Wordle has been a staple for countless teachers for several years now. Students create word clouds with words they’ve listed to describe themselves, traits of literary characters, examples of metallic elements, planets, etc. While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these projects, they completely negate Wordle’s most powerful ability–the ability to analyze and find patterns in text. When Wordle looks at a body of text, such as a student’s essay, it identifies the most commonly used words by making them bigger and more prominent in the word cloud. This feature allow students to examine text for key words/ideas, possible writer bias, patterns of speech, and more. Just last week, Edudemic had a nice article addressing how to use this feature. I wanted to expand on their discussion a bit and, hopefully, show how it can be used to encourage even deeper analysis and critical thinking.
The activity I’ll describe uses the inaugural addresses of several U.S presidents at critical moments in the nation’s history: George Washington; Abraham Lincoln; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; John F. Kennedy; and Barack Obama. It could be used as a summative assessment at the end of a year’s worth of U.S. history. Each address was entered into Wordle, and the resulting word clouds are displayed below, in random order (Click each to enlarge.).
Students will carefully examine each Wordle and try and identify which president’s speech is represented by each. The student should list several reasons why they assigned a particular president to a particular word cloud. They could self-assess by partnering and defending their selections prior to the final submission. This requires a pretty significant knowledge of the historical context and political philosophies of each president, and it involves actual critical thinking not present in a simple “President Lincoln Wordle”. This concept could be applied to a variety of topics and texts, as well, such as Shakespearean plays, poems by different poets, songs, national constitutions, etc.
By the way, I’ll send a surprise prize to the first person who correctly matches the word clouds to their presidents in the comments!
Here in Birdville, access to technology is precious. In most schools, teachers and students are competing for time in a single lab or with a laptop cart with an entire campus, often of 700+ students. Like most schools/districts, a 1:1 program isn’t in the cards for us in the near future. Given such limited resources, it’s a significant testament to our teachers and students that they make it work as fantastically as they do. They make lemonade from lemons routinely. The fact that access to technology is so precious may actually have an unintended positive effect, actually. Because so many classrooms can’t even expect weekly access to computers, the Internet, printers, etc., teachers have to be extra judicious about how they use their time and resources. A great number make it count by foregoing routine, mundane use of technology in favor of high-level, meaningful stuff. The following suggestions are based upon my observations of teachers and students doing the really cool and powerful things that maximize the potential of our limited resources.
Start at the top…of the taxonomy. Create, evaluate, analyze. Choose student outcomes that are high-level first, then see if technologies can get them there. Here’s an example. A guiding question for a 3rd grade science unit reads as follows: Describe and give the names of simple machines. Where can they be found in real life? The action verb here, describe, is at the understanding level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, so students would clearly be meeting the objective by creating a photo slideshow, including labels/descriptions, of images of simple machines found in their homes or schools. However, understanding would be deepened by using Lego robotics to create a machine that will perform a real-world task or by using a tool such as Golems or Scratch to design a machine incorporating simple machines (all at the create level of Bloom’s). Tablet computers offer many animation creation apps that can provide students similar opportunities for designing and sharing practical applications of this learning outcome.
Don’t just report–solve. Inquiry, problem-based learning, project-based learning, challenge-based learning–whatever the name, the central idea behind such concepts is that students are asked to find answers and solve real problems. Rather than giving a report on global warming, for instance, students might be asked to create a web page promoting the responsible use of natural resources or a video explaining reasons why fossil fuels continue to be the predominant source of energy worldwide. These types of activities require students to gather information from a variety of sources, examine often contrasting facts and opinions, and synthesize everything into an effective product.
Encourage collaboration. And by collaboration, I mean real interaction, sharing and critiquing of ideas, and contributions by students with differing perspectives. Tools such as wikis, email, Skype, and other communication/collaboration technologies allow students to expand this and work with students from a more diverse community. Skype in the Classroom and ePals are just two of a growing number of resources that help teachers facilitate this.
Choice. Back in the early days of classroom technology, students had few options when it came to the products they would create. Today, however, the possibilities are vast, and this offers opportunities for students to create projects that are suited to their personal learning preferences and interests. Teachers can facilitate this by introducing students to a variety of possible tools and allowing students to select the technology that will produce the most effective end product.
Assess authentically. Use rubrics to give students a clear picture of what constitutes top-quality work. If students are involved in the rubric creation process, all the better. Rubrics provide students a means to self-assess their work and progress, as well. Rubistar is an “old” tool that continues to be one of the easiest to use resources for generating new rubrics quickly or finding existing ones suitable for many technology-rich classroom activities.
This is a Prezi I created for a presentation on classroom technology use and levels of rigor. It incorporates ideas from Dr. Bernajean Porter’s Technology and Learning Spectrum and the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, and I’ve listed technology resources that could be used at the various levels. It is vital to understand that the key component is not the technology tool being used, but the manner in which it is applied. Many of the tools listed could be used at multiple levels of complexity, depending upon their application in instruction.
We in education are fond of buzzwords that reflect the latest, hot trends or newest resources or research. Scarcely can we attend a professional learning session or listen to an educational leader without hearing the newest eduspeak (That’s another one.): relevance, engagement, child-centered, empower, brain-based, collaboration, authentic, etc. One term that is not new but is making a comeback is rigor. Recently, our district has begun a renewed emphasis on the application of rigor, which is a good thing. However, there is something of a lack of clarity as to its meaning and how it should be manifested in the curriculum. In our defense, even the dictionary definitions of rigor can often be of little help. Dictionary.com defines rigor with such unappealing phrases as “strictness, severity, or harshness”, “the full or extreme severity of laws, rules, etc.”, “scrupulous or inflexible accuracy or adherence”, etc. Few teachers today would strive to create a classroom with this type of climate. I posed the question on Twitter last week, and received only one response. My Dallas friend Paul Wood described rigor as “causing someone to think, digging deeper. Not just surface thinking.” Discussions with co-workers expanded on this theme and added the element of increasing cognitive load. A search online found a repeated theme of “high expectations”, which is good, but still not concrete, as opinions on what constitutes high expectations can widely differ.
Although the precise definition remains somewhat elusive, something of a consensus was reached among some of the people with whom I spoke about how rigor can be achieved when using technology in the curriculum. Too often, technology has not contributed rigor to the classroom because it has been used merely as a substitute for student work that is not rigorous to begin with. PowerPoints or word processing documents are used as a replacement for worksheets or pencil-and-paper essays. Student response systems assess students’ knowledge at the basic, recall levels that might have been assessed using multiple-choice, paper tests. The interactive whiteboard or document camera replaces the dry-erase or chalkboard. While such activities may increase student engagement at a very shallow level, they do not ask anything more from the student. The use of technology alone is insufficient as a means of increasing rigor.
So, then, how can technology be leveraged in a way that increases cognitive load and facilitates genuine rigor in the curriculum? One step teachers can take is to apply Bloom’s taxonomy, a strategy very familiar to all educators. When designing a technology-rich student learning opportunity, we should strive to use the tools to encourage and develop higher-level thinking. In the current incarnation of Bloom’s, higher-level thinking occurs at the analyzing, evaluating, and creating levels. I’ve written and presented quite a bit on the topic of technology and creativity lately, and it is a topic near and dear to me. In my youth, I seriously considered becoming an artist when I grew up. One of the primary reasons I abandoned this idea was the generally negative opinions I encountered from many influential adults on the subject, both spoken and unspoken. This negative atmosphere largely persists today, as subjects such as music, art, graphic design, etc. are bemoaned as “frivolous” by those advocating a “back-to-basics” view of a rigorous curriculum.
Rather than expounding on the reasons why I believe such a view is complete nonsense, I’ve instead shared a video (below) by Sir Ken Robinson. He is a strong proponent of increasing opportunities in the curriculum, and I’ve shared videos of his talks before. This one focuses on the ways that creativity and rigor are actually far from mutually exclusive, and he makes a strong case for the idea that the act of creativity is a highly rigorous process. It involves planning, originality of ideas, and the making of a meaningful product. Creativity is very often a highly collaborative process that involves a great deal of critical thinking, as well. When we thoughtfully design technology-rich opportunities for our students to make a film, craft a simulation, design an object or structure, or create a visual, musical, or physical representation of an idea or concept, we take advantage of the best capabilities of technology. We encourage the highest levels of rigor. When we do that, the lower levels so prominent in our accountability assessments will become easy.