Quite a bit of conversation has been circulating around the blogosphere lately about personal learning networks and how to move them into the professional practice of teachers.
Scott Schwister pushed at that idea in a “must read” recent post, asking “How do we show the learning that happens through personal learning networks?” He concludes by asking, “What is it going to take to bring professional learning networks in from the cold? Can the learning that occurs in a PLN be shown in a way that makes sense—and makes a case—to someone not already involved in their own network?”
My pushback to his post–if you’ll excuse me for citing myself but I am going somewhere with this–
“When we think of teaching something, we often talk about connecting to something our students already know and scaffolding their learning that way.
We can’t ignore the fact that most teachers already do have personal learning networks–maybe they are within their own buildings, but those are networks, nonetheless.
Perhaps building on the notion of the teacher down the hall connects into that.
When we talk about personal learning networks, I think we’re really thinking of something more far-flung.
But although this may seem obvious, I think for a personal learning network to really be personal, it has to fit the needs of the person who creates it.
I think this is partly about creating opportunities for teachers–opportunities for them to get professional support, share ideas, and learn.
But for something to be an opportunity, there has to be a perceived need. “
I’ve been thinking about Scott’s question while reading Made To Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. The authors write about what makes ideas appealing enough to move us forward. In their chapter on emotion, they invoke Mother Teresa’s eloquent words–“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
The idea of building a learning network seems overwhelming in the “whole” and those of us doing workshops have a network built already that we are sharing in conversations and workshops. But how did we get there? One by one, we built those connections. I wrote a post a few months ago about specific steps teachers could take to build a network, trying to get at that idea of breaking down into the details.
I think as we talk with teachers about building a caring professional network, we need to help them look at the one, not the mass, as they begin. We can’t get so carried away with our own enthusiasm that we don’t help them find entryways.
In the chapter in Made to Stick, the authors highlight a number of important factors in making a message stick that resonated with me in relation to personal networks. Some of the factors are things I wrote about on Scott’s post, like connecting to ideas that teachers already know( like their within the building networks). Bringing home how it will help a particular teacher and appeal to their own interests is also a significant way to make the idea of a personal learning network stick–it has to be personal to them.
But, and this seems important as we work with teachers as a whole–stickiness also has to do with the identity of the group as a whole, according to the authors. When making a decision, we may consider our own interests, but we may also consider how we fit into a group–asking ourselves, for example, “what do “teachers” who follow best practices do?” Or “what do 21st century teachers do?” The work Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach are doing in this regard is an excellent example of helping teachers develop that identity.
But associations can backfire too, as the authors point out. (If someone in a workshop doesn’t consider themselves a 21st century teacher because they are reaching retirement age, will they buy in to that identity?)
The authors also point out that sometimes the “curse of knowledge” interferes with our ability to see. (p. 200) Teachers are familiar with teaching ‘as it is’ and we know our jobs ‘as they have been.’ How do we push beyond the status quo, and ask “why?” Why teach? Why are we here? Why are students here? What are we hoping to accomplish? The authors point out that “Asking ‘Why?’ helps to remind us of the core values, the core principles, that underlie our ideas.”(p. 201) Drilling down through these questions may allow us to better explore what would make our classrooms more effective places for students, who are our customers, and sidesteps what the authors call the “curse of knowledge.”
Lastly, the authors circle back around to Mother Teresa’s words. When we make the experience more particular to one person, it has more of an impact. What if we ask teachers to think of that one student that they didn’t quite know how to help–and what it would have been like if they’d had a network of excellent and experienced teachers they could have asked for help? Or what about that one lesson that they’ve struggled with conveying to their students? What if they had a network of people to inspire them with a way to teach it?
I believe there is tremendous power for educators in building learning networks. But if we bandy about the term it loses meaning(if it had any for teachers to begin with.) I think part of making this happen is breaking it down from the global to the particular.
We don’t tell students, today we’re learning all of algebra, and algebra is really important. We show them, step by step, day by day, particular detail by particular detail.
So, in a very roundabout answer to Scott’s question, I think we need to keep it real. I think we need to keep it specific. I think we need to keep it personal. I think we have to tie it into what teachers already know. I think we have to tap into the need. I think we have to help teachers identify what is in it for their students. And I think we have to model being a connected, global teacher and invite them into that experience.
I’m still thinking about this–as Scott wrote, there’s a lot here to be delved into. I know how significant developing a learning network has been for me in the last year. I have felt more challenged, inspired, pushed, and enthusiastic than I have felt since college. I’ve read more, written more, learned more, grown more, and shared more than I have had the opportunity to do in many years.
So, what next? Where do we go from here?