A formula for strategic online synthesis

The anchor standards for reading and writing in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects (2010)  place significant emphasis on the construction of meaning from multiple texts in print and digital formats. To date, however, the evidence for instructional methods that support “synthesis” skills development in K-12 is sparse. This is particularly true for the online context. To my mind, teachers and students would benefit considerably if there were a method that had been tested empirically…and that could be implemented with some confidence that it would support the development of online synthesis skills.

Last summer, I had a serendipitous opportunity to pilot a framework for online synthesis with colleagues and a group of students at an elementary school here in Michigan. The students, all 5th and 6th graders, were invited to participate in a summer institute designed to support their math and literacy skills through innovative and authentic inquiry projects that integrated technologies. Based on overall academic performance and reading comprehension scores, the students who were invited to participate were generally those most at-risk for academic underachievement or failure.

During the summer institute, the kids created “Wonders”, inspired by the popular Wonderopolis.org website on topics that were related to sports (the summer Olympics were then taking place in London!) To create their Wonders, students had to do a lot of online reading. The teachers were looking for a systematic way to introduce the iterative cycle of online reading and synthesis…and since I was developing something for my dissertation research study, I asked them if they would consider giving this framework a try. They did — and much to our delight, it seemed to work!

Mostly, the teachers reported that the formula — which they introduced by modelling the process via think alouds, and then having the students use the strategies over a few weeks — provided a starting point for richer conversations about online reading and synthesis. With a common vocabulary, everyone was able to understand the expectations, but also to talk about what they were doing at each step in their process.

This piloting experience gave me the confidence to refine my method a bit further for my dissertation study — which I’ve been running with students since November, 2012.

Anecdotally, students in my dissertation study have told me similar things. One student said that the list of strategies reminded her of what she needed to do and helped her stay focused. Another student said that the strategies were especially helpful because it made the whole process of inquiry a little less overwhelming.

There is much still to analyze, and think about…but here’s the list of strategies. I’ve written them as a mathematical “formula” to metaphorically represent the additive and exponential growth in understanding that comes through synthesis of multiple perspectives 🙂

(PST)2 + iC3

P = Purpose

What do I have to do?

P = Prior Knowledge

What do I already know about this topic?

S = Search Terms

What search words and phrases will I use to find good information?

S = Source Selection
Which sources seem promising?

T = Type

What kind of web resource is this and what should the structure tell me about what I will probably find there?

T = Trustworthy

How trustworthy is this information? What criteria have I used to judge it?
i = Identify Important Ideas

What information is important here? Why is this information important?

C = Compare

How does this information compare with what you already knew?

C = Connect

Does this back up something you have already read? Does differ in some way from what you have read elsewhere? Is it unique information that takes your understanding in a new direction?

C = Continually Update

What does your overall understanding of the problem look like now?

Feel free to view the PST2 + iC3 formula here as well: http://bit.ly/X44f8M

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