Networks and control

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. 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 the classes attention and ask questions that will challenge their theories and lead us closer to the desired answer.

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 student’s attention onto this problem. It is impossible to not think about it. Our 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 his neighbor. This is deliberate design. I am attempting to create a decentralized, or distributed network of intelligence in the classroom.

One of the purposes of teaching, as I see it, is to help kids learn to orient themselves in knowledge networks. Networks are not a strange concept for children nowadays. They get it. The technology they grow up with embodies this concept in its interface and functionality. This generation interacts with decentralized networks everywhere they go, but school still clings to the centralized way.

Ironically, nobody in the decentralized network of my class knew the answer, so the entire class then turned to the centralized hub. Me. When I said earlier that I did not want a centralized environment in my class, I was not suggesting that a centralized network is evil. On the contrary, it is incredibly useful, and teachers should use it when it is appropriate. When is a hard question to answer. I am still figuring that bit out. When to be centralized and when to be decentralized?

What I do not want, is the centralized hub to be the default network. As a teacher, I can now challenge and perturb and help the class figure out how this problem works. This is me, standing at the front, maybe in front of a whiteboard with a marker, asking questions and prompting them in the right direction. 

I can also 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. I can help them be aware of networks. This is another instantiation of teaching as consciousness of the class. I didn't set up the scenario to come to me, that is just how it worked out, and I reacted to it. Not only orienting attention to the content that is being discussed, but orienting attention to how the collective is learning and operating. 

Learning about learning.