Educators often talk about inquiry-based learning. We are always trying to inspire students to ask essential questions and find ways to answer their inquiries themselves, using innovative methods and new digital technologies. Find and build networks we tell them. Use the power of the new Web is our mantra.
Readers of this blog may have noted that I am at times overly critical of the very technologies I promote, but I want to reassure you that I am a strong proponent of inquiry based learning, and I believe that network learning is the right direction for anyone who is obsessed with investigation, and at the end of the day isn’t the search for truth the very fabric of education. Let me share a few intersecting stories about a little girl, her dad, and a moth caterpillar that may shed some light in this topic.
The story begins in Shanghai at a technology conference of all places. I was sitting in a session led by Alan Levine on photography and the power of Flickr. Alan was talking about the different things he does with Flickr in regards to tags, when he mentioned that you can post a photo of almost anything: a plant, animal, or insect and tag it is as unidentified or unknown and people will identify it for you. At the time the idea seemed quaint, and it immediately fell into the “pretty cool” category, but I didn’t give it much more thought.
Fast forward to a few days ago. I live in Doha, Qatar, and I recently planted a few trees on my roof top garden. My daughter and I were on the roof tending to our young tress when she noticed several caterpillars. She was fascinated with our hairy little friends.
I remember being enthralled with the whole process of metamorphosis as a child and wanted to introduce this transformation to my daughter. Sure she is only two-and-a-half, but such a magical event can be appreciated at any age. Right? We took one of the caterpillars, some leaves, a branch and put it all in a jar, hoping that we could watch the entire metamorphosis over a span of a few weeks.
The little guy is doing okay. He is eating the leaves, growing, and dropping a massive amount of poops, which are coming in handy for our other project- potty training. “See the caterpillar goes poo-poo too.”
What does any of this have to do with inquiry based learning and Alan Levine? Never a fan of jargon, I am a bit embarrassed to use the term life-long learner, but I did entere education because I have an insatiable curiosity. I wanted to know what kind of caterpillar I was dealing with, so maybe I could take care of it better and make sure it made it to butterflyhood. Let the search begin!
Let me walk you through how networked learning is helping me on my quest. My first step, and I am sure the first step of most K-12 students is that I Googled Qatari caterpillars, only to find a series of websites about the famous tractor company. I can just see the blank expressions on the faces of most 5th graders at this stage of their research, “but that is not what I want.”
What happens next? I had no clue as to where to start. How does one begin an investigation without a starting point? I wished I could just post a picture of it on the Internet and have someone tell me what it was. I remembered Alan’s session from Learning 2.008, which in and of itself is the first step of network learning. I didn’t remember exactly what to do, so I sent Alan a Tweet and within minutes he had sent me a response giving me instructions:
I ran upstairs took a photo of the caterpillar and added it to Flickr. I did some other research on my own, as any good academic should, and found there are also groups on Flickr that help you identify insects. I sent out a few Tweets hoping that with the combined power of my network and Flickr I would have some answers.
This is really a remarkable thing. We are now able to just post a picture of almost anythinf on the Internet and have someone tell us what it is! Think of the power that gives your students. Think of the way they must learn to interact with others in order to use this power most effectively. I think it is truly amazing.
Within twelve hours I had my first comment on Flickr. At this point in the story I would love to say that someone had correctly identified my caterpillar end of story, but that is not the case. I think often times our students are just looking for the “right” answers as well. Whether they find it on Google, Wikipedia, or someone tells them the “right” answer, the end, and an easy one at that is their objective. While I admit I was a little disappointed when I cut and pasted the answer the guy from Flickr gave me into google and the caterpillar that came up for: Prominents (Notodontidae) looked nothing like the bug in my jar, I realized that learning and research are like many things in life- processes not products.
Posting to Flickr and waiting for a response from a network of people was not the end result, but one step in the process of my learning. When I started I had no idea where to look to even find a starting point for identifying this caterpillar. I was looking at tractors for goodness sake! But with the tips from one person, I had a lead. I was on the hunt.
I cut and pasted words like Prominents, Notodontidae, and Clostera. I got closer and closer. At this point, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Alan was still supporting me with this Tweet:
Now his vast network of experts was on the hunt too. I posted my findings on the Flickr Page in hopes that they will help narrow down the search:
Realistically there are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of species of caterpillars. I may never find the exact match I am looking for, but that is not the point. The point is that I am not satisfied merely punching random terms into google expecting answers and giving up when I don’t find them.
I am interacting with people and hoping they will help me on my journey toward the answer. This process is powerful. This collective, communal learning is what learning looks like. My daughter is only two-and-a-half, and most of what I have said is way over her head, but already she is asking me to watch caterpillars on daddy’s computer. She knows that Youtube is a powerful tool to help visualize and make real so many concepts that are new to her. We watched a Monarch butterfly hatch from its cocoon, hopefully soon we will be able to post our caterpillar hatching on youtube as well in hopes of helping others on their journey. I hope to be able to add the name of the species.
If you have any information regarding this caterpillar please leave it here.
About two hours after writing this post, I received a Flickr Mail from Bob Barker, the guy who had made the first comment,leading me to this page. We will wait and see what the moth looks like, but it looks like we have a Gastropacha (Stenophylloides) populifolia in our jar.