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.”