“Knowledge is not a transferable commodity and communication not a conveyance.” This quote by Von Glaserfeld denotes a shift in thinking in how curriculum and consequent lesson planning should be designed. Meaningful learning occurs when the learner discovers the content on their own, by utilizing prior knowledge to help interpret what they are trying to rationalize (Glasersfeld, 2008).
During the past few years of my career I have been actively involved in the application of learning technologies in the classroom, as well as facilitating the implementation of the technology curriculum in Anglophone School District South in New Brunswick. At the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year I was seconded as a Technology Mentor. My role was to assist teachers with integrating new technologies into their teaching practice. I was encouraged to work specifically with technology teachers to ensure that the curriculum was being followed, and that best practices were being used to teach technology from grades six to twelve. This position lasted for two years and presented numerous learning opportunities and gave me a broad view of how technology was being taught in the twenty schools under my purview.
This year I took on a new role as a technology teacher in High School teaching a curriculum that I had only observed others implement. The opportunity to have my own room to field test ideas has been more then a valuable experience and has allowed me to reflect on the previous two years and implement new ideas.
In this paper I will provide a critique of the current Grade 10 broad based technology curriculum that I am teaching, and provide an analysis of how I have approached this content, as well as how I could apply constructivist principles to a specific unit.
During my tenure as a Technology Mentor I was in numerous classes that taught Broad Based Technology (BBT) to grade 10 students. In the majority of classes I saw students in a computer lab setting where most were working on individual assignments in a module based format that followed a very linear process of learning. Each project would start with a basic product that needed to be produced following a specific set of step-by-step instructions encouraging them create basic pamphlets or altering stock images to be submitted to the teacher. Once they completed each module they would move on to the next item on the list, a process they would follow this process for the entirety of a semester.
The main method of content delivery was very structured teacher directed lessons, where each program was walked through on screen. These demonstrations were very didactic in nature and treated students as passive recipients of knowledge (Wing-Mui, 2002). In this approach there is no attempt to elicit prior knowledge, and students are not encouraged to connect it to their personal experience, or work with other students in their class.
From these observations I would summarize that the model currently being implemented, follows Renner’s view of science teaching where instruction mainly involves, telling, confirming, and practicing (Sunal, 2003) There are obvious limitations in this method of teaching, and I will contend that a shift away from this teacher centric model would be more beneficial both the learner and the teacher.
In taking the new position in January of this year I was given carte blanche to teach this curriculum in a manner that would be more engaging and stimulate higher ordered thinking and deeper learning. I will contend that the current curriculum has major areas of concern when evaluated based on constructivist principles and that its structure indicates an apparent misunderstanding of the nature of learning and knowledge building.
I have attempted to redesign various learning activities within the existing curriculum to follow the Driver and Oldham model of learning as a conceptual change, and feel as if the implementation of a problem based learning unit would successfully shift the focus away from a predominantly teacher centric approach towards a more holistic and learner centered one (Sunal, 2003).
Looking at the Grade 10 BBT course outline on the New Brunswick hosted site indicates that the course has been designed around a didactic approach to learning. The course content is packaged online in very discrete sequential step-by-step module based method that has students working on products such as business portfolio’s, workplace safety presentations, and Canadian Heritage projects. All of these products provide some context for the tools they are learning, but it appears as if there is a lot of overlap with Microsoft Office products as well as some applications from the Adobe Suite.
I will further contend that the current format of this course does not foster convergent thinking and that it needs to focus more on several areas that make the learning process more meaningful, as well as provide more learning activities that facilitate reflection of the content they are learning. There is little to no discovery involved and there is no higher level learning being demonstrated at all.
Looking more closely at the business portfolio unit, it consists of eight highly detailed acts that explain in great detail what they are expected to complete. Students are encouraged to follow the instructions provided and create a mock business of their choosing to complete the required acts (New Brunswick Broad Based Technology [NBBBT], 2007).
Although I believe that giving students carte blanche to create their own business is a great start, I feel as if they are inevitably being set up to fail, due to the fact that there has been no attempt to foster ownership, or elicit any prior knowledge they may have around this topic.
There is a very rigid nature to this concept of building a business and resonates a lot of Von Glasersfeld’s arguments around the issue of communication and words as containers for meaning. “If you grant this inherent subjectivity of concepts and, therefore, of meaning you are immediately up against a serious problem”, this statement indicates the misguided nature of learning and is a great way to describe the currently prescribed learning activities. They have designed these activities in a way that places the instructor as the sole dispenser of the “truth”, and as such it does not construct knowledge as an individuals conceptual organization of the their experiences, but as mere regurgitation of “facts” (Glasersfeld, 2008).
This current system further promotes the notion that most teachers assume that for every given problem, there is an objectively “true” solution that their students are supposed to agree upon. This sets them up for failure and does not foster deeper and more meaningful learning. It is my contention that given a few alterations to it’s design, this unit can become more engaging by following a methodology that promotes discovery and more convergent cognitive processes.
Transforming this unit to elicit this type of learning will require the adoption of a new model. Therefore I have decided to redesign the business portfolio unit by using the numerous phases as described by Driver and Oldham. The introduction to the current unit is sorely lacking a hook, and provides no opportunity for the students to discuss and engage in the material in a way that would allow them to conceptualize it in a more personal way (Driver and Oldham, 1986).
This brings up the necessity for a platform that would allow for computer-mediated communication. This is essential to create a community of inquiry, where students can engage in meaningful discussions to facilitate convergent and more in depth thinking (Garrison et al, 2000).
Instead of just telling students to create a business plan as an introduction, students could be encouraged to search through crowd funding sites like kickstarter and indiegogo to explore 21st century examples of startups and bootstrapping entrepreneurs who are making business plans for angel investors. Getting students to discuss their evaluations with other students would allow them to formulate ideas of their own to use for the duration of the unit.
The importance of establishing this community of inquiry is vitally important to the success of the unit and will be necessary later on for the implementation of the restructuring and final reflection phases (Sunal, 2003).
This form of communication will allow the students to exchange ideas and evaluate each other’s alternative views, allowing them to construct their product as part of a collective. This will provide them with a good foundation for the application phase where they will be encouraged to implement their ideas for their own online campaign. At this point of application students would be guided towards creating their own kickstarter style campaign. Instead of getting students to create rigid business portfolio’s using Microsoft Office products, they would be guided towards more entrepreneurially minded campaigns and be given a list of tools and devices to chose from.
Building on the previously established community of inquiry, students would be placed in cooperative groups where they would be encouraged to define roles for each member. The purpose of these groups would be to create a flow of disorganized improvisational exchanges with the intention of achieving specific tasks (Xin and Feenberg, 2007). These groups would create further motivation and engagement in the material all while increasing students’ capacities in developing group-working skills. Placing students in these collaborative groupings for the duration of the unit will teach them the tenants of group dynamics and foster skills in building familiarity, trust and establishing common ground with. All of which are important for facilitating deeper learning.
These groupings are the pillar of the review stage, whereby students reflect on the products they created in the application phase and evaluate what they have learned and the process they went through to get there. Although consensus is important for the final product, the review phase is the opportunity for the instructor to act as a moderator and get students to hash out any issues or concerns they had throughout the process. The rationale for this will be to create controversy and establish that each individual’s interpretation is valid. This will cement the important lesson that the way each student conceptualizes a solution to a given problem is as meaningful as finding common ground. This ability to promote trust in oneself and individual thought is additionally important to effectively teach critical thinking skills.
This final stage allows students to truly evaluate their final product and what they learned along the way, and allows them to think about how they could apply what they have learned to different settings and circumstances.
In order for this new unit to be effective however, I believe the nature of the problem should be designed to replicate an authentic real world problem. Students should be presented with an ill-defined question that would create the puzzlement that Savery and Duffy (1994) contends fosters intrinsic motivation.
What makes an effective crowd-funding campaign? This question would prompt students to discover what crowd funding is, and if placed in the introduction could lead them towards a journey of self-discovery, instead of dictating a more rigid step by step process.
The objective of the students in this unit would be to develop autonomy and use collaborative skills to find the solution that they feel best fits. Alternately the role of the teacher would change in this environment, and they would have to become more of a moderator of discussions and guide the students towards a solution as opposed to a more didactic approach.
The use and integration of technology would be extremely vital to the success of this unit, however, it would have to be implemented in a way that does not impose more control on the students, but instead fosters a community of inquiry, where students aren’t afraid to share ideas and construct new meanings (Savery and Duff, 1994). With this new approach I truly feel students would be able to connect to the material they are learning and be able to apply what they have learned to situations outside of the BBT classroom.
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New Brunswick Broad Based Technology. (2007). Grade 10 Broad Based Technology. Retrieved from http://bbt.nbed.nb.ca/grade_10.html
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Xin, C, & Feenberg, A. (2007). Pedagogy in cyberspace: the dynamics of online discourse. E-Learning, 4, 415-431