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Tribes are Good, But Do They Really Evolve the Conversation?

As I have written about elsewhere, a small amount of furore erupted on Twitter last Saturday in response to Johanna O'Farrell's tirade against 21st century learning habits in The Age titled 'Splashing Cash won't Fix Australia's Broken Education System'. One of the things that I really notice whilst following the conversations through a medium like Twitter is that moments like this really draw a line in the sand and bring the tribe together. Three questions that arose out of the ashes was: 
  1. Do moments like this further the wider conversation in anyway? 
  2. What is the role of the connected tribe in regards to continuing this wider conversation? 
  3. What does it take to move an idea from a point of change to evolution?



Connected Learning

At the heart of all our connections, whether online or not, is our PLN. There are many different definitions for PLN's including: personal learning network, professional learning network or personalised learning network. Kate Klingensmith summarises the term 'PLN' by suggesting that it is basically "the entire collection of people with whom you engage and exchange information, usually online." This collection includes both friends, family, colleagues, professionals, both in and out of work, really anyone who has something to add. +Tom Whitby points out importantly that "PLN's accept people for their ideas, not the titles". The idea is closely associated with the connectivist learning theory, where the focus of learning is not necessarily what you know, instead it is about what networks you are a part of and what possible solutions you are able to gain from these different perspectives.

Whether we realise or recognise it, we are all already a part of a personal learning network just waiting to be activated. What I find confusing is that often when people talk about PLN's they use phrases like 'develop a', 'build your' or 'create your own'. Whitby himself talks about an 'acceptance' as if their is some sort of membership or control. However, I personally think that this confuses things. I would argue that PLN's often form themselves organically. PLN's are rhizomic. There is no central root system. There is only one connection leading to another. Whitby best sums it up by calling it a 'mindset', a way of being. The question then is how this is different to a tribe and how can each be used to evolve the discussion in regards to educational reform?



The Tribes We Lead

In a Ted Talk from 2009, +Seth Godin spoke about the 'Tribes We Lead'. What tribes are about is 'heretics' changing the status quo by connecting people with ideas. The real challenge is to find something worth changing and then lead a disconnected group that also has a yearning to change the status quo. As Godin states:
Heretics look at the status quo and say, "This will not stand. I can't abide this status quo. I am willing to stand up and be counted and move things forward. I see what the status quo is; I don't like it." That instead of looking at all the little rules and following each one of them, that instead of being what I call a sheepwalker -- somebody who's half asleep, following instructions,keeping their head down, fitting in -- every once in a while someone stands up and says, "Not me." Someone stands up and says, "This one is important. We need to organize around it." And not everyone will. But you don't need everyone. You just need a few who will look at the rules, realize they make no sense, and realize how much they want to be connected.
Although coming from a marketing background, Godin's notion of tribes reaches out to a range of callings, across all society. My question though is whether it is enough to start a tribe to bring about the change that is required moving into the 21st century?

Although tribes are a powerful mechanism for change, the big question is whether they actually evolve the discussion in the wider community? Fine the tribe plants the seed, spreads the word, the big question though is how we get the conversation to evolve outside of the bubble of the echo-chamber. Beyond the notion, that is 'them', not 'us'. The problem, I feel, with Godin's call to the tribe is that although it works to ignore certain groups when it comes to art, music and marketing, the same cannot be said about education. Is it enough to lead a particular group towards change in education and simply leave a certain sector behind?

This is where PLN's come in. Unlike the exclusive nature of the tribe, united by an idea, a PLN is more inclusive, open to different thoughts and ideas. As +David Truss explained in a fantastic response to the oft made criticism that mediums like Twitter are an online echo chamber:

  1. People in my PLN challenge my thinking and push me to see perspectives that I would not see on my own. 
  2. A good PLN will pull in learning from places I don’t normally go, and this means that even when good ideas bounce around, perspectives on those ideas don’t stay static… they don’t echo, and they morph into new insights.
The biggest difference I can see between a PLN and a tribe is that a PLN by its nature is open, it connects with a wide breadth of ideas, both agreeable and disagreeable, ideas that continue to challenge and break our moulds, ideas that keep the conversations going. The bigger question that we need to consider is whether we are willing to recognise some of these other voices. Sometimes in the desperate clamour for change it is easier to squash these voices, deny them, smother them, but is this really productive? 



It Takes a Village

In a recent post, +Tom Whitby suggests that, "In the garden of ideas we must weed out the bad and fertilize the good, but we can never ignore the ideas that are popping up at a rate never before imagined." I was really taken by this statement as it sums up what we do naturally, the sorting between the 'good' and 'bad', useful and useless. Clicking on one link, ignoring another. The problem with this though is with the amount of ideas out there, sometimes the important thing is the actual interactions, the dialogue, the constant point reflection, why rather than what we deem as 'good' and 'bad'.


From this point of view, it is therefore so important to engage with everyone. In his keynote for ICTEV13 Conference, +Dan Donahoo spoke about the importance of recognising the place of everyone in the village when integrating new technology and ideas. Whether it be the blocker who provides an insight to the hurdles or the outlier who is always looking for new and innovative ideas or the learner (student and teacher) at the heart of the change. The reality is everyone has something to contribute. The difficulty is authentically incorporating all the different voices. The problem is that we often enter discussions with an outcome in mind. However, something would be wrong if there were no modifications to this desired outcome, because we all take things up in our own way and this needs to be recognised. The process, +Dan Donahoo suggests, is far more important that actual outcome.



The lesson learnt from +Dan Donahoo's presentation is that it takes more than one teacher with a good idea to bring about change. It takes a whole community to bring about change. It may be the job of the tribe to identify the need for change and start the fire, but it is the job of the wider learning network to evolve the conversation, bring about this change in their own way. Addressing this problem in his own way, +Peter Skillen suggests that rather than overload teachers with initiatives, those in administration need to help teachers to understand the ‘essence’ residing in all the different practises that we often associate with 21st century learning and out of the distilled essence, teachers can then ‘construct their own knowledge and practice’. In the end, our challenge is how to help each other make the most appropriate decisions for each of our own situations.


People Will Fix Education

What then is needed to bring about an evolution in education? To me, to go beyond mere change, to actually bring about about evolution, will only happen when everyone is activated and connected to the conversation. This includes parents, students, politicians, businesses, anyone really, because we all have a vested interest in education. The big problem seems to be how to engage everyone in the conversation. With the rise of social media and use of technology as a way of communicating and disseminating information, it offers a great medium. However, not everyone is online and maybe they don't have to be, but if not, how then do we carry the conversation to them and make sure that they also have an empowered voice within the whole conversation? This is an ongoing challenge how to best keep the conversation going. It is so often easier to squash those ideas that are other to our own, but does that carry the wider conversation or simply fuel the tribe?

Coming back to the original saga, Johanna O'Farrell is right when she says that money and technology will not fix education. They may help, but they certainly are not the 'silver bullet' as she states. The real change agent in regards to education are people. People trying to find solutions to today's problems to build a brighter tomorrow. Personally, I think that it is too simplistic to say that something worked in the past, therefore it will continue to work today. This denies that the world changes in so many ways, whether it be culturally or technologically. However, what O'Farrell's article does do is get people talking about education and in some way that is a good thing. The challenge is to talk about such issues and ideas in a way that involves everyone in the conversation, incorporating a wide range of perspectives, maybe that is the truly 21st century problem?

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