Teaching has been defined as “casting false pearls before real swine” (Irwin Edman). Facetious as this comment may be it sums up what transpires day in and day out. Two things happen in any classroom, anywhere you go in the world. Firstly you will find teachers teaching. Some kind of knowledge transmission will be happening at some point in any lesson. Teachers know something, and they will attempt to impart it. If this is not happening one would have to seriously doubt why the students are there! This transmission model of knowledge is useful because it captures the essential reality of the world. There are things we don’t know, and one of the most efficient ways of finding things out is to have other people tell us.
But secondly you find students voicing what they know, and trying to figure things out. Until you put things in your own words you don’t really understand anything. Knowledge, in other words is constructed, and is essentially idiosyncratic. My understanding of quantum physics is probably not as sophisticated as yours, but it is the only understanding I’ve got. This divide between what has been called Instructivism, the transmission of knowledge from a knower to a knowee, and Constructivism, or how we construct knowledge in our own heads forms a common thread in many educational approaches. But essentially they are two sides of the same coin. We need to be told things, and we need to figure them out in our own minds for it to stick.
I’m not going to rehearse any heavy learning theories, because that’s not what this post is about, but it forms a necessary backdrop to everything else I want to explore. My favourite formulation of this self-evident truth, that learning involves both transmission and participation is that of Mikhail Bakhtin, who spoke about monologic and dialogic discourses: the monologic being socially agreed handed-down meanings, and the dialogic being the numerous idiosyncratic voices of individuals. In any classroom the teacher normally represents the monologic voice, teaching the received wisdom of how the world works, while students bring their numerous voices to the conversation. The monologic normally represents the voices of power, the knowledge students will need to acquire to succeed in life, while the dialogic represents the authentic power of voice, often submerged or repressed understandings of the world, which nevertheless have a validity not least because they critique the established world view.
It is my belief that teachers fail if they fall short both when it comes to giving students access to voices of power, and when they do not sufficiently value the power of voice. As an English teacher I need to be able to help my students shape and express what it is that they have to say, but I also need to teach them standard dialects, grammar and how to construct logical arguments so that they can speak the language of academia and of power.
Digital technologies offer some key affordances here. Not so much in terms of the monologic voice, but the ready ability to publish thoughts, just to your classmates, or the wider world is one which allows the dialogic voice to be heard in ways which the essay written on a piece of paper can never emulate. Every year I have my students write in a class blog. They join the blog site as authors and post under their handles. Their peers can read and comment on their posts almost as soon as they are published. It is best to have themed blogs with a clear focus, or student blogging quickly devolves into trivial status updates. If you are studying a Shakespeare play, for example, it is a great idea to have students blog about themes or characters in the play. Their ideas are thus immediately exposed to the view of their peers, and can be debated and revised through comment. I require each student to end off with a significant blog post, which forms their current understanding of the topic under discussion. This is the assessed portion of the activity, and motivates all students to contribute. As teacher I also contribute my ideas as one voice amongst many. I believe this is important because it conveys a message about online learning and how mentorship works in any online community. But I limit my posts to interventions rather than outright corrections. If someone claims that Shylock is not in favour of usury, for example, I step in, but grammar and logical errors I leave alone because I don’t want to be seen as too censorious.
I appoint student moderators. Anyone who contributes more than five posts is made into a moderator. This helps establish a sense of community and helps stamp out any flaming should it occur. It never does! Nevertheless I usually use a moderated blog site where access to the blog can be controlled and kept private.
Some students, in my experience, do not participate, and resist using technology. Some of these do lurk, however, and that is a benefit. I insist that anyone not posting on the blog submits their post in electronic form directly to me. I don’t understand why a small minority appear unwilling or unable to access or use a blog. It is a small minority, but is always present in any year group. They may fear exposure, may find their cultural or personal sensibilities at odds with receiving peer comment … I’m not sure. It is an issue I always have to deal with. Overwhelmingly, however, I find that students seem to enjoy the cut and thrust of online discussion.
In terms of encouraging good habits of Thinking Digitally it is vital that all students be exposed to how to use communities of practice to express their opinions and learn from others.