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Using a Wiki for Collaborative Inquiry

Written by Jennifer Estabrook
March 26, 2011

Because wikis are collaborative web sites that provide tools for gathering information, creating content, editing, and sharing digital files, it is a natural platform for inquiry based learning. Using a wiki allows for a continual process of asking questions and active investigation that leads to more questions. Theoretically, there is no final product. This is what may make it unsettling for both students and teachers, but there are certainly skills that should be assessed along the way. And so with a heterogeneous group of 18 grade 8 students, we were off.

An overarching essential question we explore throughout much of the year is What are the consequences of intolerance? More specific guiding questions include: Who is Anne Frank? What is the Holocaust? How could the Holocaust happen? Once the story of Anne Frank is introduced, students raise many more questions. Their interest is sincere, and their questions are thought-provoking: Why did Hitler and the Nazis want to kill Jews and other groups of people? How could they get away with it? Why didn’t anybody try to stop them? How did they know who was Jewish? Why didn’t they all just leave? These are questions that are difficult to answer, questions that lead to further questions about the roots and consequences of racism, prejudice, stereotyping, and intolerance; about the use and abuse of power in societies and what individuals can and should do; and about the danger of looking the other way when witnessing instances of oppression or persecution.

The Holocaust Inquiry Assignment.doc was designed to mirror the Big6 process, and learning activities were created to teach the subskills of each step. Through modeling and guided practice, students were exposed to a host of critical skills: identifying and narrowing a topic, choosing appropriate sources, accessing a data base, distinguishing between primary and secondary sources, searching the Internet, evaluating websites, notetaking, synthesizing information from multiple sources, and citing sources. For many students, it can be a laborious process.

During these early steps, our class wiki was used to brainstorm and house resources that could be shared by all, but once students were ready for Step 4, Use of Information, the wiki was used for notetaking. Since this step is the most difficult for middle school students, a lot of time was spent on instruction and practice. I needed to be sure my students were extracting the most essential information from their sources, not simply copying and pasting. To monitor this step, I required students to copy and paste the text of each source one paragraph at a time into their pages, then take bulleted notes below. By chunking this task, students were better able to manage the arduous task of notetaking.

Image originally uploaded on 2011-03-21 06:45

Moving from notetaking and gathering media to the creation of a webpage requires the higher order thinking skill of synthesis, the ability to sort, organize, and present new information. In the Big6 framework, this is Step 5, the culmination of our weeks of hard work. Needless to say, students who had successfully managed the earlier steps were better equipped to design their webpages. Brandon, who’s a strong verbal/linguistic learner, navigated the process easily with his topic The Hitler Youth Movement.pdf as evidenced by some of his notes above. In his self-evaluation, he noted:

Creating the webpage was easy for me because I am technologically adept, and it was easy to form paragraphs from my notes. I learned to take things one-at-a-time and not to rush taking notes or form final drafts before I had done my rough draft.

For other students, the process is taxing, requiring more guidance and encouragement from the classroom teacher. Still, some students lost momentum and took shortcuts along the way. Kevin, who is visual and artistic, found the process of extracting information most demanding:

The most difficult was getting the information because everything I found I had to put in my own words instead of just copying, and I’m not really used to that.

Kevin willingly admitted to his propensity for copying and pasting, but with enough cajoling made some significant progress in the revision of his web page of Adolf Hitler.pdf. Unfortunately, in his desire to be done, he copied and pasted his final paragraph that had to be deleted prior to submission, sacrificing part of his grade. Still, I believe a lesson had been learned.

Evaluation, the final step in the Big6 process, is one of the most important tasks for both teacher and student. In our current educational climate that values grades and test scores, it is often the step that is largely ignored. From the beginning, I wanted students to honor the process over the product, to reflect on the learning that took place each step of the way. For that I developed a questionnaire (Self Evaluation.pdf) for them to reflect on both the process and their products. In, addition, I wanted students to provide feedback to one another as they do with all pieces of writing, so I created a Peer Editing Checklist (Peer Review.pdf) tailored to this particular assignment. Finally, students were evaluated during each step of the process with the rubric I designed to mirror the Big6 framework (Inquiry Webpage Rubric.pdf).

There is much to think about now that we have paused in our inquiry of the Holocaust. I use the term “paused” because nearly every day a student will make a connection back to our overarching question, What are the consequences of tolerance? For me, this is the greatest lesson of all. Inquiry is a recursive process, a continual process of questioning, discussing, and making connections, all of which nurtures critical thinking.

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