Emergent outcomes from a field of weeds – or how certainty can emerge from anxiety (a #rhizo15 story)

confessions of a worried teacher


I have just watched avideo of @davecormierwhere he uses the metaphor of the ‘weed’ as an alternative to the dominant, normative models of curriculum.

In the normative idea of curriculum, curricula ideas (a mix of ontology and epistemology) are reduced to content (syllabus), and learning construed as a linear path from ignorant to knowledgeable, where the teacher is the one who knows.

This normative idea is reinforced through the technology of the Learning Objective. Having just taught a class on LOs and got the participants to re-work their courses in light of this I fell upon a different idea, that of Emergent Outcomes.  Now, I know why Biggs has developed the idea of learning objectives – its intent was to design in equity and not let teachers privilege those who already ‘get it’ and neglect those who don’t.

But it all too readily becomes a closed…

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Emergent outcomes from a field of weeds – or how certainty can emerge from anxiety (a #rhizo15 story)

Event Based Learning: Why you should follow the hashtag

Two days ago I took part in World Hospice and Palliative Care Day, joining online discussions, sharing resources and meeting people from all over the world on social media. Today is World Mental Health Day and I’m doing the same (though admittedly less energetically).  These aren’t coincidences – they are part of an evolving pedagogical innovation know as Event Based Learning (EBL), which I believe is a compelling intervention that goes against the increasingly fragmented and competitive discourse in health and social care by celebrating and exploiting shared purpose.

Why EBL?

Events, like stories, are personally and culturally significant because they define our identity as individuals, teams, organisations and societies. Learning that is based on shared events has a similar sense of occasion.  Like key events such as Christmas, Thanksgiving and Remembrance Sunday, EBL has simultaneous local and wide scale engagement, impacting upon individuals whilst also crossing geographical and professional boundaries.  It does this by resting upon shared purpose, with shared artefacts – notably the social media hashtag.  However, it is the enthusiasm and dedication of participants, augmented by national or international recognition and amplified by technology, that makes EBL stand out as a pedagogical tool.  It combines real-time and asynchronous technologies such as television, social media and online games to gather and disseminate knowledge, whilst keeping learners intentionally or unintentionally engaged and entertained.  In 2013 I recall being gripped by an online game called Epifection, which replicated a fictitious epidemic outbreak, timed to coincide with The British Science Festival.  It reinforced the importance of infection control more effectively than the hundreds of classroom-based sessions I have sat through in my career.

The Anatomy of EBL

The time-bound nature of EBL may be contributing to the energy and enthusiasm of their participants.  The lead-up period is not only for preparation, but online and broadcast advertising creates anticipation and encourages recruitment.  During the event, technologies are used to share resources and host real-time conversations that would not be possible face-to-face.  EBL is impressive when there is massive engagement and equality of participation.  Only readily accessible web 2.0 technologies can really deliver this.  It is even exploited in events which incorporate citizen science, such as the BBC’s Stargazing Live.  Even after the event has closed, its effects continue through the network created during event-related social interactions.

event based learning.JPG

A Word (or two) of Caution

The benefits of EBL to isolated and busy professional learners are clear – provided, of course, they can access the learning in the first place.  The digital divide exists within organisations as well as between economies.  We also need to be clear about the purpose of the event and not allow it to be hijacked as a vehicle for propaganda.  An effective EBL needs a lot of planning and preparation – do not be beguiled by the time limitation of the event itself.  Like all mass participation events, EBL can be exciting and creative.  It can also seem messy and chaotic to some people.  And too many, in close succession, could be exhausting.  My experience from World Hospice and Palliative Care Day was all of the above – and in a 36-hour day to accommodate all time zones.

My advice for anyone wanting to join an EBL is that you get out what you put in.  The choice is yours.  Meet other people, share and learn from them, make new friend, try new things…but most of all, enjoy the experience.

Event Based Learning: Why you should follow the hashtag

We need pioneers not edgy leaders

If you’ve read my blogs or tweets, you’ll know that I’m passionate about the School for Health and Care Radicals.  Its vision brings fresh hope to institutions and organisational cultures sorely in need of change and its pedagogy is an innovation in connected, event-based and collaborative learning.  It engages hearts and minds with genuine enthusiasm that is countering the malaise that often saps us of the energy to make things better for those we serve.

There’s just one thing about the SHCR which really bothers me.  What precisely does “leading from the edge” actually mean?  Until recently it was a phrase which seemed rather empty and meaningless to me, more like a slogan than a call to action.  That popular phrase if you’re not on the edge you’re taking up too much room is catchy, but as a clinician it means very little to me.  If anything I want to make more room for people, mainly my patients, their families and the colleagues I work with.

Leading from the edge implies you’re on a precipice, at risk of falling into dangerous territory at any moment.  Indeed, a quick Google search for this term took me to a book about stress management aimed at school teachers.  Whilst some may savour the adrenaline rush, this is not a concept of change management that I will ever feel comfortable with.  Or perhaps change agents should be “edgy” and stand out from the crowd?  In this case we could just as easily achieve the objective by dressing differently or making controversial statements – neither of which is what the SHCR is about.

Eco Leadership

Simon Western describes a non-hierarchical and distributed leadership discourse, which he terms Eco Leadership.  Innovation arising from the periphery of the team, organisation or community of practice is led by people in front-line positions, who guides it towards the centre.  If we compare the latter to Wenger’s community of practice, the traditional master-leader is generally occupying this central position. Hence leadership from the edge is vitally important for the development and sustainability of the whole group.  This push-pull concept of change leadership is one which holds more meaning to me than an image of tottering on a dangerous cliff-edge – though, of course, one does not necessarily exclude the other, depending on the politics at play.

Rhizomatic leaders

It was only when I discovered rhizomatic learning that I truly came to an understanding of how we can lead from the edge.  As a clinician-educator this is particularly relevant for me as a pedagogical concept (you can read the Higher Education Academy’s toolkit webpage to learn more).  Here  I argue that it’s also a helpful metaphor for making sense of  change in complex systems, such as health and social care.

Consider the rhizome – always reaching out and searching for the right conditions in which to take root and grow.  At the growing tip of the organism are microscopic pioneers; tiny cells which lead the way for the whole, often huge, highly complex and interconnected entity.  When we lead from the edge we become the pioneers, seeking fresh learning, discovering and creating new practices.  We test the conditions and, if fertile, signal back to the bigger team, service and organisation to which we belong.  We may be tiny but greatness is potentially following our trail.

A good venue for a Randomised Coffee Trial?   Image courtesy of Stan Shebs via Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA 3.o licence
We need pioneers not edgy leaders

Talking not Telling: Don’t domesticate, liberate!

Do you think (as Wellington and Austin suggest) education domesticates or liberates?  In this post I argue that talking rather than telling in teaching transforms one state into the other.

Image shared under CC-BY-SA available here 


Many courses of education in the health and social care sector seem to follow to a standard or code of conduct – infection control, safeguarding children, fire safety to name a few – mandating and controlling what is taught, when and how.  I appreciate the importance of this topics…I just dislike the feeling of being made to conform.  Inevitably this training takes me away from the place where I put it into practice and throws me into an abstract, sanitised (no pun intended) classroom environment – even if that classroom is online.  It seems like such a waste of time and energy to go back through extracting, re-contextualizing and re-integrating this learning back to the workplace.  Particularly when that work place is not a controlled environment.

However much we might like it to be, health and social care is not a production line – or at least, not a very efficient one.  In the complex, ever-changing health and social world, we’ve got to start managing rather than overcoming these challenges.

The School for Health and Care Radicals was my first truly liberating experience of clinical education.   When we connect to  learn from and with each other, we are liberated because become more than the sum of our parts.  Take the issue of resistance to change – a topic I’m sure we are all familiar with.  Through the School, I began talking and listening rather than telling when I come up against resistance.  Discussing real-life problems that might compromise patient care and safety is more likely to uncover obstacles to success and increase motivation than using either a carrot or a stick.  This is the dialogic approach to change (Busche and Marshak, 2009).  Diagnosing the cause of the problem means solutions can be found.  Success comes when we look at it from every angle, in every condition and acknowledge every possible interpretation.

Of course, talking to people higher than you in the hierarchy can be tricky.  Those in positions of power and influence are busy, often over-stretched by lack of time and money.  This may explain why, in their evaluation of the SHCR, Gifford et al (2015) found that the SHCR’s newly-qualified change agents had little confidence in organisational abilities to commit to or enact change.  This makes me sad but at least I know there is a way to make this better.  When more senior leaders join – as equals-  the network of School for Health and Care Radicals change agents, we may begin to achieve a better balance, with less telling and more talking.

Other References

Wellington B, Austin, P (1996) Orientations to reflective practice. Educational Research, vol. 38, no.3, pp. 307-16.

Talking not Telling: Don’t domesticate, liberate!

Why you should make time for the SHCR

The School for Health and Care Radicals’s live broadcasts traditionally take place in the New Year, a time for change and self-improvement. Unfortunately this coincides with a period of high demand on services, with many teams operating at full capacity and staff time for education limited. Here I will argue why participating in event-based education is time well spent.

Time-bound, mass-participation educational events within an organisation can rapidly weave learning into the rituals, roles and symbols that constitute its culture (Sharples et al, 2014). The SHCR goes beyond organisational boundaries, however, by bringing geographically-dispersed learners come together to with shared purpose. The School has also skilfully incorporated social media into its learning design to create “knowledge networks” centred on participation and collaboration (Leaver, 2012).

Ambient Awareness

In the SHCR, participants contemporaneously report, share and create understanding using social media and in-presentation chat.  This generates an awareness of authentic, live issues – or as O’Reilley and Batelle (2009, p.9) put it- a “real-time indication of what is in the collective mind”.  To understand this buzz, often seen nowadays in citizen journalism we need to discuss push-pull communication (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2011).  Twitter, for example,  automatically “pushes” tweets to  followers, who may  choose in turn to push onwards to their followers (“re-tweeting”), in an exponential fashion.  When the reader wants to discover more about the subject, they “pull” information, say from a link in the original post or search engine.  No other medium can spread the word quite so efficiently.

Knowledge Networks

As we push and pull our understandings within the SHCR community, we are also creating networks that continue beyond the learning event itself (Sharples et al, 2014).  The more open the social media, the more diverse this network becomes and so our learning opportunities increase and broaden (I hope to come back to this in a future post).   The players in these networks can confirm your experiences and reduce any sense of isolation.  They can answer a cry for help or provide a different perspective.  They may make you question your assumptions, go back to the beginning and start all over again.  Or can simply make you smile.

tweet 2

Every Friday @Jim_Rawson_MD sends me and other like-minded change agents a tweet.  This is more than a social nicety.  It reminds me that out there are people who I can learn from and with.  People who, like Jim, may answer a call for help (as indeed he did when I found myself in a particular dilemma).  Through the SHCR I have met and learnt from so many people without having to travel much further than my office.  Yes I had to commit time that I didn’t really have in the beginning, but this is an investment that continues to pay its returns.


Kaplan, A.M, Haenlein, M. (2011) ‘The early bird catches the news: Nine things you should know about micro-blogging’ Business Horizons vol 54, pp 105-113.

Leaver, T. (2012) ‘Twittering informal learning and student engagement in first-year units’ in Herrington, A., Schrape, J. and Singh, K (eds.), Engaging students with learning technologies. Perth, Australia: Curtin University [Online]. Available at http://espace.library.curtin.edu.au/cgi-bin/espace.pdf?file=/2012/09/28/file_1/187379 (accessed 12 August 2016).

O’Reilly, T. and Battelle, J. (2009) Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On [Online].  Available at http://www.web2summit.com/web2009/public/schedule/detail/10194 (accessed 12 August 2016).

Sharples, M., Adams, A., Ferguson, R., Gaved, M., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Weller, M. and Whitelock, D. (2014) Innovating Pedagogy 2014: Open University Innovation Report 3, Milton Keynes: The Open University [Online].  Available at http://www.open.ac.uk/iet/main/sites/www.open.ac.uk.iet.main/files/files/ecms/web-content/Innovating_Pedagogy_2014.pdf (accessed 12 August 2016).

Why you should make time for the SHCR

Rhizomatic Learning: “Don’t worry ’bout the mess”

If you believe that health and social care is linear, predictable, neat and tidy, then you’ve more than likely struggled with the School for Health and Care Radicals.  If, like me, you have direct experience of the chaos, uncertainty and general ‘messiness’ that often comes with these complex, intertwined systems, then the SHCR probably touched upon something very deep.

When change agents come together through the School, we begin to realise that whilst our perspectives may be different the problems we are encountering are similar.  Similar but not static.  Because how we care for people is so integral to society and culture that it could never remain constant.  Why then do traditional educational and change management programmes seek to create a certainty that is little more than an illusion?  And if we accept this ever-changing landscape, how could we ever keep up (and stay sane)?

The answer may lie in the natural world.  The SHCR’s network is growing organically, modulated by the environment.  It is flourishing where conditions are favourable for change, new shoots are emerging and some are even bearing fruit.  Some need a little tending from change agents and even when damaged we can make new connections or activate weak ties to create new and stronger hybrids.

Photo courtesy of Hedwig Storch (Wikimedia commons)


This is more than a botanical metaphor – it is rhizomatic learning.

Dave Cormier was one of the first educators to innovate by exploiting the disruptive potential of digital and participatory (“web 2.0”) technologies.  Rhizo 14, the massive open online course (MOOC) that he led is beginning a revolution where “the community is the curriculum” – but what, exactly, does this mean?  Well, in Rhizo 14 students chose the content of modules and organised themselves once the core curriculm was over, based on the subjects they were discussing in their networks.  This wasn’t planned for – it emerged as the community realised it was connected, creative and empowered.

The SHCR is good root stock, with great potential for rhizomatic learning.  As this haiku (by NomadWarMachine) puts it:

What’s rhizo learning

A chance to play with new things

Don’t worry ‘bout the mess


Cormier, D. (2016) ‘Rhizo 14 – The MOOC that community built’, Dave’s Educational Blog 13 April [Blog]. Available at http://davecormier.com/edblog/2016/04/13/rhizo14-the-mooc-that-community-built/ (accessed 24 August 2016)

Cormier, D. (2010) ‘Community as Curriculum and Open Learning, Dave’s Educational Blog 17 June [Blog]. Available at http://davecormier.com/edblog/2010/06/17/community-as-curriculum-and-open-learning/  (accessed 24 August 2016)

Rhizomatic Learning: “Don’t worry ’bout the mess”

Reflective Learning: How change starts with me

In my last blog post I argued that stories can be a springboard for individual reflection.  As testament to the great champions of reflective learning, my experiences of practicing, teaching and learning medicine always seem to come back to module 1 of the SHCR: Change starts with me.  It taught me to examine my motivations and challenge my assumptions before committing to the change.  It isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t always comfortable.

In Change Starts with Me Helen Bevan told her story of life getting in the way of youthful aspirations, reminding us of the importance of finding and  reigniting our inner fire.  I cried as I listened to Helen’s story because I recognised, for the first time, so much of myself and my teenage desire to change the world one patient at time.  A desire that had seeped away so slowly with each medical exam and long shift that I hadn’t even noticed.  A fine example of the emotions elicited by storytelling precipitating a change in mindset.

Boud argues that we cannot truly transfer learning between contexts without reflection.   The problem comes when we underestimate how complex and challenging reflection is.  You have to access deeper levels of meaning than may be superficially evident, tapping into our beliefs, motivations, values and expectations.  Sometimes it’s difficult to accept that the experiences don’t “fit” with our internal map of the world.

Gibbs acknowledges that feelings influence the way be translate our experiences into practice.  A experience which evokes unpleasant emotions may lead to avoidance or the determination (just think of footballers in penalty shoot outs).   Our different values, beliefs, motivations, experiences, societal expectations and cultural norms have made us unique and often gloriously irrational.

But Gibbs doesn’t ask us to really question what makes us tick.  In trying to make sense of the world, we draw conclusions, refining them as more information is gathered (Schon, 1983).   Unfortunately, humans aren’t always critical consumers of information.  Atkins and Murphy (1993) designed a model of reflective learning that requires the learner to articulate an awareness of the situation and evaluate the relevance of knowledge and feelings.  In other words, are your assumptions valid?  Are they helping or hindering?  It is within these cognitive or emotional “gaps” that we learn and grow.

Storytelling is like a short-cut to our feelings.  Sometimes we cannot put our emotions into words, such is the power of the story.  Sometimes it is preferable to acknowledge the emotion and address the logic later.  This can take time – two years in my case.   Inspired by Helen’s story, I pledged to reconnect with the optimism of my youth and revisited those early motivations with 20 years of life experience behind me.  I realised that I wanted to be a teacher, which is where you find me now.  Stories helped me get here and keep me inspired, not as passive entertainment or knowledge transfer but as an active part of my own life narrative.





Atkins, S. and Murphy, K. (1993) ‘Reflection: a review of the literature’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, vol. 18, pp. 1188–1192.

Schon, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action, London, TempleSmith.Schon, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action, London, TempleSmith.

Reflective Learning: How change starts with me