Most good teaching begins with a hunch.  A year or so ago, I was trying to find a way of getting my students to understand the power of personal learning networks (PLNs) and the idea that their social networks and online tools can be used to facilitate their learning.  It struck me that if they could define what it was that they wanted or needed to learn, they could build their networks around those goals.  Over the course of the past year, I’ve been playing with this idea and this work along with some recent reading has cemented the idea that the learning goals are to key to student learning.

Adults often form their PLNs without an overt process of defining their learning goals.  They are usually at a point in their careers where their interests are fairly well-defined and they are attracted to others in their social networks based on these interests.  People that they work with or meet at conferences are part of certain online communities so they join them/follow them/friend them without asking the question “How does this person serve my learning goals?”  The growth of these networks tends to be a fairly organic process involving serendipity more than any conscious effort.

Students are at a point in their lives where they are exploring their interests.  They are less in control of what they need to learn.  And the social networks that they create are as much about trying to discover who they are as they are about accomplishing specific learning goals.  They hang out on line with others for all sorts of reasons, but few of them explicitly for learning purposes.  The establishment of, or at the very least the reflection around what these goals might be, can help a student to be more mindful of how they establish their PLNs, thus being more effective with their learning.

Learning goals provide a way for all learners to categorize the organization of their PLNs and PLEs.  They provide a practical way of thinking about how they learn.  Many of us think about our PLNs in terms of the social media platforms that we employ.  This makes some sense as certain types of people gather around certain social media tools.  I find that most of the folks that I’m interested in communicating with around education use Twitter so I follow them on that platform.  A subset of them share material on Google+ and LinkedIn so I hang out in those places too.  While I do have a Facebook account, a very small group of my education community share professional thinking and resources on this platform, so I don’t look for it there.  But this isn’t a very logical way of organizing our PLN.  We are letting the tool define the community, not making the tools connect us with a community that exists across platforms.  This is something that my librarian friends understand.  We used to wheel a cart full of books into a classroom and tell the students that this was our collection on topic X.  The problem with this approach now is that much of the great material on topic X in our collection might be in digital formats such as ebooks or in online databases.  The cart full of books only represents one small part of the collection defined by the media that the information is stored on.  The establishment of learning goals allows learners to think of what they want to learn independently of the technology employed to connect with those that can help them learn.

Our students struggle with the issue of not having full control of what their learning goals are.  Whether they like math or not, they are told that they must learn math.  The teacher (or the government) establishes exactly what it is specifically about math they need to learn.  The establishment of personal learning goals in a situation like this can be difficult for students.  They may not know what it is they are supposed to learn and they certainly don’t feel that they have any autonomy in that process.  At least reflecting on their mandated learning goals can, however, become a very powerful exercise.  If a student actually reads a course syllabus and takes apart the structure of the course, they can establish some overarching understanding of what will be expected of them.  They may see bigger patterns that will help them piece together the course and see what the prescribed learning goals are.  They will understand that they need to be able to “solve problems that involve rates, ratios, and proportional reasoning.”  They might also have an opportunity to reflect on the various aspects of the course in the context of their own strengths and weaknesses.  They might figure out that ratios have traditionally been difficult and this is an area that might require extra effort.  A learning goal around doing particularly well in the ratios unit or going back and strengthening some fundamentals regarding ratios might be a good learning goal.  Even in situations where full autonomy of learning is not possible, the reflection around learning goals and the identification of specific goals within the prescribed goals can be a very effective organizational and learning process.

I’ve been spending some time reading Daniel Levitin’s new book The Organized Mind where he looks at how we organize ourselves in the context of current neurological understanding.  He spends a fair amount of time discussing categorization of our world and it strikes me that this categorization is not only a particularly helpful tool to organize our PLEs, it is also an act of learning itself.  Learning goals help us to categorize what we want to learn, how different areas of learning may overlap, and who can help us with each aspect of our learning.  The act of differentiating one goal from another and the reflection on how certain individuals in our PLN might serve each particular goal is an act of learning in and of itself.  By placing PLN members into a goal, we are deciding what defines that particular category.  In my personal learning context, this might mean establishing a concrete concept of where school libraries, educational technology and Makerspaces might overlap and where they might not.  I have to make a distinction between technology that serves learning, technology that serves libraries and technology that serves a constructivist maker ethos.  By making these distinctions, my understanding of the technology in question and the categories that I’m trying to place it in becomes stronger.  As Levitin points out, this is an act of connecting neural pathways and these pathways are what define learning in a neurological sense.

As our students (and we for that matter) go about building our personal learning networks, encourage them to take a step back and define exactly what their learning goals are.  Through the establishment of personal learning goals, we can be more mindful of how we surround ourselves with those that can support us in these endeavours.  We will make our decisions around supporting those goals based on the goals themselves not the communication tools that we might use to connect with others.

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