Note: This is the one of several chapter reflections on the excellent book written by Dr. Liz Stephens and Kerry Ballast on Using Technology to Improve Adolescent Writing: Digital Make-Overs for Writing Lessons.” Read all contributions in this series.

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In reading Chapter 2 of Dr. Liz Stephens and Kerry Ballast’s book, “Using Technology to Improve Adolescent Writing: Digital Make-Overs for Writing Lessons,” I was struck by the wide net the concept of “inside writing” casts over many of the activities edubloggers are well familiar with. Acts of inside writing include online searching that yields access to text, graphics, sound, video, while wikis and blogs allow opportunities for person-to-person exchanges that “help students construct knowledge” as well as make claims about what they know. The list of thinking processes relevant to inside writing include:

  • Exploring
  • Investigating
  • Gathering Data
  • Brainstorming
  • Organizing
  • Defining/Redefining

The authors point out that “inside writing” is a process that addresses every student’s need to become a part of the learning enviornment in order to participate fully in the act of communicating unique thoughts, of drawing conclusions, of developing…in other words, it is difficult to imagine inside writing happening without the wealth of creative material that surrounds the writer.

The authors assert the following:

Before a student can become engaged in learning and using language purposefully and effectively, she must make personal connections with concepts in order to claim her place in the larger community that embraces the classroom….

My first reaction to this was, “One hopes the embrace is not inappropriate.” As I indulged in a private chuckle at the expense of “network nazis,” as one colleague described those who lock down school district networks so as to exclude Web 2.0 tools, I realized that the perception of digital tools as bridges into and out of the classroom are easily perceived as pathways for pedophiles and fruitcakes, ways of letting the danger in. Yet, these connections do have to be in place, they make the difference between a piece written in isolation (no such animal) and the rich writing that flows from lived experiences or knowledge gathered.

When a young teacher, I was fascinated by Frank Smith’s concept of schema, a theory of the world around us which he described as a “shield against bewilderment.” It was critical to help children build a scaffold for learning, of gathering schema for different forms of writing FIRST so that they would be able to write in that form afterwards.

The authors share the following:

Schema theory…an understanding of how we organize our perceptions of the world and how what we hold in memory shapes how we perceive new information…prior knowledge provides a mental framework that we use to make sense of new information.

This concept of schema is one I first encountered in my Master’s program for Bicultural/Bilingual Studies with ESL Concentration. That is, working with English Language Learners. I found this part of the the Digital Makeovers book to build on what I had learned early on. For example, consider these points:

Teaching practices based on schema theory are built on the idea that students should learn broad and generic concepts in order to be able to make connections among specific ideas…English Language Learners need support for drawing from their cultural knowledge as they learn English while at the same time learning new concepts.

As the authors move forward with the idea of constructivist approaches, I was reminded of George Siemens’ connectivism. It seems the idea of inside writing with its dependence on outside factors, it’s focus on making connections would be better suited by the embrace of connectivism rather than constructivism:

Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.

Connectivism is driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired. The ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital. The ability to recognize when new information alters the landscape based on decisions made yesterday is also critical.

Source: George Siemens, Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age

This is especially relevant to inside writing because of this frame that is so dependent on online searching, on the internal dialogue the writer has with him or herself and what is to be included, organized, shared. Connectivism, rather than constructivism, seems to be more supported by the quote included in the book by Jacqueline G. Brooks (2004): “The learning and teaching dynamic is a process of negotiation.”

A process of negotiation. Dynamic. Ever-changing. What if the following paragraph were changed…instead of this…

Writing in a constructivist classroom is based on a perspective of the learner as self-monitoring but guided by knowledgeable adults.

Consider the idea that instead of knowledgeable adults IN the classroom, there are knowledgeable learners outside of the classroom, connected to student learning, traversing the bridge or pathway into the classroom. We might say that writing in a connectivism classroom is based on a perspective of the learner as self-monitoring, self-organizing and in constant interaction with other global learners.

Is the difference just sophistry or is there a difference in focus from the adults in the classroom to outside of the classroom? Does our traditional approach to teaching and learning in schools support that idea?

The authors certainly allude to the concept of connectivism when they write the following:

Inside writing for digital natives…means making connections via the electronic tools they use to find information to make sense of the world and to construct knowledge for themselves.

Inside writing and the kinds of thinking going include: exploring, investigating, gathering information, brainstorming, organizing and synthesizing. Inside writing is the first engagement in the activity that will culminate in a product or project that communicates students newly acquired understanding.

Some other points that are worth considering:

  • 20th Century Classroom: Students are willing to absorb and repeat information that is given to them.
  • 21st Century: Students are in search of information that is relevant to them and that connects them to a larger, global learning community. They exchange ideas, insights and knowledge, and they sift through enormous reserves of good and bad info to find what is most meaningful and true to them…They can take a stance on a topic and establish voice in their writing as they express themselves with authority in responsive writing (doesn’t this sound like blogging?)

My favorite line in this chapter is the last one in the paragraph above…taking a stance and establishing a voice in their writing as they express themselves with authority is critical to any writer’s development. And, isn’t that exactly what we do as bloggers?

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure