Learning to Learn by Learning – a Reflection on a Collaborative Project

In a post a few months ago I mused on the idea of providing time for teachers to tinker and explore. My feelings were that like the students we teach, we too all have areas of interests that we never quite get a chance to unpack. I was reminded of this again recently by Edna Sackson who spoke about enlivening a professional development day by empowering the voices of the staff at her school and giving them a chance to present, rather than simply bringing in outside providers. Although I have experienced this to some degree in regards to ICT at my school, where we ran a session where various staff provided different sessions, I have never really heard of it been offered as a whole school initiative. I was therefore left wondering, why don’t more staff share and collaborate, whether online or off?

A point of collaboration that I have been involved in this year was the development of a conference presentation with Steve Brophy. As teachers we often talk about collaboration, yet either avoid doing it or never quite commit ourselves to process. Some may work with a partner teacher or as a part of a team, but how many go beyond this, stepping out of the comfort zone, and the walls of their school, to truly collaborate in the creation of a whole project?

Having spoken about the power of tools like Google Apps for Education to support and strengthen collaboration and communication, I decided that what I really needed to do to take the next step was to stop preaching and actually get out there and actually model it. I really wanted to work with someone in not only presenting a range of tools that make collaboration more possible, but I wanted to use those tools to actually collaborate and create a presentation from scratch.

The first time I met Brophy was online. The Ed Tech Crew ran a Google Hangout at the end of 2013 focusing on the question: what advice would you give a new teacher just appointed as an ICT coordinator? I put down my thoughts in a post, Steve commented and wrote a response of his own. It was these two perspectives, different in some ways, but the same in others, that brought us together.

Since then we have built up a connection online – on Twitter, in the margins of a document, within blog posts themselves, via a few emails – growing and evolving the conversation each step of the way. For example, Steve set me the 11 question blog challenge, which he had already taken the time to complete himself. We were lucky enough to meet face-to-face when we both presented at Teachmeet at the Pub in February.

What I think clicked in regards to working with Brophy was that although we teach in different sectors, coming from different backgrounds, we shared an undeniable passion – student learning and how technology can support and enhance this or as Bill Ferriter would have it, ‘make it more doable‘. We therefore decided to put forward a proposal for the Digital Learning and Teaching Victoria conference around the topic of ‘voices in education’. Interestingly, once the submissions were accepted those wishing to present were encouraged to connect and collaborate with other members in the stream, rather than work in isolation. However, we already were.

In regards to planning and collaborating, it was all pretty ad hoc. A few comments in an email, brainstorming using a Google Doc, catching up via a Google Hangout, building our presentation using OneNote (click for PDF). Most importantly though, there were compromises at each step along the way. This was not necessarily about either being right or wrong, but about fusing our ideas together. So often I feel that we plan presentations with only our own thoughts in mind. Although we may have an idea of our intended audience, nothing can really replace the human element associated with engaging with someone else in dialogue.In regards to the substance of our actual presentation, I put forward the idea of dividing it into Primary and Secondary. However, as things unfolded, this seemed counter-intuitive, for voices are not or should not be constrained by age. So after much dialogue we came upon the idea of focusing on the different forms of connections that occur when it comes to voices in and out of the classroom. We identified three different categories:

  • Students communicating and collaborating with each other
  • Students and teachers in dialogue about learning
  • Teachers connecting as a part of lifelong learners

A part of the decision for this was Brophy‘s work in regards to Digital Leaders. This focus on students having a voice of there own really needed to take some pride of place, especially as much of my thoughts had been focusing on the engagement between students and teachers.

The next point of discussion was around the actual presentation. In hindsight, I fretted so much about who would say what and when, as well as what should go in the visual presentation. This is taken for granted when you present by yourself as you say everything. However, when you work with someone else it isn’t so simple. The irony about the presentation was that so often plans are often dispersed in an effort to capture the moment.

This is exactly what happened and I feel that it worked well. Sometimes the worst thing you can do is to stick to the slides, because somehow that is the way it has to be, even though that way is often a concoction in itself. The other thing to be said is that the slides also allow people to engage with the presentation in their own time, in their own way. I sometimes feel that this is a better way of thinking about them.

The best aspect about working collaboratively with someone was that by the time we presented we knew each others thoughts and ideas so well that it meant that if there was something that one of us overlooked then the other could simply jump in and ellaborate. This was best demonstrated in our shortened presentation for the Scootle Lounge, where instead of delivering a summary of what we had already done we instead decided to go with the flow. The space was relaxed with beanbags and only a few people, therefore it seemed wrong to do an overly formal presentation. Focusing on the three different situations, we instead bounced ideas off each other and those in the audience, for surely that is what voice and expression should actually be about?After growing our presentation together, the challenge we set for others was to reach out and connect, whether it is online or face to face. Contribute, collaborate and be open to new perspectives and be prepared to be inspired and grow as a learner.

So, how have you collaborated? What did you learn? What is it that holds you back? Feel free to share below.

Listening to Voices – FULL PRESENTATION – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

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Stretching out thinking and slowing down (is less more?)

The idea was simple. Give the kids a map, tell them they are part of a tribe of neolithic nomads, and choose the best place to settle. Parameters were set. A story was hatched.
It could have been a nice afternoon. It could have resulted in a good debate, maybe a list of pros and cons. Instead, I stretched it out, made the thinking more explicit. We went slowly, reflecting at each step, asking what we know and what we still need to know.

We teased apart the thinking, stretched it out, and ended up with the following progression of lessons, and a nice artefact to share with our parents and the learning community demonstrating how we inquire:



Things to wonder about… our perception of time spent on tasks

- the process was largely emergent, and was unplanned from step to step. As a teacher I just listened and looked for gaps in understanding, and then tried to fill them. By the end, they were doing it themselves, saying they weren’t ready to make a decision. The extra time spend became a thinking tool in and of itself. Should I have planned something like this out from the beginning? Should I have sat down in a collaborative planning session and created a sequence of lessons like this? Or is the planning time better spent creating the task itself, and leaving the stretching out to the teacher, who is living in the moment with his/her class? How important is learning to listen as a teacher? How can we improve on this skill?

- there are so many thinking skills involved in any provocation that we create; why do we rush from activity to activity? Does the planner leave us feeling like we have to get to every activity we put on there? Does it take our perception of time and shorten our attention spans?

- this took almost two weeks to finish and I admit, while I was spending two weeks on one seemingly simple activity, I felt guilty, like I wasn’t doing enough; why is that? Where does this feeling come from? Does the quantity of tasks we do in a unit equal quality? To what extent should we limit the amount of learning engagements and focus on the thinking involved?

In the end, I regretted nothing. It was a powerful progression of lessons, it was intentional yet emergent, and the kids were completely aware of the reasons and the meta-inquiry behind it all.

My burning question, is less more?
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Using Visible Thinking Strategies to Develop Expert Learners

Supporting Inquiry with Scaffolded, Collaborative Journal Writing

Communicating peopleVisible thinking is all the rage. I’m glad!

Back in the day–we usually referred to visible thinking as explicit thinking. But, as with many solid, worthwhile constructs, they are not readily adopted and so often reappear decades (or centuries!) later under a new name with new advocates and with a new dream that maybe this time things might stick and better the lives of students.

So it is with visible thinking.  The basic idea is to uncover the implicit and inert thinking and to make that thinking discussable and perhaps available to others. For it is by objectifying knowledge that we can come to understand it.

John Seely Brown once suggested,

“The hope is that we might be able to find ways to help students discover knowledge about knowledge, thereby setting the stage for acquiring truly domain-independent skills, such as how to reflect on the knowledge they already have, and to identify the causes underlying the mistakes they make.” (Brown, 1985, p184)

So, how do we support students in making their thinking visible?

There are many perspectives, frameworks and strategies. A favourite of mine is that of David Perkins, one of the pioneers on making thinking explicit. His recent work with a team at Harvard’s Project Zero has resulted in a book Making Thinking Visible. A worthwhile read! Also, visit the Making Thinking Visible website for wonderful resources.

What are Novice and Expert Learners?

I personally love the literature on expertise and how it may serve us. We can think about novice learners and expert learners and ask “how do we move novices towards greater expertise in learning”? Scardamalia and Bereiter have done a great deal of work in this area and the following has arisen from their research over the years.

This graphic shares some of the differences between novice and expert learners.

(Click it, then click it again to see full size.)
Novice/Expert Infographic

Novice/Expert Infographic

What is Scaffolded, Collaborative Journal Writing?

So, how can we help students become more expert?

I have used journal writing extensively–both offline and online. But not simply private, individual journal writing. I prefer collaborative, scaffolded, journal writing environments.  This provides all the benefits of journal writing, collaboration, and the use of scaffolds or procedural facilitations. (You can set this up in a blog, wiki, or other social space–although it is a bit of a ‘hack’!)

journal medSome Benefits of Journal Writing:

  • Cappo & Osterman suggest that “as students communicate their ideas, they learn to clarify, refine, and consolidate their thinking”.
  • Countryman says, “I believe that to learn mathematics, students must construct it for themselves. They can only do that by exploring, justifying, representing, discussing, using, describing, investigating, predicting–in short by being active in the world. Writing is an ideal activity for such processes”.
  • Journal writing allows for the externalization of knowledge through language. Language plays an important role in making knowledge explicit by objectifying experience. So as students engage in writing about their knowledge they are indeed exploring, stating and questioning what they know. Journal writing allows students to state their understanding of a topic or problem replete with all the associate bugs. These buggy statements are then explicit and can act as a medium for mediating new understanding in collaboration with others.

Some Benefits of Collaboration

Cloud Computing Small textA collaborative form of journal writing leads to unique experiences that have qualitatively different results than individual journal writing. Students not only reflect on their own thoughts and processes, but also exchange information about both the subject content and the processes and strategies used by others.

Stated somewhat differently, Perkins and Salomon maintain that “learning takes place in a social context (e.g., reciprocal teaching), whereby justifications, principles, and explanations are socially fostered, generated, and contrasted”.

In the Zone Scaffolding

Scaffolding in the zone (as in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development) can encourage students to consider their own higher level strategies and promote the active decontextualization of knowledge. It may allow the user to decenter from personal thoughts and think about other considerations. Confused roadsignIt facilitates an internal dialogue when no other partner exists to bounce ideas off. In the zone scaffolding can take many forms, but I have used prompts, questions or sentence starters and make these available to students in a blog template as they write their entries.

You will see that the scaffolding prompts (below) tie directly to the characteristics of the novice-expert continuum in the infographic–although they are categorized as planning and reflection starters.

Comment Starters

Usually students quite naturally respond with social commentary, but often not with substantive assistance that might help their classmates to reconsider, or to think more deeply, about how they are doing in their project. So I recommend to also include comment or discussion starters.

Connective Words or Elaboration Triggers

In addition to the prompts for the journaling and the conversation, a list of connective words can be available to students to help them to elaborate their thoughts. So if a student initially writes, “I want to learn animation”, selecting a connective word such as because, might result in further consideration of the goal perhaps resulting in sub-goals. “I want to learn animation because then I will be able to demonstrate how red blood cells are produced. In fact, I will be able to use it in lots of projects.”

Classroom Support

A teacher can also enhance the use of these public journal entries by structuring certain activities for their use. For example, to have students focus on using knowledge as a tool, the teacher could request:

“For the next group meeting, I would like you to read the blog (journal) entries of your group members for the current project and print out the ones that show that a piece of old knowledge has been used in a new way.”

Or,

“…print out the ones where the comments provide direct help with the task.”

Challenges

Several challenges exist.

One, this can become simply another classroom exercise–worksheet-like. NOT the intent. Try to engage your students in developing their own sentence starters. Engage in the discussion by adding comments that are substantive.  Model what you want the kids to do. Encourage the philosophy in the classroom that thinking is a highly valued activity.

Two, the tools (wikis, blogs, Diigo) are not designed to ease the use of these starters.  I have had students copy and paste the ones they want to use into their post or into their reply. But, availability is the issue.

Three, ideally you want the kids generalizing this behaviour and appropriating the use of deep discourse. In order for that to be the case, it must serve the kids well. This may require your effort in making the connection.

Request of you…

It would be beneficial if you would share your ideas on how you have used journal writing, scaffolding or collaboration to help your students to become more expert learners!


Scaffolding Prompts

Planning Starters

I want to know…
I want to learn…
I think…
My goals for this project are…
I don’t understand…
I wonder…
I am having difficulty with…
I am breaking my project into…
A similar task I have had before is…
The steps I plan to follow are…
Different ways to solve this task…
 

Reflection Starters

I learned…
Things I want to learn are…
I think…
I have managed to…
I have changed my plan…
I didn’t get as far as I planned because…
I got further than I had planned because…
The steps I did first were…
My next step will be…
 

Comment or Discussion Starters

I agree with you because …
I disagree with you because…
Check…
I think…
I believe…
Have you thought about…
Maybe…
I am confused…
Another explanation…
I don’t understand…
You need to…
Your journal entry would be better if…
 

Elaboration Triggers

study
thanks to
that’s how
that’s why
therefore
think
try
until
wish
wonder
in that case
in view of
look forward to
otherwise
plan
realize
remember
since
so
expect
explain
feel
figured
give up
guess
hope
if…then
intend
another
as a result of
attempt
because
believe
consequently
consider
decide
discovered
discuss

Previous version originally published on The Construction Zone

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Losing Control When Students Take Over.

In previous years we have started school with a week of orientation. We did team building activities, had a huge, crazy scavenger hunt, and had students on a high ropes course. Although we felt those were successful approaches to the start of a new year we decided to do something different this year. So we started by continuing the Water Project that we ended with last year.

The Water Project was our best project ever because of how much ownership the students took of it. But this was a new class of kids whose only connection to the project was seeing it in the hall. How would we get them to buy in?

On the first day of school we brought in two guest speakers from LGROW, a local agency of our city government that works to promote good management practices of the Grand River Watershed. They shared who they were and the needs of their organization. We also did activities to teach students about watersheds and management of them.

Students brainstorming poster designs

Students brainstorming poster designs

By the third day students were looking at local problems and proposing solutions. At the end of the day they selected one of three “realms” to be a part of: Helping LGROW, working on our local campus, or working more broadly on a watershed where they live (our students come from all across the county and live on many different local watersheds that all feed into the Grand River). Once they were in these groups, they broke down into sub groups of things like making professional posters, promotional videos, and designing a social media campaign for LGROW. Other groups are designing a rain garden and a rooftop garden to grow vegetables for our school. They were calling local businesses for information and networking with the culinary and Ag science programs on our campus. The third realm groups are designing projects around their local watershed and some have already brought in water samples.

Student leaders are emerging in all groups. These kids are skilled and passionate about doing these things. One of the really cool things to me is that I had no preconceived ideas of who the leaders would be because I am just trying to learn their names. So I don’t know their academic history, but it feels like all kinds of kids are finding their niche and rising to the challenge. Yesterday one of the members of LGROW came back to school and the students pitched their ideas to him for feedback. He loved them.

This project will be unique for us in that students will work on it every other Friday for two hours for the rest of the year. It will be the first time that we try to sustain a project over time. One of the advantages of this is it gives the students time to do real work and develop relationships with the community and businesses that is just impossible in a 3-4 week timeframe.

Last year ended with students taking over and owning their learning. This year we are starting off with students taking over and owning their learning. I am very excited to see the real work that my students will do this year. Instilling this culture to start the year is so powerful! I am confident that they are going to surprise me this year.

So how do you get students to own their learning? Challenge them with real work for real people for a real purpose. And then quite honestly get out of the way. Teachers are still there to guide, but we must not control the project. One of my strengths is a lack of organization. So I dream big possibilities and give them to students. My lack of planning everything to a T gives the students space to take over and run the project. Sometimes all is takes is less of us so that there can be more of them.

What have you done to let students own their learning this year?

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Adding Ambiguity into the Learning Mix

creative commons licensed (BY-NC) flickr photo by CaptPiper: http://flickr.com/photos/piper/4249136849

One of my goals this year has been to move towards a more student-centred approach. Whether it be reducing the time spent on instruction or providing more meaningful tasks, I have sort to evolve my own practise. Often such conversations open up into talk about choice, authentic projects and placing students at the centre of discussions. However, a particular ingredient that I have added to my cocktail this year has been the focus on ambiguity.
 
Ambiguity can come in many shapes or forms. For me, it maybe leaving a project open for interpretation or providing a task where students are given a space to decide on various elements. In his book on digital literacy, Doug Belshaw wrote a fantastic explanation of ambiguity, influenced largely by William Empson’s book Seven Types of Ambiguity. For me, ambiguity has come in the form of narrative. My focus has been to move the focus away from what to focus on why. Although this feels like a long way from Ewan McIntoshcall for students to find their own problems, it is at least a step towards a space where students can play and explore. I feel that at its origin all learning is ambiguous and messy. The biggest challenge is what we do with this.
 
This year has been a bit topsy turbo in regards to my allotments. I have had the opportunity to teach a wide range of subjects, including music, media studies, literacy intervention and business studies. Some of the challenges I have facilitated have included creating a yearbook and developing a performance based on space, not just content. However, the topic that I found most interesting was the use of 3D shapes with a group of Year 7 Numeracy Extension students.
 
I always find intervention and extension classes interesting. Unlike a traditional classroom where you maybe in charge of implementing the curriculum, I always feel a responsibility to not only provide support based on where students are at, as all teachers should, but also to sustain some sort of connection to what is occurring back in the classroom. Therefore, I always ask the usual teachers if there is anything that they would like me to cover? This term the students had been focusing on shape and measurement, I was therefore asked to explore surface area. 
 
One of the interesting things associated with extension classes is which pedagogical cocktail do you use. I made the decision to provide the students with a beginning, interested in where they would take it. I decided to use measurements associated with houses. So after brainstorming all the different forms of measurement associated with houses, I gave each student a net of a simple model house created using Foldify and asked them to choose a particular form of measurement to focus their investigation. I am going to be honest, I was a little nervous, but isn’t it amazing how with a little faith students can achieve amazing things.
 

 
Although I spoke to the students about surface area, I encouraged them to focus on any problem and said that I would support them with whatever they came up with. Some of the projects that students posed were:
  • how much paint would be needed to repaint the exterior
  • how much glass would be required to replace all the windows
  • how much wood would be required in making a staircase for a second story
  • how many tiles would be required to replace the roof
In addition to the problem, I told the students that they could use any measurements that they liked. If they wanted their house to be twenty meters wide then they needed to consider the height and whether it was still logical based on the model at hand.
 
What was great about all of the different problems was that each of these tasks was just as unfamiliar to me as it was to them. Unlike the situation that often arises in class where the learning at hand is relatively familiar to the teacher providing support and instruction, in handing over some sort of ownership and providing an element of ambiguity, the role of sage is truly compromised. What takes pride of place in such situations is learning.
Although Ewan McIntosh makes the point the challenge of finding a problem is often the first decision taken away from students. I feel that providing the situation for them to develop their own problems is at least a step towards this. To me this is also a step towards what Peter Skillen‘s calls Tinkering-Based Learning, where the focus is on exploration that leads to questions, rather than vice versa.

So what has been an ingredient that you have added to your pedagogical cocktail this year and how has it turned out?
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Project Based Learning: Don’t Start with a Question

End with a Question through Tinkering-Based Learning

Do you have to start project-based learning (PBL) with a question?

(Oh, wait a second! Am I starting this post with a question?)

This is something many people ask. I understand why this is so. Often teachers who are learning about Project Based Learning are encouraged to help students to develop a ‘driving question’ to guide their project. The Buck Institute, for one, suggests that PBL ‘is organized around an open-ended Driving Question’.

Tinkering-Based Learning (TBL)

Tinkering

Awesome graphic: Page by Giulia Forsythe – @grantpotter Tinkering, Learning & The Adjacent Possible

I am going to suggest we consider an alternative I will call TBL – Tinkering-Based Learning.

(Or ‘tinkquiry’ as my colleague Brenda Sherry and I like to call it!)

‘PBL’ is a human-made construct.

As I have said elsewhere, ‘PBL’ is a human-made construct. And, whoever defines it, does so with a bias—from a set of beliefs. Do you think, perhaps, that starting PBL with a question is derived from our deeply engrained western, scientific approach? Or perhaps if we consider PBL to be solely inquiry based, we might think that a question, or formulation of a problem, is most definitely the beginning step?

Don’t get me wrong! I love ‘questioning’. It is important that teachers learn how to question effectively—to ask ‘fat’ questions, to provide ‘wait time’, to ensure that everyone in the class has a chance to think deeply rather than selecting the student that has quickly raised her hand. It is equally important that students learn to generate ‘driving questions’ and not merely ask simple questions. They should be thinking ‘fat’ questions – not ‘skinny’ ones!

…students should learn to generate ‘driving questions…

Nor am I knocking the scientific method – I merely think that is one way of approaching learning and solving problems and becoming an educated person. It has a significant role in education.

However, I don’t think that generating a question is the only way to begin effective project-based learning. It likely depends on your purpose—on your learning goals for the students.

Is writing a poem a project? Is creating a song a project? What about creating a multimedia artifact? Painting a picture? Building a Lego car and making it run? Is building a computer program with Scratch a project? Constructing a paper maché volcano?

…let projects emerge out of play—out of tinkering.

Starting out PBL event in your classroom might begin with a passion, a curiosity, or maybe a wondering. Or maybe it’s just a result of tinkering. Perhaps, projects are sometimes play? Or perhaps projects emerge out of play—out of tinkering?

Flipping PBL

Okay here’s an idea. How about flipping PBL? Instead of starting with the question, why don’t we end with a question? Start with tinkering and encourage the emergence and evolution of fat questions related either to their processes of learning or to the content/subject matter at hand.

Let the goal of your project be to formulate questions.

After all, many say that ‘to question is the answer’. If so, then should kids not come out of excellent project based learning scenarios with great questions? Should the product not be a deep and driving question?

Perhaps these questions are focused on assisting them to develop their metacognitive abilities—to help them understand how they learn, how they approach tasks. Are they linear? Are they ‘multitasking’? Do they like ‘mucking around’? How do they deal with ambiguity? Do they like ‘hands on’ or ‘minds on’? How did that approach work for them? What would they do differently next time?

Perhaps the questions that emerge are related to the content or project artifact.

reflective thinking

Adaptation of the Rolfe Reflective Model: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reflective_practice

Reflection is generally considered excellent educational practice and is often included in PBL. I have often used ‘reflection starters’ to assist students in thinking deeply about their learning. You could tailor those reflections to evoke questions.

  • Now I don’t understand…
  • Questions I now have are…
  • A confusion that has come up for me is…

Perhaps they could do a ‘wondering’ – individually or collectively – to reflect on their project.

“I wonder…how the potato production in Prince Edward Island is being impacted by global warming?”

Their responses could then be discussed and crafted into significant questions that may, or may not, be pursued.

Ok. So maybe you are saying to yourself, “I always have kids reflect at the end of a project.” That’s great! It is a significant step and can promote the consolidation of learning and perhaps also the transfer of learning to other domains or problems.

I think it is a superb way to end a project.

Don’t keep the lid on too tight!

I just don’t think you have to start a project with a driving question. Set up a context. Design an environment. Invite playfulness. Encourage tinkering. Nurture curiosity. Don’t keep the lid on too tight!

Tinkering Based Learning may lead to results you never could have predicted!

Share with us an occasion where this has happened in your teaching/learning.

 

First posted at The Construction Zone

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Inquire Within

Has Inquire Within inspired you in the past? Are you hoping for more inspiration in the coming school year?

Then join us and share your ideas. Inspiration doesn’t only come from others. It comes from you.

Yes, that’s right, YOU.

If you are already a contributor, then we look forward to being inspired by you again. If you are not a contributor, but would like to, then please contact me.

It’s not about getting the right answers but rather, asking really good questions.

 

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