Using ICTs to Unpack and Repack Ideas: Part 1

10 Oct

One of the standard routines in any classroom is the way in which teachers mediate content for their students, taking abstract ideas and making them more accessible, more concrete: finding metaphors, examples and ways of explaining a concept to allow students to understand it better. Then, of course we find teachers helping students move the other way, to formulate their concrete experiences into abstract formulations, how to take a bunch of discrete facts and build an argument, or reach a conclusion. At the nub of ICT integration in the classroom is the question of how to use ICTs to facilitate this process.

ICTs are really great for encouraging students to explore and discover information on their own, or to find and express their own voice. Teachers will often let students loose on Google to “find out” about this or that, or to create a PowerPoint or write an essay about something. The result is often a disappointing cut & paste job in which a series of disconnected facts are poorly cobbled together without ever constructing an argument. Clearly what we want is for students to be able to research a topic, and come to understand, or unpack the question we are asking them to explore, and then to re-pack what they have found into a coherent argument which makes a valid point.

I believe that ICTs have key affordances which can be utilised to achieve this.

A great tool for unpacking abstract concepts and making them more real is the simulation such as the one on the right, illustrating the superimposition of two waves, taken from Daniel Russell’s web site. This type of visual representation of a concept is a great way to help students understand abstract ideas, and flash simulations and animations are fantastic for this sort of thing, especially for Science and Technology. I saw a great simulation once which allowed students to change switches on an electric circuit, and have the results displayed on the screen.

Educational games, likewise, can be used to foster understanding through the simulation of experiences. I’m not suggesting that Grand Theft Auto can teach valuable skills, but there are many so-called serious games which have a great deal to offer. Even recreational games such as DotA or CounterStrike teach collaboration and co-operation in the broadest sense.

Another useful digital tool for helping unpack ideas is the now ubiquitous YouTube video. Studying literature can often involve teachers trying to explain what life was like in the trenches in World War I, or what a Victorian Poor House was, or what Medieval jousting was. A quick video can convey details and help make concepts concrete far more readily than a verbal description. Google images is as useful. Before the Internet I used to draw pictures on the board all the time while teaching poetry, trying to convey the ideas my words could simply not convey. In much the same way as a simulation helps make abstract ideas concrete and real, YouTube offers wonderful opportunities to allow students to visualise things they would otherwise have no opportunity to experience. Any school that blocks YouTube is missing opportunities!

Online Forums and Discussion Boards can also be used to unpack ideas through talk. By posing a question about a poem, for example, and asking students to comment and discuss, ideas can be unpacked ahead of in-class discussion, making that discussion far more fruitful! Alternatively discussions unpacking ideas can be extended beyond the face-to-face discussion. What is useful about discussion forums is that students get to read other students’ unpacking of concepts. While they might not challenge the way a teacher unpacks an idea, they are prepared to challenge each others’ perceptions – which can be very beneficial!

In terms of research, although the Internet presents key affordances for leveraging discovery, the key is not so much in the technology itself, as in the question posed. To avoid cut and paste answers, the question should force students to unpack ideas and re-pack them again in different forms. For example, if you ask students to compare Christianity to Hinduism you are likely to get heavily plagiarised responses: Christians believe [ctrl & V], Hindus believe [ctrl & V]! You need to phrase the question in such a way as to force students to process both the ideas being searched, and their responses. Rather ask them if there is a universal idea underlying both faiths. Google then becomes a valuable research tool because students must evaluate the information they are searching in order to answer the question.

I am a firm believer in Thinking Map software. Specific software that helps students organise and unpack ideas they are researching. Used in conjunction with Google, the Thinking Map software helps students organise their thoughts as they retrieve them from the search engine. The Cornell note-taking system does the same thing, and I believe should always accompany any search engine task. There really is no excuse for just telling a class to do some research on a topic without trying to scaffold their unpacking of the content.

In this post I have argued that ICTs offer key affordances for mediating and unpacking ideas. In part 2 I will look at the affordances ICTs offer for repacking ideas.


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