ThinkingLand–Helping Students Construct Knowledge with Multimedia
Please note that the following article, published in The Computing Teacher, Vol. 22, No. 7 led to the development of a software environment called Journal Zone. A more recent paper, with updated technologies, is MULTIMEDIA – Blogs, Digital Storytelling, Flash, Podcasting: Enhancing the Knowledge Building.
‘Visual essays’ or ‘multimedia reports’ created with HyperMedia tools are relatively common in many school systems as a means by which students can report their project findings on a subject topic (e.g., ‘endangered species’). Multimedia reports typically include graphics, text, sound, animation, and video. But I question how much effect this has on the students’ understanding of the content or thinking processes involved. However, I believe that there are methods which encourage students to ‘transform’ knowledge into new forms rather than to simply ‘tell’ about something they read.
MULTIMEDIA REPORTS AND KNOWLEDGE BUILDING
Many of the ‘multimedia reports’ created by students are attractive and interesting, but what knowledge have the students developed in their creation? Have they merely made a linear stack with reworded information that they acquired from books? Or have they reworked the knowledge to create new understandings for themselves? What kind of knowledge have they developed? Did they acquire new subject knowledge? What about procedural or metacognitive knowledge that is not domain specific, but rather will add to their expertise as a learner? Journal writing, collaboration and procedural facilitation embedded in a classroom culture focussed on ‘mindfulness’ or ‘intentionality’ may be used to support these kinds of learning. When I speak of mindfulness or intentionality I speak of a student’s wilful attention to, and skill in, learning. Students demonstrate an ‘engagement’ in the task. There is a desire to be involved and great effort is expended in such engagement. Intentional Learning is a construct I find useful in thinking about these issues. Bereiter & Scardamalia (ref 1) briefly describe Intentional Learning “as the voluntary direction of mental effort.” Students set goals – both task and cognitive goals. They choose to, and are able to, apply any unused mental effort to increase their proficiency on the task or to generalize that which is being learned to other domains. They consider, not only the task at hand, but also the larger spectrum in which such learning is embedded. Students consider the knowledge explicitly and separate from the present task. They are learning to: relate old knowledge to new (new to future etc); generate alternate solution strategies before selecting and embarking on one course of action; identify unknowns in the task at hand; recognize similarities among problems and relate this to the task at hand; identify what was learned while engaged in a task and relate it to other tasks (across time and space); plan steps both in advance and in reflection; ask more about procedures rather than outcomes and products (as novices do). They negotiate meaning with their peers. They ask questions. They seek answers and construct solutions. Intentional learners are learning to become expert at becoming expert. They are learning not only declarative subject matter and procedural functionality, they are acquiring valuable metacognitive knowledge as well.
Journal writing supports intentional or mindful behaviour in a variety of ways. Opportunities are provided for considering one’s goals, plans and actions and, as such, journal writing can play a significant role in shaping knowledge. Cappo & Osterman (ref 2) suggest that “as students communicate their ideas, they learn to clarify, refine, and consolidate their thinking”. Larissa , for example, entered into her journal,
“A few days ago I started looking for information, I found out that Rebecca was also doing Prince Edward Island so I asked her if she had any information. She let me use a book called Prince Edward Island. Also I found a book on Lucy Maud Montgomery which I think will be interesting because the people take pride in her for coming out with the amazing Anne of Green Gables series. I started reading the introduction of the book called Prince Edward Island, it talked about the names Prince Edward Island had before it got the name it has now. I decided on some of the topics I want in my project. They are Prince Edward Island (just an introduction) Population, and Tourism. Tomorrow I would like to read through some more of my information and choose some more topics. If possible I would like to get started on my planning sheet.”
Journal writing allows for the externalization of knowledge through language. Language plays an important role in making knowledge explicit by objectifying experience. Brown, Collins and Duguid (ref 3) suggest that school generally disregards the inventive heuristics that students bring to the classroom. Journal writing allows for expression and social sharing of these. Journal writing allows students to state their ‘understanding’ of a topic or problem replete with all the associate ‘bugs’. These buggy statements are then explicit and can act as a medium for mediating new understanding in collaboration with others.
Central to knowledge construction is a recognition that learning is a social process. Vygotsky claimed that all higher level cognitive processes arise out of social experience. These social interactions allow for the concepts, vocabulary and processes necessary for task functioning to be made explicit. Through repeated interactions of this sort, the student comes to recognize and internalize these processes and once internalized then the individual has moved to a higher level of conceptual ability. Stated somewhat differently, Perkins and Salomon (ref 4) maintain that “learning takes place in a social context (e.g., reciprocal teaching), whereby justifications, principles, and explanations are socially fostered, generated, and contrasted.” Collaboration encourages one to consider and resolve cognitive issues in order to participate effectively. One must make sense out of one’s existing knowledge and information, struggle with disparities, resolve difficulties and then state it to another. The externalization of procedural knowledge may be considered in the same way. Before communicating one’s plans and strategies, one needs to explicitly wrestle with the generation of a number of strategies and select one to pursue. One then needs to attend to the monitoring of one’s progress on the task. Finally, one may be required to express reflections on the task or suggest application of learned knowledge to other domains.
Journal writing is usually a personal event. It may, however, accommodate both the personal and public nature of journal writing. It is expected that collaborative journal writing will lead to unique experiences that may have effects that are not just quantitatively different but different also in quality. Collaborative journal writing provides a forum for information exchange about both the content of the multimedia reports and the processes and strategies used by others. This may lead to more comprehensive knowledge building and may result in both better reports and increased metacognitive skills. As a result we see greater linking of knowledge (both within the students’ HyperCard stacks and across stacks). When Bradley was considering his topic, he stated,
“I’ve been doing some serious thinking about my project on hockey in Canada and I feel that I picked a good topic.”
A TYPICAL JOURNAL DIALOG
Other students supported his position through their comments.
o From James –
“Brad I like your topic and I think that it would be interesting to talk about when hockey started and who played.”
o From Danny –
“Brad you might be able to find a book on hockey in the library. GOOD LUCK BRAD.”
o From Larissa –
“Brad, I agree with James that, that would be an interesting topic to put in your project.”
The following example illustrates students planning to link their stacks.
o From Kaeli –
“Ashley- I thought of a way that we could link stacks. If you borrow my book about the nature on the Escarpment, then you could say ‘if you want to learn more about the Niagara Escarpment, press here’. And I could say ‘if you want to learn more about nature in general, press here’. I think it will work well.”
Collaboration may also provide substantive knowledge. Substantive knowledge differs from procedural knowledge in that it is declarative. Children are better at detecting errors in work other than their own. They are, therefore, in a strong position to contribute meaningfully to the knowledge of others.
Steve writes –
“I want to learn how to do an animation that looks real.”
o From Robert –
“Steve I might be able to help you with some animation that will look real. If you want my help ask me tomorrow sometime, and if you don’t want my help here is an example of some animation that I have seen done by friends. You could have a player skate up the ice and shoot at the goalie in the net.”
o From ANDREW –
“You can’t really make an animation that looks real but I might be able to help you
“Today I fixed my animation so it would not go through the cards so fast. What I did was simple I just typed in wait 50 go to next card. Over the weekend I would like to try and get most of my information on each city.”
Collaboration may lead to insights that might not occur without the benefits of the discussions and interactions. It can be said that groups are not just a suitable way to collect the individual knowledge of their members but that they cultivate insights and solutions that would not otherwise occur. Collaboration, therefore, may lead to a ‘whole’ that is greater than the sum of its parts.
For example, Larissa entered this into her journal,
“I want to learn more about P.E.I.’s price winning potatoes. It seems to me that everyone thinks that P.E.I.’s potatoes are definitely the best. Why? I am going to find out why P.E.I.’s potatoes grow so much better than in any other province of Canada. Later today I am going to get some more information about P.E.I. from Kim. I wonder why potatoes grow so much better in P.E.I. than any other food.”
Heather then commented,
“Larissa, we studied acid rain last month. Has the acid rain problem affected the way potatoes grow in PEI?”
Methods to enhance collaboration include: establishment of a common, or shared, task because cognitive processes that are normally hidden are made overt through the pursuit of a socially shared intellectual task and are a focus for discussion and clarification; a classroom focus on creating knowledge building communities where groups ‘work together to advance the knowledge of human-kind’ (ref 5); establishment of a task that engages students in acquiring, developing, and using cognitive tools in authentic domain activity; provision of a collaborative journal writing environment such as ThinkingLand (which is discussed shortly).
Procedural facilitations encourage the change of normally covert procedures into overt procedures. They help students to consider one’s own higher level strategies and they promote the active decontextualization of knowledge. They may allow the user to decenter from personal thoughts and think about other considerations. They facilitate an internal dialogue when no other partner exists to ‘bounce ideas off’. Procedural facilitations can take many forms, but prompts, questions or sentence starters are common (see Figure 3).
“I got farther than I had planned, on the computer today, because we went to Northview to work on the computers. What I got accomplished was my title page and I got a bit typed in, in Geology. I tried to make an animation, but it didn’t really work. First of all, I messed up the trees, then I couldn’t make the little guy fall off the Escarpment. I hope I’ll think of another animation idea. If you have any brilliant ideas, please let me know. ”
o From Larissa –
“This is just an idea but I think because of the many plants and animals you could have a person picking a flower or something and then have some bunnies or something hoping along the screen with him as he runs or something like that.”
ThinkingLand is a computer based, collaborative journal writing environment which has been used with students as they create multimedia reports. It is a classroom tool that integrates these three common practices of exemplary teaching. Journal writing, collaboration and procedural facilitations (in the form of prompts) encourage students to think more deeply, not only about the task at hand, but also about their own thinking and learning processes.
As shown, when students sign on to ThinkingLand they have access to both their own journals and to the journals of others. A student may go to their own journal immediately to make an entry or they may browse through the journals of others adding comments in response to various entries.
At this point, one may reflect on a variety of issues related to the task. Some of these may be salient to the student in which case journal writing may be spontaneous and free flowing. In other instances, the student may need support in thinking what to think and write about. Procedural facilitations, in the form of prompts, are available to assist the student. These are provided as sentence starters and are divided into two basic categories – plans and reflections. Samples are shown in Figure 3.
The information available about the very different behaviours of novice and expert learners formed the basis for the design of these prompts. For example, novices don’t typically pause and reflect on the task upon its completion. They don’t ask themselves “How well did my strategies work? What did I learn that might help me on future tasks or tasks of a different nature?” Experts, on the other hand, do. Also, experts, in advance of task, usually engage in a number of planning strategies. They identify goals and subgoals. They consider previous knowledge and how it relates to the current task. They generate a variety of solution strategies and evaluate them before embarking on any one strategy. Novices frequently don’t engage in such activities. They may use powerful strategies such as trial-and-error and ‘messing around’, and these should be encouraged, but a novice’s repertoire is limited. In addition to the prompts, a list of ‘high-level’ words is available to students to help them to elaborate their thoughts. So if a student initially writes “I want to learn animation”, selecting a ‘high-level’ word such as ‘because’, might result in further consideration of the goal perhaps resulting in subgoals. “I want to learn animation because then I will be able to demonstrate how red blood cells are produced. In fact, I will be able to use it in lots of projects.”
At other times, either spontaneously or through teacher intervention, the students will browse and comment on the journal entries of others. This provides them with opportunities to see what other students are doing and what their thoughts are. Opportunities are available for collaboration. Students may provide substantive assistance to another such as “If you’re going to do animation, then try the card-flipping type. The command is SHOW ALL CARDS.” Other comments might include messages of support or offers of help – “If you need help with animation, come and see me.” In an effort to bump up the level of collaboration ThinkingLand also includes sentence starters for the Comment section. These allow students to consider more deeply the types of comments made. A teacher can also enhance the use of the journals by structuring certain activities for their use. For example, to have students focus on using knowledge as a tool, the teacher could request “For the next group meeting, I would like you to read the journal entries of your group members for the current project and print out the ones that show that a piece of old knowledge has been used in a new way.” Or, “…print out the ones where the comments provide direct help with the task.”
ThinkingLand is a relatively simple tool in its design. What one does with this tool, however, may lead to sophisticated results. Cognitive tools or technologies of the mind are only powerful with mindful engagement. “No computer technology in and of itself can be made to affect thinking. One needs to consider, both theoretically and practically, the whole social and cultural milieu in which instruction takes place” (ref 6).
1. Scardamalia, M. & Bereiter, C. Child as co-investigator: Helping children gain insight into their own mental processes. In S. Paris, G. Olson, & H. Stevenson (Eds.), Learning and motivation in the classroom (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1983) pp. 61-82.
2. Cappo, M. & Osterman, G. Teach students to communicate mathematically. (The Computing Teacher, Feb. 1991) p.35.
3. Brown, J.S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. Situated cognition and the culture of learning. (Educational Researcher, Jan/Feb. 1989) p40.
4. Perkins, D. & Salomon, G. Teaching for transfer. (Educational Leadership, September, 1988) p.2
5. Woodruff, E. & Brett, C. Implementing computer supported collaborative learning in a primary classroom. (Working Paper, CSILE project, OISE)
6. Salomon, G., Perkins, D. & Globerson, T. Partners in cognition: Extending human intelligence with intelligent technologies. (Educational Researcher, April 1991) p. 3.