“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

Justice Potter Stewart on definining obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964)

“While I am still having trouble defining exactly what this is, I know that what I observe to be my PLN has dramatically changed the way I view teaching, communities, and the negotiation and formation of knowledge.”

Alec Couros on defining personal learning networks

Alec Couros didn’t invoke the Potter Stewart clause in his recent attempt to discover a definition of personal learning networks, but he could have. Alec put the question “What is a PLN?” to his Twitter network in what, he noted, was an inherently existential exercise. But a useful and enlightening one. While a satisfactory definition is still lurking out there on the margins, Alec’s network kicked back some robust 140-character building blocks for starters, like these:

From @BlancheMaynard: “PLN is organic; PLE is mechanic. You can use ‘tools’ like Twitter within your PLE to access your network, but the tool isn’t the network.”

And from @jrichardson30: “To act as a source AND catalyst for this sort of thought-provoking conversation and authentic experience mentioned above that leads us to a point where are required to engage, to reflect, and ultimately to contribute instead of just consuming.”

We know a PLN when we see one. More importantly, we know when we’re in—and being changed by—one. And while we may struggle to find referents and research to support what we’ve learned through our experience,  we know what we know deeply and intuitively. As Alec says, the personal change can be dramatic. This business of not quite being able to put our empirical finger on a truth,  of knowing something through direct personal experience, strikes me as being essentially mystical.  In this light, Alec’s existential exercise  starts to look more like a koan: What is the sound a PLN defining itself?

Not that there’s anything wrong with having an inner life. Parker Palmer often talks about the importance of interiority in education, but with a decided slant toward reclaiming a more pragmatic mysticism.  He talks about Barbara McClintock, the eminent, Nobel-winning geneticist, as an example of a “wheels-down” mystic; her science was rock-solid but guided by an intuitive grasp of patterns and relationships in genetic material. Her decades of research focused on corn. Asked by her biographer, Evelyn Fox Keller, to describe her leaps of insight into the complex genetic structure of corn, McClintock responded, “Somehow you have to have a feeling for the organism….To do great science, you have to learn, somehow, to lean into the kernel.”

Leaning into the kernel. That suggests intentionally knocking ourselves off-kilter and into a new stance, giving up our usual straight-up-and-down center of gravity in hopes  of discovering new slantwise perspectives. Getting closer, mingling spaces, listening beyond the noise. And, to me, the language of leaning also implies a degree of trust: trust that you’ll be caught as you begin to fall into a void. Arguably, Alec Couros was leaning into the kernel of his PLN, trusting it to buoy his understanding, and trusting that he’d recognize insights as they emerged.

Parker Palmer also frequently talks about trust as a defining factor  in the success of schools. He cites the study conducted in the 1990s by Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider of the University of Chicago, Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement.

What factors, they wondered, made the difference between schools that got better at educating children over the course of that decade—as measured by improved test scores—and schools that did not? The answer was not money, models of governance, up-to-date curricula, the latest in teaching techniques, or any other external variable. The answer was ‘relational trust’ between teachers and administrators, teachers and parents, teachers and teachers. Schools with high relational trust, and/or leaders who cared about it, had a much better chance of serving students well than schools that ranked low on those variable.

He continues:

Well, who doesn’t know that a building full of people who don’t trust each other will not do much good with all the money in the world? And who doesn’t know that a building full of people who trust each other can do great work, even with a lack of material resources? Everyone knows that, right?

Like a PLN, relational trust can be a hard notion to pin down. Palmer argues above that we know it when we see it, even if we’re not sure how to go about making it happen.

All of this kernel-leaning makes me wonder how relational trust plays out in personal learning networks. Bryk and Schneider tell us relational trust is an important factor in how effectively schools function and how well they serve students. Does the idea transfer to PLNs? Does relational trust factor into how *effectively* your network functions, and by extension, how well it serves its participants, and by further extension, your students? Obviously, a school’s goals and structure are quite different than the fluid, organic, shifting, opt-in life of a PLN. But I wonder if our PLNs can teach us lessons about building relational trust back home in our schools. Is your level of trust with colleagues in your network higher or lower than with those in your school? Is it a different kind of trust? Is it easier to trust a school colleague who’s also a member of your network? What aspects of relational trust in PLNs (if any) could inform and improve relational trust-building in schools?

For fun and edification, and to try to spark some insights a la Couros, I’ve created a brief relational trust survey based on items from Hoy and Tschannen-Moran’s Omnibus Trust Scale . It has two parts: the first addressing relational trust in your PLN, and the second deals with trust in your school/work setting. I  tweeted the link last week, and a few hardy souls have already ventured forth to take the survey—thanks, Bill and all, especially for the illuminating comments. I promised to deliver a formal summary of results ’round about now, but it’d be nice to collect a few more responses. Let’s keep it open for another week or so. Informal snapshot: suffice it to say that the numbers for relational trust in PLNs are running unsurprisingly high, and the trust-in-schools numbers are lagging behind.

If you’re game, take the survey.