Monthly Archives: September 2012

“Silence Is The Question”: a dialogue

I went to my first “seasonal dialogue” last week – named because there are four a year, I’m told. The group has been meeting for several years; I was invited by a friend and former colleague, who I had just caught up with after moving back to Edinburgh.

The group consisted of an eclectic mix of about ten people, though many now seemed to freelance in one capacity or another. There was no fixed topic for discussion, though the process (based on “open space“) seemed more formal and as a result the discussion more controlled, respectful and measured than other discussion groups I’ve been to: this made for a somewhat different experience – though perhaps quieter and with less excitement of exploration as others interject. (Normally I think of control as a bad thing, imposed externally to manage or manipulate; in this context, however, the control was self-imposed by members of the group, and a positive.)

In particular, we seemed respectful of the silence. One of the formalities was a “check in” question, to set the tone; and the discussion per se didn’t start till everyone had answered the check in. And people only responded when they chose to. I have never been to a Quaker meeting, but I’m guessing it might feel a but like this.

This was quite hard work: I had things I wanted to say and ask about others’ responses to the check in, and I had to bite my tongue until everyone had had their say. (I had jumped in with my response early on, eager to get going!)

Having to wait – and to listen to others – was humbling. Silence – all too rare in our connected, clouded and device-mediated times – was a good thing. The quality of listening was high: even if it was listening to the silence.

Similarly, the ease with which we disconnected from our devices and connected instead with the group was informative. Like many people, I regularly check Twitter and Facebook, write email or text messages whilst ostensibly doing something else. In the space of the dialogue group, the desire to fill the void created by the silence by getting out one’s phone and seeing what’s going on in the outside world rather than listening to what was going on in the group – albeit silence – wasn’t an option. This felt liberating and healthy.

Silence also played a major part in the discussion later on, as we shifted from one topic to another – unsurprisingly, the silence prompted introspection, and a conversation about silence itself. That silence should be an outcome of conversation sends pleasingly oxymoronic; that it should add value to the conversation doubly so.

There was much resonance with the discussion by Richard Sennett of dialogic as opposed to dialectic, adversarial debate, particularly with respect to learning. The subjunctive and empathetic approach of the dialogue group was certainly in line with Sennett’s approach. It seemed that we were mostly learning about ourselves.

(“Silence Is The Question” is the name of a piece of music written by Reid Anderson. His band The Bad Plus play it on this video.)

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Personal Learning Networks: why?

I first came across the term “personal learning network” in a blog post about five years ago (possibly this one from 2008, or this one or maybe this one – or maybe not!).

The phrase was new to me, and frankly I didn’t understand it – or rather, it didn’t seem relevant. And I am still not sure if it is relevant, because my personal learning network – defined by Wikipedia as

an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from…

is constantly changing. Back in 2008 I doubt I was thinking about personal learning much, and most of what I learned came somewhat randomly from the many blogs I read, through an RSS feed.

Following my move to London, that changed: I became involved with Tuttle, where I learned a lot, mostly through conversation, and through Tuttle, the School of Everything, and more specifically its offshoot, Everything Unplugged, a weekly meetup to discuss learning specifically and much else (ranging from politics to art and music) besides.

Fred Garnett, one of the many regulars at Everything Unplugged, recently pulled together others’ thoughts on the gathering, limiting us to 50 words. What I wrote was

A loosely-connected group of people from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences who gather together to talk about ideas – prompted by, but not exclusively about, an interest in learning. It is essentially an ongoing, wide-ranging conversation which challenges, educates and entertains.

(Fred’s and others’ thoughts can be seen in his presentation on SlideShare.)

So Tuttle and Everything Unplugged formed part of my personal learning network. But – well, conversations are just the start. I think the internet, mediated by Twitter specifically, forms a huge part of my learning environment. Which means anyone sharing a link on Twitter may form part of my PLN. That is a whole lot of people – sufficient for it to be pointless defining it, frankly. Through Twitter, it feels like I have access to the whole world: quite a large network, and one which doesn’t benefit from mapping.

In Edinburgh, where I now live, there are alternatives Tuttle and Everything Unplugged – Edinburgh Coffee Morning, a huge range of meet-ups and tweetups, a dialogue group – ranging from the formal to the very informal, all based around conversation and with various degrees of learning attached.

And of course the internet is still out there, facilitating the exchange of ideas, learning and conversation (as well as cute pictures of cats).

Is there value in the concept of a personal learning network? I think if one has embarked on something with a clear learning objective – gaining a new skill our specific knowledge, or to obtain clearly identifiable learning objectives – it clearly makes sense: it would be the group of people on whom one relies to help meet those objectives. Even then I am not sure on the value of identifying (and hence naming and formalising) that network: I can’t see what is actually gained by doing so. (Though I doubt anything is lost.)

But outside of specific, structured objectives, when the whole world is available to learn from, specifying a discrete network seems almost to defeat the point. With self-directed, self-organised ad hoc – or even self-disorganised – learning, it seems beside the point.