Four Recursive Practices for Teaching and Learning
I don’t expect a lot of people to read this post, let alone actually click on the title in genuine interest. It’s not that I don’t think the meta-cognition that takes place around teaching and learning isn’t important, it’s just that many educators I encounter on a daily basis both within and outside of my school district are often not concerned with reflective or recursive practices that are vital to helping construct life-long learners. To be fair, it’s not always their own fault that they don’t express interest in helping students find ways to create their own learning environment; educators have families, second jobs, stresses from administration, assessments, evaluations, etc. and quite often many of us are just looking for the quickest way from point A (start of the school year) to point B (final exams/end of the year).
I feel that the school district I work in does a better job than most at hiring and supporting teachers who reflect upon pedagogy (our middle school being a very effective model for supporting reflective teaching and learning practices), but it’s my opinion that a large number of school districts do very little (or nothing at all) in the way of articulating curriculum and designing schools that can effectively support three recursive practices that Gardner Campbell identified as key elements of teaching and learning in a post-lunch lecture at the 2009 Open Education Conference. If you’re so interested, you can watch the entire presentation below, but if you’re short on time, you can skip the video and go straight to my distillation of these three essential practices for teaching and learning at all levels.
The first recursive practice laid out by Gardner Campbell is one which almost every learner has been doing, with or without the help of their teacher. Narration is writing, blogging, retelling, journalling, reflecting; all of the wonderful writing that we ask our students to accomplish in order to prove not just to us, but to themselves that they are in fact learning. Gardner simply takes it one step farther and asks that we as educators practice narration as well.
Whether it’s through artist statements, poetry, or simply taking notes about a particularly terrible or amazing lesson, the art of articulating one’s own experience is a practice which has proven to be effective for many students and teachers. And you don’t even need technology to do it! Have your students write their thoughts down on scrap paper while thinking through a difficult assignment or task; or maybe carve out some time for reflection at the end of each of your units. You could even make Friday “narration day” in which students get to write about one fantastic and one terrible experience they had that week. Make it interesting and challenge students to come up with their own writing prompts, or create ones for them. Geting students to tell their own story is the first recursive practice that can begin to have a profound impact on their lives.
Simply narrating isn’t enough to instill students with the sense that what they think and how they think will affect them for the rest of their lives. They must curate their learning, organize their thoughts, and arrange it in ways that make sense to them. I imagine it is very much like John Cusack’s character “Rob” in the movie High Fidelity, in which after experiencing a particularly painful breakup, he completely re-arranges his massive vinyl collection according to biographical significance. The order in which he places his albums tells the story of his many loves and breakups over the years, and while we don’t necessarily need to get students to be constantly re-examining their love lives, we do need to instill in them a love for self examination and reflection.
Portfolios of student work, assembling “best of” folders of writing for conferences, and reading previous work in an effort to re-asses its value in the face of new understanding means that narration and previous experiences are revisited, and sorted in a way that makes the learning process easy to follow. Again, technology doesn’t have to be used in order to do this. Technology helps with typical blogging platforms automatically curating archives, categories, and tags in a way that makes it easier to sift through one’s previous experiences, but any way in which we can encourage students and teachers to curate their own lives will help bring a better sense of accomplishment and achievement after accomplishing new tasks.
Up until this point, a teacher could easily accomplish these recursive practices without technology, and to a certain extent sharing can be accomplished through many face to face strategies. However, the true potential of Gardner Campbell’s visions comes from the complete and total process of “narrate, curate, share” happening on the open web. Through individual blogging, connections among social networks like Twitter, or group conversations in a forum, students can begin to shape their own presence and existence as a life-long learner not just within the classroom, but in the real world.
Gardner’s thoughts and theories can best be summed up in the statement “put it out there!” Get students sharing through their own personal blog at Kidsblog, activate Blogger on your Google or Google Apps for Education account, or find someone in your school district that’s savvy enough to get your very own installation of WordPress (my personal favorite) on a school web server. If you’d rather have a collaborative group effort or conversation you could go setup a free forum at FreeForum, Forumer, or install your own copy of phpBB or BBpress with the help of that same tech-savvy individual that setup WordPress for you. The point is to make it open, accessible, and live to the rest of the web, rather than behind the shroud of an LMS, or the curtain of privacy of an “education friendly” service.
While I realize this may not be possible in some districts due to policies or comfort level of the teacher, it’s an eventual necessary step that students must take at some point in their K-12 experience if they are to become better prepared for life beyond school.
I told you that Gardner Campbell laid out three recursive practices for effective teaching and learning, so why then is there a fourth one that I’ve included here? Transitioning to narrating, curating, and sharing on the web requires a crucial step that isn’t immediately apparent to some teachers who are used to the informal discussions and feedback that happens face to face in the classroom. For students and teacher to truly be immersed in what Gardner calls their own personal cyberinfrastructure, feedback from others is the extrinsic motivator that pushes individuals forward if they struggle to do so on their own. Gardner however, warns of providing too much feedback or “training wheels” that are often typically never matched with a gradual release of responsibility that allows students to struggle and grow on their own:
“Pointing students to data buckets and conduits we’ve already made for them won’t do. Templates and training wheels may be necessary for a while, but by the time students get to college, those aids all too regularly turn into hindrances. For students who have relied on these aids, the freedom to explore and create is the last thing on their minds, so deeply has it been discouraged.” – Gardner Campbell, A Personal Cyberinfrastructure
So what does this mean for providing feedback, then? As the teacher you must find that balancing point between providing feedback on student blogs, comments on wikis, or notes left in collaborative google documents, and letting the learner narrate, curate, and share on their own. Too much feedback, and the student will always expect it, no matter how trivial the topic or piece shared. Too little, and the learner will feel as though their work does not warrant the attention of the teacher. While many veteran teachers can do this almost automatically in a face to face setting, to do so online can be exceedingly difficult as the experience blurs distinctions between “work time” and “free time”, with students and teachers narrating and sharing when the mood strikes, rather than the dedicated time you have with one another in a traditional classroom setting. It’s also highly important that students are offering feedback to their peers, and reacting to that feedback in a way that models good constructive criticism and improving upon ones work. Opening up students work to the web means that it’s not just the teacher that’s responsible for leaving the feedback and providing that extrinsic motivation for continued growth; it’s now on the shoulders of everyone in your learning community to help one another in a much more public and open way.
I could continue to drone on about the need for students to publish, reflect, curate, and receive and react to feedback, but I don’t have to; the increasingly relevant Common Core Standards already call for this to happen at all levels of K-12 using technology. The question then is not really should we be doing this in education, but are you prepared to have your students narrating, curating, sharing, and offering feedback openly? I’m sure many are already doing this within the walls of their classroom with pencil, paper, and perhaps a Google Doc or two. It’s time now to explore what happens when you open the door wide and begin to invite other learning communities into your own through the web.