I’ve had George Siemens’ “Pots, Kettles, and other small appliances of like appearance” post open in my tabs for what, three weeks now, and it’s been percolating in my brain as I keep mousing across it from time to time, rereading, rethinking. (As a side note, that’s an interesting little shift in my practice that the advent of tabbed browsing and sessions management in Firefox has brought, isn’t it?) George writes:

We are at a point of real change in education (k-12, university, even corporate training). We (the edublog community) still carry the baton of change, but if we are unable to conceive a broader vision of systemic change, we’ll find ourselves passing the baton to others.

So, that “conceive a broader vision of systemic change” line brought me back (once again) to the shift I think we’ve been trying to make in this conversation. The one that moves from being about tools and “flatness” to one that begins to really think about and, more importantly, articulate school models and systems in different ways. And even in that discussion, there seems to be two natural camps evolving, those who say reform is next to impossible without totally blowing out the model, and those who feel that we already have some inroads to reform within the current structures, that there are already progressive school models that might begin to point the way. I struggle to find my own way here, for a variety of reasons. I admit that I have little contextual knowledge of this whole debate to bring to the table. My understanding of progressive school reform movements is thin at best, and I’m in catch-up mode. Yet I have two children in a system (not just local) that is badly in need of reform in light of what’s coming. Blowing up the model will not work for them (unless we decide to remove them from the system) and, frankly, I don’t think there will be a critical mass of folks willing to do this to the system for decades to come. Yet I am equally negative on the prospects that schools can meaningfully change in some sort of timely way without starting over. As a good friend of mine who is planning to leave education after 15 years said recently, “I have no hope that the educational system as we know it will appreciably change in my lifetime.” He’s in his 30s, btw.

Look, I’m a writer. I list to my right. I think in metaphor. So when George says we need a broader vision of systemic change, my mind runs to find words that might begin to piece that vision together in my own brain that might make sense. And as I’ve been mulling over all of this, of how to best begin to perhaps reframe the way I think and talk about schools that might allow me to think and talk about a “broader vision” of schools, my brain keeps coming back to something that I heard Tom Carroll of NCTAF say last month at that Institute of the Future seminar I was at. And I’m not sure he even remembers that he said it because it was just a few words in a much longer response about the future of teaching, but in the middle of that response he said “…school as node…”

I wrote that down.

I think for most people, school is still seen as the (THE?) place where kids go to learn. I know that’s the way it was for me. Yeah, there was a lot of informal learning that took place on the playground, on Main Street, in the back of cars, etc. But the “real” learning, the important stuff happened at school. It was the center of learning in my life, though I never called it that, per se. But I know that’s how my mom saw it. You went to school to learn because that’s where the knowledge was. And if the teachers at the school were good, they helped you understand why that knowledge was important. And that “vision” worked pretty well for a lot of years. It was pretty easy and consistent.

Problem now is, it’s not working any longer. School isn’t the only place where the knowledge is. Knowledge is everywhere. You don’t have to go to school to get it. And now, because knowledge isn’t stuck to a time and a place any longer, knowledge is contextual. It’s not one size fits all. The whole idea that 30 kids in a classroom need to learn the same stuff at the same pace at the same time just makes no sense any longer. In this environment, we can’t keep thinking of schools as the center of knowledge and learning. Instead, we have to start thinking of schools as a part of a much richer tapestry of an individual’s learning and education.

As a node.

Thinking seriously about schools as nodes in larger more expansive networks of personal learning changes the concept of what schools are for. It doesn’t diminish their role, but it does reframe it, and I think it places the emphasis where it more appropriately belongs these days: helping students create, edit, and participate in their own networks of learning. (What a concept.) What if we started seeing schools as the places where our students learn how to learn, where, when they are younger, the school may be at the center, but when they leave us, they have built a vast, effective network of learning of their own in which school and schooling is simply one node? Where we’ve helped them learn how to nurture and sustain those networks to serve them over the long term? Where we’ve shown them how to leverage those connections in safe, ethical and effective ways? Our roles as educators and systems would no doubt shift away from content delivery toward modeling and supporting each learner’s unique journey. And it would challenge us to rethink the ways in which we assess what our students have learned. But that would be crucial and important work, work that some semblance of traditional school structures might actually do pretty well.

But, as Hugh’s great, great drawing suggests, we’d have a lot of getting over ourselves to do for that to happen.

So anyway, just some thin early Thursday morning thinking thrown out for comment, pushback, hole-poking, name-calling, whatever from a node in the network… There is much, much more to consider here, but it is a reframing and some language that at this moment makes some sense to me at least.

(Just as an aside, after thinking about this for a while, I started imagining how school would look as just “a node” in my learning practice right now. As in following “school” on Twitter, or reading the “school” feed in my aggregator, or adding “school” as a friend on Facebook. All of those seem pretty bizarre at first blush, which either means this whole line of thinking is equally bizarre or it speaks to how inelegantly school currently fits into the personal learning network that I’m already a part of.)

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