Jonathan Brown reflects on an experiment with tech-enabled collaborative writing.
Herbert Simon said ‘everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into desired ones’. If we see learning as a process of developing knowledge, skills, or behaviour, then we, as educators, are those who devise a course of action to effect such change. We are learning designers.
As learning designers, it is our task to deliberately and thoughtfully plan experiences that result in desired learning outcomes. Regardless of our position on sharing formal lesson objectives with students, teaching is arguably at its most effective when we have a clear understanding of the learning we wish to occur. Learning design can be perceived as a form of problem-solving: we have in mind a point that we want our learners to reach, and it is up to us to work out how best they are to get there.
Yet even the most meticulously planned learning design is unlikely to proceed exactly as expected. The journey to a lesson objective may take a very different route from that which you anticipated, and the outcomes achieved may not always be those you had hoped for. This is no bad thing. Learning does not flourish in rigidly controlled environments, and learners can often take lessons in entirely unexpected – yet productive – directions. However, in these situations, it can be helpful for us to reflect on the experience, articulating and evaluating the learning that your design has facilitated.
It is here that a design narrative can be invaluable. Design narrative should be thought of as a semi-structured story recounting the history of a learning design, from inception to completion. We start by providing a detailed description of the context in which our design was situated and the objectives we set out to achieve. We then list the actions we took and their expected – and unexpected – results. Finally, we note the extent to which we met our objectives, and conclude with our reflections on the experience.
As an example, I include here a design narrative of one of my own lessons, giving an account of how I used Google Docs to facilitate a collaborative writing experience. It is by no means a perfect lesson, and there is much that I would now change about it! However, it is, I hope, an example of how design narrative can be used to reflect on a learning experience, giving us insight into what learning has occurred and what the next steps of the learning journey should be.
I was the teacher of a Year 11 GCSE English Literature class. The class was nominally ‘top set,’ yet many of the class, particularly the boys, had difficulty in thinking and working independently. Essays they produced on poetry showed understanding of the texts, but little in the way of inference and developed interpretation. Several of the class, however, displayed exceptional insight in their responses.
The class had six hours of lessons per fortnight, made up of four single hours and one ‘double.’ The default location was the classroom – this had a whiteboard and projector by my desk. Pupils had a place at a desk, allocated through a seating plan. To encourage collaboration, pupils were seated around desks in mixed-ability groups of 5 or 6. Desires of the pupils ranged from wanting to work hard to get an A* in their exam, to simply wanting to get through an hour’s lesson without having to write too much. In this situation, group work was imbalanced – even when specific roles were allocated, the more able ended up doing more work.
I was aiming to improve the quality of students’ written responses to poetry exam past-papers – success measured by an improvement in marks awarded for inference, insight, and independent interpretation.
- I looked through the pupils’ practice-exam responses, attempting to isolate a key difference between those who had scored highly, and those who had not.
- There were a few factors, such as less sophisticated vocabulary, sentence structures, and punctuation – but the one which stood out was that those who scored poorly had very short explanations of quotations they had used.
- I thought about possible actions to address this, ranging from teacher-talk to group-work; but I wanted to come up with a way that would combine the benefits of collaboration with the necessity of pupils thinking and writing for themselves. I decided that I would have students working collectively to produce an exam-style response to poetry; one team would produce one essay, made up of contributions of individuals. As a Star Trek fan, this reminded me of the Borg ‘collective,’ which led to this lesson being called ‘We are Borg!’
- I decided that one of the reasons group-work had not always been successful was that some of the boys were relying on the girls to do the work. To combat this, I split the class into two teams, boys vs girls, a near-even split.
- I allocated a poem/exam question to each team. I then sub-divided the teams into smaller groups, each responsible for analysing and explaining one aspect of the poem. Some members of the teams were given the task of overseeing the work of the sub-groups, co-ordinating responses.
- Pupils responded well to the element of competition, and there was a buzz of enthusiasm in the room. However, it was difficult to co-ordinate everything, as it required pupils to move around a lot to share ideas.
- After the lesson, I decided to combat this using Google Docs, which would allow real-time collaboration without movement. I set up and shared a document for each team, showing their essay question and an outline.
- The next lesson was in an ICT suite, with girls on one side and boys on the other. I went through the shared document carefully, reminded pupils of the aspect of the poem they were analysing, and set them off.
- Two of the girls’ ‘overseers’ were absent. This meant that I had to spend more time helping the girls co-ordinate everything at the beginning. This meant that I didn’t immediately realise a problem the boys were having: even working in smaller groups on one paragraph, it could be confusing having so many writers working at once. I had to narrow down roles further and reduce the number writing at once.
- Occasionally, Google Docs would disconnect on a computer, not allowing further editing until it reconnected. This slowed the process down.
- At the end of the lesson, each team printed out a copy of their collaborative response.
The two finished responses were very good – each paragraph showed evidence of detailed and developed inferences, and the pupils were proud to have an example of a high-grade essay to which they had contributed. When pupils were then asked to demonstrate individually what they had learned through a timed response to the poems, the depth of inference displayed was much improved, showing far higher levels of insight in nearly all responses.
I was most pleased by how much pupils enjoyed the experience – the most significant result was perhaps not the improvement of inference, but in that everybody in the class had seemed motivated and engaged, working hard, recognising the genuine benefits that collaboration and well-planned group work can offer. Were the learning outcomes achieved those which I had anticipated? No, not entirely. Would I repeat the activity? Absolutely. While the scale of the task was ambitious – having 15 people working simultaneously on a document is difficult to co-ordinate – the work produced was impressive, demonstrating what can be accomplished when learners combine their individual strengths to work towards a shared goal.