I will start this post the way I start most. I’ll complain that it is stupidly busy and I don’t know when I’ll be writing next but hope that those who do follow my blog remain patient. It’s all true, even if it does come off somewhat insincere with repeated writing.
Another exciting week in LibraryLand. As I wrote in my past post, one of the courses that I’m taking this semester is LIBR250 with Dr. Loertscher. I think that the short name of the course is Instructional Design. Although I feel that I’m not devoted nearly enough time to it, it is the course that is starting to make the biggest impact on my work life. Dr. Loertscher is all about transformations, not units or lessons. He’s about transformative knowledge building in physical and virtual environments. He is responsible for some the most stress of the past couple of months with his first assignment which was, in a nutshell: “Write down everything you know about education and develop a reading plan for the term to fill in the blanks.” OMG!! That was tough, but thoroughly rewarding.
The way that this has realized itself in my teaching life is that I’ve completely revamped my Library Skills 8 course. This “transformation” began yesterday. Let me back up a bit to explain. In the past few weeks, we’ve had bi-weekly classes on line. Each class has been inspiring in that it is forcing me to completely re-think what I’m doing. Much of the discussion has been around developing “Think Models” which are processes to work through a unit of knowledge. Although each method is different, the commonalities revolve around learners building their own knowledge. Often the students will work in pairs or small groups and then bring their new-found expertise to the larger group. Often, the students will generate the questions that drive the learning and each model ends with a “Big Think.” The “Big Think” is about self-assessing the process and the content of the model. Primary questions start with “So What?” and “What Next?” The idea being that it is important to find the relevance in the learning to either follow through or at least contemplate what the logical results would be from the model’s knowledge building.
So, with that context, I started a group of grade 8 Library Skills students yesterday. Library Skills is a course that I’ve inherited to teach basic, information seeking, evaluating and citation skills. It is a short course that is taught to roughly 25 students at a time and each course runs five to six weeks (half of a term). This group will be my 5th. Although I have tweaked the course every time that I’ve taught it this year, this time, I decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater. After my housekeeping announcements and introductions, I asked the students what they thought the course was supposed to address. Of course there were some vague ideas, some close to the mark and others not. After developing a very shallow background through discussion, I announced that the primary focus of the course was a research project. I then told them to go get started. I did not hand them a piece of paper, nor did I give them any details about the requirements of the assignment. I did tell them that we would reconvene in 20 minutes to talks a s a group. Of course, I had about 20 minutes of panicked questions which I refused to answer. The one thing I did tell them was that if they had a question, that they should write it down so that they could ask it when we reconvened.
I wandered the room watching students grab books and surf Google and Wikipedia. A couple of students found a list of “Top 100 Research Topics of All Time!!!!!!” The discussion when they came back together was brilliant. They were full of questions. I opened up a discussion on a web page and we started documenting them all. We analyzed the questions and realized that they fell into two categories: content and process. The content questions were about what their projects should be about. The process questions were about how the project should come together and what were necessary aspects of the assignment. We quickly established that I didn’t care about the content, but they should. This meant that the students on the “100 Top Research Topics…” page should abandon that strategy.
The process questions got very involved. The students then, essentially, identified the necessary aspects of the assignment and came up with requirements. They decided that if they were going to work in pairs, then they should be assessed on how they work as a team. They decided that there were certain kinds of products that would be allowed but others that may not be as appropriate. They identified certain skills that should be developed and assessed as important aspects of research. Tomorrow, we design the assessment rubric.
The two things that have been major eureka moments for me are the following:
- The students are FAR more motivated when they feel that they have been part of solving a problem and developing the solution. This process has also allowed me to informally gauge the level of knowledge of the room.
- I have been talking about these kinds of learning environments with other faculty. Usually, I’m playing devils advocate and throwing ideas at them, but I’ve never taken this serious a jump before. I’ve tried small scale, single class experiments where students build their knowledge through collaboration with each other and the teacher, but I certainly haven’t thrown the concept out into an entire course. I’m excited by the potential.
I should be clear. This is NOT one of Dr. Loertscher’s Think Models. Those are much more structured than what I am attempting at the moment. If you wish to explore those further, please read his Beyond Bird Units and The Big Think. This experiment is inspired by the essence of these ideas however. I will be taking those specific models into collaborative teaching with subject teaching over the coming months and years.
Times up for now. See you soon!