the educational technology journal

Vol 19|No 3|January 2010
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Building Challenging Digital Lessons Quickly

By Jamie McKenzie, ©2009, all rights reserved.
About author

What is the story here?

Street scene in London, October 2009, © J. McKenzie,
all rights reserved.

The basic strategy for building challenging lessons is the combining of rich content with demanding questions. The Net may provide digital content to enrich existing units. When matched to such content, two or three "questions of import" should sustain a full 30-40 minute class inquiry and discussion. The trick is to replace trivial pursuit with questions that challenge and intrigue. Note the article "From Trivial Pursuit to Essential Questions" at http://www.fno.org/feb01/pl.html

1. Locating Content

The first step in the process is the location of rich content. In some cases, this will prove quite easy, but not all topics are treated well by the Internet. Finding material with appropriate reading levels is often difficult, especially for elementary children.

The process of locating materials is speeded by the advice of a good teacher-librarian pointing you to the best sites. If your district has made the mistake of eliminating librarians, then turn to one of the online sources such as Kathy Schrock's Guide for Educators at http://school.discoveryeducation.com/schrockguide/ Kathy provides categorized lists of sites to support lesson development. EDNA serves a similar function for educators in Australia at http://www.edna.edu.au/edna/go/resources/browse

2. Types of Lessons

a. Visual - Photographs, Paintings, Cartoons and Videos
A good painting or photograph can generate an intriguing class discussion.
A class studying the Civil Rights period of U.S. History might wrestle profitably with the image to the right (a police officer and police dog subduing a demonstrator in Birmingham) for an entire class period, and the students could be asked to generate the questions of import. Click here for a photograph of that incident. A video presenting the story of the demonstrations, "Segregation at All Costs: Bull Connor and the Civil Rights Movement" is available on YouTube:


The cluster diagram below shows questions generated by a group of teachers in White Plains during a professional development session a few years ago. For a thorough review of this lesson design process go to the article, "Images Can Make Powerful Slam Dunk Digital Lessons" at http://www.fno.org/
This article suggests criteria for selecting images worthy of such lesson design.

Fortunately, there is an ample supply of great images and videos these days available for teachers to incorporate into their lessons. In addition to those images on the Web from sources like YouTube, TeacherTube, museum Web sites, and photography collections, most teachers and many students now own digital cameras that can be used to develop portfolios of local scenes and historical sites.

© 2009, J.McKenzie, all rights reserved.

Students in London studying world history and European imperialism might capture images like those above or below, for example, to explore important issues arising out of the conquest, domination and occupation of other peoples. If thirty students go out as pairs with cameras intent on gathering intriguing and provocative images, the wealth of material can be impressive.

© 2009, J.McKenzie, all rights reserved.

With so many images available from sites like Flickr.com, students may suffer from what I have termed the "poverty of abundance," finding it difficult to locate the quality images when they are hidden in masses of lower quality images.

Searching for images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, results in hundreds and possibly thousands of images, but the quality varies dramatically.

b. Numerical - Data sets
Climate data, crime data, traffic data, population statistics and economic statistics all provide the basis for interpretation, prediction and explanation. Data sets are the raw material from which students must learn to develop theories. Fortunately, they are abundantly available on the Web and can easily be found by going to a region on Google Directory (http://directory.google.com/) and then searching within that region.
Climate data from the Australian BOM (Bureau of Meteorology), the USA's NOAA, and other countries can be used by students to determine which city they might select based on weather conditions.

Does it really rain all the time in Seattle? Is that just a myth?

How does Seattle compare with other cities as far as precipitation goes?


© 2009, J.McKenzie, all rights reserved. Seattle in July.

To what extent does precipitation matter when picking a place to live? How about sunny days vs. cloudy days? High and low temperatures? Violent storms?

How can data about a town (crime, traffic, weather, etc.) help us decide where to live?

c. Text - Poems, Stories, Reports, Articles, etc.

The Web offers a wealth of words to complement the images and data mentioned earlier. PoemHunter.com claims to offer 310,931 poems from 24,752 poets and provides several search mechanisms to make it easy for teachers and their students to find poems that will cast light on a question or issue that is under study by the class, but just as Flickr suffers from amateurism and what I call "the poverty of abundance," this site exercises little if any quality control and the results of my search for Martin Luther King poems were disappointing.

Sites like Bartleby.com offer higher quality, classical poetry, but most of these poems are quite old (and out of copyright) so they supply no MLK poetry.

As blogs and online text sources proliferate, issues of quality, validity and trust surge. It is all too easy to end up with virtual truth - the appearance of understanding without the substance.

The digital lesson design suggested by this article stresses the role of the teacher in identifying reliable sources around which a lesson might be built. Rather than wandering about looking for quality, the students settle in to ponder questions and data chosen by the teacher. There is tremendous value in scaffolding lessons to focus on challenging thought rather than wandering about.

Under this model, the teacher sends the students to both of the following MLK poems and asks them to consider the questions listed below them:

Standing Tall by Jamie McKenzie
Children of the Dream by Ben Okri
    1. Which poem best captures Dr. King's character? Explain your choice with examples from the poem.
    2. Which poem best speaks to Dr. King's lasting impact? Explain your choice with examples from the poem.
    3. Which poem is most dramatic when read aloud? Why do you suppose it reads well? What techniques did the poet use to increase the poem's power?
    4. In what ways is poetry a good way to recognize the life of an unusual person? Explain.
    5. Based on these two poems, would you say that Dr. King was a hero? Explain.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, these lessons combine great digital resources with challenging questions. In the example above, the comparison of two poems (juxtaposition) works to compel original thinking. It is unlikely students will be able to cut and paste answers found via Google or a term paper Web site.

3. Matching Questions of Import to the Content

Generating intriguing questions to accompany the digital material is paramount. The goal is to elevate these learning activities from trivial pursuit to rigorous thought. Questions of import are worthy of our students' time and serious reflection. They matter. They pass the test of "So what?" They lead toward insight and understanding. They illuminate the key questions and issues of life. They may delight or frustrate, but they seldom bore. They may not be as grand and overarching as "essential" questions, but they are significant.

Good teachers have been generating such questions for decades - even before thinkers like John Dewey and Hilda Taba underlined their importance and showed the way. One could easily point back to Socrates as an early advocate of questions that provoke and inspire. Despite these shining lights, many students pass through school conducting topical research, scooping and gathering information in huge piles without considering issues and questions of import.

Fortunately, there are sources that can help teachers infuse all inquiry activities with more challenge and meaning.

a. Borrowing from the NAEP Reading Test
The comprehension questions on this test work very well when building lessons with rich digital information. http://www.nagb.org/publications/frameworks/

These questions can be rewritten to match the medium and type of data being considered, as I have done with these questions to accompany a Winslow Homer painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Boys on the Beach

Go to http://www.nga.gov/cgi-bin/pimage?56682+0+0

What might be the painter's message in this painting of the boys?
What is the mood?
How does the painter support the message?
Give a summary of the main ideas.
Which details in this painting help you to have a clear image of the main idea?

The examples above are just a small sample of the extensive list of items on the NAEP Web site.

b. Making Use of the Great Question Press

In 2004, I published, "The Great Question Press: Squeezing Import from Content." at http://questioning.org/questionpress.html.

The article offers something like a cider press - but one that produces intriguing questions from the mass of curriculum content that usually inspires mere collection or varieties of trivial pursuit. Try the Question Press on standard content and watch your students squeeze meaning out of inert matter. Give them a lift. Engage them in making up their own minds. Equip them to manage the tough questions of life.

The Press offers two columns: on the left you have traditional school research assignments, each of which is transformed into something more challenging in the adjoining column. The table below shows just a few examples.
The Chunk of Content (Before) After
1. Go find out about Richard Nixon (or Bill Clinton or any other important person). Where did Nixon (or Clinton) go wrong? Why do you suppose he slipped from power and grace? What caused him the most trouble? What could you learn from his example?
2. Go find out about free trade. What are the hidden costs of free trade? What could we do to minimize risks and damage? How could we maximize benefits?
3. Find out about Osama Bin Laden. Where could Bin Laden be hiding? Why is he so hard to capture? How does he think? How could we outfox him?
4. How does Social Security work? How are we going to fund Social Security? What needs to be done?
c.) Making Use of the Questioning Toolkit

The Toolkit lists and defines more than a dozen different question types that help to drive and sustain inquiry. Many of these types end up producing questions of import that make good companions for digital content.

Essential Questions Subsidiary Questions Hypothetical Questions Telling Questions Planning Questions
Organizing Questions Probing Questions Sorting & Sifting Questions Clarification Questions Strategic Questions
Elaborating Questions Unanswerable Questions Inventive Questions Provocative Questions Irrelevant Questions
Divergent Questions Irreverent Questions

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