As mentioned below. Will Richardson visited our campus yesterday, and it was a pleasure to meet him and have him speak with our students. I’m sure there were many things Will said that will stick with our English education students as they prepare for their own classrooms.
I was particularly struck by his presentation of his network of teachers, emblematized by a list of RSS feeds to which he subscribes (though obviously RSS is only one element of such a network). As he noted, somewhat provocatively, in his presentation, he wouldn’t return now to graduate school to get a degree; he has found a more genuine and valuable way to learn through his network (obviously he already has the credentials he requires, though clearly credentialing is a different issue). He suggested that our students need to build their own networks, and importantly he contended that our job as teachers was to help our students do this.
I thought this was a key point, and it really got me thinking about my own teaching–thinking about how it might be possible for me to do this. I share my public bloglines and my del.icio.us links with my students. I specially tag sites for my courses and so on. I have a course blog and wiki where I try to offer a particular slice of my network that I think is relevant to the course. But none of that is exactly to the point, is it? I mean, in a way it’s "modeling" these behaviors by showing them what such a network might look like, but it is still me offering the content for the course.
Coming at this from a different angle, another ongoing task in the classroom is encouraging students to take a more active role in their learning. Over the past week or so, I’ve been writing on one of my course blogs about my discomfort with the notion of having students take "ownership" over their learning. I won’t rehearse that familiar argument here. This is a little different though. In the college classroom, the issue is not so much students getting ownership over the course content necessarily, as using the course content as a launchpoint for their own learning. The classroom is just the tip of the iceberg, a series of opportunities for a learning experience that is less a "synthesis" of course material than it is a prosthesis extending from it.
In the spirit of this, I think I could do more to explore the activities that generate a network of teachers. Here are some preliminary ideas:
- Rhetorical strategies for evaluating potential content are key. That is, how do you determine whether or not to include a site or feed or whatever in your network? The answer must begin with recognizing purpose, audience, genre, discourse, and so on.
- Some of the general theories about how networks grow/proliferate should apply in this context. For example, thinking about Gladwell’s "tipping point," there are certain individuals/sites that are key connectors and/or mavens in any field. Finding these sites can be key to any network.
- There are some basic web reading strategies that can help you jumpstart your network. For example, if you were in Will’s field, you could find his public bloglines and that would link you to many other folks who might be useful to you as well. In the same way, you could subscribe to someone’s del.icio.us feed or whatever. However, to do these things, you have to know they exist and you have to know how they work.
- Building a finely-tuned network takes time. It takes time to grow it. It takes time to attend to it. And it takes time to manage it as over time elements of your network will drop off and new ones must be discovered. It’s a labor-intensive process.
- It’s probably important to participate yourself. That is, you can’t just be a lurker. Well, you can, but I think you won’t get as much out of the process as you will if you engage fully in the network.
All of this is a lot of work. As faculty we have always had an obligation to keep current. Speaking at least for my field, knowledge is growing so quickly that keeping current sometimes seems nearly impossible. However, I somehow prefer that to the prospect of a field where new, truly relevant knowledge (that is, knowledge that alters my daily practices as a teacher and a scholar) rarely appears.