What to do with a wiki?

Last thursday Jane and I ran a third lesson with my year 9 ‘Zeldin’ class.  This was a second go at using the wiki to study the links between events and factors behind the development of surgery in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Moving on from last week.

We’d decided (see previous post) that the previous task had been too complicted, too abstract in order for the students to find a way in.  This time I was better prepared.  Students were divided into two groups.  Students in the first group were given specific events, persons or inventions to study.  The second, much smaller group, was given the task of thinking and writing about factors, and to be in charge of the quality control of links.

The activity

Individuals were given individual instructions (using mail merge in word – wow – an easy way to create personalised tasks – will try to blog this this week). These instructions included references to online and to paper references. We also modelled what we wanted them to do, using a few pages we’d mocked up on the wiki, which was:

Researchers – read and research about their invention, person or event, and write a wiki page explaining the impact it had on the development of surgery. When this work was done they were to think about how this development was linked to one of five factors. If they came up with a link they were to visit the wiki page related to that factor, and posit the link by leaving a comment on this page.

Factor Page Editors – write a brief description of this factor and how it might affect the development of surgery.  (This was to give them something to do whilst the links comments were generated by the researchers, and so that reserachers would have a generic description of the factor to consider whilst they were coming up with links).  Then, when comments were made they were to consider, research and then consolidate these links into the page about their factor.


I had hoped that this would enable the brighter students I had chosen to be ‘factors editors’ the opportunitiy to think in a more abstract way about how factors might work, and then to test their ideas against what was coming in from the researchers. At the same time the researchers were given the opportunity to get familiar with a specific event, and then given an opportunity to make links between this and the bigger picture.  The concept map, wiki pages, and comment forms were a way of encouraging and enabling these two ways of thinking.

What happened

I had a mind mapping session in the immediate aftermath (before discussing with Jane or any of the students), the results of which are below.

what went well about the third wiki lessonwhat didnt' go so well about the third wiki lesson

Halfway through the lesson Jane whispered ‘they can’t do links, it’s too abstract’.  So, I stopped the lesson and we had a brief discussion about what we meant my links – my intention being to enable them to think about and listen to others ideas about ‘linking’.  I hoped that this would enable them to suggest their own links.

They could talk about links in a generalised way – they were able to suggest how factors might affect the development of surgery (which was, in effect, the first part of the task assigned to factor page editors).  It became very clear pretty quickly that even in discussion they were unable to posit links between events and factors.

It was also evident that the students had ignored the books that had been handed out (despite the reference to their page numbers in the resources section of the worksheet).  Instead they had used google to search for the name of the event, invention or person they’d been asked to study.  They ate what they killed, without thought, and cut’n’pasted text from their searches into the wiki pages.  Having ‘done’ the first half of their task, they ran into real difficulties in the second and were unable to come up with links.

What’s next?  Further Questions, and a tiny rant.

The question that arises is ‘why can’t they link?’.  Is it because they aren’t developmentally capable of this at this age (I don’t think so, mainly because they can talk about it generally), because the activity didn’t really enable them to do this, because they aren’t asked to do this often, or because they’d merely copied and pasted lots of stuff from the internet, without engaging with it?  Perhaps it’s a combination of all three.

I’m beginning to suspect that this is because in many classes theres an unspoken agreement between students and teacher (heck I’ve colluded in this myself at times).  This agreement varies between ‘we both believe that sitting in-front of this computer and preparing something that looks amazing will enable you to learn about the topic we’re studying’ to ‘we both agree that you’ll let me get on with some marking if I let you fiddle with powerpoint’s animation capabilities’.  The fact that students passively sit infront of PCs for hours at home mean that we’ve got to design activities that make the learning more obvious.

The more I consider this, the more I’m thinking that computers ought to form parts of lessons.

2 thoughts on “What to do with a wiki?

  1. Firstly:
    ‘we both believe that sitting in-front of this computer and preparing something that looks amazing will enable you to learn about the topic we’re studying’ to ‘we both agree that you’ll let me get on with some marking if I let you fiddle with powerpoint’s animation capabilities’
    – brilliant! Can I quote yo on that??

    Secondly (and more seriously): I think another problem with what we’ve been doing this year is that the time limits we were working under led us into a ‘cramming trap’. Because we had very few lessons, we wanted to do all the thinking – from the simple to the complex – in each lesson. This meant devoting little time to the actual research on the topics for example. Maybe with time and attention we could remedy the undiscerning copy-pasting, doing the students (and humanity) a favour. If research had been the central task, I’m sure it would ahve panned out differently. Similarly, if we had allowed time for thinking about links and connections, letting the links emerge from the actual research, we would have seen, I believe, a whole different level of reflection on the part of the students. Also, we didn’t get the time to attend to the map in the last lesson – and that was quite a loss in my view.

    In other words: we have got some work to do on this tool before we’ve worked out a nice and tidy way to implement it.

  2. Perhaps, as a starting point, we could choke off their desire to leap straight to google.
    I did a lesson once with the other side of the year (I called the class Marwick, which will amuse pretentious historians when they remember that the first class is called Zeldin), in which they werent’ allowed to go ‘online’ untill they’d drafted some search strings, and explained what they wanted to search for and why.  Dunno – just a thought.
    Oh, and I’d be delighted if you quoted me!

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