"When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object."
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
My current thinking about connected learning has me remembering the tumultuous 70's in foreign language education. Back then, some teachers had the audacity to move away from the traditional focus on translation and a regimented listen-repeat/question-response methodology, and shifted instead toward moderately structured group activities.
The benefits of learning connections
Not surprisingly, there were immediate and tangible benefits associated with this shift.
- Language acquisition became more individualized and progress became heterogeneous — students advanced at different speeds.
- The student-directed conversations became necessarily personalized and created greater motivation for learning.
- Students connected with their peers in new and unpredictable ways, which led to increased interaction in the target language and a broader base of support.
The challenges of learning connections
So, what's not to like about those results? Well, it seems there was one significant problem with the new methodology. The move to group activities transformed teachers' orderly classrooms into messy learning spaces. A facade of drilled precision was being replaced by the organic noise of connection and creation.
The disturbing "noise" caused by those group, or social activities was actually the sound of learning connections — students connecting with each other, with themselves, and with unpredictable possibilities.
Today, we can see these "tensions" of pedagogical transition in a more complete light. We can understand that the disturbing "noise" caused by those group, or social activities was actually the sound of natural learning connections — students connecting with each other, with themselves, and with unpredictable possibilities. It was the inevitable chaos associated with expanding learning networks and other emergent systems.
I like Steve Wheeler's answer to his questions when he asks, "What happens when you remove restraints from learning, and allow students to discover for themselves?"
The result is often some form of creativity. Time and again I have heard stories from teachers of extraordinary things students have created because they have been given freedom to do so.
Not surprisingly, the advent of web technologies has increased the number of possible connection pathways available to learners, as well as the potential for messiness in our learning environments. This proliferation of connection pathways has also intensified the friction inherent in our attempts to control or close off students' natural learning networks.
Fortunately, we can only hinder, not stop the growth of student learning networks. Regardless of how tightly we may attempt to close our artificial learning environments, natural learning will still continue, albeit more slowly, through alternative connection channels.
The environmental conditions
Of course, rather than hinder the learning process through an artificial insistence on order and control, we can choose to build learning environments that accelerate natural learning connections. Such environments will necessarily result in more effective and more enduring learning experiences for students. They will also:
- Facilitate messiness and creativity by making the student the center of the learning universe and allowing/encouraging her/him to expand the learning network according to personal interests, motivations, and needs;
- Provide platform analytics that map network exploration and connectedness, and that focus on showing and helping students realize their learning potential;
- Embrace a vision for openness that generates as many opportunities for student-directed connections as possible.
Going back to the 70's, Gertrude Moskowitz may have best captured the shift in foreign language classroom instruction with her Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class: A Sourcebook on Humanistic Techniques. The very title of the book, in fact, provides the key to this "new" approach to teaching and learning -- it must embrace both the heart and the head.