This is the second time in this course I’m just now discovering someone has given a name and structure to things I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Of course, if I’d been an education major instead of a journalism major, I might have read about connectivism before. Or maybe if I had just been a better journalism student, which I was not. (My apologies to Bill KuykendallLoup Langton, and Bob Sullivan. I was actually a good student for David Rees, but only because I was over a decade older and a smidgen wiser when I took his course.) I can’t imagine the journalism school curriculum isn’t highly interested in connectivism considering the theory has everything to do with learning and information. So let’s assume I was exposed to it and then forgot I was exposed to it, but retained the gist of the theory and have been ruminating on it ever since.

George Siemens succinctly explained connectivism:

Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.

There are certainly many other learning theories and I encourage you to study them if that’s what excites you, but I’m not here to run them all down. I’d rather work a little higher on the taxonomy than merely paraphrasing them for you (which would be level 1, remembering) or showing you I know what each of the most popular learning theories mean (level 2, understanding). I’d rather try explaining how I already use some of connectivism’s principles every day and then talk about how I can approach using them at my school to create interesting and enriching opportunities for the students, staff, and even the parents at my school, all made easy or simply possible due to the power of technology. Using a version of the K-W-L format should do the trick.

What do I already know and do?

Considering my background, connectivism is an exceptionally easy theory for me to buy almost in its entirety. The parts of it I don’t buy are the parts I don’t fully understand…yet. Once I can wrap my mind around them, then I’m likely to buy into them as well. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, I feels as though I’ve been acting as an information hub. Siemens explains that “hubs are well-connected people who are able to foster and maintain knowledge flow.” I have a fairly diverse group of friends and colleagues, even more now that I live and work in a foreign country than when I lived in the US. I was lucky to grow up in a fairly diverse part of the US (California), I’ve lived in a number of differently-sized cities across the country, and I’ve held a fairly wide variety of jobs. (If I were a polyglot, which is still one of my goals, then the diversity of my acquaintances would inevitably be even greater.)

Diversity is one of connectivism’s principles, that “learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.” (Siemens again)  In addition, I’m teaching students from all around the world, not just Korean kids. I have 12 first languages in my classroom and not one of them is English! KKFS is a K-12 school and the diversity in my 2nd grade classroom is no exception, it’s the rule.

I’m a news junkie from as far back as I can remember, so staying informed via general information sources like mass market newspapers and magazine is just something I do nearly everyday. I curate a lot of articles I come across which I think my social circles would find interesting. I lack humility about my role, but I don’t feel I’m arrogant about it, it’s just what I do, filtering and distributing information is second nature to me. When someone asks me something I don’t know, I usually say, “That’s a very interesting question! I don’t know, but let’s find out!” As Siemens says, it’s impossible for one person to know everything. Even my 2nd graders have asked me questions I can’t answer without researching. I want to encourage curiosity and I want my circles to know they can come to me for answers. I want to be a resource who can either answer their questions or find answers quickly and easily. I want to teach them they can learn to answer their own questions too. This is  a concept I picked up while studying yoga, that the teacher’s goal is to help the student become their own teacher, and it’s central to my teaching philosophy.

What do I want to learn and more importantly, how can I find it?

Because of how rapidly new information becomes available, how many sources potentially relevant information can come from, from how many different fields, and in different languages, the ability to find information is ultimately more important than than any particular set of information. Here’s the caveat, and it’s a pretty big one: Just because information exists doesn’t mean it’s accurate, and that’s why it’s critical that a hub (to use Siemens’s terminology) and the “nodes” who the hub disseminates information to need to have an excellent foundation in their respective fields so they can more carefully discriminate and use the new information to synthesize new ideas with others from other fields.

I think it’s possible for one person to have enough general knowledge to be a great hub, so they can discriminate, act on, or pass on the probably credible to the relevant people and discard what’s likely baloney so specialists don’t waste their time with low-quality information. I think it’s impossible for one person to be so knowledgeable about everything they come across that they can give all of it more than a sniff test. The applicable expressions are, “She’s widely but not deeply read”, or idiomatically, “He’s a Jack of all trades, but a master of none.” This is a bit of a backhanded compliment, or it’s meant to be one, but if you can apply those expressions to someone, then they’re likely to be a good hub, and hubs are increasingly critical components of every organization’s information ecosystem in an age which ready access to good information is critical to success. Think about the difference between a construction project with a bad contractor or no contractor at all and a project with a great contractor. My brief stint as a general contractor for some remodeling my wife and I did on our condo was very educational and even fun. Among other things, contractors bring a diverse team together, gives them the tools they need at the right time and keeps them on the right track in order to shepherd a complex project toward completion. (Yes, I’m partially describing a project manager as well.) Instead of needing hammers, concrete, paint, and wood, the single most important tool our people need is information.

Connectivism needs specialists in every subject area, ones who know enough to move up through the taxonomy by themselves from levels 1-3 (remember, understand, and apply) until levels 4-6 (analyze, evaluate, and create), where it would help to work with a diverse group of other specialists to create, synthesize, and innovate.

While my second graders are unlikely to make the next killer app, they certainly could harness their differences (personal, academic, cultural, etc.) to create something greater than they could have done alone. Their lack of self awareness is one thing holding them back: they don’t know how much or how little they differ from each other and they take their own skills for granted. Recognizing them would certainly help them boost their confidence and they’d be more likely to exploit their now-known strengths (or strengths they’re hopefully more aware of now) in service of the task at hand and hopefully future tasks as well. The differences from K-12 are relatively minor compared to university students and especially professionals. K-12 students are working with basically the same set of information and aren’t truly specializing in anything. It’s not exactly like a geologist collaborating with a database analyst (and in their respective fields, those are still pretty general titles, but you get the idea). Naturally, some students are better in art or math or writing, so team diversity can be created that way, and it’s something I’ll have to sit down and think about when making teams.

Less confident students may also get overpowered by stronger, more assertive students, so there would have to be ways to give everyone in the group an equal voice or true synthesis cannot take place. Each node in the ecosystem has to, at the very least, act as a validation or check on the other nodes so what the organization creates doesn’t violate established or relevant principles of the other nodes and the creation isn’t destined likely to fail. However, when all nodes are working in sync and all operating in accordance with the best practices of their own fields, then I think wonderful things can happen.

Another reason connectivism would work well in general, not just when using technology in the classroom, is that kids want to belong to a group, they don’t want to feel like they’re learning alone, they want to be valued and heard. Properly designed activities based on the principles of connectivism, are very likely to tick all of those boxes.

Always learning how to learn.

In the rush to move onto the next thing in the curriculum, I’ve never let my students reflect on the projects or units they’ve finished, and I’ve barely done it myself. The amount of curriculum I have to cover and the seemingly little time I have to cover it in prevents me from completing this crucial step. But giving even a single class period for reflection on and celebration of their accomplishment would yield far more than rushing off to the next thing. Students of all ages need to get in the habit of thinking about what they’ve done and how they can do it differently or better the next time. There are usually multiple paths to the same answer (even in math!), and even more paths to equally good or better answers when answers aren’t as binary as those in math.

Flying a kite: An alternate, supporting analogy

I’ll try not to torture this analogy to make it fit in all cases, but the analogy of a kite came to mind when I started reading about connectivism. KKFS principal Edward Zrudlo is a huge fan of brain research as it relates to learning, so teachers at KKFS tend to teach about how learning creates new synapses and how students (and everyone) can strengthen those synapses via practice, repetition, application, and reflection.

So my analogy is this: On an individual level, each synapse is a thread, and the stronger the threads we’ve created via the methods above, the further we can let our kite run out, we can imagine and dream bigger, more radical ideas because we understand deeply the systems and rules which underpin our knowledge and how the world works. Conversely, if our threads are few, thin, and weak, then we’re limited to smaller ideas and much more modest flights of fancy, i.e. not being able to progress very far up the taxonomy, especially not to the ultimate goal, which is synthesis and creation.

Applying this analogy to larger and larger nodes (partnerships, small groups, classrooms, schools, organizations, and beyond), when each member of a node has a strong, well-developed string, and the strings are made of a wide variety of materials, winding all of the members’ strings together creates an extremely strong, flexible, and resilient support for creating ideas. The ideas such a rope can support could be truly record breaking and world changing.