Connections not Collections

Museums were one of the great inventions of the 19th century. People loved collecting, collecting all sorts, and often funded buildings to display those collections for others to enjoy and admire. The museum craze ran from animals to furniture, stamps to tools, swords to seeds, fossils to bottle caps, rocks to coins, baseball cards to cars. Museums graced big cities and barns were stopping places in many small towns. This collecting craze was more than just putting things into glass cases, it made names and naming conventions, classification, and classification systems critical intellectual activities. Collecting and collections were the central learning activity in schools.

I have in my house one of those school exemplars, a wonderful small antique 19th century cabinet with drawers filled with collections for classroom learning. It has a drawer for products of corn, another for cotton, for flax, fiber, and more. This iconic cabinet was built to grace a 19th century school classroom in Philadelphia and for us as a visual representation and definition of 19th century schooling. It continues to represent the essential nature of schooling today. We still view our students as collectors, filling their mental drawers with labelled mental things. We think of our students as museums, filling up empty cases, collecting the facts and ideas they will need as adults. We have them collect by practicing words, algorithms, science concepts and formulas, history dates and people. We plaster classroom walls with these collections, the Periodic Table, lists of formulas, images of geometric shapes, words of the day, or timelines of history. School for most of our students is the place to fill their personal mental museum, to become good collectors, and to use these collections in their work.

Our Digital Age today is no longer about making collections. It is nearly always about making connections. There is no longer a need to memorize most information when we can instantly look it up. It is indeed impossible to even collect a tiny portion of the data we receive each day. We don’t use the Web to make collections, we use it to make connections. That is what we do when we search, when we link, when we post, and when we social network. Of course, the Web is a rich treasure chest of collections, its great innovation and great power is in making connections. Good sites are full of links, well-structured spreadsheets are rich in links, and coding is in essence linking. Search engines and search engine optimization count links. Links both to physical sites and to people are central to the Web and to the Web economy.

If our schools are to prepare students for their work in their future then we must learn to make connections and not collections. They must learn to search for links and make new ones, to use links and explore them, to appreciate links and select valuable ones. They must use links to become problem solvers with “flow charts.” Our new Explorations projects are focused on connections building and using links. Rich in links and problem solving experiences using links, they help students develop the connecting skills so critical for the digital age. We share Explorations with you and invite you to explore them. They are free and require no sign in. We look forward to your links.