Welcome to my attempt to archive and share some experiences at making learning more visible in my classroom

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Creating a "need to know"

One of the more difficult aspects for students when beginning an enquiry where they do not have a wealth of prior knowledge is deciding on what they "need to know".  Without a clear direction it can mean that enquiries become very messy during the research phase.

I have decided to try a couple of strategies to help students decide on what they needed to know, so that their research and evidence gathering would be more focussed, relevant and potentially quicker.

I should mention that I tried all these strategies with my Year 9 Project Humanities class - a set of able students.

Strategy One - Decide for yourself

As an introduction to the Project Humanities course I give the students a 2-3 lesson challenge to investigate the question - "When was it best to be a germ?" The end product would be a living graph of how germs "felt" throughout different periods of history.
A typical finished product - a living graph.

This kind of activity will be familiar to anyone who has taught the SHP Medicine Through Time course or read of the excellent strategies in the Thinking Through History resource book.  I use this challenge as a way of returning to a solid historical concept (continuity and change) and as a way of tapping into the learning habits the students have brought from Year 8.  I am keen to see how they collaborate to plan, break up the tasks and use their time effectively as well as the depth of thinking they participate at.

The challenge was introduced by watching a Domestos advert and brainstorming as a group the purposes of a germ.  Typical answers were - to multiply and spread; to survive and live a long life; to infect and make ill etc.  Next we discussed how in the modern world we deal with the threat of germs and illness and how this differed from the past.

Students were introduced to the challenge and given a chance to form their own groups and familiarise themselves with the task and the resources available - a book box from our fantastic LRC, some pre-printed sheets and if they felt it necessary - the internet.  Students had around 30 minutes during which time I observed students deciding how their group would divide the task; re-reading the challenge instructions; asking questions about the different time periods they had been asked to consider; making notes; discussing which periods they would investigate.

Interestingly, one or two groups decided to make some predictions about what they believed might be the pattern they would find using their own (pretty basic) prior knowledge of some of the periods.  Both these groups were helped enormously by engaging in this thought process - they were quicker to decide on what they needed to know, were able to visualise their end product earlier and had a sense of direction about the task.

Two groups of students made predictions before they began their research - a helpful thought process.
In the second session pupils were introduced to the success criteria for the task and I used the SOLO taxonomy to provide a structure.  Only two pupils recognised the symbols and words associated with SOLO from other lessons so I gave the students a brief overview of the meaning behind SOLO using a football analogy. We read the success criteria together and then I asked students to decide as a group on three things -

  1. What do we need to know? (what would we have to find out in our research)
  2. What do we need to be able to do?
  3. What decisions do we need to make?  
I emphasised that the students needed to try and use the success criteria to help them decide what they wanted to know and the results were very pleasing.  A few groups took a few attempts to decipher the success criteria into the knowledge they required but all groups successfully decided on relevant avenues of enquiry and areas they wanted to find out about.  

Here are some examples of what pupils decided they needed to know...

How well did this strategy work?

Very well.  Primarily because students were actively deciphering the success criteria and explaining to each to each other and myself what they needed to know.  But it also worked well because using the SOLO success criteria invited many students to consider the kinds of knowledge they would need to effectively reach the relational and extended abstract levels.  All students were able to describe at least two pieces of information they would need to know to be able to answer the questions, for example:   "We will need to know what people thought caused the illnesses and how they treated people", "We would need to know how clean people were during this period or if they had any hygiene".

One of the completed living graphs

Detail from one of the living graphs

On reflection there are a number of important features of how the challenge was structured which also helped pupils decide on what they needed to know:

  1. Some limitations - clarity about the historical periods to be investigated and the question to be answered and a time limit which was fairly challenging.
  2. Using predictions and prior knowledge - students who sat and thought or discussed what they expected to find before they began any research were far more successful.
  3. A chance to get to understand the problem - the first 30 minutes were spent allowing the students to go and view sources of information, see what was out there, re-read the task, discuss and ask clarifying questions.  I find that this time is essential for students to make sense of a complex task and I often only ask students to formally "plan" their enquiry after they have had this time.
  4. Clear success criteria which challenged pupils to think in complex ways, not just produce "more"
  5. Accessible material for all levels of ability.

Ultimately, enquiry learning can engage, inspire and challenge students but it needs careful design to make it work for all learners.

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