It was some time ago that I wrote about The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson. I was impressed with Johnson’s account of Joseph Priestly, a British minister, scientist and political thinker who was also a friend and contemporary of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

And I had buried much of that stuff deep in the brain until I ran across a recent post on the Innovation Leadership Network. In Networks and the Information Glut, Tim Kastelle and John Steen write about the idea that social networks have always been around and how researchers have used those networks to gather and share information.

When we talk about ’social networks’ we don’t just mean facebook and twitter. People have always functioned within networks, and these have always been important in the development and spread of ideas.

It’s an interesting idea that I tried to articulate back in February 2009. My post was a bit all over the place and wasn’t really laser focused on the idea of social networks. Kastelle and Steen do a much better job of discussing how social networks of all kinds encourage creative thought.

The fundamentals of innovative thought haven’t changed since the 18th Century – it’s always been aggregate, filter and connect. The great thinkers of earlier times corresponded extensively because it helped them aggregate information from a wide variety of disciplines and sources.

I like their wording:

it’s always been aggregate, filter and connect

And they’re right.

Priestly used his connections with Franklin and Jefferson to gather, expand and share his research. We need to find ways to do the same as professionals and as classroom instructors.

If you are not currently part of some sort of Personal Learning Network, you need to be. It’s hard for me to imagine how a history teacher can continue to be effective if they are not connected with like professionals to ask questions, share information and discuss current research. Delicious, Plurk, Twitter, Ning, uStream, SlideShare, LinkedIn and other similar tools can (separately or together) all be pieces of that network.

It’s also hard for me to imagine trying to prepare students for the 21st century without training them to aggregate, filter and connect appropriately. And while the Priestly, Franklin and Jefferson versions of those tools still exist (US postal snail mail, for example), we also need to work to find 21st century tools that students can use.

A couple of suggestions:

  • Low prep?
    Use Delicious to gather and share resources with your kids and train them to do the same.
  • Higher prep?
    Use iPod Touches in the classroom as a relatively cheap way to aggregate data and connect with others.

The basic idea? Use time-tested methods of gathering and sharing information but with 21st century tools. In my earlier post, I said that

maybe all it will take is to become more old-fashioned in our thinking.

Can it be that simple?

Intersection Consulting. “5 Ways to Cultivate an Active Social Network.” 9 July 2009. 25 January 2010.

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