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How to make them think

In teaching there is so much to think about that it can be easy to forget about our actual approach.  Sometimes we give more thought to the classroom layout than we do to the actual design of the course that we are going to teach.  Often, of course, the choice is out of our hands.  As teachers of public examinations - whatever course that may be - the decision of course content is set in stone.  Sometimes the usefulness of the course content to our students can be questionable and sadly there is not much we can do about that.  

Nevertheless, it is possible - even within the confines of a syllabus - to expound your beliefs about the best way to teach.  I, for one, am a keen exponent of a more constructivist or cognitive approach.  Yes, perhaps there are issues about the teaching space and the time available to me but I am able largely to proceed without getting bogged down in these issues. 

So what is it about the cognitive approach that entices me?  I really like the idea of helping my students to develop their minds, to discover how to develop their minds.  I want my students to learn how to learn.  A skill that they can take with them for life.  This skill, in itself, is so important given the ever changing world in which our students live.   It is well reported all over social media and undoubtedly elsewhere that the students of today will need to become masters at a variety of different jobs on a much more frequent basis than ever before.  Thus they are going to need opportunities that will help them to utilise and strengthen their intellectual capacity. 

With the idea in mind that I need to bring my students to a certain point defined by the syllabus and that I wanted to achieve this by enabling them to construct their knowledge I decided to put together a wiki for a particular class.  I used wikispaces as the medium through which I intended to deliver the course.  The goal was to enable my students to think for themselves and in doing so internalise their new knowledge to produce their own work.

Here is an example of the home page.

the group project page
I am fully aware that my role as a teacher is all important - the questions I ask should be such that I draw out those higher-quality thinking skills that are necessary in a cognitive approach. I have tried to pose such "fat" questions within the various pages of the wiki and there are project work pages for group work and collaboration.  That opportunity to spar with another person, to think through the concepts that might be tricky is vital and the ability the students have to provide immediate feedback to each other is crucial in such a course design. Needless, to say the great flexibility of the wiki is such that students can move ahead as and when they are ready, they can revisit what they have not understood and they can access information via a variety of different mediums such as video, song and written notes.  Such flexibility is at the very heart of the idea behind a flipped classroom that allows differentiation to take place.

I cannot say that I have been entirely successful and created a purely constructivist course.  Indeed, I am not sure that I wanted to, nor do I think it would have been right for this class.  There are a number of pages that are
reflective of a more traditional or discipline-based approach.  There are a number of drill and skill exercises that are crucial for students: students like that feeling of security that they get when completing online activities. For me, in providing drill exercises I am enabling my students to build good foundations from which to "learn to think critically, become lifelong learners and solve problems".

I do get a thrill when my students tell me that they have been on the wiki in their own time using the resources there to help them produce their own work.  However whether my pupils actually want to think critically, become lifelong learners and solve problems is another matter for another post.  I do know that I am certainly thinking critically....

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