1 June 2013

Pay Attention: Digital Learners

The ‘create’ part of the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy is THE most important to me, both as an educator and as a learner. I like to think about the intention of the learning and how the learners might create something to show this. Then, via backwards-by-design planning, I craft stages that correspond with the taxonomy, working up from understanding to creation - although I see the taxonomy as cyclical rather than hierarchical (blog about this HERE), so stages are often revisited along the way, and ultimately, the creation should assert the understanding.

In terms of ‘creation’ and in allowing opportunities for creation, and in questioning how rich the curriculum is for my learners, I feel very lucky being a teacher of English Language Arts. Being skills based, I am free to develop the lessons and units as I wish, as long as I meet the required standards. For example, the skill to, “organise and present whole texts effectively, sequencing and structuring information, ideas and events” (Curriculum and Assessment Department, Writing Assessment Focus 3, 2008), can be addressed in a variety of ways. To achieve the Level 7 (level 8 is top level for 14 year olds), learners must demonstrate that:

              information, ideas and events are skillfully managed and shaped to achieve intended
              purpose and effect, e.g. introduction and development of character, plot, event, or the 
              terms of an argument, are paced across the text”, and that “a variety of devices position 
              the reader, e.g. skilful control of information flow to reader; teasing the reader by 
              drawing attention to how the narrative or argument is being handled.
             (Curriculum and Assessment Department, 2008)

Traditionally this skill would have been assessed only through writing. However, if we are now teaching digital natives, we need to address many different literacies. At the start of 2013, I was required to show my understanding of a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) through digital visual means. The course was about digital cultures, and the final assignment asked us to think about how educational institutions are established around a privilege of writing as the ultimate means of demonstrating understanding. We had to explore whether digital technology and the creation of images demonstrate competence, knowledge and understanding in a rigorous way (my blog post about this is HERE). The dichotomy of what is considered acceptable for demonstrating learning now, compared to demonstrating learning in the past, is a chasm that needs bridging - particularly when it comes to parents, who do not have the privilege of reading the latest thinking in pedagogies and the effectiveness of technology in teaching. They have only their understanding of what school was - not what it is or should be. Convincing them that multi-modal literacies are in fact the new literacy, is something that will take some time and dedication. Writing is an essential skill and yet it is only part of the way our learners now communicate, understand and express themselves and, as educators, we need to embrace this, not limit them. In ‘Why Writing with Technology Matters’, Bedard and Furhken state that for the digital generation, writing and technology serve each other well (2013, p.1). Quoting Smolin and Lawless, 2003, they also suggest that “a technologically infused curriculum can develop multiple essential literacies (2013, p.2) and go on to explain how it is the process of thinking through “authentic stages” that matters - not what the actual final outcome is necessarily. Therefore, they suggest, and I believe, that writing skills, such as the ability to sequence and show logical progression, can be shown through video, storyboards, podcasts etc. not just through ‘essays’.

I offer plenty of opportunities for creation and as often as I can, give learners a choice and voice (see my Blog HERE about how I might offer these opportunities) on how to show me their learning and demonstrate how they have met the curriculum requirements. Another essential skill is one of being able to map skills and achievements onto set requirements, and so by allowing learners the chance to think about the skills they are required to develop and demonstrate, and through letting them think of the best ways for them personally to be able to show this, develops their critical thinking as well as lets them play upon their strengths and particular styles of learning or intelligences.

Teaching this way is not always easy and does require learners to be trained up effectively. The quote by a learner in the Pay Attention video, that they have learned to “play school” has been very evident in a number of schools I have been in. It seems that learners have, even until very recently, been taught in very ‘traditional’ ways; desks are in rows, no talking or discussion takes place, there is no room for making mistakes and figuring things out, there is no opportunity for critical thinking and no independence or motivation to learn for themselves. To learn for the sake of learning. It can really shake things up when this status quo is challenged, and at first the learners can really struggle, as they do not know how to ‘play’ this way of school; however, they DO know how to play the rules of the game. The fact that they use digital tools and, everyday create, contribute, collaborate and interact, means they very quickly settle into this way of learning. They can work in teams and the classroom can be ‘flattened’ across grade levels so they have to work asynchronously and figure out how to do that effectively. Lessons can be online and learners can be expected to contribute to forums, keep up to date with lessons and homework postings on Edmodo, contribute and help out classmates, and blog to the world. It can take some time - not because they can’t do all this because this is what they do everyday, but because this is not ‘playing school’ the way they recognise it.

Learners will however, grow and develop and learn so much more than the prescribed curriculum. By embedding 21st Century skills and ISTE standards into units, learners know the emphasis is as much on their expression as on their ability to work as part of a team; that improvements in sentence construction as well as in time management are expected. Writing with technology and using what works with my learners has been highly effective in engaging and supporting their progress. My learners are published poets, authors and vloggers. Their work has been shared with the school, parents and the world. Oh, and their writing has improved hugely too!

Bedard, C. & Fuhrken, C. (2013). When Writing with Technology Matters. Portland, MA: Stenhouse Publishers

Curriculum and Qualification Department, 2008 Assessing pupils’ Progress in English at Key Stage 3. Retrieved from http://www.teachertechnologies.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/newapps.pdf

Draper, D. Jordan School District in Utah, posted on the District's Website Page, Transforming Teaching through Technology. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEFKfXiCbLw