Tuesday, 21 December 2010

How Learning Platforms could become the new 'worksheet'

I was adding some maths games to my school's Google Apps domain the other day when suddenly a warning bell went off in my mind. What if I was filling up the learning platform with so much stuff, it would detract from the relationships between the adult and the child?

Let me explain myself a little.

I've been doing some research on the use of social media in maths learning and what I've found is that social media can be used to promote 'negotiated scaffolding'. Some people call this co-construction. It's a pedagogy that fits within the realm of 'social constructivism'. What I also found is that most primary (elementary) children are exposed to mainly 'rigid scaffolding'. Now I have to admit at this point that I'm not completely clued up as to where a pedagogy starts and a teaching strategy starts, but suffice it to say that in my own teaching I'm a social constructivist who's good at making connections between ideas. I use two main strategies: negotiated and rigid scaffolding to take children into their zone of proximal development and onto 'the edge of learning' (Vygotsky).

Is that enough jargon yet? I'll put it another way - essentially my lessons take 2 forms:

  • Lessons where I start from a point the children have specified, negotiate the learning goals and guide them to achieve them. (You can see why co-construction is a useful term for this, as the children work together with the adult to 'constuct' the scaffold).
  • Lessons where I define the learning goal, set the specified success criteria (or steps to success, learning ladder - whatever you want to call it) and teach the various stages until the children achieve the learning goal.
Or going back to the terminology, I use 2 types of scaffolding - negotiated and rigid.

So in my research I did a half-term of negotiated scaffolding, using blogging, Twitter, video sharing and Google Docs for the children to collaborate with each other and beyond to the wider world. One of the particular highlights was when a student, writing the date asked the question: "I wonder if there's a birthday on every day of the year?" She posted the question to the blog, I put it out on Twitter and there were some great responses from maths teachers in different parts of the world by the next day. Excited, motivated, inspired - the children went on to solve the problem the next day.

I then did a half-term of 'rigid scaffolding'. I mainly taught skills like written methods and simplification of fractions. Sounds pretty tedious.

What was interesting was that the children made progress in both periods, during both the rigid and the negotiated scaffolding. And not only that they made double the expected progress. There may be many different explanations for this, but I suspect that the ownership that the children were able to take from the negotiated scaffolding part carried over into the rigid scaffolding part - the children knew that they were in a learning relationship with myself, each other and also people beyond the classroom and it motivated them to really excel.

Sadly, much teaching in the UK primary sector (especially in maths), is dominated by the rigid scaffold. Alexander (2004) calls it 'pedagogical prescription' and Thompson (2008) says:
“at the deeper level of classroom discourse, pupil– teacher interaction was still dominated by closed questions, emphasizing recall rather than speculation and problem-solving”
And with the 'rigid scaffold' the worksheet is king. It enables a teacher to give a 'learning ladder'; to leave the children to get on with it; to ask mainly closed questions

The fact is that social media had enabled me and the children to recapture the dialogue. It forced us to think 'socially'; to talk about what we were doing; to ask questions that were more open-ended.

So why the warning bell?

Well it suddenly struck me that the learning platform - if I filled it up with stuff - would become just like a worksheet. I had talking the 'blank sheet' approach of Google Docs and was busy writing over the lovely blank spaces with content. I could continue fill it up with an activity for every piece of learning needed, forgetting that each child may have different starting points and forgetting that negotiating the way through the learning is an extra-ordinarily powerful method.

The lesson for me is that I need to be prepared to continue the dialogue with the children, finding ways in the learning platform to do it. I need to avoid the temptation of 'closing off' the learning platform, making everything rigid and I need to enable children to negotiate their own learning on the learning platform with me - to become creators of content themselves. A helpful progression for developing learning platforms can be found on this #edjournal article: 'Implementing New Technological Tools in Schools.'


There's still a place for the rigid scaffold, but it needs to be blended with the negotiated one. In the same way there's still a place for the worksheet and the highly structured online course, but they need to be blended with negotiation and dialogue, both face-to-face and social media.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really interesting view of the learning platform and something that I'd be interested in hearing more about, particularly the negotiated learning and how you go about it, both in lessons and through your online learning environment.