23 October, 2010

Why teach PLN's?

I'm Teaching but they don't seem to be Learning

I've been trying to work out why the PLENK course peaked my interest in the first place and I think I've come up with an answer.

I started teaching because of my experience at Camp Chipinaw in NY. I found that I got a great deal from working with kids who were able to make huge developments in their self efficacy through positive experiences in quite challenging environments. I then spent about 10 years following a career path involved in experiential education. I only entered mainstream education when, having arrived in Australia, I found that the outdoor recreation industry here is more seasonal than in the UK (go figure!!). I trained as a PE teacher and then, when it became apparent that there are too many of those in NSW, I retrained as a Maths teacher and, in the process, returned to subjects I pursued rather unsuccessfully in Years 11 and 12. (A case of those who can do, those that can't... !).

So I don't feel particularly successful as a Maths teacher. I love the idea of teaching and I've had successes in terms of "light-bulb" moments, but not many in my current field. I can get by and I can teach the content, but I don't seem to be able to get the students into a state of "flow" (by which I think I'm referring to Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development)

Paddling the River PLENK

I'd not really thought about it in this way before but the ideas were flowing on Friday night and this was one that popped up. When I'm in a particular mood (relaxed, pressures off for the day), I sometimes find that what I am thinking or writing about continually triggers fresh ideas or insights. I'll start by jotting down a few ideas and then an hour later realise that I've filled out several pages of notes. Up till now I've enjoyed these moments of productivity but not really considered the vehicle by which I can disseminate them and receive feedback and criticism. My PLN is the most obvious mechanism in which to do this.

What I enjoy about PLENK is the feeling that I'm involved in a highly productive network of learners and experts. Some of the content is way over my head, but it's not hard to find things out and catch up. It is also very empowering to be able to contribute to discussions. Even if my input is not very ground-breaking (or even helpful), it can generate feedback and further discussion and so help expand this gradual unfolding of knowledge.

In terms of flow, the river analogy has already been used several times in the various discussions and web posts. But I'm a paddler at heart and so will string it along a bit further. Engaging in this course does feel like I'm sat on the side of a river watching a lot of information drift past. Every so often I jump in and float along with the current by joining conversations and making comments on people's posts. Every so often I'll get swept into an eddie where I'll decide to hop back on the bank again or wait until someone throws a metaphorical rock into the pool and the conversation sweeps off on a new wave.

I still feel, very much, the novice paddler. I stay close to the shore, not yet brave enough to head into deeper waters and paddle with the pro's. The fear of capsizing by posting a discussion topic or blog post that tries to chart new territory that has already been charted and finished by others! I know that my fear in this regard is unfounded. Throughout the course, the support for newbies has always come across as whole-hearted. I know there will be people around to put me back in my boat and help me figure things out, point me in the right direction.

The classroom as a component of a Personal Learning Network

As a teacher, I love the idea of my students being exposed to a supportive learning environment in which the emphasis is on them to contribute and improve each other's understanding of the course. I want the physical classroom to become a part of my students personal learning network, as opposed to it being the only place where they learn Mathematics. Of course they learn maths in hundreds of different places, but they don't make the connection between what they do in "real life" and what they do in the classroom.

I want the lesson to continue outside the classroom and I see PLN's as a method of enabling that. The important element being that the network is explicitly about the students interactions with maths and maths ideas as they travel through their day. The more those interactions are published by the students and then read by their peers, the more noticeable they will become to everyone in the class. I've introduced Edmodo to my classes and we'll see how they respond to it to the stimulus questions I've posed on it.

But to make the most of the opportunity, I really need to be able to teach them how to build their own PLN's. To stop relying on the educational structures that have been imposed on them since primary school. To be brave.

My view of education doesn't fit the current model. It's never really worked for me, neither as a student or as a teacher. Experiential education had a major impact on the direction my life and career took and inspired me to be a teacher. But my classroom isn't based on experience and it is, quite frankly, boring. I believe that teaching students to develop their own personal learning networks, and engage with conversations outside of the classroom is closer to the idea behind the one-to-one laptop programs appearing in schools then the more traditional methods of education. But I can see that implementing this will require a fair bit of work and, worryingly, a departure from the traditional curriculum. A risky move really given the students whose futures I am experimenting with.

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