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Standing on Shoulders

Written by Christina Cantrill
May 06, 2011

In the context of launching the NWP Makes! pilot project work in 2009, we shared this video by John Seely-Brown on Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production to prompt discussion about the implications of making/tinkering/creating on teaching and learning. It was a good discussion opener and supported the specific conversation at that time while also raising the related topics of knowledge creation and environments that are supportive of that kind of creative work. Seely-Brown himself opens this talk about tinkering with the big question of “What can we do better in schools today? Especially,” he says, “given the rapid pace of change in our society through the impact of digital media.”

His first observation is that in an environment of change, supporting students (and I would add adults too) in embracing change and being enthusiastic about learning and playing, with knowledge is key to fostering the kind of imagination and creativity needed for an unknown future.

In order to do this he talks about looking into our past and our present to see where we have environments that support this kind of enthusiasm and embrace – he recognizes this in open peer-based learning communities, or distributed learning environments, where individuals have the opportunity to learn from one another, respond to one another, and actually have the opportunity to create. We can see this online in many places – in the way that communities form and develop work together. He also refers to the physical world of the past where in one-room schoolhouses teachers were more often in the role of mentor and students were in positions of both teaching and learning with and among their peers. And he looks to the present in architectural studios, where peers learn together to both explore, learn and critique. Seely names these as places where the adage “the best way to learn is to teach” comes into play. He also talks about the act of tinkering, of creating itself, is a process of authentication where one can say “does it work?” and then learn as well as develop their own authority within a community of peers.

Now, in our digitally connected world where the technology itself allows us to connect into distributed communities of practice, it is now easier than ever to “stand on the shoulders” of those who came before, to examine, remix and build off of and through other content and ideas while expanding one’s own sense of self, practice and work, and turn that content back into the community.

Pam Moran speaks to these issues from her position as a school administrator through a voicethread reflection of the year in her district titled, Create, Connect, Communicate: the Motion of Language where she sees examples of practice that support students and teachers in being part of a “learning world.” Many of these examples are off-line too, in fact, but from them we still can glean what can we can examine, remix and build within communities of practice however they connect.

Similar to Seely-Brown, Moran says that “what schooling should really be about is allowing young people to create a context for authenticity in the work that they do … that comes through them being able to connect with each other and the greater world  in order to build a real sense of collective intellect and how they process and learn together. …” She goes on to then share examples of where she see learners — both young people and adults — doing this in her district and how they then use those connections to “… take input from the world and then to be able to create a context for putting what it is that they are learning back out as well as their own viewpoints and perspectives on the learning that they are doing.”

What does this all tell us about what we can already do better in schools and in support of teaching and learning today?