About this blog

Students can feel constrained by ways of communicating and learning that seem opaque and fixed because they are permeated with norms never made explicit, knowledge they do not share, or the language of others.

Janette Ryan and Rosemary Viete
Respectful interactions: learning with international students in the English-speaking academy.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Why the iPad is a great constructivist tool for education. A case study in Literature.

My most visited post ever was from March 2011, when I wrote about Teaching with iPads - beyond the shiny surface. I think I gave a good run down of some of the features which make it a useful creation tool for teachers and students, but I think I diverged somewhat from my major interest in this blog, social constructivism. So here I am endeavoring to bring these two interests together in considering why, and how, the iPad can contribute to a pedagogy based on the principles of social constructivism. Of course, I am not claiming one 'needs' an iPad to achieve this - that would be silly.

From my perspective, a social constructivist pedagogy in the classroom involves seeking ways to enable students to derive meaning from the ideas and concepts being studied - meaning that relates to their own past, present and future lives. If ideas which seem foreign initially can be explored through the lens of the familiar, or the personally fascinating, then students may find the concepts to have greater relevance. Simply motivating through desired outcomes for grades is not going to be enough for many students. There needs to be something much more on offer.

In teaching literature, I long believed that the human dimension of stories enabled anyone to enter into and see the relevance of ideas, and thus to see the structure, techniques, use of language and images and connections. Teaching literature to international students has cured me of this false idea. It isn't so much about language ability - they can all read the texts - but they know I want more from them than just a literal reading and a plot summary. I want them to understand what is being communicated, and I want them to understand, and then communicate themselves in writing, HOW that author has communicated their story and the ideas it contains. This is much harder to achieve.

As I discussed in an earlier post story choice is crucial. I am seriously considering how I will change my approaches to teaching Literature, now I will be soon teaching students in a 1:1 iPad curriculum. The traditional ways will still offer a strong basis for reference, but something crucial will need to change. I'm just not sure exactly what that will be. But here's what I'm thinking at the moment.

What I want to head towards is a classroom where the students not only demonstrate that they understand the strategies used by literary authors in their work - the metaphorical nuances, the historical allusions, the subtle assonance and dissonance - but that they can then become the ones who design the means of teaching this knowledge to their peers in ways which will resonate and be understood at a deeper, fundamental level. This is something which cannot be transmitted from teacher to student in the traditional way, as it involves students drawing on their own reservoirs of experience, meaning, social knowledge, performance abilities and self-confidence to create something entirely new. That entirely new creation should not necessarily be an expository essay, either. In fact, I'd rather it wasn't

The iPad can be an exemplary tool to facilitate such an objective because of it's multiplicity of interfaces - sound, moving images, textual manipulation - and it's connection with such diverse sources of already created content. Increasingly, applications for the iPad are appearing which facilitate blending and mashing of sound, text and image, and enable the unique styles and personalities of students to be incorporated into the mix. Comic strip creators, ePub makers, iMovie, GarageBand, and story spinners for example, all facilitate personal expression.

The self-representation which is so easily discerned on a Facebook page is something social media forums foster, even demand. But students might well be hesitant to bring their personal lives to the classroom so overtly. Thus concepts like avatars might have a place in social constructivist literary analysis and teaching. Imagining oneself in another's shoes can enable an entering into the creative experience authors' bring to life in character, setting, context and metaphor. While this seems a relatively simple cognitive step which wouldn't require a mobile device to bring it into being, I believe that the ease and speed with which students are able to create sequences of images and text, sound and moving pictures to share with their peers in the classroom, makes the iPad an exemplary tool to support a social constructivist pedagogy.

But don't be fooled by the promise of simplicity: a complex challenge underlies this creative endeavour. Students must aim to achieve two things. Demonstrating a deep understanding of the concepts and ideas demanded by the discipline is only part of the challenge. Through their designed "lesson" they also need to successfully communicate that appreciation to their peers in an engaging and relevant way. Thus the final goal of my social constructivist literature program (still just a fantasy) is a culmination of learned skills, appreciation of audience, reflection on self-knowledge, applying imagination to appreciate possibly alien ideas, and a design process to maximize successful communication through audience engagement.

Some of you will be thinking that this is something many teachers should be required to do themselves on a daily basis. I couldn't agree more. Time is a rare commodity in the teaching and learning environment for students as well as educators. A tool like the iPad can facilitate a speedier production of quality resources for both groups to share with peers, for whatever purpose is required, allowing more time to go into the crucial thought, design and reflection process. I envisage that if I get the chance to bring my plan to fruition, it would perhaps be a project in the later terms of the year-long program in which I teach. Ideally, its principles will be able to shape many other smaller classroom activities along the way, building students' sense of themselves as creators of knowledge and experts. Rather than seeing themselves as vessels to be filled with others' expertise, an emphasis such as that described could shift students' self perceptions towards confidence, achievement, and empowerment.

Thanks for my excitement about these possibilities go to all the brilliant educators I follow on Twitter, and who blog and write and speak about their own ideas for student empowerment and change. Without them, I wouldn't have begun to envisage any such changes free from an attendant fear of failure.

I'll let you know how it goes.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


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