Imagine you have just been instructed to go on a treasure hunt in the Pacific Ocean. You have been given a ship and a list of tasks to be completed on some unknown islands. You have then been instructed to set sail and be quick about it…
This is the type of task that the students in this Stage 3 class were faced with as they began their Information Learning Activity (ILA) on Governments.
The unit started like any ordinary lesson…
“Everyone get out your books, have your pencils ready and make sure you have your iPad on your desk.”
Task one was to brainstorm what the students already knew about Governments. Next the students were directed to complete Survey One. The classroom teacher then handed out the assessment task. The directions on the bottom of the sheet were read and explained and students were allowed to begin. Just like that. “Hop on your boats and set sail now please. Oh and don’t muck about!”
I wish I could properly describe the scene in the classroom in the next couple of minutes. It began with a moment of stunned silence as students registered that the teacher had just directed them to start completing a task they knew nothing about. This moment was followed by complete pandemonium. Quite a number of students started firing questions at the teacher wanting to get started but having absolutely no idea where they were heading. Others quickly began and just as quickly lost their way. These students chose a task from their list, opened their iPads, went to Google and started typing the task directly into the search box. You can imagine the effectiveness of typing, “Determine the issues that you think are important for your party” into a search box. The other dominant response was to give up before you have even started. Why bother starting when you have no idea what you are doing anyway. Far better to stay on shore and play games on your iPad.
As I consider the disastrous beginning to what was initially a unit plan with great potential, four questions shape my reflections. Firstly what were the great ideas that shaped the planning stage? Secondly, how did the plan get shipwrecked so quickly? Thirdly, how did the shipwreck manifest itself in student learning? And finally, how can these reflections be used to create much more successful learning and teaching in the future?
1. The Planning
The planning for the Governments unit was initially based around some great educational principles including the original Bloom’s Taxonomy and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences (Figure 1). The teacher recognised that students needed a range of lower and higher order tasks in order to engage with the topic in a deeper and more meaningful way. This was demonstrated by setting tasks around Bloom’s Taxonomy and requiring students to attempt a task from each level of the hierarchy. Students were also given the freedom to choose from a range of tasks based around the concept of Multiple Intelligences. This allowed for a more individualised approach to the topic and gave students the opportunity to learn about the topic in different ways (Strauss, 2013). Though it would have been better to use the revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy, these two theories are both well-respected in the field of education and using them to shape a unit of work should have led to both breadth and depth of learning. So what went wrong?
2. The Shipwreck
A significant cause of the shipwreck was the planner’s lack of understanding of the way Bloom’s Taxonomy was meant to be used. According to Huitt (2011), Bloom’s Taxonomy is meant to be a hierarchical system where the learning tasks need to move through the lower levels before the higher, more complex levels can be attempted. This means that students need to be able to remember and understand the subject matter before progressing to applying, evaluating and creating using their existing knowledge. However in the assessment task given to students, there was no indication of a progression of skills. Rather, students were encouraged to pick and choose as they wanted. Even if students did decide to choose simpler tasks before moving to the more complex ones, there was still no progression of ideas and no sense of building on skills to gain a deeper level of understanding. To use the analogy previously; the tasks were islands set in a vast ocean which students accidentally bumped into, did the part of the treasure hunt that related to that island and moved off in a random search of another island. With no map, no navigational skills and no real purpose or development in the journey, it is no wonder that the survey results found a very limited progression of learning taking place.
A better way to plan the unit would have been to design tasks which deliberately moved students purposefully through from the simpler levels to a deeper, more complex level of understanding. This would have meant reshaping the assessment tasks and encouraging students to move through them in a specific order. Even just taking the original ideas and reshaping them to look more like the revised assessment task (Figure 2) would have helped students to progress in a more purposeful way.
Figure 2 Reshaping assessment tasks based on an updated version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
3. The Effect of the Shipwreck on Student Learning
During the course of the inquiry unit, as I collected data using the School Library Impact Measure (Todd, Kuhlthau and Heinstrom, 2005), it became apparent that the problems in the planning stage were limiting the students’ learning in many areas. According to Kuhlthau, Maniotes and Caspari (2012), a Guided Inquiry pedagogy should foster learning in five different, yet integrated areas. As indicated in figure 3, many of the five kinds of learning are assessed when using the SLIM Toolkit.
Figure 3 Kuhlthau’s Five Kinds of Learning (2012) compared to SLIM Toolkit. Created by author.
The findings from the surveys pointed to limited growth in curriculum content, both in factual knowledge and in depth of understanding. There are a couple of possible reasons for this lack of student progression in learning. Firstly, there were students in the class who struggle to read and write and this limited the accuracy of a written survey. It became particularly evident that at least some students knew more than they were willing to write down when one student wrote for survey three, “I know more than I did last time.” In a quantitative data gathering survey this response did not produce an accurate reflection of the student’s knowledge and further anecdotal evidence would be needed in order to determine the student’s real growth in knowledge.
A second likely cause of the limited growth in student understanding of the content is that students needed much more scaffolding to equip them with the necessary information literacy skills. This second but connected area of learning was not addressed in any deliberate way throughout the unit. It became evident in the findings from question 4 and 5 of the survey that students were not progressing in information literacy skills. The anecdotal evidence supported the data, with many students struggling to complete the required tasks. Some students gave up and did not complete any tasks, while other students did not evaluate the information they found and based their complex, higher order thinking tasks on a very limited understanding of their topic. For example:
This and other conversations like it, along with the data from the survey, led me to believe that the students did not have the skills they needed to be able to progress through the unit and therefore the learning in the areas of curriculum content and information literacy suffered.
In reflecting on how this unit could have been better structured to allow students the opportunity to gain the necessary information literacy skills, it is helpful to reflect on the skills that the Australian Curriculum expects students to be able to draw on (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Overview of relevant skills in the Australian Curriculum which could apply to this ILA.
The Australian Curriculum expects that typically students by the end of year six will demonstrate some significant information literacy skills. In the content area of Civics and Citizenship and in the general capabilities of ICT Capability and Critical and Creative Thinking, students are required to pose or develop their own questions and evaluate information. Students are also variously required to locate, use and analyse information. It would have been possible to include many of these skills in the learning taking place in this unit.
In order to include these skills as part of the learning in this ILA students needed to start with a map, plot a course, and set sail using a planned set of navigational skills. Practically this would have looked like guiding students through the unit using an information literacy model to explicitly teach information searching and processing skills. Since using an information search model is not familiar to this group
Adapted from: NSW Department of Education and Training, 2007
of students, I think it would be helpful to use The Information Process for this unit. This model is a simple, clearly defined, age-appropriate model with some great visual cues and a set of valuable questions that match each stage. For this particular unit I think it would be useful to teach the students to work through this process for each of the six tasks they will complete (Figure 5 & 6). Approaching the unit this way would have the added advantage of repetition, allowing the students to become more comfortable using an information model. Having taught a specific set of information seeking and processing skills, students would have had the ability to set a more purposeful course.
Figure 6 Using The Information Process by NSW Department of Education and Training (2007) to inform student questions during assessment tasks.
A simple restructuring of the unit to include a better development of ideas using Bloom’s Taxonomy and a more deliberate approach to learning information literacy skills would have enabled students to demonstrate a much greater progression in their learning both in the curriculum content and in the area of information literacy.
However, the topic could have inspired students to a much greater depth of learning if rather than simply listing a series of tasks to complete, students had been allowed to wonder. Murdoch (2014) describes the opportunity to wonder as an essential element in inspiring inquiry in students. In the findings, it became evident that there was a limited increase in students’ engagement with the topic. Students, in this ILA were not encouraged to wonder, to question or to investigate. They were not inspired to take on the journey because they wanted to discover new lands or because they had questions they needed answered. They went on the journey because that is what their teacher told them to do. They must fulfil the requirements of the treasure hunt and return home with the correct amount of missing pieces; mission completed. While the Information Process (NSW Department of Education and Training, 2007) provides an excellent framework to help students develop their own questions, it is important that questioning develops further than a rigid formula. Teachers need to model their own sense of inquiry by voicing their own questions, while inspiring students to wonder about anything and everything. It is only by encouraging a culture of wonder that students will develop their own skills in questioning (Murdoch, 2013). This type of genuine questioning could have led to a much broader, much more inspiring journey for students. As they questioned they would perhaps have found other ideas about governments they wanted to follow and other avenues for understanding democracy. They may have been inspired to delve into the depths of the topic rather then skim the surface.
Meshing a better use of a structured information literacy process with a desire to inspire, question and wonder is no simple task but this may have been achieved in the ILA if the underlying philosophy of information literacy had been viewed from a more transformative approach. Lupton and Bruce (2010) have encapsulated the various
Figure 7 GeST Windows, Lupton & Bruce (2010). GeST Windows
understandings of information literacy into three broad windows: Generic, Situated and Transformative (Figure 7). It is evident from figure 8 that the ILA was quite firmly based in a situated understanding of information literacy.
An ILA on governments lends itself nicely to a transformative approach as there are so many levels on which students are able to consider the workings of governments and take action. Students could consider the decision making of local or state governments around environmental issues, as in the case of Saving Black Mountain (Powell, Cantrell & Adams, 2001). Students could debate federal laws, consider the justice of those laws and come up with policies for change. Class groups could take a Storypath approach and place themselves in a fictional story that challenges them to face real issues surrounding governments in the safety of the classroom. Back in the real-world, students could write to Members of Parliament, attend government debates, run for school parliament and participate in a whole host of other engaging, real-world life experiences, designed to inspire them to actively participate in the world around them.
Currently the school participating in this research project is heading down the path of Direct Instruction. In many respects this has proven a useful path to tread. NAPLAN scores reveal that students are in desperate need of basic reading, writing and numeracy skills and Direction Instruction seems to be able to give measurable results on the kinds of skills that are valued in the NAPLAN testing.
Figure 9 Standards for 21st Century Learners (ALA,2007)
But these skills, while essential, are not enough for the 21st Century Learner to be properly equipped for success in today’s world. As information skills become more diverse and as accessing, processing and using the right information becomes increasingly valuable, students need much more than “back to basics skills”. A helpful overview of further skills students need is found in the Standards for 21st Century Learner (Figure 9).
Despite the obvious debate raging in the world of education and politics (Review of the Australian Curriculum review), developing basic literacy skills and engaging in inquiry are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As outlined by Hmelo-Silver, Duncan & Chinn (2007), students who are appropriately scaffolded through the inquiry learning process have the opportunity to develop basic literacy skills, while also demonstrating a depth of learning and understanding that is not as readily developed through basic skills instruction.
However, it became clear during this research project that teachers need to be skilled in order to successfully scaffold students through an inquiry process. It is not enough to set a task and let the students find their way. Teachers need to have the navigational skills themselves, they need to inspire their students to question and investigate and they need to be skilled in understanding how learners learn, when they might need intervention and how to intervene at the right moment. With the right direction, instead of becoming lost at sea and constantly frustrated by their poor navigational skills, students will have the freedom to think critically, draw conclusions, share knowledge and pursue their own growth as a learner (ALA, 2007)
American Library Association (2007) Standards for 21st Century Learners. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/standards-guidelines/learning-standards
Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority. (n.d.) Australian Curriculum. Retrieved from http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/
Hmelo-Silver, C.E., Duncan, R. G. & Chinn, C.A. (2007). Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42 (2), 99-107 Retrieved from http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/hmelo_ep07.pdf
Huitt, W. (2011). Bloom et al.’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/cognition/bloom.html
Kuhlthau, C., Maniotes, L. & Caspari, A. (2012). Guided inquiry design: a framework for inquiry in your school. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited.
Lupton, M. & Bruce, C. (2010). Chapter 1 : Windows on Information Literacy Worlds : Generic, Situated and Transformative Perspectives in Lloyd, Annemaree and Talja, Sanna, Practising information literacy : bringing theories of learning, practice and information literacy together, Wagga Wagga: Centre for Information Studies, pp.3-27.
Murdoch, K. (2014, March 26). What makes us wonder? [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://justwonderingblog.com/2014/03/26/what-makes-us-wonder/
Murdoch, K. (2013, June 8.) Moving on from the KWL chart: student questions and inquiry [web log post]. Retrieved from http://justwonderingblog.com/2013/06/08/moving-on-from-the-kwl-chart-student-questions-and-inquiry/
NSW Department of Education and Training. (2007). Information process. Retrieved from http://www.curriculumsupport.education.nsw.gov.au/schoollibraries/teachingideas/isp/
Powell, R; Cantrell, S and Adams, S. (2001). Saving Black Mountain : the promise of critical literacy in a multicultural democracy The Reading Teacher, 54 (8), 772-781.
Strauss, V. (2013, October 16). Howard Gardner: Multiple intelligences are not learning styles. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/10/16/howard-gardner-multiple-intelligences-are-not-learning-styles/?tid=auto_complete
Todd, R., Kuhlthau,C. & Heinstrom, J. (2005). School Library Impact Measure. Rutgers Univeristy: Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries. Retrieved from http://cissl.rutgers.edu/joomla-license/impact-studies?start=6