i-Biology | Reflections

Usually more questions than answers…

Content & Inquiry in a Google World

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If you’re an educator on Twitter, you have seen this graphorism doing the rounds, included in this post on Larry Ferlazzo’s blog, which in turn reproduces brain-based education guru Eric Jensen’s Education Week Teacher article Boosting Student Learning. 

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There’s nothing quite like a cute graphorism to get people chucking stones on Twitter. Click for Larry Ferlazzo’s post.

Sweet. We’ve got 1:1 and access to Google and a bunch of hyperlinks. Job done. Well, not quite. Within context I agree with the other four of Jensen’s responses, but this image has been bugging me a bit, being tweeted and retweeted without the full article or argument attached.

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Before going ahead*, I recommend reading Larry Ferlazzo’s (@LarryFerlazzoResponses series on the ‘five best practices’ that teachers can do to help their students become better learners’. There are some really useful quotes in there, representing a range of perspectives on what makes ‘effective’ student learning and what builds effective learners.

*As always on this blog, the links are way better than the post. I won’t be offended if you skip the lengthy witterings below. 

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tL;dr Version

I don’t know anyone who can successfully teach ‘content-free’ in middle-high school. We do need to ensure that we teach good content: relevant, current, useful, interesting. We need to teach that content well, using effective methods for our own students and ensuring as much as we can that we don’t reinforce misconception. Google is a tool, not a teacher, and a teacher who could be replaced by a search engine should be. At the same time, we can’t drown students in facts without leaving room for critical reflective thought (inquiry). We need to help students make connections and the selection (and teaching) of content is crucial in building conceptual and transferable understandings. We need to ensure that students know enough to be able to ask good questions. 

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 Content’s role in an inquiry-focused, connected education

This collection of ramblings, knocked into a list, represent my current mindset regarding content, curriculum and pedagogy. They are written from the perspective of an international IB practitioner in a secondary science classroom (MYP & DP), and as a programme coordinator (MYP) and general MA-studying curriculum nerd. Some of this treads similar ground to my MA assignment on MYP: Mind the Gap.

1. Strong teachers DO teach content. All teachers teach content. When we teach a student a fact or a skill and think it’s worth teaching to others, and then we make a note of it and save it for later… it’s content. Yet these same strong teachers recognise that not all content is equal, and that students come first -they’re the reason we’re employed

2. Strong teachers put curriculum before pedagogy, making sure that – to the best of their ability – the content, skills and concepts of the unit are worth learning in the first place. They then focus on how to best cause learning in their own students, in the ways that work best for them. It can be hard to let go of favourite content (or to adapt to new circumstances), but there is little point in honing excellent pedagogy founded on weak curriculum. Otherwise our students will know less valuable stuff – but they’ll know it really well.

3. Strong teachers check the understandings of their students with regard to conceptual and factual accuracy – and then take explicit action on this information. This aims to reduce the interference effect on future learning of misconceptions formed from poor prior learning. If it is content worth teaching it is content worth remembering – and using to build future schema. If we want students to grasp a concept, we will explicitly plan to teach it using factually accurate content.

And so…

Lynn Erickson’s 3D Model of Concept-based Learning – founded on facts and skills.

4. Strong teaching recognises that a concept-based curriculum is still a content-founded curriculum. The effective selection of skills and content (facts), combined with strong pedagogy and metacognition, allow students to build the over-arching ‘concepts’ that should be more transferable. Although transfer is hard – and that is perhaps why we have a set of ATL skills in MYP now to help teach it. See Ilja van Weringh’s recent posts on a PD weekend with Lynn Erickson for more useful quotes & tips.

5. Strong teaching activates inquiry as critical reflective thought – and this needs high-quality raw materials. A strong educational experience uses a foundation of good content knowledge and skills and doesn’t just allow students to develop their learning from there – it forces them to engage, think critically and evaluate their own learning. This is critical pedagogy, and it causes inquiry. Students need to know enough to be able to ask good questions, otherwise it is enquiry in the weak simple-questions sense, not inquiry in the critical and reflective sense.

6. Strong teachers DO connect learning, even the content-focused teachers.  Strong teachers know what the connections are between the content and emphasise these with students. Strong teachers love and recognise it when students make these – or entirely new – connections by themselves. See this post by Harry Webb on ‘who exactly is going around ‘disconnecting’ the facts?

7. Strong teaching takes place within your own academic, social, political or cultural context. Almost all middle and high-school teacher have an outside curriculum influence that guides or dictates contentthis is curriculum as the snapshot of our culture. With this set of standards, benchmarks or assessment statements, we have  content. A good teacher will be creative, differentiated and engaging in how it is taught, but it is still content.

8. Strong teachers recognise the role of content is changing due to technology, but not in the way that quote might suggest. Google is a tool that opens up a world of information, but information is not curriculum and not all information is born equal in terms of its value within curriculum. Not only must we now make sure that the content we are teaching students is correct and misconception-free, we need to also learn how to help students evaluate and appropriately apply the information they find in their own online inquiries. We need to learn to master a parallel curriculum – a set of content and skills of digital, media and information literacy. Good job we have some ATL clusters for those too, eh?

9. Strong educational design and teaching should inspire students to want to know more. Strong teaching might help them aspire to greatness. But a strong teacher will also try to help students recognise that learning is hard, that significant effort is rewarded with greater learning and that the privilege of education is worth the sometimes uninspiring work of practice. Strong teachers care about their students and their students know this.

10. I need a number 10. Maybe you can add one in the comments, or on Twitter.

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What is the effect of ‘Googling’ on memory and is it a bad thing?

This paper (pdf) (summarized in the video below), outlines some studies on the externalisation of stored memory.

If students develop a dependence on search engines for recall of simple facts (or computation of simple maths facts), are they at a disadvantage to students who are able to recall and apply already automatized learning? Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow idea might suggest so – as we learn for automaticity and store information in the fast-thinking System I memory, we so free ‘cognitive load‘ for higher-order System II thought: inquiry as critical reflective thought.

If we activate effective learning of critical content through effective pedagogy, do we then help ensure the automaticity of this foundational knowledge, leading to more effective inquiry? Are students less likely to waste time (and cognitive load) on simple searches or computations? What would you think of an adult who had to constantly search simple facts or turn to calculator to make change?

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Personal Reflection

I teach science in an international school and I’m IB to my core (MYP & DP, kid in PYP). I believe in school education for a better world, not just as a stepping-stone to university, but I’m a pragmatist at the same time. I have a job to do, and that’s to educate and to do so as well as I can. I want my students to be lifelong learners with useful skills, useful knowledge, empathy and global literacy. I also need to support this in my colleagues, in my role as coordinator.

A few years back, the pendulum of my beliefs on education swung more towards the quote than it does now. As the role of EdTech and 1:1 access to instant, broad, authentic and real-time information became more powerful as pedagogical tools opportunities the excitement of open inquiry threatened to overcame critical reflection on what would work. I was (and remain) a risk-taker in the classroom, but I never had the bravery to hand the subject guide to the students and tell them to ‘just Google it’ as a course plan. I’m glad now that I didn’t. I still do use a lot of tech in teaching, mainly for workflow and feedback – and most of it now is GoogleApps.

When I built online resources like i-Biology.net and various internal systems I was trying to put the content in place to make room for exploration and inquiry; by setting up a system of what I deemed reliable and useful content, I thought I could ‘derail’ the learning process and ‘empower every learner’ to grow at their own pace, in their own style. I have experimented with various on and offline project-based methods, from the open to the teacher-directed, and have found through the experience (and student feedback), that there is a need and a demand for the teacher’s effective and explicit intervention. This has been confirmed through my MA and professional readings, most recently looking at the work of Hattie, Kahnemann, Willingham, Dewey, Vygotsky, Elkjaer and more.

We are employed as the expert in the room, the guiding hand that not only facilitates student learning but which activates it. We need to set up a culture of learning and of measured academic risk, but we also need to be there to protect students from going (too far) down dead-ends. This is especially true when there are high-stakes terminal assessments looming. The strongest students would likely have done just as well under any set of classroom practices – perhaps despite rather than because of my choices. Those students less ready to control their own learning struggled more, fell behind and needed much more direct intervention. The path through this first decade of my teaching career is littered with the fallen bodies (and vestigial webpages, documents and ideas) of schemes that didn’t make the grade.

So now, in time for MYP: Next Chapter and a new IB Biology guide, I think I’m starting to be happy with how I’m getting things set up. I’m comfortable with the importance of my role as a teacher to bring students to meaningful inquiry and the centrality of (the right) content in getting us there. The coming years are an opportunity to put this into practice, to test and refine inquiry as critical reflective thought based on curriculum as a careful curation of connected content taught carefully and purposefully with pedagogy as a on ongoing feedback loop.

Having said all this, taking a Vygotskyian approach to inquiry when I’m more Dewey at heart. There are often times when I worry about too much prescribed content and wish for a more permanent foot across the divide back into middle school teaching. I want less content, but to make it really good and to leave room for real inquiry as critical, reflective thought. There’s a certain energy in the middle school that I miss, where the curriculum can be freed up and learning can be pursued with less worry for the dreaded GPA…. but that’s a another post.

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I wonder how many points this post could have scored on an edu-jargon bingo-card.

If you have comments, please leave them, but be advised they need to be moderated and I’m in Japan, so might well be in bed. You can also find me on Twitter.

Inquiry_Elkjaer_iBiologyStephen

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Author: Stephen

MYP HS Science & IBDP Bio teacher, HOD Science & MYP Coordinator at Canadian Academy, Japan. Moderator of #MYPChat (@IBiologyStephen). Author of i-Biology.net. MA International Education student, through the University of Bath. Married dad of two cross-culture kids (Indonesian & British).

4 thoughts on “Content & Inquiry in a Google World

  1. Pingback: #ELI5 Explain Like I'm Five: Making Student Learning Explicit, Simple | Ted Curran.net

  2. Honest reflective engaging self assessing analysis. I think you hit a lot of the IB learner profile as well. Thanks for this post

  3. Pingback: Are IB Schools Trivium21C Schools? | i-Biology | Reflections

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