Tuesday, November 20, 2012

If you think a personal learning network is an echo chamber you’ve missed the point.

High school math teacher Crystal Kirch used her blog to ask for help with her biggest struggle this year:

"My students don't know how to learn.  They don't know how to succeed.  And, it doesn't seem like they care to change any of that. "
After reading about her struggle, some innovative educators and parents disagreed with her view toward students and took the time to respectfully disagree with Ms. Kirch. Unfortunately, Ms. Kirch censored all those who did not see things her way. On Twitter she thanked everyone for all their love in reaction to her post...even though she knew the truth was that there were people who did not love what she shared.  

Ms. Kirch was directly confronted about her practice of silencing those who didn’t share her views on Twitter and in the blogosphere. She ignored that. As she published comments that expressed the sentiment “Way to go”! “Atta girl!” and “Chin up!” it became clear that her views were to be loved, not pushed or challenged. When they were, she reacted by hiding and disabling comments and added a disclaimer to her post admonishing those with comments that did not support her position calling them “intense attacks.” 
She then wrote a post praising herself as someone who among other things cares more than she should (Yikes!). She also explained that her public blog was solely for her Personal Learning Network (PLN) which defines as only those who agree with her views. She also decided for her readers that her direct quote about her biggest challenge (above) was taken out of context and she was under attack.

But here’s the thing...

When you write a public blog you can not expect to hide and disable the voices of others.  Blogging is about the exchange of ideas, not just speaking with those who agree with your ideas.  When it comes to Personal LEARNING Networks the purpose is to LEARN. Innovative educators know that being willing to interact only with an echo chamber of sycophants is not the most effective way to accomplish this. Furthermore, discussion and debate are not attacks.  If educators put their ideas out there for help and feedback, then they should have the courage to be open to new ways of thinking. When they do, they often see the light peaking through the darkness. PLNs solve problems by helping you stretch your thinking. This is not possible when you only allow in those who validate your ideas.

So, you may be wondering what that comment was to Ms. Kirch that resulted in her hiding and disabling further discussion on her blog. I asked the primary commenter at which Kirch focused her attention to share what was censored to the best of her recollection.  

Here it is:

"I am fascinated by the fact that so many teachers seem to believe that a large number of children don't know how to learn & don't care to learn. Learning is an innate part of all children - all human beings.

Perhaps a more accurate statement is that the children don't know how to learn the way you want them to learn. Perhaps a more effective approach, rather than 'learning and success strategies' which, even from my very removed point of view, sounds condescending' would be to ask the kids what they love. What are they interested in? What ARE they learning? It doesn't matter that it isn't related to the subject you are teaching. It might give some insight and persuade you to amend your statement that some children "don't know how to learn".

This commenter did not give Ms. Kirch the love she mislead followers to believe she was getting on Twitter. She did however add to the conversation and even shared something that Ms. Kirch's PLN and she could “learn” from if only she “cared to change any of that” thinking that is so ingrained.

What’s the point of developing a network of people who share our concerns and care about our issues if a differing opinion gets a level of push-back akin to sticking fingers in our ears and singing the Flintstones’ theme song? 

Makes you wonder who it really is that doesn’t want to learn.


  1. While I mostly agree with what you're saying here, that comments (at least those that aren't blatant spam) shouldn't be deleted, no matter how negative they are, I take issue with how you seem to want to call out Ms. Kirch individually because it's a tad sanctimonious.

    You've disabled anonymous comments on your own blog and there have been times when you yourself have not been welcoming to debate and discussion on this blog, choosing to favor those commenters who provide a bit of an echo chamber. Futhermore, you have changed the contents of posts at times.

    Granted, this is human nature. I have had my fair share of trolls over the years and there have been times that I have fed them and times when I've rightfully ignored them. But to spend time on a lecture about conduct in a PLN as if you're the authority on all things blogging and PLN?

    1. @Tom,

      The read/write web is a part of blogging. You read a post or article and you write about them. It makes sense to name the source that prompted this post as well as provide a forum for those who want to have a dialogue to do so.

      I have never had an issue with anonymous comments as is evidenced by the comments in my posts. MANY are anonymous, but I’m having a terrible time with spam. Requiring someone to put in an identity (which can be alias that still keeps them anonymous) helps reduce that a bit. I’m open to other suggestions.

      I am always welcoming of debate and discussion and often have robust and lively debates with those who see things differently. Perhaps you have not read those posts or been involved in all my online spaces, but I certainly don’t shy away from my convictions when someone has an opposing viewpoint.

      Regarding my blog posts, they are living entries and I will take any opportunity I have to improve a post. I don’t have an editor, but I do have wonderful readers who help me with that and I update accordingly based on their suggestions. That said, my revisions are to improve content. I don’t revise to mislead.

      And, yes. Of course I spend time sharing my ideas about blogging and PLNs. Regardless of your thoughts on my authority in this area, it is a topic in which I have expertise.

  2. Hi Tom,
    Deleting anonymous comments is one thing - the commenter is hiding & I always get the impression that they do so in order to say things without repercussion. Not approving any commenters - even those who are not anonymous- who disagree with you is another.

    And why shouldn't we call out Ms. Kirch? She is the author of the blog we are discussing! This is the one point that I don't understand. Over the past few days it has repeatedly been mentioned to me & Lisa - though not on this blog site - that we should not single this teacher out for criticism. But if I am the author of views with which people disagree, I expect them to use my name when talking about why they disagree with what I have said. Crystal Kirch writes a public blog on her method of education, and despite what she seems to want, the internet is an open forum. Not everyone will send you love when you write something controversial, nor should they. Dissent and discussion are good things, as long as it is done with respect and without name calling or profanity. (And I don't believe that voicing a strong opposing view is disrespect.)

    I've been mulling over Ms. Kirch's reaction to the chain of events the last few days, and I find it somewhat sad, truth be told. She must be quite insecure to censor anyone who disagrees, to disable comments on her blog and to write such a long disclaimer which basically re-affirms her lack of understanding regarding the purpose of debate and discussion. Of course, if she wants her blog to be a personal journal of sorts, that's her prerogative. But then she's not as innovative and out to change the world of teaching as she claims to be. Shouldn't such teachers be voracious learners themselves; interested in all learning methods and questioning everything?


    1. Anonymity is one of the hallmarks of the internet argument, to be honest, so isn't cutting that off censoring in itself?

      Plus, why launch an ad hominem attack on someone by calling them insecure?

      Like I said, I actually agree with the point that's being made about not insulating yourself, but beware of the fact that the post here is a bit sanctimonious.

    2. To clarify, I agree about the power of anonymity. To be clear, I don't cut off and have never deleted an anonymous comment unless it was spam. As I mentioned above, I do require commenters to enter something to reduce spam, but that does not have to reveal the identity of the person commenting.

    3. I allow anonymous comments and unless they are personal attacks on my family or my students, I leave them up there. I'm a fan of transparency. If someone is going to criticize me harshly, I'll speak up honestly. I'll say, "that hurts." I've had a few commenters who really attacked me and I don't think they had any idea how hard it was to hear it. But I also had readers who defended my honor and my intentions. The strange part is that anonymity had little to do with it, either way.

  3. How much should we hold individual teachers responsible for their attitude toward kids? There is a point of view that teachers are just as imprisoned in a jail of our own making as students are. It's up to US to change the circumstances in which teachers teach and children are expected to "learn." In a way, by allowing it to happen without protest, we all are complicit in the perpetuation of those circumstances, the "drill, kill, and bubble-fill" approach to teaching and learning.

    So why attack a teacher?

    Well, we shouldn't, for one thing; not personally. However, her methods, her attitude, her approach, are all results of having drunk the Kool-Aid.

    But if Kool-Aid was the only drink available, we'd all drink it! In a way, she has no choice. She is responsible for teaching kids math, no matter how little they care about it.

    We need to point to this destructive approach; but we all are responsible for taking a stand against the conditions in which this teacher does her job.

    It's too easy to blame others; but we ALL, including this teacher, need to figure out how to be part of the solution instead of the problem.

    1. But is it possible to attack that teacher's methods without using already tired talking points and buzzwords?

    2. To which buzz words to you refer? Calling someone out on "buzz words" is one effective way of ignoring what someone is saying.

    3. Tom - I don't mind anonymous responses in theory, but I do think that when a discussion turns disrespectful and devolves into name calling, it is often the anonymous commenters who are quickest to go there. Also, if we are talking about an exchange of ideas, it is more beneficial with named commenters.

      Lisa - I disagree that teachers have no choice. Teachers choose to teach. Children are not in school by choice. Now, once teachers sign that contract then they are required to present designated subject matter in a way that will be effective, at least in the eyes of the school system. How much should we hold individual teachers responsible for their attitude towards kids? A lot! Just because she is working within the system doesn't mean she is void of any responsibility or should be immune to any criticism. Excusing her and any other teacher by saying they have no choice and are helpless pawns in the game is playing into the rhetoric. Please understand that I am not blaming the teacher for the way things are, but I am hoping she would be willing to consider other points of view in order to perhaps improve things from within. As you say, it is up to all of us, including this teacher to be part of the solution - I don't see how that is possible unless teachers (especially those who are considered to be innovative) are willing to be a part of just such a dialogue.

    4. Amy, I understand what you are saying and I vacillate between that view and the one I exressed. In the end, the more important part of what I was saying is that in blaming teachers for teaching in the way the system requires them to, we are excusing ourselves from responsibility for sustaining that system through inaction.

  4. Lisa - I am terribly concerned with this post. ALthough people may disagree with Ms. Kirch's statements, what you have done here is much more of a concern. Calling out a person who has put herself out there in the world of social media (and perhaps made an error by disabling comments) has done nothing but probably completely discourage her from using social media again. Putting ourselves out there is so difficult and criticism can be tough for some. But this is far too personal of an attack. Why not write a post that is more in general terms about appreciating being challenged. I feel for this teacher that, in my mind, made a mistake about disabling comments. ... and now you have used your power of your network to attack her. This message could have easily been shared anonymously with the same effect without a personal attack.

    The point is valid: when we blog, we open ourselves up to criticism and that is ok. We should never, however, dedicate a blog to a personal attack on another person. What does this model to kids? How does this impact the teacher as a person? How will she view social media after this post? WIll this cause her to hesitate in promoting students to use social media?

    There is nothing wrong with being critical... but gentle nudges move people along - not posts like this.

    I am disappointed that this could not have been done in another way. I know I will be reaching out this teacher (privately) to help her along her way - both in social media and as a reflective teacher.

    1. Chris, I can tell you that there was stuff on that blog that made me pretty angry. My own style might be to try and respond in such a way as to win hearts and minds while making my points...but sometimes I think we are all way too careful when we discuss things that are actively hurting kids.

      When all of us are responsible for perpetuating a system that hurts kids, (by all of us, I mean those who by inaction, are tacitly approving of this system that seems so incredibly difficult to dislodge) how concerned should we really be about the feelings of adults?

      Maybe that teacher didn't create this system, but she is a part of the machine, moving forward and riding roughshod over kids by referring to them as "lower" students who are "unable to learn."

      Whether we go for hearts and minds, or we lay our own feelings of anger out on the line...does it matter to the kids? Maybe we need to work harder to make it uncomfortable for people to think about or act toward children in that manner. Maybe a little discomfort is what's required...or maybe even more than that.

  5. I know that you have heard of the notion of "attack the idea, not the person", but it kind of seems like you have really singled out a person in your blog which has a lot of followers and a large network. It is one thing to talk about the idea (which I think is an important one), but to single out a person on how they use their space. I have been talking a lot about "this space" with Dean Shareski and I am starting to go along the lines that you can make suggestions on how to share, but should we be outright telling someone how to do this?

    Could you have shared this idea without really going at this teacher? This is a statement directly towards the teacher --> "Makes you wonder who it really is that doesn’t want to learn."

    The one thing that I have tried to adhere to is that I want to follow our teaching code of ethics in this space. I have been frustrated at some points with others but to call out other teachers specifically is tough. You can disagree with them but this seemed a little much.

    I am not sure that this would have been deemed as "professional". Your thoughts?

    1. I think it is appropriate to name & link the blogger / blog to this discussion. Specific criticism is being offered, which is always more prone to controversy than praise. The specific details and context (to the degree they are knowable virtually) are important for readers to respond intelligently. I think the specificity of the name/link allows for a more informed discussion. Without them I think readers would be confined to speaking in generalities which would be less meaningful / impactfull.

      If we are not willing to face criticism I think we potentially cripple our learning. It's hard to be called out for something we've done (and can be very challenging to call out others when they have mis-stepped) but I think those situations often lead to strong lessons for many.

      We certainly need to wrestle with the question of what contexts / when is specific criticism called for like this. We never know "the whole story" and when we criticize we definitely open ourselves to attack by others. Hopefully a focus on improving can be maintained, and personal attacks which seek to run someone down can be entirely avoided. I got the former sense reading this post & discussion so far, not the latter. This is a good conversation to have.

  6. This is so interesting. Are we never supposed to single out someone with whom we disagree? George & Chris - you both feel that Lisa unfairly attacked Crystal Kirch and that she should have written about the topic without mentioning any specific person. You could say the same to me (and some have) because I wrote a blog post about this topic prior to Kirch's removal and subsequent reposting of the blog post in question.

    There are two points I wish to make. First, I've written posts in which I take on a certain position without naming the person responsible for conveying that position. Mostly when it is a personal subject, because the person in question is not a public figure and has not written about the topic in a public forum. So I do believe there are times when it is best to err on the side of being vague when it comes to naming names.

    This is not one of those times.

    The reason is that Kirch, after publicly stating her issues and problems and asking for input, refused to even acknowledge anyone who didn't already agree with her. She ignored my question on Twitter and then wrote about being "intensely attacked" in the disclaimer she wrote to the original blog post. My comment is the one Lisa printed above. Does it read like an "intense attack"? Had she published my comment and responded with something as simple as "I disagree. You can't know what it's like because you aren't teachers", we might have been able to have a discussion.

    I felt as though she wrote a controversial post, asked for help and then was shocked that anyone would disagree with her terminology. Why is it so shocking to everyone to criticize a teacher by name? Would the same be said for a boss who talks down to his employees and writes about it on a public forum, asks for help and then when someone points out that maybe he shouldn't talk down to his employees, he deletes the post, refuses to entertain any more comments and talks of being intensely attacked?

    A teacher should have the courage of her convictions. If she does not want to be mentioned by name, she should write an anonymous blog.

  7. Ok, I am an outsider who has no relation to you or to Ms. Kirsch. I was lead to this post from a twitter message that asked for opinions regarding your post. Rather than discuss something out of context on twitter, I'd rather respond directly to you here. I wanted to share my observation about this post. I don't know the full details of the issue, and since Ms. Kirsch removed the comments from her post, I cannot comment on the validity of either YOUR or HER sentiments regarding the said personal attack. However, what drew my attention to your post is that 1: it includes a picture of an angry emoticon in caricature of Ms. Kirsch, 2: that you specifically single out Ms. Kirsch as the source of that anger, 3: that you include a single comment from the opposition and presume that this is the inciting comment that caused Ms. Kirsch to delete all comments, 4: that you chose to end your statement with a negative counter statement referring indirectly to Ms. Kirsch (even though the entire post is about Ms. Kirsch in the first place).

    Regardless of what happened on Ms. Kirsch's blog, your post IS a personal attack. It is not a post that opens the debate about censorship within comment fields (because we are not given the full story, nor shown the breadth of comments, and we are given a statement made out of context and "from memory"); it is not a post that leads me to want to discuss the issue regarding teachers views on student learning (as you yourself don't even both to share your views on that subject). Instead this post feels very much like you want to call Ms. Kirsch out on her actions and publicly scold her for it.

    I went back and read Ms. Kirsch blog post, including the disclaimer. And then I read the "excerpt" from Amy's comment. Based on the two, I do not see an "intense attack" but I also do not believe that this one comment spurred Ms. Kirsch to shutdown all comments. I'm not given the full story and then I'm being encouraged to "agree" with you based on what you've given me. I honestly cannot agree with you, nor can I really disagree. All you've succeeded at doing is dragging Ms. Kirsch out in public and rebuking her for censorship.

    If this were a general posting about your anger towards bloggers who delete comments that counter their musings, then I would agree that a PLN is a place to learn and that even negative comments can have some value in the process (not necessarily for the blogger, but for those who are joining in on the discussion). If you are writing this post to continue the discussion about Ms. Kirsch's comments regarding student learning, I would have appreciated seeing more than just a singular quote in opposition of her statement (a quote in which I disagree and believe takes Ms. Kirsch's statements out of context--to which I WAS able to judge based on my own reading of her post). In fact, I would have relished your personal opinion since you appear to have a strong one in this regard.

    Instead I am lead to feel that Ms. Kirsch is somehow the evil in all of this and that I should be spurned into some kind of action against her. That is the tone of your post. However, I'm empathetic in nature and can't help but think of Ms. Kirsch. Putting oneself out in the limelight has its major consequences, but those who do also have the right to protect themselves when they feel attacked or feel their comments have been taken out of context--for some that means fight, for others that means flight. When someone has retreated, why continue to drag them out? Ms. Kirsch is not the first person to shirk explosive discussions nor will she be the last. Open the dialogue about the ISSUE, don't exploit a person's insecurities.

  8. @tcsamaripa,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response.

    Where I see things differently is that I don't believe sharing the truth is an attack. I also don't believe exposing someone for misleading readers to be an attack. As far as you questioning whether the comments were attacks or not, first, it is censorship regardless. Second I have direct knowledge from those who commented that they challenged the person's ideas. This is what she took as an attack. I am happy to share the numerous comments in another forum for those who question this. And, in fact that is a great idea for a future post. Stay tuned.

    As to your question about why discuss this when someone has shut down her side of the conversation? The answer is because this is not about her. She brought her big struggle to a public forum then choose to censor, mislead, and lie. Fortunately the read / write web provides mechanisms for others to keep an important conversation going, reveal truths, and provide a platform for all voices.