A Blank Sheet Of Paper

Blank Mind

Originally uploaded by Juan R. Martos

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we get students to complete tasks.

Specifically I’ve been thinking about it in an IT context, but it applies to English and potentially Art, Music, Drama and other creative subjects as well.

If I want to create a spreadsheet model I’ll fire up Excel (other spreadsheet packages are available) and start fleshing out a suitable layout. But if I want students to do this they often struggle. “I don’t know where to start”, “What do I do first?” and other comments will appear. The students often lack the ability that I seem to have – to start putting things down and come up with a suitable layout. Equally, if I want the students to write a letter to a client in response to a brief, they’ll say “How do I start it?” – even if we’ve done a load of prep work.

Sometimes I think that scaffolding and frameworks are very effective. I subscribe to the idea that when starting to program, I write something that will do what I want and then selectively remove bits, adding hints for the students. Students find an empty page daunting – whether it be web design, programming, spreadsheets – even DTP and slideshows. Heck, even I will prefer to use a DTP template and adjust it rather than start from nothing.

I wonder, though, if that’s doing students a disservice. I said at the start that, with a spreadsheet model for example, I just start hashing it out. I’ve built plenty of websites and written plenty of programs without someone setting it all up for me. Am I about to send hundreds of students out into the world without the skills that I, myself, have to use day in and day out?

I think it would be too simplistic to say “give them a scaffold” at KS3 but “make them do it from scratch” at KS4. I don’t see how I can expect some switch to flick sometime between taking options and the summer holidays at which point students can suddenly be expected to do this for themselves.

What’s the answer? Well, I’m pretty sure it varies depending on the topic, and the student. I happily still use scaffolding for programming at KS5 (as does the exam), but I’m not going to give my Y7s a writing frame in PowerPoint.

If anyone does have the answer then please do share it, because I really don’t…

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2 thoughts on “A Blank Sheet Of Paper

  1. The satisfaction to be derived from “I did that” is absolutely part of any creative learning process and removing it ultimately de-motivates and disempowers. This means the scaffolds that support the acquisition of new skills need to be removed as soon as we ask students to use them in context. Further on still comes the requirement to orchestrate a range of skills. This assumes that a project style of working is best to fully develop their skills. And sometimes we need to provide the time, space and mutual support (which are learning scaffolds of a different sort) to head off into the wilderness. This requires the ability to be open with students about our own inability to know where the road leads.
    Our education system can be very poor at providing these opportunities because of our focus on measurable outcomes, and our students are at risk of becoming objective junkies – dependent learners.
    I must declare an interest here as I’m heading off into the wilderness myself – Transmedia storymaking with kids. http://www.digitalglue.org/

  2. In my experience it’s also about a fear of failure. Most of my ‘informal’ learning of ICT has come from mucking around with it, figuring out what works, what doesn’t – for me. That doesn’t sit well in a culture where every piece of work needs to be marked, assessed and targets attached.

    I’ve found a similar problem in History. We’re currently working on a final piece looking to pull together everything we’ve learned about a particular historic site. All their ideas were ‘safe’ – copies of what had already been done. I nicked an idea from Ewan McIntosh and we spent 10 minutes brainstorming their worst ideas. From that we got some absolute gems that will hopefully lead some outstanding projects. More importantly, those students who told me at the start of the lesson that they ‘couldn’t do creativity’ left the room with a slightly different view.

    So, how do we solve this problem? Perhaps if the objectives for a unit of work were ‘tell me what you’ve figured out about ‘ we might get somewhere. The final work wouldn’t be marked – just a reflection piece (or series of pieces) on what they’re figuring out which we could provide feedback on. If we build that in once or twice a year from yr 7 onwards we might start to change the mindset.

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