In a recent post over at the Fischbowl, Karl Fisch draws several interesting connections between the networked learning that technology is making possible today and the kinds of networked learning done by our founding fathers documented in Steven Johnson’s book, The Invention of Air.
Turns out that a spirit of “compulsive sharing” surrounded the founding fathers, largely stimulated by the passion that Joesph Priestley—a 18th century scholar best known for the discovery of oxygen in its gaseous form—held for open thinking.
Fisch highlights this quote from The Invention of Air to highlight Priestley’s attitudes towards openness:
The idea of proprietary secrets, of withholding information for personal gain, was unimaginable in that group…But Priestley was a compulsive sharer, and the emphasis on openness and general circulation is as consistent a theme as any in his work…No doubt Priestley saw farther because he stood on the shoulders of giants, but he had another crucial asset: he had a reliable postal service that let him share his ideas with giants.
Fisch then goes on to ask an interesting question with huge implications for education:
I wonder how many of our schools—and the educational processes we have in place—really encourage compulsive sharing, either in-person or virtually?
Great question, huh?
And one that resonates with me because the culture of sharing that defines the blogosphere has shaped who I am as a learner. I find myself drawn into my feed reader and to my Twitter network every day because I’m sure that I’ll find a digital colleague writing something that will make me a better teacher.
In the last week alone, I’ve learned about a new tool that I’m planning to use to extend conversations between my kids during classroom conversations, started a service learning project with an Australian classroom, thought carefully about how teacher professional development is changing in difficult economic times, studied consensus building in schools, and wrestled with whether or not knowing facts is really necessary in today’s world.
What makes this wild is that even though I love the professional learning team that I work with at my school, I’ve learned little from them lately! In fact, because our regularly scheduled PLC meeting was cancelled on Tuesday, I haven’t even seen some of my colleagues in the past two weeks.
Crazy, isn’t it? How is it possible that I could learn more from people I’ve never met and who live thousands of miles away than from the peers in the classrooms down the hall?
The answer is simple: Compulsive sharing takes time, and there’s never enough time for my learning team to interact during the school day.
We spend our days working with students, grading papers, answering emails, meeting with parents, filling out report cards, planning lessons, delivering remediation and enrichment sessions, planning field trips, coaching teams, supervising after school activities, opening juice-boxes in the lunchroom and completing paperwork sent by principals, guidance counselors, attendance ladies, social workers, physicians, secretaries, district level leaders and janitors!
For me, that means walking in the door at 6 AM and walking out at 6 PM almost every day. If I have 60 free minutes a week to meet with colleagues, I’m lucky.
No wonder I never see my peers!
Does that mean compulsive sharing is impossible in buildings where teachers are slammed by daily demands?
But it does mean that schools need to introduce digital tools to their communication and collaboration plans. Social bookmarking services like Delicious can be used by face-to-face colleagues to collect and organize web-based resources by content area and/or grade level, RSS feed readers like Pageflakes can be used to introduce regular intellectual challenge to learning teams, and tools like Voicethread can be used to facilitate ongoing faculty-wide conversations.
To put it simply, the kinds of compulsive sharing that Fisch, Johnson and Priestley argue is essential for powerful learning only develops in conditions where sharing is efficient.
In my experience, digital tools are the key to making sharing—whether it’s between colleagues in the same building or on different sides of the world—-efficient, yet schools have been slow to embrace their potential.
As a result, collaboration and collective action has yet to impact the teaching and learning happening behind most classroom doors in a meaningful way.
Does this make any sense to you?