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An Instructional Technologist Muses on Lessons Learned: The Peaks and Pitfalls of Discovery Learning

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former blogger
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This is a guest posting from my friend and colleague, David Carpenter, who is working abroad as an instructional technologist in Asia. Read his other posts, "Building Blocks for Technology Integration: A Strategy for Success" and "Travel Tip: It Is a Terrific Time to Teach Abroad."

For the past five years, I've worked as an instructional technologist with students in grades 3-5 at a large international school in Asia. Recently, an abandoned idea I'd had for a curriculum unit during my first year at the school resurfaced, prompting this blog entry. Let me give you some background.

When I joined the school, one of my goals was to design a curriculum to encourage discovery learning. I went into the job with experience as a secondary school teacher and counselor. My degree in instructional technology definitely prepared me for the role as an agent of change; experience taught me it would be a slow and delicate process.

So, as the school's instructional technologist, I teamed up with the science coordinator to develop an innovative method for teaching human-body science to our fourth-grade students. We wanted to create for all six homerooms a problem-solving, simulation-style approach for tackling the unit. We wanted the unit to support the range of student academic levels, needs, and learning styles. Technology and information-literacy skills were to be center stage in supporting these goals -- at a minimum, we wanted to start moving away from the more traditional textbook-style instruction.

But how, you ask? With an idea for a curriculum in uncharted territory and no administrative support, we were on our own. But we came up with a creative plan for our science unit: We'd virtually transform our physical school building into the human body and rename it the Student Body. We forged ahead with high hopes that our efforts would open the door to more innovation not only in our science units but in social studies as well.

One idea for the unit was to have the six home rooms each own one of the body systems (circulatory, digestive, and so on) and become experts and teachers of their system. Each class would also complete a WebQuest page for their respective system.

One of the students' tasks would be to think of ways our school building was analogous to their assigned body function -- for example, the nervous system group might see the elevator in our eight-story building as the spinal cord, the main office and library as the brain, and so on. They would then work together to decorate and label the parts of the building that resembled parts of their systems. (For example, a cafeteria wall could be the stomach wall, and exposed pipes with construction paper might be veins and arteries.)

Using their WebQuest page, each class would do further research to create a tour complete with posters and question-and-answer sheets placed wherever their systems were manifested in the building. Then, each of the six classes would take the tours to learn about the other systems. We'd also share this learning experience by offering the tours to the entire school.

Other aspects of the unit would include activities such as the six-person jigsaw puzzle, in which one student represents each system. To learn how the human body works as a whole, they'd brainstorm on how the different systems would interact when bombarded by stimuli -- for example, digesting a hamburger, catching a cold, or exercising. Parents who were doctors would volunteer and partner with the student teams via email to comment on their conclusions.

Well, what do you think happened to our grand plan? If you're a veteran teacher, you already know the plan went nowhere. We quickly learned the idea was overwhelming in its complexity and that implementing a more student-centered approach to learning was too big a jump from how the unit had always been taught. These teachers were used to managing their own classrooms and were therefore reluctant to embrace the idea of so much independent research and cooperative learning.

We failed to realize that as agents of change, we should have moved our efforts forward in small steps with the hope that each minor success would lead to further expansion and acceptance of new ideas. But because the teachers had not formulated the idea, they were reluctant to invest in something they did not create, have enthusiasm for, or passionately own.

In the end, our energy and excitement mattered little. The fourth-grade teachers felt no need to change the way they taught the unit.

Fast-forward four years -- and back to the beginning of this blog -- when I got an opportunity to try my idea for the human-body unit again. At this point, the school had renewed philosophies on curriculum development and technology integration, and a solid curriculum-review process. I joined the library media specialist and Gifted and Talented Education coordinator, the associate principal, the curriculum coordinator, and grade-level teacher teams to review units using the Understanding by Design model.

We became a well-oiled collaborative team at each of our three grade levels, celebrating our efforts via the school Web site, monthly technology-update newsletters, and student-produced morning news programs televised on the school\0xD5s closed-circuit system. These successes led to teacher requests to try new instructional strategies and assessments created through our curriculum-review process.

The opportunity to pilot one aspect of our original human-body plan arose when the GATE coordinator proposed having a fourth-grade GATE class produce videos covering the human-body/school-building analogies. With the aid of Inspiration software, I helped the students brainstorm their analogies, and storyboard and write their scripts. The GATE students then videotaped, edited, and produced the video; the finished product was shown during the school's morning news broadcast. The students totally controlled the learning, and they came away with a deep understanding of how some aspects of the human body function.

The science coordinator and I learned four years ago the importance of timing and patience. We've watched the ideas we planted with early-adopter teachers germinate and grow. Empowering students to control a portion of their education paid off, too, as they in turn asked their teachers for more experiences like this.

I hope the human-body unit expands next year to include not just the GATE students but all the other fourth-grade students as well. Sharing the video on the school's morning news might bring other grade-level teachers on board, and, before long, we'll be where we wanted to be four years ago.

Do you have a similar experience to relate, or insights into this account? Please share your comments and thoughts.

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Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former blogger

Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Sharon Betts's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Baby steps - and models.
I have found that by teaching the teachers using the tools we hope to have them integrate works wonders. I now do all my professional development through wikis, blogs and forums. I have found that as teachers become comfortable with the tools, they automatically find classroom applications.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your goal was wonderful if perhaps overly ambitious.

Try garnering more support for fellow teachers by working with them to do similar projects for their subject area. You wanted to turn the whole school into a "body". Gain support from social studies teachers by supporting a plan to turn the whole school into the world with each classroom a particular continent. One month (or more) you could be the human body; the next month the building could be the world. You could also do parts of the government (for the U.S. this could be the branches -- courts, legislature, executive -- plus states, etc.) or historical periods/countries (for example, Europe on the eve of WWII, or the U.S. during immigration in the late 1800s with classrooms being the immigrant groups and/or U.S. cities).

Make the school building itself a learning "tool" for students to use and experience and explore -- not just "a place to go". I surely hope teachers and administrators are willing to embrace something like this.

David Carpenter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The science coordinator and I talked about the nature of the "Human Body" being a true learning community with students, teachers, administrators and parents all learning together. Your idea is spot on to leverage the physical nature of the floors and grade levels to support a variety of curriculum units as we could extend our learning communities throughout the school year. It really makes sense to make the physical aspects of the school a "learning tool" as you note.

I especially can see it coming into play for geography. My wife Margaret, the media specialist and GATE coordinator, in fact ran a student created video series entitled "Go Geo" where students followed the same analogy practice mentioned in the blog but for geography terms such as island, peninsula, etc. The visual nature of seeing parts of the school with geographical analogies really hit home for a lot of students.

Thanks for you insight.

Danny's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I had the same experience last year with the use of a site called which is supported and provided by Oracle. I made the mistake of comparing it to myspace. Ouch! The process of getting county clearance was stalled by a month or so. It is, in fact, like myspace, but the way I describe it is "a safe, protected, global (if you want it to be) community that engages and inspires learners." You should check it out. It's free and very well designed. Just enough tools, no junk or advertisements!

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