Education Opinion

Mind Work and Conditions of Community

By LeaderTalk Contributor — July 06, 2009 11 min read
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It is summertime and many educators, contrary to popular opinion, are mind working. Mind work is different for all of us, but for educators it involves thinking, learning and knowledge creation in a variety of different contexts for a variety of different purposes: perhaps it is a book a colleague recommended, a web site that promises resources for student learning, a blog post reflecting on work with students during the past school year, Twitter comments tagged as favorites during the busy school year, a podcast on pedagogy for global classroom collaboration, an archived online conversation on managing social networks. The list is endless and it can be overwhelming at times if not managed well.

Certainly, mind work involves collecting, sorting, analyzing, synthesizing, and creating new knowledge, but it also requires prioritizing so we attend to what is most important. I want to recommend three priorities, guideposts and related resources as the most important mind work you can do this summer.

To preview the resources, I will invite you to 1) watch a YouTube video titled HOME, 2) read an article titled Minds on Fire, and 3) read one book, Beyond Discipline. Ultimately, this post is about thinking and learning deeply about conditions of community for learning so we can learn together and help the children learn well.

Priority 1: The Planet

Do some deep thinking and learning about the planet and what will happen over the next ten years. The children we teach will inherit the world with whatever capacities we help them develop; they will be adults in 2020. Please do not dismiss this as a “science” topic; the reality is this is a topic for disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and and transdisciplinary inquiry.

Guidepost 1: Climate Change

23 June 2009 – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today extended an invitation to heads of State and government to attend an “unprecedented” global summit at the United Nations to spur action towards reaching an ambitious climate change pact later this year.

“Climate change is the greatest challenge facing this and future generations,” he said at a press conference in New York. “Emissions are rising and the clock is ticking.”

Citing the top scientists, he stressed that there are fewer than 10 years left to stop rising emissions in order to avoid “catastrophic” problems. “Now is the time for action,” he emphasized. (Quoted from Ban invites world leaders to ‘unprecedented’ UN climate change summit, July 6, 2009)

On September 22, 2009 the United Nations Secretary-General will host an all-day high-level event on climate change for Heads of State and Government at United Nations Headquarters to prepare for the December U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

2009 is a crucial year in the international effort to address climate change, culminating in the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, 7-18 December. In 2007, Parties agreed to shape an ambitious and effective international response to climate change, to be agreed at Copenhagen. (Quoted from United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, July 6, 2009)

Resource 1: HOME

HOME is an ode to the planet’s beauty and its delicate harmony. Through the landscapes of 54 countries captured from above, Yann Arthus-Bertrand takes us on an unique journey all around the planet, to contemplate it and to understand it. But HOME is more than a documentary with a message, it is a magnificent movie in its own right. Every breathtaking shot shows the Earth - our Earth - as we have never seen it before. Every image shows the Earth’s treasures we are destroying and all the wonders we can still preserve. “From the sky, there’s less need for explanations”. Our vision becomes more immediate, intuitive and emotional. HOME has an impact on anyone who sees it. It awakens in us the awareness that is needed to change the way we see the world. (HOME embraces the major ecological issues that confront us and shows how everything on our planet is interconnected.)

In 200,000 years on Earth, humanity has upset the balance of the planet, established by nearly four billion years of evolution. The price to pay is high, but it is too late to be a pessimist: humanity has barely ten years to reverse the trend, become aware of the full extent of its spoliation of the Earth’s riches and change its patterns of consumption. (Quoted from //www.youtube.com/homeproject on July 6, 2009)


Priority 2: The Internet

Do some deep thinking and learning about the new order of education emerging from learning environments made possible by the read-write-participatory web and Web 2.0 associated tools.

Guidepost 2: Social Learning

The most profound impact of the Internet, an impact that has yet to be fully realized, is its ability to support and expand the various aspects of social learning. What do we mean by “social learning”? Perhaps the simplest way to explain this concept is to note that social learning is based on the premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions. The focus is not so much on what we are learning but on how we are learning.


There is a second, perhaps even more significant, aspect of social learning. Mastering a field of knowledge involves not only “learning about” the subject matter but also “learning to be” a full participant in the field. This involves acquiring the practices and the norms of established practitioners in that field or acculturating into a community of practice. (Images and Text from Minds on Fire, July 6, 2009)

Resource 2: Minds on Fire: Open Education, The Long Tail, and Learning 2.0

...various initiatives launched over the past few years have created a series of building blocks that could provide the means for transforming the ways in which we provide education and support learning. Much of this activity has been enabled and inspired by the growth and evolution of the Internet, which has created a global “platform” that has vastly expanded access to all sorts of resources, including formal and informal educational materials. The Internet has also fostered a new culture of sharing, one in which content is freely contributed and distributed with few restrictions or costs. (Quoted from Minds on Fire, July 6, 2009)

Priority 3: Community

Do some deep thinking and learning about “conditions of community” necessary for deep learning. Deep learning arises when we ask our students (or ourselves) “… to respond to questions … through multiple disciplinary and transdisciplinary lenses and … seek and discern the wholeness, patterns, connections, insights, and new meanings that unfold over time…. (Stephanie Pace Marshall, The Power to Transform, 2006, 57-58)” What are the conditions of community that nurture deep learning?

Guidepost 3: Learning Communities

Community 1: What are a faculty’s assumptions about the nature of children (or adults)? What do people you know believe motivates children and causes them to act the way they do within and beyond school? Do they believe that generally students can not be trusted and need a lot of guidance and a discipline system that clearly defines rules and expectations and then holds students responsible for their behaviors?

Community 2: If, on the other hand, a faculty believes that students have a human need for autonomy, relatedness and competence, students will be trusted to make decisions, teachers will develop human relationships with the children they teach in classes and throughout the school, and students are encouraged to develop habits of thinking by taking responsibility for tasks that engage and challenge them to stretch beyond their current level of knowledge and performance.

Research on best practices for learning communities discourages the former and encourages the latter approach to learning communities (Source: Kohn, 9).

Resource 3: Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community

I just finished reading the 10th Anniversary Edition of Alfie Kohn’s


Discipline: From Compliance to Community
. Originally published in 1996, it has much to say about the use of power, control, rewards, punishment and learning, but especially the conditions of community for learning that have and always will be relevant to classrooms and schools. The good news is that we have another ten years to transform our schools. With so much talk about 21st Century Skills and Schools, now is the perfect time to get unstuck. The danger is that another decade will pass and schools will not change.

  • In particular, we need to be on the lookout for profoundly negative theories about the motives and capacities of children, which frequently animate discussions about classroom management... (2)
  • When students are “off task,” our first response should be to ask, “What’s the task?” (19)
  • For all the reasons discussed in this chapter, schools will not become inviting, productive places for learning until we have dispensed with bribes and threats altogether. (36)
  • An effective teacher by definition is one who manages to get compliance with minimal effort and who succeeds in forcing rebellious children to back down. (56)
  • Each aspect of life in a classroom offers an invitation to think about what decisions might be turned over to students--or negotiated with students--individually and collectively. (85)
  • Students need to feel safe in order to take intellectual risks; they must be comfortable before they can venture into the realm of discomfort. (103)
  • Question for student discussion: What makes school awful sometimes? Try to remember an experience during a previous year when you hated school, when you felt bad about yourself, or about everyone else, and you couldn’t wait for it to be over. (114)
  • Without question, we need plenty of support to make change of this magnitude. But with that support, and a vivid awareness of the need to make such a change, we can do it. We can create classrooms and schools where students are members of ... communities. We can move beyond discipline. ( 137)

(Quoted form: Alfie Kohn, Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community, 10th Anniversary Edition, 2006)

Some Thoughts: Conditions of Community for Educators

In this Internet age of Social Learning and Participatory Culture, I wonder if all educators are thinking about the behaviors, routines, norms and practices that are de facto conditions of community within their internet communities, small and large, loose and tight, impromptu and consistent, that are either nurturing or destroying opportunities for community. There is some evidence of consideration in the Digital Citizenship conversations, but I do not think it is widespread, always seen as applying to educators because they are adults, and deep enough as a legitimate area of academic, scholarly or professional inquiry.

The conversation on this topic can begin with some basic questions but at some point I hope it will move to examining practices, and ultimately grappling with reflections on the implications for our work with students. I have lots of questions; I wish I had more answers.

I want to acknowledge I used my PLN on Twitter to help me with the following list of questions. It is interesting that now that we have connected on this topic, I am beginning to feel like a community is percolating up from cyberspace. Not sure when the PLN becomes a PLC, but perhaps it has something to do with relatedness or relationships. Kohn says it has to do with caring for others and others caring about you. When it comes to conditions of community for nurturing deep learning, that seems like a good place to start.

It is also a great foundation for doing something to care for our HOME. After all is said and done, it is not about competition and markets or military might, living on this planet is about people coming together to communicate, collaborate and create things of value. Please prioritize your time this summer to watch HOME, read Minds on Fire, and read Beyond Discipline. After that, just commit yourself to getting unstuck so we can move forward by the millions to foster meaningful learning communities. Here are the questions. If you have thoughts, please comment.

  • Who is in your PLN (Personal Learning Network or Professional Learning Network)?
  • What is a PLC (Personal Learning Community or Professional Learning Community)?
  • Do conditions of community matter on the Internet when adults are “developing their networks?”
  • Is there an accepted definition of PLN that differentiates it from PLC?
  • If there is a “in practice” definition of a PLC, such as the Dufour definition, does that preclude us from defining it in another way?
  • Is one for personal communication and another for professional?
  • Is one more powerful than another?
  • Is each as powerful as the other but both powerful in different ways?
  • Is one or the other defined by topic, goals, job categories?
  • Is it okay to only share in a Network and be committed and involved in another?
  • Who controls what I learn? If I decide, is that a PLN and if the group, is it a PLC?
  • If the principal, superintendent, school board, state Department of Education or the Federal Government decides what I learn, what’s that? Community? Compliance?
  • Is face-to-face collaboration versus online collaboration a dimension to consider?

Thank you to Melissa Techman, Kelly Hines, Ernie Easter, Dan Callahan, and Melissa Edwards for your Twitter “tweets” on the question of PLNs and PLCs.

Dennis Richards
Retired, but still Learning & Teaching
twitter: dennisar
skype: drichards1
dennisar at gmail dot com

This was cross posted on innovation3.edublogs.org.

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk 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.