Here is how it works:
The purpose of the activity is two-fold;
First is to investigate and define a term that we have been playing with and inquiring into. A student created definition, which we can then compare and contrast with other definitions (wikipedia, dictionary, journals, books, etc). Often the terms we are defining are not terms that are easily defined even by experts. There are common elements, but the details are murky. That is what we are after. Murky details.
Second is to tap the collective intelligence. We are more capable as a group than we are as individuals. We can accomplish so much more as a collective of people (if you doubt this statement, think of wikipedia for a moment). I am very explicit about this section. At each iteration, I want them focusing on what aspects have changed from the original definition. I want them asking why. What influenced my decision? How did another persons ideas affect mine? Is the new definition something new, or just a combination? Where did the ideas come from?
The Power of Doing it Again
This is a strategy that I have been using a lot this year. I will admit that some visible thinking strategies I have only used once or twice. Not because they aren’t good, but just because this class seems to be gravitating to different ones. Growing Definitions is one of them (as is See-Think-Wonder). During our current unit on eco-systems, we finish off each week with this activity, as we define a different principle of ecosystems.
It has become part of the class thinking toolkit. We reflect on our thinking before we start, during the activity, after each stage, at the end, as a collective, about collectives, by ourselves, and about ourselves. I only have to say, write a definition for (insert word), and the kids know what we are doing. Not only do they know, they get into a space of thinking where they prepare themselves for sharing and reflection. At the outset of using this strategy, I used to think that the final stage was the most important because that was the final product. But now I think that the first stage is the most important.
I see them getting into sharing mode, ready for collaboration. They bring so much attention to this first stage, and they try so hard and make something that is thoughtful and well-written. They obsess over grammar and spelling, because they want their individual definition to be strong. At first I figured this was because they wanted to be right when they met with a partner. However, I see how quickly they discard the original and jump into the next stage. Like all that work they put into this definition was only a step to the next stage, and they are completely comfortable with that.
When we finish and create our class definition (which can be a bit hectic and disorganized at first, but over time order emerges if they have control of the process, my involvement in this stage is scribe, I write down their ideas and try to keep my mouth shut) they immediately go back to their first definition and compare. An interesting thing happens. Some of them are comparing to see how close they were, while others are comparing how far they have come.
There is a huge distinction between the two. I hope by the end of the year they can discover why.