The joint study recently published by the Canadian Education Association and Canadian Teachers’ Federation entitled Teaching the Way We Aspire to Teach, Now and in the Future should give hope to everyone who cares about education in Canada. We, Canadian teachers, are not an embittered, alienated bunch, but rather, deeply compassionate and highly committed professionals who have their students’ growth as their first priority. I was not surprised to read these findings. Nor was I dismayed by some of the real obstacles to aspirational teaching published in the report: insufficient resources, unsupportive school leadership, lack of collaboration with colleagues and the ever present challenge of finding time. Why not dismayed?
I am not illogically optimistic but I am solidly hopeful for the future of teaching and learning in Canada. Why? One word – networks.
Three books have changed the way I look at the art and science of teaching and learning (as well as numerous bloggers and Twitter friends). Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, Too Big to Know by David Weinberger and Linked by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi taught me about the nature and power of networks. In Connected, I learned about how ideas move across networks and how only three degrees separate me from anyone else. Attitudes, beliefs and even lifestyles of someone I do not know will have an impact on my life. In Too Big to Know, I learned how the web is changing the shape of knowledge itself. Information has been liberated from the prison of the page and answers are only a link away. In Linked, I learned about the properties of networks and came to see them as an evolutionary force shaping both biological and social systems. So what does any of this have to do with how Canadian teachers feel about their craft? The answer comes in the shape of another question.
What would happen if teachers looked at the education system, failings and all, as a network and as themselves as nodes in that network? How would that change their daily routines, attitudes and beliefs about what is possible for their students in the classroom? I am guessing that the change would be nothing short of the proverbial paradigmatic shift.
Of course this new self-image (“I am a network node”) would not be an answer to all of the obstacles that teachers face, but it would be an important starting point from which to begin the change the ‘system’ needs.
Consider the following picture: Ms. Linkedin arrives at school by 7:30am for her 8:00am class. She is prepared to answer her students questions on last night’s lesson posted on the class wiki because their homework was to write their questions on a shared Google doc. This took no more than 10 minutes of her time and allowed her to adjust the morning’s lesson to accommodate for their questions. (The lesson was a video she flipped using the TED Ed site.) A departmental meeting is planned for her first spare of the day and as head, she has reduced the meeting time by half by collaborating asynchronistically on a Google doc. During lunch, Ms. Linkedin takes ten minutes to read a few tweets from her #edchat Twitter stream and to contribute a few of her own. The afternoon is smooth partly because of a great idea she gleaned from her Personal Learning Network (PLN) about assigning different roles in group work and now the class is humming with excitement. At the day’s end, Ms. Linkedin leaves deeply satisfied, partly because of her students’ enthusiasm and partly because of a parent’s compliment about the good work she is doing, evident by the open class wiki.
I could go on but I think the point has been made. In this network in which we live and work, we are not invisible and we are not alone. Change and growth are inevitable and networks are the mechanism by which they happen. We are not alone nor are we powerless against an inflexible and outdated system. If we ‘grow’ our networks and connect to a like-minded learners, we will achieve more aspirational teaching than ever before. Become the node in the network and watch the change happen.