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This article first appeared on Educating Modern Learners in April 2015

"Learning is not a counting noun," says Dave Cormier, "so what should we count?"

His question - a writing prompt, if you will - comes from Week 2 of his latest MOOC on "Rhizomatic Learning." It's an incredibly provocative question as I think it recognizes that we cannot really count learning and that, at the same time, we find ourselves having to do just that. We do so not simply because of policy demands (although, goodness there is that) but because we do want to learn something and we want to know that we're making progress, whatever it is that might look like.

But what does it look like?

Some Background on #Rhizo15


An early advocate for open online learning, Dave Cormier is credited for coining the term "MOOC." His work, broadly speaking, involves this question of "rhizomatic learning." It drawing on the work of philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and the idea of the "rhizome" - that there's a multiplicity to knowledge, information, and data, with a wide array of access points, interpretations, and influences on it.

A connectivist MOOC, "Rhizomatic Learning: A Practical View" - #rhizo15 for short - is something worth paying attention to as it both enacts and explores modern learning for educators-as-learners. Anyone can participate. You can sign up for the mailing list here.

The course description:

Rhizomatic learning is a story for learning that starts from the idea that this standard doesn't exist. It posits a learning experience where the curriculum of the course is the people that are in it. Given access to an abundance of content, how can we design a learning experience that celebrates complexity and creativity, rather than an artificial standard of knowing? A course experience where each student is encouraged to map their own learning?


This open course will tackle the practical realities of teaching this way. The participants of this course will be the curriculum.

The participants are the curriculum, and as Week 1's discussion made clear, the goal is to think about "learning subjectives" rather than "learning objectives." Learning is something developed by and for the self - with influence from others to be sure; but it means something quite different to have a stake in saying what that learning will entail than in having someone else's dictates about what you must learn imposed upon you.

What Counts?


So what counts?

We can reject our society's obsession with education data and try to construct alternatives that are much less fixated on quantification. Indeed, we should. But that's a lot easier said than done. We still are faced - practically, if not philosophically - with the question that Cormier himself is frequently asked when he advocates for tossing aside rigid goals and "outcomes": "How will we measure this?"

Of course, that question demands we think about what "this" is. What can we measure? And how does the ability to measure something tend to give that thing priority? (Easy to measure: attendance, the score on a quiz where answers can be marked "right" or "wrong." Harder to measure: curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, passion.)

Even if we reject our society's maniacal focus on the quantifiable signals of schooling - that word "counts" in the phrase "what counts" probably does make us look to numbers - how do we identify what matters? And how then do we cultivate and then assess what matters in learners?

Even if we believe learners should do this for themselves, how do we help them - particularly novice learners - think through a framework to do just that? How can we design a "framework" with the least amount of restriction but paradoxically the most amount of support? How do we help learners decide "what matters" - that is, help them develop their own learning interests and goals? How do we guide them so that their goals remain theirs? How do we ensure they have the necessary resources to reach these goals without being too heavy-handed in imposing our notions of "what matters"? (And how do we support learners when and if they change their mind about "what counts"?)

Counting for Yourself


from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself":

Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much?

Have you practis'd so long to learn to read?

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?


Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

"What counts" for you, when you think about your own personal learning? In what ways - subtle or overt - is "what counts" to you been skewed by an obsession with quantification? How can you best help students think through these questions?

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Audrey Watters


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