Network ~ Net Work

“We are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.” ~ Steven Johnson

It turns out that almost all really good ideas are the product of collaboration (this may, or may not, be a blatantly obvious statement). In education this great insight is known in theory, but not always in application, as evidenced by the practices that are often put into place in both in classrooms and schools.

A long time ago I stumbled upon an Alfie Kohn article on cooperative learning that sparked me to think carefully about how I structured the learning environment for my students. It became more and more important for me to establish processes and create the conditions for my students to work together: by talking to one another, writing to each other and, eventually,  through the web, connecting with each other both within an beyond the walls of our classroom and school.  The more they collaborated, the more they seemed to learn, this was a good thing.

Ironically, during this time  I engaged in a limited amount of genuine, teaching-focused  collaboration with my teaching colleagues. Sure, we met regularly to plan events, trips and assemblies, we even swapped unit plans from time to time. There were few examples of this type of work in schools and our the norms we had for practice were pretty clear; my door, my class, my practice, my business. I don’t think this was done with malice, it was just the way it was. The prevailing wisdom has changed a lot since I began teaching, and it is expected now that we work in concert with colleagues rather than in isolation.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about networked learning and have a few thoughts and connections:

  • Learning Networks don’t just happen. Lorna Earl and Steven Katz suggest that leadership and coordination are required to ensure that the network has a clear purpose and focus, shared leadership, trust, along with a focus on collaboration that is inquiry-based, fosters accountability within the network and builds the capacity of each network member.
  • Learning Networks require both density and diversity. Steven Johnson explores the characteristics of networks in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, using the coral reef as one example of a productive network. Within harsh conditions in the open sea, reefs are concentrated clusters of life forms, interdependent through what Johnson calls the ‘adjacent possible’.  The proximity and variations of the living things within the reef create a dynamic, evolutionary exchange, sustaining robust life within the reef.
  • Learning Networks require an authentic context. Richard Elmore contends that teaching practice, as evidenced by the classroom tasks that students are given, should be the location and context for  networked learning. Leadership is ideally focused on supporting teachers to observe, describe, analyze and evaluate the core components of effective instruction, with the goal being the development of a common set of robust professional practices.

Networks are an important part of my learning. Through formal and informal processes, I seek out new ideas and challenges from colleagues, near and far. Social networking through Twitter, and the exchange of blog posts pushes me to consider a variety of concepts in a variety of contexts. Learning together is essential; in any one system or school there is not sufficient capacity to accomplish the change that many of are working to accomplish.

We need networks, we need overlapping networks, dense, diverse, focused and authentic. They are critical to the evolution of public education.

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