Thursday, November 1, 2007

Tracing Learner Practices

Barab, et al. discuss [Barab, S. A., Hay, K. E., Barnett, M., & Squire, K. (2001). Constructing virtual worlds: Tracing the historical development of learner practices. Cognition and Instruction, 19(1), 47-94.] participative learning environments (PLEs) as providing a learning process where students collaborate with peers to solve problems (student-based), rather than sit through the more common didactic, lecture-based (teacher-centered) process. Instead of lecturing on a topic and expecting students to draw their own connections to the real world, Barab suggests that knowing and doing cannot be separated.

It was interesting how the solar system group was struggling with the teacher trying to control her group and both sides being frustrated until the teacher gave up and the students gladly began running their own show. Much of what they did, however, was based on teacher direction. I wondered what training or instructions the teachers had received in this study. Each of the participants reflected on their goals and expectations and whether they were met. It generally seemed that the students were happy with what they had done, since they were fully aware of the time they put in and understood the compromises they made to complete the projects. For the camp directors, it seemed that the theater project, which was more driven by the students, met more of their expectations, while the solar system group’s teacher-directed approach met fewer expectations. Even so, in both groups the students learned and experienced changing group dynamics and were able to teach each other things they had learned one-on-one with one of the technical experts (adults). Much of the instruction, then, was just-in-time and context-specific.

Although the students used computer-based tools to perform many of their tasks, this study was not about the use of technology, rather about group dynamics, relationships, timing of instruction, and real-world experience. This study has many similarities with Problem Based Learning (PBL), although the lack of training and buy-in on the part of the teachers (especially the solar system teacher) causes it to diverge from a true PBL model. Although, for anyone that has had a micromanaging boss, the solar system group might have had the more real-world experience.

The discussion of how the introduction of technological artifacts was interesting. Two points were made: that certain artifacts (the glue gun) may reduce the need for students to learn or understand certain concepts and that other artifacts (predeveloped door) can undermine individuals or communities that are less efficient or become devalued. I recently posted about the book The World is Flat, and my first thought was that the devalued person needs to get over it, just like the people whose jobs are outsourced to India need to retool. If your job can be done by a shell script, then why are you still here? However, as I’ve reflected on Barab’s point, I see he is talking about teachers and designers of PLEs and the need to be aware of the potential impacts of artifacts introduced into an environment. It’s not that they shouldn’t be introduced, but that they should be implemented for a reason, with the teacher being aware of possible implications of their introduction. Some of the most important concepts can be learned and most creative ideas generated during a Storming stage of team development, when group members are fighting for control or direction because of some change to the group, but the teacher should be aware of such changes and ready for them.

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