I received a number of e-mails and comments in response to my entry on Progressive Discourse. Some asked if I could offer an explanation as to why the students switched into the progressive discourse mode. I've been thinking about the reason why it happened and I believe that it had to do with three things: the transformation that I went through as a teacher, dialogical understanding of texts, and writing as the act of community creation. Let me explain. Teacher as Learner
Learning to transform my classroom practice was very difficult and I certainly don't want to sound like someone who believes he has mastered this difficult new role of a teacher in a networked environment. I think I did well but I still have a lot to learn about what it means to be "dethroned" by a community of bloggers. It was a very difficult process and had a profound impact on my understanding of professional development. I had to learn how to learn with my students, how to become a learner and, yes, how to stop teaching. When I say stop teaching, I, of course, refer to the transmission mode of teaching. I was still teaching as a learner/participant but it was very different.
It started with facilitation. I spent a lot of time guiding and assisting my students. This involved class discussions about individual posts and blogs as well as conversations that began to develop in response to specific entries. Gradually, however, I began to realize that I needed to become more than a facilitator (hence my previous entry) and tried to enter the community as a learner, writer, and contributor. This proved to be very difficult because I did not want my students to know that I also had gaps in my knowledge and that, as an individual, I also wanted to spend some time reading and writing about topics that we were exploring - that I didn't have all the answers.
It was difficult not because of my students (who, by the way, thought it was the most natural thing to do) but because I kept thinking that by engaging myself in the process of learning I was neglecting the class. I thought that it was irresponsible to read and post about the Potsdam Conference, for example, while my students worked (seemingly) unsupervised. I abandoned many drafts of my own entries just because I felt the need to "move around" in the class blogosphere, to see what the students were doing, to comment, assist, and oversee. It took me a while to realize that I could contribute more as a learner than in my capacity as a teacher. It gave me an opportunity to immerse myself in the cognitive current that my students had created through the simple act of writing to learn. I found myself linking to their work, while my own entries, filled with links to numerous online resources, showed them one possible way of cognitive engagement with the chosen topic. In some cases, the work of my students aligned so closely with my own interests that an interesting partnership was formed whereby we learned from and through each other's writing. I was able to model reflective thinking and writing, and I saw that many of them followed my example. I did not know it at the time but I now realize that by entering the community as a participant, I was setting the stage for semantic apprenticeship or "instructional conversation" - a dialogic process of meaning-making that emerges from the student's engagement with a particular task.
The Role of Texts
The second reason why I think the class eventually switched to the progressive discourse mode was our new understanding of texts. My challenge was to create an environment whose structure would make it easy for my students to see that every text is, as Gregory Clark argues,
suspended in an exchange of texts in which it contributes to the collaborative process through which the knowledge that constitutes the community that comprises its writer and readers is continually reconstructed (Clark 1990, 68).
I also wanted my students to understand and see through everyday interactions that writing and reading are not private acts and that
every text is necessarily public and political as it contributes to the perpetual process in which the values and beliefs that sustain community life are modified and revised, that writing and reading are both public acts that carry with them significant social responsibility (Clark 1990, 69).
In short, I wanted to create a community that would instill in my students the understanding that texts are dialogical, that they construct social knowledge, and that texts are never individual in nature but are threads in a complex fabric of social interactions. The role of the student in this space changed from that of an imitative apprentice to that of critical collaborator (Clark 1990, 69). In short, there was a strong emphasis on reflection, questioning, and conversation.
Writing Ourselves into Existence
Finally, I need to stress that as a group we had a clear purpose and that, in my opinion, is what really helped us see ourselves as a community of learners. This community emerged not because we were all writing together in the same online space. It did not emerge because some of our interests happened to coincide. The community emerged because there was one overriding purpose - to learn more about the key themes of the course. The purpose was to build and contribute knowledge, to learn together - engage in the process of "purposefully knowing together" (Wells & Haneda, 2000).
This ongoing exchange of ideas (centred around one clear, collective goal) helped all of us see that we were contributing to a larger whole. This was not in addition to class work or some preconceived, carefully delineated curriculum. No. This mesh of interactions was the curriculum. Unlike the environment in a typical LMS where the discussion forum is an additional space where students can interact, this community was written into existence by contributions made by every single student. This was our space. There was nothing else; no resource collections or teacher-generated lesson plans. It started with an idea which grew through individual contributions and a growing network of interactions.
Clark, G. (1990). Dialogue, dialectic, and conversation. A social perspective on the function of writing. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Haneda, M & Wells, G. (2000). "Writing in knowledge-building communities." Research in the teaching of English, 34 (3), 430-457. (PDF available here).