Are birds of a feather really learning together?

Recently I’ve been experiencing a little dissatisfaction with my online PLN.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the sharing that goes on there, and I continue to learn from many people in my network, but my happy place has been just a little less happy lately.  A day with Steven Katz from OISE, helped me articulate some of my thoughts which I hope has resulted in a renewed view of the potential of online learning and perhaps a readjustment in my thinking about the purpose of online community in my learning.  This is not a really well-developed idea –   just some initial thoughts and wonderings about whether an online community can meet teacher learning needs in a way that will indeed change teacher practice.

by Steven Katz, Lorna Earl and Sonia Ben Jaafar

I’m involved in a PLC at work that is inquiring (by way of our participation in a research project) into the question : What does impactful professional learning entail?  This is great stuff!  Well grounded in research about cognitive science, learning communities in general, and school learning communities more specifically, Katz is leading us through a well-designed inquiry into the challenges of changing teacher practice and the challenges of being a facilitator in networked learning communities.

What I love most about this approach is that it is grounded in the kinds of learning that we hope to see teachers promoting in their classrooms here in Ontario:

  • inquiry based
  • authentic
  • situated learning within a social constructivist framework
  • knowledge building
  • co-learning

It’s the tough stuff, no doubt, but it’s also a chance to get messy with really important questions that are not easy to answer.  We are learning that merely getting together is no guarantee of good learning and that one of the best predictors of whether a school PLC will actually impact teacher practice is whether the Principal participates publicly as a co-learner  (lead learner rather than lead expert).

One of the key points Katz made today led me to a new understanding about why I might be feeling some discomfort with my online PLN lately.   He mentioned the work of Judith Warren Little who explains that in order for focused collaborative inquiry to happen, teachers need to move beyond the following surface level activities that teacher groups often engage in:

  1. storytelling and scanning for ideas
  2. providing aid and assistance
  3. sharing

and on to joint work.  Joint work is the knowledge creation that gets beyond the surface and really challenges thinking and learning and, in this case, makes an impact upon teacher practice.   Katz explained today that it’s human nature to default to a place of agreement, not really wanting to change but to validate our commonalities rather than challenge our differences.  Online, I see “birds of a feather” flocking together with loads of sharing, suggesting, aggregating links, resources and tips…but not a lot that challenges thinking.  Perhaps it’s the nature of the rather homogeneous group.  We tend to friend online those people who think like we do and share our same experiences.

What I’ve been thinking about today is that I need both.  I need to look to my online PLN for some kinds of PD and I also need to involve myself in the challenging thinking that goes with extended discourse and the inquire, test, reflect cycle that I think is important in learning for both teachers and students.  Can this be done online?  I think so.  But perhaps not in some of the more public communities (like Twitter) where I’ve been hanging out lately.  I’m hoping that in other networked communities, like Nings or wikis, a move toward more discourse and dissonance might be easier to achieve…we shall see!

More on the danger of clustering together online rather than belonging to diverse communities from Jutta Treviranus, from the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto.   Treviranus#1569199569.