Sunday, January 30, 2011

Performance vs Competence in CCK11

Mapping and tracing are both efforts by people to orient themselves within a given structure, say a class or a conversation. Whereas tracing attempts to assign an order to the structure, mapping seeks to uncover the order in the structure. In terms of MOOC CCK11, tracing attempts to impose an order on the class (roles, meeting times, duration, interactions, etc) and on the content (beginning, middle, end, etc), and when a tracing does not find the expected points, it becomes disoriented. Mapping, on the other hand, does not impose an order, but remains open to the possibility to any order or to no order at all (though the human mind is quite adept at imposing or creating order even in the absence of any apparent order). Tracing is an attempt to wrangle reality into sense, while mapping is an attempt to uncover the sense in reality.

This last distinction points to another reason why I am attracted to the conversation about Connectivism. Connectivism is still in the mapping phase of theory construction. It seems to me that most theories begin with a mapping phase that seeks to uncover the sense in reality. Moreover, this attempt to map some slice of reality is usually in reaction against some other theory that has calcified into dogma and seeks only to trace reality, or to wrangle reality into the sense of the theory. Mapping is often prompted when a Galileo at last notes enough points in reality that don't fit in the old theory without excessive wrangling and so begins to look at reality in a fresh way. To my mind, Connectivism is looking at reality in a fresh way. If eventually Connectivism becomes accepted theory, then it will likely go the way of most theories and itself become dogma, a tracing rather than a mapping (not a static map, but a dynamic tracing—a verb rather than a noun), a routine rather than a ritual. But that hasn't happened yet, so until it does, I will enjoy the ride.

It helps, then, to sharpen our distinction between mapping and tracing. Deleuze and Guattari note that "the map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged 'competence'" (12,13). I find this so insightful and quite germane to education with its practice of assessment and grading. It reminds me of a story I once read about an education professor who visited a kindergarten class and asked the five-year-olds which of them could sing, dance, and draw. At each question, all the children enthusiastically raised their hands, certain that they could sing, dance, and draw. The professor then returned to his college classroom and asked the same questions. Of his adult students, only a few could sing, a different few could dance, and yet another two or three could draw. He concluded that the main function of modern education was to teach people what they couldn't do.

I appreciate the professor's point, but I think that Deleuze and Guattari can give us a more precise way of explaining what happens to students between kindergarten and graduate school. If we assume a sliding scale between performance and competence, then kindergarteners are focused almost totally on the performance end of the scale in total disregard of how well they sing, dance, or draw, while grad students are focused almost totally on the competence end paralyzed by assessments of how well they sing, dance, or draw. Kindergarteners are concerned only with exploring and mapping an activity through their performance, while grad students are concerned only with competently tracing a sanctioned activity.

In this MOOC, Downes and Siemens are refusing to grade the performances of most students, and this disregard for the traditional markers of competency confuse some of us. How do we know if we are doing it right, dancing right, learning what we are supposed to be learning? Most of us have lost the questions on the performance end of the scale that drive open-ended, free form inquiry, mapping, and play (though I suspect the members of this MOOC are perhaps more open to performance than most students; otherwise, they wouldn't be in this MOOC). I think that a big part of the lesson in MOOC CCK11 is to reawaken those questions of performance and play within the MOOC's members.

One might accuse me of totally favoring performance over competency, but I do not. However, I do have a profound distrust of the merely competent, which in my experience, informs too much of traditional education and all of the back-to-basics movement. I insist that education should be large enough for both performance and competence, and that the best education happens in the interplay between the two. For example, mastery of the guitar is a fine educational process that necessitates a nuanced balance between performance (play) and competency (work). A guitarist must work the guitar to attain competency with it, and this can require ten thousand hours of practice, hitting the same notes over and over, going through the same fingering patterns, reading the same musical scores. But the guitarist must also play the guitar to attain more than competency with it, and this builds upon the ten thousand hours and sustains the guitarist's drive to put in the ten thousand hours. Performance first informs competence, and then it transcends competence, but mere competence is never enough to make a guitarist. This is perhaps easy to see in a jazz guitarist who can improvise whoever he wants, but even a classical guitarist who is tightly constrained by working a musical score (competency) must also play that musical score (performance).

Associating performance with play and competence with work makes sense for most educators, I think, and it makes sense to me that traditional education has focused too much on the work of competency and not enough on the play of performance. Education has sadly overlooked the ludic element in our pedagogical mix, and MOOC CCK11 is a nice corrective to that pattern.
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