Learning Out Loud: A Manifesto

Karen Caldwell, October 27, 2022

I recently stumbled on powerful advice for the busy mind: if you’re overthinking, write; if you’re underthinking, read. To you, dear reader, I say, it’s time to go beyond writing & reading and mobilize your thinking either way.

Mobilize by learning out loud.

Learning out loud (LOL) is about making your ideas concrete, simply by formulating them. Yes, just in your head. Picture them. Spend time with them. Mouth the words. Say them out loud, even. When you’re ready, share them with someone else.

LOLing, you say?

The sharing part of making your ideas concrete is where true learning out loud happens. Though it almost killed me, I shared my Learning Out Loud message in an 18-minute TEDx talk. Check it out if you like, or a longer, more in-depth (40-minute) presentation.

Learning Out Loud, a TEDx talk at SUNY Potsdam in March, 2022

Today, I share my dream – a manifesto, really – for you, me and others to learn out loud – to share, exchange & wrestle with our ideas. And to mobilize knowledge in the process.

Together. Back and forth.

Until very recently, I called the occasionally tough, sometimes uncomfortable and mostly super rewarding process of learning out loud knowledge mobilization and I believe to my core that it’s what we are all called to do.

Because when we’re learning out loud, we’re mobilizing knowledge.

You heard right – knowledge mobilization – including its short-form KMb – is a thing. I try to stay on top of new terms related to education, and a few years ago, after a brief eye roll, I soon learned that I (and you) should be excited about knowledge mobilization. You see, I’m all about information, or knowledge in this case. Getting it, sharing it, questioning it, fact-checking it, using it, exploiting it, creating it.

And sending it out there. Sharing it. That’s the learning out loud bit, really.

We should all have access to knowledge that matters to us so we can do whatever we want with it, including both sharing it and adding to it. I am frustrated by research that is not only unavailable & inaccessible to most of us (unless we pay), but also has no application to real or daily life, or is not clearly communicated and therefore tough to understand.

That’s why I am so excited about knowledge mobilization.

Knowledge Mobilization from an Institutional Perspective

The Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) defines knowledge mobilization as “the reciprocal and complementary flow and uptake of research knowledge between researchers, knowledge brokers, and knowledge users – both within and beyond academia”. I prefer the term knowledge mobilizer to knowledge broker as “broker” is too closely aligned with the exchange of goods on behalf of others. A mobilizer, on the other hand, spurs into action, often with a sense of agency and ownership. And has a hand in making a difference.

I’m a teacher by training and by vocation. Mostly, I mobilize knowledge and my students use it. However, when things go well and I get it right in ways that are worth sharing, it’s like the proverbial tree falling in the forest: no one hears, not even the teacher in the next classroom. At the same time, when I read research about teaching, I often have the sense that the majority of what happens in my classroom and teaching context, the good, the bad, and the ugly, is alien to most researchers. My classes are nothing like the highly controlled lab conditions they describe so eloquently.

grain silos
grain silos (By Sylvain Cardine – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60681565)

This separation of the lab and the classroom represents just one set of silos – the hallowed research world in one corner and real world, in the other. Two silos working in isolation at a time in history when more than 75% of us are getting our knowledge from the Internet.

Colleges & universities are one such silo and not surprisingly, they’re facing what Levine & Van Pelt describe as a “great upheaval”. I’m learning through knowledge mobilization that when I and my students learn out loud, we can ride the wave of this upheaval. The need to break down silos is one major cause of the upheaval.

…higher education is most successful when it has one foot in the library (human heritage) and one foot the street (the real world including work).

Levine & Van Pelt

Ready?

I think it’s time for us to smash the silos and mobilize our knowledge.

Knowledge is both Personal & Dynamic

Let’s start with Sherry Turkle’s 2012 TED talk when she pointed out that we are getting more and more accustomed to being “alone together” through our devices, and putting pieces of ourselves “out there” to form our public identities. My friend Tina has a special name for that (in)famous social media platform: ‘Fakebook’. I think she’d agree with Turkle’s statement, “I share, therefore I am”. But we can do so much more with our knowledge and with our digital media. We can connect in much more meaningful ways. The more I learn about KMb, the more my mantra becomes “I share, therefore I mobilize” or better still, “I mobilize, therefore I am.”

Knowledge is simultaneously personal and dynamic, not owned by anyone. Getting back to the silo metaphor, knowledge mobilization smashes the silos rather than reinforces them. And we can all be knowledge workers (sounds kind of sexy) – researchers, knowledge brokers, and knowledge users. Once free of the silos, knowledge grows organically and in ways that have much more impact.

To connect and take meaningful action with our knowledge, we just need to start with our KMb literacy. Knowledge mobilization literacy relies first and foremost on some strategic communication skills for that initial spark or connection to happen.

And there are some exciting ways this is already taking shape.

KMb & its Kin, Personal Knowledge Mastery

A close cousin of KMb is personal knowledge management or mastery. Bonni Stachowiak writes, blogs, and podcasts extensively about the cyclic seek, sense, and share approach to PKM that she and others (Harold Jarche) model so well. You’ll see below that I cite Bonni’s work through her Teaching in Higher Ed treasure trove of one-stop-shopping for adult educators as an exemplar of knowledge mobilization. As a university dean and professor, Bonni leads the charge to bridge the “library” and the “street”, and supports her instructor colleagues to do the same.

The knowledge mobilization movement is emerging slowly but surely.

Take Michigan State University for example. MSU’s communications toolkit has resources, workshops, and other training programs that help professors to communicate and create a “more engaged, informed public”. Here’s their message to MSU profs:

“As a scientist, scholar, or researcher, you help solve the world’s most pressing problems. Yours is the trusted voice of reason. But to truly impact others, your voice needs to be more broadly heard beyond your peers and journals.”

Michigan State University, University Communications, Academic Toolkit

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, MSU experimental nuclear physicist Artemis Spyrou said, “It’s important for scientists to talk about their research and their discoveries because if they don’t someone else will”. Check out the research blog at her website – a great example of KMb. Dr. Spyrou walks the walk, and Henry Jenkins would likely call her a public intellectual or digital humanist who is using “citizenly discourse” to demystify and distill her work.

Students Becoming Knowledge Able

Michael Wesch’s anthroplogy students mobilize their learning by going from knowledgeable to knowledge able through digital media “challenges.” His 18-minute TEDx talk has inspired hundreds of thousands of us in its unique response to the “disruption and peril” that communication media and web-based connectivity bring.

Researcher, futurist, author, TED speaker extraordinaire, and natural-born knowledge mobilizer Kelly McGonigal works with PhD students at Stanford University to communicate their work. If you look closely, you’ll see that her approach to “communicating one’s work” is textbook knowledge mobilization. In a podcast interview, McGonigal put it this way:

the purpose of any really interesting communication should be for the other person to have interesting thoughts in their own head about your work. It’s not to convince them that your work is right or important or that you know everything about it. You want the person who is listening to you or watching you to think, wait, what if this — or I wonder if — or I don’t think so, to the degree in which they are having their own interesting, spontaneous thoughts and questions. That’s the measure of success.

Kelly McGonigal interviewed by Matt Abraham on the Think Fast, Talk Smart podcast (2022 Oct 11)

It’s also authentic “reciprocal and complementary flow and uptake” of knowledge and understanding, to return to the SSHRC definition.

Like McGonigal, I encourage my university students to identify a specific audience and tailor their “message” accordingly, even in “on demand” online courses. The main ingredients? Plain language, concrete examples, minimal jargon, and empathy. Yes, communicating with the aim of being understood – and by extension, understanding your audience – is empathic communication. Making our messages accessible means thinking about the needs of the folks we’re communicating with. McGonigal has her students identify concrete examples too such as “the photos, the videos, the audio samples, the objects that will help people understand what you do and using language that people will immediately understand.”

Helping Students to Create to Learn… and Mobilize

Renee Hobbs is a media literacy expert, author & professor on the leading edge of bridging the “library and street” from within and beyond higher education, including the K-12 world. Her 2017 book, Create to Learn, and its companion website introduce college students to digital literacy, strategic online communication, and 9 media forms as a way to create to learn and mobilize their knowledge.

At this point, I hope you’re latching on to the “what” of Learning Out Loud and its byproduct, knowledge mobilization. If you’d like some direction, you could think of Wesch’s TEDx talk as the “so what” and Hobbs’ Create to Learn resources as “now what”. My own learning out loud gets catalyzed every time I return to their timeless work.

In my own teaching, I have learners mobilize their knowledge by engaging them in “reciprocal and complementary” learning experiences inwhich they design, create, exchange, and continuously update and edit a wide range of digital artifacts about our course topics. Because we are together for at least 15 weeks, I can strategically design “learning out loud” activities that begin internally and emerge in stages and with varied modes. This is a tough but meaningful process, mind you. Taking jargon-filled, often academic sources and adding your own take on a topic means making the abtract concrete and following Jenkins’ lead to use “citizenly language” – which we simply refer to as plain, jargon-free English.

When my students share their “take” and synthesize course content in the process, they’re learning out loud in a safe, supportive, and collaborative environment – our online class. Eventually, students take an additional step to mobilize their knowledge by sharing their work more publicly online. If you’re looking for a concrete example of how this process can be framed, have a look at my E-Portfolios for Learning & Development site. You’ll find a variety of concrete examples that inspire you and guidelines & assignment ideas to get you up and running if you choose to give it a try (as part of a course or simply for your own learining journey).

Examples to Inspire You

Speaking of concrete examples, KMb is becoming formalized. If you want a research grant from the SSHRC, Canada, they require a KMb plan to engage beyond academia as a way to inform debate & decisions, for example, and enhance services. Because if you recall their definition of knowledge mobilization, knowledge flows back and forth. It goes both ways. And this requirement inspires me. It weakens silos that isolate academia from the rest of us and vice versa.

Engaging in KMb literacy beyond strategic use of “citizenly language,” then, has to include other means of connecting to make this back and forth flow happen. This is the more dynamic, interactive side of knowledge mobilization, and if you’re still reading, you are likely looking for more concrete examples.

  • Scholars mobilizing research: Amanda Cooper and her team at RIPPLE in Kingston, Ontario are working to link research, policy, and practice through KMb activities such as building teachers’ research literacy and forming relationships across groups such as “producers, users, and intermediaries” of knowledge.
  • Teachers mobilizing best practice: Jennifer Gonzalez of Cult of Pedagogy fame is an educator with a K-12 and higher education background who develops, seeks out, publishes, podcasts, blogs, and mobilizes ‘best practice’ from – and with – a wide swath of innovators and subject-matter experts. Through interviews with change makers such as Peter Brown, co-author of the cognitive science treasure trove, Make it Stick, to a team of teachers at the Apollo School talking about their collaborative efforts to created authentic, 21st century student-directed learning, Gonzalez makes it all accessible to parents, teachers, professors, and pretty much anyone interested in learning. I should say accessible and entertaining. Listening to her podcasts is candy for my teaching brain. Well, the healthy kind of candy.
  • Higher ed folks mobilizing nuts’n’bolts of adult learning: Author, podcaster, blogger, and education leader Bonni Stachowiak’s Teaching in Higher Ed resource brings together a kaleidoscope of experts who walk the walk on topics of great value and importance. Topics range from the super practical top tools for learning to inclusive teaching & disrupting the syllabus. Barbi Honeycutt’s Lecture Breakers and John Kane & Rebecca Mushtare’s Tea for Teaching are two other podcasts well worth your time for engaging knowledge exchanges related to higher ed. And if you’re not following the generous, funny, and “on top of all things instructional design” Mike Taylor, you’re missing out. The tag line on his (awesome) website says it all: Ask. Learn. Share.
  • Cognitive / Learning scientists mobilizing applied research: Cognitive science, also referred to as the learning sciences (or science of learning), is finally gaining ground and making its way into classrooms, lecture halls, and training centres. Reading the 2014 book Make it Stick was the watershed moment for me, and the momentum is growing through generous and collaborative work by The Learning Scientists, Pooja Agarwal, and Oliver Caviglioli. These folks work symbiotically with educators, other researchers and learners to bring the century of research & effective practice to all of us – largely for free!
  • Researchers and schools mobilizing solutions in North America: The Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) tackle problems identified by teachers and school districts through networked improvement communities (NICs – a movement started in the medical field). And it’s researchers, teachers, and school leaders rolling up their sleeves to do so. They promote and mobilize their growing knowledge base through in-school programs. Talk about hands-on, minds-on.
  • Researcher-Educator collaboration the UK: ResearchED holds events with the aim to “bridge the gap between research and practice in education. Researchers, teachers, and policy makers come together for a day of information-sharing and myth-busting.” In addition, their growing set of publications from John Catt is changing practice in all the right ways. The books are co-authored by researchers and teachers and mobilize the theoretical and applied knowledge

There are countless knowledge mobilizers out there but I wanted to trumpet some that may not be so well known… so far.

I’d also love to learn about KMb in your world. It’s never been as important to mobilize our knowledge as it is today, and our freely available 21st century tools make it easy for us to do so in more than one direction.

Thomas Edison is reported to have said that invention without execution is simply hallucination. I say knowledge without mobilization suffers the same fate. Is your knowledge dynamic? Are you part of KMb networks? Mobilize here and share what you’re doing. Mobilization starts with us.

Note: This is an updated version of a blog post at my personal website from 2017, entitled mobilize your knowledge.

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