Towards a Personally Negotiated Understanding

WiAOC2007 Earlier today, Christopher D. Sessums and I delivered our WiAOC 2007 presentation, entitled Personal Learning Environments - Exploring Teacher Professional Development in a Networked World. We used to deliver our presentation. It was a good learning experience to use a Web 2.0 tool that we had never used before. allows participants to listen to the live stream or register and download a client in order to call in to the show using Skype.

If you would like to comment on our presentation, you can post a comment in response to this entry or on our talkshoe page.

We wanted our presentation to be an informal discussion rather than a list of definitive thoughts on the subject. We decided to explore the potential impact that the read/write web can have on teacher professional development. I think many of us are still trying to figure out how the world of Web 2.0 can best complement existing teacher education programmes and practices, and how it can best be used in our own everyday practice as educators.

Personally, I was interested in exploring the benefits of Action Research as a way for teachers to become critical and reflective practitioners. I believe that asking questions about what we do in our classrooms and why we do it is an important step towards engaging in a pedagogy of possibility and participation. When we begin to ask questions about our own practices, we become aware of the impact of reflection and the importance of personal freedom in charting our own course as learners and researchers. That freedom to research our own practice is an important step in understanding why all learners need to be free to explore and follow paths that they find relevant and interesting. It seems to me that teachers who experience the empowering effects of Action Research understand that we are all storytellers that that we need environments that foster the development of individual voices. How can we possibly help our students be co-contributors and researchers if we ourselves don't engage as learners and experience what it means to construct knowledge?

The importance of creating environments that can support the development of individual voices and encourage personally meaningful engagement with ideas was another topic that I mentioned during our presentation. John Dewey believed that "learning is a product and reward of occupation with subject matter." He believed that good teachers give their students something to do and not something to learn. He also believed that education takes place indirectly through the medium of the environment. I believe that Dewey's words could be interpreted today as an encouragement to create online environments - online extensions of our classrooms - where students can explore ideas that they find personally meaningful and relevant. It is my contention that teacher professional development should be about learning how to foster these environments in order to engage students in their personal searches for meaning. In order to accomplish that, it seems to me, we need to embrace Action Research, we need to become critical of our practices, and we need to start perceiving our role as more than that of a handout technician whose only responsibility is to transfer knowledge. Our response to Web 2.0 should be more involved and more complex than switching to blogs or wikis as a method of course delivery. Classrooms where these tools exist and are used are not necessarily Classrooms 2.0. They are quite simply classrooms where students write and interact online in addition to writing in their notebooks and interacting in the classroom. A true Classroom 2.0 is a place where the teacher and her students are engaged in narrative inquiry. It is a place where the participants engage in constructing narratives of experience, and where the curriculum is redefined as personal journey through life or, as Connelly and Clandinin have phrased it, as "one's life course of action" that we chart as we engage with personally relevant ideas and travel towards a personally negotiated understanding of the topic and of who we are as learners, as educators, as researchers, as people.

When educators create, enter, participate in, and sustain communities that support independent research, critical thought, reflection, and meaning-making, they become what Henry Giroux refers to as "transformative intellectuals." They understand that students are active agents, that knowledge needs to be questioned and problematized, that dialogical methods of inquiry are most effective learning tools, and that all learners need a place where they can make sense of their own selves and explore their relationships to others and the world around them.

Knowledge needs to be created, re-created, co-created, and problematized by students and teachers in their classrooms on a daily basis. Classrooms come to life and become places of cognitive engagement when all of the participants, students and teachers, interact with each other's texts and discoveries. Many of us have already created environments in our classrooms that support this culture of inquiry, participation, and interaction. We use blogs, wikis, podcasts, and many other Web 2.0 tools to help students understand that knowledge is an active process of construction and not something that arrives in a textbook, neatly compartmentalized into chapters or units. I believe that the next step is to challenge ourselves as educators to become reflective and critical thinkers who understand that teaching is a form of inquiry. It is not enough to create a blogging community or start a wiki and let the students interact within in. We need to be part of that environment too. We need to enter it as participants, as learners, as researchers. Then, we need to reflect on our experiences and openly share our findings. It is by telling stories about our classrooms and about our own newly-discovered places in our classrooms that we can best learn to understand the life of the community in which we participate and the kind of interactive, multidimensional, and immersive world that has come to define the lives of our students.