The Connected Educator

One of the basic principles of the Scottish curriculum is the concept of the ‘learner’ at the centre’ or the learner as responsible citizen, reflected in the curriculum outcomes which consist of a series of statements beginning, ‘I can……’  The attraction of this format is that it shifts the emphasis from teaching to learning, and places the responsibility for learning exactly where it should be – with the learner. Supporters of the new curriculum, and I am one, have argued that its values, principles and purposes could apply equally well to teachers as to students, which is one of the central themes of a new book from American educators Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall.

I wonder how much longer it will be necessary to preface any educational discourse with a statement about how dramatically the world has changed since the turn of the century, but in case there is still any doubt, the authors of The Connected Educator – Learning and Leading in a Digital Age, reflecting the words and thoughts of  Sir Ken Robinson, lay it clearly and eloquently on the line:

“Producing a skilled workforce in the past required standardization that was easily replicable across classrooms – a need for predictable curriculum and methods. Drill and practice may have prepared a generation of factory workers, but it will not educate learners for tomorrow’s world of work. Schools have habitually prepared students for life by making them dependent on others to teach them, rather than placing power over learning into the learner’s hands. Classrooms that operate like connected learning communities- where students do meaningful work related to service learning and social justice – prepare students for their futures, not ours.”

At the heart of The Connected Educator is an irresistible argument for a new model of professional development to fit the modern-day classroom, one where educators are learners first and teachers second. Connected learners take responsibility for their own professional development. They figure out what they need to learn and then collaborate with others to construct the knowledge they need. Instead of waiting for professional learning to be organized and delivered to them, connected learners contribute, interact, share ideas, and reflect. The ‘connected learning community’ model advances a three-pronged approach to professional development:

Local community: Purposeful, face-to-face connections among members of a committed group – a professional learning community (PLC).

Global network: Individually chosen, online connections with a diverse collection of people and resources from around the world – a personal learning network (PLN).

Bounded community: A committed, collective, and often global group of individuals who have overlapping interests and recognise a need for connections that go deeper than the professional learning community or the personal learning network can provide – a community of practice or inquiry (CoP).

*The main difference between personal learning networks and personal learning communities is that the work of professional learning communities is designed around the specific, identified needs of the school and its students while personal learning networks are something that educators design for themselves to further their short-term and long-term goals for professional growth and personal learning. While each can benefit from the other, they are distinctly different. Communities of practice, on the other hand, are made up of people with a common interest, who collaborate to learn to do it better. By way of illustration, the authors offer the examples of a group of diet enthusiasts experimenting with eliminating grains from recipes without reducing taste, programmers working on an open-source computer application, nurses seeking to reduce errors in hospitals, or educators working to promote writing across the curriculum.

This book will challenge many of your assumptions about learning and about classroom practice. It will make many teachers, young and old, feel uncomfortable for a while as they are asked to ‘unlearn’ much of what would have been taken for granted in the pre-internet era. To take just one example, the  following extracts from the text would make an ideal starter for a lively discussion at any staff gathering. Consider especially, each of the statements listed in the second paragraph:

“Connected learning is a process of learning, unlearning, and then relearning as we participate in networks and communities. A fast-changing world creates a need to unlearn tacit knowledge (Brown, 2001). Unlearning is necessary, although it is often difficult and painful because it involves grieving for what we leave behind………….

Yet in most schools, still, the assumptions are that learning is an individual process, that learning has a beginning and an end, that learning happens in schools separately from the rest of life’s activities, and that learning is the result of teaching. Technology is beginning to shift those assumptions and change the way, we, as educators, learn.”

Nussbaum-Beach and Ritter Hall draw on their own extensive experience to provide solid practical advice on how to go about creating that all-important connected learning community. A whole chapter devoted to finding and using the best online tools for the job, invaluable especially for digital ‘newbies’, comes with the caution that what matters above all else is the building of personal relationships, and leads to my favourite line from the book:

“Contrary to what many techno-enthusiasts believe, he who has the most tools does not win.”

Having challenged us to examine our current practice, a key message of The Connected Educator is that educators (the term ‘teacher’ is avoided, something which will challenge many in itself), as well as taking responsibility for their own learning, ought to think of themselves more often and take the time to build their own networks, a task which the authors admit takes ‘time, effort, and perseverance’. Ultimately though, the tone of the book  is overwhelmingly optimistic and, far from being a threat to teachers or another dull ‘handbook’, it is an encyclopedia of useful information, inspirational in its themes, and infinite in its reach:

“As you start to think about change in technology and education, do not change anything about how you teach or lead. Instead, change everything about how you learn. Be selfish for a time, and make everything about you and your learning. By becoming a learner first and educator second, you are serving your students and will be in a better position to model lifelong adaptive learning strategies for your students. You can’t give what you do not own.”

The Power of Practice

It was Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, as far as I can tell, who first came up with the notion of the ‘10,000-hour rule’, the one which suggests that success in any sphere of life is almost entirely down to sheer hard work – along, perhaps, with being in the right place at the right time. It’s also an idea which is taken up by Mathew Syad, the three-times Commonwealth table-tennis champion in his best-seller BounceI was particularly struck by his debunking of the myth of the ‘child prodigy’ or the ‘born genius’, which I’m sure most of us have bought into at some stage, it being such a compelling idea (the provocative subtitle of the book is ‘The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice).

How often do you hear people say that they were always hopeless at spelling or that they couldn’t do maths, the implication being that these ‘talents’ were something you were either born with or not, and they had just happened to be unlucky? For Syad, the idea that the ability to calculate is predetermined at birth is the ultimate expression of the ‘talent’ theory of expertise – we marvel at the feats of those individuals who are able to multiply long strings of digits in a few seconds, as if they are a freak of nature. Yet, according to Syad, there is no magic and no mystery.

“But now consider how much more difficult it is to keep track of a narrative while reading a book. There are tens of thousands of words in the English language, and they are used in new and unforeseen combinations in every sentence of every page. To understand a new sentence, the reader must not only understand its specific meaning, he must also be able to integrate it with all the sentences previously read. He must, for example, remember previously mentioned objects and people in order to resolve references to pronouns.

This is a memory task of almost unimaginable dimensions. And yet most of us are able to get to the last word of the book – comprising hundreds of pages and tens of thousands of words – without once losing the thread of the narrative. The experience we have clocked up as ‘language-users’ enables us to do this in just the same way that the hours clocked up as ‘numbers-users enables mathematicians to get to the end of a multi-digit multiplication by keeping track of the ‘narrative of the calculation.

The difference between calculators and the rest of us, then, is that calculators have spent lives immersed in the vocabulary of numbers, while the rest of us have wimped out by using electronic calculators.”

This is an interesting analogy – and I’m still trying to work out whether it stands up entirely – but it fits quite neatly with my own thinking about the importance of narrative AS learning, as well as its importance IN learning ie that all learning takes place through the creation and sharing of narratives or ‘stories’ (of course we are always sympathetic to theories which chime with our own thinking) . It also makes me wonder whether, when we are quick to criticize those who promise young people that they are capable of becoming anything they choose to be,  instead of dismissing the idea out of hand, perhaps we should simply advise them to ‘remember to tell them about the 10,000 hours!’