'Inside the Black Box’ was written by Black and William in 1998 and in it they describe the classroom as a black box with inputs and outputs but what occurred inside was a mystery. For many teachers the reality has been that what occurs in their classroom has been both private and isolating, a matter between the teacher and his or her students but a task largely tackled alone. But this isolationist view is, in the age of the social media and networking increasingly challenged and more and more teachers are finding their voice, sharing their ideas and gaining valuable insights from a global community of connected educators.
Understanding the value of the collective knowledge teachers have is a critical step towards understanding the role of a Personal Learning Network. In each class we teach there is a unique mix of personalities, mindsets and learning dispositions, alone we are likely to face new challenges meeting the needs of this mix of learners but collectively it is almost guaranteed that a colleague somewhere will have confronted a similar scenario. Within this collective intellect we will find answers to many of the questions we confront, new approaches, alternate plans of action and a great pool of resources to draw upon. Your personal learning network offers you access to the wisdom of a global collective of teachers with insights to what works and does not work inside the classroom. This is knowledge shared directly from the coal face, shared by busy teachers with real students and the same demands to meet standards that you face, not text book writers or publishers who are more interested in selling books or programs.
The flip side of access to this collective knowledge is understanding that you also have valuable knowledge to share. When teachers begin their journey towards a Personal Learning Network this is one of the barriers they face; the false belief that their ideas are not worth sharing. Only when you take a risk and begin sharing do you see that your experience has genuine value to the network. By joining an online conversation, responding to questions, sharing a link or making a blog post you add value to the network and become a co-constructor of knowledge. Personally this moment occurred for me while participating in a Twitter chat (#aussieED). Sharing my ideas alongside other teachers was a confronting moment but one that quickly revealed a community that is welcoming and actively encourages participation. The reality is that Personal Learning Networks become more beneficial and of greater value as they scale, new memberships and contributions avoid the dangers of a small pool of contributors becoming an ‘echo chamber’ where dominant ideas go unchallenged.
Time spent developing your Personal Learning Network is time well spent but it does take time. The danger busy teachers face is in becoming so engrossed in dealing with the day to day business of teaching that we make poor choices when it comes to time spent on our personal learning. We manage to find time for our students, for phone calls home, for report writing and programming all the while letting our engagement with learning slip down the list of things to do. Ensuring your personal learning is a priority is essential and should be seen against the value it brings to your students; enhance your teaching and you enhance their learning. Munro, Hopkins and Craig recognise this when they state ‘Student outcomes depend on the teaching in the school, its pedagogic capital’. For you, your school and most importantly your students time invested in building a Personal Learning Network is time spent developing your pedagogic capital.
How ever you approach your PLN you must keep the key principle in mind; it needs to be Personal. The way you choose to build your PLN, the connections you make, the ideas you explore, the resources you share need to be relevant to you and should connect with your interests, expertise, passion and learning goals. If you are not finding value in your PLN, change it.
My journey towards a PLN started a few years back but for much of that time it was something I dabbled without any real commitment. A little bit of Twitter, the occasional blog post, articles shared with colleagues by email, some social bookmarking. The trigger was seeing what deliberate, regular engagement could produce. This came thanks to Chris Betcher sharing his blog ‘My Daily Create’ with the audience at EduTech 2014 in Brisbane. Chris had decided to make creativity a deliberate daily act inspired by Sir Ken Robinson but looking to make creativity more than an idea. Each day for a year Chris has posted to his blog a piece of creativity and the results are quite special to see. More than anything else his blog shows personal growth and an engaged audience many of whom have undoubtedly been encouraged to pursue their own creativity. After listening to Chris I decided to post to my blog on a weekly basis. So far this year I have missed just one week which I blame on being overloaded by ideas while presenting at ICOT in Spain (something my blog gave me the confidence to do).
Blogging on a regular basis has helped me understand what I do as a teacher. It has expanded my understanding of learning, forced me to read more widely about education as I search for ideas that may evolve into posts and added a new dimension to my reflective practice. Regular writing with an audience in mind has provided insight to the process of writing that I have shared with my students and the blog has become a resource I call upon when sharing ideas and planning with colleagues. I have taken a certain pleasure in building an audience but I have kept sight of the belief that the blog needs to firstly have value to me. This means I continue to write about topics of interest to me rather than looking for ideas that may have broad popularity, I am not going for ‘link bait’.
Alongside the blog I have become more engaged with Twitter and found a community of educators there with great ideas to share. Through Twitter I have been able to build connections with educators around the world and each connection further erodes the walls of the black-box. As a member of an online community you will find you can have value in multiple ways. Social media needs an audience and even as a passive observer you add this to a network. Commenting on content shared adds a different type of value as does favouriting and re-tweeting. Social media needs people to curate and refer content, to find ideas and allow them to bubble to the surface. Lastly of course content creators provide the ideas to be shared whether it be Podcasts, YouTube clips, blog posts, LinkedIn articles or original tweets.
When you first dip your toes into Twitter you are likely to have mixed reactions. Many first timers find it overwhelming and question the sanity of the colleague who so highly recommended it. At some point if you persist it will begin to make sense. These images might help with that process. If you see Twitter as a way of collecting ideas that you will later sort through and make sense of you will struggle. Twitter is not a gentle flow of ideas, it is a rushing torrent, your bucket will rapidly overflow and you are likely to mourn the loss of so many good ideas. The key is to think of Twitter as a fast flowing stream that you visit when you have time. You enjoy the ideas that flow past while you are there, you grab the best ones for use at a later date and you let the rest float by. If you are not watching the stream you don’t think about it, you just know it will still be flowing when you next visit and most likely some new idea will float by.
So how will you build your Personal Learning Network? What ideas, interests, passions, discoveries do you have to share and how will you add you voice to the community of educators? Begin by trusting in the value of your knowledge and experience and then share it with the world.
by Nigel Coutts
Black, P & Wiliam, D (1998), Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment, School of Education, King’s College, London.