Ed-Tech · pedagogy · Progressivism

On “powerful” progressive teaching: using ed-tech and storyboarding to secure key concepts

UntitledIn the last blog I discussed creating the discourse of a subject. This is based upon infusing the discourse of the everyday with “powerful” concepts in order to construct pedagogic discourse. Story boarding is a teaching approach I use a lot particularly if the concepts are abstract and relatively complex.

Constructivism seems to be constantly under fire. I base a lot of my sessions upon its premise. It is neither a teaching nor learning approach it is a way of knowing. So what is constructivism? A brief and no doubt inadequate description is that reality exists independently of human knowing but knowledge of the world is always a human construction.

Regardless of the philosophy it is a pretty intuitive technique based on well evidenced cognitive principles such as re-iteration and targeted direct instruction. In order to make the point I will outline a session using constructivist principles.

The subject

The subject of our notional session is, “how does the internet work”. Presumably anyone reading this will know, to some extent, how the internet works. We tap a key and something, or other, is sent to a server. Something, or other approximating to what we want, is then sent back.

It is that everyday knowing that needs to be infused with key internet concepts such as: IP addresses, DNS servers, internet protocols etc. Relatively complex for teenagers who are not necessarily particularly academic.

It is possible to teach definitions with rote based re-iterative techniques. It is even possible to make it look as though there is understanding albeit in the short term. I am looking for genuine conceptual understanding, in context, that acts as a gateway to further study of the subject.

The trigger

The trigger is a single construct used to access the learning. The trigger is, “what is your story?”. This construct acts as a mechanism to recall the learning quickly and unprompted. This is used continuously throughout the academic year.  A learner, at the command “What is your story?”, needs to be able to describe how the internet works hopefully using the language of an IT professional and at the same time have a genuine understanding of the concepts.

It won’t happen in one session. Genuine deep learning held in long term memory happens over a period of time.

Direct instruction (“whole class”)

So what could a storyboarding session look like? Firstly there is an an overview of the exercise. A cartoon containing one or two of the core concepts on the Ed tech screen at the front of the class (see Fig below). Additional concepts will be given out later as text.


In this phase of the session the students need to grasp the fundamental concepts. “It’s about the internet, its a cartoon, these are the fundamental concepts, we will be building upon yadda yadda”. 

“Whole class” direct instruction is not an efficient way to get across abstract subjects. It needs to be refined by “one to one” direct instruction later in the session.

On the struggle

Before the next step there is “the struggle”. It needs discussing. Nobody ever understood, or learnt anything, of consequence without a struggle. If there isn’t a struggle likely, as not, there is no learning going on or there is little challenge to it. So initially give as little information as possible.

Discovery (and “one to one” direct  instruction)

The next step involves  the process of searching for definitions online. This gives time and space to help those who need it. Others will just get on. Either way each individual has to research the concepts. The irony of discovery techniques is that it is really good at facilitating “one to one” direct instruction.

At this point each student needs to be using Ed-tech. Not because it offers anything pedagogically but because it offers space and a repository of information.

This does two things from a teachers perspective:

  1. It offers a focused activity whereby each learner knows exactly what they have to do.
  2. It creates a space for the teacher to start re-enforcing what was said to those that have not listened or are genuinely struggling with the concepts

It also give the students the opportunity to:

  1. Understand where information is situated identifying a repository of future knowledge
  2. Interact with the concepts
  3. Get on or ask for help

This phase of learning is really geared to direct instruction from a constructivist perspective. Quickly identify where there is an issue with conceptual understanding. The individuals can be easily targeted and moved onto the next phase of learning using “one – one” direct instruction. Those individuals will then help others and those that are left are the ones that need more explicit instruction. This is a much more efficient way of using direct instruction than “whole class” teaching.

Why a storyboard?

The storyboard is important to leverage pre-existent socio-cultural concepts. What I want to do is teach the powerful concepts that transforms the everyday knowing into pedagogic or professional knowledge.

The use of Ed’ Tech at this point is important for two important reasons:

  • some students are uncomfortable storyboarding free hand and some simply can’t do it
  • the actual characters create powerful maps in visual memory

The narrative has to be written in character. This forces students to adapt their language and consider the concepts within the context of language (see Fig 1 and 2 below).

The instructions are as follows:

  • The conversation has to be authentic to the characters (within reason)
  • There has to be enough information so that the concepts can be further developed
  • It has to be an authentic conversation that could be understood by a general audience

Here is a fairly frivolous example of an IP address. An IP address  leverages knowledge from all sorts of different subject areas. A good example is the use of Math because numbers are used to create unique identifiers. This can be combined with politics because the unique identifier gives the ability for the authorities to track internet usage.

There are so many opportunities to cross domains: politics, safeguarding, equality and diversity. Discussing the concept of “the IP address” offers the imaginative practitioner a rich mine of opportunities to plunder.

Fig 1
Homer 2

Fig 2

  • Lisa image 3

The story can then be continued to incorporate more concepts dependent upon how the learning is going to develop in the future.

The point of this is quite simple. Initially the scenario is the vehicle that is used re-construct the narrative. There has to be authentic learning and understanding not de-contextualised definitions stored in short term memory. On a prompt “What is your story” the student re-constructs the concepts and re-counts the story. Eventually the story is abandoned and the concepts are explained using professional language.

This is the beginning of the development of the discourse of the subject. Over a period of time concepts are added so that each point of learning has key concepts and an easily accessible narrative.

In my view, this approach is classic constructivism. It uses discovery techniques hand in hand with direct instruction. Although not reductionist, albeit it was developed by psychologists, it is a cognitively aware approach. I think it is an approach, which works. Many disagree because an effective straw man argument has been developed to dismiss it. I suppose the question for teachers is whether they want to adopt an approach that works or waste a lot of time, and effort, beating up straw men.

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