Scaffolding negotiated projects

January 11, 2010

This year at our school we have been working on implementing negotiated learning in Key Stage 2. For the past few years our school has been introducing the use of curriculum content negotiated with the children from the Foundation stage up, and this approach has this year been introduced in Year 2. Further up the school we are incorporating some of the concepts behind this into our more conventional curriculum with the first hour of every day set aside for ‘Learning Agreement Time’.

This time has been set aside for groups to work on their own project ideas, negotiated and planned with their teachers to ensure they are worthwhile and real learning is taking place. Over the last term in year 4 this has resulted in many successful projects (a few examples are here). The children involved have worked on a wide variety of skills, from technical skills in the radio station, speaking and presenting, script writing and I.C.T. skills.

Recently the year 4 team have been reflecting on the direction we have taken this and decided that whilst valuable learning has been going on, what we really need to be concentrating on in this time is the skills of conceptualising, planning and managing projects. In order for the children to be able to achieve the vision of truly child-centered learning in these projects they need to be equiped with these skills, and we have decided to shift our emphasis away from learning outcomes in the projects themselves, and towards these more abstract skills.

To achieve this I really think we need to develop some kind of framework for this kind of work.  Something along the lines of the frameworks provided by Alan Peat for scaffolding literacy skills. When we began Learning Agreement in September many of my class had no real idea what could constitute a ‘project’, and it has taken focused work for them to begin to generate ideas for things they could do which follow their own interests. Now that they have all experienced working on a couple of specific projects, to move forward they need to start understanding the process that they need to go through to take them from ideas generation, to planning, to a finished outcome, and reflecting on the process they have been through. Thus, I am trying to come up with some kind of abstract framework which we can use to scaffold the children in undertaking this kind of work.

For this to be of maximum benefit I think this framework needs to be something that can be universally adapted to a wide variety of project processes and outcomes. Ideally it also needs to have a progression that the children can use to enhance their project skills as they move from years 3 to 6, developing their independence and the scope of their work as they do so.

I have a few ideas, but I am really blogging about this to invite comment from other educators to supplement and challenge my thinking before we begin to develop this.

What stages do you think are essential to successful project work?

How could we integrate a progression into our framework?

Can we expect to design a framework flexible enough for true child-initiated learning?

Does the concept of such a framework go against the values of child-initiated learning?

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What is collaboration?

June 17, 2009

It was the last of our sessions at University for ‘Maths Specialists’ this evening, and despite coming at the end of a long day I found it very inspiring. Sue Johnstone-Wilder, a secondary Maths specialist, led us through a variety of open ended problems which reminded me of the importance of inspiring children to play with numbers and follow their own lines of enquiry.

One of the problems she set us got me thinking along slightly different lines. This was a task in which we worked in a group of three, each of which was provided with a number of cards containing facts about the building of a pyramid in an alien culture. Some of this information was irrelevant, with the rest of it providing the raw data for a several stage calculation to discover how long the pyramid took to build.

I have come across problems such as this before, usually in ‘team building’ type exercises to encourage collaboration, as the answer cannot be reached without information held by everyone involved. However, the first thing we did when approaching the task was to pool the relevant information and copy it out in a central place, and then all approach the problem fairly separately.

This got me thinking about what collaboration truly is, and how task design can influence it. Although all of us needed to communicate to solve our problem, we were only really contributing specific pieces of information, and once these were in the public domain our thought processes followed their own separate tracks. One person alone could solve the problem once they had all the information. I wonder if this is truly collaboration, or if what we should be aiming for with collaborative tasks is more of a sharing of thinking and skills rather than simple scattering the facts required between members of a group.

Is a more desirable model of collaboration that of a team with different skills working together on a project? Take the example of someone designing a project, someone else constructing it, and another person costing it. All of these skills are essential to completion and each person is bringing their own specialism to the table. However, is this true collaboration or is it simply three people doing their own thing and then passing it on to another to then add to?

I don’t think I have the answers to these questions, but I thought they were interesting things to consider when looking at designing group tasks, and thinking about what we really want pupils to get out of group work. The answer to this may be different things at different times, but sometimes it is all to easy to forget to consider what these are!

With tools like Google Docs, Etherpad, and the forthcoming Google Wave, I am looking forward to encouraging collaboration using technology in my classroom next year, however there are obviously a lot of issues to take into account way beyond the obvious classroom management ones…