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.


  1. Brenda, great thoughts. You say, “Joint work is the knowledge creation that gets beyond the surface and really challenges thinking and learning…” This reminds me SO much of some of the work by Gavriel Salomon – one of my favourite cognitive science researchers. He wrote, “What does the design of effective CSCL require and how do we study its effects?”

    In that article he describes the nature of groupwork in schools. It is not dissimilar to your points here. I repeat some of that here:

    He states that group work or collaborative work often fail because of a lack of dependency between members which might lead to some very common group phenomena (problems).

    He states that “..success–in terms of students pooling together their abilities, in terms of true collaboration, and in terms of learning outcomes–is rather rare. More often than not, students collaborate poorly and learn not much more, sometimes even less, than when working on their own” Salomon (1995). Specifically he recognizes these common problems or group phenomena;

    – The “free rider” effect;
    => one team member just leaves it to the others to complete the task

    – The “sucker effect”;
    => a more active or able member of a team discovers that he or she is taken for a free ride by other team members

    – The “status sensitivity” effect;
    => high ability or very active members take charge, and thus have an increasing impact on the team’ s activity and products.

    – The “ganging up on the task” phenomenon;
    => team members collaborate with each other to get the whole task over with as easily and as fast as possible

    I get that this is a slightly different focus than you are making, but perhaps interrelated…particularly, the latter point where many of us are ‘aggregating’ ideas…rather than engaging in deeper discourse.

    Yes, Jutta’s work on The Value of the Unpopular rings true with me too. But I need to give those ideas some more thought.


    • Thanks for the link to this, Peter. I’ve used Salomon’s work before…mostly around the effects ‘with’ and ‘from’ technology and how those differ. I know that you and I have had lots of conversations around that when I was doing my coursework at OISE! 🙂 This particular work is new to me…so thank you for sharing!

      Those effects he (and you) mention here remind me of Johnson and Johnson‘s work with cooperative learning in general…and I will definitely give them some thought in terms of what I’m setting up with teacher online networks. When I chatted with Steven Katz yesterday, he really sees the problem of some of the kinds of new tools we are using (eg. wikis, nings) lending themselves to the kind of ‘form’ that promotes uploading or aggregating lots of ‘stuff’ without really posing questions, challenging, connecting ideas. Reminds me again of how forward thinking Knowledge Forum from OISE really was…trying to keep that pure focus on discourse and those ‘rise aboves’ that attempt to connect ideas and challenge ideas within a group of people! I always found using the rise aboves to be more challenging and definitely needed more practice with that, but maybe that was more a reflection of how difficult deeper conversations are…perhaps we aren’t as used to challenging discourse as we think we are!?

      I know that you were involved in Knowledge Forum from the beginning when it was considered to be the first networked system designed for collaborative learning CSILE and that the scaffolding that was built in was designed to improve networked conversations beyond surface level discussions. Bravo! 🙂


  2. Hey Brenda,

    I think I’ll do a post on Salomon’s work. What do you think?

    He has been extremely influential on my thinking and on my work. He has had a way of framing deep ideas with ‘models’ – such as the ones we talked about here already and also with taking the ‘high road’ or the ‘low road’ – cognitively speaking.

    As you know, I have spoken about this stuff for donkey’s years…but, oh man, it seems to be still so very current. Sort of like John Dewey – and maybe others from some centuries ago too.

    We are slow to learn – quick to forget…as a species.


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