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A photo of post-it notes in various bright colors stuck on a wall.

I've been trying to use Google Docs to good effect in my ninth grade history classroom. It's a critical tool in that it lets me see the students puzzle out answers to their questions (especially with a heavy reliance of the "see revisions" function).

I've viewed classroom technology as the means to sharing knowledge, in addition to acquiring or manipulating it. Yet I find that not only has the computer itself become something of a distraction, but the students aren't making enough use of the tech’s "share-ability" -- that is, they struggle to work effectively together on it, and to have their ideas cohere in an intelligible way. It occurred to me that co-editing in a Google Doc is a skill that itself needs to be taught and practiced before it can become effective in the classroom.

I also started thinking that perhaps one fault of technology is that it brings the world to the student, rather than spurring the student to get up out the chair and go find it. I have noticed personalities in the class that like to work standing up, or who find reasons to walk around while thinking. Could there be a way to restore a kinesthetic element that had begun to disappear from the room with my reliance on web tools?

The Power of Post-it Notes

I believe that every student in the class can benefit from sharing knowledge and ideas with each other, whether it's through brainstorming or higher-level organizing and synthesizing, so I went back to ancient technology and made Google Docs analog again. I gave the students a large sheet of butcher paper, a pack of Post-it notes, and a few pens, and instructed them to draw a large T-chart on the butcher paper.

I then led them through a compare-and-contrast exercise with two documents from Imperial-era British East Africa -- one from the perspective of a colonial administrator and the other from a Kikuyu tribal chief. I wanted them to think about cause and effect in addition to perspective and bias, and how to reorganize information from a text into their own thoughts.

I asked them to begin writing down details from the documents that struck them as meaningful and important -- one detail to a Post-it note -- and put the notes in the right column with respect to the document from which it came. This let me walk around from group to group and push them a little to get less superficial in their note-taking -- to include specific details instead of just making general statements, for instance, or to avoid repeating the same vague comments.

One of Google Docs' functions that I value is how multiple people can edit at the same time -- or what might be called a form of both brainstorming and organization. So in step two of the exercise, I asked the students to start looking for natural groupings, arrange the Post-it notes by their similarities, and come up with a statement about the theme that linked those groupings together. This gave me the time I needed to meet with each group and to have them talk me through their thinking process. It helped them see the essential similarities and differences in the two accounts, and also the way in which the two documents recounted actions and consequences depending on how they worked across the T-chart.

Sharing Ideas

Here’s where the next function of the Google Docs -- its "share-ability" -- came in. I asked the students to perform a gallery walk and comment on each other's T-charts, filling in something that seemed missing or adding a comment or two to push the group's thinking further. As a reward for their efforts, each team could steal one or two Post-it notes from the other teams. That set off something of a frenzy as the students rushed to see what they could pillage from each other. One student wailed, "I hate being plagiarized!" That was a gratifying bonus.

Once the students returned with their swag and fit this new information into their charts, I asked each group to develop an overall statement that accounted for the similarities and differences in the two documents, or to the cause and effect relationship they saw developing between British actions and Kikuyu reactions. I heard someone say, "Oh, a thesis! That's how you do it!" What they had created, of course, was a deconstructed essay, and their final challenge was to construct a written argument from these charts.

It was a fun way to add some physical movement to what I had feared would be the standard, uninteresting document analysis, and it was enlightening to watch them move the notes around to make sense of what was at first a large jigsaw puzzle of unrelated concepts. I cannot stress enough, however, how important it is to find a stable location for student work to rest, as the stickum on the back of Post-it notes hasn't evolved much since the 1980s, and I started finding the things everywhere by the final day of the assignment.

That, at least, is not a problem with Google Docs.

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Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"


I am a HUGE user of Post It notes in all of my work, and I particularly love to see classrooms where they have become an essential tool. Many folks have told me that I must own stock in 3M for all the post it notes I burn through in workshops! In addition to a great brainstorm and design tool, we have to recognize one more powerful use of post it note-type learning: it allows each of us to promote or share an idea anonymously. Anonymity in the early phase of a discussion is critical; many studies have proven that once one idea is publicly voiced, dissenting ideas are decreasingly present. So Post It note ideation is a pathway to expanding the total field of thinking...which is something we should promote every time we gather to find and solve problems...which is hopefully what we are doing more of in classrooms!

Raleigh Werberger's picture
Raleigh Werberger
High school history and humanities teacher in New York

Hi, Catharine - I haven't stumbled across a great way to return this kind of information sharing and brainstorming back to Google. I have run this a few more times with Post-Its just to keep reinforcing these basic thinking skills and I have been thinking more of the art end of the spectrum - thinking about how to turn these into infographics and flow charts with graphic imagery to represent themes or connections. I like the way they capture process-thinking and they may serve as artifacts of learning in and of themselves. In the meantime, it's probably fair to ask the kids directly how they plan on returning to electronic brainstorming from this activity...

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

There have been some comments in our Facebook community that using Post-Its all of the time can definitely add it. I did some searching and 3M & Post-it actually offer a site for teachers full of more ideas to use Post-Its in the classroom, along with ways to get coupons and discounts: Might be worth checking out.

Catharine Reznicek's picture
Catharine Reznicek
Eudcational Technology Specialist VCOE

Thanks -- tried it with my undergrad ed tech class and it worked great. I had teams work on writing down the main ideas from the Sir Ken Robinson -- Changing Educational Paradigms (which they watched earlier). Then had them group ideas and come up with topic labels related to each idea. They then circulated around the room and "borrowed" ideas from other teams. Finally I provided a shared Google Slide file and each team posted their top two topics and added in details. Thanks for the idea!

My goals were 1) revisit and discuss the concepts from the video 2) practice working in teams and 3) get their feet wet using Google to collaborate.

Raleigh Werberger's picture
Raleigh Werberger
High school history and humanities teacher in New York

How cool! Was the Google collaboration itself successful? And the same activity works wonders at faculty meetings, by the way - provokes good conversation and actual results, especially if everyone walks away with one responsibility/action plan from the discussion...

Catharine Reznicek's picture
Catharine Reznicek
Eudcational Technology Specialist VCOE

Yes, the collaboration worked. It was a great way to introduce collaborative work in a low stress activity -- no right or wrong ideas. My favorite part is when someone changes the theme and everyone "freaks out" :-) I will be trying this again with my Wed. night class this week.

Michel's picture
Educator - Social Knowledge worker - E-learning

Fantastic paper !
I thought I was among the very few people using post-its...
This is an amazing approach to design thinking that enables kids and even adults who do not wish to speak in front of others to express themselves ...
Thank you for this paper, I really appreciate it.

dons's picture
Fifth grade teacher

I use post it notes, but I find they need to be changed often or the students don't notice them anymore.

pengers's picture

One method for bringing this old-school tech back into the digital realm (if that's what floats your boat) is to use the Post-it Plus App ( I've used this in my classroom to digitise post-its and to enable students to continue the collaborative process, in small groups and as whole classes, outside of the class environment. It's pretty intuitive and I like the fact that you can merge real-world post-its with their digital brethren.
It's also a great tool for recording thinking practice so that you can return and re-present it later to students - powerful reflective prompt.

Mary Scholz's picture

This reminds me of the visible thinking routine called "Generate, Sort, Connect, Extend." Thanks for the additional push to notice and name the process as it's taken to an independent written piece.

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