A blog without an audience is like...a library without books, a car without an engine, Beyonce without a ring. Those were some of the responses David Mitchell (@DeputyMitchell) got when he asked his Twitter followers to fill in the blank.
"We all understand the importance of audience," says Mitchell, an educator from the United Kingdom and vocal proponent of using blogs to engage student writers. His latest strategy to connect students with readers around the world is the online phenomenon known as QuadBlogging.
The idea is deceptively simple. Four teachers agree to have their students comment on each other's blogs in an organized fashion. Each week, one of the four gets a turn as the spotlight class. The other three classes visit and leave comments. Over the course of a month, every student's work gets read and commented upon. Along the way, students learn about respectful online communication. They may decide to revise their thinking if a commenter shares a perspective they haven't considered.
Mitchell hatched the idea almost by chance with three other schools in the UK. It quickly went viral. In the year since he set up a website to connect interested teachers, QuadBlogging has spread to 2,000 schools in 40 countries. That translates to 100,000 students who are becoming more motivated writers.
Mitchell, deputy headmaster at Heathfield Community Primary School in Bolton, England, isn't exaggerating when he says blogging leads to better writing. He's seen it happen. The first year he introduced blogging to his Grade 6 students, the number who earned top writing scores on British achievement tests increased from 9 percent to 60 percent. "That kind of gain in one year is unheard of," says the veteran educator. Similar growth occurred the next year, when students made the equivalent of two years' progress in writing during one academic year.
Along with measurable results, Mitchell has gathered plenty of anecdotal evidence. Early on, he heard from young bloggers who said they put more time and care into their writing -- so long as someone was listening. "It became my mission to get them an audience," he says. He didn't let them down. His student bloggers have been featured on the BBC and taken the stage at BETT, the world's largest ed tech conference.
Hear more about the backstory of QuadBlogging in Mitchell's presentation to the #140conf12 State of Now Conference in New York.
As more teachers jump onto the QuadBlogging bandwagon, they are sharing insights about what works best with their students. One elementary foursome used their collaborative experience as the focus for action research. Like Mitchell, they found that shared blogging motivated students to write more and produce writing of higher quality. Read highlights of their findings on Silvia Tolisano's Langwitches blog and Inquire Within, a group blog dedicated to inquiry.
Mike Gwaltney (@MikeGwaltney), social studies teacher at both Oregon Episcopal School in Portland, Oregon, and the Online School for Girls, is embarking on his second round of QuadBlogging. This time around, his students are collaborating with classes from Iowa, Baltimore, and France. During U.S. Presidential election season, government students will exchange views with peers from diverse contexts. "It's red and blue states; East Coast, West Coast, and the Midwest; U.S. and international viewpoints," he says.
Providing students with a ready forum for exchanging ideas helps Gwaltney meet a goal that goes beyond academic learning. "My students gain new perspective. They'll tell me, I didn't used to think this way," he says. That's a sign that students are developing "global empathy," a phrase Gwaltney credits to Alan November. "It comes from talking to people who occupy a different place in the world. You may find that your stereotypes are incorrect, and that we're more alike than different in our experiences."
Follow Gwaltney's QuadBloggers in the coming weeks on The Age of Exploration Blog . Students also will be tweeting about their collaborative learning experiences using the hashtag #quad103.
Back in the UK, Mitchell has his hands full between daily school duties and managing the growing network of QuadBloggers. Meanwhile, he's busy dreaming up more digital projects. PassTheBlog is a collaborative writing project shared by 52 teachers; each classroom "owns" the blog and its content for a week. It launched in June, and teacher slots filled up within the first day he mentioned it on Twitter (#passtheblog). Another project, Feb29th.net was a 24-hour phenomenon on Leap Day. The site received 12,000 posts, 5,000 comments, and 400,000 hits during its one-day-only publishing lifecycle.
Mitchell doesn't seem to mind putting in late-night shifts to keep these collaborative efforts humming. "I have a passion to do it," he says simply.
In fact, he's already working on his next innovation. By the end of the year, he hopes to launch a site called The Multitude, which will recruit "real-world" readers for students' blogs. The idea is to reach outside the world of education and connect students with the authentic audiences they crave. Comments would be moderated, likely by Mitchell and perhaps a team of volunteers.
For businesses, this could be an easy way to meet corporate social responsibility goals by asking employees to volunteer a few minutes to comment on student blogs. "It's a way for businesses to give back to education," Mitchell says.
For students, connecting with readers who aren't teachers or students would provide even more motivation to write well. Imagine the opportunities for students working on projects to connect with technical experts who could help them move their ideas along. "We tend too often to pacify and patronize students," Mitchell says, "but instead, we can safely expose them to the world."