Tools and techniques used in the right way can scaffold learning.
Teachers often use them to direct student learning experiences. When students engage with those same tools and techniques for their own purposes, their successes increase motivation and independent learning.
For example, teachers often tell young students to “read to find out”–setting a purpose for their reading. This focus technique helps students learn to monitor their own comprehension. If, as students progress, instead of the teacher setting the purpose, the students approach their text and set their own purposes for reading, the students engage in self-satisfying strategy use. Setting a purpose, seeking strategies that will help the students to reach their own goals, and then actually using the strategies and fulfilling the goal is highly rewarding. The benefits include increased student comprehension as well as ongoing (hopefully life-long) motivation.
The point at which the students know and have practiced teacher-led focusing strategies enough to began to practice self-regulated reading by choosing for themselves from among their personal repertoire of strategies and tools is the point at which the teacher can move away from setting the purpose for the students and turn to helping the students develop potent purposes of their own. It can be an energy-filled, exciting, and sometimes disconcerting time.
“Powerpoint to show,” and “Blog to explain”
We often tell students we want them to demonstrate their own learning by instructing others, because we know that they need a deep understanding to be able to do so. Having students create a genuine product with real communicative purpose and an audience of peers, where they gain recognition for their knowledge and for their skills can scaffold learning. In the same way as self-directed purpose in reading increases student learning and motivation, I believe self-directed purpose in this creative process can also magnify those benefits for students.
Last year I had middle school students research current technology developments or terms (such as wiki, del.icio.us, urban legends) and produce a short powerpoint about it to present to their classmates. I primed the pump by presenting the students with articles bemoaning Powerpoints as the scourge of modern life or as the answer to everything. We talked about “endless Powerpoints” and read a few articles about what not to do, and saw some cool things that were being done. After making our first, basic, Powerpoint (we continued with this popular activity for a bit, I still have students asking me if we can do more!), the students were required to learn a new Powerpoint technique, and explain it during their presentations, as well.
I presented the students with a list of possible topics, and after our first Powerpoint round, I conferenced with each one about what they wanted to learn, and to learn to do, next. Some chose to add sound, some to design their own backgrounds, some to have transitions, and so on. As each student presented their slide show, their classmates and I had feedback sheets to record constructive criticism and kudos (I collected the sheets and gave the student a summary with my feedback). Students would point out their new technique (often with a second run-through of their presentation), and we would discuss its effect on the overall presentation. Students wound up asking each other “show me how you did that?” and deciding they wanted to try something similar on their next presentation.
I remember one student after her presentation, in the darkened tech studio. Her classmates thought her presentation was cool, and they’d also enjoyed what it included about how to unmask an urban legend… I saw a self-motivated, independent learner. I wanted to tell her about TED Talks and challenge her to learn how to put a video of one in her next slide show. But, we had to move on to another unit.
This year, I’m trying to do something similar with blogging tools and widgets and whatnots, and hoping to open up the results to a wider audience using a blog. We’ve just begun, and just like last year, there’s a good deal of “but how do I do that?” and “what’s a widget?” There are a couple of more experienced students who already blog, and they will be consolidating some learning by sharing their knowledge, but I hope to get them into that exciting, disconcerting new learning zone, too. It’s going to be a wild ride, I hope!