Tuesday, October 28, 2008

the whole of the beast: of elephants, perspectives, and metaphors

Remember the old fable about the blind men and the elephant? In the story, five blind men are presented with an elephant and asked, "What is this animal like?" Each man touches a different part of the animal---tusk, trunk, leg, tail---and offers a definitive conclusion about the whole elephant based on his experience of a single part.
"It's like a wall," says the man who touched the elephant's belly. "It's like a rope," reports the man who touched the tail. And so on, until the elephant has been compared to a pillar, a branch, a pipe, a hand fan. The story has been told and retold in various ways in various wisdom traditions. The metaphors may change from version to version: instead of a branch, the trunk is compared to a snake; instead of a pipe, a spear. In some versions, disagreements erupt and the men come to blows; in other versions, cooler heads prevail. But they all agree in a skepticism about definitive statements of truth based on a single point of view, and their conviction that an understanding of the whole beast requires multiple, integrated perspectives.
Debra wrote this on Aoi's Bookroom about the messy (beastly?) business of making sense of the endless amount of information, tools, pitfalls, and teaching opportunities presented by a Web 2.0 world:
I’m an organized person. That’s not to say that everything in my life is
neat and tidy but librarians have to have a good sense of organization in order
to provide access to the resources available in the library. A lot of the
stuff that we are talking about is messy. That’s not necessarily a bad
thing, but I need to figure out how it’s going to work for me and for my
students. If we have things that we know they need to learn, standards
say, then I can go from that starting point and work around that. But if I
have no base or starting point it’s very easy to get off-track.
Messy is the watchword, that’s for sure. Perspective is so important, too, in
how we make sense of this huge influx of new information. Kind of like the old
tale about the blind men and the elephant. Your information literacy perspective
seems to me to offer both an important angle for everyone to consider, and also
perhaps some fundamental organizing principles. As we’ve touched on topics
related to Web 2.0 and 21st century learning in our E2T2 sessions so far, it’s
been with the knowledge that we’re only touching on the trunk, the tail, or
whatever schema we can grasp to make sense of the experience. With such a
gigantic subject, no one can ever see the whole thing at once. In order to piece
together a comprehensible gestalt, we’ll need to report from our individual
perspectives, share information and experiences, and give each other feedback.
Our hope is that blogging is a way of combining our senses and understanding
this massive animal.
That's one way of looking at it. You may---should, will, do---have others. What emerges from this for me, though, is a reminder that metaphors are often the most powerful way to organize and make sense of whatever conceptual beast we're trying to tame.
What metaphor helps you make sense of what you've experienced and learned so far?


Jim from MN said...

Scott: Technology and related applications (i.e. the Internet changed education and now Web 2.0 is revolutionizing the Internet) are changing so fast that by the time we work our way back to the "tail," everything else has transformed. It is incumbent on technology leaders to know which tools and solutions will solve real-world education issues. Teachers will use ANY and ALL tools that will help them teach and kids lear--be they technology or not.

sschwister said...

Exactly, Jim. The process of learning about technology, and understanding how to effectively use it for real-world education, is recursive and endless. To play with the metaphor a bit: by the time we've worked back to the tail, the elephant has transformed into a hippopotamus, or an emu, or some species we haven't discovered yet.

There must be a Web 2.0 joke in there somewhere about the long tail of the elephant.