Monday, January 17, 2011

The Digital Inquiry Project and "The New Culture of Learning"

      In Will Richardson's last blog post, he discussed a recently published book written by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas, titled,  A New Culture of Learning.   I haven’t read the book, but from what I have gathered through Richardson’s post, it addresses how the web and social media have made possible a new type of learning, one that schools will not be able to accommodate until they move away from the mechanized approach of distributing content, and toward teaching students the skills they need to learn in today’s social and information-rich web environment.
      
       In my post, Teaching Digital Learners to Learn Digitally,  I discussed what I felt was a need very similar to that identified by Richardson.  I wrote about how I wanted to rethink my responsibilities and place as an educator who is teaching students to live and learn in a society that is so rich with information, where knowledge can be both consumed and produced by anyone, anywhere. I wanted to teach my students how to use the web to learn, creating a culture that enables them to, as Brown and Thomas describe, “embrace what we don’t know, come up with better questions about it, and continue asking those questions in order to learn more and more, both incrementally and exponentially.”


       So, about five weeks ago I unveiled to my students what I called (uncreatively) the Digital Inquiry Project.  It entailed students scouring the web to learn about a topic of interest to them,  then using what they learn to inform a piece of writing, which they would publish on their blog.   

      The project would be ongoing, individualized, and would continually build upon the learning that students were doing.  It would, I hoped, teach students how to use digital tools to facilitate their own inquiry, while guiding them in becoming better learners, thinkers, readers, and writers.  It would make them players in the “new culture of learning” and set them on the path that they'll continue down for the rest of their lives.  So far, it’s going pretty well.  There have been plenty of learning experiences for us all along the way, and though by nature this project will always be a work in progress, I feel like things have shaped up enough now for me to sit down and write about it.


Getting Started


       I knew better than to just kick off the project by telling students to turn to the web and learn about whatever they want; I had found out recently that many of my students wouldn't know where to start.  So we had to do some brainstorming first.  Students took time to do some quick-writes, to share ideas, and hear the ideas of others.  After a day of thinking about what they wanted to learn, most had enough direction to begin.


Marking the path


      With topics in mind, students' next step was to turn to turn to the web to seek out information.   


       Before they dove in, however, I wanted to be sure my students were able to stay organized as they navigated the vast and sometimes choppy waters of the World Wide Web.  For this, I required that they use a web tool that would enable them to keep track of content AND the thoughts they had while reading it, so that they could later access it when they needed to.  This necessity for any digital learner is social bookmarking, and for it, we used Diigo.


    So, the directions for the web inquiry part of the project looked like this:

  1.   Search the web for information on your topic
  2.   Bookmark web pages that had information they found to be important AND
  3.   Highlight relevant text and insert sticky-notes of thoughts and ideas on those web page

     That was it.  Students were free to follow their own curiosities as they inquired about their topic, so long as they bookmarked their findings, marking their path along their way.  


    The process went surprisingly well, too.  Many of my students took on topics that were complex and relevant, such as conflicts overseas, religion, bullying, and abuse.  Other students dug into topics that I would have considered weak or frivolous for the direction I envisioned for this project, but I stayed fairly hands-off.  Some of those students eventually took it upon themselves to change their inquiry topics, but others stuck it out....and surprised me when they uncovered information and conversations that I never would have expected.   


Writing to learn (and learning digital writing)


     Of participating in this new learning community, Thomas and Brown wrote that,  the goal is for each of us to take the world in and make it part of ourselves. In doing so, it turns out, we can re-create it.”


     The Internet has transformed knowledge into a much more dynamic entity, one that is continuously evolving as individuals build upon it.  In order for the Digital Inquiry Project to direct students toward the goal Thomas and Brown describe above, it had to ask more of students than simply asking questions and bookmarking sites with the answers.   


    Which is why writing needed to fit in.

     Students were to write a piece that was informed by the learning of their inquiry. They could compose in any genre, and integrate their new-found learning in any way. Doing so, they would make meaning of, and build upon, the new information they learned, and when they published their writing on their blog, they would then establish their roles as participants and contributors in the learning community.


    But that’s not exactly what happened....at least not at first.


    I expected, given the choice that was afforded to them, that the genres of writing they began drafting would be equally as varied as the topics they had selected to research. But shortly after students started writing their first piece, I realized that this wasn’t the case.  Just about every one of my students decided that the genre of "report" would be the shape their piece would take.   


     Now, I am not opposed to students writing reports or research papers; after all, as an 8th grade teacher I am required by the state to have my students write them.  That’s not what I wanted for this project, though.  I wanted writing to be more personal, more meaningful and creative.  If students were going make meaning from their learning and build upon it, they needed to go beyond regurgitating what they had found on the web.  


     And besides, who likes writing reports?  I was fairly certain my students didn't, and when I asked them  why they had all chosen to write in this same genre, they had no explanation.  


        The best explanation, I decided, was that using new learning to inform more creative types of writing was just plain hard....harder than writing a report, and that this path of least resistance, combined with the fact that students weren't used to such free range in writing, led many to decide to fall back upon what they knew.


      At this point, about two weeks in to the Digital Inquiry Project, I changed the writing requirement to the following:
  • Use your inquiry learning to inform a piece of writing, written in any genre...except a report or essay.
    Without question, this change has been the most important revision the project has underwent thus far.  It’s upped the rigor and has opened the flood gate of my students' creative juices.   


      In the short time where my students have been using this aspect of the project to write creatively, I’ve seen them want to know more about their topics, ask new questions, and make personal connections to their research.  But it’s not just thinking and learning my students are getting better at through writing....they’re growing as writers too.  They are playing with new styles, finding their voice, and forging their identities as writers.


      The written aspect of Digital Inquiry project as taken on a form very similar to the writing workshop I’ve done with my students in years past.  Students have choice about what they write, engage in writing as a process, interact with others over their writing, and eventually publish and share their work with a wider audience.  I teach through modeling exemplar texts, I teach mini-lessons on craft, and I address individual needs through conferences. 


        Where it differs, though, is not only the fact that the Digital Inquiry writing it is informed by learning.  The most significant difference is that students' writing for their Digital Inquiries is done digitally.  

      I’ve taught students about tags, hyperlinks, and Creative Commons.  I’ve introduced them to html, widgets, and Google Forms, and guided them in creating and embedding digital posters, videos, animations, and comics.   Helping my students become digital writers has required me to learn and teach a new set of skills.  It's been exciting for me, but this change in my instruction is hardly the most significant of the transformations that this project has initiated in my class.

     Digital writing has afforded my students a new level of meaning in their compositions.  I'm seeing my students think beyond just words, and with having additional outlets for their expression and an audience of the world, few, if any, are ever not engaged.   

     I've written about my desire to get my students blogging in past posts, like this one and this one, but I had trouble deciding on the right role that student blogs would play in the writing we did in class.   Turns out The Digital Inquiry Project provided just the spot.


Managing a Digital Inquiry

                                                                     
Requirements


           Creating the requirements for this project was a bit of a balancing act.  If I made them too tight and specific, then some would only work to meet the minimum, while others would be stifled by the tight parameters.  On the other hand, if my guidelines were too loose.....well, anyone who knows middle school could tell you how that would turn out.


What I tried to do is put guidelines in place that gave direction but facilitated student ownership and creativity.

First, I told students that the expectations I had of them while engaged in this project was that they were always thinking, continuously learning, and publishing excellent writing.

Then, to provide a sense of direction, I gave the following specific guidelines:

  1. Use Diigo to bookmark, highlight, and annotate web pages
  2. Use your learning to inform writing pieces that you publish on your blog.
  3. Submit at least one published blog post every two weeks
  4. Upon publishing a piece of writing, immediately begin the inquiry process again 
     I then gave students additional guidelines specific to their published blog posts.  These requirements I’ve built upon each week as I’ve taught mini-lessons on various digital writing topics.  I expect that they will continue to remain fluid, but as of now, the guidelines for students' published posts are that they:

    • are thoughtful and polished, reflecting significant time spent revising and editing.  
    • have a minimum of two relevant hyperlinks
    • contain tags
    • have at least one image, Creative Commons properly attributed
Assessment



The tangible, objective requirements of the inquiry project that I mentioned above factor into student assessment, but focusing completely on areas such as proper use of images and spelling and grammar would send students a message about the focus of this project contrary to where it ought to be.   What is most important, and what I want to focus the assessment upon, are the three objectives that I had initially told students were in place for this project: that through their inquiry, they would be continuously thinking, learning, and developing as writers.  

Because of the enormous variation among students not only in topics researched and genres written, but also learning styles and writing abilities, there is no objective way for me to determine and assess students’ thinking, learning, and writing process.  The only honest way to know the degree to which students were meeting the objectives I had set for this project would be if they showed me how they went about meeting them. The best assessment would have to be self-assessment. 

Keeping their published blog posts on their computer screens and this handout in front of them, students wrote reflections on how their writing demonstrated thinking and learning, the challenges they encountered, and  how their writing has evolved.

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Like most things "school," guidelines, expectations, requirements, and deadlines did exist for this project, but I want to emphasize that the focus is not on an end product.  The Digital Inquiry Project is about a process.    One where students are continually reading, writing, thinking, and learning.  It embraces the idea of "not knowing," and empowers students to use free digital tools to find answers on their own, answers that will invite new questions and curiosities, thereby perpetuating process. 

           I've included some descriptions and links to blog posts my students have written through their Digital Inquiries.  I'm sure they'd love to get some responses to their writing!