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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do Our Students Have PLN’s?

By Peter DeWitt — July 12, 2012 4 min read
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Teachers need to make sure that they are fostering strong PLN’s in the classroom because as much as it is important to learn from a teacher, we also understand that the conversations students have with one another can be invaluable as well.

Through social media and other venues there is a lot of talk about personal learning networks (PLN). A PLN consists of all of the places where you get your information and its how educators tap into educational conversations with colleagues near and far. It’s a fantastic way to stay current in our practice as educators. As a principal, I believe it’s highly important to be connected so I can bring the most current and best resources to staff and in return they share their best resources with me.

My PLN begins with the staff that I work with everyday. The teachers and staff that surround me share information and we talk about articles and blogs that we have read. Most importantly, we talk about helping the students that enter our school. As my PLN grows I branch out to my administrative colleagues. Although our K-12 administrative team is close, I spend the most time administratively with two other elementary principals and the director of special education.

We share articles and books with one another and try to keep abreast of the fast paced educational resources that pop up. As we work together we can weed through what is good for our students and what is an organization offering us more of the same of thing that we do not need. My PLN is based on trust and experience. After six years of working together, we have a solid foundation to work on.

As I move even further out on my PLN I look to organizations like ASCD. Every month I scour through Education Leadership and read and reread articles that will further my thinking. I click on Education Week on a daily basis to see what’s new and what is hot in the educational world and then I go to Twitter. Most of us understand that there are numerous benefits to being connected on Twitter. My PLN has expanded across the country and around the world.

I often worry about being too connected so I take a break. Everything needs to be done with balance so I do not want you to think that I sit on my couch with my IPad and then run to grab my phone while I walk to my laptop. It’s important to step back, sharpen the saw and take a break. My PLN is important to my daily practice as an educator. However, I often wonder if our students believe their PLN is important.

Our Students’ PLN
Make no mistake our students have their own personal learning network. Many students are on Facebook and Twitter. However, you probably believe that they are not on those social networks for the same reason we are. However, what if they are? We are on there to stay connected with people we have not seen since high school and we suddenly care where they are eating for dinner and press “like” when they “check in” to a restaurant. We have a need to stay connected and our students thrive on that same need.

Students do have personal learning networks and they have to decide, much like we do, whether that PLN is a good one or a bad one. Their PLN begins with their parents. We have all learned a great deal from our parents and at a very young age they helped shape our thinking before we ever stepped foot into a school building. Our parents taught us how to talk, read (in some cases), walk and how to ride a bike. If you haven’t thanked your parents lately for being the first member of your PLN, perhaps you should.

Secondly, our students learn from their teachers. In some cases it may be a self-contained teacher that they spend their days with in the classroom. Other times they may switch classes and learn from a variety of teachers. Some teachers and the ones they truly connect with and others they just learn from.

Thirdly, students learn from one another. In some cases their peer groups are their strongest PLN. They may work in groups or by just listening to answers that other students give when teachers ask questions. Teachers need to make sure that they are fostering strong PLN’s in the classroom because as much as it is important to learn from a teacher, we also understand that the conversations students have with one another can be invaluable as well.

Lastly, in my opinion (you may have more) students have PLN’s that are on-line. These PLN’s, depending on the age of the student, need to be monitored because they can have positive or negative impacts and consequences. However, connected teachers and principals know that students can learn from the likes of Twitter. There have been countless conversations between classes of students and other educators. Teachers and principals upload student work and Tweet it out and in some cases they receive dozens of responses. Twitter and other social networks can provide a great PLN to our students.

In the End
It is no longer about whether we are teaching 21st century skills, but it’s about how we are doing it. Students do not think about how they will implement the use of a computer, IPad or tablet, they just do it because they have never known life without it. If we are truly going to engage our students, we need to expand the PLN that they already have and get them to understand what that means.

As much as mandates and accountability gets us down, some of us seem to be in a parallel universe as well because it is also an exciting time to be learning. Literally everything we need is at our fingertips and that creates very exciting prospects for our students, and for us as educators. We need to continue to negotiate our way through all of this and expand our own thinking and the thinking of our most precious commodity which is our students.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.