As a consequence of the standardized testing of students from the age of 8, the current trend in Australian schools is to ‘teach to the test’. This approach to teaching and learning has become so pervasive, that students in Year 7 are being ‘prepped’ for the requirements of the final HSC examination. Fresh-faced 12 year olds arrive to high school to be greeted with rows of tables facing the front of a room; the front houses a whiteboard (electronic and interactive for the ‘lucky’ ones) and a teacher. These students move through 6 years of teacher-centred lessons where content and structure are king and queen. By the time they reach the HSC they are prepared to vomit this content into neatly organised lines.
But what happens when they get to university? What happens when they get out into the real world and read a paper and there’s no one there to break down the news report into easily digestible chunks? When there’s no one there but mainstream media to tell them which politician to vote for and why?
Failure to effectively teach students to consider multiple perspectives on a text/issue/idea/theory can have disastrous consequences on our future generations. In my last blog post I reflected on my dawning realisation that I had helped my new Year 12 students rely too heavily on ‘my’ perspective of the texts and concepts we study in class. Speaking to other teachers in our school, I have discovered that they too have similar concerns.
At the beginning of this term I was introduced to www.evidencechart.com . This web 2.0 tool essentially helps students to develop stronger arguments as they literally chart the evidence for multiple hypotheses and then rate the strength of the evidence in relation to each hypothesis. These interactive charts have been created with university Science students in mind – looks like university teachers are having the same issues regarding arguments and essay writing that we secondary teachers are!
I am currently teaching ‘belonging’ and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Traditionally my way of teaching poetry (and I know this is uninspired but I also know it is the typical approach) is to stand at the front of the class and analyse the poem – focusing on what the poet is attempting to communicate, how she achieves this and how it relates to the concept ‘belonging’. The students write all over the poems, identifying poetic devices and jotting down teacher’s ideas about why they have been used. As a class we discuss the poem and what we think is going on within it. Poetry is notoriously difficult simply because, as a form, it aims to communicate an intensity of ideas and feelings in a bare minimum of words oddly arranged!
There are two main problems I have faced with students and poetry. Often poetry is transformed into rather uninspired essays where students appear to have been playing ‘spot the poetic technique’ – rarely is there any genuine evaluation of these ‘hallowed’ techniques and the impact that each may have on the thoughts, emotions and imaginations of the reader. Furthermore, rarely is there ever an emotive attachment to an interpretation contrary to the one I attributed to the poem.
Evidence chart forced my students to examine how and why each stanza of a poem did or didn’t support a particular ‘hypothesis’ about the poem and its relationship to the concept ‘belonging’. Basically students developed TWO separate (and not necessarily conflicting) hypotheses in response to an essay question then judged and analysed the evidence (TWO poems) in the cells of the evidencedchart matrix and used this evidence to select the most well-supported hypothesis to form the argument of their essays. There is also a cool little ‘hidden’ feature – the contrarian view which is effectively the opposite of the dominant view the student is working on. Filling in the cells from the contrarian view forces students to consider how each piece of evidence could be interpreted in another, contrary way. Have a look below at the screen grab from one of my student’s charts and then see how this was translated into a paragraph.
A desire for the unknown aspects in one’s life can often lead to feelings of anxiety. This idea is prominent throughout Dickinson’s poem ‘I was hungry all the years’. In the line, ‘I was hungry all the years’, the hunger for food is metaphorical for the speaker’s deprival of the social world. It emphasises the speaker’s lack of connections with society. The reality of this social world is an unknown to the speaker. The line, ‘ I trembling, drew the table near’, illustrates feelings of anxiety within the speaker. Trembling is an emotive word that suggests the speaker is in a fragile state. As she approaches a situation in which she is to confront the social world for the first time, she is overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety. These feelings are an inevitable risk one must take when entering something new in life.
This is a student who had previously written an essay full of what we English teachers call ‘waffle’ – writing that barely engages with the essay question, has no logical argument and fails to evaluate the effectiveness of poetic techniques in relation to an overarching ‘thesis’. He was just writing garbage to fill the word limit and submit the task. His experience with evidence chart has pushed him away from meaningless ramblings for a couple of reasons. Firstly he had to spend A LOT more time with the poem itself to effectively complete the chart – far more analysis and evaluation happening than previously. Secondly the design of the chart (as a matrix) allowed him to visualize his argument as well as rank the strength of each piece of evidence in relation to his hypothesis. Less rambling essays – that’s a win for both of us!
Initially my class was very hesitant about using the charts – they couldn’t understand the relationship between a web 2.0 tool that had been created for Science students and their English essays. After a few minor log-in issues and hiccups with the contrarian view not working on some browsers (an issue that the creators of evidence charts have let me know will be/has been fixed thanks to our feedback) the kids found the charts user-friendly. I think the hardest thing for them all was the fact that they had to THINK about each aspect of the poem and how it did or didn’t support their ideas. The contrarian feature was great as it encouraged them to think from someone else’s perspective and to consider how someone might poke holes in their hypothesis!
As a teacher the charts are great – yep, more marking I know – but the comments feature built in to each cell means I can give timely feedback on ideas an analysis BEFORE the essay is handed in. It actually helped me identify weaknesses I hadn’t noted before – such as a top student’s resistance to thinking ‘more’ than was needed to write her essay! Reading the essays that the students have produced after charting their hypotheses and evidence revealed a marked improvement in their arguments AND analysis – win number two! What I have also discovered is a need to teach the importance of gathering more information than necessary to write an essay. What students may see as ‘too much’ information actually allows them to be selective with the content that makes it into their essays. We will be spending the next week working on how to ‘distill’ the essential elements of their evidence charts into compelling essays that articulate a convincing thesis which responds to and answers the given essay question. I’m really pleased I’m now devoting much class time to discussing arguments, evidence and essay-writing – it’s going to be a great help when we study Orwell’s essays next year!
A final word on the success of evidence charts in my class room. Last year our faculty altered our first Year 12 English assessment task to include a graphic organizer which demonstrates each student’s planning BEFORE they write their essay. Having used evidence charts in class, a number of students have requested that these be included as one of the many types of graphic organizers allowed for the assessment task. When students ask to keep using a tool, you know it’s good. I’ll certainly be taking their suggestion to my Head Teacher!
It’s funny that my introduction to web 2.0 tools has been by way of the Digital Education Revolution (a program for students in Years 9 & 10) yet I’ve found myself using these tools with ALL of my other classes. Evidence charts have been working beautifully with my Year 12 students and I encourage others to give them a go – our HT of History is going to give them a go with his ‘personality’ studies. A web 2.0 tool that is helping my students become better thinkers and writers? Cool!
PS: If you’re interested you can check out my blog post for Year 12 on what is an argument here and my prezi introduing evidence charts here.