Now that I’ve learned the word socialstructing, I’m starting to see examples of it everywhere! Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s course called “How to Humanize Your Online Class,” which “just happened” to show up in my Google+ stream over the weekend, doesn’t use the term socialstructing, at least in the publicly available part of the syllabus. But the course objectives make it clear that social presence, social bonds, and social rewards are key components of the course … and I wish the whole course were publicly available so that teachers and learners around the world could socialstruct as we learned about socialstructing together.
It occurs to me, though, that it’s hard to learn about socialstructing without doing the process, just as it is (or should be) hard to learn about a language without using the language to understand and to express meaning … or to learn about history, science, or music without using the tools and thought processes of historians, scientists, or musicians. One of the oddest things about factory-model schooling, when you stop and think about it, is the separation of process from product … a separation that’s also characteristic of factory-model production and economics. In a pre-industrial world, if you needed something made, you either made it yourself, traded with the maker, or traded with a merchant who traded directly or indirectly with that maker. No matter how long the chain of trades might have been, everybody understood that there was a maker; without that maker, there wouldn’t have been a product. In the industrial era, the idea of a maker was temporarily obscured, and so was the web of social connections binding maker and user. But in this new, post-industrial world, makers are important again … and so are those socialstructed connections that bind makers, users, and others together in community.
“You mean you know him?” my friend’s students asked her in surprise. They’re at one of the Tres Columnae Project’s partner schools, but they were still surprised that she and I know each other and communicate. I wonder if they were surprised that there was a “him.” After all, Your Typical Textbook either has no authors at all or a panel of fifteen or twenty … and how likely is it that Your Teacher, at Your Typical School, actually knows one of those faceless authority figures? And even if Your Teacher does know a Textbook Author, does that really make a difference?
Industrial production and industrial education are impersonal and even “depersonalized,” to quote Marina Gorbis. But human beings, by our nature, are persons, and we seek personal connections even in the most impersonal environments. Years ago, I wondered why Z and some others had “vandalized” The Textbook; it felt like an assault against the learning community we were trying to build together. I don’t think I asked them why at the time, but now I wonder if they were trying to personalize the impersonal. I do know that, the more time they spent in the Latin Family, the less likely they were to draw or write in The Textbook, and I assume it’s because the personal connections had grown deeper.
There’s no textbook to “vandalize” for the Latin Family these days; instead, there’s a collection of materials they can contribute to. But there is a virtual whiteboard, and sometimes people want to put something silly there. Are they socialstructing at the time, building something meaningful together to deepen our social connections? Are they just being annoying, perhaps seeking attention they don’t think they can get in other ways? Each situation is different, but even the annoying and attention-seeking responses are actually a cry for community, aren’t they? Ms. X and Mr. Y are trapped by “not enough time” and “too much to cover,” and besides “They don’t pay me to be Those Kids’ friend, do They?”
Thinking about the Particular Ms. X or Mr. Y who said that to me a few years ago, I realize that s/he was one of the most isolated and unhappy people I’ve ever known. And when you’re isolated and unhappy, it’s hard and painful to see others who seem more connected and more satisfied with their lives. But everyone is different, and the “perfect” amount of connection for you might be overwhelming (or far too little) for me. Part of socialstructing in any community is to find the mix of together and apart that works best for this community, at this time, in these circumstances.
That’s why I offered an Individual Written Response option for the District Y Major Assessment this week. It’s a similar text to the one I’ll be using for the Individual Oral Response, but if you prefer to have more time and more resources, you can read the whole text (and use any reference materials you wish) rather than just a single paragraph, and you can take the time you need rather than responding right away. I thought about the intermediate branch of the Latin Family as I designed this option; they are kind, helpful, and considerate to each other, but they really don’t like working together as much as their counterparts in the beginning or the advanced groups. It turned out that everybody in that group requested the Individual Written Response yesterday, while everybody in the advanced group wanted the Individual Oral Response. I’m not sure what to expect with the beginning group today; most will probably want the Individual Oral Response, but some may well choose the Individual Written instead.
A joyful learning community makes room for that kind of variety and diversity because a joyful learning community recognizes the value of differences among its members. An impersonal, depersonalized learning environment really can’t do that; after all, the whole purpose of depersonalizing learning is to make it “the same” or “identical” for everybody. As we work to build Joyful Learning Communities, it’s important to recognize and honor our deep differences … and to be open to the insights and discoveries they bring us!