Monday, November 15, 2010

An Accident of Geography Won't Save Us

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ggas_human_soc.jpg
 In Jared Diamond's impressive book Guns, Germs, and Steel the author ascribes the the fall of the Incan empire not to the superiority of the Spanish, but by the accident of geography. The proximity to domesticated animals shared throughout Europe and Asia as well as the shared knowledge and innovation by those people. This is a very simplified explanation of the book. I highly recommend you read the whole thing.

As I was explaining this concept to my class today I realized that this is how classrooms are today. Some classrooms are like the Spanish, of which the Flat Classroom Project is a great example.  These teachers are facilitating the sharing of knowledge and innovation in their classrooms.

Most classrooms are like the Incan empire. They are isolated, not realizing what is outside their classroom. They assume they are the masters of learning using the same techniques that have worked for generations. They do not even know that they are being passed by.

Now that the problem is identified, what is the solution? I think that we must not only expose our classrooms to other classrooms, we must find ways to create learning communities with them. I am not espousing "quick hit" projects where students work together with others for short periods of time. Instead I believe we need to create long term communities that share knowledge and innovation through longer periods of time. We shouldn't rely on an accident of geography to get us where we need to go, we need to reach out and learn from others.

16 comments:

Mark said...

Great post! 'Connectivism' is a learning theory I'm trying to get my head around but clearly lays out a new approach to learning in a digital world. If only our administrators and politicians can catch up.

I wonder how long it will take.

Jerrid Kruse said...

This is an interesting idea, but let me provide some food for thought.

You say, "They assume they are the masters of learning using the same techniques that have worked for generations." Unfortunately, these have not worked for generation. I would say that today's successful adults are successful in spite of, not because of their education. The best part of most education is learning how to "work a system".

So, it isn't that old ideas once worked and now need to change, things have needed to change for a very very long time.

Your idea of connecting classes is a nice thought, but if we connect a bunch of traditional classes what is the point? So the teachers have even more evidence that their "traditional" way of doing things is the best way?

How about instead of connecting classrooms, we connect our students to each other. Before becoming learning communities across the globe, we need to help the students in our classroom become a community...only by "practicing" in these micro communities can we hope to prepare students to be productive in larger communities. What i have seen of global communities doesn't really amount to anything more than "I'll do this individually, then i'll post it to our group blog and we'll call is collaborative". See how the idea is nice but the actual state is traditional?

Lastly, connectivism is not a learning theory. It is a theory on tracking down information. Learning happens in a person's brain, not on a computer screen (the screen is merely the medium on which the info is displayed. The sense making (learning) happens in the individual). Notice how connectivism has been ignored by psychologists. It's a nice idea, but not a theory on learning or how the mind works.

I'm not trying to rain on anyone's parade, but sometimes we get ahead of ourselves with this "connecting the world" stuff. Perhaps the best way to improve all of education is improve individual classrooms. Right now, I think we'll just be doing what the internet does really well - connecting us to people who think just like we do. So traditional teachers will become even more entrenched, technophiles will think tech can save education even moreso, and the teachers who are doing amazing things in their classes will probably be brought down by having to collaborate with people who just don't get it.

The shared knowledge thing is bothering me too. I suspect there to be fundamental difference in how the Spanish shared knowledge and how you are proposing teachers to share knowledge. I'm not sure. I think technological innovation is held to higher levels of scrutiny than educational innovation. Let's be honest, we let ourselves get away with pretty much anything. Once teachers start believing in a common shared set of knowledge rooted in research against which we ought compare "innovations" then we'll be able to share productively.

Wm Chamberlain said...

@Jerrid The opportunity for innovation and sharing increase with the size of the population. A traditional classroom that connects to another traditional classroom has more opportunity to innovate than if they stay insulated.

I agree that connection locally is not only important, it is imperative. Here is a post that explains my experience with that: http://attheteachersdesk.blogspot.com/2010/11/edcampkc-rather-painful-reflection.html

Looking through my post I don't see where I even implied that we did not need to develop local communities. My argument is that local is not enough.

I believe the reason that the ed-tech-osphere is so vibrant is due to the lack of a local community that believes as we do. I understand the echo chamber argument and have lamented that as well, but ultimately I believe it has done much more good than harm.

While I can see your concern with innovation in education, I would argue that the lack of innovation is causing more harm right now.

Jerrid Kruse said...

I am not convinced innovation is needed. What we need is for teachers to do what education researcher have known is best practice for decades. This would certainly look different than most classrooms, so you might call it innovation, I call it implementing the research. :)

Greater numbers do not necessarily mean more or better innovation (you know that more is not always better). All you need look at is your biggest schools - they are not "better" than small schools. If anything a smaller group makes innovation more possible because the institutional momentum is not as great. But I see your point. More sharing ideas cannot be a bad thing.

I'm sure you didn't imply local is not needed. My comment was mostly a "think out loud" about your post.

Wm Chamberlain said...

I think we are down to arguing about word choices now. Imagine how much better this conversation would have been over a nice meal. We definitely need to meet up some time and talk about these things.

Jabiz Raisdana (Intrepid Teacher) said...

I found myself reading this post and the comments like watching a tennis match. My head went back and forth occasionally saying, “Yes I agree with that, or that is a great point,” then found myself at the end unable to really add anything worthwhile.

I think we are all saying the same thing, and by we I mean …well I don’t know what I mean, but let the undefined pronoun stand, we simply want to teach kids how to learn. No one is sure what that means or how to do, but we pretend like we do. We rely on research to back our side and plow forward. But really, we are all just winging it. Here is what I have learned from experience. I hope these observations somehow relate to this conversation:

Students, I teach middle school so that is the age I know best, are not comfortable expressing themselves. They have a difficult time creating and articulating identity. They are in flux and need guidance and support. Sharing their idea, feelings, and learning is difficult for them, they need confidence and community. If they feel their learning is relevant they do amazing things. If they are forced to do what we tell them, they do not.

So what does this all mean in the face of the Spanish or Incan models? I agree with Jared we need to focus on the kids we work with first. Create a local community based on our shared organic needs. We can use as much or little tech as is necessary, to give kids confidence and expertise to be themselves and understanding how they learn. (In the meantime, it would behoove us to do them same for our own learning.)

Then if we have opportunities to connect these little pods of learners with others than we do so authentically. I do no believe in global projects for the sake of Flat Earthiness. We will never connect classroom to classroom, only people with people.

Hope that helps.

Wm Chamberlain said...

Jabiz, despite our many differences I relate to you more than the teachers at my school. At some level my local community has failed me. Finding a community online has replaced what I do not have locally. I am basically an "outlier" here but I am not in my online community.

I think many (most?) adults have the same anxieties and difficulties with self that teens do. I have many students in my classroom that don't fit in with the community, they never will either. They are simply too different or don't care to join in a group (they are the strong ones that won't compromise for acceptance.) They may find the connections online they are missing in the classroom.

With all that being written, the point you made that stands out most to me is about the authenticity of the connections and the learning. Who doesn't struggle with this in their own classrooms? Trying to make an authentic community out of disparate people is probably impossible. As adults we don't do it. Students will make authentic connections if given the opportunity to. The difficulty lies in creating authentic learning activities that allow those connections to be formed.

I didn't say this would be easy, I think it may be the hardest thing I have ever attempted as a teacher. What drives me is that my students will have the opportunity to be changed dramatically through new connections. I have changed, been made better through my online relationships and I want my students to have that opportunity too.

Jabiz Raisdana (Intrepid Teacher) said...

You make some great points about being an outlier and not building community at school as a teacher. Like you, I too have deeper connections with teachers in my PLN than at my school, but I am a fairly confident articulate adult who has worked for 36 years to try and piece myself together. I did it all on my own, and now I can reach out and find people, who not only accept me, but understand me for who I am.

I could not do that when I was 13 years old. I needed teachers and a safe place to be myself and learn how to express myself, but I didn' have it so, I turned inward, maybe for the best who knows, but what I am saying is that before a student can make connections with others globally or locally, they must begin to make connections with themselves. It is our job to help them do that.

This authentic self understanding will lead to successful connection with others. The helping students with the exploration of themselves, is a key starting point to connection with others.

Jabiz Raisdana (Intrepid Teacher) said...

How do we get our student here:

http://onepercentyellow.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/a-stranger%E2%80%99s-just-a-tweep-you-haven%E2%80%99t-met/#comment-29

To this level of connection? It is magical, when it happens.

Jerrid Kruse said...

This is a conversation that needs to happen - the notion of helping students look inward so that they might look outward is an important insight. These are the conversations I feel like our common dialogue about technology distract us from. Those of us in the blogo-twitter-sphere usually find our way here because of a common interest in all things tech (it's why we have blogs and twitters etc). However, these are the conversations we should be having. These are the conversations that will change students' lives and learning. These conversations are where reform happens, not in the "right" implementation of technology.

I have this weird sense of awe right now. weird.

Wm Chamberlain said...

Jabiz, what would have happened had you had the opportunities to network (for lack of a better word) at 13 like you do now? The post you point is exactly what I want my students to have the opportunity to have.

I am in no way saying every student will have the magical experiences we have, but how many does it take to make it worthwhile? How much harm is there by giving students opportunities to work with other students in similar ways we expect them to work with the student next to them?

Jerrid, the conversation has made it to this point simply because we are too stubborn to stop it. It requires a lot of thought and effort to not only communicate our ideas, but to put them together in a way they can be understood. A much more difficult thing to do through writing than face to face. I doubt this would have happened had we just met. This is why we need long term connections between students, so they get to the point we are now.

Jim McGuire said...

The amazing thing about your point They are isolated, not realizing what is outside their classroom is that it can happen right next door to a room that is connected worldwide.

Jabiz Raisdana (Intrepid Teacher) said...

We are almost at that dangerous point, where the comments on a post tilt and the conversation gets too disparate to hold together and we repeat ourselves and lose focus. Having said that, I love where we are and where we may be head in future conversations.

Don't get me wrong Will, I love this stuff. I love the ability tech has given me to express myself, create an identity I love online and the freedom i allows me to connect with so many amazing people online. You ask what I would have done with it at 13? Well without the guidance of teacher, I probably would have done the same thing I did every lunch time, lurk in the shadows trying to be liked for my weird thoughts and understood by my peers.

The tools may have given me a voice, but a great teacher would have done much more. I found some of these voices later in high school who introduced me to some thoughts outside the box, but I needed them before I could do anything.

That is where I want to focus my classes. I teach blogging, to try and help kids find their voice, not so I can connected them to some random class out of context across the globe.

But this hard. This understanding of self and connection. It is hard o assess and test and standardize. The is no grade for it, but it is the most important thing we do.

Having said all of that, my kids are new to blogging and because of their language levels have a hard time expressing themselves. We will work hard on finding tools that allow them to do so, in an authentic meaningful way, once they do, I hope your kids have made their own journey and we can meet.

Or maybe I am dead wrong and we get them to meet now, I don't know. Lots to think about. I just know that we need to have long deep talks in our room before we start flattening the world.

Rachel Ward said...

I am a student at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama. I am in Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class and was assigned to comment on your post.

I agree with your global idea of classroom connection. Do we depend on independent outreach or can we organize a larger entity to facilitate effective connected learning by “matchmaking”?

Erin Tillman said...

I am a student at the University of South Alabama, currently taking Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class. It is a scary thought that an isolated classroom can be right next to one which "looks the world in the face". I can only hope to direct my students in a way that they can experience the classroom world wide. Not just behind one closed door.

Kindra Blackwell Edm310 Class Blog said...

Hello! My name is Kindra Blackwell and I attend the University of South Alabama. I am in Dr. Strange's EDM310 class. I loved this post! It is so true children are traped inside their classrooms all day long. It kind of seems like a prison. I definantely understand that children can become bored in this kind of setting. I agree that children should have learning communities. It is important to be able to learn from others.