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Redesigning Curriculum for the Digital Age

Written by Jennifer Estabrook
March 26, 2011

I like to think of myself as a thoughtful practitioner. When designing learning activities, I refer to state and national standards, consider the needs of my students, and scaffold instruction to nudge my students toward independence and higher order thinking skills. But lately I have been troubled by my reliance on technology to keep my students engaged rather than to support learning goals. To find that sweet spot where technological knowledge, content knowledge, and pedagogical knowledge intersect, I needed to refocus on what I knew about good instructional design: Begin with the end in mind.

Our grade 8 curriculum includes the reading of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, a perspective of the Holocaust that has limitations and leaves students with many questions. Each year I spend more and more time answering their questions and providing supplemental readings in my haste to get through this unit. This year, I wanted my students to answer their own questions, do the hard work of sifting through information, have the opportunity to engage in deep inquiry that promotes critical thinking. In other words, the content would be similar, but the pedagogy needed to change. For that I turned to the Big6.

The Big6 is an information and technology literacy model that outlines a
six-stage process to solve information-based problems: task definition, information seeking strategies, location and access, use of information, synthesis, and evaluation. Each of these stages provides rich opportunities for students to not only practice information seeking skills, but more importantly, to engage in higher order thinking skills. The power of this model is in how closely the skills align to standards developed both by NETS and the American Association of School Librarians for 21st century learners. Typically I have been teaching these skills in isolation, and I fear the purpose was lost on many students. To become lifelong learners, I realize students need a lot of practice solving their information problems from start to finish.

The final piece of the design puzzle was determining how to integrate technology. I wanted students to use technology at every step of the process. In addition to locating information, I wanted them to use technology to store and organize their resources and information. In addition, I wanted them to have the opportunity to create content that reflected the digital age in which they were writing: content presented in a multimodal format that combines text with images, sound, video, and hyperlinks. Since inquiry is messy business and often difficult to manage, I also needed a way of tracking the process in real time. Finally, I wanted them to use a technological platform to display their knowledge for others to view and use.

I decided that using a wiki would meet the requirements for my students’ inquiry around the Holocaust, but this would be new territory for me as well as my students. Fortunately, I’m comfortable experimenting with new technologies and learning along with my students. This was the least of my concerns. My greatest challenge would be keeping them interested and on task throughout a prolonged process and preventing them from taking shortcuts. Experience has taught me that students enjoy what I call the “hunting and gathering” of resources for inquiry, but interest quickly wanes when required to extrapolate and synthesize information.

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