Turning a group project into a lesson in self-reliance

“To find yourself, think for yourself.” It’s been over 2,300 years since Plato wrote these words in his Apology of Socrates but in today’s classrooms, the importance of teaching students to develop and rely on critical thinking skills only continues to grow.

For SMART Exemplary Educator Emil Waldhauser, self-reliance is one of the most important skills he seeks to teach. “I do really encourage my students to be self-reliant. I always ask them for their ways of dealing with something and either confirm or hint at other ways of sorting something out.” For the past several months, his students have used SMART amp software for collaborative projects that help them take charge of their learning, and Emil is elated with the results. “I am absolutely convinced,” he says, “that using SMART amp helps students learn what self-reliance is.”

The software has made such an impact on Emil’s classroom that he started a blog to share stories of his students’ progress. He calls his blog “Em´s Amazing Journey with SMART amp“, and it’s a fascinating look at the successes and challenges of a class as they use the software to explore more collaborative and self-reliant learning.

Anatomy of a student-centered English project

Emil is an English teacher at Gymnázium Zikmunda Wintra in Rakovník, Czech Republic, and the first SMART amp project he gave his students was a multi-stage assignment on the topic of fame and celebrity. On the first day, he asked his students to find information about a literary figure, an athlete, an actor, and a singer. The students worked on their devices in groups of four to choose celebrities, research them, and represent their findings as text, images and links in their shared workspaces.

Though this was his students’ first day using SMART amp, Emil could see an immediate difference in how they took charge of their learning. “Working on a few different tasks in a digital workspace forced my students to decide on the steps to take and a way of dividing their work,” he says. “They were checking each other´s work and giving support where needed. It was bliss.”

Encouraged by the success of this lesson, Emil took it to the next level by challenging the class to collaborative homework. He had the students remain in their teams with each member working from home to contribute to a poster of the team’s chosen celebrity. Adding a group dynamic to homework kept the students on their toes. “They had to respect their team-mates’ work,” he relates. “In other words, they knew that if they shuffled with or even deleted someone else´s work, the team result wouldn´t be as they had planned and agreed on in the classroom.”

For the next stage of the project, Emil wanted his students to do some writing, so he had each student draft a page-long biography of their celebrity using the mother of all classroom technologies: pen and paper. But taking the assignment analog didn’t deprive his students of SMART amp’s ability to amalgamate content. Once they finished their bios, each student used their mobile device to take a picture of the page and add it to their shared workspace.

It’s at this point that the project truly became a lesson in self-directed learning. Emil told the class that it was time to collect digital content to accompany the written biographies. Students could choose to add digital content to anyone’s work as long as they told the person in advance. The only other rule was that the digital content had to relate specifically to what was written on the page. This was an extremely effective language and research lesson, Emil says, because the students had to read the written biographies very carefully in order to choose relevant digital content.

In the end, the project raised not only the caliber of collaboration among the students; it lifted the energy level in the classroom as well. “It wasn´t a quiet, work-on-your-computers-and-no-talking lesson,” says Emil. “While they were working, I joined them, talked about the content, asked questions, and now and then gave a helping hand.”

This first experience using SMART amp in class was so remarkable that it inspired him to start his blog. “This software has so abruptly and unexpectedly changed the way I approach teaching now,” he says in his first post. “It is a truly collaborative piece of software that brings any teaching ideas to life. Suddenly, the process and distribution are way more important than a correct answer, so learning becomes really complex.”

We can’t wait to see what he and his students do next, and we hope you’ll join us in following their story as it continues to unfold.

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Sarah Richards
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About Sarah Richards

Sarah Richards is a Brand Strategist at SMART, on a mission to bring students together and empower educators through technology. Sarah works from Vancouver, Canada.

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