Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Rewiring the Learning Networks at Schools

In my last post - Rethinking the Confines of Teaching and Learning - I argued for broadening our perspectives about how students should access specific information. I described my friend, Tom Schusterbauer, who recently retired. He still communicates with former students through Facebook and a book club, but despite his exceptional knowledge and teaching skill, he's now more or less off the learning grid of my students. If Tom and other retirees still love kids and are passionate about the stuff they know, why can't they be accessible to learners through the many powerful technologies that we have?

Even more perplexing is this consideration: Why aren't students urged to use these same technologies to connect with persons in their own school building? I have peers who are stone cold experts in a wide variety of topics. I don't teach Brit Lit or Shakespeare anymore, but I know more than a little bit about Charles Dickens and Elizabethan theatre. I haven't forgotten all that stuff just because my semester teaching assignments have changed. Several of our students are studying Dickens and Shakespeare this semester. Each one has a laptop, so her ability to communicate with me is literally at her fingertips. How many have contacted me? None. Why? Because to do so would be unconventional.

Convention dictates that a teacher is only an "expert" while teaching an assigned course to a particular set of students in a particular room at a particular time. What a dreadful way to prepare our students for life beyond school! Their careers are likely to require them to network, using mobile communication on a global scale. And I'm guessing that their employers will expect them to access information from folks who know things. Immediately. This is undeniable, isn't it?

Thus, it makes sense to me that we help our students learn to build learning networks. And rather than simply point them toward the Internet, why don't we teach them to pose good questions to real people in real time? Furthermore, we ought to guide them to begin networking within a familiar social community. I call this, working inside-out.

Case in point: When my sophomores conducted research for their challenge projects, I urged them to think outside of the box. Consequently, they ended up interviewing lawyers, judges, doctors, and military officers in order to learn about "equality under the law." One particular group chose a very tough topic to research-- equal rights for teens. They had developed some intelligent lines of inquiry, when they "googled" for answers they ended up with very squishy information. They did much better when they thought about what "experts" might be in their circle of acquaintances. When they interviewed a local insurance agent and one of our guidance counselors, they got right down to the brass tacks. I've included a video clip of the guidance counslor interview, which they ended up posting (with her permission of course) to their wiki.

Guess what. With this kind of "research" I don't run into "copy & paste" or plagiarism. Instead, it produces critical thinking and collaboration.

I'm leading up to a proposal for school "knowledge hubs", but jumping to that, I have more to say about networking inside-out. . . . In Friday's post.

Thanks to Ms. Trisch Brown for giving me permission to use this clip.

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