From Connected Learning to Connected Teaching: A Necessary Step Forward

I am lucky to know some amazing teachers. I know teachers who are throwing open the doors of their classrooms and partnering with community organizations, libraries, and museums to expand students’ learning opportunities. I know teachers who are flipping the hierarchical teacher-student relationship on its head to allow students to take the lead in their learning. I know teachers who are linking their students to networks that discuss and take action on the most pressing issues of the day.

When I ask these teachers why they are making these innovative moves in their practice, they tell me they feel compelled to do so in order to prepare their students for the interconnected world in which we now live. They recognize that schools cannot continue to use 20th century approaches in our 21st century society. They want students to be active, engaged, and passionate scholars and citizens, and they know that intellectual agility needs to be cultivated.

These teachers are embodiments of an educational approach called connected learning. Connected learning highlights the importance of connecting academic learning to what students are passionate about and giving them opportunities to make things related to these interests in collaboration with networks. Though it does not require the use of technology, it notes the expansive possibility for connection that new media provides.

The Educator Innovator network has been documenting the work of educators using the connected learning approach across the country, from the LRNG Challenge to the Connected Learning Alliance. These resources are a huge source of inspiration and a showcase of powerful learning in action.

But, having once been a new teacher myself, I began to realize that these resources can also be a bit intimidating. These teachers all seem so amazing — magical, even. They make incredible learning happen and their students seem constantly enthralled. Doubts can begin to creep in for us mere mortal teachers — could I ever do something like this? Surely these teachers are far more skilled and successful than I could ever be.

And, then it hit me — understanding the why of connected learning is easy; understanding the how is much more complicated. Teachers need opportunities to see the process through which their colleagues decide to go out on that limb for the first time and experiment with new ways of thinking and doing. In order to increase the spread and impact of connected learning, it is urgent that we begin to articulate a model of connected teaching.

Pockets of teachers and teacher educators are beginning this generative work. One burgeoning example is the Connected Learning in Teacher Education group — you can learn about its origins here and access their progress here.  I’ve also been experimenting with giving pre-service and in-service teachers opportunities to experience connected learning themselves through my own practice.

I’ve also been talking to teachers and combing through existing resources to try to pinpoint some of the key moves that need to be made to embrace connected learning in practice. In almost all of my exploration, teachers who have experimented with connected learning have identified for me key moments in which they turned their back on what they had previously internalized about what it meant to be a teacher and took a chance on something new. I think that it is crucial to identify the ingrained assumptions of what a teacher does and who a teacher is so that we can then deconstruct them and build something new.

Here are some of the assumptions about teaching that I’ve uncovered in my conversations:

  • Teachers work (mostly) alone and (mostly) with one subject area.
  • Teachers possess the knowledge and skills that students need to be taught.
  • Teachers control the learning experience — its design, implementation, and evaluation.
  • Teachers need to maintain a divide between the classroom and the wider world.
  • Teachers need to keep their identities out of the classroom.

All of us have likely acted upon these assumptions at one time or another — they are deeply baked into our psyches as educators. Teachers who have begun to challenge these assumptions engage in alternative practices that begin to help us articulate the commitments of connected teaching. These commitments and practices include:

  • COLLABORATION: Connected teachers work collaboratively.
  • CURIOSITY: Connected teachers bring an inquiry mindset to classroom practice.
  • COURAGE: Connected teachers give up some of their control over the learning experience.
  • CIVIC ENGAGEMENT: Connected teachers engage their students in public life.
  • CARE: Connected teachers share their interests and learning with their students.

Teachers need opportunities to cultivate these commitments in order to transition from conventional to connected forms of teaching. The process is certainly not easy or linear — we all will find ourselves wobbling at times — but, being transparent about it is the step to radical transformation of practice.

I have compiled a collection of resources from across the Educator Innovator network that highlight the work of trailblazing educators embodying each of these connected teaching commitments. You can find it here. I hope that it spurs conversation about ways that all of us can make small moves in our own practice to become more connected teachers and offer our students transformative learning opportunities.

Banner illustration by Nicole Mirra