“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” -B. F. Skinner
The standardized assessments we often use to judge the success or failure of students & schools is based largely upon the ability of students to mechanically regurgitate facts. Most teachers would argue that knowledge and facts are two different things.
“New knowledge” does not necessarily mean bringing brand new information into the world (although it could!) The new knowledge we speak of refers to ideas and understandings that are new to the student. The powerful part of the phrase comes earlier though, as we say “Creation” or “Construction” of the new knowledge.
Our lives are an ocean of raw information that exists in the form of facts, figures, rules, information, images, ideas of others, and other stimuli. Some of what we encounter fits with what we already understand. Some does not. In these cases we have to evaluate whether this new information is valuable to us or not. We know that real learning happens within this process of thinking critically about information and constructing our own understanding.
How can we foster this process of creating new knowledge? By starting with the ideas of the students, instead of starting with facts as they are generally understood outside of our classroom. (Like in the textbooks or on the internet.)
We can begin by asking the big, worldly questions that spark interest or discussion amongst students, instead of beginning by presenting information that is already evaluated (by the world) and presented as fact. “Why is grass green instead of blue?” “Why don’t more people choose to live in rural Nebraska?” “If you started a bank, why should people use yours instead of another one?”
At that point we step out of the way and allow students to put their own ideas and thoughts out there, then we guide them through the process of investigating their own ideas. Are they accurate? Are they supportable with facts? Do they have any data? Has anyone else had a similar idea? Where can they do further research?
We never really “own” knowledge until we know something well enough to debate its’ merits or teach it to another person. If there has not been a significant use of technology up to this point in your project, this is where the technology could step in. Using presentation tools, movie making software, animations, drawings, writing, video cameras, or any other technologies available in your building, ask students to explain their ideas and findings to an audience.
Creation of new knowledge does not have to take the form of a project, and student use of technology is not a necessity. You can start a lesson with a video clip and ask leading questions. You can use a magazine article, a piece of music, an old saying, any sort of thinking device that piques the curiosity of students. The act of beginning a lesson with a question instead of a statement causes cognitive dissonance – a gap in knowledge. As human beings, your students will be compelled to tune-in and pay closer attention until they figure out the answer. It is the critical thinking process of getting there that holds the power. This can be accomplished in the span of a single class period in many cases.
One way to evaluate whether students have gained new knowledge is to pre-test. A formative assessment before they begin can help you with informed instruction methods during their new learning while offering a baseline of information to compare against with post-lesson assessment.
The assessment of new learning can also come from the products created by the authentic assignments you asked them to complete. The task you have as an evaluator is not to be distracted by the products themselves. You are looking for documentation of learning, not technology use. Specifically, you want them to include the data that they decided was not useful, and why.
Another crazy idea might be to ASK your students. At the end of the lesson, ask them to write down what was covered in class today that they already knew, and what they feel like they understand now. It sounds simple enough, but students love the opportunity to tell you what they already knew, and that makes it easier to tack on what they (perhaps begrudgingly) learned today.