Complex Social Situation

I had a very productive meeting with my thesis committee yesterday. They had read my latest draft of chapter four and made some very helpful suggestions. Here is why I need suggestions at this point:

  • The sheer amount of data that I'm working with is overwhelming.
  • The way I organized the chapter is not very effective.
  • There are some truly important aspects of the research that deserve to be more prominently discussed.

I have been struggling with this chapter for months mostly because I find it very difficult to exclude data and narrow the chapter down to a more manageable size. The reason why it's so difficult is because I was involved in my study as a teacher-researcher, as both a researcher and a participant. As a result, I find myself emotionally attached to a lot of work that my students wrote during the course of the study. Being selective is therefore very difficult.

One of the things that my thesis committee observed about the chapter is that it focuses on three different aspects of the study: writing, reading, and community-building. These three strands, they suggested, need to be more prominently highlighted in the chapter. Together, we decided that I should address each one of these strands separately.

So, this morning, I sat down and, using three different markers, highlighted chunks of the chapter that relate to writing, reading, and community-building. It quickly became clear that an online blogosphere that I created with my students for the purposes of my study is a place where writing and reading are closely intertwined. In fact, the study shows that reading leads to better writing (more expressive, narrative, and personal) and, gradually, to an increasing sense of belonging and community. My students created their own networks by interacting with their peers, by reading and commenting on their work. The ones who benefited most from being part of the class blogosphere were the ones whose posts were based on reading - on specific texts (online articles, own research, other blogs, other comments).

Of course, I knew about this before I sat down this morning to try to re-organize my chapter. But it was the experience of having to separate writing and reading that really made me understand how closely related the two strands are. When we think of blogging, we think primarily of writing. That's why I am sure that there are now many classrooms all over the world where student blogs are reduced to mere writing journals.

While our online environment was based (seemingly) on writing, its development as a community depended to a large extent on reading. The community began to develop only when the students (and I) started to read and thoughtfully comment on each other's work or other texts that they had read.

So, how do I present this in a coherent, linear fashion that is expected from a doctoral thesis? I am tempted to suggest a kind of trajectory which shows that community-building was based on text-based interactions or - to use a simpler term - conversations. The best writers were not those who practiced their craft in solitude but those who engaged with their peers and other texts in the class blogosphere and beyond. This kind of informal learning, a series of ever-expanding informal interactions, was at the centre of their activity in my classroom and led to the development of solid writing skills. Their writing became connective because it was based upon thoughtful and critical interactions with texts. The students became what David Warlick recently referred to as "amplifiers" of each other's ideas. Their interactions with and about each other's work added value to individual contributions and blogs.

All writing was therefore dialogical in the sense that it emerged from a multitude of texts, a choir of voices. As Bakhtin claims, "No utterance in general can be attributed to the speaker exclusively." Every blog entry, every text, was "the product of the whole complex social situation in which it has occurred" (qtd. in Todorov, 1984, 30). Most of the examples of great writing within the blogosphere resulted from interactions with other texts and other bloggers. Conversations fueled writing, and writing, in turn, fueled more conversations until all entries became intertextual and, as Bakhtin claims, there was "nothing individual in what the individual expresses" (qtd. in Todorov, 1984, 43). In other words, blogs, as Jeff Utecht explains, are not really about writing. They're about conversations: "the power of blogs is not in the writing, it is in the thoughts, the comments, and the conversation that they can start, sustain, and take into a million different directions." (I've written about this before: here and here).

How do I discuss writing, reading, and community-building as three separate strands? For the sake of clarity and organization, I need to address them separately. I want to. The chapter needs to coherently and succinctly convey what occurred in the class blogosphere. The challenge, of course, is that I am attempting to discuss and analyze in a linear fashion the kind of environment and process that does not lend itself to a linear view. Our class blogosphere, like any online environment, was a many-dimensional sphere of connections and correspondences. Presenting this "complex social situation" on paper as if it were a simple timeline is challenging to say the least.

_______________________ Notes:

Todorov, T., (1984). Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Connectivism at work

My most recent entry became a node - it sparked some thoughts in the blogosphere and those, in turn, came back and led me to continue to think about connectivism. Gardner Campbell's ideas are worth noting:

We need to teach students how to make connections. We also need to teach them about other connectors. Great minds, in short ... if you want to learn how to make connections, get very very close to someone who’s an ace at it.

This reminds me of what Prensky calls "legacy content" - students need to learn about great minds and the ideas they produced and not just what's online. They also need good teachers, people who are experienced "connectors" - people who will help students discover that Copernicus, for example, connects to the geocentrism of Plato, Aristotle, and Ptolemy but also to the heliocentric view of the universe and to the notion of immanence, subjectivism, intellectual freedom, the Renaissance, and religion in general. Good teachers can lead students from a focus on heliocentrism and planetary mechanics towards a discovery of more interconnected nodes and help them realize that Copernicus had a profound impact on religion and philosophy. Students need to see how the nodes develop into a network and how the network moves us away from pure science and towards ideas that seemingly have very little to do with planetary mechanics. They need to realize that this kind of content ("great minds" or "great books") is not a set collection of facts. True knowledge begins when young people realize that Copernicus is not just a page in the encyclopedia but that he connects to other pages, to other people, other events, other nodes. Only then can they actively begin to connect these nodes, interact with them, and thus create their own network of correspondences. This is how they learn to create their own trajectories of understanding.

This is also how our students can become nodes themselves:

People are nodes. How can I connect? How can I be a connector? How can I be a connection? How can I put myself in a context where the chances of being or doing all those things goes up? Strategies for connection preparation. Fishing in well-stocked streams.

I like the term "connection preparation." How can I prepare my students? I think I have to ensure that they are comfortable with expressive writing (for a good overview of how to accomplish this task, see this article by Joan Vinall-Cox). I think I also need to make sure that they are comfortable using tools that can help them navigate the networks around them and organize their personal knowledge. I also believe that they need to be able to interact with these networks and to contribute to them. Finally, they need the freedom to explore and connect, to co-construct, to learn through discovery. They need to know that the journey takes precedence over the final result.

Teaching Connectivism

Will Richardson's latest post about the changing nature of the teaching profession got me thinking about Connectivism. Will writes:

The Web and these technologies have transformed the way I learn, provided me with many teachers who push my thinking, given me the potential to direct my own education as it is. Why don't more educators make it a part of their own practice? [...] What we need to be is connectors who can teach our kids how to connect to information and to sources, how to use that information effectively, and how to manage and build upon the learning that comes with it. That's a much different role than "science teacher" or "math teacher." Now I'm not saying that subject matter expertise is irrelevant and that there aren't core concepts that discipline specific teachers shouldn't teach. But they should be taught it a much wider context, not in the fishbowl this is our traditional classroom.

There's no question that Will is right. We need to be "connectors," as he puts it, because if we fail in this task, our students will be overwhelmed by chaos. They won't know how to look for patterns and connections in that chaos. If we teach our students to function effectively within communities of practice, if we teach them how to look for patterns and make connections then they will begin to see the surrounding chaos as a teaching organism. They will see in it a living entity. They will begin to understand the principles of Connectivism.

In his essay on Connectivism, George Siemens says that "learning is a process of connecting" and that the ability to perceive and nurture connections between ideas and concepts is a crucial skill. And yet, as Will rightly points out, this is not something that the world of education has embraced.

I don't think that anytime in the near future I will be able to say that I teach Connectivism, but I know that I have made some progress. My personal knowledge is really a network of correspondences and connections. I learn by interacting with a huge network of individuals and learning objects (some are available online, some offline). I read and comment on a variety of what George Siemens calls "nodes"or "information sources." The inspiration for this entry, for example, came from a node I can refer to as "" I am now connecting this node to my own thoughts and experiences. So, I began interacting with a network when I opened up my Bloglines account, found a node of particular interest, and am now building a connection. Learning is no longer an internal, solitary activity happening inside an individual learner - it is also a process of creating knowledge. This connection would not exist without the nodes created by Will Richardson and George Siemens. It would not exist without a personal network of nodes that I created with my Bloglines subscriptions. It cannot exist unless it is reified in this very entry where it becomes another node in an ever-growing network. My learning is therefore dependent on my ability to perceive some sort of connection or pattern in the available chaos. "The value of 'pattern recognition,'" to quote George Siemens again, "and connecting our own 'small worlds of knowledge' are apparent in the exponential impact provided to our personal learning."

How does all this affect my teaching methodology? My classroom has transformed itself from a place where knowledge was pre-packaged for students to a place where they are now given a responsibility of creating it, where they have to participate in existing networks (class blogosphere, for example), nurture their own (Furl or accounts, blogs), and look for connections. Their participation leads them to formulate their thoughts and ideas, to find connections between their own views and the nodes they find around them. Once a connection is made in the form of a blog entry for example, the students have created their own knowledge - they've made a contribution to their own understanding and the network itself. Once they start building, they become engaged and empowered; they understand the value of community (or a network) and their own place and role in it.

It is at that point that I become a teacher of Connectivism, engaged in the task of teaching my students to recognize and formulate connections and patterns. I make them aware of the transformative potential of participating in and learning from networks. It is their history or trajectory of participation that becomes the true goal of education.