Monday, April 9, 2012

Leveraging Learning by Organizing Technology Use: A Modest Framework

I was tweeting today with a teacher who expressed the frustration I think many of us feel: How do we situate technology inside the work we do as teachers in order to deepen and complicate learning?

I tweeted the following:

And Chris responded:

So the exchange got me thinking about structuring curriculum in order to privilege: connecting, collaborating, creating, contextualizing, and critically consuming so that I could get at the tacit and not just rest at the surface of information.  In this post I want to explore these ideas by doing two things:
  1. Offer an explanation as to why connecting, collaborating, creating, contextualizing, and critically consuming are key processes in learning;
  2. Answer this question: What are methods I might use that would allow learners (including me) to leverage powerful technologies to do these things?
Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) boldly state: "The twenty-first century...belongs to the tacit" (Kindle Location 1002). Michael Polanyi defined tacit as knowing more than one can say.  We cannot transfer tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge "grows through personal experience and can’t teach it to me, though I can still learn it. The reason for the difference is that learning tacit knowledge happens not only in the brain, but also in the body, through all our senses" (Thomas & Brown, Kindle Locations 1013-1015).

This framework (really nothing more than some loose thinking built on the ideas of many others) seeks to situate tacit knowledge as essential, not ancillary.  What follows is a way to conceptualize. I invite you to add to this and to help me to revise it. I will continue to work on it. Think of this as an initial draft.

I. Why do I want learners to connect, collaborate, create, contextualize, and critically consume?


The secret to scaling across is connecting.  Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze (2011) in Walk Out, Walk On, explain "Scaling across happens when people create something locally and inspire others who carry the idea home and develop it in their own unique way" (p. 36).  Scaling across is rhizomatic. Scaling up leads to disappointment, loss of agency, and in some situations colonization. It is an epic construct, anti-rhizomatic.

Juxtaposition to other leads to learning. Connecting with others leads to potentially powerful ideas.  Technology allows us the means to connect across cultures, genders, politics, ages, nationalities, and geographies while tapping emerging and/or established affinities/interests, wonderings, passions, and disciplines.  Princeton sociologist Martin Ruef's research suggests that the 'weak connections' (not deep friendships) people make through social networking are more likely to lead to innovation than those with small networks comprised of close friends.  Jonah Lehrer (2012) summarizes Ruef's findings: "...businesspeople with entropic networks full of weak ties were three times more innovative than people with small networks of close friends" (Kindle Locations 2797-2798).

Weak ties should not be interpreted as singularly being technology-produced (such as through Twitter connections). Rather, weak ties also are produced by being in the company of others.  In earlier posts I have written a lot about the benefits of learning walks.  In my work with students, learning walks are critical, not ancillary activities.  Learning walks place us in the community, offering us occasions to connect with those who are not simply housed at school.  Last fall about 40 high school students, some faculty and I were in Washington Heights (Manhattan), when we came upon a man who was selling ices.  It was a hot day. The man had a large block of ice on a cart and collection of bottles filled with syrup and he used a tool to shave the ice. The students were interested in both the sweet ice treat and the process as none had seen this before. This 10-minute stop is one I have not forgotten. It is a scene I replay in my head and one I suspect might make its way into a piece of fiction.  I still haven't codified the experience and yet I know it was important as I continue to recall it. Tacit knowing is important.


The power of we is greater than the singularity of I.  Facilitating learners' cross-cultural collaboration is an important aspect of our work as teachers.  Finding and framing questions, solving problems, creating works, and sharing resources, insights, ideas, and dreams represent important 'content'. Technologies allow for this to happen in unprecedented ways.  What we make of this is of course in our hands and our students.


In writing about High Tech High, Lehrer writes:
When children are allowed to create, they’re able to develop the sophisticated talents that are required for success in the real world. Instead of learning how to pass a standardized test, they learn how to cope with complexity and connect ideas, how to bridge disciplines and improve their first drafts. These mental talents can’t be taught in an afternoon— there is no textbook for ingenuity, no lesson plan for divergent thinking. Rather, they must be discovered: the child has to learn by doing (Kindle Locations 3211-3215).
Again a connection between tacit knowing and creating is made.  This is John Dewey's thinking. This is Maxine Greene's passions.  Experience leads to learning.  Such learning is often tacit.

How are our learners positioned to be media creators from inside of schools and classrooms? Earlier today I had a conversation with the superintendent of schools and an assistant middle school principal from the town where I live and I shared that there were active media creators at our middle school and a task before us was to help teachers and administrators recognize the creative practices of students. I referenced one teen at the middle school who has posted 300+ films on YouTube and enjoys audience responses from several thousand to more than 15,000 responses per video. That is a sizable audience he has pulled.  Henry Jenkins (2009) reports that "[o]ne-third of teens share what they create online with others, 22 percent have their own Web sites, 19 percent blog, and 19 percent remix online content" (Kindle  Locations 73-74).

How do we invite, tap, and grow such important beginnings?


"In a world where context is always shifting and being rearranged, the stability of the what dimension of knowledge also comes into question. Only by understanding the where of a piece of information can we understand its meaning" (Thomas & Brown, 2011, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change (Kindle Locations 1292-1296).

Contextualizing is an important process where learners connect location(s) (place and time), person/people, and 'content' understanding that as we shape it, it also shapes what we know.  Thomas and Brown state: 
Technology is no longer just a fast way of transporting information from one place to another, and the information it moves is no longer static. Instead, information technology has become a participatory medium, giving rise to an environment that is constantly being changed and reshaped by the participation itself. The process is almost quantum in nature: The more we interact with these informational spaces, the more the environment changes, and the very act of finding information reshapes not only the context that gives that information meaning but also the meaning itself (Kindle Locations 445-449).
Again, Thomas and Brown offer us important insight into context.  They write:
When we build, we do more than create content. Thanks to new technologies, we also create context by building within a particular environment, often providing links or creating connections and juxtapositions to give meaning to the content. Learning now, therefore, goes far beyond a simple transfer of information and becomes inextricably bound with the context that is being created. Where one chooses to post, where one links to, or where one is linked from does not just serve as a locus for finding content. It becomes part of the content itself (Kindle Locations 1319-1323).
Blog posts are an example of potentially contextualized learning.  Where the post is situated, the links it contains, the audience it pulls, the commentary that is offered contextualize the learning.

Critically Consuming

Practices related to reading and writing emerge alongside the production of information and often requires participation. Critically consuming is not a uni-directional activity.  It is collaborative, interactive, co-specifying.  Henry Jenkins's notions of participatory culture captures the idea of consumption as participatory well. Jenkins (2009) writes: "Participatory culture is emerging as the culture absorbs and responds to the explosion of new media technologies that make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways" (Kindle Locations 111-112). To what end, do we teach learners how to make sense of and to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content?

Again referencing a Pew study, Jenkins offers: "...we are moving away from a world in which some produce and many consume media toward one in which everyone has a more active stake in the culture that is produced" (Kindle Locations 139-140).

II. What are methods I might use that would allow learners (including me) to leverage powerful technologies to do these things?

Spending time trying to keep up with the changing technological landscape is a losing effort as a strategy.  Apps abound. Tools change. Invention occurs.  So I am less interested in spending time 'keeping up' as I am in developing a participatory culture (Jenkins 2009) where the connected group's intelligence can guide innovation by helping us apply tools to learning needs AND play with tools when we have yet to know the learning need.

Jenkins (2009) defines participatory culture as:
"... a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby experienced participants pass along knowledge to novices. In a participatory culture, members also believe their contributions matter and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least, members care about others' opinions of what they have created) (Kindle Location 24-26).

To what end are our schools and classrooms participatory cultures? Jenkins lists some examples of participatory cultures including: affiliation (i.e., Facebook, MySpace, game chats), expressions (i.e., fan fiction, mash-ups, zines),  collaborative problem solving (i.e., alternative reality gaming) and circulation (i.e., podcasting, screencasts, blogging).

The more research I do that examines the out-of-school learning of young people (preteen and teens), the more convinced I am that there is critical learning we need to undertake that these young people can teach us.  Their out-of-school learning reminds me of Wheatley & Frieze's descriptions of Walk Ons.
Walk Outs are people who bravely choose to leave behind situations, jobs, relationships, and ideas that restrict and confine them, anything that inhibits them. They walk on to the ideas, people, and practices that enable them to explore and discover new gifts, new possibilities (p. 4).
They tell us that "Walk Ons find each other and connect. Together, they learn quickly, take greater risks, and support one another to continue their pioneering work. A new system is born from their efforts" (p.12).  How do we recognize one another?  How do we build WITH learners these types of environments where walking out is not required?

Works Cited

Jenkins, Henry. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning). Kindle Edition.

Lehrer, Jonah. (2012-03-19). Imagine: How Creativity Works. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Thomas, Douglas and Seely Brown, John. (2011-03-12). A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. CreateSpace. Kindle Edition.

Wheatley, Margaret and Frieze, Deborah. (2011-04-11). Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.


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  2. great gathering. thank you dear.

    interesting that so many are curious about kids learning outside the classroom. I'm curious as to why that doesn't jar us .. can we not continually hear ourselves talk about learning outside..?
    perhaps that'll be our mockingjay.. noticing our own curiosities.. following them..

    1. Might I quote you in a paper I am writing? I think your observation is important. There's a lot to consider related to our sense of agency, of actionable gesture. Why doesn't it jar?