Pattern Language and Dadamac

I celebrate the work of John Dada and his team at Fantsuam Foundation (FF) both for its own sake and for its wider relevance. I often struggle to explain that wider relevance, and it seems that pattern language ideas could help me when I try to share some of the insights that come out of Dadamac.

I don't know enough to attempt to explain pattern language, so I'll simply offer you pointers to find out more through the work of two people who have influenced me. I was also helped by Helmut Leitner who gave me a series of weekly "online tutorials" early in my explorations.

Looking for answers and finding Doug Schuler

I first came across pattern language ideas through the work of Doug Schuler.

I was doing my usual thing of looking on the Internet for "the right people" i.e. the ones whose work (theoretical or practical) would give me insights into the UK-Africa initiatives I was working on. I hoped to learn how to reduce the gradient of my learning curve, so that I would achieve more and struggle less.

This is typical of my life (you could say it's a pattern of behaviour). My life is a continual dance between theory and practice. I'm ready to learn, but I don't like people giving me answers to questions that I haven't asked yet. I need the right "hooks in my head" to hang the answers on. I need to go out and discover the questions for myself, before the answers will make any sense. When I start to do things I rapidly discover how ignorant I am. That enables me to formulate some questions that do make sense to me and I come scuttling back for help with the answers.

I always have plenty of questions from my UK-Nigeria work. It is work which has always relied heavily on ICT (Information and Communication Technologies). Indeed, without ICT in the form of the Internet all the UK-Nigeria stuff that John Dada and I have done together could never have happened. He has alway been way ahead in his use of ICT in rural West Africa (see the video at www.dadamac.org) Given this truth, and the amount of academic interest I see in various aspects of ICT, I keep hoping to find someone, somewhere who is doing relevant research that will help Dadamac to learn from others.

I have this vague feeling that life shouldn't really be as difficult as mine repeatedly is, and it seems likely that other people have figured out how to do "it" better ("it" being whatever particular 'it" happens to be causing me difficulty at the time). I hope that if other people know more about 'it' than I do, then all I need to do is find these people, learn from them and then apply their wisdom to my own situation.

Doug Schuler and Liberating Voices

It was during one of my searches for help that I discovered pattern languages. I was back in the UK, in between trips to Nigeria, seeking answers to the many questions triggered by my latest working holiday and reality-check. I was delighted to come across Doug Schular's work.

It was before he'd written "Liberating Voices, A Pattern Language for Communicating Revolution". He prepared for it by creating an online community of people who later contributed to the book. I found them while they were lin the early stages of describing their work in the form of patterns (see Public Sphere Project). I don't know how to describe that community, but you might get some idea if I share what one of the book reviewers said later:

Doug Schuler and his collaborators have produced a visionary manual rich in insights and directly useful in any attempt to connect people and information technologies in the quest for real democracy"

I wasn't exactly on a quest for real democracy, but I was working in ways that connected people and information technologies. Doug's group seemed to be relevant to what I was doing and to have values and vision that overlapped mine enough for me to want to know more. I got involved in the group and its discussions and thus started to learn about pattern language.

As I see it, pattern language makes it easy for people to share their experiences and learn from each other. The set structure of a pattern language enables readers to quickly find out what stories/examples/patterns might be relevant to their own needs, decide what really is relevant, and (if something is relevant) consider how far it is applicable.

There is a useful introduction to patterns and pattern language in the preface to "Liberating Voices, A Pattern Language for Communicating Revolution"

The structure Doug uses in the book is:

  • Title
  • (Visual image if included)
  • Problem (a paragraph)
  • Context (a paragraph)
  • Discussion
  • Solution (a paragraph)
  • Linked Patterns

If you want to read any of the patterns without buying the book then you can access them here.

Practical Design Patterns for Teaching and Learning with Technology - Yishay Mor and others

I learned more about pattern language through Yishay Mor. I met Yishay when our paths crossed at the London Knowledge Lab (LKL), and also through PRADSA. Yishay was running Participatory Pattern Workshops at LKL and I went to one on 17-03-2009. I know the exact date because Doug Schuler was there in the afternoon, with his recently published book, and that is when I got my signed (and dated) copy.

Subsequently Yishay invited people to contribute to a book that he co-edited with Harvey Mellar, Steven Warburton and Niall Winters. I was attracted to the idea because it promised "shepherding" to authors who needed help with the Pattern Language side of things. It seemed an ideal way to learn.

The book is Practical Design Patterns for Teaching and Learning with Technology. The introduction explains that the book uses the methodology of the Participatory Pattern Workshops.

Authors had the choice of two structures:

Either

  • Title
  • (Visual image if included)
  • Summary (a single sentence)
  • Situation
  • Task
  • Actions
  • Results
  • Lessons Learned

or

  • Title
  • (Visual image if included)
  • Summary (a single sentence)
  • Problem
  • Context
  • Solution
  • Support
 (supporting cases, related patterns, links, references, etc)

Contributing to the book was a rich learning experience and I certainly understood much more about pattern languages by the end than I did at the beginning.

Pattern Language and Dadamac

My interest in patterns and pattern languages gives an additional dimension to my work in Dadamac. Some people see my broad approach as adding unnecessary complexity. They would prefer it if I focussed only on John's work at Fantsuam, and if I simply saw that work for what it is, in its own right (not as also illustrative of something wider).

I understand their frustration with me. From their perspective I lack focus, I spread myself too thinly, I'm involved in far too many disconnected initiatives.

From a patterns perspective the situation is completely different. It is only by being involved in a wide range of apparently disconnected groups and initiatives that I get a chance to test the applicability of the patterns that I see emerging. It is partly because of my interest in patterns that I see how local initiatives complement each other and illustrate patterns relevant elsewhere on the globe.

I hope that as I get better at using pattern languages I will be able to tell the stories of Dadamac, and share the collective wisdom of changemeakers, in ways that make sense on many different levels - individual and personal, organisational and local, international and global.