Master's Project: Self-directed learning in the science classroom

Well...to be precise, it's titled "Implementation of a technology-rich self-directed learning environment in a ninth grade Integrated Science classroom." Catchy, I know.

To be honest, this is a bit old. I thought I had posted this a long time ago, but recently realized I never had despite always meaning to do so. I implemented this project in the spring of 2010 and officially submitted my project in June of the same year. It won me a "Scholar of Excellence" award, so it must be at least somewhat decent. 😉

The Goods

Though the full paper may not be of interest to you, let me recommend the Lit Review. I went through many, many papers on constructivist environments and instructional technology's impact on student learning. It'd make me very happy if anybody found this even remotely useful.

I've decided to release it under a Creative Commons Attribution license, so have at it. Here's the full paper in variety of formats for any of your consumption needs:

  • Implementation of a technology-rich self-directed learning environment in a ninth grade Integrated Science classroom

Description

Simply put, students worked in teams of four to five and shared a team blog. Students investigated any topic that interested them around the general theme of climate change. Students were tasked with researching the topic and sharing their learning and questions on their blog. There were no due dates (other than the end of the school year), though students were all required to write a certain number of posts and comments on their classmates' posts (for more details, check out the Project Design section of the paper). For a bit on the rationale, here's an excerpt from the Introduction and Rationale:

The purpose of the educational system in the United States has been described in many different ways depending on the viewpoint of the individual doing the describing. Creating individuals able to become positive members of society, providing skills for the future workforce, or preparing individuals for an uncertain future have all been cited by various people and organizations as the purpose of schooling- each relying on their own value set and particular social and political biases. While there is no doubt that these various beliefs about the purpose of the American educational system have been true, and may continue to be true in various times and places, it is this author's belief that one of the more important goals of the educational system is to create life-long learners who will be able to actively and knowledgeably engage in whatever ideas and issues may cross their paths. As specific information and skill-sets are quickly changing due to the rapid increases in knowledge and improvements in technology the importance of teaching students specific content information decreases while the importance of teaching students how to locate, evaluate, and interact with knowledge increases. As what it means to be productive members of society or effective members of the workforce changes, the ability for individuals to understand how to learn new knowledge when they need it is more valuable than simply falling back on information learned through formal schooling.

If schools are to become a place where students learn how to interact with, challenge, and develop new knowledge, then the traditional classroom structure- that of the teacher as the primary source of knowledge and assessment- needs to change as well. Students should be given a chance to work out the solutions to problems that do not have predefined answers. In doing so, students lose their status as passive recipients of information and instead become active creators of knowledge. A method of implementing this might be built on the problem-based learning (PBL) model that has been used for many years in many content areas with various age levels. The incarnation of PBL envisioned here provides students with real-world problems to solve that do not already have easy or "neat" answers, gives students the freedom to explore down side canyons as part of the problem solving process, allows time for students to share their ideas and work with others, and provides support and time for students to document and reflect on their learning and problem solving process.

Let me know what you think or if you found anything useful for your own purposes.

Suggestions for resources: Do you agree?

"We can use Wikipedia? Our [insert subject here] teacher told us Wikipedia isn't accurate, so we couldn't use it."

I get this at the beginning of every semester from my incoming freshmen as we start doing internet research. Wikipedia articles regularly come up as one of the first couple results when students do internet searches, so it's an issue that comes up right away.

I didn't used to spend much time going over how to effectively find and use information from online sources. The last several years I've made it much more of a priority as it's a skill that I find extremely useful for myself. As more and more information is available online, it's pretty important that students know how to navigate and evaluate this wealth of digital knowledge. Below are a few of the basic suggestions I give students. We go into a little more detail than what's found below, but I'm just looking for a little feedback on the suggestions I offer here and anything you feel would be valuable to add.

Wikipedia

No getting around the Wikipedia "issue" today. Kids are hearing lots of different things from lots of "expert" sources (teachers, parents, etc.). Here's what I go over with students:

  • Anyone can edit Wikipedia. This is true.
  • Wikipedia has a large community of people who will quickly fix most errors.
  • In my time using Wikipedia most information I find seems quite accurate. Most errors I see are spelling/grammatical errors as opposed to factual errors.
  • Wikipedia has undergone several reviews comparing it to more traditional encyclopedic sources (primarily Encyclopaedia Brittanica). It generally fares quite well in these comparisons (see this page for some examples).
  • Fun tip: Science articles on Wikipedia tend to be pretty technical. This doesn't make them great for 9th graders who don't have a wealth of technical science background. I suggest they check out the Simple English Wikipedia. It has fewer articles with often less detailed info, but they are all written in Simple English, which is much better for most 14 year old students.
  • My advice to students: Feel free to use Wikipedia. Just realize what it is and how it works. If you see something that looks slightly fishy, check the results with other sites. If you see errors that you can fix: do it1.

Yahoo! Answers and Wiki.Answers

Students have been using these sites more and more the last couple of years. This year is the first time I've specifically addressed these sites. Both sites are very similar in how they work: Anyone can ask a question and anyone can answer. Answers can be voted up or down by the users depending on how accurate or helpful the answers seem. All questions and answers are searchable. What I go over:

  • Anyone can ask and answer questions (similar to Wikipedia)
  • Unlike Wikipedia, the community isn't quite as robust at voting down bad answers and voting up good answers. There's also a fair number of users who purposely give goofy/funny/inappropriate answers. There aren't consequences for doing these things as there is in Wikipedia.
  • In my own experience many answers are good, but there are a few too may that are bogus for me to use it.
  • My advice to students: These sites are good "jumping off points." Some information is easiest to find on these sites. However, because there isn't a robust community patrolling these sites, don't use them as your final source of information. Instead, use the given answers to help you find more reliable sites that give the information.

Google

Students generally feel they're great searchers using Google or other search engines. However, in my experience, they don't know many of the simple tricks and operators to take their searching to a higher level. What I go over:

  • Keywords: Student very often will type in a full question into the search box. This works enough that they're convinced it'll work for everything. I go over why it isn't the best way to search2.
  • Operators:
    • Quotes: to search for exact phrases
    • Minus before words: to eliminate words from search results
    • Domain types: Use the "site:gov," "site:edu," etc. searches to narrow searches to specific domains.
  • Google-y tricks:
    • Recent results: Especially helpful when looking for information on recent discoveries or current event items.
    • Related searches & Wonder wheel: Both do about the same thing (find similar search terms which might give you better results), though the Wonder wheel sure is fun.
    • Google squared: Especially nice for finding lists of items and comparing items.

While this isn't a complete listing of online research skillz and tips that I go over with my classes, these are the tips and issues that students seem to run into the most.

Do you have any suggestions that should be included? Any critique of what I've put down here? Let me hear it in the comments!

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cc licensed flickr photo by burnt out Impurities

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  1. Often this is a moot point since the school's IP address is generally blocked from editing due to vandalism from anonymous students.     (back)
  2. Namely because it includes all sorts of extra words that can throw off the search results. I don't need my results to include the question words.     (back)

Thoughts from Buckminster Fuller

R. Buckminster Fuller“If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top . . . that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver, but this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings.”  - R. Buckminster Fuller

Reluctance to change has been in my (limited) experience one of the biggest hurdles to improving teaching and learning. It's not that people can't change. It's that they hold on to past practices while throwing in little bits of the new stuff. The result is that the new bits aren't utilized to their full transformative potential. Instead, the new bits are forced into the old mold, whether or not it makes sense for them to be there.

Several examples sprung to my mind as I read Bucky's quote.

  • Using laptops solely for word processing
  • Using presentation software (read: PowerPoint & Keynote) for overly text-y purposes
  • Using a blog or wiki just as another way to complete homework

While my thoughts tended to be focused on the implementation of technology into classrooms, the same ideas certainly could apply to non-tech related school issues. How often do we (as educators) turn to sound research when making curricular or structural decisions? Is it unrealistic for teachers to keep an eye on the literature?

Quote via The New Yorker via Treehugger
Image by sbisson via Flickr