Collective Learning

I’m finally getting to the point with this MOOC stuff where I can reflect and react. This week’s topic, facilitated by Allison Littlejohn, was Collective Learning. She makes the argument that problem solving and collaboration are necessary for learning and life. In the United States, we’ve seen innovation save us over and over again as each generation has worked to overcome the challenges of growing population, industrialization, warfare, medicine, and globalization. In this age of information abundance, we must work together to solve the complex problems of our time. We have to share resources and truly collaborate as we face new challenges. In learning, work, and life, we form symbiotic relationships that are mutually benificial. As she puts it:

A unique aspect of collective learning is it generates a new paradigm for learning in which the individual and ‘the many’ are indivisible.

That sounds a lot like the African concept of ubuntu. I exist because my community exists, and it exists because I am a part of it. I am a different person because of the influence of my community, and my community would be different if I were not part of it. We rely on each other. We’re all familiar with the (debunked) learning pyramid. We remember 10% of what we read, 50% of what we discuss, and 90% of what we teach others. And while the numbers appear to be entirely invented without any research basis whatsoever, most people would agree that our mastery of content is proportional to our level of engagement with it. The more actively involved with content (through reflection, discussion, teaching, and application), the deeper our understanding of that concept will be. This idea of contributing back to the community, helping to feed the system from which we are learning, benefits everyone.

But the real problems that we have are staggeringly complex. Chris Lehmann likes to observe that education should not be preparation for real life. It should be real life. His students have done some amazing things with real-world problems. But when we consider the big real-world problems, things like climate change and energy dependence and cancer and the simple fact that our standard of living is not sustainable, everything gets really complicated really quickly. Even in the relatively simple world of education, is nearly impossible to reach consensus on what the problems are, what the goals should be, and what the purpose of education is. And those things are all necessary before we can even hope to come up with some solutions to address the changing needs of our students. The challenges are overwhelming. We don’t have the time or the resources to even understand the problems.

Despite the impossibility of the task at hand, though, going it alone is worse.

I once worked in a school district where the technology coordinator had overstayed her relevance. She bought into the promise of technology in education very early. She adopted the goals of the ed-tech movement early. Then, she worked to achieve those goals. By the time I was hired as a teacher, she had been spending the last decade working toward those goals. Unfortunately, she failed to realize that the goals she was trying to reach were no longer relevant. A lot of things had changed in that decade, but her vision hadn’t changed because she was only focused on those first few steps.

I now find myself in a similar role, five or six years beyond the point at which I had planned to step aside and let someone else update the vision. I like to think that the community keeps me relevant. I don’t often win the battles for real 21st century education. Sometimes I struggle with even the simplest goals. But my vision of where we’re heading changes slightly with each new conversation, each new blog post, each new idea. With this approach, we’re never going to get to the destination. But we’ll continue to head in a useful direction.

Photo credit: Jean-François Schmitz on Flickr