Reflections on Building Learning Communities 2008


I made a full week of the Building Learning Communities conference this year. I started with EduBloggerCon East, an informal gathering of local educators and technologists to discuss tech issues on our mind. I spent Tuesday at The Met, the “unschool,” in which students learn through internships and independent study. The formal conference ran from Wednesday through Friday and included one keynote and several breakout sessions per day.

EduBloggerCon was a success. I am a big fan of participant-led events, which bring a level of authenticity and spontaneity often lacking from more carefully planned professional development. I took the group through a workshop to explicitly connect technology-rich activities with underpinning learning theories. I participated in a discussion of extending special education technologies to the entire school and a review of people’s favorite new tools (mine was NanoGong). I was disappointed by what I saw as overemphasis on tools and relatively weak discussion of pedagogy. Does this mean that educational technologists need to develop stronger dialogue around pedagogy? Yes. Can I better structure my workshops on this topic? Definitely. It may be time for me to narrow the discussion to constructivist teaching with technology rather than trying to cast a wide net over a number of pedagogical constructs.

I had a tremendous time at The Met. I had heard and read about their model for internship-based education — a school without classes or courses! However, this was my first direct experience speaking with teachers and students about the model and reviewing their planning and explanatory materials. Running for over a decade now, The Met staff has continued to deepen its understanding of what works and enrich the details of their program. I kept a series of notes on the a-ha moments of the day and hope to refer to them often in the future.

I am pleased that the Big Picture Company now boasts a network of 50 schools nationwide (and a few abroad) that have adopted their principles and model and participate in their network for professional development and planning materials. Given all of the talk about authentic learning environments, student interest in learning, and 21st century skills, this seems like one obvious direction to explore when considering new models for effective education. One of their schools is located in my backyard. I hope to pay a visit to expand my local professional network in Portland and see how the Big Picture model translates to one of their newer schools.

To tell you the truth, the first two BLC keynote addresses were disappointing. Ewan McIntosh and John Davitt focused too much on currently existing technology applications and their effects on social dynamics and power. The dominant educational technology discourse has been enamored with these possibilities for a few years now. We are ready for a more detailed exploration of the intersection of new technologies with specific pedagogical strategies. Give us lots of specific examples from schools — by now, they should exist, right? Explore both successes and failures. Teachers and school technologists have already bought into the vision. Now give us the tools and wisdom to implement well.

The third keynote exemplified a great address to 1,000 people. Ironically, Pedro Noguera did not talk at all about technology! His classic talk on the case and problem of school reform resonated well with much of the audience both at the conceptual and practical levels. Full of detailed examples and specific cases, Noguera interwove the conceptual and moral imperative for school change with many different views of each concept, data from research studies, and individual schools implementing specific strategies, to great success.

Interestingly, McIntosh scored a hit with me during his breakout session titled “We’re Adopting: One Year On.” I had read about his introduction of a large professional learning environment in East Lothian last year and was excited to get an update on the progress of the network one year along. Not only did McIntosh deliver the promised update, but he also revisited some of the concepts from the keynote in much more detail and to far greater effect. I found the second presentation much more compelling and useful than the first. Most effective was his step-by-step analysis of a FlashMob performance at New York’s Central Station. The idea was creative and original, but it was also planned to a very fine level of detail, and many individuals departed from the script in ways that made the experience even more high-quality.

Ewan also delivered several nuggets to remember as we facilitate school change. Emerging technologies have impact because many people share awareness of the tool at the same time. Small, passionate groups make things happen. And I remember one of Ewan’s nuggets from last year: forget the pilot. Come up with a great idea and launch it well. This year, that idea surfaced with the selection of a unique, memorable name for the initiative. In East Lothian’s case, it was “EduBuzz.” Let evangelists evangelize, but then turn them into trainers. People need training, not evangelism (I could stand to remember this sometimes.) Support bottom-up and emergent behaviors through informal structures — meetups, gatherings at bars. Don’t think. Try.

‘Students teaching students’ was a recurrent theme. Over and over again, speakers highlighted the value of exposing students to content, providing time for analysis and reflection, and then having students present content back to the group. Darren Kuropatwa described his everyday practice of students creating Smart Board presentations and then posting them to the class blog, demonstrating their mastery of topics in mathematics and building the ‘textbook’ for the course. Darren also makes great use of imagery and metaphor to get students excited and build real-world relevance. Note that this is a far cry from the applied education of The Met, but it has a far better chance of reaching all learners than direct instruction. Watch video of Darren’s presentation.

Bob Sprankle enlighted us with his use of blogging and podcasting over the years. Again, the dominant message was the high educational value of students producing content, demonstrating their understanding, sharing their knowledge with family members, and even receiving comments from people around the world. I have not yet had the opportunity to gain public visibility and interaction around student work, but we come closer every year. I would probably get a lot more Sprankle in my life if I listened to his podcasts, but I prefer to read.

Clarence Fisher delivered a presentation on international collaboration as the norm, essentially the story of his classroom. Given Clarence’s recent reminder to U.S. edubloggers to refocus on teaching and learning, I knew I would enjoy this session. Clarence opened the door to teachers everywhere to navigate blogs around the world and get their students more globally connected. He also made direct links to the pedagogical usefulness of such an approach — authentic audience, writing the “textbook”, and seeking experts outside of one’s organization. Clarence’s nuggets: design a logo for your classroom, subscribe to Global Voices Online to find the latest international content (he found AfriGadget this way. The most important job as a teacher is to hook up individual students with information tailored to their interests and learning goals. Clarence built his global network by Googling for “grade 8 teacher,” finding teachers with blogs around the world, and then sending dozens of emails seeking collaboration. Clarence does not allow his students to link from their school blog to their personal Facebook pages and such. Clarence’s sites: Thin Walls (collaboration with Los Angeles school) and Studying Societies (class wiki).

The New Technology Foundation promotes many of the same ideas through its national network of “new tech” schools. Starting with New Tech High at Sir Francis Drake in Napa, Bob Pearlman described their emphases on group work, collaboration, and generative work. Again, many of the same ideas, facilitated with technology, starting to form a blueprint for a vision of school reform. They also have a school in Portland.

I learned of several online professional development/school management environments. Check out EduBuzz from Scotland, where 1500 school administrators and teachers reflect online about their practice; PeBL, the online portfolio and learning application from the New Technology Foundation; and Big Picture Online, the online sharing/working/school leadership portal for the Met schools.

For a change, I attended a session that was more about content than pedagogy. The National Archives promotes learning through the critical examination of source documents. The presenter brought several examples, including a military register showing John Glenn and Ted Williams serving in the same unit and a letter that 12 year-old Fidel Castro wrote to President Roosevelt introducing himself and asking for a $10 bill! If you search their Archival Research Catalog (ARC), be sure to click the full Search button search and then click the Digital Copies tab 20080718-Picture 1.png in order to most directly access the source documents themselves instead of just the descriptions! My only complaint about this session was that the presenter focused exclusively on analysis of the source documents. Any real lesson would combine this with other pedagogical techniques. My curiosity was piqued by the military document, I Googled for Ted Williams’ military service and found a wonderful summary that enlightened me about several other fascinating aspects of his military experience that one could not infer from the primary source material. Heck, a colleague at Catlin Gabel informs me that every time he wants to view a speech from any possible historical figure, he finds it on YouTube.

I even presented my own session at this conference, titled “A Window Into Gaza.” I was delighted to present to a full room and elicit three individuals particularly interested in either starting a club at their school or helping put the program in touch with more possible funding sources. See my presentation handout and blog posts right after the event for more information or to get involved.

I can highly recommend this conference for educational technologists focused on teaching and learning. As I hope I have demonstrated above, all of the presenters I saw had a strong grasp of the connections between pedagogy and technology and could provide both wisdom and examples with their presentations. The conference design was superb. Following on the heels of NECC, the contrast is clear. Building Learning Communities keeps the scope of corporate sponsors, vendors, and salespeople to an appropriate place. The vendor “floor” was tiny, and company representatives were genuinely helpful and interested in teachers’ questions and issues. For me, it was easy to steer clear of the vendors and not feel accosted. EduBloggerCon retained the grassroots feel and spontaneous organization that so dramatically failed at NECC. I was able to attend (even sit) at every session I entered, and they even served a sit-down lunch two of the three days! Kudos to the November Learning team for superb organization. I only suggest that they get the proposal submission process and logistics submissions online next year. I was surprised at the number of times I was asked to respond to a question by email instead of an online form. That could not have been easy to collect and organize! I also appreciated ubiquitous wireless access but found it variable in quality. I know it’s very difficult to accomodate the hundreds of laptops that participants brought to the session, but it was a bit hard to lose connectivity periodically, once while presenting! Next year, the conference will be at the Park Plaza hotel in downtown Boston instead of suburban Newton, so pencil in July 27-31 right now!


  1. Patrick says:


    It’s odd that we were at the same conference, having eerily similar thoughts, and yet never even met. I’m glad you see the need to for pedagogy to be primary when it comes to educational technology; we’ve reached a saturation point with evangelism, at least where I come from.

    I’ve added you to the reader, and I look forward to continuing conversation.

  2. Ewan McIntosh says:

    Thanks for your thoughts – I saw the tweet during the keynote asking for examples. I had them, but didn’t have the time, about 20 minutes less than I had thought with the delays of the first morning. Had I been able to dot is and cross ts in the way I managed later throughout the conference I feel I would have done a better job. I left unhappy, too, with the keynote, and am glad you got a more positive fix later on 😉

    I will try to get those points across to all participants in a blog post, slideshare… whatever it takes.

  3. Barbara Cohen says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful summary, Richard. Interesting point about the emphasis on tools rather than pedagogy…I tend to get awfully caught up in the tools myself. I attended the conference with several Web 2.0 newbies, who thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the various tools, though.

    I enjoyed our conversations…and hope they will continue on the West Coast!

    Enjoy the rest of summer,

  4. Richard says:

    Thanks, Barbara. It’s all about balance, isn’t it? We get into trouble when preoccupation with tools precludes meaningful consideration of the benefits for teaching and learning. Since our purpose is to create environments in which students learn, spending 80% of our time discussing tools seems counterproductive. Fortunately, I was pleased that so many of the sessions I attended at BLC demonstrated balance and had fixed their sights squarely on teaching and learning.