Labyrinth of information

Labyrinth

Labyrinth

Understanding – that is what I believe we are about in education – helping kids engage with information, culture, experience, to build personal knowledge and understanding. In passing across my RSS reader last night I encountered a post by Sheila Webber that set me thinking once again the whole of helping students develop the skills to ‘do things with information’. Sheila writes about ‘abstracting’ which is a topic that has been reintroduced for her Masters students.

In the course, the students read an article in advance, then in the session they briefly go through some key points about why abstracts are useful, what the differences are from an introduction, indexing etc., and how to write one. Then the students draft an abstract in class, swap it with their neighbour, read their neighbour’s abstract and make at least one positive and one critical comment. Then of course they have a discussion about the issues.

Here’s the crunch. Sheila says

Being able to read through something, pick out the key points and present them clearly is a good skill to have in the workplace, not just for study, I think. It is also useful in focusing on how articles are structured, and thinking about how you might identify the key points as a reader.

Now my mind jumped across to our classrooms. Besides the normal curriculum activities that are intended to introduce content to students, hopefully in such a way that they can wrestle with ideas in an authentic way (think project-based learning), there is the problem of their evolving skill-sets.

The relationship between a person with a question and a source of information is complex. We ask our students constantly to be ‘doing things with information’ including constructing new interpretations, new versions, new representations of information that they have trawled for in books, magazines, and rather more often in digital resources. Yes, Google still gets a good workover.

What we need to be doing more of is emphasizing the methods for constructing appropriate representations of information. This is more than referencing and critical thinking. It is honing the skill to summarize and articulate the content, meaning and purpose of a body of information or knowledge that is being absorbed or incorporated into the thinking activities taking place in a student’s head. Do we do enough of that?

It is important that we remember to incorporate methods for modelling both the construction and deconstruction of information. As students learn this skill, there thinking will become more flexible, and their minds will eventually be able to abstract information concisely and efficiently.

At school we are constantly exploring ways to promote construction of information. There is much to be learned about this problem in our digital age. I have a sense that we are not addressing the issue well enough yet. I think we all need to learn a lot more about this area because of the demands of 21st century learning.

Gary, our chemistry teacher, and member of the Powerful Learning Project Team, has been spearheading an initiative for doing things with information in Chemistry.

Gary has deployed Mindmeister, first up, as a tool for organisation and reflection of content. This online mind – mapping tool has the added advantage of collaboration. Gary’s students worked in teams to pull together information on different parts of their topic. This was revision work. This was collaborative note taking. This was far more effective for distilling information for the students. the tool is interesting as it allows more than one student to be working on a mindmap. Gary’s secret? get different groups of students to focus on different parts of the mindmap. This is step one in learning to ‘do things with information’ ! One day, these kids might be able to understand what’s involved in abstracting!

Bonus: And get this!! If you plug in your Skype information you will be able to call other people who are also editing the mindmap. If you have a pro account you can take the map offline for some Google Gears functionality.

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