Tuesday, June 23, 2009

i3 report: schools 2

Continuing reports from the i3 conference that is taking place at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland: here are some notes from the second of the two studies concerning schools in Finland (from a session I attended yesterday).
Eoro Sormunsen (University of Tempere, Finland) presented a paper that he had co-authored with Heidi Hongisto, Students' requests for help and the teacher's strategies of support in a secondary school class working ona research assignment. This arose as a teacher was taking an inquiry approach to her teaching and wanted help in evaluating the impact of her approach. They adopted the research questions:
- firstly how do the students work on this, their first research paper,
- secondly, what kinds of problem do the students ask for help with (especially information seeking questions),
- thirdly, what strategies does the teacher use to support, or react to, problems that the students exerience,
- finally, what challenges are there for embedding information literacy within teaching.
The focus was a course on cultural geography, with 17 students aged 14 years. The teacher's learning goals for this project were to learn about the subject, to learn about planning, scheduling and carrying out work, seeking and using information, and using the computer for learning. The students were in fact researching a theme, rather than solving a problem scenario. It was an individual piece of work, although the students had sessions in class where they were working on the problem and had the chance to support each other.
There was an observation of weekly sessions, questionnaires (at different stages of the project) and interviews (one with the teacher and with a couple of students) and also reports (reflective and quantitative) of the coursework itself. In the end the researchers relied particularly on the observational data. For example they recorded problems that students had asked about (e.g. "Is this image good enough [for my coursework]") and any support offered by the teacher or peers (e.g. "Maybe you should look for another").
The researchers identified problem types which they clustered into problem categories, which were:
- information seeking and use (most frequent at 33% of the problems: roughly 40% of these were about searching; 40% on use (how to apply information); 20% on assessment of sources);
- the work process;
- the end product (the coursework);
- the subject itself;
- technical problems.
In terms of support strategies, they grouped 16 types of support into four categories:
- expert suppport (e.g. being directive about the correct solution; 39% of the total);
- ideas and encouragement (38% of the total support strategies, mostly not from peers);
- collaboration (e.g. person sitting next to you helping);
- controlling support (mostly teacher keeping students in the work process, checking that learners know what is required).
Collaborative strategies were used most in questions about the subject and technical projects. Expert was used least in technical problems.
(My observations) There are obvious uses into looking more closely, like this, at the kinds of problem that learners are asking about: you could use it to plan more effective support, and also use the "support strategy" analysis to reflect on whether you need to encourage peer collaboration more, whether you are giving too much (or too little) direction, whether the briefing for an assignment is unclear etc. This research also demonstrates that learners need support not just in searching but also in using information.
Photo by Sheila Webber: rose outside my hotel (and escaping bee), Aberdeen, June 2009

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