Personal Learning Network: Who are you learning with and who are you learning from?

PLN2012

A year has passed since I began this blog. A beginning filled with trepidation and a leap that required much convincing from a mentor.  A beginning with the intent to use this space to reflect, to connect with others, and to provide greater clarity for how teachers are integrating 21st century skills into their classrooms. However, intention and execution rarely mimic one another, leaving me disappointed on this one year anniversary in the frequency of my posts and range of topics explored.

But the greater feeling I have is gratitude. In reflecting, researching, and writing my posts, I have become more connected to other professionals, in education and beyond. Not connected by comments left on my posts, but connected through an invitation to explore the blogs, twitter feeds, and virtual classrooms of others while consolidating my own reflections. These explorations have also enhanced the face-to-face conversations I have with my colleagues. My professional and personal learning network is now more tangible, accessible, and engaging, with a global reach that extends beyond my school or district.

It is this feeling of gratitude and appreciation, as well as excitement, that I want students to experience. We need to help students identify and cultivate their own personal learning networks. Assistant Vice President of Academics & Associate Professor of Education at Concordia University Wisconsin, Bernard Bull asks:

 “What if we made the building of such a network a central part of the curriculum, inviting students to keep a log or journal of their growing network, and how this network is empowering them to learn, how it is expanding their knowledge and perspective? How are they building a meaningful network?”

Our teachers are already extending curriculum beyond the classroom walls, connecting students with experts worldwide, and providing greater opportunities for real-world application of learning. Now we need to encourage students to recognize and to take responsibility for growing their own learning networks. I have the privilege of being a part of an innovation team, creating an engaged learner profile that students and teachers can use at the beginning of a task to increase engagement. One of our central questions for learners to ask is: “Who are you learning with and who are you learning from?” This encourages students to identify the people who will contribute to their learning, to gain an appreciation for the skills of others, and to recognize potential gaps in their learning network.

But this is just the first step. Creating a personal learning network is not about the number of people in my network—this can become as irrelevant as the number of likes, shares, favourites, or retweets—nor is a network just about diversity, seeing how many different countries or perspectives are represented. While quantity and diversity do have a role to play, a personal learning network should also have members who provide support and encouragement. This relates to the question how your network is empowering you to learn. Students need to be reminded that a learning network is not a search for friends who like the same thing or think the same way; a learning network offers diverse opinions, questions your ideas, and encourages you to extend your thinking. From a strong learning network comes the support to overcome fear, the support for innovation and creativity.

And, most importantly, a learning network is a network of mentors. I don’t use the word mentor lightly – there is much debate about the word mentor and its definition. A mentor can be defined many ways: a coach, a guide, an elder, an expert, someone with more experience. But I think this definition precludes many of us, particularly students who may not see themselves as experts or having more experience than another. And this definition is also limited to only one area of learning. I see the mentoring relationship as a dynamic, reciprocal relationship. One person may have expertise in one area; the other person more experience in another aspect. Mentoring relationships are successful when teaching and learning occurs for both members. Mentors promote dialogue, offer encouragement through their words and actions, and are willing to ask, “What can I give back to my learning network?” We need to encourage and provide opportunities for students to learn from and to learn with one another, regardless of age or grade; [i] to create a school where all learners can identify their learning networks, and all learners know how to mentor one another.

So one year later, I am thankful for the mentors in my learning network – for their willingness to ask questions, to challenge my thinking, to support my adventures, and to learn with me along the way. My hope is to have all students feel gratitude for the gifts they offer and the gifts they receive from their own learning networks.

[i] Please see Scott Slater’s “Rhizomatic thinking” presentation for an exploration of how BC’s Draft curriculum can encourage learners to make connections across grade levels.

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