What could open networks do for education?

Writing at Forbes, Michael Simmons  explains why being in an open network rather than a closed one is the best predictor of career success.

Headline and author photo

A closed network is basically the people you know personally who also know each other personally.  Closed networks—whether they be networks within an industry, a political party, or a geographic location—are comfortable. They can get things done because people know one another’s skills and, as the expression goes, speak the same language.

For many people, venturing into an open network is as uncomfortable as going to a party at which you know no one. That’s why many people don’t like Twitter—”I don’t know anybody on Twitter”— and why many of those who do rely on hashtags to keep them securely within a closed network.

Getting outside one’s network, mingling with people in other networks, however, may be just what’s needed.

Simmons quotes from an interview Apple’s legendary co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs  for Wired in 1995:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.

It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences.

So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

In the third paragraph of that quote, replace in our industry with

  • in our school district
  • in my school
  • in my discipline
  • in education
  • in the teachers’ union
  • in the state education department

Is it just possible that if we got out of our networks and away from our hashtags that we might be more successful educators?

Questions for Curiosity Development

Curious kitten
Curiosity energizes the cat.

Questions are at the heart of education. The public in general tends to see public education in terms of teaching students to answer questions. That’s one reason standardized tests have so much public support.

However, when I say questions are at the heart of education, I’m not thinking of test questions.

Nor am I thinking of the questions teachers ask, those discussion questions that typically produce no discussion, no thought, and no learning. (I speak as a teacher who “led discussions.”)

The questions I’m thinking about are the  people  ask when they really want to know. Call them curiosity questions. They are questions that lead people to think, explore, and make connections. Curiosity questions are the marks of a learner.  Finding ways to develop the type of curiosity that produces learning is the job of educators.

The job has two parts. One part is getting people to ask questions. I do that in the context of teaching students to develop research paper topics. Teachers may need to give students a formula for generating questions and force them to use it until students find a use for one of their questions. Once some dumb thing the teacher makes them do actually proves useful, it ceases to be a dumb thing for students.

The second part of the educator’s job is getting learners  to ask useful questions.  That’s a far more difficult task.  It involves precise use of language, particularly if the question is to be presented in written format where the opportunities to clarify and add detail are limited.  However, that’s not all that is involved.

Asking a useful question requires the ability to look at the situation from the perspective of the person you are asking for the information.  In some situations, the questioner might be given aids that spell out what kinds of information to supply in order to get a timely and useful response.  In such cases, the questioner is expected to read the directions.  That implies, of course, that educators must teach students not only how to read directions but also  to read directions.  The how is part is much easier to teach and learn than the habit.

Reading directions is a good first step, but seeing the situation from the perspective of the person who think has the information requires learners to to use their imaginations.  Forget “what would I do if I were in the Hunger Games?” In real life situations, learners need to  be able to put themselves in the place of people who have answers to their questions and then supply the information that person needs in order to answer the question.

The learner has to ask questions such as:

  • What information about the student would I need to explain to that student how to use Edmodo?
  • What information would I need to know to tell someone how to use an Excel spreadsheet?
  • If I were the boss at Big Burger, what information would I need to decide if someone is worth interviewing  to work at Big Burger this summer?
  • What  information about a taxpayer would I need to know to advise someone what federal income tax form to use?
  • If I had to help someone find scholarships available to them, what information would I need to know?

Answering those questions requires the kinds of applied imagination and creativity students will need to use in their everyday lives.  People who can shift perspective to see a situation from another point of view are truly creative thinkers.

In the process of figuring out what kinds of information a person needs to answer a question, the learner often finds out the answer to the question. That, I suspect, is one reason that one sees so few well-written questions in public question forums like Yahoo! Answers: People who did the spade work got the answer without having to ask the question.


Photo credit: “Little cute cat photo 3” uploaded by aljabak http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1382905

[Broken link removed 04-02-2014]