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Using ICTs to Unpack and Repack Ideas: Part II

18 Nov

IMG_9705In Part I, I discussed how ICTs offer key affordances for unpacking ideas and abstract concepts, making them accessible to students. In this post I will look at that other major routine in every classroom, the re-packaging of concrete experiences and ideas into the organised expression of abstract thought. If unpacking is largely about reading of texts or experiences, re-packing is about writing. More particularly it is about learning how to express oneself in genres, in academic language, in empowering new discourses. By writing, of course, I mean thinking as well. Students studying Science or History are essentially learning how to think like a Scientist or an Historian, how to use the ideas and vocabulary of those disciplines to construct meaning.

ICTs can be very important tools in managing and scaffolding this process. Too often teachers simply set a writing task, and without any scaffolding expect students to produce results. Writing is then graded, and those who fall short receive little additional support beyond a few comments or indications where they went wrong. One of the reasons for this resides in the very labour intensive nature of assessing writing. It takes a long time for a teacher to read every piece of writing a student produces, more time to think about what help a student needs to improve, to keep track of progress and to make pertinent and useful interventions. Assisting a single student is time-consuming, a class of 30 is a nightmare! And if your teaching load includes five such classes … impossible to do justice to! This is true if you are an English teacher or a History teacher, or any discipline that involves lengthy essay-writing.

Learning is a social process, and as Vygotsky pointed out, we learn first to do things assisted by others, and then on our own. I think this is especially so with writing, which is by nature directed at a social audience. ICTs offer exciting applications both in terms of multi-media authoring tools, publishing opportunities.and in terms of connecting writers and encouraging writing.

To my mind, then, the key affordances that ICTs offer revolve around the ability to enhance multimedia authoring, and to foster communication during the writing and thinking about your writing stages.

Multi-Media Authoring

We live in an increasingly multi-media rich society, and text is no longer the only way in which students can express their ideas. There are exciting possibilities available in terms of video, sound, animation, graphic and presentation software which can be used in the classroom as an alternative to the written word. All of these tools allow expression of thought multi-modally, but to a certain extent they also help students organise their thoughts. For example, even a simple PowerPoint presentation directs the author towards the use of keywords rather than extended answers, and, if used skillfully can help students become aware of the bones of their argument, and the importance of knowing what your argument is. A PowerPoint can then be used as a first step in constructing a History essay, if followed up by a full-blown essay.

Just as a Flash animation can be useful in Science in visually demonstrating a process or idea, so getting students to create animations to illustrate processes or ideas can be very useful. Flash is a wonderful tool or this, but animations in PowerPoint can work just as well to show an electrical circuit or chemical bonds, for example.

Presentation applications, such as PowerPoint, Prezi or Voicethread are all useful too when it comes to English literature studies. Poetry works through imagery, and students can use presentations to explore the imagery of a poem, themes, or characterization using images they find on the Internet. I find that this helps them visualize the way in which the meaning of the poem is built upon layers of images. In a presentation the class discussion will focus on the extent to which the images chosen are appropriate to the poem at hand.

Videos are another fantastic way of allowing students to explore a topic. The process of editing the video down to a specified length can be used to help students select ideas or inclusion. This is an important part of the development of any argument. I also find that video encourages students to develop single ideas. In writing essays, students tend to struggle with tying generalisation to specific examples, quotes or anecdotes that develop and contextualize that idea. On video, the graphic format almost forces this to happen, so that if you foreground this process it can help them develop an awareness that any argument consists of both a general idea and highly contextualised supporting evidence or development of the concept.

The genre of the literary essay requires students to make statements about theme, characterization and so on, and support these statements with evidence from the text. Many students struggle with this in essay format, but are able to create a short video in which they find scenes from a set-work to illustrate a theme. You can then ask them to write an essay using the scenes they included in their video.

You will gather from what I have said above that my main focus is on how to use digital tools to support traditional essay writing rather than in replacing it. I honestly do not believe there is a substitute for the academic essay in building and displaying rigour of thought. PowerPoints, animations, comic strips, and videos can all be used to help develop and attain these skills, however, and a considerable part of our responsibility as teachers in the 21st Century is finding out how to do this!

Meta-Writing

When teaching writing, I have always used writing circles to encourage students to share their writing, talk about it and help each other learn to edit their work. Paper-based writing is difficult to discuss, unless multiple copies are photocopied ahead of time. Even with a visualizer, discussion of any student text can be awkward. Writing posted to a blog, or shared online, however, is much easier to manage, and a record of interchanges is preserved, making it the perfect platform for a meta-cognitive approach to writing. Using fan fiction sites can also encourage creative writing beyond the classroom walls, and is very motivating for students.

Using presentations as the basis for classroom discussion also helps build awareness of the choices made during the writing process. Students can be asked to identify the thesis statement of any presentation, or supporting evidence for any statement. Gradually students can be guided towards thinking of writing as a strategic process: what points are being made, how they are ordered and what use of examples, facts, quotes or anecdotes are made to develop and support the argument, rather than thinking about individual word choices.

Collaborative writing tasks are also very useful. Google Docs, for example, allow students to comment and collaborate on a report in real-time, and for the teacher to make editing suggestions while the report is being written! This ability to intervene even before a report has been presented in first draft is crucial in scaffolding writing tasks, and students find it very motivating as well. To be able to get feedback before turning in a report or essay is a huge advance on the traditional draft, feedback, final draft routine. It is also physically easier as students can invite you to their google doc to receive feedback, and you can comment while they are writing. In terms of the flipped classroom, I think this functionality provides a really concrete way of allowing for extended contact time and support outside of classroom hours.

One way of looking at teaching is to note the delicate balance between helping students acquire dominant discourses and academic language (voices of power), while developing their own understandings and expressiveness (the power of voice). Digital tools offer exciting new ways of managing and achieving these purposes.

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