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Research supporting collaborative, enquiry-based learning.

Model of Learning - Tools for TeachingOne of the great things of studying in the Education Library at Durham University (instead of at home, in my study) is the books I randomly stumble across. For example, I pulled Models of Learning – Tools for Teaching off the shelf today and it fell open at Chapter 7, entitled ‘Learning through cooperative disciplined inquiry.’

This is perfect for me. One of my Performance Management targets for this year – the one focused on my own classroom practices – is about piloting enquiry-based learning with one of my Year 7 History classes. In addition, I’ll (hopefully) be presenting with Nick Dennis at the SHP Conference in July 2010 on this very topic – including the way technology can help! :-p

It’s always good to have some scholarly research to back up one’s actions, so if you’re planning to do something similar here’s some quotations to help you!

The most stunning thing about teaching people to help kids learn cooperatively is that people don’t know how to do it as a consequence of their own schools and life in this society. And, if anything is genetically driven, it’s a social instinct. If it weren’t for each other, we wouldn’t even know who we are. (Herbert Thelen to Bruce Joyce, circa 1964) p.95

The chapter is based on case studies across the age range, but also contains this nugget on p.98-9:

The assumptions that underlie the development of cooperative learning communities are straightforward:

  1. The synergy generated in cooperative settings generates more motivation than do individualistic, competitive environments. Integrative social groups are, in effect, more than the sume of their parts. The feelings of connectedness produce positive energy.
  2. The members of cooperative groups learn from one another. Each learner has more helping hands than in a structure that generates isolation.
  3. Interacting with one another produces cognitive as well as social complexity, creating more intellectual activity that increases learning when contrasted with solitary study.
  4. Cooperation increases positive feelings towards one another, reduces alienation and loneliness, builds relationships, and provides affirmative views of other people.
  5. Cooperation increases self-esteem not only through increased learning but through the feeling of being respected and cared for by others in the environment.
  6. Students can respond to experience in tasks requiring cooperation by increasing their capacity to work together productively. In other words, the more children are given the opportunity to work together, the better they get at it, with benefit to their general social skills.
  7. Students, including primary school children, can learn from training to increase their ability to work together.

The authors go on to summarise the evidence about improved learning through collaboration on p.99:

Classrooms where students work in pairs and larger groups… are characterized by greater mastery of material than the common individual-study/recitation pattern. Also, the shared responsibility and interaction produce more positive feelings toward tasks… In other words, the results generally affirm the assumptions that underlie the use of cooperative learning methods.

It’s not hard to get started with cooperative learning (p.100):

[A]n endearing feature is that it is so very easy to organize students into pairs and triads. And it gets effects immediately. The combination of social support and the increase in cognitive complexity caused by the social interaction have mild but rapid effects on the learning of content and skills.

The authors dismiss claims from some teachers that ‘gifted students prefer to work alone’ as the evidence does not back this up (Joyce 1991; Slavin 1991). They believe it may rest on a misunderstanding of the relationship between individual and cooperative study; partnership still requires individual effort. There’s no need to be concerned about students’ ability to work together (p.101):

In fact, partnership s over simple tasks are not very demanding of social skills. Most students are quite capable of cooperating when they are clear about what has been asked of them.

The Teacher's ToolkitI’ll not go into them here, but the authors mention a number of ways in which teachers can foster ‘positive interdependence’. They also suggest the ‘division of labour’ into specializations. Instead of learning only a part of what every is supposed to be learning, they have found, ‘jigsaw’ activities and the like lead to more learning across the spectrum. Many of the activities they suggest are, in fact, featured alongside others in one of my favourite education-related books, The Teacher’s Toolkit.

The teacher’s role in cooperative learning moves from that of instructor to ‘counsellor, consultant and friendly critic.’ (p.107) The authors note that this ‘is a very difficult and sensitive’ role ‘because the essence of inquiry is student activity’. Teachers need to:

  • facilitate the group process
  • intervene in the group to channel its energy into potentially educative activities, and
  • supervise these educative activities so that personal meaning comes from the experience

The upshot of this is that ‘intervention by the teacher should be minimal unless the group bogs down seriously’ (p.107).

The authors suggest a 6-phase process for cooperative learning:

Phase 1 – Students encounter puzzling situation (planned or unplanned).

Phase 2 – Students explore reactions to the situation.

Phase 3 – Students formulate study task and organize for study (problem definition, role, assignments, etc.)

Phase 4 – Independent and group study.

Phase 5 – Students analyse progress and process.

Phase 6 – Recycle activity.

In conclusion, the authors note how universally cooperative group investigation can be used (p.111-2):

Group investigation is a highly versatile and comprehensive model of learning and teaching: it blends the goals of academic inquiry, social integration and social process learning. It can be used in all subject areas, and with all age levels, when the teacher desires to emphasize the formulation and problem-solving aspects of knowledge rather than the intake of preorganized, predetermined information.

Back to (theme) basics.

Update (same day!) – well that didn’t last long: I’ve stripped it back even more with the Minimalist theme. :-p

Earlier this year I changed the theme on this site. I was reasonably pleased with it. It was faster-loading than the previous iteration. However, as I kept adding stuff to it the site became slower to load. As @MoodleDan pointed out, I had lots of images being loaded from external sites.

So I’ve stripped it down to look a bit like the default theme on Posterous. It’s a WordPress theme called Minimous. I like it, although I’ve got a plan to strip it down even further

What do you think?

A useful way to categorise educational technologies.

On p.189 of Lankshear & Knobel’s New Literacies: Everyday Practices & Classroom Learning (2006) they cite the work of Naismith, et al. who suggest plotting commonly-used educational technologies onto two axes: static-portable and shared-personal. What they neglect to include is a graphic, which would have made a lot more sense.

Let me help them:

Educational technology classified

Interestingly, schools seem to be fine with technology that fits into the bottom-left space, but not with the top-right. Why? :-s

Design the (e-)book cover for #movemeon!

I’m very pleased to see that other educators have run with the #movemeon idea I floated. There are now literally hundreds of tweets that have been tagged – you can view them in real-time here, or an archive here.

My favourite way of viewing them, is via using the ‘rotation’ animation:

#movemeon viewed with

Once we reach a significant number of tweets – I suggested 1,000 – then I’m going to collate them. Using the self-publishing service there will be a freely-downloadable e-book along with a book purchasable at cost price. 😀

I’ve put together a wiki at to depersonalise things – it’s about the ideas and the collaboration, not me, after all! You’ll find the same links as I’ve given above over there.

We do, of course, need a cover for the book and so it’s time to crowdsource that. On the wiki is a page with a template to provide your contribution. You know you can do better than my feeble effort, provided to get things started:

#movemeon cover idea

Please do share this with as many people as possible. Not only would I like the book to look as good as it can, but I’d like to make sure that as many educators as possible can tap into the wealth of tips and ideas that have been shared. I’ve certainly learned a lot! 😀

Affinity spaces, secondary orality & digital epistemologies.

sfondo spaces azzurro

CC BY-SA misstitina86 @ Flickr

I’ve been trying to squeeze in my Ed.D. research when I can recently, sometimes rising well before the sun does! I’m at the stage ( where I’m nearing the end of my first run through my Literature Review. I want to have it pretty much finished when I have a video chat with my supervisor next week.

This post is to summarize what I’ve been learning (and attempting to synthesize) about so-called ‘affinity spaces’, ‘secondary orality’ and ‘digital epistemologies’. Much of the following comes from, or was thinking provoked by, Lankshear and Knobel’s New Literacies (2006). My notes on the books and articles mentioned, as ever, are available at 🙂

Literacy is all about communication. Literacy therefore is all about creating or reading texts for a particular purpose. This doesn’t change when we move into the realm of ‘digital literac(ies)’. It was Gee (2004) who came up with notion of ‘affinity spaces’. These spaces are characterized by the following elements (taken from this useful post):

  • A common endeavor is primary, not aspects such as race, class, gender, or disability that can often hinder communication.
  • Newbies, masters, and everyone else share common space
  • Some portals are strong generators (whatever gives the space some content)
  • Content organization is transformed by interactional organization
  • Both intensive and extensive knowledge are encouraged
  • Both individual and distributed knowledge are encouraged
  • Dispersed knowledge is encouraged
  • Tacit knowledge is encouraged and honored
  • Many different forms and routes to participation
  • Many different routes to status
  • Leadership is porous and leaders are resources

In other words, an affinity space is somewhere where informal learning takes place and which ‘bridge[s] barriers of age, race, socio-economic status, and educational level, and allow[s] each user to participate as he/she is able’ (Gee, 2005). They are hotbeds of literate practices.

Some – e.g. Davies (2006) – discuss the ‘Third Space’ that websites such as Flickr allow to flourish:

Third Space … constitutes the discursive conditions … that ensure that … even the same signs can be appropriated, translated, rhetoricized and read anew. (Bhabha, 1994 – quoted in Davies, 2006)

The example that is used time and again in the literature is that of Fan Fiction as the genre is a relatively stable one. Other affinity spaces tend to be characterised by memes. Knobel (2006) mentions that, indeed, affinity spaces are ‘perfect conduits’ for memes and that the former ‘can be fixed or fleeting and are always thoroughly relational in nature’. Lankshear & Knobel (2006:236) quote Gee as saying the following about affinity spaces:

[Affinity spaces are] specially designed spaces (physical and virtual) constructed to resource people [who are] tied together… by a share dinterest or endeavor… [For example, the] many many websites and publications devoted to [the video game, Rise of Nations] create a social space in which people can, to any degree they wish, small or large, affiliate with others to share knowledge and gain knowledge that is distributed and dispersed across many different people, places, Internet sites and modalities (magazines, chat rooms, guides, recordings).

It is clear even from the short introduction above that affinity are at the other end of the scale from the traditional classroom. They are based on interest rather than compulsion, the idea that everyone participating is of equal status rather than one person being in control, and emerging ‘rules’ rather than those imposed top-down.

The driving question behind my Ed.D. thesis is What does it mean to be digitally literate? Lankshear & Knobel (2006:243) make the point that definitions of digital literacy make little or no reference to memes, creativity or ‘digital playfulness’:

[T]he phenomenon of online memes challenges the growing dominance of ‘digital literacy’ conceptions of what it means to be a competent user of new technologies and networks… Digital literacy mindsets do not pay sufficient attention to the importance of social relations in developing, refining, remixing and sharing ideas in fecund and replicable ways, or to the important role that memes play in developing culture and creativity. (my emphasis)

The authors proceed to discuss Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You, comparing books with ‘networked texts’. Digital literacy, of course, is not necessary to read the former – but it’s perhaps the inherently social element of the latter that sets it apart from print-based classical conceptions of literacy.

It is this idea of ‘text plus something else’ that will lead me to bring in the work of Walter Ong to my thesis. Ong (1982, 2002:3) talks of ‘secondary orality’ – i.e. a set of social practices that resemble purely oral cultures but which are predicated upon technologies surrounding literacy:

The electronic age is also an age of ‘secondary orality’, the orality of telephones, radio, and television, which depends on writing and print for its existence.

Ong’s point (summarized well at Wikipedia) is that oral cultures are additive in a way that solely print-based cultures are not. Writing before the dawn of the internet, Ong rather presciently explained that oral cultures allow ideas to be revisited in different ways that books and articles often do not. Positions are less fixed. As Douglas (1998:160) puts it in relation to the internet, ‘when you spin an argument in hypertext, you can choose to represent a world that is strictly ‘either/or’ or one that is ‘and/and/and’.’ Chris Lott made an interesting presentation entitled Closing the Gutenberg Parenthesis related to this recently.

All of which takes us neatly to the question of digital epistemologies. I need to check out A New Literacies Sampler before actually writing this section of my thesis, but I’m fairly sure where I’m going in abstract. Epistemology is, of course, philosophical questions about the nature and scope of knowledge. Digital epistemologies, therefore, refer to how knowledge is different in a digital world. This obviously has an impact and a bearing upon notions of T/truth. Truth (with a capital ‘T’) is received – and often ‘revealed’ – truths about the world that cannot (or should not) be questioned. Education has often been like this, leading to a transmission model of education.

On the other hand, truth (with a small ‘t’) is provisional knowledge, tentative conclusions based upon available evidence. This is the Pragmatist position, a philosophical methodology I’m employing in my thesis. A lot of what happens online – in fact most of what happens online is concerned with truth with a small ‘t’. As Lankshear & Knobel (2006:242-3) put it:

[A] seemingly increasing proportion of what people do and seek within practices mediated by new technologies – particularly computing and communications technologies – has nothing directly to do with true and with established rules, procedures and standards for knowing. That is most emphatically not to say that these matters are no longer important. Rather, it is to draw attention to the fact that today’s learners are increasingly recruited to other values and priorities.

Given the nature of the above, it seems out of place to tie everything together into a neat conclusion at the end of this post. Suffice to say, therefore, that memes and their impact on affinity spaces, the concept of ‘secondary orality’ in respect to the internet, and the links between literacy, truth and epistemology will certainly be featuring towards the end of my literature review.

I’ve still quite a bit of work left to do on this, so do feel free to point me towards any related and useful blog posts, journal articles books, etc.! :-p


  • Davies, J. (2006) Affinities and Beyond! Developing Ways of Seeing in Online Spaces (E-Learning, 3:2, 2006)
  • Douglas, J.J. (1998) ‘Will the most reflexive relativist please stand up: hypertext, argument and relativism’ (in I. Snyder (ed.), Page to Screen, London, 1998)
  • Knobel, M. (2006) Memes and Affinity Spaces: some implications for policy and digital divides in education (E-Learning, 3:3, 2006)
  • Knobel, M. & Lankshear, C. (2006) New Literacies: Everyday Practices & Classroom Learning
  • Ong, W. (1982, 2002) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word

#movemeon – a suggestion.

Update: view the latest #movemeon tweets via Twitter Search!

If you’ve been living under a rock, Twitter is a communications medium limited to 140-characters that has taken the world by storm.

If you’re baffled by what’s below, the hashtag (first proposed by Chris Messina in 2007) allows ‘channels’ to be created in Twitter. These can be followed by services like TwitterFall.

Thus we get tweets similar to the following that recommends people to follow:

Twitter - FollowFriday

I’d like to propose a new hashtag to help new and existing teachers share and pick up tips. It’s based on the title of a section of the Historical Association’s Teaching History magazine that aims to move student and newly qualified teachers forward. Thus we’d get something like:

Twitter - #movemeon example

I think this would be manageable. After all, how long does it take to reflect on a lesson, realise something and fire off a 140-character message? :-p


My first infographic competition.

Flowing Data competition - US class sizes vs. SAT (v2)

(click on infographic to enlarge)

I’ve come across a wealth of fantastic infographics blogs recently. One of the best, and which has a community element is Flowing Data maintained by Nathan Yau, an UCLA PhD candidate. Nathan runs regular Visualize This competitions, the latest of which (closes 24 November 2009) compares teacher/student ratio with SAT scores by State.

The hardest bit, I’ve found, of creating an infographic is (perhaps obviously) working out how to visualize the data in a meaningful way. The problem with the raw data presented in this competition was that there were 3 SAT scores (reading, maths, writing) and that a meaningful correlation would assume an inverse relationship between this and teacher/student ratio.

In other words I had to figure out a way of plotting something increasing whilst the other decreased.

After a bit of playing around fruitlessly, I settled on the infographic at the top of this post. I’ve a few days left to change it a bit if necessary, but I think that it does, on the whole, do what’s required of it.

I’m never going to win the competition (a copy of David McCandless’ The Visual Miscellaneum) but, like entering a half-marathon or a 5k to focus your running routine, it’s still worth doing! 😀

Infographics and my future.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future recently and my career trajectory. I’m not sure I want to stay in schools forever and, perhaps, even in education. To that end, I’ve been exploring other avenues. One such avenue is the world of infographics:

Information graphics or infographics are visual representations of information, data or knowledge. These graphics are used where complex information needs to be explained quickly and clearly, such as in signs, maps, journalism, technical writing, and education. They are also used extensively as tools by computer scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians to ease the process of developing and communicating conceptual information.

Over the last week or so I’ve been playing about with a few applications that can be used to create infographics. Whilst some, such as ManyEyes, are almost self-explanatory and produce results like this:

Literacy rates by country

…it takes something a bit more sophisticated to produce this:

Example of infographic created with 'Processing'

The creator of the above used the (thankfully free and Open Source) software program Processing. However, the words ‘steep’ and ‘learning curve’ spring to mind, so I may have to buy a book to teach me. :-p

Of course, infographics don’t have to be amazingly flashy to convey information effectively. Check out the Wordle created from my Ed.D. thesis (as it currently stands) below:

Wordle of my Ed.D. thesis as at 13/11/09

Finally, programs such as OpenOffice, Powerpoint and Keynote can be used to create infographics. I created the following in Keynote as a practice – it shows average Primary classroom sizes across OECD countries. It took me a couple of hours – the most fiddly part is aligning everything!

Comparison of Primary class sizes in state-funded schools within OECD countries (2007) v3

The most important thing, of course, is to have reliable data. The above was created after studying Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators. The second most important thing is to represent the data in a way that makes interepretation easy and obvious. The third thing is that it should look pretty… 😉

Have I whetted your appetite for infographics? I hope to publish some more here soon, but in the meantime, check out these excellent infographics-related blogs:

Learning and growing.

Confucius quotation

Image CC-BY-NC-ND bobsd46 @ Flickr

These last few weeks have been difficult for me. Being promoted quickly is great but comes at the expense of very steep learning curves! 😮

That’s when quotations mashed with images like the ones above are useful to spur me on. I’ve just used an online poster-printing service to get a bunch printed for my office. There more images like the one above available at the Flickr group entitled Great quotes about Learning and Change. 🙂

What are YOUR favourite images or quotations relating to motivation/productivity?

12 educational ways of using

I first came across last year when it was in ‘Alpha’. It was an interesting diversion at the time, but I didn’t use it much and quickly forgot about it. Recently, I’ve noticed my email inbox filling up with notifications that people were following me on

Thinking it was worth another look I’ve put together this ’12 ways of using in education’. Please feel free to add your own! 🙂

Pondering educational utility of on

Educational use #1 – Asynchronous debates on

Educational use #2 – Synthesis on

Educational use #3 – VoiceThread-like on

Educational use #4 – Class documentary on

Educational use #5 – E-Portfolio reflections on

Educational use #6 – Ideas box on

Educational use #7 – Exemplifying good practice on

Educational use #8 – Virtual ‘penpals’ on

Educational use #9 – Learning conversations on

Educational use #10 – Language acquisition/practice on

Educational use #11 – Mini documentary on

Educational use #12 – Lesson reflection on

For longer (constrained) videos, I’d recommend Flickr that allows you to post videos no longer than 1:30. As we’ve found with Twitter, sometimes being constrained can be a good thing! :-p