August 30th, 2012

Books!

An interesting half a book ...

This was another of the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program books … although, I must admit, this is closer to something that I might have actually picked up to read than what I typically end up with from that program (you can get the details of LTER here). Michelle Boule's Mob Rule Learning: Camps, Unconferences, and Trashing the Talking Head is, as one might gather from the title/subtitle, about new modes of learning and information exchange, ranging across a spectrum of formats, approaches, and philosophies (I was amused to find that she'd name-checked the Ignite seminars here, as I was reading this the same week as I was doing a presentation at Ignite Chicago).

I was very interested to get into this book, as I have, aside from Ignite, attended or followed assorted “alternative” conferences over the years, and the first half of the book did not disappoint. However, this is very much two books, one that follows pretty close to the sub-title, and one that veers off into what one might describe as “educational philosophy”. The shift is quite abrupt, and where I was quite engaged with the material in the first half, I was not so much in the second part. Having been in the publishing biz, I had to wonder if Ms. Boule was shopping around a hundred-page topical look at trendy conference formats, and was told that she needed to come up with something additional (I did this with one of my authors as a prerequisite for considering his book)... resulting in the second half, looking at school applications.

Anyway … the first part focuses on “camps and unconferences”, terms that the author opts to use interchangeably, which she defines as being “exemplified by (a) distinct lack of structure”. Much of the concept behind these comes from the theory of OST – Open Space Technology (where “technology” is used in the anthropological sense of “anything that changes the way a society behaves, constructs, or is structured”), dating back to the early 1980's.

OST is a belief system that has changed the way some people approach meetings of all kinds. It hinges on the belief that a group of people, given a purpose and freedom, have the ability to self-govern, self-organize, and produce results. A meeting or conference using OST will have little or no agenda, no predetermined out-comes, and no predetermined leaders. Individuals gather together with an idea and then are set free. This freedom can often produce unexpected and wonderful results.

There are four rules of principles that govern OST gatherings. These rules are not meant to bind, but to set free. These four principles are:
1. Whoever comes is the right people.
2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
3. When it starts is the right time.
4. When it's over, it's over.
Obviously, there is a lot of potential chaos in this … chaos that is highly unappealing to many traditionally-structured organizations, and how these sorts of dynamics can be infused into those types of structures in a significant theme here. Several situations are discussed where, for instance, "unconferences" were run before the start of an official associations meeting to get a different level of involvement rolling before the (as she refers to it) "Talking Head" part began, or how these were used in situations where there was no time to organize something more formal (as one can surmise from the four "rules" above, this model can be rather spontaneously held).

Perhaps the most useful part of Mob Rule Learning is the almost step-by-step (if one can have that for something so loosely structured!) description of how these would work in theory, along with numerous examples of ground-breaking camps and unconferences. I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that if one read carefully through the first half of this book, took good notes, met with a handful of co-organizers, one could reasonably expect to be able to set up a successful “unconference” in a matter of days. However, trying to implement these modalities within the context of a large corporation or association might be a very uncomfortable process.

Speaking of uncomfortable … there's the second half of the book, where the author takes the broadest theoretical strokes of the first part, and turns her focus to the classroom. This felt a bit like a “bait-and-switch”, to me, although I've certainly read other “future of education” books (the better bits here reminded me of Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D's Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn), and am not uninterested in the topic … it just seemed like “oops, said all I can say about that, how to fill up another hundred pages?” here! Unfortunately, if one isn't a teacher, the second half of the book is very hard to get, it's full of stuff about classroom approaches, heavily laced with context-specific acronyms (that I had to keep looking up to figure what the heck she was talking about), and seems to be primarily based on her own college experiences (and, as opposed to the case studies in the first half, many of the “examples” she looks at here have long since been discontinued by the institutions offering them).

Fortunately, the first half of this is pretty much worth picking it up (and, of course, if you're a teacher, you'll no doubt find the second half of interest). It's been out since last fall, so you may or may not be able to find it in the brick-and-mortar stores, but the on-line big boys have it, and at a bit under the cover price. Obviously, from all the above, this isn't something that I'd recommend “for all and sundry”, but if you're interested in the “unconference” movement, or are a teacher looking to move your classes into a new model of education, this should be something you consider finding.


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