Own your learning … and build your PLN

I just had an inspiring email interaction with Ian Johnson, a writer for The New Yorker.  Not long ago, we just read articles and maybe discussed them. Now, we have the opportunity to interact with authors.

This email just came from Mr. Johnson (or should I say “Ian” — after our series of back-and-forth emails over the past two days, we’re now on a first-name basis).


Here’s a link to my recent blog post that brought Ian’s New Yorker article to life.  In case you don’t have time to click that link, Ian wrote a powerful piece about pollution in China, and we have been emailing about my efforts to pinpoint the location of a particularly polluted suburb he described.

That’s what we do on a regular basis during our morning news sessions at TLC — we use Google Earth to locate the news articles we read from around the world. We do this so that we can better empathize with people in far-away places. Please see my recent blog post about pollution in China for an example of the sort of learning a New Yorker article can lead to at TLC Middle School.

The idea behind reading and discussing world news four out of five mornings per week (one morning per week will be spent looking at art around the Triangle) is that students will read at least 10 articles each week times at least 30 weeks per school year — that translates to TLC Middle School graduates walking into high school with a portfolio of more than a thousand place marks over the course of grades 6-8.

As a result of the genuine question I had after reading Ian’s article in The New Yorker — where exactly in China is the suburb he describes? —  I’ve now “met” Ian Johnson, an expert on China.  I can add him to my “Professional Learning Network,” which is a crucial thing for educators to develop.

But here’s the thing: if educators should develop PLNs and take responsibility for their own learning, shouldn’t students likewise develop their own learning networks by asking authentic questions they have about the world?

I recently read an article called Why Learning Through Social Networks Is The Future, which I highly recommend.

Here’s the start of the article:

Students Need Professional Learning Networks, Too

Learning to create, manage and promote a professional learning network (PLN) will soon become, if it’s not already, one of the most necessary and sought after skills for a global citizen, and as such, must become a prominent feature of any school curriculum.

Since TLC Middle School is all about creating empathetic global citizens, it’s worth emphasizing that one of the things that makes TLC unique is that students at TLC will indeed learn to “create, manage and promote” their own PLNs. They will own their learning. They won’t rely on a teacher for everything.

It sounds a little odd that middle school students would do such a thing — own their learning and develop PLNs — but I believe middle school students are capable of interacting meaningfully with the world. There’s no reason why middle school students could not do what I did over the last few days as I conducted an email exchange with a writer from The New Yorker.

I know this is true because John Guerra, one of my former students (now one of TLC’s board members and a senior at Cary Academy), says on a regular basis that the most meaningful thing he learned from my 9th grade world history class at Cary Academy three years ago is that the world is his classroom.  That means he need not rely solely on teachers for his learning.  He can (and does) learn on his own by taking the initiative and reaching out to experts online.

An example I often share in my talks about TLC Middle School is how John, as a ninth grader, sent this email just before the break of our 90-minute class:

email out

As context, the asterisks above (* * *) represent John’s explanation that he’s a student at Cary Academy and how he found Professor Tucker. That background information doesn’t fit on the slide, but it is important, because students need to learn how to reach out to the world in a respectful way. They should not email with a tone that sounds entitled to an answer.  Teachers (and parents) need to model for young people how to communicate respectfully in today’s digital age.

In John’s testimonial about my teaching, he explains that he located Professor Steven Tuck, an expert in ancient Roman history, by searching online. John further explains how early in the school year, I taught him and his classmates how to search effectively for reliable information and to not (necessarily) trust the first item that comes up in a search.

In this case, Professor Tuck is indeed one of the leading experts on ancient Roman history.

If you scroll back up you will note that John sent his email at 11:46 a.m.

Here’s the response John got to his email — note the time on the email from the professor:


Again, the whole email did not fit on the slide — Professor Tuck wrote three thoughtful paragraphs.  To my knowledge, John never followed up with Professor Tuck — but the lesson John internalized is that he — as a ninth grader — could interact with the world (though the world doesn’t always respond one minute later).

Here’s a more recent example of John “reaching out to the world” — last year, John, the captain of his basketball team, blew out his knee and had to have ACL surgery. Through the lessons he learned from my class, John was able to reach out to one of the world’s top rehabilitation and strength coaches.  As a result of that connection — and a lot of hard work and persistence on John’s part — he is now back to nearly 100% and is doing quite well during his senior season.

I just searched for a sample of John’s stats and found this report about John’s basketball game that ended a few hours ago (congrats, John!)

39 pts

If your kids are not learning to interact with the world the way John and I do on a regular basis — if they are not taking ownership for their learning and building their PLNs — they’re missing an opportunity.

Students in middle school are capable of doing what John did — when he contacted a Roman history expert to answer a real question about the status of slaves — or of doing what I did over the past two days when I contacted the author of a compelling article in The New Yorker.

Teachers, as models of lifelong learning, need to demonstrate to students how we are reaching out to the world to stretch our own learning. That’s why I call this blog “What I Learned Today” — the idea is that all learners should learn on a regular basis and should also share what they are learning.

Another distinguishing feature of TLC is that our students blog about what we learn on a regular basis.  Here’s a blog post I wrote that explains the rationale for why we will blog at TLC (though some of the more personal things students write won’t be shared — part of what we need to teach students is how to draw a line between public and private — an increasingly challenging task).

Speaking of my PLN, thanks to one of the people I consistently learn from — education reformer Will Richardson — for Tweeting about that great social networking article, Why Learning Through Social Networks Is The Future. I’d never heard of Paul Moss (the author of the article) and I never would have found it if Will had not Tweeted about it.

Here’s Will’s Tweet from December 1 that led me to the article:

will tweet

If you’re not already tuned into Twitter as a learning tool, please see two of my earlier blog posts about the power of Twitter (links provided below).  It’s one of the most powerful tools I use on a regular basis for learning about great resources and expanding my PLN:

Why you should use Twitter

Tweet and retweet

As a final note, the title of this blog post comes from a book with a similar title written by Alan November, “Who Owns The Learning?”  I highly recommend the book, and if you want a taste of its insights, here’s a blog post that lists 10 take-aways from “Who Owns The Learning?”.

Alan November contends that he can determine whether a school is a great school by asking just one question: “who owns the learning?”

Who owns your kids’ learning?  And are your kids developing PLNs?


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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