BLOG PROMPT #3:  Engaging Abstract Topics (Post by Nov. 28)

The issue of engaging students in abstract topics is a question of interest in any classroom, not just when using the IF Method. The IF method could promote abstract explorations, or circumvent them. In designing my current course (and having had the opportunity of doing a pilot with IF last fall) I did build in techniques designed to promote students’ higher order critical thinking skills.

Working with two premises, (1) that the IF method encourages student-centered discussion, and (2) that I would like my “deep” and lifelong learning from my students, learning that goes beyond specific course content to a deeper learning incorporating understanding, analysis, synthesis, I decided to adapt Scardamalia and Bereiter’s (1992) Knowledge Building paradigm to work in conjunction with the IF process.

Although Scardamalia and Bereiter’s paradigm is oriented towards virtual learning, it interested me because this paradigm privileges a less hierarchical model of learning based on flexible organizations of small teams – ideal for the use of the IF method in the classroom.  (Note, however, that I am adapting this paradigm which takes a socio-cultural perspective on human-computer interactions and looks to “virtualize” the process of education in keeping with new trends in the technological circulation of knowledge.) I utilized two aspects of the Knowledge Building paradigm – (1) requiring students to post weekly notes online, thus keeping the technological focus of the Paradigm and (2) presenting students with a real world assignment based on food: a Food Manifesto.  Following Phillip (2007), the focus of this assignment was to “make student ideas, rather than predetermined activities or units of knowledge, the center of the classroom work.” (Copy of the assignment appended.)

Effective of the pedagogical techniques

It is almost the semester and the technique appears to be working well – at least for the purposes I was seeking.

For students, the experience of learning is typically a balance tipped in favor of lower order cognitive skills (i.e., knowledge and comprehension) over higher order skills (analysis, synthesis and evaluation) so that they “master” the material, but leave the course without having engaged in deeper learning. I think IF along with the Knowledge Building Paradigm worked quite well to encourage content learning while concurrently promoting deep learning – i.e., learning that occurs at a more abstract level, as well as learning that can be applied and used.

By incorporating weekly discussions using the IF method, students were encouraged to develop their own ideas on a regular basis. The assigned, rotating roles of Facilitator, Recorder and Participant gave students a structure for discussion. Constant monitoring of group discussions by me ensured that students came to class prepared for discussions (having done readings, with Facilitator questions prepared, and so on).  Weekly posting of Recorder and Facilitator notes allowed students to self-monitor quality of discussion as well as development of ideas.

There’s always one group…

In spite of what I’ve said so far, success wasn’t total.  I had one group that has been problematic from early on in the semester. The big problem, initially, was that participants would not come prepared with the readings.  At this point, students in the “Gamma” group weren’t even engaged in lower order thinking – knowledge and comprehension aren’t possible unless the readings are done.  Of course the IF method could not work successfully without the students’ commitment.

So my first priority was to ensure students’ in that group did the readings, which I did first by sitting in longer on Gamma Group’s weekly discussion (I normally circulate among groups).  When that did not work as well as I wanted, I moved to more punitive measures by requiring written summaries of each reading before class. I also asked the Facilitators to email me their questions in advance of class. My mid-semester this succeeded in getting members of Gamma to come in to class prepared.  But preparation does not equate with higher order cognitive skills, and I am still struggling to get Gamma to go beyond discussing “superficial” issues to engaging with more abstract issues and deeper learning.  At the end of the day, such learning cannot be forced: it must be a voluntary and active process.  This is the group that has yet to get to that point…


Philip, D. 2007. The Knowledge Building paradigm: A model of learning for Net Generation students. Innovate 3 (5).

Scardamalia, M., and C. Bereiter. 1992. An architecture for collaborative knowledge-building. In E. De Corte, M. Linn, H. Mandl, and L. Verschaffel (Eds.), Computer-based learning environments and problem solving, 41-46. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.


Appendix: Food Manifesto Assignment

Over the course of this semester you’ve not only learned a lot about food but also about yourself and your convictions. This project puts you at the center of the course by asking you to consider where you stand on specific food-related issues, and to describe in detail what relevant, specific, and realistic actions you can take in response to these issues. The assignment thus has two elements: position and action.

Position: Articulate your precise convictions about, and positions on, at least 5 food related issues.  These must be issues we’ve discussed in our class, but within that constraint you have a lot to work with (ie the social, economic, cultural, and psychological factors that influence food practices, and the politics of consumption, production and distribution). You need to briefly define each issue first, presenting a brief history, factual summary, identification of the nature of the problems relating to the issue, whom it affects, etc. Then discuss your own position on the issue.  Do your best to use precise language to express exactly what you believe to be fair, right, true and just about any of the many issues we’ve discussed in class: economics of production and distribution, poverty and plenty, GMOs, organic foods, soil, sustainability; nutrition, health, obesity, body image, gender, food as pleasure, social influences, pop culture, nature vs. nature…the list goes on and on. Please do not limit yourselves to these examples but draw from any course concepts that interest you. As you write please be clear; avoid vague, imprecise or inexact language, words that carry the wrong connotations or expressions that are not your own.  If you do choose to use anyone else’s words or ideas you must give them credit (by citing in-text and on a References page) or you will be plagiarizing.

Action: Declare your own personal resolutions to actions in response to the issues you’ve selected. Here you should provide detailed descriptions of specific actions you will take to make an impact, create change, make a difference, push for progress, etc.  These are things which you will do, if not right now, then in your lifetime. Consider actions that may affect you personally, or may have a larger impact on friends, family, coworkers, organizations, communities, etc. And remember that activism is broader than you think. It can include many things, like buying at farmers markets, starting a book club or online discussion group, conversations, writing (songs/stories/poems/newsletters/pamphlets), volunteering, tshirts, buttons, bumper stickers, speaking (at schools/organizations/clubs), making deliberate choices to purchase certain products or to boycott certain products, and even career choices. Again, the list goes and on, but you can see that action is easier that you might have thought.

Assignment Requirements

  • The paper should be at least 1500 words but no more than 3000 words.  That’s 5-10 double spaced pages in a professional font (not including References pages).
  • Paper must define and provide background on the five issues.  Content can be drawn from our readings and/or from additional research.
  • You must cite all sources in-text and on a Reference page (using APA format). This does include citing our readings as sources.  It is plagiarism if you do not cite sources so I cannot stress this enough!  Know that you will not pass this assignment unless you credit your sources properly.
  • This assignment asks you to not only say where you stand on specific issues, but to describe in detail what relevant, specific, and realistic actions you plan to do in response to these issues.
  • The two elements in your paper (position and action) must be equally developed. If you do one without the other, or if you do not develop your thoughts in detail in one, then you will not be completing the assignment as required.
  • The assignment is due at the beginning of class on Dec 1.  No exceptions or delays.