Thinking of Mountains and Streams

Thinking of Mountains and Streams

June 30, 2024 Off By JR

Bits and pieces of something about this have been in the back of my mind for too long, given I’m just sitting down to write about it today. In the landscape of ISD, occasionally, you’ll end up with a project that is an actual opportunity to look at skills and competency mapping. Sometimes this looks like diagrams or spreadsheets of learning objectives and competencies. But other times I can be a sucker for a good metaphor or looking to other design disciplines for inspiration.

Alone these lines I actually really like skill trees in video games. I’m not actually sure the first time I encountered a skill tree in a video game. Maybe it was Baulder’s Gate Dark Alliance, or Growlanser? Oh, maybe Shenmue (ah the Sega Dreamcast, how I miss thee). Recent examples might be Hyrule Warriors (Badge Market), Hollow Knight (Charms), or Ori and the Blink Forest (Ability Tree). Each of these functions is a little different. Hyrule Warriors has branches, some badges you can access anytime, and others are dependent. The Charms in Hollow Knight are just a cost. The Ability Tree in Ori is three kinds of tracks you can progress linearly but always choose which track to progress next.

One that ended up being more complicated than I expected – I got embarrassingly far into the game before I really figured it out, so I went from basic skills to overpowered pretty much right at the end because I had resources built up over the whole game – was Growlanser V (Plates). Here plates snap into the system from one to the next, detailing upgraded abilities, skills, or spells. Some could toggle up or down connecting different paths. (Side note, I also loved the radial graph for characters in this game. First time I’d ever seen a radial graph ever).

Anyway, I got to a stage in a project where thinking about skills and how they related across different aspects of a program, and it conjured the image of skill trees. I made some initial moves to bring the idea to life but it wasn’t quite right. Maybe trees was the wrong metaphor but what could I use instead? One colleague I had at the time often talked about trails, and later that year, I found myself standing in a building with a map of the Yukon on the floor. Some basic geography was included, as well as details of the historical trails running through the whole territory. It was pretty amazing. I spent some time thinking about that as well.

Another colleague, in an unrelated conversation, talked a bit about streams and the network of streams running through Northern Canada. At the time, I thought it had a lot of promise, and all the way through to today, I think streams are an interesting metaphor to work with for skills and knowledge mapping. (Note here that somewhere, Martin Weller is reminding me that metaphors are great, but they will always fall apart at a certain point.)

I haven’t mentioned mountains yet, and here is where I think I can try to explain the streams metaphor, in contrast to a popular mountain path metaphor. In martial arts, there is a common saying about progressing to the mountaintop. One such explanation of martial arts generally is that all martial arts are different paths, up to the mountain top (there’s a video or two by the Karate Nerd around this but I can’t find the exact one(s) at the moment). Through many of his other videos you can see some truth to this. Although techniques are present differently in different styles of karate or across martial arts, they have striking similarities or even some of the same kata expressed differently but with so much resemblance (seitan is one such example). So as one trains, they may take one path (one school, style, martial art) to try to reach the peak. Another might begin on one path, take another route at a junction for a bit, and cross back to their original path again. In theory you could reach the top, the true technique or perfected knowledge, but another one particular teaching from a sensei is, “today is better than yesterday, tomorrow is better than today”, putting emphasis on there is no perfect but that the purpose of training is improvement. So although in martial arts, the mountain metaphor falls apart when combined with other philosophies foundational to many arts.

So, how would streams work then? Beginning your journey from say a glacier, you, the practitioner flow. Adapting to the landscape around you as you progress towards the ocean. Along the way, you both carve out some of the riverbed, leaving your mark on the places you’ve trained, and taking some sediment with you. Similar to the mountain paths, you may take the shortest route to the ocean, or have faster times of progress such as in the rapids, or slower times, moving through a lake along your journey. Your stream may cross another’s path and you can collect sediment their stream brought to you. Once you reach the ocean, it is not a mountain peak where everyone gathers, but a sea of experience and knowledge. Your knowledge and skills, the sediment, can be applied in this general space. Now for the biggest departure from the mountain metaphor. As you evaporate, you return to the mountain and once again flow down and out to the ocean. This cycle goes on forever. I feel like this speaks to some retention and transfer elements. Your particular water atoms are not destroyed but changed and transferred, and being in the mix of the ocean blends your contributions to society. Kano Jigoro (originator of Judo) often spoke about what martial artists could do to improve society.

For me, I began at one Judo dojo, practicing there only for years. Then I moved cities and found a new home dojo. I learned much there and brought some sediment back to my original dojo when I moved back to Saskatchewan. Then I joined another dojo, focused on high performance, and even started coaching, carving out the river banks, just a little. When I travel, on a former sensei’s advice, I take my belt and join classes wherever I can. This has led me to classes in the UK, Netherlands, four provinces and one territory in Canada, Japan, and Finland. Picking up sediment all the while. When I meet other martial artists, like when I visit my friend at BJJ open mats and apply what I’ve learned in a common lake before going back to the Judo stream. When I’m at home or at work, I consider what Kano meant by mutual welfare and benefit for the betterment of society (that’s a lofty aim to consider).

Along the way some water evaporated and went back up the mountain. Another stream, karate, takes the water particles and finds new land and paths to interact with. Even with Judo experience, I began as a white belt, back at the glacier without any sediment. I moved towards the ocean once again. I ended up moving away from my home dojo (home karate dojo) and in my new city started over as a white belt again. Outside of the dojo, being in that ocean though all of the sediment from these streams of experience come together and mix with everyone else I meet out there in the water.

It’s beginning to fall apart a bit, but consider skill streams in another context. Let’s pick something boring like LMSs. There are thousands of them out there and I wouldn’t necessarily say there is a peak that we’d all meet at as the pinnacle of LMS (quiet down marketers). Different LMSs serve different needs and that’s one reason why so many sprung up. In North American Higher Ed, there are basically four players, and if you took one of the corporate ones and tried to slam it into a university, it would be a disaster. Likewise, the higher ed LMSs kind of suck for other applications. But if we flip the thinking around, and say I began my journey down the mountain from one LMS and empty into the sea of options, there is sediment there that I bring with me. When I evaporate and end up on some other LMS mountain, I learned more and bring different sediment to the sea with me. When I collect along the way mixes into a big general area rather than one single point.

I know there’s much work to be done with this metaphor to make it clear and make it work, but I still feel like there’s something more to streams than to trees, branching diagrams, and even mountains.

If you’ve read this far, your reward is meeting my co-author for this post, Jiji!

a black cat sitting in the sun on a patio infront of a laptop