for us to make waves with physical sensations like this which others can choose - with technologies - can we use photo,video, audio with everything rushing at you in the same way? I really want to do this, haven't found a virtual answer exactly yet - I did feel elements of it in the first couple of weeks - but I would love to experience the cold sensation too that just - totally energises you? Is there a way with technology that others can experience it directly from your wave that you create?

  8. Hi Nicola
    From what I know of the emotional center of the brain, it can learn motor movements, habitual reactions and faster-than-thinking responses to provocations. It cannot formulate questions, diagnose problems, resolve conflicts, integrate concepts or develop creative solutions. It goes for those immersive experiences you're describing without any use of thinking which would only detach from the thrills, overanalyze what's occurring and bog down the immediacy of responses. Thus, the emotional center is great for learning sports, trade-skills and some equipment operation, but not for cognitive learning.

    When "learning by thinking" is riding a wave of enthusiasm, the learner is feeling understood, validated, trusted, etc. It seems that his/her questions are getting answered, the next exploration is getting opened up, and the changes in understanding are running deep enough to revise perceptions of situations, stories about past incidents, and the meaning of current opportunities. All this is way more cerebral, reflective and thoughtful. Perhaps I'm characterizing the difference between emotions and feelings or between urges and refined motivations.

    I hope this helps you.

  9. mmm thinking thinking

    Managing chaos in hydro-turbulence is not necessarily an exercise in speed, faster-than-thinking.

    In bodyboarding you select the wave, paddle, take the drop (unless you wimp out becoz it very high :), & then there is a lot of time to plan moves, apply prior knowledge, as you you are propelled by the force of the breaking wave along its face. This can be quite a gentle experience & it feels like there's lots of time to plan maneuvers.

    Does this combine both.

    Sometimes when working with prepubescent kids I seem to see this combination in action. It is characterised by adaptability, enthusiasm, involvement & generosity. It's wonderful to be around & I get to watch because it only happens when I've become redundant.

    Now I'm trying to think about this it terms of making waves. What did I do? What was my contribution?

    Novelty? Novelty creates turbulence. Perhaps I have dropped a pebble or a boulder of novelty into their deltas.


  10. Thanks so much Tom, I'm finding it difficult to understand the relationships between sensation - as we are reading, writing. viewing, listening to something - with all the motor movements - which can maybe be a distraction in our deeper thinking, perceptions - and the influence of time from an extended sensation - how this affects our perceptions? (not sure that makes sense). Will try and explain what I mean.

    From what I understand about what you have said, if you went away to think about something and started from a positive perception about how you are learning something - you have caught a wave - it may be quicker to see connections, but if you start a piece of reflection in a negative state - then in some cases, you may be more distracted by other things, because as per your previous posts - you are less engaged, less inclined to think - so you will be more aware of sensation because you are less focused on deeper thinking.

    This really helps, much appreciated

  11. @minh Awesome dynamics! Time to plan ahead with thinking AND immersion in the emotional experience. Using past experiences while learning amidst a new experience. I've also seen this occur occasionally with college students or executives when I stop delivering content and over-structuring their participation. I think there's a larger pattern here that occurs when both/and concepts are in use. There seems to be space inside a container defined by the both/and for emergent phenomena to appear. I imagine you're not only "redundant" when this occurs. You're providing implicit permission for the students to be this independent, self-structuring, exploratory, responsive to classmates, etc. You're also providing protection from those outer and inner voices that say "stop it -- this is too fun, spontaneous, interactive, unplanned, out of control!". I also imagine the learners are feeling understood, respected and freed to do what works for them, feels right to them and makes a difference in their networks. You're making waves with novelty, like you said, and with the space provided by your both/and concepts in use.

  12. @Nicola I do see how I am being confusing and perhaps how to be more clear. When we're immersed in a media experience, we're also relating to a set of expectations. We have in mind what we're supposed to do with this experience, to take responsibility for, and to get out of it. When expectations are low, we are merely getting thrilled, entertained or taken for a joy ride. Our emotional center handles the challenge superbly - no critical or creative thinking is required. We simply immerse ourselves in the media experience with the same resources as executing motor skills. However, when high expectations are imposed by an authority figure, guilt trip, threat of punishment or other negative premise, the emotional center is not effective. It's likely to create inner torment between urges and obligations, play and work, defiance and compliance, or emotions and rational thinking. Engagement is a big problem. Yet, when high expectations are self-imposed, a synergy resolves those inner torments. We feel like getting a lot out of the experience, challenging ourselves, using the media to get different perspectives, better ideas, realizations of personal significance, etc. We're benefiting from our refined motivations, rather than a legacy of uncontrollable urges. Getting engaged is not a problem. We're using a positive premise, as you said, and experiencing a wave that's different from the emotional immersion in media with low expectations.

    Thanks for continuing with wrestle with this!

  13. Hi, I read the below today and it reminded me of this discussion.

    I'm not sure about calibrating the energy in terms of online social interactions, that sounds too strange - I don't think as humans we could have the understanding to know when to put less or more? That said, I do quite like the idea of energy mirroring as a concept, it sounds interesting.
    I think there is a lot about physical energy to be explored further...e.g.can I be bothered to even type, but maybe I can be bothered to talk instead - different energies? Hmmm, lots to think about.

  14. Hi Nicola
    Thanks for the link. The pattern that Sophia Dembling describes is one I've experienced very many times. I'm energized by deep conversations and drained by superficial ones. The extroverts I know get energized by superficial and find me too intense, just like Sophia describes. I hadn't seen the pattern she does of "getting a return on our investment" in a conversation. I've also experienced getting drained around very negative energy, even when nothing is being said - like the pattern of energy theft explored in The Celestine Prophesy book.

    When it comes to losing energy, I make a distinction between feeling a"tired in a good way" and "feeling depleted". The good kind is accompanied by a sense of accomplishment, meeting a challenge or making significant progress. The depletion feeling comes with getting manipulated, frustrated, mislead, etc.

    I'm glad you're feeling better :-)

  15. Hi, I hadn't heard of Celestine Prophesy but it looks really interesting - thank you !

  16. You're welcome Nicola!! It's very entertaining reading with a valuable underlying message - according to yours truly :-)