Inquiry into Learning Systems: Networks

During the next six weeks, my class will be inquiring into ecosystems.  We will be using the Core Ecological Concepts by the Center for Ecoliteracy to orient our exploration.  While the students are inquiring into the patterns and processes that sustain life on earth, I will be following my own inquiry into our learning system.  My guiding question is; how are classrooms like ecosystems?

All living things in an ecosystem are interconnected through networks of relationship. They depend on this web of life to survive. For example: In a garden, a network of pollinators promotes genetic diversity; plants, in turn, provide nectar and pollen to the pollinators. (Center for Ecoliteracy)

Three Types of Networks

Centralized - all members of the group (or species in the ecosystem, depending on what kind of scale we are talking about) are connected to the central node. This type of environment is great for communication, but is only as robust as the center node. If that falls down, then the rest will fall with it.

This is a wonderful example of the teacher-centered classroom. The teacher stands at the front, lectures to the class and the students interact with the teacher. Also, in school administration, we see this when admin makes all the decisions and then dictates to the rest of the school how it will be.

Distributed - This is a very informal network, where each agent is connected only to the agents next to them. It is a very strong network, that has great reach and breadth.

I can remember sitting in rows in school and passing messages along to friends. This is how they travelled. It wasn't a maze, but it wasn't the most efficient manner either. Information can take a while to travel along these paths, and there are many "stops" where information can be changed, misconstrued, or mis-interpreted. Like a game of telephone. Learning can also be hampered in this type of network, as misconceptions can spread.

De-centralized - This is a network where information can spread the fastest. Clusters connecting to clusters. This type of network is found in living systems and in ecosystems. They can also be useful for describing structures and connections between concepts, metaphors, and other visible thinking strategies.

These networks are all over schools. The way ideas move, information spreads, classes and individuals learn, and concepts evolve. I see them everywhere I look. Twitter is another great example of a decentralized network.

Questions Spread Like Wildfire
John is sitting at his table and working on a fractions problem. He is trying to determine how to cut a submarine sandwich fairly so everybody gets an equal piece. He gets stumped on how to cut a ⅓ piece into fourths. Does he multiply ⅓ by ¼, or does he divide? Puzzled, John asks his neighbor this question. The neighbor isn’t sure either. One person at the table thinks it might be multiplication, but they are not sure. The question is posed to a different table. This table is also unsure, so the question travels in two directions; left to yet another table, and right to the final table. Quickly, only a couple of seconds have elapsed since John made his question audible, the entire class, all four tables, are thinking about the problem. There are several theories, but nobody knows the answer. I happen to be listening at the time, and I am able to orient attention and ask questions that will challenge their theories and led us closer to the goal.

This type of situation happens all the time in a classroom. Information spreads along informal pathways, until it reaches the entire collective. The very act of John posing this question forces every students attention onto this problem. It is impossible to not think about it. If I write a blue and white lion wearing a pale pink wedding dress here in text, the reader will picture in their mind. You can’t not picture it. The imagination is a cognitive mechanism that happens whether we want it to or not.

A couple of things are very interesting about this scenario. First, John asked the neighbor. He did not put his hand up and ask the teacher first. This is because he knows the teacher will prompt him to ask the neighbor. This is deliberate design. I am attempting to create a decentralized, or distributed network of intelligence in the classroom. If all the questions come directly to me, then the network will be centralized. There are many reasons why I do not want a centralized network. It is a great form of communication, but it is only as strong as the central hub. This moves the purpose of learning to helping kids find the central hub. Teaching is finding experts to answer your questions for you. I do not want them to spend their lives searching for a person who will answer all their questions. I want them to search them out for themselves, and generate their own theories and thoughts.

A more efficient way of asking questions is to ask the person is your immediate vicinity, and to let the information travel along the necessary paths. When John asked his neighbor, the other people at the table also heard. Their curiosity was piqued and they chimed in to help. The information then spread to another student at another table, who spread it her entire table, where it then spread to all the other tables. In this model, the information was spread in a decentralized manner, quickly spreading the width of the classroom in a few short seconds.

Ironically, nobody in the decentralized network knew the answer, so the entire class then turned to the centralized hub (the teacher). When I said earlier that I did not want a centralized environment in my class, I was not suggesting that a centralized network is an evil network to be avoided. On the contrary, it is incredibly useful and powerful. What I do not want, is the centralized hub to be the default network. As a teacher, I can now orient attention to the fact that the classroom collective tried to help, but now the class is falling back to the more robust node in the network. This is another example of teaching as consciousness of the collective. Not only orienting attention to the content that is being discussed, but orienting attention to how the collective is learning and operating. We can also begin to address the content of the question, and I can be the robust centralized hub that helps them to find their way. Once the question travelled along this path and got to me, I can switch the network from decentralized to centralized. Lets assume for a minute that one of the students was absolutely sure about this question. The centralized hub, would be unnecessary, and the kids would have solved the problem on their own, through their own networks.

Finally, this is a powerful example of the emerging technologies of the 21st century. This is precisely how the internet works. A question is posed, or a resource is shared, via Twitter, and then it spreads informally over a network. Certain nodes in the network will spread it to more nodes than others, but the message will travel until the nodes stop interacting with it. Perhaps, if the historical tendency to equate metaphors of learning to the dominant technology of our time holds (the mind as printing press, the mind as camera, the mind as movie camera, the mind as radio tower, the mind as computer), the internet will be a more robust and acceptable metaphor. This is not to suggest that other metaphors are now invalid, rather, they are no longer the default network.

Relationships and Networks

I admit, viewing the learning system (classroom) as a series of networks can seem to a bit devoid of emotion and human connection. Is there a problem in the vocabulary of systems thinking, referring to children as agents and nodes in a decentralized network? Does it devalue and disconnect the relationship that are involved in that network? Is it a new way of seeing a class a complex clock, rather than a complicated clock?

I wonder. Language is a powerful force, and the words we use and the metaphors we live by have powerful repercussions on our cognitive minds.

George Washington Carver said that all learning is understanding relationships (from Rita Pierson's wondrous TEDtalk). I could not agree more. When I look back on my early classes and reflect on what were the strengths and weaknesses of my early teaching career, I am struck by a thought. During the early years, my relationship was primarily to the subject matter. Teaching “space” to grade sixes, “natural disasters” with my grade four/five class, “reptiles and amphibians” with my grade twos. There were some great activities and some great learning going on, but what I realize now was the lack of personal relationships. That is not to say that I did not have any kind of personal relationships with my students. Of course I did. What I am suggesting is that the relationships was not my explicit focus. The focus was on the content.

A relationship between a student and teacher is a complex thing. In order for learning to take place in an ecosystem such as school, there needs to be a relationship between the one who is determined as the teacher, and who is determined as the learner. Of course, it goes both ways. A teacher learns from the student, and the student learns from the teacher. The teacher is the learner and the learner is the teacher. This is an intimate relationship, and when embodied in a classroom, requires a shift of perspective. The underlying purpose is not the content, the mathematics or the understanding of multiplication, but rather the focus of teacher-student relationships shifts to the relationship itself.

Looking back at our types of networks (centralized, decentralized, distributed) I wonder about the role of networks in the building of lasting relationships. Perhaps, what we are looking for is a teacher-student relationship that is centralized at first. The student directly connecting with the teacher. Learning about each other, getting to know each other, building a common language and a mutual respect, a sense of trust, and dare I say, love. Once that relationship is formed, and that sense of love is understood, perhaps we then start to shift that sense of relationship into a more decentralized network. This would increase the sense of collectivity and collective-awareness of a group. The respect and love starts to flow around the room, and every student begins to build lasting relationships with each other. As a result of this, the barrier between content and relationship is enveloped in fog, allowing for an environment that is more conducive to deep, meaningful, life-long learning.

This would not stop in the classroom. It could continually expand outwards, into the communities that the students find themselves embedded in. These lessons of respect, love, and relationship building would be as valuable as learning to multiply integers. More valuable. These relationships would not apply only to human-to-human contact, but may apply to larger, or smaller, systems. If a learner needs to have a meaningful relationship with a teacher, then can it not be also said that a learner needs to develop a meaningful relationship with the subjects of study? Read a book about why writers write, or why painters paint, and in there somewhere will be a relationship between the medium (or discourse) and the agent. Mathematicians don’t do math simply because they are good at it, they do it because they love it, they respect it, and they have a deep sense of attachment to it.

What if students grew up in an educational environment where the explicit process of education was about forming loving relationships, with people and ideas? What if networks were seen as the dominant metaphor for education?


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