Between states: metaxis, agency, connectedness and fluency

Photo by Maxime Horlaville on Unsplash

The human mind’s capacity for creative thought is unbounded, yet as we learn we adopt frameworks or find structures to help organise our thinking. We seem to live in a constant tension of working within bounds and across bounds. To some extent this reflects ideas previously discussed around convergent and divergent thinking. As humans we generally understand that learning is a constant process of creating and testing faux certainties and then building upon those foundations (and perhaps destroying them by thinking laterally or outside of the box) to make connections to other frameworks or new stimuli. Learning is a matter of crossing boundaries.

Learning how to navigate and develop our learning agency should enable any of us to learn through life, yet too often outcomes are expressed in terms of what we come to know, rather than how we learn to be. Learning, for me, often describes a state of being between or ‘in-betweenness’. There are many terms that reflect this and, appropriately perhaps, it is valuable to examine the space between these different ideas to discover their value in their nuances.

In this post, therefore, I will set out some terms which touch on the state of being between and then review them to discover what they may have in common. What we can learn about learning as a state of being between?

Metaxis

Falconer (2011) identifies metaxis as a term used by Plato to describe the human condition of ‘in-betweenness’. It points to a sense of suspension in an ecology of polarities or binaries. This reflects my own thinking about how learning exists in a web of continua. I look at this in my consideration of spaces for learning in higher education where I argue that learning can be thought of as acts of transition through this multidimensional constellation of affordances (Middleton, 2018).

Falconer (2011) notes Linds (2005) use of metaxis as “the state of belonging completely and simultaneously to two different autonomous worlds.” Linds’ context is performace and this helps us to understand how being between can refer to being in multiple states: the dramatised world, the ‘real’ world, and experience as the navigation and negotiation of both. Drama, especially in the context of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed discussed by Lands, is a matter of being in a state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002) and being convincing to yourself and others.

This echoes the idea of polycontextuality which I have discussed here before.

Polycontextuality

Polycontextuality describes being present in more than one context concurrently. The idea of presence is significant here in relation to agency – polycontextuality recognises the effect of spatial affordances on the person, and the person’s effect on the contexts in which they are simultaneously present.

I have blogged about polycontextuality on many occasions. I have noted how we can consider this in terms of augmented spaces, dissonance, and a complex multi-participant ecology of interaction. In all cases, it is the multiplying effect caused by one or more contexts on another that creates that spark I think of as learning. And this ties into ideas about learning ecologies and loosely tied social constellations (Ryberg et al., 2012), leading us to ideas about hybrid learning studios.

Mostly I have noted this as a bridging effect, picking up on Elstad’s (2017) idea of polycontextual bridging. My own specific examples point to social media tweetchats and twalks, however, during the pandemic, polycontextuality has become a familiar condition to all of us as we have navigated (often with great difficulty) our conflicting identities of home, work, school and leisure.

Navigation and negotiation

Navigation and negotiation appear regularly in so much of what I write. There is a danger that they lose their impact and meaning with overuse. ‘Exploration’ is another case in point of a term that has lost its acuity – it is a useful way of referring to how we learn in an ambiguous or ill-defined space, but the danger is that it is read as “I’ll leave you to take have a look around, pop out, have a fag, and be back in 15 minutes to see if anyone had any ideas while I was away.” When you look at the difference between the words/ideas ‘navigation’ and ‘negotiation’, the significant nuances are revealed.

Implicit in the idea of navigation is an expectation for learner agency that involves using their curiosity to examine and consider the meaning of objects they encounter (ideas, artefacts, conversations, and so forth). It is about being aware of yourself, the way you think, the decisions you make, the discoveries you find, and the conclusions you draw. Navigation, therefore, is central to research and experiential learning. It necessitates reflection (sense making), though this is easily neglected despite being the site of deep learning in the experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984).

Negotiation refers us back to the idea of dissonance, mentioned as a dimension of polycontextuality above, or decision-making and sense making. It assumes the human’s natural desire to make sense of things, especially with other people but sometimes as a purely personal process of synthesis.

Connection

Connection, connectivity and Connectivism (Siemens, 2003, 2005, 2008) allude to our networked and ecological lives. For education it is the socio-technological and semantic situations which connectivity describes that is of interest.

Analysing and reflecting on accounts of academic innovation during the pandemic this week, the idea of ‘digital advantage’ emerges for me as a way to understand that new concept of learning environment we are trying to put our finger on – the 1+1= 3 factor. Connection here is found in a new awareness derived from an actual problem (learning) (1) that comes out of being in a new situation (1) that demands a new valuable response (3), i.e. more than (2) (knowledge we thought we already understood).

Flux

Flux means being in a state of constant change. It is useful here because it encapsulates both movement and being in different states. Learning, knowledge and life are never stable.

This idea of dynamism, when combined with ideas about networks, leads us to the idea of the ecosystem. Change within a constellation of diverse entities or actants creates a sense of chaos in which knowledge can be only a personal attempt to create a momentary faux stability – just as paintings of people are a pretence at representing a reality. This idea of flux conjurs up a mythical fantastical picture for me – perhaps the art of English romanticist William Blake as found in his drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, or Stanley Spencer’s busy people in his Sandham Memorial resurrection murals. Such images are about the constancy of the life-death cycle. Spencer in particular deals with ideas of negotiation – saying goodbye or greeting a new day, as in his original resurrection painting in Cookham.

Tether

Savin-Baden (2015, p. 1) gives us the idea of digital tethering “as both a way of being and a set of practices that are associated with it. To be digitally tethered would generally be associated with carrying, wearing or holding a device that enables one to be constantly and continually in touch with digital media of whatever kind. Practices associated with digital tethering include the practice of being ‘always on’; ‘always engaged’: texting at dinner, or driving illegally while ‘facebooking’.”

The idea of tethering focuses our minds specifically on the importance of the link itself and its effect on the agency of the tethered actant. Is the tether constraining, securing, guiding, misleading, directing, facilitating, etc? What does the tether mean for that in-between space of experience and learning?

Above all, Savin-Baden presents us with ideas about liminality and the idea of learning being liquid.

Liminality

In education many of us will most immediately associate liminality with the idea of threshold concepts (Meyer & Land, 2003). “Threshold Concepts may be considered to be ‘akin to passing through a portal’ or ‘conceptual gateway’ that opens up ‘previously inaccessible way[s] of thinking about something”. However, threshold concepts are often discussed more in terms of being key concepts – critical nuggets of learning that, once grasped, provide a key to unlock those conceptual gateways to provide access to further knowledge discovery. Indeed, one of its defining attributes is of being bounded. However, while our focus may be on the bounded concept, bounds imply unbounded space that awaits the learner. The promise of liminality is identified within the threshold concept model.

Savin-Baden and Falconer (2016, p. 993) usefully discuss liminality as “a psychological or metaphysical subjective state of being at the threshold of two existential planes”. In this way, liminality captures that sense of frisson or a feeling of expectation. They point to the original anthropological idea of liminality as being to do with the rites and rituals of small human groups: for education we can see the value of demarcating the rite of passage to aid metacognitive learning. As in this post, the authors are intrigued by liminality as describing “a sense of in-betweenness, [one that has] …a stronger sense of shifting identity than the concept of metaxis.” They say, “Liminality is a betwixt and between state often spoken of in studies or rituals or rites of passage as a kind of in-between state.” (Savin-Baden & Falconer, 2016, p. 997)

Thresholds

Thresholds deserve consideration beyond the idea of liminality. Dimensions of social and self-determinism come into play.

Granovator (2004, p. 1422) considers thresholds in relation to collective behaviour. While looking at a riot behaviour, the social setting and its effect on the motivations of individuals are interesting in terms of learned behaviours, influence and negotiation. “A ‘radical’ will have a low threshold: the benefits of rioting are high to him, the cost of arrest, low… People with a 0% threshold are ‘instigators’.” It follows that conservatives have a high threshold because the perceived benefits (derived from held values) are small or negative.

The decision to cross thresholds is dependent upon the way we perceive the benefits and risks of that decision. ‘Bandwagon effects’, ‘domino effects’ and peer groups in a social setting may have a lot to say about joining in, and a person becomes open to reshaping their perceptions or being convinced about the value of ideas. Equally ‘social leaving’ (e.g. the decision to stop doing something or to go home after a party, for example) is interesting here: when is ‘enough’ enough? For learning, how, why and when do we decide to bank an experience and call it learning? When and how is action closed down and learning constructed through reflection? There is something here about learning as being a continual interplay of closing and divergence – not only opening and divergence.

Self-determinism, in relation to thresholds, is about motivations to negotiate a system. “The learner’s ability to be self-determined is inherent in the system: the web is non-linear, allowing the learner to decide in a random way what and how she will learn.” (Blaschke 2013, p. 57) Perhaps the use of ‘random’ here is unhelpful, but the point is that webs continually challenge the learner-navigator to make decisions about crossing thresholds and that decision-making provides the site (no longer a fixed or contained notion) of learning.

Interstices

Interstitial space describes the interface, adjacency, touching or meeting points between two or more spaces. It refers to the latent energy held within the threshold moment itself.

Is this useful to the educator? I think so. It focuses us on the moment of connection, perhaps signalling how or where inspiration can be found. It may point us to the moment a student sees the application of theory to professional practice in a Live Brief activity for example. Knowing that a moment can make impact if it is carefully situated is valuable to the teacher.

Hybridity

Hybridity is another term that is never far from my thinking. It implies ‘neither one thing nor another’ and the implication of that is that it is something else worth having. Again, 1+1=3.

Hybridity is also dependent on difference. Integral to this is the question of whether there is value to be derived from conjoining different dimensions. The question does not imply a single answer should be given, but perhaps that answers to the question might be as diverse as those who attempt to answer it. Hence, hybridity and learning ecologies seem to me to work together well.

In the pandemic, hybrid learning and blended learning have become common currency, often used interchangeably and synonymously. Both are used in many different ways and are ill-defined. However, I am not sure it is useful to tie their meanings down: both are inadequate for conveying what is meant and, usefully, they require further explanation. However, they provide a good start to a conversation.

Often, one of the uses for blended learning is to convey the relationship of the physical learning space to the ‘virtual’ learning space (sorry, I hate the word virtual in this context!). Alternatively, blend is used to describe the balance of synchronous to asynchronous activity. Fundamentally, however, both hybrid and blend assume the provision of a pre-determined space and, as such, that is useful, and even necessary, for those who design learning activities. Acts of learning are likely to be more personal and ultimately self-determined, however.

Permeability

A permeable state is one that is infused with qualities. Permeability supports a sense of ecology. It also suggests something geological in terms of veins or seams that become, or are made, visible after being hidden, although often known about. Permeability implies rich promise – something that is there, but still to be discovered within a setting. Permeability, therefore, is essentially about possibility and agency.

Common ideas

Is there a common idea here?

In this common space exploration (a throwing together and analysis of ideas), I can see ideas about: being, agency and fluency. The implication of this is that the educator should focus less on the defined context (e.g. delivery of certain knowledge; formality; enclosure; etc) and adopt a learner-centred and inclusive appreciation of ideas like ambiguity, uncertainty, movement, patterns of divergence and convergence, reflexivity, doubt, curiosity, exchange, co-operation, and inconclusivity. And, of course, the list might go on…

References

Blaschke, L. M. (2013). E-learning and self-determined learning skills. In S. Hase, & C. Kenyon (Eds.), Self-determined learning: Heutagogy in action (pp. 55-66). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Rider.

Elstad, E. (2016). Educational technology and polycontextual bridging. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Falconer, L. (2011, November). Metaxis: the transition between worlds and the consequences for education. Presented at Innovative Research in Virtual Worlds

Granovator, M. (2004). Threshold models of collective behavior. The American Journal of Sociology, 83(6), pp. 1420-1443

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Linds, W. (2005). Metaxis: dancing (in) the in-between. In: Jan Cohen-Cruz, Mady Schutzman (eds.) A Boal companion. London: Routledge.

Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2003) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising. In: Rust, C. (ed.), Improving student learning: Theory and practice ten years on. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), pp 412-424.

Ryberg, T., Buus, L., & Georgsen, M. (2012). Differences in understandings of networked learning theory: Connectivity or Collaboration? In L. Dirckinck-Holmfeld, V. Hodgson, & D. McConnell (Eds.). Exploring the Theory, Pedagogy and Practice of Networked Learning (pp. 43–52). New York, NY: Springer New York. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-0496-5

Savin-Baden, M. (2015). Rethinking learning in an age of digital fluency: is being digitally tethered a new learning nexus? London: Routledge.

Savin-Baden, M. & Falconer, L. (2016). Learning at the interstices; locating practical philosophies for understanding physical/virtual inter-spaces. Interactive Learning Environments, 24:5, 991-1003, DOI: 10.1080/10494820.2015.1128212

Siemens, G. (2003). Learning ecology, communities, and networks: extending the classroom. Online at: http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/learning_communities.htm

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(10), pp. 3–10.

Siemens, G. (2008). New structures and spaces of learning: the systemic impact of connective knowledge, connectivism, and networked learning.  Online at: http://elearnspace.org/Articles/systemic_impact.htm

About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
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