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Ruthlessness, honesty and promiscuity.

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I read a quote a while ago, from “Contemporary Perspectives in elearning”. The quote is by  Terry Mayes, Ch6, p84.

“Learning theories are often presented as being alternative accounts of the same phenomena, rather than perfectly compatible accounts of very different phenomena. The term ‘learning ’is very broad indeed, covering as it does a range of processes which stretches from acquiring the physical coordination to throw a javelin ,through to the sensitivities involved in marriage guidance.”

That part at the beginning “perfectly compatible accounts of very different phenomena” interested me.

It interested me because some conversations I had had about learning theories were true believer conversations. Either you were converted, or not converted, believer or infidel, ally or enemy, of the one true faith, or condemned to wander, cast out from the healing light of the one true theory.


Pedagogical promiscuity.  Sleep around.


Flirtation, by Federico Andreotti, Public Domain

Flirtation, by Federico Andreotti, Public Domain


I’m a pedagogical pragmatist. I’m interested in what works. I don’t require the resolution of conflict in theory to apply it. I’m interested in what works. And I’m promiscuous. I’ll tarry with any theory that will have me. I flirt outrageously with ideas. I’m rampantly unfaithful, I do the dirt behind the back of every theory I’ve ever spent time with.

I’m promiscuous becasue what the words “learn” and “teach” mean changes with the context. Because there is no one size fits all theory, because there is  no one size fits all student. I’m promiscuous because learning is a nexus where student, teacher and variables meet. And the variables are a long, long list of shifting targets.

Mayes describes one variable – the effect on what is being taught and learned on how it is being taught and learned. Heres a pile of others.

What am I teaching? Who am I teaching it to? Why is this person here? Do they want to be here? Is here the right place for them to be?What do they think here is, and how do they think it works? Does this person have an accurate sense of their capacities, abilities, limits, contexts and coping mechanisms? Do they think I need to be perfect, and do I need to undermine that? Do they think this is necessary knowledge? Is there estimation right? What’s their past experience of learning? What are the culktural influences. What resources do they have? What’s their schedule? Will their homelife help or hinder? How thinly are they stretched? What’s their past experience of education and where are they in the process of dealing with that? Are they an expert learner with strategies that need to be left alone, or so they need intervention? Are they driven by goals (grades, certificates, medals and gongs) or by processes ( developing abilities, skills, capacities) or by praise? Are they gaming me, and is that ok, or maybe even better than anything I can do or is it destructive? Do they work better in a competitive environment or a collaborative environment or a mix or alone? How will that play out in the overall dynamic?  Do they know what they need? What’s their experience of, and relationshiup to mistake making, goal setting? Can they self assess? How do they cope with challenge? Are they easily bored? Do they need processing time, or do they need immediate practice? Will they perform publically and risk mistakes, or will they polish to perfection, and how strong are those impetuses? Is their culture one where the preservation of face is important? What are their politics? Is that student Catalan, Castilian, Galician, or someone who doesn;t attach importance to that?

This is what rattles through my head when I’m sitting down to design for learning.


I’m promiscuous. Because, rationally, there is no other meaningful response. Contexts shift, change, and the goalposts move. Students are legion, and need as many answers as you can find to describe their learning needs. I flirt with a dozen theories, and I run with a what works rationale. Descripotions of learning are as varied as the learning and the learner.

I’m wary of silver bullet one size fits all teaching answers.

They always seem impossible not to dodge.


Joyful Viciousness. The art of honesty is ruthless.


Mosman Library's Ninja, from Flickr

Mosman Library’s Ninja. You have to be able to assassinate something of yourself, murder certainty…



I’m ruthless and honest because an air of joyful viciousness is an essential element in any pragmatist’s toolbox. You have to be willing to kill your favourite activities and ideas, your most fondly held sense of what it is that you are doing.  You have to be able to redraw your philosophy to fit the moment you are describing at short notice, sacrifice your theories, fit your ideas to what happened, and not what happened to your ideas. You have to take a cold hard look at what went wrong and put yourself in the right place of the trainwreck process your lesson may have become. And you have to be disinterested, cold, and unemotional, as detached as a market trader buying and selling the stuff of lives. You have to be able to assasinate something of yourself, murder certainty, and fall ruthlessly out of love with whatever it is that anchors you to an idea or experience and sets you adruft from the context you are in.


The enemy of evolution


The sentence “I’m a ………..ist” is the enemy of good teaching. Sure, I spend time with any theory that will have me, but ruthlessness and honesty, and skepticism about silver bullets means I set the bar high. Evidence is the only protection we have as educators against ideology, and decisions where we cut the cloth of our evidence to fit our theories, and not the cloth of our theories to fit our evidence.

This is my recipe for ongoing education, and progress and process as an educator. They inform my practice, they are a part of my reflective process as an educator. I have butchered the heart from myself several times.


Butcher's shop, Annibale Carracci, Public Domain

Butcher’s shop, Annibale Carracci, Public Domain


I expect to do so again. I feel as if I am sharpening my knives as we speak. Rhizomatic  Learning as a theory is both engaging, and somewhat . Limited and optimistic. Open and awkward. Intuitive and exclusionary. Resource rich and inefficient.

I suspect I will be butchering both myself and an idea in posts to come. Here’s to it.




Mosman Library Ninja, courtesy of Flickr User Mosman Library, http://www.flickr.com/photos/mosmanlibrary/ Under a CC licence.

Flirtation, by Andreotti, Public Domain.

Butcher’s shop, Annibale Carracci, Public Domain



  1. wiltwhatman says:

    Apologies are in order. This is a kind of rambling post, that comes from a place of little sleep and limited time. It’s kind of a placeholder for my own thoughts, and not the focused critique I wanted it to be.

  2. eportfoliolisad says:

    But very eloquent and well thought out nonetheless Keith! I like the marrying of new #etmooc content with DIT readings…this revisited would sit very well in your elearning philosophy section. See you tomorrow.

  3. […] just read a thoughtful and curious post by @wiltwhatman about the wilds of understanding and the great challenge of belief. In this MOOCISPHERE* where we […]

  4. lindapemik says:

    …your statement sums up my philosophy of teaching…thanks for your contribution. First I learned my craft by teaching , trying, failing sometimes and learning how to do it better. Then I studied the theories and picked the parts that made sense in the real world. The result is a patchwork quilt kind of theory of practice that you summed up so well when you wrote”:I’m a pedagogical pragmatist. I’m interested in what works”. Thanks for your post.

    • wiltwhatman says:

      Hi Linda, and thanks for the comment.

      I replied to your comment well before now, but my post seems to have been swallowed up by my intermittent wifi connection…sorry.

      The patchwork metaphor is a good one for what we’re talking about here, and I kind of think of it as one freshly embroidered by each new group I work with. The overall shape and function of the thing says roughly the same, but the constituent parts that make that up vary with each instance.

      Every quilt is recognisable as being both the same and different simultaneously.

      Also…really liked your digital storytelling video. Simultaneously familiar and different.

  5. Getting late to your post here, but I’m so glad I read it. Your list of questions that one can ask of any learning situation is brilliant, showing very well why each learning situation is unique. I also really like the image of being joyfully vicious, ruthless in cutting out those things that you have dearly loved if they are not working. Not that I find this easy to do, though. Vicious I can be to my own well-loved views when faced with reasons to give them up, but I usually don’t do it joyfully.

    I wonder if some of the problem comes from specialization. One nice thing about specializing in some theory or another is that one spends a good deal of time with them, focusing on how they work, applying and testing, engaging in critiques and discussions, etc. But in the process, one can easily become a convert, seeing the value in this one theory but not in others because, at the very least, one doesn’t know them as well. One knows the theory one has studied, its benefits and drawbacks, and can respond to many challenges from other views. Somehow the process of becoming an expert in a theory seems to enhance one’s attachment to that theory (though the choice to specialize in that in the first place usually comes out of an initial interest as well).

    For example, I started studying Foucault in grad school, partly because one of my professors suggested it, and then the more I read and wrote the more I knew, and the more my later writing built on my already-existing knowledge of Foucault. Pretty soon most of my publications were about Foucault, because that’s what I knew. And I found that many criticisms of his work were, in my view, the result of misunderstanding what he was saying, and in responding to those criticisms I found myself become more and more Foucauldian. But if I had started with Habermas instead, would I have become a Habermasian instead, criticizing the Foucauldians? Perhaps.

    There is, of course, great value in spending time with a theory to a degree that one understands it well. So specialization can be a good thing. But it might lead us to sticking too much with one theory when something else is required.

    I wonder too: can one be promiscuous with theories and yet dig deeply into them, enough to get to know them and their value/problems well? Probably, though it would mean taking a lot of time.

    Ultimately, I agree with your points here, that learning is such a dynamic process that differs with each circumstance, and one theory is unlikely to fit all. I just suffer from the issue of not wanting to deal with a theory unless I feel I really understand it. And to do so takes time, and so I wonder if I could ever be entirely promiscuous.

    Thanks for the post!

    • wiltwhatman says:

      The constant tension between depth and breadth, which seems to becoming even more taut as time decreases, information available increases, and we become increasingly connected and diverse.

      Becoming overly attached to any one theory is an entirely human thing to do. We have cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, selective memory, the backfire effect…a pile of psychological phenomena to contend with that make it difficult to discern the truth of the things we think.

      Proomiscuity and rigor are very difficult to balance. I try drive the process by evidence, but it’s time consuming, difficult, and good evidence is difficult to come by. I think it’s possible, and desireable, but I have no answer to whether it’s achieveable. It;s a process I’m embarking on at the moment.

      At it’s heart, what drives my promiscuity is the experience that no theory encompasses the multiplicty of student experiences I have encountered. I think when we consider the divsity of student experiences, types, needs wants and contexts, we have little choice but to dispense with fealty tto theory

      Maybe another way to look at it might be, thinking of the David Irving vs New York Times libel case of several years ago. Historians combed through Irving’s work and identified hundreds oif errors in his scholarship, forming the backbone of the NYT’s successful defence against his libel claims.

      For a task like that, you bypass Foucauldian historians, and go to conventional researcrs.it strikes me as a good meataphor for pedagogical pragmatism,

  6. I completely agree with you that the teaching and learning situation is so diverse that fealty to one or two theories just isn’t going to cut it.

    But I’m not sure I get your point about NYT and David Irving. Foucault himself was, actually, a diligent and detail-oriented historian. He did select what he wanted to emphasize and leave things out, but all histories have to do that to some extent!

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