As part of my GA experience, I have been assisting with various studies in a local elementary school surrounding the use of Knowledge Building Environments to enhance student learning in science. One of the goals of Knowledge Building is to engage students in self-mediated discussions where they pose questions, postulate theories and provide evidence to explain scientific phenomena that they have observed either inside or outside the classroom. Their ideas are posted to an online environment in the form of scaffolded “notes” or drawings. Once posted, they can be treated as artefacts or “idea objects” which can then be read, annotated and built-upon by other classmates.
For the most part, traditional classroom dialogues are largely facilitated by the teacher. Students present their ideas orally, which limits the availability of these ideas to a particular time and place. ”Good” ideas are sometimes written on the chalkboard and perhaps copied onto worksheets or into notebooks, however usually the things that are written down conform to a particular “correct” answer or “expert” way of knowing. In this context, it is common for a few confident/extroverted students to dominate the discussion while others passively consume the information they are being fed. Moreover, rather than seeing themselves as autonomous agents for learning, students require ongoing validation from the teacher to confirm their learning experiences.
However, in the case of this particular elementary school, this wasn’t so.
“Today we’re going engage in some meta-discourse,” explained the vice-principal to a class of Grade 4 students. ”Meta-discourse; that’s a big, long word [writes it on the board]. Does anyone know what it means?” Silence. ”Well, ‘meta’ means ‘of itself’ or ‘as if from above.’ Today we’re going to pretend that we’re looking down at our classroom as if we are floating above it and observing everything that’s going on. ’Discourse’ refers to the ways we think and discuss. So in a sense, today we’re going to think about our thinking and have a discussion about our discussions.”
As it turned out, the students were quite receptive to this. By assessing the ways that they contributed to classroom discussions, students were better able to reflect upon their own learning processes and identify how, when and why they got stuck.
For example, in a recent unit on “Optics” students observed the refraction of a straw when it was put into a glass of water. Their explanations drew upon multiple sources – from books to the internet to other phenomena they had observed or experienced – however, they failed to explain what was in fact happening to the straw as it was submerged in the water that made it appear “broken.”
“We created a lot of theory notes,” observed one student, “but we never put all our information together.” ”There were very few follow-up questions, which means we might have missed something,” suggested another. ”The conversation just stopped. Then we moved on to something else.”
Students then reflected on how they could possibly modify this conversation so that it didn’t “just stop.” Many suggested that in addition to contributing different types of notes to the discussion (e.g. testing hypotheses, weighing evidence, and synthesizing theories into “rise above” entries) that they could also potentially link this discussion to other topics they were learning. For example, one student considered a possible connection between the “broken straw” phenomenon and some of the physical properties they were learning about water. Another suggested that they could connect their discussion to the collaborative group projects they were working on:
“I’m building an eco-house for my project!” declared one student proudly.
“What does building a house have to do with optics?” asked another.
“It’s covered with solar panels and it uses mirrors to reflect natural daylight.”
In many cases, connecting material from unlikely sources enables students to break free from conventional disciplinary boundaries to construct knowledge more meaningfully using larger conceptual frameworks and broader cognitive schema. Moreover, by allowing students to step back from their discussions to engage in meta-discourse, they are given greater autonomy over their own learning and are able to participate in conversations that will support them in their future as lifelong learners.