I’ve been spending my Spring Break wading through Learning Logs, interviews, assignments, and surveys trying to distill common threads from the thinking of a number of students in a Social Studies 11 class at my school.  Over the course of the year, they have completed two large research projects where the choice of specific topic was only limited by a broader unit of study and they were either going to write an essay or produce an alternate project to demonstrate the results of their inquiry.  This post is an attempt to distill my review of the data that these students have provided me over the past six months.  Sneaking in amongst the findings of the data is the influence of reading and thinking that I’ve been doing in addition to observations of other students doing related kinds of inquiry work.

My research question for this inquiry was stated as, How can a student-directed maker approach to inquiry foster depth of understanding in a grade 11 social studies research unit?  I started out wondering about the relationship between the final product of a student’s inquiry and the quality of surface and/or deep learning that occurred.  I think that the answer to this is an unequivocal, “It depends.”

One thing that I’ve found is that there has to be a connection to the specific topic at the centre of the inquiry.  Students that care about what they are studying are more engaged in what they are doing and therefor do a better job of the research, thinking and production of the final product.  I had thought initially that that connection had to be a deep personal thing that might be related to family members or life experiences, but I have found that many students form this connection simply out of a passion for a particular subject.  While some students did want to learn more about an ancestor who risked his life to defy the Nazis in World War II, many of the students in my research were equally interested outside of class in pursuits such as music of the 60s or war.  Each of these students dove deep into their topic, often finding it difficult to not go off on a tangent simply because it was interesting.  When they presented their research to the class, they usually spoke with few notes and were able to respond to questions with confidence.  Those that didn’t connect with their topics as much, were not as focused in their research and were not able to present or respond to questions with the same kind of authority.

Having some autonomy in topic selection also, ultimately changed the game of the assignment.  Students presented with a specific topic or essay question to respond to tend to be concerned about finding the right answer.  This can result in shallow research and even intentional or unintentional plagiarism.  The game is about delivering the correct answer to the teacher.  Students who choose their own topic when given an opportunity to thoughtfully research that topic prior to making their decision, are more concerned about what they already know and what they need to know.  They know that there is not necessarily one correct answer and their goal is understanding and demonstrating their thinking, not “getting it right.”

I have spoken to many students in and out of my research group who have expressed deep frustration over the idea of making something to demonstrate their learning.  They know how to “make” an essay.  They spend a good chunk of their schooling learning how to write in many different subjects and for many different purposes.  Some students seem to feel robbed when that option is taken away from them.  The next step is to default to the other presentation format that they seem to have spent some time with, the dreaded PowerPoint.  They either have few skills outside of what they have been explicitly taught in school or they don’t see what skills that they do have as being applicable or of a high enough quality to be useful in their particular situation.

I had many discussions with students around the possibilities for making as related to their final demonstrations of their learning.  Many were simply not aware of opportunities available to them to make their final product much more effective.  One student had considered creating videos of short battle scenarios filmed with borrowed game pieces from a favourite board game and a hand drawn “board” on paper.  When he considered 3D printing custom game pieces and laser cutting a board so that people could actually play out a game, the effectiveness (and engagement) of the assignment grew by leaps and bounds.  Similarly, a few YouTube videos explaining how to age paper, led one student from typing a simulation of a soldier’s journal using a script font on a screen to constructing a physical journal that looked much more like it could have been written in the soldiers hand on the battle front.

The most effective end products of student inquiry were ones that took into consideration the most effective way of developing the understanding of their audience.  Our resident game-maker, when looking at the Vietnam draft-dodgers, decided that it would be much more effective to have audience members walk through a number of the decisions that draft-dodgers would have had to make in the late 60s.  He constructed a “choose your own adventure” game as his mode for providing that experience for his audience and delivering the content that would have been important for these folks to have known in order to make the choices that they did.  Another student, an avid rock climber, was looking at the Dirt-Baggers who dropped out of society to live and climb in the Yosemite Valley.  He wanted to make sure that his audience experienced, as much as possible, the natural beauty of the locale and created a very visual digital presentation that took his audience to Camp 4.

The implications for the need to scaffold the learning of maker skills are key.  Teachers must allow students the time to inventory their own skills in order to think through the skills that they have that might be particularly effective and when a student doesn’t have appropriate making skills, they have to allow the student time to develop those skills.  Teachers have to value the time that it takes to build making skills.  This might mean that they bring in experts to teach specific skills.  They might ensure that part of the assessment/evaluation is on the demonstration of the skills used to produce the end product.  Or, they might vary inquiry assignments so that some assignments have prescribed project products so that the teaching of those making skills can be built into the unit itself.  Subsequent inquiry units could then draw on skills developed in a previous unit.  Even if the maker skills themselves are not specifically addressed in the unit, the process of making has to be part of class and individual conversations as the inquiry proceeds so that the student is supported in this part of the assignment.

The placement of the decision regarding what form the final product will take is also important, but depends on many factors.  I’ve witnessed some students decide that they want to make a specific thing at the outset of their project in order to utilize or learn certain skills and try to force their topic into the final product.  This has resulted in very contrived or ineffective presentations.  I’ve also witnessed the delay of that decision so far that there has been a last minute scramble to develop those skills and the resulting product was ineffective and shoddy.  There is clearly a balance between focusing on developing the story that needs to be told within the topic of inquiry and then picking the right mode of expression to tell that story and having the time to build the skills to be able to express the topic effectively.  This is a balance that creative people are constantly struggling with, especially in the early days of their development.  Musicians play scale patterns to develop the facility to be able to become expressive in their performances.  Computer programmers also code projects or specific exercises to develop the coding knowledge skills before they run off and build their own projects.  The maker movement is filled with many companies, websites and organizations who will teach you how to build project X in the assumption that once you’ve built enough projects, you can venture out on your own and create something new.

Not only is the scaffolding of the making essential, but the inquiry needs to be structured in such a way that the thinking is visible and that there are opportunities to assess (not always evaluate) the process.  We did two iterations of the inquiry assignment within the research period.  Learning Logs were a key piece of both iterations of the assignment, serving as a way for students to document their progress.  This allowed an opportunity for students to reflect on their own progress and for teachers to identify points for intervention.  They also provided an additional method of assessing a student’s understanding, especially at times when other factors – lack of making skills or poor research skills – hampered the final product and presentation.  The one issue we had with the Learning Logs was that many of the students perceived these as an opportunity for teachers to give marks and didn’t always see the benefit to themselves.  A better format, structure or explanation needs to be put in place to ensure that the logs are as effective as they can be.

Ideas from Guided Inquiry started to filter in to our thinking as we progressed and there were opportunities to tweak the scaffolding of the inquiry process in the second iteration.  Specifically, we took a cue from the Open, Immerse, and Explore phases of Guided Inquiry design and allowed students more time to explore a variety of ideas around the larger topic before committing to a specific research question.  This, we felt, led to deeper connection to the topics chosen and a better understanding of how each student’s topic fit into the broader unit topic.

Now back to the original question: How can a student-directed maker approach to inquiry foster depth of understanding in a grade 11 social studies research unit?  When done properly, a student-directed maker approach can effect very deep understanding of specific inquiry topics.  We have seen many examples of students who truly become experts in their chosen areas.  They speak with authority on their topic, produce effective expressions of their learning, and are able to relate their topics back to the broader goals of the unit.  But making, in and of itself, is not the key to exemplary inquiry.  Student autonomy, development of maker skills and appropriate scaffolding of both making and inquiry are essential to this process.  Making provides an opportunity for students to be able to think through their topics and tell their stories in different ways.  When “The medium is the message,” making allows students to deliver their message in increasingly effective and wonderful ways.

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