I will use Twitter to teach me what I can use Twitter for.
I understand that logic doesn’t scale, and that one cannot explore everything all the time in self-directed recursive learning (although now that I think about it, that’s not a bad way to imagine Paradise). But having learned another lesson from the kind of contact Twitter enables, I thought that in my heady state I’d be bold and provocative. Blame it on the altitude.
So what did I learn? Well, I was in an SAC session on gaming in education with the redoubtable Rachel Smith of the New Media Consortium, and the discussion in the room turned to the differences between games and simulations. (That question proved much more interesting and tricky than I’d imagined–nice, and very shrewd of our facilitator.) At one point, as Huizinga’s Homo Ludens popped into my head, I spoke up and said, “We play games. But we don’t play simulations. What do we do with simulations? What’s the verb there?” No one in the room, including me, had a ready answer. It’s always a cool moment when no one has a ready answer.
I had Twitter up in another window, so I put the question to my Twitter friends. I’d had such good luck with the streaming video question that I had great hopes for this inquiry. I got my answer, all right, and fast–fast enough to share with the group and continue that moment of shared inquiry. But that’s not the most interesting part of the story.
My answer came from a fellow blogger named Claudia Ceraso who teaches and learns in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She responded that the Oxford Dictionary of Collocations said “carry out” or “run” were verbs typically associated with “simulation.” (She also expressed some amusement that my question required her to consult a paper source first.) I’d never heard of the Oxford Dictionary of Collocations. I immediately looked it up on Amazon and learned that it’s a reference work devoted to helping non-native speakers of English speak more idiomatically. This extra bit of information sparked my imagination in several ways. First, I thought “what an interesting reference work.” Second, I thought “what a great way to start a conversation about language with native speakers.” Third, I thought “I’ve never heard the word ‘collocation’ before.” So I did a Google search on “define: collocation” and got this back:<!–
phrases composed of words that co-occur for lexical rather than semantic reasons, for example, a heavy smoker is one who smokes a great deal, but someone who writes a great deal is not a heavy writer. This seems to be a lexical fact, not related to the meanings of smoker or writer.
At the bottom of the page, there was this helpful reference from Wikipedia:
Within the area of corpus linguistics, collocation is defined as a pair of words (the ‘node’ and the ‘collocate’) which co-occur more often than would be expected by chance.
Less helpful than the Essex definition, yes, but a succinct summary that gives some technical background on the term itself.
There are several interesting teaching-and-learning ramifications here, but the one that strikes me most powerfully is that asking a person a question will often (usually?) yield contextual information that can lead to a much longer and more interesting train of thought than a simple input-output “look it up” model. (This is especially true if the context is a little informal and a little playful–trusting, and not too goal-driven.) In this case, the answer exposed me to several very interesting ideas and resources that I can follow up on, or simply relish in the moment as an example of the power of a globally distributed learning community. Or both.
Education should prepare us to notice and enjoy longer and longer trains of thought. That’s another way of talking about connections, yes, but in this case the connections came unexpectedly, within a personal exchange, and using a medium (Twitter) that seems amorphous and aimless, at least at first. And the catalyst was a moment of shared inquiry that spread far beyond the walls of this “classroom.” Not a bad model for education. We need more in-the-moment connectedness as well as more opportunities for shared reflection out of the moment. For me, teaching and learning technologies give us the richest set of possibilities, for both. That was certainly part of the dream of the early pioneers in this field.
And a day that reveals another little bit of that dream is a good day. Which brings me to my New Media Studies class–but that’s another post.
EDIT: It seems to me that there’s an element of play at work here. Twitter feels a little playful almost all the time. Yet it’s also a very important conduit for collaboration and shared inquiry for me.
I sometimes envy the K-12 teachers who can make a playful environment in the classroom where they teach all their classes. I have an office, but I don’t “have” a classroom. Food for thought there. What if my teaching environment were more expressive of my mind, my goals for teaching and learning, and the shared expressiveness of mind that emerges from a semester’s work together? What if my students each term walked into a classroom full of interesting, intriguing bits of what the students preceding them had created?
EDIT TWO: Is it true that there’s nothing about the meanings of “smoker” or “writer” that would lead us to use “heavy” with the former but not with the latter? I’m not sure. I do think that poetry would play with the semantic/lexical boundary in an interesting way. Perhaps that’s one of the main things figurative language does? More food for thought. Also, it occurs to me that “collocations” is the opposite of
Amazon’s “statistically improbably phrases.”