Managing knowledge better than London’s chechaquo builds a fire

by Mr. Sheehy

And here I sit, thinking about knowledge management again. In a sense, I wouldn’t mind getting onto another topic, but it’s not the topic that is driving me nuts so much as the all-consuming power of earning a degree, working while maintaining some semblance of professionalism, and being a father all at one time. And then there’s those websites I’ve become the “master” of. Oh boy, the things I get myself into. I may be trying to help my department better manage its collective knowledge, but I’m not setting any solid precedents in managing my own life. Last night I stayed up so late working on a project that the little bit of sickness I’d apparently fended off until now bit my throat. Now, seriously – was that project worth it?

We are not indestructible; we are frail creatures, and I find too many parallels between my own decisions and those of Jack London’s prospector in “To Build a Fire“:

Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.

Now I fervently hope I am not a man “without imagination,” but I am awfully thick-headed and prideful at times about my choices, and, as I have proved again, I often act without thought, quickly and alertly like London’s prospector, and also like him, without taking the time to consider significances. Maybe I’m not defined by this nature, but if I do not stop it may become a dominant, though inadvertent, characteristic. One must work to attain and sustain simplicity and focus.

Did I say I was thinking about knowledge management? I’m convinced this is part of the theme. What if a department’s collective personality is like mine? They take on various projects and work extremely hard, but rarely stop to consider what was done and whether the things that were done were the best things to be done. Stopping and considering falls into the world of knowledge management, and I have a hope that if teachers use the KM wiki I’ve set up, the contributor will benefit from the sharing of resources in significant ways. Those ways won’t be the same as the consumer of the lesson plan or activity in question, but they could be valuable moments of reflection and consideration.

Take this example scenario: An activity I do with my students – say these stories my juniors just wrote following our reading of Jack London – strikes me as worthwhile and I figure other teachers might like to know about it. I head to the KM repository/wiki to add it to the growing supply.

To add it, I click “New Page” on the wiki and then when prompted, select a template available on the wiki that is made specially for sharing activities. It prompts me to design the page in a certain way, to answer a series of questions about the activity so another teacher can decide whether the context is repeatable for her classroom. The lesson and activity description, while necessary for teachers to know, is actually only a fraction of what is shared. When confronted with the template, I can erase any categories I do not wish to use, but the existence of the template encourages me to attempt at least short answers to most of the categories:

  • Quick Description
  • Goals
  • Original Context
  • Time
  • Good Parts
  • You Should Know (essentially, bad parts)
  • Rundown (this is where the actual plan part goes)
  • Materials

I post the lesson, tag it with relevant terms, like “American Literature,” “Creative Writing,” or “Stories,” save it, and stick a link on the front page so folks know I’ve added something new.

My claim is that the process in which I engaged benefits me, even if I don’t bother to look around the wiki to see what others have contributed. By answering the questions about the context, I have had to articulate what the good parts and bad parts of the activity were, as well as revisit in my own terms what my goals were in creating that activity.

By the way, when I say goals, I do NOT mean those horrid lists of state standards. At this level of sharing, those communicate nothing necessary between veteran teachers. When I look at another teacher’s goals, I want to see what they were thinking when they made the lesson: “To write an essay that was so easy we could focus on the writing instead of the thinking” or “To cap the unit with something half fun since I’d just slaughtered them with the unit test.” In seeing those kinds of goals, I am taken as close as I can be taken to the point of creation, so I can see the motives behind decisions that were made about the lesson. If my goals are then different, it is easier for me to make adjustments when I choose to make the lesson my own.

That imitation of presence and capture of classroom experience is very much what I aspire to create – though I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it. I say in my welcome message to the wiki that when I worked as a furniture delivery guy, I learned half of my skills by watching people who were better at the job than me. The other half I learned by breaking things and then not doing it again. Teachers get to break things, but they don’t get to watch each other, so by working in the education industry, I’ve lost a crucial area of learning.

That’s a big deal, and I think it’s crucial to recover it somehow. If we’re to learn anything, to pick up any innovations that might be diffusing through our culture, as Everet Rogers might say, we’ll need to experience more of that modeled practice. Rogers asserts that “diffusion is fundamentally a social process” and that

the heart of the diffusion process consists of interpersonal network exchanges and social modeling between those individuals who have already adopted an innovation and those who are then influenced to do so. (34)

That “innovation” could be something as simple as a way of announcing assignments to students so no one misses anything, or it could be a neat activity or lesson that got students motivated. Without the modeling though, we as teachers lose a key piece of the communication exchange that leads to diffusion, or learning.

Oh, the perils of the “system” in our school system. But, then again, as this little blip I caught from Megan Husted points out, perhaps the rest of the world is breaking down to the teachers’ sorry levels where modeling is not present:

That we’ve transferred a lot of office business to e-mail — well, who cares?

I didn’t, until I thought back to my own early days in an office, at Vintage Books, eight years ago. The phones trilled continuously, and you could hear the springs in an assistant’s chair as she popped up to announce who was on Line 2. All the noise seemed to add energy and urgency to the day.

And I can’t imagine how a young employee learning the ropes can acquire what she needs to know, as speedily, without the advantage of eavesdropping on her boss’s phone conversations.

How can anyone get a grasp of an industry’s pertinent relationships or decision-making time frames, let alone the fragility of a particular office’s egos, if there are so few chances to hear these people talking to the outside world? The office phone call, properly overheard, is really the cheapest, easiest way to transmit institutional knowledge. (Thanks to Alan Jacob’s Tumblr for the find.)

Perhaps the world’s new struggle is why there’s so much research in this field of knowledge management. The world too needs an idea for replacing the traditional modeling experience. Perhaps the explosion of the wiki is part of that trend. Probably not, I suppose, but I do hope this little KM wiki will be a piece that at least makes up slightly for the lack of modeling. And in the process, it may benefit the teacher who models.

Sometimes when I do calm down from all the ridiculous projects I take on, I project beyond grad school and think of how I want to structure my life: peaceful, well-rested time with my wife and girls, time to read something I like, non-academic writing, occasional exercise, and even some recreational photography. That’s a vision I can get excited about, and as I try to help my department, I hope my colleagues and I can catch a vision of something better for ourselves, something where we are working together, more calmly, and better.

But if we’re going to do that, we’ve got to be smarter than London’s prospector. I’d rather not end up like him.

Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known. The dog sat facing him and waiting. The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight. There were no signs of a fire to be made, and, besides, never in the dog’s experience had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and make no fire. As the twilight drew on, its eager yearning for the fire mastered it, and with a great lifting and shifting of forefeet, it whined softly, then flattened its ears down in anticipation of being chidden by the man. But the man remained silent. Later, the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.

Copyright Mr. Sheehy at A Teacher’s Writes