by Tom March
first published in:
Multimedia Schools Magazine
May/June 1999, Volume 6, Number 3
People aren’t born knowing how to read, play a musical instrument, or drive a car. We recognize these as hurdles and even identify them as rites of passage. We use Easy Readers, Suzuki Methods, and Drivers Ed to help learners. If we skip such formal approaches to learning and encourage self-taught mastery, at least we recognize people need time if they are to acquire the learning on their own.
Yet teachers are expected to know some pretty complex things without any formal instruction. For example, educators should know how to teach students to use the latest hi-tech resources and to prepare learners with an array of advanced thinking strategies. ‘Makes playing violin seem like a snap in comparison. Still, just because things are hard, doesn’t mean they aren’t good to learn (haven’t you heard yourself saying this to students?).
So what’s needed to help teachers achieve their tech-use rite of passage? I’d suggest two things. First, how about plenty of time to learn? Seems reasonable. Given the time, many educators will creatively problem-solve this challenge as they do most others. But time is often the teacher’s least available resource. So we turn to a second possibility: a somewhat formal approach to learning that can save time and provide a framework to grow on. The goal of this article is to offer identifiable milestones to help educators effectively use the Web to engage students in advanced thinking. This could serve as a self-assessment to pursue your own professional development or as guidelines to use when mentoring others. Let’s take a look.
Stage 1 – Getting to know the Web
When we encounter something new, we bring to the meeting a variety of experiences and ideas. It’s the same with getting to know the Web. Some people, who see themselves as technophobic, may approach the Web with feelings of impending failure (“I knew I’d freeze up the machine.”). Others may come with fixed misconceptions based upon what they have heard (“The Internet is a giant encyclopedia.”). There are those with limited exposure who have formed rigid viewpoints (“It’s all pornography and mindless chat.”). Finally, others of us catch Teacher’s Disease and bring the germ of understanding from one in-service straight to the classroom, infecting students with one more drippy assignment (“Okay. Step 7 – Everyone type “whales” into the search engine…”).
Getting a clearer understanding is the first critical step. Until we have an internalized some sense of the quirky, chaotic, rich, and diverse nature of the Web, there’s no point moving on to stage two. So how do we achieve this understanding? One approach is to start at a Web page that links to topics of personal interest. Beginning at an edited portal like YAHOO or About lets you begin surfing immediately. Knowing that these are directories of anything anyone cares to post explains the variations in content and presentation. Depending on the false impressions you bring to the meeting, this first stage may be over in an hour or may take several sessions.
When you have a sense of the Web, can find your way around a browser, and suspect there must be better stuff out there for you, then you’re ready for Stage 2.
Stage 2 – Finding your Web
Because of the World Wide Web’s immensity, diversity, and role as Everyman’s printing press, it’s appropriate to step back from the parlance and realize that referring to it as the the Web is convenient, but inaccurate. It’s like talking about politics, religion, or diets as if we all agree on one general understanding of the entity. No single description of it will match everyone’s perception. We view the world from our own experiences, insights, and beliefs and choose our careers, hobbies, and communities based on our view of things. It’s the same with the Web, so the second stage is to find what corner(s) of cyberspace we want to call our own. Thinking we need to know (or like) it all guarantees our frustration and the Web’s misrepresentation.
So how do you discover your niche on the Net? You could Surf, Stumble, Search and Lurch. This Web-based activity begins with Stage 1 surfing, points to interesting Web pages to Stumble across, introduces Search engines, then drops you off at a few key sites developed to help educators Lurch into action.
Once you’ve found a handful of places on the Web that you would want to come back to, you’re ready for Stage 3.
Stage 3 – Meeting your Neighbors
A “Killer App” is a great application that completely justifies owning a computer. Some have called Quicken a killer app because it allows them to gain control of their personal finances. HyperStudio or KidPix are often referred to as killer apps for schools. Early on, Email was named the killer app of the Internet because it makes communicating so quick and easy. I believe Curtis Pavel got it right when he said, “People are the killer app of the Internet.” It’s not about information. It’s not about streamed video. It’s not about online shopping. What makes the Web so compelling is what human beings bring to it. The third important stage is to honestly appreciate the human connectedness gained through the Web.
How do you make such a connection? The first place to start is with “your Web” found in Stage 2. Behind most Web pages is a person. Often an Email link provides immediate access. Go ahead. Don’t be shy. If you see something you like, let the person who posted the page know about it. Because I’m advocating a personal connection to the Web, I’ll share some instances that helped me “Meet my Neighbors.” I’ve sent appreciation Emails to university professors, professional journalists, amateur artists, and artistic programmers. All these people have been good enough to respond and open the lines of communication.
Only through the Internet can we so easily contact others around the world who share our interests. This is not to say digital contact compares to in-person connections, but often the former leads to the latter. Even if it doesn’t, in our Future Shock societies, any bond helps confirm our place in the world. So take the time to meet the people who congregate in your corner of the Web. Send Email messages, join discussion lists or post Web pages to see for yourself, that, far from isolating people, the Web can bring us together.
A Pause to Reflect
Notice that Stages 1 – 3 all relate to the teacher’s learning. Too often we only focus on our students’ development, neglecting our own needs as learners. Then, with post-PD enthusiasm, we take a reasonably good – though half-digested – activity into the classroom for use with students and wonder why it leaves us less than satisfied. If we don’t have a good personal understanding and value of how the Web can serve our own learning, we’re too likely to under-use its potential. The Web is too powerful a medium to treat so poorly. If you want to support student learning, you’ll need to speak from internalized wisdom, not snippets from an in-service or magazine column. If you skipped any of Stages 1 – 3, scoot back there now.
Some of you may be saying, “I’m too busy for all this. All I want is to get started using the Web with students.” Your students need you to get a good handle on the Web. Your educator’s pedagogical expertise has never been as necessary as it is in a Net-connected classroom. You can be sure the students will find out how they want to use the Web… they have the time… they spread the word about “good” sites… Have you seen the sites they like?… Let’s be a part of this discourse.
This is why, only after the teacher has a personal appreciation for the Web, do we even begin thinking of using it in the classroom. The following four stages suggest a progression of curriculum design to integrate the Web with classroom learning.
Stage 4 – Using the Web with students: Starting with Hotlists
As you turn to using the Web to support student learning, the first place to look is at your current curriculum. Review your file cabinet filled with great activities and planning books crackling with clever ideas. Because it helps to lead with success and to start out easy, the first way to use the Web with students is as a supplement to what you already do very well. Point your browser to places that accent and enhance what you’re already doing. Try Kathy Schrock’s Guide for Educators or The Blue Web’n Library for sites in your content area. The latter is organized into a matrix that cross-references content areas by Web sites categorizes by such traditional notions as “lessons,” “resources,” and “activities.” Other good sources are The Gateway for Educational Materials and the Marco Polo collection.
The natural place to begin integrating the Web for learning is collecting sites that you find most useful / interesting / peculiar on your topic. When you create a Topic Hotlist, your learners will be spared hours of fruitless searching. Instead they will have something analogous to the collection of works your diligent librarian rolls into your room for students to explore. The Web resources differ in quality, currency, and quirkiness, but the learning strategy is similar: give the students an array of materials on the topic they are studying. What’s missing is the exact learning objectives you’d like the students to achieve. Those tasks and instructions are probably on the handout they’re working on, not the Webpage they’re using to gain insights, experiences, and information. This is why a Topic Hotlist is an easy strategy to employ; you simply add the Web resources to an activity or unit you already have prepared. An example of a Topic Hotlist is Exploring African American History on the Web.
While gathering such a Hotlist in the early days of the Web took tens of hours, when pressed, a useable Hotlist can usually be found within 10 minutes or less. Creating your own Hotlist can be done in 30 minutes to a couple hours. The main variable in the time required depends on how well you know the corner of the Web in which you’re gathering links. When you know what the Web resources are like for a given topic, you’re almost done. When you’re collecting sites on a topic for the first time, expect to spend some time exploring as you did in Stage 2. Again, this isn’t wasted time as long as you’re looking in fruitful places.
Stage 5 – Designing Goal-based Web Activities
Notice the shift from the last stage of “Using” the Web in stage four to “Designing” with specific goals in this stage. We’re getting into the good stuff now! Question: Who knows the content your students need to learn better than you? The National Geographic? Who knows their reading level better than you? Encyclopedia Britannica? Who knows what motivates them better than you? The Discovery Channel? As good as these Web sites are, they can’t know your students as well as you do. So who should be creating Web-based activities for your learners? Don’t panic, it’s not as difficult as you may think.
Knowledge Hunts and Subject Samplers
For the past few years, this challenge of integrating the Web with learning goals has been what’s kept me out of trouble. The article Working the Web for Education originally laid out five formats to guide the design of goal-based Web activities. We’ll save the details of these Activity Formats (sometimes referred to as “Learning-Centered Scaffolds”) for a later chapter, but a brief introduction could be helpful now. To begin designing goal-based Web activities for your students, ask yourself whether that terrific, non-Web-based lesson you’ve already got could use a boost in one of two areas: helping students acquire more information or getting students to care more about the topic. If you choose the former, I suggest you create a Knowledge Hunt. If you opt for the affective connection, then try a Subject Sampler. In brief, these formats provide a template for how to choose and organize Internet links and questions in order to prompt the desired learning outcomes. An example of a Knowledge Hunt is embedded in the Crool Zone? series and the classic My China.
By using Hunts and Samplers you’re targeting learning goals while integrating outstanding Web sites into your curriculum. This precludes students from using their Net-connected computer like a giant remote control. Remember, like waves in the ocean, what’s beautiful and powerful washes right over unskilled surfers.
Although I have a bias toward teachers using self-designed curriculum rather than trying to implement another’s lesson, at this point I’d leave it to personal preference and computer experience whether you locate and use another’s Hunt or Sampler or create your own.
Stage 6 – Advanced Goal-based Design
Knowledge Hunts and Subject Samplers are good techniques for early integration of the Web because they are conceptually easy to understand: you use the Web to learn facts or make affective connections. We don’t stop at Hunts and Samplers, though, because doing so would shortchange the Web’s best contribution to learning. We know that information posted on the Web can be of dubious credibility, so students must take charge of their learning and scrutinize everything. Because anyone can have his or her say, Web pages by-pass the media filters that limit the discourse to more mainstream opinions and perspectives. Because many people publish on the Web without remuneration, postings tend to be passionate. All this creates a thick mixture of that compels authentic learning, something that’s often difficult to conjure up in the thin atmosphere of school classrooms isolated from the world.
Concept Builders and Insight Reflectors
Therefore, like the goal-based formats of Knowledge Hunts and Subject Samplers, I suggest three formats that prompt higher-order thinking. Briefly, Concept Builders prompt learners through a concept attainment process to develop more sophisticated understanding of a topic. Examples are the No Fear o’ Eras activities in Eyes on Art where students view three sample artworks from a given era and are prompted with questions to find the critical attributes of that style. The Web offers the many examples needed to build such activities. Another higher order thinking format is called the Insight Reflector and prompts students through a reflective writing process. Sometimes you’ll want to encourage the open-ended personal reflection that shows evidence of a mind at work. The Web offers the provocative opening occasions that can lead to fruitful reflection. A sample Insight Reflector is found in the Crool Zone? Series.
Finally, WebQuests have quickly become the archetypal Web-based activity. Originally outlined by Professor Bernie Dodge in Some thoughts about WebQuests, I was fortunate to spend the next three years working with him to flesh out the WebQuest strategy. As a curriculum designer and Web-based educator, I have continued to shape and refine an understanding of the WebQuest virtually every day since then. By definition, WebQuests invoke Inquiry Learning to guide students into higher-order thinking. Thousands of WebQuests have been based on this definition and those can be seen at The WebQuest Page. The first mass-produced WebQuest and a “classic” of the long-term or unit level is my mutating Searching for China that is now in its fourth variation.
Stage 7 – Pursuing Transformation
After several years designing and helping others to design WebQuests, one thing’s obvious: it’s not easy to prompt higher-order thinking. In fact, for almost everyone who has created his or her first WebQuest (including me), doing so doesn’t seem to come naturally. Let’s look a little closer. As an artifact from an earlier age, I’ve archived Searching for China version 0.9. If you analyze it, what you’ll see (besides a circa 1995 Web page), is a series of tasks that do, in fact, occasionally require students to engage in higher-level thinking. What you won’t see is a larger task that prompts students to use that knowledge in a new way, to transform knowledge, to construct new meaning. That’s why when Bernie first looked at it he said, “It’s good, but it’s not a WebQuest.” With no chip on my shoulder, I’ve heard myself repeat the refrain innumerable times since. What was missing was this transformation of acquired information to new understanding.
I believe the reason it’s so difficult to reach this transformative mark is that it’s part of a two stage process: first we help students develop expertise, then we foist them into a scenario that forces new use of that expertise. The solution I struck upon in 1995 was to set students up in roles that would create sparks when students responded as a group to an essential question. The solution for 2003 was to launch BestWebQuests, a database celebrating and educating true WebQuests.
Stage 8 – Welcome to Your New Job
You noticed that the first three stages to Web-use Nirvana had to do with your personal and professional growth. The middle chunk all relate to curriculum design. What ever happened to teaching? with kids? in a classroom? Well, it’s all different in a very familiar way. When I do in-person workshops with teachers who need to be convinced to approach their jobs in a new, learning-centered way, I take them to two different kinds of Web sites. It’s the old carrot and stick routine. First, I show them a batch of great sites that provide high quality interactive learning. Once everyone’s drooling, happy someone’s finally making Web sites worthy for their classroom use, I reveal that the sites were created by students as part of the ThinkQuest competition. Most teachers see that it’s better to be on “the winning side” and realize that taking a mentoring role with students (as in the ThinkQuest model), may produce more powerful learning than their teacher-centered lessons.
The “stick” sites are those that undermine traditional teaching methods and maintenance of a feeble status quo. Such places as Schoolsucks.com, The Evil House of Cheat, and Sparknotes supply students with essays on most topics. If teachers are careless enough to play the old “write me an essay on” game, they get what they ask for and, to borrow from H.L. Mencken, with the Web, they get it good and hard. A second stick that might encourage educators to adapt their teaching methods to a new era is the notion of disintermediation. When people can buy books online and get them delivered to their doors within days, what do bookstores need to do to encourage shoppers to cross their thresholds? Some answers trialed by the big franchises are couches, cappuccinos, and camaraderie. When students can earn valid high school diplomas through the Web, what incentives do local schools offer to get students to keep showing up? Sure, we all know the answer’s socialization, like friendship, mentoring, clubs, sports, cliques, drug deals, bullies…
So what is the New Job for Teachers? This is an evolving answer that has something to do with offering authentic, motivating, and compelling learning experiences; using a learning-centered approach to prompt novices to engage in more expert -level endeavors; and teaching both cognitive and people-skills that improve students’ success in the world. Another aspect relevant to readers of this book is to take this mentoring role with colleagues. It’s not that we don’t want to change, it’s just that the old shoes slide on so easily. Some approaches that support the needed experimentation are charter schools, schools-within-schools, team teaching, block scheduling, community-based learning / partnering, etc. Some of my mentors in this field are Theodore Sizer, Robert Marzano, Marlene Scardamalia, David Jonassen, Jamie McKenzie and a host of dedicated teachers and administrators. Their work informs the strategies that follow.
Stage 9 – Remove the Scaffolding
As we use strategies like WebQuests and become coaches more than teachers. After all, it’s the students who must perform, and the fact that “we told them how to do it correctly” doesn’t change the score at the end of a losing game. Our task is to watch closely, to analyze student strengths and areas for improvement, then devise new strategies to scaffold more expert performances, giving them a chance to practice in the most authentic arenas possible.
As students engage in advanced learning experiences like WebQuests and teachers work from a learning-centered perspective, cognitive strategies become topics for overt discussion. One appeal made in the literature of cognitive psychology is to analyze actively and openly how each of us learns. This emphasis on metacognition, along with years of good coaching and practice, will lead students to internalize these critical thinking and social skills.
Thus, the day will come when our main role as educators will be to progressively remove the prompting strategies like WebQuests, to, in effect, remove the scaffolding that once propped up novices, helping them act achieve expert-level performances. These expert students will be poised and prepared to fend for themselves.
Stage 10 – All that’s left is Learning
Zen Buddhism uses a series of ten “Ox Herd Pictures” to illustrate the stages to enlightenment. The first picture shows the ox herd in the midst of ordinary life in the marketplace. After the eight interim stages that depict a progression to an enlightened state, the tenth picture is the same as the first: the ox herd’s back in the marketplace. Everything’s the same, but it’s all different. I like to see these ten stages toward Web-use Nirvana in a similar light. Viewed from the outside, someone at the first stage and the last stage would look the same. They would both be poking around Web pages. But they would also be completely different. The novice would be surfing around, superficially skimming. The expert student, however, graduate of a cutting edge-ucation, would be looking with a self-directed purpose, pursuing essential questions of his or her own design, critiquing perspectives and agendas, and creatively problem-solving the cognitive tasks encountered each step of the way. In other words, we would be watching the performance of a skilled learner. So after all the stages, the scaffolds, and the strategies, if we do it correctly, all we have left is the learner learning. And isn’t this what we’re really after?