Sunday 20 March 2011

Biological Education & Hot Groups

I've been to two Minds On Media events, at ECOO in October and the OELC Conference this past February. Both times I've been surprised by the response from teachers regardless of their technical prowess. Tech skills weren't the arbitrating force, curiosity was. The people who were involved in it found themselves working in their ZPD, and felt supercharged by the experience. So much of schooling involves crowd control rather than trying to get students into that zone of proximal development. So much teaching revolves around control, rather than encouraging self directed learning.

When I first attended MoM, the event reminded me of a gardener creating fertile ground, but having the sense not to micromanage the growing/learning. I suspect there is a truth in this that applies to all education. Whether you want to call it student centred or skills based or what have you, education isn't a mechanical/mathematical process, it's a biological one. Events like Minds On Media recognize this by empowering the learners (and the instructors) and giving them the freedom to move within a rich learning environment to where they think they need to be.

Most of the PD I experience exists in a mechanical process that alienates teachers and makes them resentful. This approach is used because administration is more concerned with a disciplined environment (that crowd control mentioned above) that ensures full participation even if it is entirely passive, than it is with presenting memorable content. When the learning takes a back seat to crowd control, you know the results aren't going to be pretty. In fact, they're going to look at lot like...

The other thing that's been bouncing around in my head is the idea of hot groups. I know many educators shy away from business approaches, calling them corporate and such, but this one is anything but corporate. Hot Groups recognize a fundamental truth about how people work together. In a hot group members will do work well beyond what is expected or required, simply for the joy of having it received as valuable within the group. In my own case, I recently did a hot group thing for our little cloud working group, I made a group logo and people dug it. It's an insider thing, only a few will appreciate it, but it builds team and even surprised me with a level of commitment (the fact that everyone wanted a t-shirt was what gave me the biggest buzz about it).

I've seen this happen time and again with students. As I type this I have my grade 12s putting together a network of computers using many different OSes. Some of them haven't done it before, others have, but are unfamiliar with the OSes I've provided them with (Red Hat Linux Server, Ubuntu Server, Windows Home Server, Ubuntu Desktop, Win7, XP and Vista). Listening to them talk, they are telling anecdotal stories of failed OS installs, upgrades that led to game failures due to compatibility issues and all sorts of other OS related experiences, all while working through multiple installs. This may look disorganized and inefficient, I'd argue that it's the opposite. Those students are creating context that I would not have imagined trying in a top down lesson on OS installs, and they're doing it while creating a sense of group coherence (made even more amazing when you realize that three of the ten of them in there are usually sequestered away in the autism learning class). Those guys came out of there, having installed half a dozen OSes during the period, and they'd also made this (a classic example of a hot group surprise - they were very keen to give me a copy when the class ended).

If you think that has nothing to do with what they were supposed to be doing, you're determined to force human relationships, and the learning the goes on within them into a linear, mechanical process. Those guys did many things that period that I hadn't intended, as well as most of the things I had. On aggregate, I'd suggest that they weren't limited by their teacher's knowledge of them, their own risk aversion to failure (installing unknown OSes), or a need to overly control the learning. The result is a non-judgmental, rich learning environment that encouraged creativity and constructive peer support. The team building that happened in there today will be something I can continue to develop for the rest of the semester.

If I can create that environment, I do. If a hot group grows out of it, I'm over the moon. You'll seldom experience a better teacher rush than the one you do when a hot group wows you with what you weren't expecting.