Community – Formerly Known as Audience

A bridge is a sticky connector only if people need to get to the other side (( Leszczynski, Janusz. “Alexandria Bridge.” Janusz L’s Photostream. 28 Aug 2009. Flickr, Web. 23 Nov 2009. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/januszbc/3865004558/>. ))

It appears to have started with a Facebook status update from Science Leadership Academy Principal, Chris Lehmann.

When having audience is no longer novel, simply having one is no longer motivating.  We still must help kids have something powerful to say.

Saskatchewan educator, Dean Shareski, continues the point in a blog post, Why Audience Matters, followed by fellow Canadian (Snow Lake, Manitoba), Clarence Fisher in his post, Those Formerly Known as the Audience.  Finally, it all came to my attention, when Jeff Utecht tweeted a link to his installment on the conversation, Audience as Community.  I strongly recommend you read all three of these blog posts because, together, they cover a wide range of reasons why audience is important to student learners.

My immediate response to the whole issue was a mild disagreement with Chris’ initial post.  He may be right, and he’s certainly in a better position than me to see it first hand.  But I’ve had numerous Class Blogmeister teachers say that “classroom” as audience seems to be just about as motivating as arranging for people around the world read and respond. 

I suspect that the world-reach thrill of blogging might be novel and might wear off.   But it occurs to me that the true power of working within an audience, as opposed to performing in front of an audience (writing to the teacher, what you thing the teacher wants to read), is the power of conversation.  It’s knowing that somebody (even the guy in the next row) is reading what you are writing (not measuring it), and that the reader may respond to what you’ve written, pushing you to rethink and respond back.

It’s the potential of adding something valuable to somebody else’s thinking — the potential of becoming valuable.

I usually mention three qualities of personal learning networks when I do presentations on the subject — that PLNs are:

  1. Personal — They’re shape and function is completely up to the the ongoing needs of the learner.
  2. Both Spontaneous and Directed — Some learning experiences can result from careful cultivation of the network, and some simply happen because you are connected.
  3. Connective — The network of people and sources are held together not by wires, routers, and HTML links.  It is a network of ideas.

It’s this last one, connectiveness, that I think may be pertinent to this conversation.  There has to be something between the network nodes besides the concept of audience.  There has to be something sticky there, something that helps, something that offers value, an intrinsic reason for the conversation.  If you are connecting your class to another class in Scotland, then there needs to be something in the perspective or experience of those Scottish students that helps your students accomplish their goals, and it must be a goal that is more than academic or schoolie.  It has to be a goal your students identify with — that they want to accomplish.

This network of ideas is one of my favorite aspects of personal learning networks.  The people I am connected to are not part of my network because we look the same, speak the same native language, follow the same religous doctrine, or share identical cultural traits.  We connect through our ideas, because what we do provokes us to share those ideas, and we all benefit.  Even the photo that I include at the top of this post comes from a temporary PLN connection with Janusz Leszczynski, simple because he (she) once took a picture of a bridge and labeled it bridge and I, months later, was looking for a picture of a bridge to symbolize connection.  The ideas were experienced at different times, but the ideas’ stickness lasted on.

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A Gardener’s Approach to Learning

(cc) image from WikiCommons by Persiatj

I often write about the need for a new type of textbook, one that is digital, interactive, social, open, and a product that actually results from student learning as much as student learning results from the product.

I frequently get comments of agreement, stating the need for digital text books with video and audio and interactive objects — and I agree whole-heartedly with these observations.  I think that this is exactly the direction we need to be going in, and these are things that need to be said again and again.  But I think that our ultimate goal need to go way beyond just interactive glow and motion. 

This is fast food for learning!

Now don’t get me wrong.  There is nothing wrong with fast food in moderation.  It solves problems.  Often I am thankful for a MacDonalds sandwich, with two hours to go on the interstate — hold the fries please.  And it’s too often that I get to my hotel room at 8:30, been speaking and then traveling all day, not had anything but a mini bag of prezel’ets on the plane since breakfast — and I’m thankful that Papa Johns is just a phone call away — an extra thing of garlic sauce, please.

But my preference is fresh food prepared in a real kitchen.  I grew up in a small town in western North Carolina.  Even though it was a small town (three stoplights), I was a townie.  You could tell townies from country kids, because they wore flannel shirts and bluejeans and you never saw them at “The Pool.”  We wore cloths from Belks downtown (or for us it was Sears in Shelby).

Townies didn’t have gardens.  Real townies wouldn’t have a garden.  The only townies with gardens were parents who grew up on the farm.  We never had a garden in our yard (my mother’s dad worked at a train station and my father’s was a shop keeper).  The folks across the street had a garden, and we thought it was an eye sore (never mind the huge bold spots in my parents front yard for first, second, and third bases, home plate and the pitchers mound (where there’s a Pin Oak tree now.)

My wife grew up in Charlotte (the Big City), but both her parent grew up on farms and they had a garden.  Brenda tried for years to get me interested in growing a garden but to no avail — until the hot spring afternoon when she marked off the space that I would no long have to mow, if we had a garden there.  I became a lover of gardening that day.

My daughter in the garden NOT fertilizing it.

In the following months I learned the joys of planning, digging, building, and planting a garden.  We decide up front to go organic (we were wearing flannel and jeans then, calling it “grunge”), and I discovered the thrilling challenges of cultivating what was essential a small ecosystem, where plants could be arranged to protect each other, rotated to leave nitrogen, not just absorb it, added to draw insect eating birds and bugs, and I learned to enjoy the brand new flavors of fresh produce — much of which never made it to the kitchen.

When I grew up, my mom got here produce from the hyper-organized, standards-driven grocery stores, where the food was arranged in straight rows, and packaged for easy storage and consumption.  We ate exclusively canned and frozen vegetables — and I never learned the true taste of asparagus, until I had it right out of the garden, steamed just a bit with a pat of real butter melted over it.

This is the kind of learning that I am engaged in right now, a learning style that requires me to understand and treat my information environment like an ecosystem, where I cultivate the information, directing it to interact with other information in ways that bring me the ideas that I need to keep doing my job.  Sometimes I have to look it up.  And not being an especially strong reader, video and audio come in hand — and I love the art of a well executed data visulation.  The fast food solves problems.  But learning in a time of rapid change requires us to become information gardeners.

Sounds like the beginning of a new book 😉

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