Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Decalcomania and CCK11

In his blog connectiv: On Connectivism and Learning, Jaap distinguishes between training and learning when we train ourselves to play a piece of music. I think he is capturing the distinction I am trying to explore between tracing and mapping, competence and performance, and working and playing. Jaap's training, then, is tracing and working toward competence, and learning is mapping and playing toward performance. Music provides a wonderful metaphor: to play well enough to bring joy and satisfaction (and perhaps a paycheck) to both herself and her audience, a musician must have competence with music and instrument (which requires ten thousand hours of work), but she must also transcend mere competence into performance in order to play the music on her instrument and to expand and express as an artist. Training/tracing and learning/mapping are not opposing activities, but different ends on a sliding scale of activities, and both are connectivist in nature.

I understand both training and learning as Connectivist through Deleuze and Guattari's concept of decalcomania, one of the six characteristics of rhizomatic structures that they explore in their book A Thousand Plateaus (1988). Decalcomania is the artistic process of transferring an image or pattern from one structure to another, usually by pressing the two structures together. According to ARTTalk, "technical explanations of decalcomania describe the method as geometric shapes--irregular, broken or fractured (rather than smooth and even). The two images created by pressing one area of liquid with a top sheet of paper display a form of 'self-similarity,' appearing similar in scale and magnitude - very nearly exact duplicates. In early production, this meant that the creation of two images was made with each attempt. Infinitely fine detail is immediately apparent yet, when magnified, yields startling accents." The capitalismandschizophrenia.org website defines Deleuze-Guattarian decalcomania as a method of "forming through continuous negotiation with its context, constantly adapting by experimentation, thus performing a non-symmetrical active resistance against rigid organization and restriction."

A class about fractals at Yale University notes that decalcomania can form dendritic fractals, as in the picture below:

To my mind, decalcomania is a process for transferring a pattern from one thing to another, and it describes quite accurately how we create meaning in our minds. In decalcomania, a surface with a potent image or medium is pressed against another surface. After the two surfaces are separated, self-similar images reside on both surfaces. The images can diverge more and more as the two surfaces vary in material, texture, porosity, density, color, and so forth. The images can diverge again given the viscosity and consistency of the intermediary medium being pressed between the two structures, and the images can diverge even more if the pressing is inexact or uneven and smears. Decalcomania, I think, provides a nice metaphor for understanding learning and training: the process of impressing patterns between student and class, person and world, guitarist and guitar, artist and canvas.

But first, let me correct a part of my definition. In decalcomania, pattern is NOT transferred from one thing to another. Transfer is an habitual manner of speaking that obscures a deeper insight. Only in it's most basic and popular form of decals, where an image is removed from a special paper and applied whole and unaltered to a new surface, does decalcomania reduce to mere pattern transfer. Unfortunately, this is the dominant metaphor for traditional learning and all training: a knowledge pattern is transferred whole and unaltered from a source into a new brain which then has that new knowledge pattern. This is fundamentally wrong and leads to all sorts of counter-productive pedagogical strategies and theories.

Rather, decalcomania awakens patterns in both structures. When an artist presses some medium—paint, for instance—between two surfaces—say, cloth and paper—then the act of pressing and releasing the paint creates a pattern on both the cloth and the paper. The two patterns very well may be self-similar, but they are highly unlikely to be exact duplicates. Even in industrial processes which impress images on some surface (on a Coke bottle, for instance), "infinitely fine detail is immediately apparent yet, when magnified, yields startling accents," or variations.

Decalcomania, then, helps me explain my interaction in MOOC CCK11. I have pressed some media between myself and MOOC CCK11—different media: Elluminate sessions, discussions, back channel chats, blog posts, essays, Facebook comments, Youtube videos, etc.—and each pressing has awakened in my mind new patterns or reinforced or changed old patterns. Each pressing has also awakened different patterns in MOOC CCK11. Both I and MOOC CCK11 are different because of the impressions each has made on the other. (Of course, CCK11 is bigger than I am, so the impression I make is smaller on it than the impression it makes on me; however, think of the impressions made by Downes and Siemens to see more clearly how the act of impressing works both ways, changing both the individual and the group.)

This process can be explored more. For instance, I am certain that my learning is slightly different, perhaps radically different, from the learning of others in MOOC CCK11, even when we consider the same media. In strictly physical terms, no two brains are structured alike; therefore, a pressing between my brain and MOOC CCK11 through the medium of a given Elluminate session will create a necessarily different pattern of knowledge amongst my neurons than amongst, say, Stephen Downes' neurons. The surfaces of his brain and of my brain are perhaps similar but still different, even in physical detail and certainly in knowledge detail. I may not even map what I learn in the session in the same area of the brain as he does. I certainly won't map it with the same arrangement of neurons. It takes multiple pressings through different media for the two of us even to begin to approximate consistent knowledge patterns in both our brains and in our interactions. (It's the whole process of getting to know each other.)

This process of decalcomania seems to describe many of the classes I've taken and taught. It also explains to me why the industrial method of education as described by Sir Ken Robinson has become so ineffective. If you haven't seen him speak on this issue, then watch Sir Ken explain why we need a radical shift from the industrial paradigm of education:

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