Questioning the Net Generation

Yesterday I briefly spoke in a webinar about Essential Questions (Driving Questions) in project based learning – and how difficult teachers often find it to write them initially.

There are some questions that we can draw from how kids play digital video games that go someway to helping create a play book for inquiry.

This post is, if you like, a walk-through of designing for inquiry. It starts out simple and ends up quite complex. The role of the teacher, as I see it, is to decide the depth to which students should explore – rather than the boundaries.

Questions that game designers pose continually though their game-mechanic demands include: Challenge or Destroy; Decide if; Figure out how; Persuade or Convince others; Wonder; Get to know a place or person; Dismiss erroneous information and tasks; Predict; Understand and Relate.

So in presenting ‘big ideas’ to students

  • What do suppose would happen if we took away the Internet?
  • If it’s true – how might  Global Warming make our lives different?
  • If you could change the town we live in, how would you make it better?
  • If you were the boy in this story, how would you handle the problem he faces?
  • If you were the woman in this story, how would you change things to make them better?

Inside this kind of inquiry, there are multiple opportunities to explore sub-themes and topics. The key challenge for teachers is to accept the idea that Blooms Taxonomy – though still an effective model, doesn’t ask the same questions in the same order that much of the Internet – and games do. Following on from that, the online spaces we use to drive these inquiries – not least games and virtual worlds – are increasingly important and familiar to students.

For example: A typical inquiry question might be – Go and find out about Nelson Mandela (or any other leader, prime minister, president). What did he or she do?

This typically fits the Blooms Taxonomy. Low order efforts rises to some sort of production, typically a story, poster or presentation. It doesn’t have enough in it to make it massively productive.

A revised example: What were the five distinguishing characteristics of Mandela? How did they contribute to his success or failures? What makes him so great or not so great? What are the three most important things you learned about him that might serve you well?

Of course, this revised example is a series of questions, not one single ‘task’. It’s also devoid of teaching, but relies entirely on learning. Within this, we can also create smaller quests; based on game-mechanics. These may be in what game designers call a chain, a series of steps that gradually make unconnected tasks make sense and relate to the bigger topic.

Goal: I want you to watch this video

What you need to do: From the lyrics, decide what it is trying to challenge or destroy?

How do you know you’ve done it: Post your response by selecting key lines of the song and convincing me why they are, or were important ideas.

Reward: The Researcher’s Trinket.

At times, it is useful to only sketch out your essential question while you map the design though a series of quests (I don’t like the idea of task these days). Eventually you can fine-tune your question to hint at a theme running through them.

Notice here that I’m not creating or demanding the use of any particular technology, but I am demanding constant inquiry. The over-arching or driving question might be “Can Music Build a Nation”, the end product might be a song they create … or anything.

This video is fan-made on YouTube, a remix/mashup of a song that appeared on a TV show originally. It’s really important, I think, that teachers allow students to explore their culture and identity, which includes media and artists that might not be appearing on their own iPad (or record player) currently.

If you want to drive some wonderment; try getting students to figure out the connections between SKA, Reggae, Marcus Garvey and Nelson Mandela.

You could even show them something like this, a grim, underground anthem from the 1990s and ask them why this video appealed to the generation at the time.

By leveling up the questions, and dropping in challenging ideas, it’s possible to map the inquiry, without limiting the boundaries. The role for the teacher in all of this is to be a skilled designer and weaver of conversation, which to me seems a leap of faith in that the classroom has to become a learning space, not a teaching one, and this then leads me to see virtual space as learning space … this switch seems important to me, as without it, no technology is going to change anything, but on the bright side it de-bunks this brain missing idea that teachers have to find time to ‘make’ new digital resources.

I advocate for PBL (and similar) because it’s the best way to create the time – and the critical thinking that appeals to a generation on the IV-Drip of games and online culture.