Tuesday, April 21, 2015

More on Reading & Thinking for Each Other: Why Students Need to Create, Curate, & Own their Knowledge & Learning

I've written before on the power of Google Docs for facilitating communal & collaborative learning both in and outside the classroom. Most recently, I shared how Google Docs helped me redefine the exam experience as well as the dynamics of classroom discussion for my students.

Last month, I wrote about both the successes and flat spots of gamifying an accelerated high school literature course, and student surveys were loud and clear: all participants appreciated (more than anything else) having more independence and ownership in their journey towards discovery. It was a very student-directed project, and they were free to choose from a variety of different assignments (which appealed to a wide array of learning styles). Failure in this context just meant try again, and students were in complete control of their unique learning path. For these reasons, most learners loved it, but, as stated before, there were flat spots. In the surveys, many learners expressed a lack of confidence regarding their mastery of style analysis: this was a "hard skill" that was not adequately addressed or practiced.

Students working collaboratively on their google doc
Fast forward to the current text we're studying. I knew I wasn't going to gamify the next unit (but I would use that method again in the future, without a doubt), but I wanted to keep the student-directedness as a priority in terms of how I designed the learning experience. I wanted the learners to have ownership. I realized, however, that certain learning objectives had not been targeted adequately in the last unit (thinking of style analysis here...), so I felt the need to be more involved in the navigation of their learning paths as well. The students were assigned to read Charles Dickens's Hard Times, a starkly realist novel (yet full of cartoonish satire and humor) about the hardships of living through the industrial revolution as a working or middle class Coketowner (fictional British industrial district) before the era of meaningful reform. Like many Dickensian narratives, the book was divided into three parts, which triggered for me an idea on how to marry student-directedness with proper teacher-guidance.

Discussions were need-to-know and focused
I set up four Google Docs: one on Historical Contexts & Setting/Place, one on Character Development, one on Theme Analysis, and one on Style Analysis. I divided the class into four learning groups (call 'em Group One, Group Two, and so on...). Group One was assigned Historical Contexts & Setting, Group Two got Character Development, and you can guess the rest. Each group had access to a unique Google Doc for their category of investigation, and although I gave them some pointers (like recommending certain passages for Style Analysis or suggesting certain topics for historical research for Context/Setting), it was ultimately up to the students to collect and curate the knowledge for each category of learning. Each week, every group had to present highlights on their "findings and reflections" to the rest of class, and at the end of each part or section of the novel (remember, the novel was broken into 3 parts) the groups switched to one of the other categories (Historical Context/Setting; Character Development; Theme Analysis; Style Analysis). There were three sections to the overall novel and four learning categories, so I still had a problem because students were not going to have the opportunity to explore in depth each of the equally important learning categories. My solution was to have each learning group prepare a 15-20 min. presentation (at the end of the project) which showcased and paraphrased the findings found on the google doc related to the one category that the given group in question never had the chance to explore. In other words, if Group One did Historical Contexts for section one, proceeded to report on Style Analysis for the 2nd section, and finished by studying Character Development for the novel's final section, that group's culminating project was to present on Theme Analysis (the category they never researched) based on the information provided and curated by the groups that had a chance to contribute to the Theme google doc.

Screen shot of student-created google doc on Context/Setting. A work in progress...
The gains of this project:
-Class discussions were need-to-know and therefore authentic. Students always had a very focused frame of mind when having conversations, and not only did they direct their concerns of inquiry toward me, more importantly they framed questions for each other! What can the Historical Context/Setting group provide to help our task to analyze this character? How can the Theme Analysis group help us articulate the purpose of this passage as we perform a close reading of literary style?
-Students created and curated the knowledge, and my job, therefore, was more about design and (occasionally) interventionary guidance. I did outline the topography of the learning landscape by directing inquiry towards four main topics, but students had a lot of room to explore and create for themselves and for each other (and at times it was messy!). Students really owned the learning process.
-Students had to work together, which reinforced work on certain soft skills such as the ability to communicate, collaborate, and negotiate with each other. Not all moments were harmonious, but I think such uncomfortable experiences are just as important for purposes of developing the whole student.
-Students brought something to the table, and everyone felt like they were an important part of the puzzle. The picture of understanding was only complete once all groups shared their part of the knowledge-creation process; therefore, everyone mattered.
-Students were doing all of this (at least by the end of the project) not for the teacher but for each other.  Purpose, audience, relevance: these were not abstract concepts, they were real elements of the learning environment that we created together as a collaborative community.

Students are (as we speak) working on papers based on their readings of Dickens's novel, and one of the cool developments is how the google docs (that they created as a learning community) are now serving as resources for each student's writing process. They have literally read, thought, and researched for each other and not for me, and it is deeply rewarding to watch.