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The Psychology and Skills of Personal Learning Environments

For the past few months, I've been doing a lot of thinking about and exploring of personal learning environments (PLEs). I've written about my own personal learning environment here and here and I've been bookmarking a ton of articles on the concept here.

I'm interested in the notion of a personal learning environment because I think that the concept offers a lot of promise for personal and staff development. I know that for myself, having access to so many tools of personal learning (blogs, wikis, RSS, etc.) has turned me from a more passive recipient of knowledge into an active learner and creator. In the process, I've developed greater confidence and developed some entirely new skills. This, in turn, has improved my professional practice immeasurably. 

What I've noticed in the conversation about PLEs is that there's a lot going on around trying to get a handle on the tools for personal learning and how we use them. There's a great deal of discussion about whether or not a PLE should be a single tool or a collection of tools loosely joined.  But this morning I felt a need to go back to Stephen Downes' point that unless people see themselves as learners, then personal learning environments as a concept will be dead in the water.

What actually sparked this line of thought is a recent presentation from Stephen, that I've posted above. (I strongly encourage you to go through it--some great insights and ideas).  Here he talks about the skills that we should be learning for success in this new world in which we live:

  • Predicting consequences
  • Reading for deep understanding
  • Distinguishing truth from fiction
  • Empathy
  • Creativity
  • Communicating clearly
  • Learning how to learn
  • Healthy Living (which isn't fear and anxiety-based)
  • Valuing Yourself
  • Living meaningfully--as in having a purpose in life.

These feel to me like really powerful skills that we should all be developing. These are skills that aren't taught in school or in any training program I've seen. Yet to my mind, without these skills, we will struggle in a global, networked economy. These are also the skills that are necessary for personal learning. These are the skills that equip people to continue learning for a lifetime.

As I thought about these skills, I went back to personal learning environments and why it is that some people embrace the idea of personal learning while others don't. It started me thinking that certain people seem to have a psychological make-up that makes them more predisposed to exploring personal learning. Some of their characteristics, I think, are:

  • An innate curiosity about how the world works and why it works that way.
  • A strong desire to make sense of the world. These are people who seem to more naturally see patterns, look for connections, want to evaluate and pull together the different strands of meaning and understanding in their lives.
  • A "question authority" approach to life. They don't seem to automatically accept "expert opinion" or "conventional wisdom." This may be related to their innate curiosity and/or to their need to make sense of things. Often conventional wisdom doesn't really make sense.
  • Most importantly--these are people who feel a sense of agency in their lives. They don't see themselves as hapless victims of external forces or as passive recipients of knowledge and information. Instead, they seem to believe that they are the creators and actors in their own stories and that outside forces and information are simply grist for their personal sense-making mill. (An aside--this idea of personal agency vs. victimhood is something that I'm also thinking about, based on what Tom Haskins has been exploring regarding empowerment. This is an area that I think deserves further exploration as I think that people caught in the victim mentality will have great difficulty taking charge of their own learning)

Now in some ways, these characteristics are really related to the skills that Stephen's talking about--questioning authority, for example, is part of being able to distinguish truth from fiction. So in some ways maybe what I'm seeing as personal characteristics are really skills to be learned.  At the same time, I can't get away from the feeling that there are still people who are more naturally predisposed to developing a personal learning environment because they possess the mental attitudes and beliefs that make them want to develop the skills.

Where is all this going? I think that part of what I'm wanting to do is pull together two strands of conversation on personal learning environments. I think there's great value in looking at the tools and processes we use to construct our own learning. But I worry that in looking at personal learning primarily in terms of tools, we are missing another major area of an environment--the human piece, the skills and attitudes necessary to use the tools in a meaningful way. While I'm very curious about how people are using Netvibes or Google Notebooks to keep track of learning, I also think that there's much to be learned from having dialogue about the people involved and what makes them tick. I'd be very curious, for example, to hear from the same people who have been writing about their tools and processes about the skills and personal characteristics they have that support this process (I know--I should start with my own post on this topic. I'll do that in a day or two.)

My personal motivation in all this is the desire to figure out how I can empower others to explore creating their own personal learning environments. But like any good teacher, to do this I need a better understanding of the psychology/motivations of my learners, as well as the skills they'll need to develop in order to really make use of a PLE. I'd like to see us engaging in conversation about these elements, as much as discussing the tools and processes of personal learning.


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> unless people see themselves as learners, then personal learning environments as a concept will be dead in the water.

This is something I discuss in the audio of this talk (which I'll post on my site in the middle of next week, when I can transfer it from my iRiver).

In it, I say that this list isn't intended as a set of things to teach your students, it's a set of things for you (the teachers) to teach yourselves; indeed, it is not even something I am saying you should teach yourselves (your list may vary) but is rather the lit of things I think is important in my own learning. My accomplishment in them varies and is sometimes indifferent, which is why it is a list worth reminding myself of.

Thanks for the clarification, Stephen. So this list is actually what I was looking for from other people who are exploring the concept of PLEs--the skills that they believe are necessary for their personal learning.

For myself, this is helpful because it makes me think more purposefully about the skills to develop to enhance my personal learning. But it's also helpful because I do have an interest in facilitating others in this learning process. I've come to believe that my real value in staff development in this connected age is in helping people understand and use the tools of personal learning for themselves, rather than seeing learning as something that is done TO them by their company or FOR them by teachers. I worry about the future of people who aren't able to take control of their own learning as I think that learning is one of the few tools we have to manage our careers in the turbulent economic climate in which we live.

I totally agree with you Michele that there is little/no distinction between personal learning and personal knowledge management. In this post ( ), I argued that actually learning and knowledge management can be viewed as 2 sides of the same coin.

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