Mess & not-yetness at #et4online

I returned from #et4online last week with a happy heart and a whirligig brain. I learned a lot, and will be reflecting on those things over the next weeks, but I wanted to start by reflecting on how not-yetness came into my #et4online experience.

After Jen Ross and I gave a plenary talk on “Mess in Online Education” at et4online last year, I was asked to participate in a “Messy Learning” panel this year (#et4messy). The session was headed up by the Texas contingent of Whitney Kilgore and Robin Bartoletti, and featured Maha Bali, Bonnie Stewart, Guilia Forsythe, Joyce Seitzinger, Rebecca Hogue (who with Maha led the virtual attendees) and me. I claim no ownership of the great ideas that shaped the way the panel was run—those came from the leaders and other panelists. But my experience of leading a small breakout table at the “Messy” session was remarkable. It was one of the best conversations I participated in at the conference.

My table focused on the topic of not-yetness, which as you may know, has been a topic I have discussed a lot lately. While some of the other tables played with markers (and do not take that phrase as a pejorative—play is an important part of messy learning), our table talked about the messiness of the human experience in education. People shared personal stories of mess, of exploration, of mentorship, and sometimes of productive and unproductive struggle. We argued over the “stuff of education.” Is education really about “helping students find answers” or is it about helping them to ask questions and challenging the very notion of “answers?” Should we scaffold students’ discomfort or should we make discomfort a safer place to stay and learn from?

(side note: I learned a great phrase from Sean Michael Morris during this conversation, “Throwing someone into the deep end of the pool. Works great for puppies, not for children.”)

Then we went even deeper. Is not-yetness to unsafe for some students? Does it privilege certain students for whom uncertainty is not a wicked threat? How can we help make not-yetness work for students who may not thrive in uncertain environments? How can we help students recognize not-yetness as a space for their voices to be heard, for their experiences to matter?

And then, and this is where my heart leaps, we started talking about the language we were using in that very conversation. Someone mentioned “formative feedback” as a way to know where students are and whether they are in a threatened (as opposed to a uncertain) space. We had also said the words “scaffolding” and “outcomes” and other buzzy buzzy educational words that we all use because it’s part of our shared language. We mostly know what we are talking about when someone says “formative feedback.” I wondered, out loud, whether something we should start doing as part of embracing not-yetness and messiness is just to use more human language. Formative feedback becomes building trust and learning about your students and what they are experiencing in your course. Personalized learning becomes intimate learning. Learning outcomes (which are something I take issue with) become beacons.

I know…there are issues with all of the language we use. But can we at least be more mindful of how we think about and talk about learners’ experiences? Can not-yetness also be a space of exploring a more human way to work with students?

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