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Innovative 21st Century Teaching and Learning

The Learning Jigsaw

This week's blog comes from Narelle Wood. Narelle is our Australian Curriculum expert and has worked extensively across a range of schools in supporting powerful learning in the literacy and English domain.

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An indulgence of mine is jigsaw puzzles. I will sit for hours trying to complete a particular section and it has got to the stage where I have sat at the table for 2 days straight to complete one. I recently completed one of penguins standing on a sheet of ice; there is not much colour in Antarctica. By the time I had completed the puzzle I had the usual self-satisfied feeling of solving a problem but this was muddled with feelings of frustration and annoyance. It’s safe to say the lack of clarity in what I was trying to achieve diminished the normal enjoyable experience. I have come to realise completing a jigsaw puzzle is much like learning; fitting smaller pieces together to see the bigger picture. Where we sometimes fail as educators is in not giving our students sufficient information to complete their learning jigsaw puzzle.

I’ve came to this realisation when I was teaching Literature in 2010. I had a small and reasonably capable class. What was new for me was that the students knew how they learnt and demanded, nicely, that I teach them in the way they knew worked best.

Early in the year I had spent some time with the Year 11 Literature teacher and we had mapped out a very detailed scope and sequence chart. Walking into each class I knew what outcomes needed to be addressed and how they related. The route altered occasionally to respond to the needs of my students. But the students were demanding me to share that curriculum map with them. They wanted to see the big picture as well as the small details on each individual piece, and they wanted to know how it all fitted together.

The demand first appeared as; “what are we learning this for?” I refrained from biting and explained the benefits of deconstructing poetry; we were skill building. Each lesson I faced similar questions. Exasperated by the seemingly constant challenges I finally took in the scope and sequence chart and all the other curriculum documentation, sat down with the students and explained it.

The exercise, initially, was really a way to shut them up, but to my surprise and delight, they were generally interested. The questions asked about the curriculum were intelligent and insightful, and in most cases questions that we had posed ourselves in developing the curriculum documents. I also found it interesting that the students were surprised we had gone into so much detail; we had mapped out when and what meta-language they would learn. When I explained that meta-language was a significant component of Literature, you could see the pieces fit together. No longer was euphemistic language something that Miss Wood just liked to talk about, it had a purpose.

I thought, initially that the interest was because of the stereotypical students that take Literature – the more bookish or academic types. So I decided to experiment on my Year 9’s; in a completely ethical and educationally sound way of course. I did the same activity. I had a greater range of the so-called academic ability and I was curious to see their response. It sparked much debate and we did get stuck on “why write essays” for about 30 minutes of the 45 minute lesson. They too had some very interesting and well formed arguments about their learning and its purpose in their lives.

What both experiences showed me is that students are interested in their education but we, unwittingly at times, limit these opportunities by limiting the information we give them. This is like asking them to complete an extraordinarily detailed jigsaw puzzle with no pictures, instructions or clues - an overwhelming task for even the avid jigsaw puzzler.

So, why do we not share the curriculum with students? Why do we not involve the students in writing the curriculum? Surely if we wish our students to take more responsibility in their learning we need to give them some ownership over what and how they learn.

The results of Robert Marzano’s 2003 research on school effectiveness strongly supports that a clearly documented and workable curriculum at the whole school level is the most important factor in student achievement. The documentation is worth doing for a large number of reasons. It provides:

an understanding of where the students learning is going
allows the students to make explicit connections between subjects
can allow them easier access to past learning by seeing the skills as accumulative rather than replacing old knowledge with the new
it provides them a framework for reflection by asking them to self-assess where they are at in the learning sequence
it is a practical demonstration that planning matters
Granted, it is a daunting task, especially if all the documentation needs to be student friendly. So, how do you complete a giant exceptionally complicated jigsaw puzzle? One piece at a time. I know the work I did made a profound difference to the way I approached my teaching. And I now live with hope that after students have long left the classroom they continue to ask “what am I learning this for?” and keep adding pieces to their jigsaw puzzle.
March 25th, 2012 @ 7:29PM


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