Strong Emotions about TOK

photo: Adam Clark

photo: Adam Clark

I started the year feeling slightly worried about IB Theory of Knowledge (TOK). This is the first semester I’ve been incorporating some of the recent changes to the program, including the addition of “Indigenous Knowledge Systems“, a new Area of Knowledge (AOK) which I felt strangely uncomfortable about or perturbed by upon first hearing of it. I’ve spent a lot of time (too much, probably) trying to figure out just what made me skeptical about that particular new AOK. Was it the potentially divisive idea that “modern” and indigenous peoples use completely different systems of knowledge? I’m still not sure.

However, as the semester has gotten rolling, I’ve been reminded repeatedly that TOK is one of my very favorite classes ever. I was asked to give a presentation on History as an Area of Knowledge to the Grade 12s yesterday (picture above), which was quite energizing (for me, that is – the students might differ). Another of the exciting things happening this year is the development of a blended learning / online course platform to accompany the TOK curriculum by my colleague Adam Clark. It’s been quite interesting to be involved even peripherally in this new endeavor.

Then there are my students, who have already impressed me with their insight and ability to make interesting connections – for example, last week we got into an impromptu discussion about why people think some houses are haunted; I think the discussion probably involved serious consideration of all the Ways of Knowledge and Areas of Knowledge at some point (yes, even Indigenous Knowledge Systems). It’s great to use TOK as a chance to step outside of the narrower perspective of a single academic area to get the chance to hear what students think about topics they’re personally interested in.

Students investigating forced perspective and visual illusions as part of a look at Sense Perception

Students investigating forced perspective and visual illusions as part of a look at Sense Perception.

I don’t have any big point to make here – I just wanted to share the fact that I’m really enjoying TOK so far this year and some of the reasons why. I’m even starting to warm up to my old bugbear, Indigenous Knowledge Systems, and in any case my grappling with it is sure to turn out to be an opportunity for learning. My main emotion (an often underrated Way of Knowing) on the topic of TOK this year is definitely excitement.

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Fieldwork and Classwork

I’ve been extremely impressed by the variety of uses we’ve already found for the iPads in a very short time, and by how meaningful and constructive those uses have been. I don’t have a lot to say that wasn’t covered by Rebekah’s excellent post, but here are a few Vines of the 7th graders (and a few curious 6th graders) using their iPads for assorted acts of learning and creation.

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Vines in the Classroom

One new way I’ve been trying to document what’s happening in the classroom is by taking short videos with the Vine app for iOS. The results are not always pretty, but I think they’re interesting. For example, here’s what happens when a 6th grader gets hold of an iPad connected to the projector:

Here are some other Vines from the last couple months. Most of them show us trying out some new uses of technology in the classroom, but some are just silly. Either way, they usually show us having a good time and sharing what we’re learning with each other, which I think is important. I’m trying to think of ways Vine might be useful for student projects as well – I haven’t come up with any ideas yet, but it’s definitely something I think would be fun to try out as part of a project.

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Single-Use Google Site

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What we did

Long story short: our class made a Google Site that we only intended to use as a place to display some formative work for one or two days.

Our Grade 6 English unit on “The Press” involves having students write imaginary news articles (the only limitation on their content was that they had to describe something happening at school). This was really just daily work, not a major project, but at the end of class I decided to quickly create a Google Site to post their stories on.

Why we did it

At the end of a period of students’ writing fake news articles, I realized I didn’t know how best to share and discuss them. Their articles, from what I’d seen as they worked on them, were hilarious and well-written, involving all sorts of mayhem and shenanigans ranging from a teacher being murdered to a student getting sucked down into a toilet. I wanted to celebrate this work somehow, but wasn’t sure what to do.

Reading each group’s articles one at a time in front of the class would be fun but could easily take an hour, while having them simply turn in their work to me seemed far too anti-climactic.

After a few minutes’ thought, I realized that most of our research into news articles had involved looking at newspaper or news channels’ websites, like the New York Times, CNN and BBC. Therefore, to celebrate the students’ work, the most authentic thing to do would be to make a pretend news site of our own.

What happened

I think it went really well. The students immediately liked the idea that their stories were going to be part of the PNN (Pretend News Network)’s site, and they seemed excited about posting and formatting their work, as well as clicking on and reading through everyone else’s stories.

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One surprising (and fun) thing that happened is that even though photos were not part of the assignment, students quickly got VERY involved in staging photos for their stories, for example:

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What I learned

Pros – This experiment worked out very well, in my opinion, and I plan to throw together more one-off sites for displaying student work like this in the future. It took only a minute to create the site, and the students figured out how to navigate the editing quickly.

I think there were three reasons for this: 1) The Google Site options are pretty minimal, in a good way – the only meaningful choices are “add page” and “edit page”, 2) The Google Site interface is almost identical to the Google Documents one, which helped students immediately tackle it with no problems, 3) our 6th graders are pretty fearless in terms of tackling new technology interfaces, as well as at helping each other, so the articles were uploaded within 5 or 10 minutes of my creating the site with no stress on anyone’s part.

Another advantage to throwing up this site was that it allowed stories from both of my Grade 6 English class sections to be posted in the same place, so that both classes could get ideas from each other and share the fun of reading their ridiculous news stories. I really like the fact that the site sort of parallels the sites we’d been researching – 20 years ago a similar sort of “authentic” sharing format would have been to have the class work together on a pretend newspaper, and I think this was a pretty good modern analogue to that, while also not being very time-consuming or even requiring the students to go much out of their way to upload their work.

Cons – Google Sites, in spite of a lot of superficial interface resemblances, are not Google Documents, and we quickly found that only one person can edit any particular page at any one time. To get around this, each group of students decided to write their articles collaboratively in Docs and paste them into the Google Site only after they were finished writing. This worked fine, but did represent a small extra step.

Aside from that, I don’t feel like any drawbacks to creating this “disposable” site have emerged. I feel it was a very quick, easy and positive way to share the students’ work, overall. I am, however, a tiny bit concerned by how quickly several of the groups independently came up with stories that involved teachers being murdered (!)

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Truncated Pecha Kucha

What we did

Another short post just to share something which I thought was unexpectedly successful: I had G7 Humanities students present short reports on inventions from the Industrial Revolution in the form of a half Pecha Kucha, that is, 10 slides which they discussed for only 20 seconds each.

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Why we did it

I was feeling a bit behind in this particular class due to some missed time after a snow day and some assemblies, so I wanted students to learn about inventions and share what they learned, but I didn’t want to take more than two days in class doing it. So I assigned them the research and slide-making on one day, then spent the entire two periods sharing their work on the second day.

The idea to limit the format of the presentations came from the fact that the last time we’d tried to present student work in a single period, it ended up taking three times as long as I’d expected and spilling over into the next week.

The biggest time waste always seems to be the transitions – switching between student files or computers, the seemingly eternal wait time when opening up PowerPoint, etc., so I told everyone to dump their 10 slides into a single shared Google Documents Presentation, and set the timer to advance the slides every 20 seconds. The transitions would thus be obliterated.

What happened

The format worked perfectly. The reports were reasonably detailed and interesting, the 10 slides each student had assembled seemed to be a good amount of space for them to share what they’d discovered and answer the prompt questions I’d given them, and it took exactly 2 class periods for 16 students to present 10 slides each, with no pauses (I think I had to keep them 1 minute after the bell rang for the final student to finish). No one’s slides were cluttered or filled with walls of text, and everyone rose to the challenge of springing from their seat and launching into their presentation when the slide advanced.

What I learned

Pros – A potentially boring and straightforward research report seemed to become a bit more interesting when I added the time and slide constraints, and we finally solved the problem of not being able to hear presentations from every single student in a single block of class time. I thought it worked extremely well and will try to use this presentation format in the future.  One key to the success of the technique might have been the list of prompt questions I gave the students, including “Why wasn’t this invention made earlier?” and “Do we still use this invention today?”, which made it difficult for the reports to be a straightforward info dump of facts cribbed from Wikipedia.

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Cons – I think I had to “hack” Google Documents Presentation’s slideshow mode to get a delay of 20 seconds. It involved publishing the slideshow publicly, then monkeying with some digits in the URL. A Google Docs presentation with ~160 slides gets pretty slow to load, as well. Aside from those two minor technical issues, I think everything worked very well.

 

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Visual Notes

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What we did

This will be a short post – just a note to share a small technique I think has been reasonably successful: All this past semester or so in Grade 6 Humanities, whenever we watch any kind of movie in class, I pass out blank pieces of paper and tell the students to take notes by drawing. (note: none of the pictures here are actually the results of this process – I don’t have any with me at the moment so I’m making do with some other student drawings; I hope to add some examples later)

Why we did it

A few months ago I started to notice that my previous system, taking turns at collaborative note-taking in a Google Doc, while extremely successful in its own way, was only engaging two or three students at a time. Having all the students take notes on their laptops would obviously be too distracting. Therefore, if I wanted to get notes from more people at once, it had to be on paper. Since this is 6th grade we’re talking about, I added the drawing aspect to make it more fun.

What happened

 

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The things that 6th graders can produce while watching a 15-minute video about, for example, the Silk Road, are incredible. I now feel like all the films we watched in class without paper to draw on were wasted opportunities.

Admittedly, some students take time to only draw one or two comic-book-style characters from what they’ve seen, with little or no text, but on the other end of the spectrum some of them will produce page after page of dense mind maps or visual reproductions of the tiniest details from the film. The balance usually seems to be on the side of students’ drawing things that are either important concepts, or things that might help them remember the content and concepts later.

What I learned

Pros – I love seeing what students come up with, and I think many of them pay closer attention while looking for things to draw. I obviously don’t have any quantitative proof, but my perception is that many of the more energetic 6th graders focus a bit better while taking visual notes, and I plan to keep giving them chances to do so in the future while observing how they fare.

Cons – I do suppose a few students might get caught up in the drawing aspect and miss some content from a film, but I think the proportion of students who fall into that trap is likely equal to or lower than the proportion who’d be staring at the wall, falling asleep, or fiddling with their pencil cases if we didn’t have the paper available. I haven’t felt like students seem to be missing out on anything, personally… and recent research on the possible benefits of taking notes by hand only adds to my positive feelings about this technique. The fact that I’ve only recently learned how to efficiently use our printer as a scanner only adds to my enthusiasm – since now these creatively scribbled-on pieces of paper could easily be compiled, shared, used in blog posts, etc., instead of getting thrown out.

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Shared Google Maps

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What we did

I recently tried using a shared Google Map as a prior knowledge / brainstorming / discussion starter, as part of an intro to a Grade 6 unit on the Silk Road. I asked everyone in the class to add some markers about places they’d been, and told them to add details about local, food, culture, or any other local specialties they remembered.

Why we did it

I really enjoy using shared Google Documents for all sorts of daily classwork, and I keep hoping that shared maps will eventually allow for some of the same collaborative magic. I’ve tried collaborative maps in the past and found them too slow and chaotic, but that was years ago. I realized that I hadn’t investigated this aspect of Google Maps for two years or so, and I thought I’d give it another chance.

What happened

Chaos. Madness. When I made a new map and shared it with the class, everything went wrong. Unlike Documents, the map refreshed itself very slowly and in a weird way, so that students couldn’t see the changes they’d made until 10 or 15 minutes had passed.

It didn’t help that our map immediately became unmanageably complex – many of the students decided to quickly add markers for every single place they’d been in their lives, so minutes after starting the map we had something like 135 markers.

Marker names and descriptions updated far more slowly than the actual markers themselves, so for most of the time we spent on it, it frustratingly looked like we had around 135 blank markers, even though most of them had been given names and descriptive text by the students.

After 10 0r 15 minutes of frustration, some of the students (understandably) started trying to speed the map up and organize things by deleting the dozens of apparently blank markers – except that they often weren’t blank, but were just very slow to update. This meant that some students were deleting others’ work.

Finally, one or two students figured out how to change all of the markers’ icons at once, so by the end of our time trying to collaborate on the map, we had maybe 10 or 15 informative markers and over 100 seemingly blank ones, the icons for all of which had been turned into fish heads. It was not the most productive use of class time.

What I learned

Maps are still not Documents, although they now share a similar “sharing” system. A whole class can’t work on a shared map without several major problems cropping up.

There need to be either strict limits on the number of markers that students place, or the number of people working on a map at any one time. Perhaps maps might be successfully shared in groups of 2 or 4 students, but attempting to have the whole class collaborate on a single map was not a success. The less exciting but more practical setup of ordering each student to only make one marker per map might also lead to more manageable results.

When we finally abandoned the non-updating, extremely messy map, the students seemed more upset at the “waste” of 15 or so minutes of class time than I was. When I tried to make everyone feel better by explaining that they’d helped me in a technology experiment, two of them immediately demanded payment for their services as test subjects. Unpredictable exchanges like that are part of what makes teaching middle school so fun. I did not pay them.

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