Wikis in the classroom: a reflection.

Cross posted with my blog.

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Well here it is, my completed Science Alive Wiki.

After an incident delayed getting feedback from my students until last Monday, things got extremely busy with preparation for the Renaissance Fair and my Grade 5 Transition Retreats [the subject of a future post]. All this included 3 afternoons out of my classroom at other functions... I blinked and it was Friday afternoon. And only now have I noticed that not everyone has given me feedback yet. What I do see there is very encouraging.
Before reading the feedback, my initial impression was given in my Some Assembly Required post. To expand on that,
I wrote this in a comment (over a month ago) on Kelly Christopherson's blog.

I have just given my students the opportunity to study any topic they choose in Science for their wiki pages we just started. Short of one pair of overachievers (that I mentioned in my blog), the group seems very apathetic.

However I think “choose your own topic” can be very difficult for students who have spent years being fed criteria checklist style assignments. I am constructing a post now (in my mind- & hopefully on my blog this long weekend) that looks at the pedagogy involved in such assignments. As Carolyn says (above), “it’s easier if the content comes first and then they are using the technology to communicate the content.” …But I think it is more than that, it is setting clear objectives, ‘ownership’ of the criteria, and clear expectations around expected outcomes… So much to consider!

I think that I am guilty of seeing the value of using technology in guiding learning, but not effectively guiding learning in my technology use.

Carolyn Foote, mentioned above also added this comment after mine:

These situations are ones I see frequently as a librarian as I mentioned.

But I think most of us, if told we can research anything we want, might be stumped for a little while if it was that open ended. I think that you’re right about setting clear objectives.

And I think it is more than just the fact that kids are used to having defined assignments. Even the assignment to “do whatever you want” is still an assignment–it’s not their own motivation driving them, it’s ours.

I think somewhere in there, we all know what we’d like to know more about, but it’s hard to start that “cold”. I think any kind of prompts, strategies, and discussion we can use to help students start thinking about their own interests is helpful.

Having them clip newspaper or magazine articles on some topics ahead of time—having them bookmark three websites that interest them ahead of time–brainstorming with the whole class–all these are strategies that help them get started on realizing they do have interests.

Carol Kuhlthau has some interesting work on the research process, and part of what she talks about are the emotional stages students/all of us go through during the research process. The anxiety at the beginning of a project and inability to think of something is one of the normal stages she defines. We all get more confident as we catch on to an idea and then start researching it, and our motivation gets stronger to do more. I think her work is really helpful in helping understand how students feel and why they don’t perform the way we might expect, especially in the beginning stages, and why they need some scaffolding to internalize the process.

This is brilliant feedback. It isn't rocket science for a seasoned teacher that really should know this, but scaffolding that is student directed is something we should all be reminded of from time-to-time. I think that in my excitement to get things started, and my desire to have students choose their own topic, I let technology supersede pedagogy.

Reading the Science Alive feedback now I realize that the comments above are fuel to make a good project great. The students loved Science Alive, and choosing their own topic was a huge highlight. Add a healthy dose of scaffolding, a little better structure with respect to time lines and expectations, and a few experts to help us out along the way, and we have a delicious recipe for one heck-of-a project pie.

I intended to put some student feedback highlights here, but I won't. If you are interested, READ THEIR WORDS.

Here is a very short summary:
• Students really liked this project. Some of them considered it the best ever!
• They loved that they got to choose their own topics.
• They felt challenged.
• They hated the issues we had dealing with crappy computers, and yet they were willing work through the frustration.
• They thought this was a valuable experience... so much so that many of them wanted to do another similar project and/or suggested that I should do this again next year.
• And finally, using their words: They enjoyed being able to share their ideas, "What I am most proud of the most from the page is when I was how I typed out information to let others read it and learn from what I learned," and being able to see what others did, "I thought this was a great project because it was always fun, and when you needed inspiration, it was easy to just click on someone else’s page, and see all the neat stuff that they’ve done, and then it makes you want to make your page just as good (or, it did for me)." Also another student commented about how a different group's project touched him, "I learned a lot of stuff over the period of time that was given. I especially enjoyed learning about the diabetes because my aunt has diabetes so it was interesting to see what she goes through and how she’s affected".
I'm proud of my students and I am very happy with our first attempt at creating wikis. I believe that for many of my students we truly did bring Science Alive!

What I will focus on now are the comments that can give me perspective on my teaching, and on doing a project such as this in the future. Three key things come to mind, the first of which has already been discussed.

1. Scaffolding
Here are some comments: [Their words/spelling/grammar, no editing on my part. Students can't edit a Discussion topic like they can their wiki page.]

"Next time I would give us students not necessarily more time, but more of a guideline of what you want our final project to be. Rather then it being 'we become experts', a guideline that would help us in seeing our destination of a final product."
"For some groups, I don't think they knew what to do first and how, so maybe there could be more guidence on the Scientific Method."
"The advice I would give you to improve this project would probably be to have more criteria and guidelines and really help people on what experiment they have chosen."
"Next time it'll be a bit better if you gave us an idea of how the "final product" should be like"
"I would suggest doing a little less conferencing, but just maybe asking people how they’re doing informally, and maybe narrowing the topic you can choose just a little (there are so many options that it’s a little overwhelming, in my opinion)."
"The only thing that I would change about this project is as much as I did love the freedom I would have helped a little bit if you had givin us a brief overview of what you wanted to finished product to be. I think this would be good because some people did not even know what to start with on there page. Other than that I thoroughly enjoyed this project."

Since Carolyn made some great topic development suggestions above, I will look more at some other ideas.

I realize now that I didn't really give them enough of an outline. This is a challenge for topics like this... especially in a middle school where the students are still young. So many times in my teaching career I have shown a creative exemplar to students and then had a dozen photocopy-like replicas handed in. Also, in all honesty, I didn't really know what to expect from my students and so it was hard to tell them what it was I expecting! I think that if I spent more time getting them involved with their topic and exploring possibilities early on, some of this stress would have been alleviated.

I did a lot of conferencing with groups and discussing ideas, but often I didn't relate this back to specific things I wanted to see on their page. [Notice the control-freak teacher in me said "specific things I wanted to see" rather than suggestions that would enhance their learning. This is a learning curve for me as well as them.]

One frustration for me was that I taught Science for just 40 min. classes (a first for me this year having taught 80 min. classes in previous years). Take away login and log out times and sometimes it seemed that I would have just 2 or 3 really good conversations about projects and the class would be over.

Here is a very interesting comment:

"We faced a few challenges like the one that really affected us mentally, this was when we found out that Mr. Truss didn't like our ideas but it turned out that; that comment fueled our fire to prove him wrong. It was rather difficult figuring out what exactly Mr. Truss wanted out of us for this project but in the same way it made us interested even more in the project because he left us hanging he let us figure most of it out on our own. "

The specific thing that I didn't like in this case was that the experiment that they wanted to do had way too much variability and opportunity for chance to influence their results... this group did the experiment they wanted to do it anyway. Although I don't think it was a great decision, I am glad they realized that I really did give them a choice.

The task at hand is to offer support to those that need it, and challenge those that don't - not much different than any other project. The difference from other projects is that criteria is very hard to offer when you open up a project and allow everyone to demonstrate their learning in different ways. (Note gabriela's and Claudia Ceraso's comments on my Some Assembly Required post.)

More from my students:

"Another thing that I really liked about this project was that there were very few guid lines and know that we have finished the project it feels like we did everything with almost no help at all."
"This one has definitely been different from the other projects I have done because, the other projects I have done in the past were 'assigned', and very directed, you had a topic chosen by the teacher and that’s what you did. This one had more choice and a sense of freedom, even if you chose the topic, you were still responsible for completion. But having chosen something you're interested in, it makes the project more fun to do."

Scaffolding not instructions and criteria lists.

2. Time Line

"I think we should have gotten a due date, so we know when to get the project done in time."
"I would tell the classes the timeline for the experiment, if they have a rough timeline, maybe they'd know how to space out their experiments and project idea's making everything more even."

I had no idea how long this project would take. It went longer than it should, but I wanted to give ample notice when I finally did choose a date. Looking back, I gave the students notice on a Monday that it was due the following week Friday, then gave them until the following Monday... a lot of time! Yet, the lack of a stated completion date really seemed to bother students. I would love to see students keep updating their projects even now- why can't they continue to pursue their interests? However, in the future I will start with a specific due date. Will this light the fire under students' seats and get many of them on task, and/or more focussed, sooner? I don't really know?

3. Experts

"I think it was better to have a chance to meet experts really, so we can learn more and be interested in things we are researching."

I had students research who were experts in their fields and intended to have them contact some of these people. Reality sunk in when I realized that I didn't know these adults and I would have Grade 8 students contacting strangers directly. In the future, I would want to create a specific contact page for field experts to use to contact us. Then I could route initial contact through me. I would also notify parents that this would be happening well in advance of doing it. I think that this could happen in a safe way if it is well thought out, not flying by the seat of my pants as I was doing in this first attempt.
I could also have used some experts of my own. I'll point again to Brian Crosby's Learning is Messy post, Working, Breathing, Reproducible, Intriguing Models and once again beg for a Web2.0 service like Fieldfindr. (I created this mock site in February and it has had over 1,200 visits since the middle of March... who can make this a reality?)

So being neglectful and completely guilty of not creating any rubric or marking scheme for this project, you might wonder how will I mark this project?
I plan on sitting down with each group over the next little while and coming to an agreed upon mark with them. I will ask them, "How have you shown me higher order thinking skills?" and then we will have a discussion. Their written feedback (or lack of it) will play into this as well. In the end, I am starting to believe more and more that we should abolish marks altogether.

Imagine giving a 'C' to a student who writes:

"What I enjoyed right away was the fact that we could pick virtually what ever topic that we wanted to. This to me put a whole new spin on things. All of the sudden you are interested in what you are researching and you are excited to start your experiment and find out what your results are going to be. Another thing that I really liked about this project was that there were very few guid lines and know that we have finished the project it feels like we did everything with almost no help at all."

Is a 'C' meaningful feedback? What are you telling that student about lifelong learning? What does the mark accomplish?

A Sad Note The Renaissance Fair starts this week. Early last year I saw an Alan November webcast and decided to take the plunge with my Renaissance project... I had the students blogging! I spent hours learning how to set everything up, and more hours again developing blogging rules and lessons on using tools such as The experience was wonderful! It opened my eyes to the potential of web2.0. To start off this school year I went to the computer lab and couldn't get things going again with our out-dated computers, (Mac OS9 and web browsers that need OSX). I resorted to this wiki project after two blogging experiences failed with my students due to our lack of tools. And so, after yet another success with my wiki, here I am about to abandon the blogging aspect of my project... sad indeed.

...And a Happy Note
I can't get myself to end this post on a sad note, so I will end with a very positive observation:
This year has been cathartic for me.
• I have fully embraced using this blog as a learning tool since about November.
• I have read more and thought more about education in the last 6 months than in any given 5 years of my life.
• I am embracing technology like never before.
• I am engaging students in their learning like never before.
• I believe that we will see some (very exciting) fundamental shifts in education over the next few years.

...And Back to the Science Alive Wiki
If you have any observations that I may have missed, then feel free to be my teacher. Thanks!

Views: 29

Comment by Daniel Lake on May 15, 2007 at 9:25am
Thank you for the link to your ScienceAlive wiki!
I read the caffeine project info, followed the death by caffeine link, and wowed my colleagues with the information that it would take me 182.72 cups of coffee - to die!

Well, a bit off the pedagogical stuff, but you can tell Kim, Eric, and Cam that someone in Syracuse NY used their site to check on his caffeine intake! (He will probably live.)
Comment by Sylvia Martinez on May 15, 2007 at 10:12am
Thanks for posting all of this - really interesting stuff.

I can't tell from your comments, however, if you are planning to offer more structure and guidance to your students the next time you try this, or if you are accepting that their frustration and anxiety over the more open-ended nature of your assignment is a good thing.
Comment by David Truss on May 15, 2007 at 6:28pm
I'm going to share your comment with my classes, they will all enjoy the feedback.
The next time I do a project like this I would maintain the open ended aspect, but do more 'front-end' work developing ideas for topics and exploring student/group interests... More scaffolding early on, with a lot of freedom to persue interests once they have been developed. Does that answer your question?
Comment by Darin on December 21, 2007 at 7:50am
I like how you are not afraid to try new things. Sometimes what feels like a great idea unravels and turns out bad. But more often than not it leads to more creative and interesting projects for the students and that is what learning is all about. Keep up the good work.


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