My first week in Amsterdam and i’m starting to make friends. The guy in the off licence who sold me the wine, the girl in the coffee shop where i’m writing now, the elderly neighbour. Our initial partnerships are formal, the conversations kept very safe, usually around my floundering Dutch skills or the quality of cakes on offer. With the neighbour, it’s my inability to work the lock. These tentative first steps to communication are important and tricky. When we enter new communities, we are the outsider, we don’t know the landscape, the politics, we don’t have a role or position. Our first steps are about forming bonds, identifying commonality, finding common ground: a love of wine, a love of coffee, a shared front door.
I am tuning into the environment by walking: miles a day, just in circles, down side streets, deliberately not taking the ‘route i know’, but rather the road that i don’t. I’m getting lost in order to be found. There’s a nagging fear that i’m missing something great if i don’t try that new road. So i’m tuning into the environment and i’m starting to make connections with inhabitants.
As we colonise social learning spaces, we go through the same process: forming bonds, breaking down barriers, familiarising ourselves with the environment. The first steps are always the hardest and are based on trivia, on safe ground. You don’t want to wade in too fast and be seen as arrogant, opinionated or just plain daft.
Community is based upon shared interests, common goals, each member being a part of the whole. We turn to the community for both challenge and support, but it has to be on a foundation of trust and shared values. It’s that trust that i’m building at the moment: so today i ordered my coffee in Dutch and the girl taught me the words for ‘small’ and ‘large’. Yesterday we used English, today, Dutch. With a tiny foundation of commonality, some shared experience, today she taught me something. Yesterday it may have felt pushy, mildly presumptive or patronising, today our relationship is different. Last night, walking past the off licence, i waved at the guy i’d chatted to and he waved back. We have a tiny foundation of shared experience to ground us.
As we permeate new cultures, we identify the inhabitants, we work out the structures: i see this on Twitter or LinkedIn. Around each subject there are veterans, revered experts, there are leaners and influencers. There are the people you turn to for advice and the people who turn to you for support. Identifying these structures is part of our familiarisation process, part of learning to belong.
Social learning is a great leveller, it’s a space where we can curate our expertise, where we can form connections and build relationships that let us achieve more than we ever could alone: but it’s based upon foundations of trust and integrity, generosity and sharing. It’s not a free ride: we have to be prepared to share and support others, to give credit and be honest with our feedback. We have to trust others to do likewise.
I have to admit that the feeling of disconnection at being in a new and unfamiliar place is substantially mitigated by the familiar social learning communities that i bring with me through my personal learning network. I am fully wired, fully connected: alone but with a crowd. The world is a much smaller place than it used to be.
Changing our perspective changes how we think, that’s why this time in Amsterdam is important to me: last time i was here, last year, i wrote ‘The Amsterdam Diary‘, an exploration of learning culture, which i was able to do as i was broken free from my usual days, clear of the multitudinous distractions and disturbances that get in the way at home. So this time of discovery is exciting for me, seeing what new knowledge, what new stories it brings to light.
The bonds i form now are part of this story, and like all the connections we make, they will change me in so many tiny ways. To learn is to change and we do that within the heart of our communities.