A Systems Approach To Teaching – #CLMOOC

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Systems-thinking changed the way I teach, but I didn’t realize it until the fourth #CLMOOC make cycle, which is focused on systems, challenged me to think about the systems in my life. For this make cycle, we were invited to document, analyze and reflect on the variety of systems that influence our life personally and/or professionally. I immediately thought of two important systems that influence my professional life – writing systems and community. I have written a lot about community because it is so integral to the way I teach, so I chose to focus more on the writing system that I use in my classes.

One of the best pieces of teaching advice I ever got was to think about the end result first – what was the big lesson I wanted my students to take away from my class or how did I want my class to change my students? This thinking led me to project-based learning and connected learning which I think are terrific methods to help our students learn both practical skills and critical thinking. They are also wonderful ways to teach writing.

The dictionary definition of a system is simply “a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole.” When I first began teaching I used portfolios, but it has only been in recent years that I have managed to create a true system for my classes. Every assignment, activity, and discussion plays a key role in my class system. I don’t believe in disposable assignments.

I created the graphic above to illustrate my system which is an adaptation of the writing process so often described in writing textbooks. However, unlike the traditional writing process, my system includes an intensive foundation process rather than simple “brainstorming” techniques and “revision” and “editing” take place in a workshopare and are very iterative and collaborative .

We begin with input. This comes in a variety of forms. I will often kick off the class with a low-stakes writing prompt of some sort to activate their own memories and experiences. The prompts vary, but are usually either a question, a short video, an image, or a story. After they have time to think and write, then we will engage in a class activity and/or discussion to compare and connect our collective knowledge. These are done in small groups if it is a larger class and then we bring the groups back together to compare and share so this is a very collaborative process. We will also create a more permanent record of these ideas on our class blog and continue to make connections among them.

Once we have established a base of information, we then begin to explore additional sources of information. I will start the class off with some low-hanging fruit by sharing some readings and if we have a textbook then we will spend some time selecting targeted texts. As our discussions progress, questions emerge and curiosity develops, so students are sent into the wild (or the library) to hunt and gather more information

We will spend a lot of time in class and on our class blog discussing their findings and continuing to make connections between what we already knew and thought and our new information. We continue following our pattern of writing and reflecting, discussing, and blogging throughout the discovery process. In essence, we are crowd-sourcing our research process, so no one has to go it alone, but the collaboration also makes their experiences with the new information much richer and often leads them in directions we could not have anticipated in the early days of class. The input, exploration, and sharing steps are documented and assessed as part of a more formal group learning document assignment as well as more informal community (class discussion) and reflection (class blog) assignments which are assessed by class-awarded badges.

We then use our class community and crowd-sourced information to help individuals develop a burning question into a passion project. For most students this topic come naturally out of our discussions, but others need a bit more help. However, as we have developed a community and had a number of discussions as well as shared a lot of information about ourselves and our interests, we are able to help everyone come up with an idea. We are also able at this point to spot the gaps in our knowledge about this topic, so now students go once more into the wild (or the library) to seek information and tools to help them fulfill their vision for their project. This part of the process, while continuing to rely on class discussion and the class blog to support the work, is documented in a formal assignment I call the paper trail which is essentially an annotated bibliography with a research reflection attached.

At this point, our class moves into workshop mode and students begin working on projects after their formal proposals are approved. While students are working on individual projects, we use classes and blog posts as check points to provide feedback and support throughout their work. This work and supporting workshops tend to dominate the second half of our semester culminating in a publishing party where we share and celebrate with food.

Each part of this system provides learning experiences and growth opportunities for my students and myself, but it is the system itself that has a tremendous impact. In their final reflections, students often comment on how surprised they are by what they have accomplished and what they have learned. I love that this system is not something I create by myself – we build it together as a community. The successes that my students experience are the result of this collaboration and their participation in the system. Ultimately, the projects and system we create informs the next semester’s class and I hope informs the future projects and papers that my students create for other classes and other contexts.

Do you have a system in your classroom? What does your classroom learning system look like? What are the benefits and drawbacks of a systems approach to teaching and learning?

Parts-Whole


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