One of the lessons that edubloggers consistently send to those newest to the digital soup is don’t forget to check out the comment sections of the entries that resonate with you.  Rarely is the actual blogger the only bright person writing in any digital forum.  In fact, most entries are just the beginning of what become vibrant conversations between readers.

Skip the comments, you’re likely to be skipping content that will change the way you think.

My recent entry on the tension that I feel between giving students meaningful and messy opportunities to wrestle with learning and plugging through the monstrous curriculua defined as essential by the state was just another example of this principle in action.  Don’t believe me?

Then check out this strand of conversation between K. Borden, Mike and Joe:

Bill:  You should live inside me sometime and wrestle with the pedagogical tension that I feel on an ordinary day.  I’ll watch my kids working on a science lab and be completely jazzed by the new knowledge that they’re building together but completely impatient by the process.  In those moments, I’m forced to make painful decisions: Give the kids the answer and stay on a schedule that sees me covering the entire curriculum or let them work out the answer on their own and experience real learning.

K. Borden:   Somewhere I read that the thinks home educators think as compared to teachers in schools can be describes as the difference in the questions “what will my child learn today?” compared with “what will I teach my students today.” It made me think and stuck with me (I wish I could recall who to attribute it to). It seems that both probably think both questions, but difference in which they can elect to practice is a matter of time and numbers.

The pedagogical tension you describe seems to be framed in part in that contrast. The tension is as real as the attempt to define effective teaching is perhaps illusive.

Mike:  K. Wrote: “what will my child learn today?” compared with “what will I teach my students today.”  Good grief. Unlike some lunatic educational theorists who believe that teachers should be mere “facilitators” who only allow children to “discover” the “answers” and “wisdom” that are within each of them, my business card reads “Teacher.”

I teach not to hear my lips flap but because my knowledge and methods, over many years, have proven beyond doubt successful in helping students to learn, and in producing real results. Teaching and learning are not opposites, but necessary, sequential steps in the process of human growth in every meaningful way. When we abandon that reality, we become mired in all manner of hairbrained educational theories and fads.

Suggesting that home schoolers are interested in learning and that teachers are not, is not only foolish, it’s actually quite ignorant. What, one wonders, do home schoolers do? Download data into the USB ports of their offspring rather than “teaching”?

I’ve no doubt that competent home schooling parents do what teachers do: teach valid materials that students might learn. I wonder why K. Borden thinks this is not what teachers do?

Joe:   Mike and K. Borden, I think we’re missing the middle ground here. Bill (and correct me if I’m wrong here) seems to be articulating a frustration with the requirement to plow through content. As a science teacher in NY, I can definitely see where he’s coming from.

What’s lacking in our schools is a freedom for students to explore their own questions in messy, interdisciplinary ways. This is something where the homeschoolers have an advantage. What I have to do in the name of state standards is not organic at all. They’re parroting someone else’s knowledge for the sake of an exam, and it alienates them from school.

What I sense from Bill is an aching for something more authentic than what’s currently happening, and it’s the same feeling that’s been crushing me lately as well. I’m interested in models of schooling that allow that inquiry to happen in an organic fashion. We’re so far from that right now…

K. Borden:   Mike, please note this sentence in my post “It seems that both probably think both questions, but difference in which they can elect to practice is a matter of time and numbers.”

I am clearly not suggesting that one environment for learning is set in a mindset the other is not. It is a matter of considering the very real challenges each presents to meeting goals implied by the questions and even questioning whether the questions themselves must be considered opposites.

Teaching and learning involve a two way dynamic exchange. A back and forth, listening and talking, giving and receiving. If either party to the endeavor is exclusively switched to tranmit only and not receive, the dynamic circuit closes.

Classroom teachers have the challenge and opportunity of that exchange not with one student but with many students. Whether it is a common test at the end of process or other assessments, there are goals to reach with multiple participants and time constraints in which to do so.

I was affirming that I could see the challenges, where frustration may emerge and so forth.

Pretty amazing stuff, don’t you think?  Looking back, in fact, I’d argue that the real value in this post about pedagogical tension aren’t my initial thoughts.  Instead, it’s the articulation of different positions that can be found in the comment section.

K’s point that homeschoolers have the kind of flexibility that I crave, Mike’s argument that teaching is what we’re paid to do, and Joe’s attempt to synthesize all of the thinking in this particular conversation each made me think differently, bringing a diversity of opinion to the table that doesn’t often exist in the rushed conversations that happen in the teacher workroom—-and diversity of opinions is essential for any group to become collectively intelligent or for any individual to “see the bigger picture” on important issues.

So how do you take advantage of blog comments as a source of learning?  Try these tips on for size:

Read the comments:  Seems like a no brainer, right?!  But in our “experts rule” culture, we sometimes place the authors of entries on the superhero pedestal and think that we’ve done all the learning we can do once we’ve finished their original post.  Start seeing blogs as forums for conversations instead of sources for information—-and start seeing blog posts as conversation starters rather than “the final word.”  Once you do, you’ll place proper value on all parts of a good blog post.

Get to know the names:  Many times, blogs become homes for a group of likeminded thinkers who stop by more than once.  K. Borden, Joe and Mike—along with Adam, Parry and Bob—-are names you’ll see in the comment section of my blog over and over again.  When this happens on a blog that you like to follow, get to know the personalities of the posters.  What kinds of questions do they like to ask?  What kinds of topics are they the most interested in?  Doing so will give you a sense of the community that those of us who are heavy into the blog world talk so much about.  

Follow the links:  When you visit a blog comment section, you’ll often notice that the name of the commenter is also a hyperlink—and hyperlinked names are a beautiful thing because most of the time, they will lead you back to the commenter’s own blog.  If someone’s thoughts catch your eye, go and check out what they’re writing at their own digital homes.  You’ll quickly and easily find new forums for your own growth.  

Make a post, huh?  You heard me: Get off the sidelines and share!  Challenge someone.  Disagree—-even with the author of the post.  Push back.  Add your knowledge.  Make your thinking transparent.  Blog comments are a quick and easy way to get involved in a meaningful conversation about teaching and learning without having to take on the challenge of maintaining your own blog. 

Does this make sense?

Essentially what I’m saying is that the beauty of blogs is that you get to participate.  What you’re thinking is just as important as what I’m writing. No longer do we live in a sit-and-get world where experts talk at us.  Instead, we’re living in a world where digital tools empower everyone to share their expertise.

So join the conversation already!

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