The Strength of Weak Ties

Everyone participates. Everyone contributes. Leveraging the power of digital networks to connect people, resources and ideas to drive creativity and innovation forward...and actually accomplish something!

Thursday, December 27, 2007


An essential concept in the study of biology is that of permeability. As a former biology teacher, it was my experience that students often struggled with this concept and what impermeable, permeable, and semi-permeable meant and how it applied to things such as diffusion and osmosis (you remember those, right?).

Permeability can be applied to other concepts besides biology. Specifically, the concept of permeability can apply to learning communities, and how open and closed they are to their members, and potential members. In a typical high school, learning communities are fragmented and isolated, if they even exist at all. It’s unlikely that any of us would label a typical high school classroom, with its characteristic five rows of six desks, limited access to information and conversation, a learning community. Very little interaction exists within the classroom, and interaction from sources outside the four walls of the classroom is generally non-existent-the classroom walls, in effect, are impermeable.

That certainly can be changed, and the tools (blogs, wikis, social networking, RSS, etc.) we have now at our disposal make it doable and achievable, but many things have to fall into place. Teachers have to be willing, the technology must be available, administrators must understand the need, and the school’s climate and culture, which is greatly influenced by the community that the school serves, must be supportive.

So, as a result, the formation of learning communities in schools depends greatly on the school itself. What is a solution, or a plan, in one school may not be a solution, or a plan, in another. Additionally, even within a school, there may be different needs-some teachers may be ready, others may be not so ready, so that a plan for building learning communities needs to be flexible and scaleable, and provide the necessary infrastructure to meet the varying needs of the different constituents of the school. One size does not fit all...

There is no right or wrong answer to building learning communities, but I do think there is a basic flow.

If the end goal is to help students and classrooms build learning communities with individuals and other schools or classrooms, and make the classroom permeable, you have to start with the teachers. Teachers have to learn the tools, learn how to connect and contribute (typically through a blog), learn how to manage time and feeds, learn how to adjust the membership of their learning community, and learn how to accept being criticized when their ideas oppose those of others. Teachers need to see firsthand the benefits of a learning community, and what it means to their personal learning, before it can ever translate successfully to students. To get learning communities to develop and stick, start with teachers first.

From there, I’m interested in building skills in students that will make them successful when they ultimately join wide-open learning communities. I’m teaching them how to read blog posts, how to collaboratively create content in wikis, how to comment appropriately, how to manage RSS feeds, and how to manage content resources with social bookmarking tools. I'm teaching them how to operate in a community. And I’m teaching them all about safety.

Is this a necessary step? Ask yourself-yes or no? If no, stop reading this post. If your answer was yes, then what’s the best way to do that?

What’s the best way to do that on a large scale, and in a systemic way? Where you can impact the most teachers and the most kids, in the most effective and safe way? I’m not talking just blogging now, I’m talking about building learning communities, which is what I’m interested in. Blogging OK, I get it. But that’s just a part of a larger goal.

You can do all of that in a number of ways. You can do it by asking teachers to manage multiple online tools that all work differently and require different management requirements. Or you can do it with a content management system where all of this is under one roof. And before some of you go CMS on me, you could also do it with Ning, couldn't you?

So, what's the plan? Expose the most teachers and kids to these capabilities, teach them in a controlled environment, where teachers and students, mostly new to the process of working in a learning community, can make their mistakes without too high of a cost? Or maybe the plan is to stay "true to the process" and put the kids out there, really out there, but certainly prepare them prior with what they need to know.

I’ll take Door #1 Bob, the semi-permeable classroom, where true community is first established within the classroom. That’s just me. It might not be you.

I think a classroom must be semi-permeable before it can become a permeable classroom.

Creating a truly permeable classroom is a major change in how classrooms work. It is a big departure from where most classrooms are now. You just don’t change that overnight with a few commonly available tools, and just by blogging. It’ll require a great deal of professional support and curriculum design, with a great deal of reflection and course-correction. I’ll approach that carefully. The stakes are too high not to.

And when the time comes, I’d turn them loose. When the specific curricular needs suggest a permeable experience is warranted, I’d turn them loose. When the teacher says, we need to connect outside of our classroom because of this and this, I’d turn them loose. When the teacher says I’m ready and so are my kids, I’d turn them loose.

But I’m crawling before I’m walking.

images from


  • At 8:14 AM , Blogger Sharon said...

    David, you have addressed all the necessary elements that I have grappled with in order to create a semi-permeable learning environment. Last year, I had the privilege of teaching in a one-to-one environment with a supportive IT administration that willingly opened ports for my students to use wikis, skype, blogs, flickr and so on in the classroom. It was by far the best teaching year I can remember - we flew to new heights, explored new vistas, collaborated with students around the world and built an amazing skill set. Imagine my disappointment when I left the school that my replacement firmly told my former students "no wikis this year!" They were disappointed. In spite of the successful use of these environments and tools (student buy-in, parent buy-in, even two international awards!), the vision was not passed on. It frustrates me that a learning environment that is so ready and capable of becoming semi-permeable is not willing to be.

    Who is not willing in this situation? From what I can see it is a teaching staff that is not willing to try new approaches and an administration that is not encouraging it or providing incentives to do so. Two of my children attend the school and yes, I find it maddening that I know they are missing out on a terrific experience and the potential of building and reinforcing important 21st century skills.

  • At 10:01 AM , Blogger David said...

    Thank you for your comment, there are lots of important questions and ideas embedded within it.

    It’s interesting that you say that this particular environment “is so ready and capable of becoming semi-permeable is not willing to be.” It sounds like the administration is tolerant, perhaps even accepting (and I use those chose those words very carefully), of a new type of learning environment, but hasn’t taken the step to make it a part of a shared vision. Would that be fair?

    I once had the opportunity to lead something called the “Student Symposium” where we took an early dismissal day, brought in 80 speakers, and had students register for courses they wanted to take. They built their own schedule, based on their interests. A tremendous amount of work for us, but it was worth it. The principal at the time came up to me at the time and said “I hate days like this.” Surprised, I asked him why. He said: “Because this is your initiative, and not our schools initiative.” You can imagine my disappointment in him.

    A true leader would have taken “my initiative” and found ways to make it a total school endeavor. His belief and comments are inexcusable. Pathetic, actually.

    So, when will that school take the initiatives of teachers like yourself (and from your post, I understand you no longer work there), and amplify them to make those kinds of learning opportunities part of the learning culture of the school? When do they become that important?

    It won’t happen unless that occurs.


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