Category Archive: inquiry

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Web-based Assessment

In a recent Canadian Studies course, I had the opportunity to build a microsite as an alternative to the typical essay format. I observed that there were several major benefits to the web-based format, primarily that it is composed in a non-linear format that allows the viewer to explore the content in their own sequence. As important as traditional composition can be, I can imagine huge benefits of organizing information in a manner well-suited to a non-sequential assembly of written content. I also believe that this generation is much more accustomed to interpreting information from the web than they are with long-form prose or other types of persuasive writing.

Fortunately, I had a background in web design, but it certainly requires technical skills that would typically lie outside of the students technological abilities. I could see myself utilizing this alternative format in a class focused on media or graphics, where the format could build upon an existing knowledge base of the medium. It could be used to summatively assess student competence with web-design as well as to formatively assess their exploration of a contemporary concept within design.

Modern Media Consumption

I personally do not object to being targeted by certain media based on my reported interests. If I am going to be exposed to advertising, my preference is that it be for products and services of some personal relevance, and not simply those which target a broad demographic that I can be placed within. As an adult who has learned to competently read media, I would much rather hear about the new album from a musician I enjoy than a generic advertisement for a tooth-whitening system or Paris Hilton’s latest perfume. It isn’t such a revolutionary concept that advertisers are marketing to a target audience: thirty-second advertisements for the latest toys are going to make more impressions when screened during Saturday morning cartoons than during daytime talk shows, and movie trailers for an upcoming romantic comedy would be better placed before a similar feature than a ultra-violent slasher film.

The primary fear in this multifaceted age is that as these previously competing media bodies merge over time, the concentration of their previously competitive nature is diluted. In a capitalist democracy, the more media is monopolized by media corporations, the less it is expected to meet the needs of its consumers and the more control it has to determine their beliefs and needs. In The political economy of media: An overview, the authors cite the News Corporation’s (internationally infamous) Fox News, which aggressively promotes its right-wing agenda across all of its media influences. Historically, Fox News consumers had been inundated with a single, conservative subtext across all media which was available to them. I believe that the internet poses a major challenge to that narrative and provides a platform to access a broader range of media influences, affording interested consumers with options which may not have been otherwise available. Beyond that, the recent convergence of digital media channels cannot be easily stated to be better or worse, but simply different from its predecessors.

Through a lifetime of exposure, adults have hopefully learned how to (somewhat competently) read media and to understand it on an intertextual level. From there, they can ideally make conscious decisions to consume media which is in alignment with their particular economic comfort zone, disposition, or political ideology. However, that is not the case for children and adolescents. Their brains are not fully developed and they have not learned to critically consume media, and yet they have access to revenue far beyond their own means. For this reason, they represent an incredibly lucrative market in a capitalist society. The recognition of the tween demographic as a target market clearly distinguished from the marketing towards kids or teens more aggressively targets what has become an industry in North America which is said to generate over forty billion dollars annually. I believe that it is the responsibility of schools to provide students with respite from this kind of aggressive advertising. Further, I propose that they should actually scaffold a process of critical media literacy that equips students with the facilities to maintain healthy skepticism of the media they consume. This is of particular relevance in my field of Secondary art education, where the lines between art and media studies have been irrevocably blurred, but I assert that all educators equally bear the responsibility of creating independent citizens that are critical of their environment.

Social Justice and Art Education

In Social Justice and Art Education, Elizabeth Garber draws a connection between the common practice of challenging issues of social justice in contemporary art and how these practices can be developed within art education. She draws on great exemplars like the Kantonens who utilize culturally enriching projects which challenge and engage students on both technical and social levels.

Student are participants and not just recipients of curriculum. “Students reclaim their voices as part of a process of empowerment, not as a means to acquire personal power over people or goods, but by learning how to resist oppressive power that subjugates or exploits themselves or other people” (pg. 6). The power they hold in the classroom needs to be effectively understood in order to successfully engage youth in social issues. Curriculum that integrates and challenges their rapidly-developing understanding of themselves and the world around them enables Secondary students to become engaged in issues of social justice such as corporate sponsorship, prejudice and discrimination, and transforming identities.

Teachers are almost always able to provide guidance when it comes to art-making technique and content development. However, they are by nature composed of a preceding (or at least different) generation of individuals who have themselves arrived at certain conclusions given their own experience of being oppressed by or participants in a society of inequity. They may sincerely wish to guide students towards a place of genuine empowerment, yet their own understanding of issues of social justice isn’t inherently more developed than that of their students. How can teachers effectively and organically challenge their student’s understanding of social justice while respecting their own limitations and not imparting their individual conceptions upon their students? In a polarizing democratic society, should they even strive to?

Engaging with Reality

There’s an exciting trend in education right now that I may revolutionize the way we teach. Teachers are starting to bridge the gap between the curriculum students are immersed in for thirty-plus hours a week with their real lives.

Math has typically been taught by giving examples which might be applicable to the students. “If you have this much change, and Jill has that much change, how many candy bars can you buy together?” I have recently heard these kinds of challenges described as “real-fake” interactions. This situation is meant to emulate a real life situation, but the narrative itself is fake; it is purely fictional and of no direct relevance to students.

New data is starting to show that it is much easier to engage students in “real-real” interactions, using activities that have real world applications in their lives. A chemistry teacher doesn’t need to ask students to work through a theoretical, pretend problem. The can have their students measure the quality of water throughout their own city, compare it to local published levels or national average, track changes and try to theorize why the quality drops in certain areas. A math teacher can have their students examine wages, break down the cost of living in their communities, analyze their own projected wages and cost of living after inflation, and hopefully develop their own opinions on the provincial minimum wage in the process.

Connecting the classroom to communities and homes has been made much more accessible by the new opportunities presented by place-based education. By liberating the classroom from the confining societal notions of where and how education should occur, we stand to gain a great deal of student engagement in curriculum, all while encouraging active participation in their communities.

The Benefits of Small Group Discussions

Working in small groups has been found to be one of the most successful ways of providing a more intimate learning environment and necessitates participation from the students who may stand to benefit from it the most. The potential of this format is often squandered on activities that require little to no critical thinking. The time and resources needed to organize and facilitate stimulating group work often seem so consuming that they may be entirely overlooked by educators.

Group discussion can be split into two formats: seminars and deliberations. The seminar is one of the most widely used formats as it requires a great deal of critical thought and active participation from all students, a collaborative process which can lead. Deliberations require abstract predictive thought to take all factors into consideration to determine an appropriate course of action. Many group activities benefit from an often organically occurring combination of these two forms.

It is much more important that new content and concepts are thoroughly learned than simply exposing students to a larger quantity of material while receiving little in-depth coverage. Small group discussions allow students the opportunity to engage with the material in a way that is otherwise impossible with traditional lecture-based mode of instruction. Students can exercise their comprehension of new concepts and language, develop their own thoughts, and guide one another towards deeper, holistic understanding.

Everyone has had frustrating experiences in the classroom with small groups. In my practice, I intend to implement small groups whenever it is appropriate to do so, but will be sure to avoid situations where students may become dependent on one another for assessments. It is this interdependence that can potentially lead to a great deal of inequity in engagement and discord within the group. When the scope of the work is reduced and the pressure of assessment is eliminated, students may begin to thrive and develop without any kind of external impediment.

Classroom Discussion

Generating in-class discussion can be an incredibly useful process that helps information transition into knowledge. Unfortunately, in many cases it can be underused or even entirely misused. For a proper conversion to take place, discussions need to be able to ebb and flow organically, rather than follow a rigid, linear structure. What can educators help promote this kind of productive discussion while avoiding the pitfalls of surface-level discussion?

Display questions are used to prompt simple confirmations of understanding. Although they are used with great frequency, they do not promote deeper learning, especially for those who aren’t typically prompted. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has been shown that the students who would benefit most from these kind of check-in questions are the ones who are most often overlooked in the classroom. In my own practice, I hope to minimize relying on display questions whenever possible. I believe that by regularly using display question, we lower the learning expectations and teach students to focus on ‘surviving’ these randomized check-in questions rather than continuously engaging with the material.

Open-ended questions call for more than observation or basic processing but actually necessitate some amount of independent critical thought. Follow-up questions may lead to further development, requiring students to justify and articulate their rationale. In other cases, they might be used to prompt students to clarify and organize their thoughts. Hopefully this kind of questioning leads to a natural discussion amongst students. A gentle influence must be adopted in order to direct an enriching dialogue without overtaking and limiting it.

Technology in the Classroom

We recently received an inspiring lecture from Chris Kennedy, the superintendent of the West Vancouver school district. He curates an awesome blog called Culture of Yes which is widely regarded as one of the best Education blog in Canada. Like myself, Chris is trying to bring 21st century technologies into the classroom.

It is a common misconception to believe that technology simply refers to shiny new gear. Indeed, a major part of what technology does is that it enables us to do old things better. Replacing a chalkboard with a whiteboard, or a whiteboard with an overhead projector. They are all time-saving improvements, but they haven’t introduced any fundamental changes. However, the most important and exciting thing that technology does is that it can allow us to do things we previously couldn’t do at all, much less imagine. A perfect example of this was provided during the Q&A at the end of the lecture. Rather than opening up the forum to the first student loud and confident enough to chime in, they allowed students to anonymously submit questions over Twitter. This way, they were able to review and specifically address the most common or interesting questions, rather than defer to sequential questioning. It made the Q&A portion of the lecture much more useful, and even encouraged ongoing discussion long after the lecture had finished.

To those who would argue that there’s no need to rush into adopting new technologies, know that it is urgent. Modern schools look way too much like the schools we all grew up in; the kids have fundamentally changed, and yet the tools of the classroom are virtually identical. Schools have been slow to acknowledge, much less embrace, the opportunities presented by the digital era. A secondary effect is that this institutional ignorance is forcing students to learn to navigate the digital realm with little guidance. Chris suggests that schools should be teaching responsible and native use of digital media and networking in the classroom.

Critics may debate between contemporary preferences between printed media over an eReader, and there are completely valid arguments for each, but few among us would lament the loss of the pager being replaced by the mobile phone. Society typically will not fully embrace a piece of technology until it can thoroughly reproduce the ease of use and functionality of its predecessors. Whether we like it or not, as a culture we are training young people to learn and interact through new technologies, so why shouldn’t we try to build upon the strengths of these students when trying to engage them in the classroom?

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