Blogging as Attempts at Understanding

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of sharing my findings and ideas about blogging with a group of pre-service teachers at OISE/UT. I spoke about my research and focused on the fact that classroom blogging is first and foremost about creating a community of writers. I agree with Clarence Fisher who says that "Blogging is not just writing online. It is different. It can be different, but because it is new, it is something that kids need to work to understand, and work towards ... Drawing information from somewhere else, placing it together with additional information, thinking about the implications and concerns of this particular information is not necessarily new, but placing this synthesized thought online for others to access and work through themselves, possibly adding their own spin to it, is new for kids in school."

Clarence helped me realize that classroom blogging is primarily about responding to texts and not producing them. He reminded me that blogging allows students to think through texts and ideas, that it enables them to use their own writing and that of their peers as a cognitive tool.

This approach is very new. Our students are used to the transmission model of education and have never been told that writing helps process and synthesize ideas or that we learn best when we write and have to defend, reorganize, refine, and further develop our thoughts. They have never been told that interacting with texts composed by others can be a very effective way of thinking through a problem. George Siemens is right: "Our most limiting challenge is our existing views of learning."

Blogging or writing in communities has the potential to change that. It has the potential to help us create in our classrooms and our schools communities of learners who approach learning as engagement with epistemic texts, learners who see writing and reading as cognitive tools, who understand the value of thinking through texts. However, the big challenge for the 21st century educator is to teach these skills, to teach students that writing can be a tool, that texts should never be seen as definitive pronouncements. If we succeed, students will understand that writing is not about creating finished pieces that conform to specific criteria. They will realize that in the epistemic mode,

the text is treated, not as a representation of meaning that is already decided, given, and self-evident, but rather as a tentative and provisional attempt on the part of the writer to capture his or her current understanding in an external form so that it may provoke further attempts at understanding as the writer or some other reader interrogates the text in order to interpret its meaning (Wells,1990).

So, this afternoon, I stressed the fact that blogging is not going to miraculously transform struggling and reluctant writers. I said that merely giving students blogs and time to write can never be an effective strategy. What needs to develop first is a sense of community. And yes, the students need to go through that process first before anything valuable starts happening - they have to learn to be a community - and we have to show them how. Once that sense of community is in place, the students will realize that the community itself is an organic entity, a growing organism which develops with each new post, each new link, each new node. They will realize that the community grows only because its members continue to push, to question, to challenge each other and themselves. They will learn that social, communicative interactions among community members keep the community growing and its members thinking. They will see their learning as part of an ongoing discourse which continues to expand as its contributors continue to search for understanding. "Additional value," according to George Siemens, "is provided in the ability for learners to teach each other. Reading the opinions of 30 classmates is a far richer learning ecology than hearing the opinion of one teacher. The learner is the teacher is the learner."

It is time to show our students that nothing they write is ever going to be truly, definitively finished. We can call their work connective, we can call it communicative, expressive, or epistemic. The point is that, as Northrop Frye once said, "There can really be no goal where the journey itself is the best thing to be done."