Sunday, February 9, 2014

Stepping into the stream and swimming in the river

I'm facilitating an online course for the IBO and this week we are looking at the 5 essential elements, one of which is knowledge.  This week, one of our readings compared a typical student's experience at school with trying to make a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the big picture is.  The analogy goes further and summons up a picture in my head of students collecting lots of disconnected puzzle pieces as they go through their school day, not knowing how they fit together or even if they are part of the same puzzle.  Teachers too, are often in their homerooms with a certain grade or in their specialized subject areas and perhaps don't get to see how each of the pieces of the puzzle fits into the big picture either.  This is one reason why I enjoy working in a PYP school where there is an emphasis on collaborative planning - with all teachers in a grade level being responsible for planning a unit and for having an understanding of both the vertical as well as the horizontal articulation of the programme of inquiry.

The interesting thing about knowledge, however, is that we only know in relation to prior knowledge.  When we encounter a new piece of knowledge we connect it to what we already know, in the same way that when making a jigsaw puzzle we know the blue pieces are probably going to be sky and we don't try to make them connect with green or red.  But today knowledge is no longer static - like a finished puzzle - it keeps on changing and so we cannot possess all our needed knowledge personally.  A lot of this knowledge is stored within the connections we make and also within our technology.

George Siemens comes up with a new analogy for knowledge today.  It's not like a finished jigsaw with every piece in the right place.  He writes:
We have in the past seen knowledge as an object and learning as a product.  But knowledge is really more of a stream ... and learning more of a process.  A product is a stopped process ... the end of the process is the product.  Our internet-era knowledge is no longer suitable as a product - we can continue to revise, connect, and alter indefinitely.
So if knowledge is like a stream, is there any use in trying to store knowledge, like water in a reservoir?  Siemens thinks not.  Library catalogues and encyclopedias attempt to put knowledge into the reservoir and structure it in a way that makes sense in our era, only because we don't yet have the tools/technology that permits us to "step into the stream".  Yet, when knowledge is fluid, categories are less important.  The knowledge moves on and we need ways to access or re-find the knowledge when we need it.

Today, therefore it's important to be connected to the stream where "the voices of many flesh out and define an issue, concern or topic."  However Siemens cautions that the wisdom of the crowd only works "when each member of the collective brings a unique perspective to the space.  If we do not permit individuality we end up closing down the doors of creativity."  It's good, therefore, to reflect on where I am today - in a school that regards individual perspectives as something valuable - and, by no coincidence, a school that is at the cutting edge of creativity and innovation in education.  It's a school where we are encouraged to think and to share and to make connections.  It's a school that knows, as George Siemens would say, "Connections create structures.  Structures do not create connections."

Photo Credit: thinredjellies via Compfight cc

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