Seeking Meaning Through Connected Learning

As we close out 2015, I would like to engage the notion of “connection” for a moment. What does this word mean to all of us in the Connected Learning community? Exactly why do we pair the word “connected” with learning? What essential role does “connecting” play in expanding what is possible in learning, and how does connecting open the gateway for all of us to envision a better world? This blog post is dedicated to the transformative aspiration of connecting that buttresses the Connected Learning movement. And that aspiration is indeed spiritual at its core. For as we learn to grow our networks and extend our learning with the help of other perspectives, it is really the humbling effect of connection-through-difference that has us reaching for the stars.

American astrophysicist and science communicator Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked by a reader of Time Magazine: “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?” This was his answer:

“Yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than those facts, is that the universe is in us. When I look up, …well many people feel small because the the universe is big, …but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There is a level of connectivity.
…That is really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant, you want to feel like you are a participant in the goings on and activities around you. That is precisely what we are, just by being alive.”

How easily we forget we are made of the same stardust. The world is rife with painful divide, and yet we are indeed connected in the most essential of ways. So, how can we tap into the power of profound connectivity while we continue to both imagine and design new learning environments? So much of learning is really about our spiritual growth as human beings. I have been blessed to have had some meaningful conversations about these thoughts with National Writing Project colleague Michael Weller. The following is a bit of conversation between Michael and me which highlights the spiritual nature of connecting, learning, and teaching:

Michael: The week before Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to attend “LGBT Leaders 2015,” a conference sponsored by the Victory Fund. I want to mention a panel I attended on social justice, which included Ashlee Davis, White House liaison to the Department of Agriculture, who made a comment that resonated with me. She said that “we must care about everyone else’s rights as much as we do about our own.” I don’t think this is possible without love, and I think love is only possible with humility. NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) was going on at the same time as LGBT Leaders, and on Thursday morning before I left for the conference, I responded to your request for tweets about collegiality. mia-tweet-300My thought at that time was that collegiality was intimately connected with humility.collegialitytweet-300

I think that I need to learn to be humble. Or, rather, to be more humble, as true humility is, in my view, not a permanent state but a continual striving. And, I need to learn to love everyone. My colleague Jennifer Yoo-Brannon has referred to this work as “soul work” — a process of self-examination and spiritual growth that can include meditation, and meditation is one route, I think, I can take toward my goal of practicing love and humility. Slowing down and doing less (in order to accomplish more) is probably another.

Me: Yes, I think both humility and vulnerability are at the core of learning. Ironically, as educators, the more we learn, the more we need to form a “practice” of humility to keep that core alive and ready for what is unforeseen. It seems to me that connecting is about paying attention, being surprised, and not always knowing where you might end up when learning with others.

Michael: Jesus’s advice in Luke 14.7-11 comes to mind. He tells his disciples to sit at the lowest seat at the table at a wedding, “lest a more honourable man than thou” be invited to the celebration, “And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man [thy] place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room.” I’ve also been thinking about the story of the widow’s offering in Luke 21.1-4 a lot lately. Jesus praises the poor widow who gives “all the living that she had” and calls her faith superior to the wealthy who give vast sums out of affluence, mainly for show. There is a crucial connection between the message of humility and generosity, and how we must connect when we attempt to teach others. Teaching calls us to strive for a world based on the idea “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Me: Teaching is partially about modeling intellectual generosity. But, it is also about knowing how much you don’t know. This realization makes for richer connection. And, I guess this is where shared blessings really lie, no?

Michael: Yes, and I think it is important to mention that I am inspired by acts of kindness that cross (and re-cross) cultural lines, such as this story of a Texas community coming together to stand against vandalism of a local mosque. I grew up in a Christian household and, though I am no longer a believer, I have been shaped by the Christian tradition. But, it occurred to me that it would be equally important to share some verses from the Quran alongside the Bible references. maha-tweetSo, I connected. I reached out to our friend Maha Bali.

You mentioned that it’s important to know what we don’t know, and religions outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition are certainly in the category of “don’t know” for me! But, from my Twitter and CLMOOC conversations with Maha, I’ve learned a lot, and one thing I’ve been struck by is how much Islam and Christianity have in common. Perhaps they express it in different ways, but I think it’s fair to say that both beliefs call for us to love our neighbor. And, even if we’re not religious, I think most of us can agree that a world where we care for our neighbor is a world we want to live in.

Me: What is remarkable is that all of three of us haven’t met each other in person. But, we have connected deeply over things that matter, and we are most definitely colleagues, friends, and even “neighbors” (across nine time zones!). I think that that, in itself, is a spiritual testament to our shared aspiration as connected learners.

Banner image credit: NASA