Recently, I created a lesson plan concerning the Reformation that is a web-based inquiry project. The project is designed for high-school level students, and incorporates ideas from a seminal article written by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking called Learning, from Speculation to Science (2000). In that article, the authors outline three specific elements that must be addressed that they feel are necessary to successful inquiry-based learning:
- Pre-existing knowledge (what you know before you enter an inquiry — this includes content and skills)
- Active learning (I would re-term this as agency or ownership in learning)
- A “metacognitive” approach to learning (being aware of the process of learning as well as the content and skills)
In my assignment, I make a number of assumptions about students’ pre-existing knowledge about the Reformation (content) their research processes (skills) and their understanding of what the Internet does and how specifically they are aware of their own ability to use it (metacognitive). For example:
- There is no way that a student can begin a web-based inquiry on the concept of toleration without an understanding of what tolerance is. Toleration is a specific historical and philosophical term, but tolerance is part of “every day” speech. If a student does not grasp the mundane usage of tolerance, toleration makes no sense no matter how I teach it. I assume that the word and its iterations are part of my students’ vocabulary, if not common speech.
- In order for a student to complete any of the assignments in the module, they must know how to look for things on the Internet and draw meaning from them. I assume in this assignment that they understand how to research online, and that they know what “research” looks like as a process. My assumptions are based on my acceptance of their mechanical understanding of research and their metacognitive awareness of what research is — I assume they know what “research” is, what it looks like, and how to do it. This module would be one of the last the students complete in the year, so they would already have been taught most of the mechanics. I can only hope they have an metacognitive understanding of “research,” but I will draw on my own presumptions about my teaching skills that I accomplished this.
- Lastly, the role-playing aspect of the assignment assumes that students are aware enough of themselves to know that they can act as someone else. Many students struggle with multiple points of view: one reason for this is that teachers do not often enough remove kids from their own context. This is a metacognitive process, and in my opinion, one of the most important.
I believe strongly in empathetic education, meaning, teaching that introduces and reinforces the mandate that students think outside of themselves for understanding. This lesson plan force students to see that there are multiple ways to look at a single idea, subject, or event. None of my students are going to be 16th-century peasants any time soon — but if they can get into the head of one, even a composite of one (a separate metacognitive process) they can understand their motivations, feelings, and ideas — this is a basis for toleration, I think. You can’t tolerate someone if you can’t understand what you need to tolerate about them! This was a fundamental problem with 16th century clergy in particular — they had no basis for understanding the very people they served, or at worst, they ignored the thoughts and feelings of them. Martin Luther in his rage at the Church stumbled upon the “group think” against the Church in Germany, and thus he became a symbol of it. He only became aware of that later on, and in my opinion, he wasn’t very good at it. He admitted he wasn’t comfortable with it. Church officials merely saw him as a threat — in that state, toleration was impossible. This is ultimately where students need to go: what are the conditions required to cool down a situation? To negotiate? To tolerate?
To teach the “meta” ideas in a teacher-centered manner would be impossible. Students have to get mad at each other, express their opinions in a multiparous environment (I use this word intentionally — the kids are birthing ideas in this process!) and most importantly have to feel safe in doing so. By removing their own opinions, students can be free to react to other as they see fit, without fear of harming the person behind the persona.