Theory of Knowledge, Social Media and Connected Learning in High School

Theory of Knowledge, Social Media, Connected Learning in High School

I’m an advocate of cultivating and tuning the network of people I follow on Twitter, a practice that includes my willingness to respond to those I didn’t previously know who solicit my attention by directing an @reply to my Twitter handle. Far more often than not, the call to my attention by a stranger leads me to enrich my personal learning network. It’s also one way I meet people to videoblog about here on dmlcentral. That’s how Amy Burvall’s Theory of Knowledge course for high school students at Le Jardin Academy in Hawaii came to my attention — which was no accident, as it turned out. Burvall used my own advice on me when she encouraged her students to tweet their reflections on reading my work, adding my Twitter handle when they did so. How could I not respond to high school students who were reading and viewing my publications about crap detection (or “critical consumption of online information” if you want to be more polite) as part of a high school class on, of all things, “Theory of Knowledge?”

What’s “Theory of Knowledge?” I asked Burvall. Her email reply confirmed my instinct to jump in on a high school tweet-chat about epistemology: “Theory of Knowledge is a compulsory course at the core of the International Baccalaureate program that offers students an opportunity to think about their own thinking, the nature of knowledge itself, and what constitutes knowledge in the various disciplines they study. Students explore "how we know what we know" and how knowledge is created, shaped, vetted, and changed. One of the key premises is that personal knowledge should result from careful inquiry and examination of evidence rather than simple acceptance of claims.” 

The course unit guide focuses on a series of “big questions” students are prompted to ask rather than specific answers they are expected to learn. Social media —  blogs, Twitter, video, Storify, a Google+ community — are enlisted for specific purposes of inquiry, reflection, metacognition, mindful personal participation in the digital commons, collaboration and creative problem solving.

Burvall and her students apply the overarching question of the course — “how do we know what we know?” — to everything else they study from the natural sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities. She is an advocate of learning in public, not only to prepare students for taking control of their intellectual life online, but in order to enlist networks of others. The students blog individually and, like ds106 and other open, connected courses, “TOK” is tied together with a class hub blog.  (A few of the student blogs: Stephanie, Renee, Michelle, Kasey.)

TOK students vlog as well as blog: “I can see their posture, their mannerisms, their face in video. I can see more of their thinking than I can through just text,” says Burvall. (A student video mashup of TOK, a student video mashup of Rethinking Education.)

Blogging and vlogging are not only about the projects the students create, but about their creative process: “The author Austin Kleon has a book coming out called Show Your Work and a hashtag on Twitter, #showyourwork, which has become a mantra in our classroom,” says Burvall. “Take us through your creative process. Don’t just present your product. Break down the process in your blog. Tell us about your troubleshooting. Give us tips on doing something similar.”

Twitter is an essential part of TOK, but Burvall discovered that the use of Twitter for connecting with networks and carrying on conversations with each other, including as an in-class backchannel, required scaffolding: “Few students have Twitter accounts. It’s not a big teenage thing. But, I can get them engaged by showing them what they can do. We were reading an article about the networked nature of knowledge by Clive Thompson, so we included his name in our Twitter chat. When he jumped in, as you did, they woke up to the power of Twitter.” Burvall and her students also use Twitter as a backchannel during face-to-face class meetings, in a variant on Socratic circles. Students sit in two concentric circles. The inner circle conducts an oral conversation about the day’s topic. The outer circle silently conducts a backchannel via their Twitter hashtag, mixing notes, commentary and queries for the inner circle. A moderator raises questions from the backchannel for the out-loud discussants. A Sketchnote scribe takes visual notes. And, another student aggregates the Tweets in a Storify story. Sketchnotes and Storify archives are then posted to the class G+community.

TOK students don’t just use social media tools — they use them for specific purposes. They reflect on their purposes and how the tools support them, or not. They learn how to study knowledge, not just as an academic pursuit, but as an essential life skill in a digital milieu. As Burvall says: “In the 21st century, it is imperative for students to feel confident navigating media and questioning and investigating knowledge claims. At the same time, they are encouraged to balance skepticism with belief, and realize that there are times when decision-making must occur without absolute certainty. Overall, students gain skills in critical thinking, appreciating multiple perspectives, articulating their beliefs and supporting or refuting knowledge claims and understanding pressing issues of our time, particularly the great changes in knowledge production and acquisition brought about by new technology.”

Banner image credit: Howard Rheingold