Category Archives: Research

Research based ideas for lessons that have not yet been implemented in the classroom.

Digital Conversations: Pros and Cons (Well, mostly pros)

As an English Language Arts teacher one of the tools I rely on is my students’ ability to discuss writing and literature in an appropriate manner. I teach seventh grade. My students are professionals at inappropriate behavior.

When I try to facilitate class discussions, they usually do one of two things:

1) They clam up and suddenly become fascinated with whatever is under their grubby fingernails, or…

2) They all shout out ideas at once, competing with each other instead of bouncing ideas off of each other.

The first scenario is not as common as the second, which is a good thing. With the second, at least my students are excited and thinking about the topic. The thing is, I often feel like the basket in a game of basketball – but instead of the players working together, every player is trying to grab the ball (my attention and approval) and make a basket by sharing their ideas without any help from their teammates. In basketball this is catastrophic. It has similar results in the classroom.

My solution was to use My Big Campus’ discussion feature as a way to force the students to talk to each other instead of to me. Unfortunately, this did not work out as I had hoped. When planning the lesson I blissfully envisioned a discussion similar to those I have on Facebook with fellow teachers, or those that take place in a college environment. It wasn’t until after implementing the lesson that I realized how naïve my expectations were.

The students had no problems posting their ideas to the discussion. The hitch came when they started commenting on each other’s posts. Instead of questioning each other or adding to each other’s ideas, the students became very complimentary of one another. They also became grammar Nazis.

At first, I found it sweet when a student would post, “good idea” or “you did a good job.” I was ecstatic when I read, “make sure you capitalize your I’s” and “you used the wrong there – it is their not there.” However I soon realized that they weren’t thinking deeply about what the other students were saying. Instead, they were using the compliments as a cop-out to thinking critically about their responses.

Two hundred notifications later, I realized that I am still the basketball hoop, my students are still competing, but now they all have their own basketballs to shoot. Duck for cover!

This led me to the realization that I can’t expect my students to lead productive discussions in class or on the computer without first teaching them the appropriate skills. Whether typing or speaking, the students need to know how to bounce ideas off of each other without dominating and how to ask clarifying questions such as “can you elaborate on that” or “can you give me an example?” The skills are the same no matter what medium we use.

Time to hit the books (so to speak).

Expert Advice

I have a book called Academic Conversations by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford (2011) which identifies five core conversation skills that students must have to be successful conversationalists in an academic setting:

1) Elaborate and clarify

2) Support ideas with examples

3) Build on and/or challenge a partner’s ideas

4) Paraphrase

5) Synthesize conversation points

It hadn’t occurred to me just how much academic conversations rely on the higher order thinking skills from Bloom’s Taxonomy until I read that chapter.

I continued to read, but was disturbed when the Zwiers and Crawford argued that technology was not a good tool for developing academic conversational skills. They argue that because of the lack of face-to-face communication with digital discussions, “exploration of a topic, the building of ideas, and emotional connections are often missing.” They also argue that “popular modes of communication…are mostly ‘one-way’ [and] do not adjust their messages or negotiate meanings with their viewers” (2011).

I stopped reading Academic Conversations. I disagree with their claims that the lack of face-to-face communication does more harm than good and that digital modes of communication have static meanings. Instead of fighting technology integration, the authors should be asking how students can use technology to explore topics and build ideas.

The toxic statements ate away at my brain for a few days until today, when I stumbled upon an article called “The Must Have Guide to Helping Technophobic Teachers” by Dr. Abir Qasem and Tanya Gupta. They argue that “using technology in education is about redesigning pedagogy by taking advantage of available technology, and not just substituting faculty time with technology.”

Qasem and Gupta go on to argue that technology actually facilitates productive conversations instead of hindering it. The reasoning behind this is two-fold:

1) Studies have found that face to face conversations lead people to instinctively mimic the opinions of others instead of fighting for their own

2) People tend to think more creatively and are more productive when working in solitude (read more about this in “The Rise of the New Groupthink”)

*Read these statements with caution*

Do not assume that all group work is bad. Group work is extremely effective when each member has time to individually develop his or her own ideas before coming together as a group.

UNM taught me that group work is a valuable strategy for encouraging all students to participate. Group work can also be a great tool for teaching students to think outside the box and value different perspectives.

But here is the thing: according to the “The Rise of the New Groupthink” by Susan Cain, brainstorming sessions stifle creativity instead of stimulating it. Woah.

Apparently, “when we take a stance [that is] different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection.” (Cain, 2012)

This makes sense, considering what most of our students want most is to be accepted by their peers (want proof? Click here).

But how does all of this information apply to both spoken and typed class discussions? I am getting there, but first I will condense the information into a list of facts for your sanity and for mine:

  • Students lack academic conversational skills and need explicit instruction in these skills.
  • There are five core conversation skills that students must have to be successful conversationalists in an academic setting: 1) Elaborate and clarify 2) Support ideas with examples 3) Build on and/or challenge a partner’s ideas 4) Paraphrase 5) Synthesize conversation points.
  • Studies have found that face to face conversations lead people to instinctively mimic the opinions of others instead of fighting for their own.
  • People tend to think more creatively and are more productive when working in solitude (read more about this in “The Rise of the New Groupthink”).
  • Group work is extremely effective when each member has time to individually develop their own ideas or part of a project before coming together as a group.
  • When people take a stance that is different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection.
  • Adolescents are constantly seeking social recognition and acceptance from their peers.

So here is the whammy: Digital discussions enable students to think independently while also being socially rewarded by their peers.

But first, in order for them to be effective, I have to teach my students how to pick each other’s brains effectively…and because they use similar conversational skills as speaking when typing, I will once again pick up Academic Conversations (and ignore the technology bashing sections). Perhaps in doing so, my students will start to discuss as a team, bouncing ideas off of each other before shooting for the basketball hoop. Swoosh!

Wish me luck!

Works Cited

Cain, Susan. “The Rise of the New Groupthink.” The Sunday Review. The New York Times, 13 Jan. 2012. Web. 3 Feb. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/opinion/sunday/the-rise-of-the-new-groupthink.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all&gt;.

Gopnik, Alison. “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind? – WSJ.com.” The Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal, 28 Jan. 2012. Web. 04 Feb. 2012. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203806504577181351486558984.html?fb_ref=wsj_share_FB&gt;.

Quasem, Abir, and Tanya Gupta. “The Must-Have Guide To Helping Technophobic Teachers | Edudemic.” Edudemic. Edudemic, 3 Feb. 2012. Web. 04 Feb. 2012..

Zwiers, Jeff, and Marie Crawford. Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2011. Print.

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Mondays, Tech Talks, and Bloom’s Taxonomy

Monday. I have a love hate relationship with Monday. I love it because I get to teach again…but I hate it because I have to wake up at five after sleeping until ten on the weekends.

Yesterday was a particularly bad Monday for several reasons:

1)      I didn’t feel well (I left school early today and I am typing this blog from home).

2)      It was the day of our first annual magic show – a fundraiser for our renaissance program. Everybody was going nuts with last-minute plans.

3)      I discovered that wordpress.com is blocked at school, which annoyed me. What does THAT say about our preëxisting notions of digital literacy?

4)      I wasn’t fully prepared for the day because I spent the weekend obsessing over blog posts and reading education articles instead of planning my lessons (bad teacher!).

So there I was, at the beginning of the period, frantically finishing my SmartBoard presentation for my adjectives and adverbs mini-lesson. I killed a bit of time by having the kids copy down the agenda from the board, but it wasn’t quite enough. I decided to have them do a quick write on how they use technology in their lives.

Their responses varied from playing internet based games to fiddling with the GPS systems in their parents’ cars, which surprised me. The word “technology” automatically conjures up images of computers and smart phones – not cars and toenail clippers (one of the boys shared that thought, which I thought was very clever. After all, technology does not always involve sparks and wires).

Among the Facebook comments, YouTube videos, and video game cheat codes, one of the students said that he likes to use the internet to “look stuff up.” When I asked him what kind of stuff, he couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t) tell me. At the other end of the room one of the girls said that she likes to look up ways to solve math problems using YouTube because “the guy will solve it in the video and then it makes sense.” That comment then reminded another student that he likes to use the internet to clarify his understanding on a specific topic with sites such as Wikipedia.

These comments raise an interesting point about our students changing literacies: they use and think about technology on a different level than their parents and teachers. This is because they are considered “digital natives” and their parents and teachers are considered “digital immigrants.” Digital natives navigate digital waters effortlessly, and the comments above show that they use the internet to learn new material – such as how to solve algebraic equations or just “stuff” about life and the world – that may or may not be purely academic.

But who is to say that “academic” learning is the only important type of learning? To our students the new understandings they construct about life and the world outside of school may be more relevant than finding the theme of The Giver. How then, can we as educators make academic learning exciting and relevant to our students?

Now for a brief tangent…

Research has shown that a multilayered approach is most effective, and the layers I am referring to are as follows: 1) Construction of Knowledge 2) Disciplined Inquiry 3) Value Beyond School. Construction of knowledge requires students to use new knowledge gained from a variety of sources to create something original; and students can engage in disciplined inquiry by expressing their thoughts and ideas about new knowledge through “elaborated and extended communication;” but neither of these criteria will be effective without having some relevance to the real world (Gibbons, 2009).

Gibbons ideas closely follow the higher order thinking skills in Bloom’s Taxonomy. Construction of knowledge requires synthesis, evaluation, and creation while disciplined inquiry requires the students to analyze and evaluate information as well. So, in order to pull these theories (and this tangent) back into the digital age, I have included a link to a fabulous article that details the progression of Bloom’s Taxonomy through our changing society.

And, because I don’t like the bland graphic organizer the article has provided, I created a newer, prettier one. Take note of the list of verbs for each level of thinking. I’ve included the traditional verbs, but I’ve also added the digital verbs from the article. Enjoy!

Works Cited

Churches, Andrew. “TechLearning: Bloom’s Taxonomy Blooms Digitally.” Classroom Tech Learning, Education, PC, Mac, IPad, Bloom’s Taxonomy – Techlearning.com. Web. 31 Jan. 2012. <http://www.techlearning.com/article/44988&gt;.

Gibbons, Pauline. English Learners, Academic Literacy, and Thinking: Learning in the Challenge Zone. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009. Print.

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