Get the DiRT on research and writing

Logo of the DiRT Directory websiteWorking online is an essential skill for students heading to college after high school.  The DiRT Directory — DiRT stands for Digital Research Tools — is a site where students can learn about tools available to help them do individual research as well as those collaborative projects efficiently and with minimal expense.

DiRT is a wiki with annotated list of software tools for research, writing, reading, collaborating, with special emphasis on open source (free) software.

To get a rough idea of the kinds of tools available in the DiRT Directory, it is useful to scan the category page, which lists purposes for which research tools may be needed. They include such things as data collection, image editing, and searching.

DiRT is geared toward those in the humanities and social sciences. All college-bound students should be acquainted with at least a couple tools in each category. Students heading toward office careers or entrepreneurial pursuits also need to explore these tools.

The DiRT Directory, unveiled in 2014,  grew out of Bamboo Dirt  which began in January, 2012, when the original Digital Research Tools Wiki ceased to add new content.

Note:  The original version of this post appeared in the October 2009 Writing Points. It has been edited and updated to reflect changes in the intervening years.

Research: Little Writing Instruction Even in Best-Regarded Schools

The years between 1979 and 2009 were a time of great changes in education. They saw the development of new technologies for writing, research, and instruction; a growing demand for evidence-based practice; and imposition of high stakes testing.

To see how the teaching of writing in America’s middle schools and high schools changed in those 30-years, Arthur N. Applebee and Judith A. Langer of the State University of New York at Albany studied 20 schools chosen because of their reputations for excellence in the teaching of writing. The researchers looked not only at the English classes in those schools, but also math, science, and social studies.

The researchers found that in schools with excellent reputations for teaching writing:

  • English teachers are doing a better job of teaching the writing process today than 30 years ago.
  • Students write more for their English classes than for any other subject.
  • Students write more for their other subjects combined than they do for English.
  • Only 19% of writing assignments were a paragraph or more; the remainder were “writing without composing” activities such as fill-in-the blanks.
  • Writing counts less than multiple choice or short answer questions in assessing performance in English even on locally-created tests.
  • Other than math classes, less than a third of classrooms studied use any technology.
  • When technology was used, it was usually used by the teacher.
  • Roughly 6 in 10 students hand-write their first drafts; only 23% at middle school and 42% at high school composed first drafts on computer.
  • Outside of science classes, embedding media into writing is rare.
  • Collaboration on writing projects is rare outside English classes where fewer than ¼ of students collaborate with peers for editing or responses.
  • Contemporary teachers’ notions of good instructional practice for teaching writing are research-based.
  • Contemporary teachers’ instructional practices mimic those of 1979, focusing on short-answers and copying from the board.

To find out what the authors think is responsible for these conditions in schools with reputations for excellence in teaching writing and how the conditions are likely to influence implementation of the Common Core State Standards, see the full article:

Applebee, Arthur N. and Judith A. Langer. “A Snapshot of Writing Instruction in Middle Schools and High Schools.” English Journal 100.6 (2011): 14–27.

Narrative Writing within Common Core

Whether they are disposed toward approval of the Common Core or not, I believe teachers can profit by looking at their classes and their school curriculum through the lens of the standards.

One of the topics on which study the Common Core has changed my understanding of teaching writing is their use of narrative. I’ve always had difficulty teaching narrative (and avoided doing it) because in my own experience a required narrative was typically a personal essay. I don’t have difficulty writing personal essays—I once wrote humorous personal essays for a weekly magazine—but I didn’t see personal essay as useful in the typical school and business situations students were likely to encounter. Moreover, I was reluctant to open myself to reading the self-revelations students vomited into their essays.

As I’ve been digging into the Common Core Standards, I’ve come to see they use narrative in the same sense that the news reporter uses the term story. The author puts events and people into a primarily chronological context in order to reveal to readers the significance of those events and people. The value of the narrative is not just what happened, but why it happened and what the narrative means for readers.

I’ve written elsewhere about Michael Umphrey’s work with the Montana Heritage Project. The projects Umphrey describes employ narratives in the sense that Common Core uses the term. Students do intellectual work (research, analysis, documentation) with and for agencies in their communities. Their studies often use records of the past (newspapers, photographs, court records, etc.) as raw data. They share and preserve their  findings for other researchers to build upon.

Just last week I began a course in Data-Driven Journalism offered as a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) by the Knight Center for Journalism in The Americas. This fascinating course looks at ways journalists and communications professionals in other fields can use data sources to tell stories explaining the connections between aggregations of data and how the data affects individual members of the audience personally.

These two different projects have some common threads:

  • Both projects use data that is directly relevant to the researchers, often because of where the researchers live/work.
  • The projects involve teams of individuals.
  • They involve real work, not make-work.
  • Projects may involve multiple data sources and multiple types of data sources (including print, databases, photographs, audio, objects.)
  • Projects may be presented in several different types of output, including print, audio, video, and oral presentations
  • Projects tend to be multidisciplinary.
  • Mathematical, scientific, technical, and graphic design skills may be needed to research, analyze, and communicate the story.
  • The end products are gifts to their communities.

I believe looking at these two different ways of story-making can help classroom teachers identify ways of using narratives for authentic, engaging learning in either a Common Core or non-Core environment.

The collaboration model for entry-level jobs

Lunch counter

Collaboration is one of today’s must-have skills.  Yet the collaborative model that students typically are taught in schools is, unfortunately, far different from way students will collaborate on their first, entry-level jobs.

Typically the model of collaboration teachers use is based on a boardroom meeting model: All participants getting together decide what’s to be done and divvy up the project’s components. That’s the model corporate CEOs talk about and the model educators experience in their school jobs.

Secondary students and secondary school graduates get rarely are hired for entry-level jobs that involve face-to-face meetings around a conference table. Those boardroom collaborations are rare even for first post-college jobs.

Collaboration in entry-level jobs is much more likely to be about the guy who worked the night shift leaving a message for the guy who works the morning shift: This happened; we took this action; this remains to be done; we notified the boss.

Collaboration in entry-level jobs has three key components:

  • Each worker knows how the work system is organized.
  • Each worker does their own work competently.
  • Each worker notifies her supervisor (and/or the next shift staff) of problems that arose on her shift that may affect their work.

That formula is less like project-based learning than it is like 19th century schooling: Here’s the assignment; do the assignment well; tell your teacher if you can’t complete the assignment on time.

That basic entry-level collaboration model isn’t limited to burger joints and corporate mail rooms.

In a New York Times story, Jon Mooallen writes that Brigham Young University is the place film makers seek entry-level film crew members because BYU students are “committed to a specialty and to collaboration.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking face-to-face collaboration or project-based learning. However, the simple fact of business life is that people rarely get into the boardroom unless they’ve proved they can work well in the mail room.

Photo Lunch by Carin

Argument values students’ unique contributions

One of the tenets of American education is that every child’s ideas are valuable. That tenet has oozed into a practice of treating all ideas as equally valuable on the theory that Josh shouldn’t be made to feel his idea is not as good as Caitlin’s.

The truth is that some ideas are better than others.

In a piece for fastcodesign, Daniel Sobol, a design strategist at Continuum, writes about how the company encourages innovation. By deliberate choice, Continuum has rejected brainstorming, which is about getting lots of ideas from everyone, in favor of deliberative discourse.

Deliberative discourse has been used to solve problems from the time of Aristotle. Such discourse is both deliberate in the sense of focusing on a shared purpose. It is also deliberative in the sense of being evaluative.  You and I probably call it argument. That’s what the Common Core State Standards call it. Sobol says, “It refers to participative and collaborative (but not critique-free) communication.”

The deliberative discourse process is not argumentative; it does not make personal attacks or spout off illogically. Disagreements have to be supported by evidence.

When argument is enlisted to solve problems, some important shifts occur.

First, the focus shifts from the quantity of the ideas students generate to the quality of ideas they generate.  We’re deluding ourselves if we think Josh won’t notice that Caitlin had five ideas for every one of his. In true collaborative work, the person whose argument leads to rejection of a weak idea is at least as valuable as the person who generates lots of ideas.

Secondly, the ability to articulate a position clearly—which implies having evidence to support it—becomes extremely important. That’s an educational reason for using argument.

Finally, the uniqueness of each individual’s perspectives, experience, and skills takes on greater significance. In a world that increasingly relies on collaboration, workers will be selected for their unique skills. It seems only sensible that in our classrooms, we teach collaborative processes like argument in which all are accorded respect for the unique value of their contributions rather  allowing  the individual’s contributions to be melted into the group’s work.

[Updated link to Sobol article content 2016-01-22.]


Milestones in my online education

This month is 30 years since I first went online to work.

In January of 1983, I became city editor for a small newspaper with a decentralized staff. Reporters worked from offices in the county seats, rarely coming to the main office.

They sent their day’s news budget by computer. Later, after the stories came in, we conferred by telephone as I edited copy as deadlines loomed.

It was, by today’s technology standards, a clumsy system, but it worked. We got the paper out on time most nights, and we delivered a good product to readers.

Since then, I’ve taken courses in online education and taught online, but that initial job working together with people to produce a product remains the defining experience of my online education:  It taught me the potential of computer connections for collaborations across geographic boundaries.

What was the defining experience in your online education?