4 Faces of Personal Learning Network (Activity)

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The subtitle of the new book, Personal Learning Networks, by Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli is “Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education.” When I finish reading the book, I will comment on the work as a whole, but at the halfway mark I am focused on the subtitle. There are numerous great suggestions for the classroom and a companion website for easy access to those suggestions. I am hung up, however, on the word “transform.” It’s a powerful word, and in many ways, it is code for a teacher, implying a difficult uphill battle that may not be worth the energy. I like to think we can take incremental steps in the right direction, and perhaps some day end up with a transformation, saving the pain and upheaval of rapid change. Everett Rogers, a classic sociologist, wrote a book called Diffusion of Innovations, in which he explains why sustainable change cannot occur rapidly. There is a process, beginning with early adopters, that must be absorbed by the appropriate culture, if change is to be sustainable. In the case of schools, we are referring not only to teachers, but also to administrators, students, and other constituents such as parents. All parties must recognize the benefits of the change or it will be short-lived.

Here’s an example of designing simple solutions to seemingly complex problems. Consider a public elementary school I know that is aware of the fact that their students lose much of the reading level progress they make during the school year over the summer. Consequently, each September is a treadmill of raising those kids back to the level they were at the previous June. Research has reinforced this point for years, but many schools simply live with it or encourage their students to read over the summer (these are kids who struggle with reading). Enter an insightful Literacy Specialist with a simple idea that could be easily funded by the local PTA. Create a voluntary summer reading program for students that requires a commitment from parents. Each family that participates gets ten books at their child’s reading level in June. In July, these same families return to school for one hour, one evening, and those students tell each other the story of his or her favorite book (a parent is required to attend). At the end of the session, the paired students exchange books so they have a new set of ten books to read in August. This is not a complex or expensive program, but it will return these students to school in September reading at the same level they were at in June. The added bonus is that the parents of these children have a much better understanding of the importance of reading, and their role in encouraging their children to read. A complex problem is addressed with a relatively simple solution.

What might I do in my world history classroom this fall to solve complex problems with simple solutions? Some of the tools suggested in the Richardson/Mancabelli book, borrowed from other classrooms, will be launched or continued, perhaps with some tweaking:

  • Keep the students writing in a “public” forum – I will continue to ask my students to write daily in a class blog. I began using the class blog approach last spring after using individual blogs for a few years. The individual blog, that only the student and I could see, was simply a digital replacement for a handwritten journal, but the class blog brought a backchannel class discussion to life, and the blog was shared by three sections of the same course. In short, the discussion was not limited to the time and space boundaries of the classroom.
  • Change the nature of the class discussion from a forum of selected students who feel confident speaking regularly to a dual forum of groups of students who speak and those who report and reflect – Using a live blogging tool such as Cover It Live, those who report and reflect will also publicly participate in the discussion, but use their written rather than spoken skills. Furthermore, these dual forums will change in membership on a daily basis. Those students who are reluctant to speak in class will sometimes have the opportunity to write instead, and when they are assigned to speak, they will be speaking in smaller, less threatening groups. Also, we will have the added benefit of a chronicle detailing each class discussion.
  • Make peer editing of papers a more social activity – Using Crocodoc, drafts of papers will be posted, students will choose the paper(s) they would like to edit, comment on, and correct, yielding suggestions from the classroom community. Since no two students write on the same topic, the plagiarism issues are minimized. Using the “wisdom of crowds” theory, the peer editing process should be of higher quality, level the playing field among peer editors, and add an interim writing stage that will be more public, raising the bar for the written work of my students.
I have other ideas I will share in future posts, and I can’t know in August whether all of these ideas will actually improve teaching and learning unless I am prepared to completely buy into the Richardson/Mancabelli thesis now. I feel more comfortable trusting them to a degree, but waiting until I see evidence that the power of connections will continue to transform my classroom through a series of simple steps over a longer period of time, as Everett Rogers suggests.
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