Don’t be a node. Be a nexus.

Encountering the word ‘node’ in publications and discussions about networks and connected learning left me with an uneasy feeling. It sounds much too much like a pejorative nickname than how I would like to define myself. It’s mentioned in George Seimens’ Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age and Jeff Utecht’s Reach and it just bothers me.

When I visualize a ‘node’, it’s like a lump with wires sticking out of it. I understand the implication that we’re each a dot on a matrix of lines of digital communication, but connected learning means more than that to me.

image cc European Southern Observatory

When I visualize a nexus, however, it’s made of energy. It can do everything a node can do, but better. It’s more efficient, more dynamic, and it’s not limited by wires. Rather than thinking of myself as a cog in the machine, I want to be the energy that makes it run.

Out of curiosity, I checked the dictionary (Merriam-Webster):

node : a place where lines in a network cross or meet

nexus : a relationship or connection between people or things

That word, ‘relationship’, jumps out at me, grabs me by my shirt collar, and shouts, “you’re more than an IP address!”

A node is sterile; a nexus is dirty.

A node is stationary; a nexus is always in motion.

A node is concrete; a nexus is abstract.

Thinking of myself as a nexus also appeals to me because networks are not limited to the digital domain. If a node connects lines in a network, a nexus connects networks and develops relationships among them.

Am I waxing semantic? Truly. However, I do believe that one thing all of the contemporary learning theories share is the importance of mindset. How we think of ourselves is critical to who we are in life on the unstable ground of knowledge in the 21st Century.

photo by Jenny E. Ross

The same is true, if not more important, for our students. If I were a polar bear standing on the last ice floe in the arctic, what would I teach my cubs? I wouldn’t teach them what I learned from my teachers, certainly. Indeed, I wouldn’t know what to teach them. I wouldn’t know what they need to know.

When I visualize how I want students in my class to learn, I see them developing relationships and building their own connections of understanding. In agreement with Gerhard Fischer’s Understanding, Fostering, and Supporting Cultures of Participation, I believe that the future is collaborative. Empathy and creativity are the two most important attitudes or habits-of-mind that citizens of the future need. My responsibility is to start the journey with them, like a polar bear plunging into the ocean for a long swim into the unknown. My old habits won’t work. What I ‘know’ isn’t relevant anymore. What is important is how I adapt.

We should not be nodes, passive, modular, static. We need to be nexuses. Active, independent, dynamic.

My String Quartet

I’ve been meaning to write a string quartet for almost fifteen years. My multitude of notebooks contain dozens of beginnings, always unsatisfactory and abandoned. Even more fester in musical purgatory in long forgotten folders on dusty old hard drives.


There is an ethos surrounding the string quartet. Nearly every composer of Western Classical music has written them, and often they were the medium for innovation and experimentation. Even Ravel and Debussy, not fans of tradition, wrote one each, almost as if to prove that they could do it. I count those and the string quartets of Bartok, Ginastera, and Berg as some of my most revered artistic creations, and I can literally listen to Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schubert string quartets all day long.

Kneisel Quartet c1890 (photo public domain)

That’s what makes it so hard. My string quartet is supposed to represent my maturity and vigor, intellect and passion, while simultaneously respecting and condescending to the masters who preceded me. Every time I thought I was ready, I felt that I wasn’t. As soon as I committed a great idea to paper, it wasn’t good anymore.

The Making Learning Connected Community inspired me to start and complete my string quartet. The summer of 2013, of making and connecting, was a bizarre experience that had me reflecting on my lifetime of learning in strange and sometimes uncomfortable ways.

And it was GREAT.

 I didn’t have to do any of it. The toy hack, the map, the credo, I could have walked away from them at any time. Just like all those string quartets in my notebooks. But I didn’t, and I’m not going to leave this string quartet unfinished.

To up the ante, I chose as the basis for the piece a simple sequence I created on my electric bass on a rooftop in Kathmandu when I was eighteen years old. Choosing material from so deep in my past and close to my heart should certainly keep me motivated not to forget about it.

Funny thing is, I almost did. If it weren’t for Terry Elliot’s post, Inside of a MOOC: A First “Feldgang”, Post MOOC and Beyond Cycle 6, and his casual yet invaluable follow up question on Google+, I just might have.

Maybe the lack of connection to others what was missing from all my previous attempts. Not having an audience or anyone to hold me accountable simply made it too easy to quit. I suppose that’s a critical lesson to be learned: To a certain degree, Accountability is the stealth principle of connected learning.

So is this quartet going to establish me, Bart Miller, as a Great Composer of Music?

Who cares?!!?

I’m just going to finish it.

What was missing from my youth.

Learning to use digital media and observing how today’s youth are steeped in a culture of connection is making me feel extremely jealous! It’s not that I’m not excited to connect myself, but reflecting on my own formative years compared to the opportunities literally sitting in teens’ laps now has got me feeling a bit nostalgic.

Angst aside, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on my earlier years by framing my teenage activities according to the research findings in Living with New Media. What were my friendship-driven practices? Which were interest-driven? What did I do while hanging out? Messing around? Geeking out?


My primary friendship-driven practice was role-playing games. Since age thirteen or so, my close friends and I gathered to ‘geek-out’ every weekend. Our activities included creating entire fantasy worlds complete with maps, cultures, monsters, and romantic intrigue. We impressed each other with creative descriptions of our characters’ actions and rich justifications for their actions. In fact, after awhile, we graduated from the ubiquitous Dungeons & Dragons and became Rolemaster snobs. Our collections of various multi-sided dice rivaled the hoard of Smaug and most of us stayed safely far away from real-life drugs and girls.

Sometimes, we didn’t ‘geek-out’. We were often distracted or simply chose to do other activities. It depended on the mood of the group and sometimes on which members were present. Looking back, there was a tremendous amount of social dynamism in that group and we were lucky to have the time, space, and liberty to explore.


When I was in high school, music was my thing. I bought my first electric bass with my 8th grade graduation gift money and by the time freshman year started, I was jamming Led Zeppelin and rockin’ a mean mullet. I ‘geeked out’ by practicing every night after dinner and as my awareness and abilities grew, I sought out other people to play with. Because everyone else played guitar or drums, aka the cool instruments, there were always people, older and more skilled than me, asking me to come play in their garages. I hated most of those people, especially the best musicians. They were arrogant and cruel, but I didn’t care. I wanted to make music, loudly, in garages, and headbang while doing so. I learned a lot from those jerks not only about music, but also about dealing with difficult personalities.

photo cc wikimedia commons

It’s interesting to note that, in those garage-jams, I was never satisfied with ‘hanging out’ or ‘messing around’. If we weren’t focused on improving our sound, I got bored and left. Everyone needs bass players and I didn’t waste time sitting around waiting for the drummer to show up. I soon stopped jamming altogether and only rehearsed with established bands to prepare for gigs.


All this reminiscing made me lose the point. How would smartphones and the internet have changed my experiences? Do I really wish to have had those tools? Would I want to replace D&D with WoW? Could I have saved time finding other serious musicians in my town on Craigslist or twitter?

I suppose I might have, or mightn’t. These technologies are simply tools. I used the tools I had; teens today use the tools they have. I pursue what is engaging and relevant to me and always look out for new ways to do so. I’m sure you are the same.

What were your genres of participation? What are they now?

How can we harness our students’ technological tools to help their learning be engaging and relevant?

Musical Keyboard Inquiry

In addition to being a PYP Grade 6 teacher, I also teach music to Grades 4-6, in addition to my own homeroom. Last year, I taught music to Grades 1-6, but as the school is grows, the schedule gets a bit tighter.

The fourth graders are just beginning their musical keyboard study, so I thought we could set the stage with a listening-based inquiry.
In the activity, we listened to recordings of various keyboard instruments from hurdy-gurdy to minimoog for which I had gathered YouTube links. After each listen, students responded to the question:
How do you think it produces sound?

photo cc Finchcocks Musical Museum

To clarify, we reviewed how the instrument they practiced last year, the recorder, produces sound. They had no problem coming up with important words like ‘blow’, ‘air’, ‘holes’, and ‘whistle’, so we started the survey of keyboard instruments.

After listening to each example, I typed the key words in their responses as they called them out. We’re about halfway finished. Here’s the google doc I’m using to organize it.

Finally, we will listen again and watch the videos of the recordings and discuss. I’m very impressed with the accuracy of their observations and hope that they are gaining a good understanding of the variety and versatility of keyboard instruments.

In their first proper piano lesson, it will be fun to open the lid of our grand piano and watch the internal mechanisms, especially after thinking about it purely conceptually. Though if only I had a clavichord…

Back-to-School Marshmallow Spaghetti Tower Challenge!

I was first introduced to this activity during the MIT Media Lab Learning Creative Learning course. There are a few variations, such as limiting the amount of resources or including tape, but for my students’ first day of sixth grade, I let chaos reign.
I gave each group a package of dry spaghetti, three small bags of marshmallows, and the simplest rules I could think of:
1 Build the tallest structure you can.
2 You may only use the materials I gave you.
3 We’ll measure after 60 minutes.

The primary objective was to get comfortable with each other in our learning space. They made a huge mess and laughed a lot, so that goal was achieved. However, this exercise has implications in many learning domains:
The more a group shares and synthesizes ideas, the taller and stronger their tower becomes.
This is an authentic inquiry into materials and structures. All of the students’ reflections mention ‘balance’ and being frustrated when their building materials broke or didn’t perform as expected. Every group deduced that triangles are the most stable shape and one group even built a base of four square pyramids.
Every group spent at least some time searching for solutions online.
Another common theme in reflections referred to the need to think ahead and plan more. Comparing structures at the finale was a terrific visible thinking exercise.
In retrospect, I would limit building materials more in the future, but the activity was a blast and set the stage perfectly for the sorts of independent inquiry and exploration our school year will emphasize.

Five innovations for the first day of school

Although I was at school last week, tomorrow is the first day for students and I’m very excited. I’ve changed a few of my approaches to teaching and can’t to get started. I think other teachers may be interested, so I’ll outline a few of this year’s innovations:

1 Organizing resources with Evernote. As I’ve been reporting in my ‘Inquiry with Evernote‘ posts at Inquire Within, I have a few hundred photos, articles, videos, websites, etc tagged according to theme, concepts, and disciplines. The result is a cache of resources that can be called upon in various ways and is meant to provide provocation and support for inquiry-based learning and teaching.

2 Using the class blog as a learning hub. This year, our blog will be central to learning, connecting, and collaborating. With that in mind, I’ve already prepared posts in draft form ready to be published when the time comes. For example, in our first unit, we’ll view two videos and read a magazine article. We’ll discuss them in class, but respond on the class blog. I’ve embedded the videos and link to the article in posts so that they can be reviewed before students respond by writing comments.

We’ll be inviting other classes inquiring into similar themes or topics to respond, as well, by searching their blogs for related posts on which to comment and using twitter to raise awareness.

3 Designing connected, creative learning. Tomorrow, there’s a significant chunk of time set aside for a Marshmallow Challenge. This year, I want to introduce and nurture the ‘maker’ spirit much more than before. MIT Media Lab’s Learning Creative Learning course and this summer’s Making Learning Connected MOOC inspired me to think less like a traditional teacher and more like a designer of learning experiences, or metateacher. Providing materials and time for tinkering and the tools for collaboration and reflection is a great way to get started, I think.

4 Emphasizing Independent Inquiry. My grade 6 class will undertake our school’s first PYP Exhibition. Independent inquiry is essential for the process, so I plan to help my students develop their skills during the entire year both in and out of school.

5 Using Google Apps to engage parents. During parent orientation last week, I introduced families to an experiment. I plan to document students’ development along the PYP Language Scope & Sequence by using using this google doc. I’ve made a set of four for each student (listening & speaking, viewing & presenting, reading, writing). Learning outcomes which they have already achieved are changed to white background color. As they practice the phase 4 and 5 outcomes, I’ll be adding dates and linking to artifacts, whether they are online, scanned images, etc. Each time an outcome is practiced, it’s color becomes lighter. When it’s white, it’s considered mastered.

The beautiful part is that I’ve shared each student’s documents with their parents so that they can see, comment on, and participate in tracking their child’s learning. They seem very excited about it and I can’t wait to see how it works.

Thanks for reading! What are your innovations this year?