May 12, 2014

Co-inventing the Curriculum

Category: Educational Practice
2 female students holding computers writing formulas on whiteboard

Student empowerment is the strongest connective theme through the 55 posts and interviews I’ve conducted for this blog.  The educators I’ve interviewed all have one characteristic in common: they all enable students to take more control over and responsibility for their own learning. Digital media certainly makes many things easier — wikis and group blogs, skillfully used, can supercharge some kinds of collaborative work that long predate computers and networks. And digital media can make some things possible that were never possible before —  second grade students can blog and receive useful comments from people on the other side of the world; thousands of photographers can co-learn the arts of visual storytelling in a digital milieu; students can include audio and video, graphics and interactive mindmaps in their papers, along with their words. But the best educational outcomes grow from a well thought out program of student empowerment — made both possible and attractive by adopting, adapting and mashing-up digital media.

Brad Ovenell-Carter’s students become fluent in many digital tools — blogs, collaborative documents, spreadsheets, Twitter, Storify, Thinglink. But the task of co-creating their learning — not just the tools that make the task engaging to young learners, is Ovenell-Carter’s focus. Ovenell-Carter, director of educational technologies at Mulgrave School in Vancouver, Canada, like Amy Burvall, teaches a Theory of Knowledge course and applies what he and his students learn to their learning. His students even teach students in other grades techniques for examining and mapping their own curriculum with tools and methods they create together.

Again, the pedagogy comes first — instead of banking received knowledge in their brains, which assumes that the creation and testing of knowledge is for others, Ovenell-Carter’s students look for problems, ask questions, collect data, try to make sense of the data they have collected, test their hypotheses, apply and integrate what they’ve learned about co-discovering, co-inquiring, and co-learning to all their subject matter. The digital tools make it possible for the data collection to be more extensive and more minutely labeled than overly-simplified toy versions of student data collection.

In my recent conversation with Ovenell-Carter, documented in the accompanying video, he pointed out that “the digital tools enable us to capture a large amount of data, dump it on the table, explore it, examine it, roll it around in ways we were never able to do before. Like archeologists out in the field, we need to label everything we find in order to make sense of it when we remove it from the place we found it: go out with your phones, take pictures, write notes, capture video, but also tag it for time and location and other attributes, so when you bring it back to the classroom you can see each piece of data in multiple contexts.” The process starts with brainstorming a problem and thinking together about how to gather information — using visual notes, text notes in the cloud, Storify-curated Twitter hashtags — then, extract meaning from the data. The artifacts created by the students are not just products, they are part of their meaning-making toolset.

Ovenell-Carter also advises other educators: “As teachers, we need to get outside of ‘what app to use for that’ and think more of mashups. You don’t need a one-to-one technology program. With one smartphone, one laptop and the right mashup of apps, you can gather data, tag it, talk about it, sketch it, tweet it, archive it in a spreadsheet, turn it into a clickable map. We really like to work in this hybrid analog-digital world. We have a kid sketchnoting. Spontaneously, students walk up and start writing on the board during a brainstorm. One-to-one technology is great when you have it, but with this collaborative approach, instead of thinking about giving every student pencil, paper and laptop, put all your assets on the table and look at how you can put them together — including skill assets. Some students can make visual notes. Others can collaboratively take detailed text notes. A student can tweet and hashtag discussions. You can make the whole room smarter than any of the individuals in the room alone, including the instructor. There’s a radical shift in this way of doing things — it’s built on trust, and I think our existing school structures are built more on dependency and control than trust.”

This turned out to be another interview that went on twice as long as average because Ovenell-Carter, at my request, went into detail about exactly how to enable students to map knowledge with tools they create themselves and included advice for how to get started with this kind of radical student empowerment within traditional structures. Start listening (and seeing!) what Ovenell-Carter has to say and draw about digital media and co-learning, and I suspect you will want to watch the whole thing.

Banner image: Students in Brad Ovenell-Carter’s classroom.