Towards a “Pedagogy of Small”: A Continuing Journey

In the summer of 2018, I completed a two-week doctoral residency. While there, I had agreed to focus my doctoral work on an idea that I had begun the previous summer entitled “a pedagogy of small.” It was not the topic that I had intended to pursue when I had left for school, and on the return flight, I began to again doubt my decision. Out of that doubt, two research questions emerged: How might I define “a pedagogy of small”? What benefits might such a pedagogy afford?

This article represents an initial and tentative exploration of these questions within the context of my homecoming via public transportation. Through this exploration, a series of potential benefits connected to a pedagogy of small have emerged including: making space for consent, accepting incomplete collectivities, celebrating resistance, embracing impermanence, seeking alternate possibilities, having time to have time and welcoming endings. I did not know when I wrote this that the simple act of taking the train would be something that would disappear from my daily routine indefinitely.

Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s (1988) ideas related to incongruence, rhizomes and the collecting of “ands,” this article is structured around a series of small vignettes that I gathered while travelling home by train. Several stories from the first leg of my trip, which were included in a different article, explored “big” approaches to learning and the risks of scaling up (Elias, 2019). This article focuses on the second leg of the journey and the potential benefits of scaling down. It begins by considering my use of the terms “small” and “pedagogy.” Then, like the somewhat circuitous route by which the train brought me home, this article explores a series of emerging themes in less than a straight line.

In keeping with Deleuze and Guattari’s (1988) non-linear approach to analysis, this theoretical article moves forwards and backwards in time and between spaces. It draws on experiences that took place before, during and after the vignettes on the train to more deeply explore the ideas that they have generated. It also seeks to connect the ideas gathered in online spaces, where my work is typically focused, with ideas from a more material world. Through this process, I begin to find that these two worlds may not be as disconnected or dissimilar as we often perceive them to be. Ultimately, this is a story both of a return to my physical home and of a developing foundation from which my exploration of a pedagogy of small can continue. It is also a journey that celebrates sharing in open and public spaces, from a time when sharing physical spaces with strangers was taken for granted, so I now invite you along for the ride.

Incongruence, Rhizomes and Gathering “Ands”

This article draws on several ideas from Deleuze and Guarttari, whose basic strategy was to introduce “paradoxical elements and then develop their unsettling consequences” (Bogue, 1989). Up until now, the focus of my pedagogy of small exploration has been within the context of online spaces (Author). In this article, I consider and build on the themes from my earlier work within the context of physical spaces in the material world, including the inside of a train. I suggest that by considering learning and teaching processes underway in these, seemingly incongruent spaces, unsettling similarities and connections might arise. Deleuze and Guattari (1988) also suggested:

A rhizome does not begin and does not come to an end, it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo… The tree imposes the verb “to be,” but the rhizome is made up of conjunctions “and…and…and…”. There are within these conjunctions enough force to dislodge and unroot the word “is”. (pp. 23-25)

This concept of a rhizome as an “interbeing” that is always in the middle, and the idea of gathering “ands” resonate with me, particularly within the context of this article. It begins at the middle of both my exploration of a pedagogy of small and a train ride in which I gather “ands,” in the form of a series of small stories, along the way.

How Might I Define “A Pedagogy of Small”?

I change trains at the end of one line and beginning of the other. It is after 9 pm so I expect the train to remain empty, but it quickly fills. I pull my suitcase close to make room for people getting on. First, a couple sits next to me; she sits while he stands very close to her. When they leave, her place is quickly taken by someone wearing a hoodie up over their head and who is eating french fries from a paper bag.

Earlier events on this trip home had caused me to start to pay attention to the others on the train and the more I paid attention, the more I noticed the many small stories that surrounded me. On a different day I might not have noticed these stories. Kimmerer (2013) further explained the importance of attentiveness: “Paying attention acknowledges that we have something to learn from intelligences other than our own. Listening, standing witness, creates an openness to the world in which the boundaries between us can dissolve” (p. 300). Kimmerer’s words and the act of paying attention on the train reminded me of something I already knew, or should have already known, but too easily forget. Several years ago, I began to share small noticings using the hashtag #thinkingSmall on several social media platforms, first as an act of survival and, later, as an act of restoration. From that practice, the idea of “a pedagogy of small” had emerged. It was an attempt to conceptualize the meaning of scale and to explore the advantages of scaling down rather than continuing to chase the fantasies of big technologies, educational and otherwise, that just did not seem to be living up to their promises (Doctorow, 2018, McRae, 2013; Watters, 2018).

Instinctively, I knew from the beginning that reconsidering scale was important, but what exactly did I mean by “small”? In seeking to answer this question, I have relied on a definition of what small is not. Small is not big and not commercial. It is neither optimized nor standardized; it is not derived, averaged, or calculated. I considered using a number to define “small,” but I have resisted; small might be choosing not to quantify. The word “small” therefore might be one that remains flexible and fluid, and can, therefore, remain meaningful in a wide variety of contexts. It might be one that signals a level of intimacy in a pedagogical encounter.

The word “pedagogy” was more problematic. Traditionally, pedagogy has been defined as “the how to” in schooling (Doyle, 1992), which is “ruled by an anthropocentric positivism that aimed to communicate, discipline, and assess the learning of a human other” (Snaza, Sonu, Truman & Zaliwska, 2016, p. xxi). My initial explorations of a pedagogy of small, however, involved interactions that were taking place in two open, online spaces, outside the structured educational environments typically associated with pedagogy. Within these spaces, people self-organized without an identified facilitator. No one defined the tasks to be completed or the starting or stopping points and I do not think anyone within these communities would self-identify as a student within this context (Author). Given this context, it was difficult to see how the tradition definition of pedagogy might apply.

What if, however, we instead adopt a broader definition of pedagogy, one that extends outside of structured schooling and education? Describing what he called a “pedagogy of participation,” Downes (2010) suggested, “It makes sense to think of learning episodes as objects that inhabit the wider environment” (p. 31). Though he was speaking about learning in online spaces, might not this definition extend to the learning that takes place in the physical world but outside of formal schools and classrooms? What if we further accept that where there is learning, there is also teaching taking place? Such a pedagogy might more fully recognize small acts of teaching that continuously surround us, including those undertaken by human, non-human and inanimate beings. “Pedagogy” might, then, also be defined as “the how dos” of learning and teaching regardless of where they take place; it might recognize that acts of teaching are always taking place around us whether or not we notice and learn from them. It is this second definition of “pedagogy” that I associate with the idea of a pedagogy of small. Put together, a pedagogy of small, might therefore be tentatively defined as an intimate opportunity to learn from small acts of teaching that surround us continuously.

What Benefits Might a Pedagogy of Small Afford?

Having developed a tentative definition for the term “a pedagogy of small,” the following section considers the benefits that such a pedagogy might afford including: making space for consent, accepting incomplete collectivities, celebrating resistance, embracing impermanence, seeking alternate possibilities, having time to have time and welcoming endings.

Making Space for Consent

As the seats on the train continue to fill, more people stand. Someone gets on with a bike; others make space. Then, a group of young people get on full of energy. They stand and ensure a man with a walker gets to a seat. The sounds and smells and movements of the train continue to quietly change and be changed by the shifting configurations of the passengers on board and the train itself as it pulls in and out of stations.

Paying attention is deeply connected to making space, with one often leading to the other. On the train, my fellow passengers continually noticed the needs of others and made space to accommodate them. At the same time, the physical act of moving to make space caused us to acknowledge another, if ever so briefly. Similarly, choosing to take the train home allowed me the mental space to notice the small acts of teaching on the train. As I became increasingly aware of them, the more I actively consented to learn from their teachings. It was not the first time in the last few weeks that the connection between making the space to notice and learning had been on my mind. The weekend before, I had written about two similar moments. The first act of noticing took place while walking in the mountains.

We walked up to The Meadow, a wide-open space surrounded by the Rockies, huge peaks surrounding us. We are so small, I thought. Then I remembered to look down, the way my grandmother taught me to do in the early summer before the showy Meadow flowers have bloomed. And there they were, the tiny flowers, intricate and beautiful. Quietly being.

The second moment took place the next day on my way to the university to study.

I returned my bike and headed to the university on foot, knowing only the general direction. Suddenly, I saw an outcropping of art on the corner of this car-friendly street. I stopped, spoke with The Artist and bought a painting. I then asked if I was still headed in the right direction. “Yes,” he said, “Up the hill and turn right. The further you walk, the closer there will be.” Possibly the best directions I have ever received.

Reflecting on these experiences, I see a developing practice of making space for the small, everyday teachings that take place in open, accessible spaces. This practice celebrates the voluntary and consensual nature of teaching that occurs in these types of informal learning spaces. I had spent ten school days in a classroom and innumerable additional hours completing readings and prescribed assignments, but it was from these intensively active breaks and periods of not reading (Stommel, 2018) that those school practices derived meaning. A pedagogy of small might then be one that engages with spaces that are “open to most”, spaces like parks, streets, online communities, libraries and trains, as opposed to within the walls of a classroom.

Simpson (2014) told the Nishnaabeg story of a young child who noticed squirrels and the trees and was rewarded with being taught to make maple syrup, something that she then teaches to her family. By making space and noticing, she allowed the squirrels and the trees to become her teachers and she learned their previously unnoticed teachings. This child did not go out into the forest with the goal of learning to make maple syrup; she was not asked or required to learn a specific skill. Many others had, presumably, travelled through this same forest before her and had never learned from their teachings. Simpson (2014) used the word “consensual” to describe this type of teaching and learning, a word whose relationship to pedagogy deserves more consideration. In this portrait of consensual teaching and learning, she illustrates what it looks like when a child is truly empowered to take control of their own learning.

If you want to learn about something, you need to take your body onto the land and do it. Get a practice. [In this story], Nanabush is teaching us how to be full human beings within the context of Nishnaabeg intelligence. Nishnaabeg intelligence is for everyone, not just students, teachers and researchers. It’s not just pedagogy; it’s how to live life. (pp. 17-18)

While I cannot be sure, I hope that Nanabush would approve of a pedagogy of small as described throughout this paper, one that simultaneously makes space for the active “how dos” of learning, teaching and living.

Accepting Incomplete Collectivities

The people on the train look very different from one another. They are old and young, their clothes clean and dirty; some look tired and others are wide awake. There are hats and hijabs and hoods. I think about these people and their choice to travel by train because… Why? “I have no idea,” I think. Then realize that perhaps I have enough of an idea: For these people, on this evening, the train is the best option. We are all engaged in a “how,” a small collective moment of doing together. Perhaps that incomplete answer is enough. “Why am I on the train?” I wonder next. Yes, it is the least expensive option, but I don’t think I made the decision to travel by train solely to save the cab fare. “Maybe,” I think, “it is my tiny offering back to the earth, saving one car trip.” No matter my reasons, our reasons, for being here, this train full of people forms a collective that will make today’s carbon footprint slightly smaller in size.

This passage describes both a personal and a collective story; it is a story of anonymity and incompleteness. I do not know, pretend to know or pretend that it is important to know the full histories of my fellow passengers. Nonetheless, we were many people with our own stories of “who” and “why” we are, but we were also unified by a “how,” how we chose to travel that evening. Ahmed (2002) describes the importance of focusing on such action-based collectivities.

Collectivities are formed through the very work we need to do in order to get closer to others, without simply repeating the appropriation of ‘them’ as labour or as a sign of difference. Collectivity then is intimately tied to the secrecy and intimacy of the encounter: it is not about proximity or distance, but a getting closer which accepts the existence of distance and puts it to work. (p. 570)

The “small work” we needed to do was to travel together. When someone new got on, someone else moved over, literally making space for the other and demonstrating, perhaps, how easy living together can be. This small work contributed to a “larger work” of collectively reducing our carbon emissions. This work, both the small and large, was not negated by the incompleteness of our personal stories or our anonymity. I did not need to know anything about these people to make space for them on the train, except that this is how they had chosen to travel. As Ahmed (2002) suggested, by focusing on the events of the encounter, rather than the particulars of the people involved, perhaps new possibilities can be opened up.
To discuss the particular modes of encounter (rather than particular others) is also to open the encounter up, to fail to grasp it. We have a temporal movement from the now to the not yet. We could ask not only what made this encounter possible… but also what does it make possible, what futures might it open up? (p. 562)

I sat on the train appreciating the small, collective of decision of my fellow passengers to get on the train that evening. Through paying attention and appreciating, new futures opened up as I rode. I thought about a world where we drive less, a world where I drive less; it seemed just a little more possible than it had the day before. Perhaps, then, a pedagogy of small might be one in which we open up possibilities for ourselves by participating in small, interconnected but incomplete ways with our environment, an environment that includes human, non-human and inanimate constituents.

Kimmerer (2013) said, “This is our work, to discover what we can give. Isn’t the purpose of education, to learn the nature of your own gifts and to use them for good in the world?” (p. 239) Travelling by train was a tiny gift, so easy for me to give. In return, I received a far more precious gift, a tiny glimpse into what an ethical relationality might look like, one in which we increasingly think and act as “human beings living in the world together and also alongside our more-than-human relatives” (Donald, 2016, p. 11). Barad (2012) proposed that we consider entities as “intra-active” as a way of highlighting that entities are not actually separate, but instead shifting and complex entities that emerge from being in relationship with one another (as cited in Snaza et al., 2016). A pedagogy of small might, therefore, be one that teaches that recognizes the intra-action of the personal and the collective, of humans and non-humans, in ways that can help to activate our ability to make incremental improvements in our own lives.

Celebrating Resistance

I look around the train at the many people looking down at their phones. I suddenly remember: “The information superhighway.” That is how they described the Internet many years ago. I wonder if it would have made a difference if, instead, they had sought to create “the information light rail system” or a “public information transportation system.” Would the Internet and its apps and platforms have grown up as a common place where we knew how to make space for the many people who don’t look and act like us? Might we have taken more care not to let decisions about its development fall into the hands of a few?

The early Internet was a decentralized network. Since its inception, however, it has become increasingly centralized over time (De Filippi, 2014). Doctorow (2018) traced this change back to changes in the anti-trust laws in the 1980s. He argued that the technology industry grew up in this anti-trust era and has spent the past four decades looking to see how far they can push centralization and monopolization. He further argued that the problem with big tech is not the “tech” but the “big.” Big companies, in particular Facebook, Google and Amazon, have amassed enormous sums of money, sophisticated technologies and political clout. As a result, they now can both centralize and monetize the Internet with ease.
Combining this level of wealth, technological sophistication and political power has created a form of “digital feudalism” (Schneier, 2013) or “digital imperialism” (Watters, 2014) in which the privacy and security of users is tied to decisions over which they have no power or control. In the process of seeking to sell another pair of shoes, a destination vacation and an online movie, they have created the largest-ever surveillance network (deJong, 2015; O’Brien & Farris, 2014). Sanya, Desai, Callier & McCarthy (2018) described several consequences of these actions:

Citizenship has been subject to deep forms of marketization. The right to have rights is therefore conditional on the market and sharply graded around organized and organizable capacities, resources, interests, etc. Correlatively, the state has retreated from the social commons, only appearing to aid the grip of privatization and speculation. (p. 5).

This is reality of big technology, a technology of surveillance, of corporatization and of globalization. Simpson (2014) reminded us that if we “learn to normalize dominance and non-consent within the context of education, then non-consent becomes a normalized part of the ‘tool kit’ of those who have and wield power” (p. 15). This big technology has its own pedagogy that is silently at work teaching non-consent in our homes and in our schools. A pedagogy of small might therefore be a pedagogy of resistance, an active practice of problematizing and acting, one that should not only point to alternate possibilities but seek to enact small steps towards achieving them.

Embracing Impermanence

I look up toward the ceiling of the train. There are cameras and surveillance here too, but I know we have laws that protect our privacy in this physical space. The public transportation company is not allowed to follow us home. All the events on the train are recorded but, unlike with data surveillance undertaken by the tech giants, no facial recognition software is enabled here, and none of this data is linked to other personal information, and there are clear guidelines for its use and timely deletion.

In my earlier work in small open online spaces, we found that those spaces restored the capacity of individuals to negotiate and self-manage participation (Author). Participants had the freedom to leave and to not be followed when they did. These open online communities were fluid in nature. Like within the physical train vehicle, as some left others took their places and as more joined they adjusted to make space. Community participants in these small open online spaces quietly taught the new arrivals through their actions.

Unlike the train, however, these small open online spaces were funded by tiny donations and built using hand-crafted technologies. In our work, we recognized that these characteristics made these communities vulnerable and made their long-term viability more uncertain, something that we identified as a risk. As I reflected on my experiences on the train, I began to wonder if the impermanent nature of small communities, both online and in the physical world, might, however, also offer intrinsic pedagogical benefits not found in learning spaces perceived to be more permanent, like classrooms. In trying to better articulate this idea, I stumbled across Dogen, a 13th century Buddhist writer and philosopher. He advocated neither submitting to nor seeking to transcend impermanence, but instead realizing its genuine meaning “through the simultaneous fulfillment of existential and ontological understanding in each and every impermanent, insubstantial moment” (Heine, 1985, pp.178-179), an idea that might be more clearly communicated in a poem.

“Impermanence”
The world? Moonlight
reflected in dewdrops,
falling from the waterfowl. (Dōshū, 1970, p. 416)

This small poem encapsulates important ideas related to a pedagogy of small. It suggests that in a fleeting instant, something as small as a drop of dew can teach us important lessons about the nature of the world. By acknowledging and accepting impermanence, by embracing a world of falling dewdrops, perhaps we might also become better able to see, learn from and appreciate the world around us.

I know that if I travelled long enough on that train, the quiet cohesiveness that I was experiencing would be interrupted by something: an unruly passenger, a train malfunction or closing time. Perhaps we too often equate the permanence of a space with its pedagogical value. We, for example, tend to venerate academic institutions that have stood for centuries along with our existential and ontological “truths” that have been safely stored within the approved texts. In contrast, we typically place less value on the informal learning and teaching taking place in the relatively new online realm. But all things fade and change. Even the rails on which my train travelled are in a state of deterioration and restoration. Built in the 1980s, it was originally billed as “a maintenance-free system,” but it turns out that it began to lose its “maintenance-free” qualities after 25 years. While I was travelling with my fellow passengers, someone, somewhere was planning for nightly inspections, and for a complete replacement of the running rails on which we travelled, because even steel melts away in time.

Like the moonlight reflected in falling dewdrops, my small stories from the train are “symbolic of the inexhaustible contents of all impermanent moments” (Heine, 1980, p. 158) on which our lives, our world, are built. A pedagogy of small might be one that celebrates this impermanence, one that emphasizes learning in the moment rather than preserving repeatable events. In so doing, it might treat with care the right to come and go, the right to be forgotten.

Seeking Alternate Possibilities

The train empties again as we get closer to the end of the line and my station. There are only a few people left on board when I get off. Outside the station, the sidewalk is quiet. I pass only one young man headed into the station. He has an Amazon package tucked under his arm.

Big technology is the technology of ubiquity. Noticing an Amazon box under the arm of the only person I saw, reinforced that ubiquity. The reach of the large tech companies already extends much further that the online world, and their desires extend even farther. Their business models involve the de-stabilization of public infrastructure and increasing our dependence on private corporations to perform functions including the provision of services like package delivery (mail), transportation and education. Sanya et al. (2018) describe a level of degradation of public infrastructure that we have not yet seen in Canada but that becomes increasingly likely as global corporatization continues.

The social commons have become spaces of dispossession by accumulation of speculative elites on one side and, on the other, the morbid collision of racialized disadvantaged groups who are being thrown up against each other. These are the consequences and the manifestations of globalization’s rough edges. These processes are not only discursive; they are material and structural. (p. 5)

These are things I already know, but somehow, within the context of that Amazon box tucked under a stranger’s arm, the need to seek alternatives and to protect open, accessible, non-corporate spaces feels increasingly important. Foucault (2000) said “As soon as people begin to no longer be able to think things the way they have been thinking them, transformation becomes at the same time very urgent, very difficult, and entirely possible” (p.161). Although I began my trip with doubts, as I neared home I knew with increasing certainty that my exploration of a pedagogy of small was a journey that I must continue, one that was urgent, difficult and entirely possible.

Having Time to Have Time

It’s dark now and getting late. It’s taken almost two hours to travel home by train, longer than the flight from Calgary to Vancouver. The streets are quiet as I walk the last block home. The air feels different here. I breathe in the feeling of home and smile. Getting close now.

The day before, I had been so anxious to get home that my had body ached from being so far away from my loved ones. But suddenly, only two houses away, I slowed my steps a little to enjoy these last few moments of calm. I thought back to when I had first proposed the idea of a pedagogy of small and the people with whom I shared the idea. One of them, a man named Fredrik, had suggested that where I had seen a pedagogy of small, he had seen “a pedagogy of slow.” As I walked the last half block home, I saw clearly the deep connections between the teachings of “small” and “slow.” How much more did I learn on this slow trip home than if I had instead travelled much more quickly by taxi? A pedagogy of small, therefore, might be one that also one that invites us into a different relationship with time, one that is practiced in spaces where there is “time for having time” (Siedel, 2014).

Welcoming Endings

I finally arrive at home. The lights are on and everyone is home. I pause for one more moment outside, looking at the clover and morning glory growing wildly. I smile. I like these wild plants that seek to gobble up a garden that was clearly meticulously designed by a previous resident. They remind me that standing still is never an option. The world keeps spinning. I think about pulling some of the morning glory, but then decide to leave it. It is trying to teach me something important about balance, or perseverance, or some other thing, and waiting patiently for me to learn from it. It will still be here tomorrow (and the tomorrow after that), reaching out to me a little more.

Like all stories, my journey home and the collection of teachings it offered came to an end. It was a good journey and that taught me a lot. It reminded me of the importance of paying attention and helped me to develop a tentative definition of the term. It challenged me to the more about the possibilities that might be enabled by engaging in a pedagogy of small, including making space for consent, accepting incomplete collectivities, celebrating resistance, embracing impermanence, seeking alternate possibilities, having time to have time and welcoming endings. The trip reminded me of the importance of the small teachings that I too often do not see on the train and in the garden and online and everywhere. This end is therefore not an end, but instead a resting place of a journey that is “always in the middle,” an “interbeing” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988, pp. 23-25). It is simply the beginning of another: another story, another exploration. Another opportunity to pay attention and to learn, teach and live lessons that have so far gone unnoticed.

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