creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by courosa: http://flickr.com/photos/courosa/2922421696
 
So far I have discussed connecting with others both off and online. In addition to this, I explored taking owner of our identity online, as well as elaborating on and engaging with the ideas of others. The fifth step in being a connected educator is learning.
 
Ideas and inspiration can come from many places and like connections, are not always digital or online. Sometimes learning can be as simple as a chat around the photocopier or walking between classes. I have discussed this elsewhere as the incidental ‘hidden’ professional learning. The reality is, everything in life can offer a point of learning if we are willing to see it that way. For example, an activity that I have done with my students in the past is to reflect upon their classroom and what it says. I have done this in history when considering artefacts, as well as in music when thinking about performance and space.
 
I would argue though that the digital realm only extends the potential of this learning. One of the best things about learning online is that you can do it anywhere, any time. Whether it be reading a blog, watching a video, listening to a podcast or participating in an online chat, there are so many opportunities and options that the biggest challenge that we are faced with is what to engage with.
 
At the recent Teachmeet event at the Immigration Museum+Richard Olsen posed the question about whether there are any negatives about being connected. This has really prayed on my mind. I think there is so much written about the positives, that the flip side is often left silent. One of the initial negatives that I found is having so many different options and ideas out there, it can often leave you in a state of disarray. The challenge then is what we do about this disruption to the way things are. The biggest lesson I have learnt in being a connected educator is that nothing has to be the way that it is, rather we choose for it to be that way.
 
My solution to this feeling of perpetual confusion is to engage with others online in the effort to identify different perspectives. By engaging I don’t mean lambasting those whose views are different, but rather, as +Peter DeWitt puts it, “finding common ground with people I do not always agree with, and building consensus with those that I do.” 
 
In a recent interview with +Ed Tech Crew, +Dan Donahoo provides the suggestion of finding five people that you disagree with and following them. His argument was that we often learn more from those who we oppose, than those that we agree with. In another take on this, +David Truss, refuting the echo chamber argument, states that, “a good PLN will pull in learning from places I don’t normally go, and this means that even when good ideas bounce around, perspectives on those ideas don’t stay static… they don’t echo, and they morph into new insights.” 
 
As I stated in my post on blogging, learning online is about connecting with others in a reciprocal manner, both taking and giving. At its heart, it is about keeping the conversation going. Often though, it is the walls that are often built around us that kill this conversation. 
 
The easiest way to breakdown walls that so often hold us back, inhibit us and prevent us from reaching our potential is to realise that such ‘walls’ are merely a construct. Having been built, they can often just as easily be torn down. To me the Rhizomatic Learning MOOC epitomised (or epitomises, depending on how you think of things) everything that is meaningful about being a connected educator both in content and construct. 
 
Although I connected with some really great people, such as +Simon Ensor, +Keith Hamon, +Luis López-Cano, +maureen maher, +Ronald L and +dave cormier, it was a connection formed around ideas rather than personalities. I made no pretence to assume that I knew many or any of these people. To me though, this is what is so significant about connectivism. Although we may connect with people, a specific identity, to me it is the thoughts and ideas that they may offer that makes them truly meaningful. It may be important to nurture and maintain connections, but it is our capacity to know more that is more critical than what is currently known which stands out the most.
 
Although online learning, whether it be responding to a tweet or participating in a MOOC, may not necessarily provide the same depth and rigor of a more formalised learning, it does provide an opportunity to connect with others who we otherwise would not normally associate with and develop new knowledge in the process. As +George Siemens pointed out in his seminal piece, “our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today.” To me, being a connected educator is the first and most important step to a life of learning. For if as David Weinberger puts it that ‘the smartest person in the room is the room”, my learning is more meaningful when it is not restricted to those people who I work with or know through past experiences.

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In a post I wrote a few months ago I spoke about what I called the ‘hidden professional development‘. That informal learning that occurs unplanned and on the fly, whether it be at lunchtime, while photocopying or even when swapping over on yard duty. Basically anywhere, anytime, simply where two or more passionate learners meet. The big question then and the question now is how do we encourage this? What structured opportunities do we provide for this?



Tinkering Teachers

In a fantastic discussion as a part of +Ed Tech Crew Episode 240 focusing on what it takes to be an IT co-ordinator, +Ashley Proud spoke about the demise in tinkering amongst students. Although +Mel Cashen and +Roland Gesthuizen mentioned about taking things a part, giving the conversation a more mechanical theme, I feel that tinkering is best understood as a wider curiosity into the way things work. 

I believe that one of the reasons for such a drop-off belongs with teachers. Although this criticism does not belong with all teachers, I think that there is a status quo out there who ask one thing from their students and model a different thing in their own day to day practise. Although teachers themselves have a large part to play in this, I also feel that one of the deeper issues lies with what opportunities teachers are provided with to actually be curious and creative, and I don’t simply mean curriculum planning. 

For example, the other day, I was asked to cover a yard duty for a colleague as her and her team wanted to get together at lunchtime to create a collaborative birthday video. I asked what they were going to use to film it and whether they wanted to borrow my iPad. The eventual product was not great, but it was a development on past productions. Most importantly though, it was a skill to take back into the classroom and share with students. What this whole scenario got me thinking was that, more than just opportunity, we do not provide enough encouragement for such activities.

Genius Hour … For Teachers

One initiative that has taken off in schools during the last year or so has been the idea of ‘Genius Hour’. Known by many names, such as 20 Percent Time or Passion Projects, Genius Hour is basically where students are given a license to develop a personal project of their choice. For a further explanation, I recommend +Anthony Speranza‘s post, ‘My Experience in Getting Started with Genius Hour‘. 

The background is that it comes from Google, where workers are (or were) provided one day a week to work on Google-related projects of their own choice. I think what needs to be understood is that, as +Ryan Tate suggested in his post for Wired, 20 Percent Time is not “a fully fleshed corporate program with its own written policy, detailed guidelines, and manager.” This is significant as what Tate is saying is that Genius Hour is not about a set of actual practises, as different companies have different notions of it, rather it is about the ethos behind it. This is why it has transferred so well into schools, with teachers creating their own twists on the whole affair, but still continuing to capture on essence of passion and innovation. However, one area that has been left untapped, as far as I can tell, has been the idea of teachers conducting their own ‘Genius Hour’, that is, teachers finding a passion of their own and running with it.
One of the failures with a lot of professional development is that it is dictated to staff with little choice, a stark contrast to what we ask of most teachers in the classroom. Fine there is a time where some information needs to be given or staff need to conduct certain work, but wouldn’t it be good if teachers were able to dabble in other things in a supported manner. As Tom Whitby put in a recent post ‘PD: Same Old, Same Old‘:
Professional Development needs to be more than an occasional workshop that can then be checked off of an Administrator’s list of things that need to be done for the year. PD must be prioritized and supported on an ongoing basis. It must be part of the workweek. In addition to providing access to new ideas, technology, and methodology, time must be afforded for educators to collaborate on what they have learned. Educators need time and support to put into practice what they need to learn.
What stands out to me in Whitby’s description is the focus of what teachers ‘need to learn’. I think that many teachers do not really know what they ‘need’. However, a starting point for this is to support teachers with what they want to learn and then go from there.

Life-long Learning Can Happen at School Too

Too often the more ‘personal’ professional development is left for teacher’s own time. I have two problems in particular with this. Firstly, in leaving learning to chance means that some teachers never actually do it. Like the hidden professional development, personal learning is one of the first things to get crossed off the list when times get tough. Secondly, staff are not being properly supported in their forays into the great unknown. As Tom Whitby suggests: “Learning about technology and how to incorporate it into learning specific to one’s class may be a bridge too far for many educators.” We all talk about ‘getting connected’ as a way of overcoming this problem. However, that too involves technology. Instead, one possible way to bridge this gap is to provide teachers with a specific time and space during school in which they are able to explore their own interests, knowing that they have support all around them.
One of the greatest fears in opening up professional development to the whims of the staff is that to some this time either gets wasted or is underutilised. My school tried to introduce personal learning a few years ago where there were some random sessions offered, as well as the option for staff to choose their own professional development. Most people ended up passing on the offer of finding their own learning and stuck to one of the sessions on offer. This is not to say that the sessions on offer weren’t powerful or important, but I feel that one of the key reasons why staff did not take up the opportunity of finding their own professional learning was that there was a lot of confusion about what was required. Was it completely open or were there some things that were prohibited? Did you have to write a reflection? What the situation needed was a little bit of structure, a little bit of guidance about what was and was not acceptable. The problem is that there is often a lot of conjecture about what does and does not constitute professional development. I would argue that ALL learning can be deemed as professional. For just as +Alec Couros suggested in an interview with the +Ed Tech Crew that, “some of the best learning happens each day on Youtube whether it is meant to happen or not”. The big question is whether we actually recognise it. One way of doing so is to encourage it by making the often informal ad hoc learning more formal by adding a certain sense of structure and uniformity.

 

Providing teachers with the opportunity to identify an a passion, something that they may be interested in but ignored due to time and effort. Although this may not be an ‘hour’ each week, maybe every fortnight, it is a regular time to work either individually or collaboratively. A time to identify and touch base with other experts. A time when teachers know that they are both free and supported to take ownership over their own learning. 

Clearly with such ‘freedom’ also comes a certain sense of constraint. This learning needs to be explicit and needs a purpose, a question to drive the project. With this needs to come some goals, both short and long term, about what is trying to be achieved. Attached to these goals is an element of on-going reflection and accountability for what Bianca Hewes calls the ‘mushy middle‘. At the end, there needs to be an opportunity for sharing and celebration about what was achieved and what has been learnt. This could be sharing to your team, participating in a smorgasbord, as a part of a performance and development meeting, writing a blog post. It does not really matter what means it is, what is most important is that it happens.

creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by C G-K: http://flickr.com/photos/cgk/3795790211

Helping the Wildfire Grow

Often the greatest joys come when space is provided for learning to happen naturally. A colleague, who is not always big on introducing technology into the classroom, told me about a situation where he gave his students a group task and they automatically created a Google Doc and shared it between themselves. I love this story as it highlights that not all learning is direct. We may introduce a skill with a limited response. However, staff and students may see some other benefit and use it in another situation. I have seen this happen with programs like Padlet and Edmodo, where given some amount of freedom, people have found their own purposes and contexts. To me, learning in this situation is like wildfire.  Given the right conditions, a fire that takes hold, is disruptive and very much uncontrollable in itself. As +George Siemens suggests while talking about connectivism as an answer for the digital age, “learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual.” The role leaders and co-ordinators in this situation is to manage things, conducting back burning and creating fire breaks to contain learning rather than control it.

The question to consider then is whether you are creating an environment where learning can take flight – dry kindling, tall trees – or are you creating an environment where, with a lot of damp branches, there is a lot of smoke, but little fire?


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In a provocative post, ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, Peter Skillen wrote about six ‘bricks’ that he considers are combining to prevent the evolution of education into the 21st century. The bricks are that:
  1. There is an inability for leaders and administrators to practise the same things that they preach and also become learners.
  2. Too many educators are living on a diet of abstracts, one-line wisdoms from Twitter and drive-by professional development.
  3. We need education for our students and ALSO for our teachers – not subjugation.
  4. Rather than overload teachers with initiatives, administration needs to help teachers to understand the ‘essence’ residing in all these practices and out of the distilled essence, teachers could then ‘construct their own knowledge and practice’.
  5. If we want the culture and context of the classroom to change, we need to embrace technology and how it might bring about this change.
  6. we need to educate the public about the changes that are needed.
Peter’s post definitely left me with more questions than answers, such as: Can you really have administrators as ‘learners’ and still expect them to continue with their same roles as they are now? How do you convince students and teachers to embrace their own education, rather than accept a life of subjugation? What happens if different teachers working in the same team develop a different ‘essence’ associated with learning and teaching? Isn’t technology one part of 21st century learning, not the whole part? How do you go about educating the public in regards to the evolution in education when there are so many stakeholders out there providing mixed messages about what this means? However, the biggest question of all was whether the modern phenomena of perpetuating ‘one-liners’ was actually detrimental to any sort of productive change?

 

 

Summing up the Main Idea

One of the biggest instigators in this one-line revolution is Twitter. Restricted to 140 characters per post, it seemingly forces users to clamour to the highest point of land and jump up and down to be noticed. Posts therefore often lend themselves to absurd statements, such as “5 Things Preventing You From Becoming a Billionaire” and “The Secret Video Obama Doesn’t Want You to See”. But the question is, does it have to be this way?
 
Having really taken to Twitter as a place to share and connect with others, I feel a little guilty as charged, as I often reduce arguments down to one-line. When I started tweeting, I initially went in thinking about how students could use such a medium to record regular reflections with their reading. I therefore made an effort to share those pertinent quotes that stood out from the texts, the main ideas if you’d like. This would always be followed by either a title or a URL where applicable. As I progressed, I started to struggle with the challenge of fitting the message into the restrictions of a 140 characters and turned to such programs as Quozio to quickly and easily capture and share longer passages. For me, this was more important than simply sharing a link or re-tweeting a previous post. My attempt was to give a meaning to the message, to provide a taste of the text, rather than just some catchy title. However, does this really guarantee to provide the reader with an entry point or simply provide a short and quick summation, providing the feeling that the idea or argument is now known and understood.

 

Digital Identity

 

I think that in some respect this whole argument is really about digital identity and how we each present ourselves online. I was once told by a fellow teacher in an annual review meeting that every day is a living job interview, you shouldn’t wait until you are sitting in front of a panel. Often the decision is made before you even speak, whether it be the examples that you haven’t got to present or the positive references that you haven’t got.
 
This content – tweets, posts, images – is a way of constructing your own brand, posting aspects that we associate with, marketing ourselves. This needs to be differentiated from the self-aggrandizement, where we spruik ourselves in the climb up the ladder. Instead this ‘marketing’ is a more rhizomic in nature. Although we may eventually ‘move up the ladder’, this is often a by-product, instead the real strength of our sell is in the connections that we are able to develop.  For in the modern world, it is not necessarily what you know, but the network of people you know that can help you get to a better answer. (For a great discussion of such matters, read +George Siemens introduction to connectivism.) The question this becomes about how we actually form these networks.
 
In a +Mashable post ‘Stop Linkbait Before It Ruins Content Marketing’, Sam Slaughter gives a few suggestions about how to best approach content marketing. He provides six different suggestions:
  1. Standing out requires adding something new to the mix, bringing users a piece of information they could not have gotten elsewhere.
  2. If it looks written by a machine, for a machine, it won’t resonate with human readers.
  3. It’s important to produce content that will uphold and retain value for your target audience.
  4. It’s key to understand the landscape and which solutions fit best with a brand’s current and future content needs.
  5. The portrait of “success” looks different for each case.
  6. It takes time and effort to create an engaged audience.
I think that these suggestions carry across to the development of our own digital identity. One of the prime ‘solutions’ for this situations is Twitter. It provides a medium through which you can publish regular and authentic posts. The problem though is it is easy to read like a robot, rather than like a human. However, this is often easier said than done. With so many programs and applications that easily post information to various social network platforms on our behalf, it can be be challenge.

Tweet as Aphorism

Another perspective on this whole debate is thinking of a tweet as being more like an aphorism. The Oxford Dictionary defines an aphorism as ‘a pithy observation which contains a general truth’. Although it may touch upon a truth, often the success of an aphorism is not necessarily the truth or ‘wisdom’ it provides, but rather the point of contemplation to which it often leaves the readers.  Whether it be Lao Tzu or Donald Rumsfeld, an aphorism often leads to more questions than answers. I admit then that not all tweet are deep in nature, but does that mean that the medium is subsequently flawed?
 


Infinite Hope

I can change the way I work and attempt to influence the way other people do things, but in the end it still all comes down to choice. A choice of whether to write like a human or like a robot. A choice of whether to publish authentic ideas or simply run for the absurd. Although there may not be some gold nugget hidden within each tweet, waiting to be unearthed, I think that there is much to be gain in getting learners to think differently. I admit that Twitter as a medium does open itself up to a false sense of contentment, but this is often a fault of the the reader to think that this is dialogue stops there. For one of the tenets that seems to get bandied around in regards to 21st century skills as the notion of critical thinking. If I naively think that all you need for a Teachmeet is to “pick a date, pick a pub/library/space that is free and go ahead” as +Matt Esterman put it to me, then I would be the fool. For even though it is a free and open form of professional development, at the very least, it still requires some organisation and PR to get people there. However, Matt’s statement does plant a seed, it does at least provide the basic principles of what is required to organise a Teachment and that is important.
 
So to answer the question, can you really find wisdom in one-line? The answer is probably no, but you can definitely find hope. Hope for a different world, hope for a different way of doing things, hope for a more critical viewer. And sometimes that hope is all that we have.

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