More Thoughts on Teaching and Learning: Lessons Learned

Last evening, I tuned in to Jay Cross’s Macromedia Breeze/Skype presentation to the Finnish eLearning Roundtable, the kind of online presentation during which I can scroll back at any time to any slide, to listen to him again,or to reconsider the visuals. It is how I would like to attend most conferences—in my living room, in my own time. It’s also the way course lectures could/should be delivered (that delivered is the verb we use with lecture grounds the whole idea of a lecture being something we should “open,” like a letter, when we so choose).

I watched the slides of Jay’s talk click by one after another, presenting the reality that change is speeding up so fast that we have no choice but to adapt and evolve and learn or perish. He defined learning as

“…the natural process of adaptation which enables people to participate successfully in life, at work, and in groups that matter.”

He talked, too, about formal vs. informal learning—about how it is through the informality of Web 2.0 activities that we could be preparing ourselves and our students for the world—it brought to mind Howard Rheingold’s work, James Martin’s Institute, and the conversation across edublogs about what Will Richardson is calling Connective Writing, and the countering fear some administrators, teachers and parents have of blogs/wikis/podcasts being in school at all. Control Vs. Connection, Conversation, and Reflection. How both so simple and so daunting it is to teach effectively right now as we ride “the knee curve of change,” but how hopeful to see so many teachers moving to social software, writing and talking about it in these blog communities.

A classroom is no place for lectures.
A classroom is no place for lectures.

A classroom is where we should be unteaching unclasses, much the same way that conferences are evolving into unconferences—conversations and recaps, reflections and ongoing dialogue, group projects emerging, re-examinations, mini-lessons and mini-presentations in a series of interlinked spirals flowing through and around the learner. Take Brian Lamb’s post today, the Quickie Folksonomy Screencast in which he gives us a spin through some basics of tagging, and how in dispersed learning communities tagging can add a personal dimension to the community. Add such connectors and conversation outside of class to a group of students who have the luxury, too, of being together in the same physical space engaging with the materials and the processes of the discipline– and, well, imagine such an Economics, Sociology, History, Chemistry, English classroom…. We tap into what Chris Sessums writes about in his December 5 Post: Taking Back the University.

I walked away from Jay’s presentation thinking that I’ve got to do a better job in my own classroom. I struggle to find the balance between all the pieces, all the responsibilities facing us as teachers of writing. This semester my students made huge leaps in their writing; the visual, connected nature of the blog helped—they could see their progress and that of their peers; the podcasts, the image work—it all worked very well indeed. Read Hana’s final reflection to see how she consulted the work of her peers for guidance, inspiration, and a roadmap. And today I received an email from one of these students, already home for the break, who was showing his old teacher his blog. How powerful.

But I did not teach them the grammar and purpose of connecting to one another in conversation, through comments, trackbacks, tagging and blog discussions—I just let that magnificent and central aspect of classroom blogging slip right by us for the first time since I’ve taught with blogs. In part, I wanted to see what would happen without it. And yes, they progressed very nicely as individual writers without the connection–as they should– as they have, though more slowly, without computers.

In the past, that would have been enough. But not anymore. It can’t be. They did not discover the whys and hows of connective writing, not really, and how feathering into the world and into one another’s writing online would have given them an entirely new sense of an academic community, of writing, of the the future and their place in it. And if we heed Jay Cross’s words, we cannot ignore the new literacies.

Two recent stories involving former students speak to the power of publishing out to the Web (even a couple of years ago before the explosion into the Web 2.0). In a creative writing class, a student wrote a poem about a Holocaust survivor, someone real of whom she had read—the real person died a few months ago, and when his granddaughter Googled him out of curiosity, she came across the poem. She emailed my student, telling her how true to her grandfather it was and how it had moved her. My student was amazed. And just today, I received an email out of the blue about a piece a student had written two years ago, the emailer wondering if he was still writing and wanting to know more about the piece. I forwarded the email to the student, who was delighted and —yes—amazed. And the World Bloggers–these students blogged with me (for the mostpart) some two years ago–before I was doing podcasting, tagging, much image work–and look at them grappling together with the thorny issues of studying abroad. What I focussed on in those classes was connecting through comments, discussion and trackbacks–. They spent time examining the dynamics if the group and the learning through our blogging.

And of course, one of the problems we teachers-using-blogs face is the timeliness, the present-ness of the blogging experience when our students come and go so quickly from our courses. Comments left weeks later don’t always get noticed—commenters don’t always return once they leave a comment to see if the dialogue has continued. The learning moment shimmers and vanishes, a new moment taking its place in quick succession. Until we figure out how to create a more fluid learning landscape where our students can experience the rat-a-tat of in-the-moment learning alongside slower, letter-like correspondance, we’ll struggle a bit to make the blogging work as well as it might.

Another problem is that we have trained students so well to believe that the last place they see the power of connection, it seems, is within the classroom. And that is, I believe, because in some ways it is the only place where they have little authority and they accept that role with rather startling willingness–it is the job of the teacher, they’ve been told, to tell them what to do and how to do it, what’s wrong with their papers, and what’s wrong with their thinking. This is how we tend to teach.

The Web invites us to do otherwise. But until we help them understand the grammar of connection, of the various kinds of connection, we cannot expect our students to be ready for the kinds of convulsive change we are experiencing in the world of knowledge production and collaboration. This is where the writing classroom can, instead of being marginalized as it is in many academic quarters, play a central role in the future of education.

And that is exactly what I need to return to next semester–to the connections as well as the elements–and to do so means slowing down some, and then watching the students explore, invent, and create things I couldn’t possibly have predicted.