I’ve found that there are two main phases to creating and participating in WebQuests. First there is the whole immersion and information-gathering phase. Interest is excited and the problem becomes clear so we prepare and soak up lots of new information and perspectives on some specific aspects of the issue. Although this can sometimes feel challenging because of all the information available, generally, this first phase is an one of engaged and enthusiastic pursuit – there’s lots to learn so we get on with it.
The second phase is different. It’s a phase we don’t often get to in our Assembly line method of schooling. It’s the sticky part after information is acquired. What’s to be done with it? Do we hold it temporarily, say for an exam, and then left it go or do we want to keep at least parts of it and add it to what might be called our “knowledge.” You’ve heard of this process many times and with a range of terminology. Classically, it’s Piaget’s shift from assimilation to accommodation. Others have referred to it as “construction of meaning.” It’s the “Ah-Ha!” insight that sometimes follows the “Huh?” of cognitive dissonance. It’s the painful shift from short to long-term memory. Bloom’s taxonomy and the information literacy processes that embody it might see it as “Synthesis,” the putting together after of something new from the pieces derived by careful Analysis. I have come to refer to it as the “transformation of new information into new understanding.”
The problem with this second phase is twofold: it’s hard work and it’s idiosyncratic. The hard work is because this task is very cognitively demanding – it hurts our heads and often feels like we’re treading water, not sure if we will learn to swim or sink into confusion. The second problem is the idiosyncratic part – if the process of “making sense” from complex new information is unique to each individual (can you imagine it being any different?), then how do we “teach” it to a big group of students, a classroom of them, for instance? Wouldn’t it require time? A lot of one-on-one Socratic mentoring? How can this work with typical teacher-directed learning when the bell’s about to ring, the semester end and kids are lining up to accept their diplomas? So it’s no wonder that 80% of WebQuests leave this pesky transformation bit off – but thus aren’t WebQuests. It also why I get a little ranty at Info Lit processes that neatly label a stage “Synthesis” as if giving it a name makes it happen (I like to refer to that tact as the “Insert Magic Here” approach).
So today’s challenge comes with a rare opportunity – working with a small group of teachers who have already spent two days (Day 1 and Day 2) gathering online resources and brainstorming perspectives on an appropriately complex and rich topic. Today we will see if we can design for each topic a process that guides a group of students toward the light, to accommodation, construction of meaning, Eureka! and Ah-Ha. One trick we have up our sleeves is that the best Group Transformation processes flow naturally from the acquisition of new information that has preceded it. Just like a teacher working with a group of students in a WebQuest, I will be working with a group of teachers facing the same Task: given what I have learned, how do I shape it into a new understanding, representing Knowledge I didn’t have before. The first requirement for this task is met: we have the time. The second follows with what I hope is Socratic coaching and online resources to inspire possible solutions.
Please go to the Workshop site to re-read this article and access online support through further readings, examples and tools.