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The art of teaching independent learning

Lucy Witham won our Best use of itslearning awards 2012 for Genre Blocks, a fantastic idea that encourages students to explore for themselves, share their findings and view what they find on the internet with a critical eye.

Lucy is Learning Coordinator and Head of Photography at the Guernsey Grammar & Sixth Form Centre and I spoke to her to find out more about her idea, and what she’s planning on doing with the prize.

Helping students broaden their horizons

When Lucy began with what she calls Genre Blocks back in April 2012, she was trying to address two problems. Firstly, her school’s location, on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, makes it difficult for her to arrange visits to exhibitions on the mainland for her A-level photography students. (As she put it, “There’s always a plane or boat involved and that makes it costly and time-consuming.”) She also wanted to arm these students with the skills they need to better evaluate the information they find on the internet.

“I wanted to find a way to broaden my students’ exposure to art and photography without leaving the island,” says Lucy. “At the same time, I knew that my students primarily used Google as a research tool and I wanted to teach them the skills they need to properly evaluate the information they find.”

The introduction of the Genre Block

Like many smart ideas, her solution was extremely simple. On her A-Level Photography course page in itslearning, she set up “Genre Blocks” (basically, an empty folder for each photography genre studied on the course). She then asked her students to add any examples or resources they found to the relevant folder, with some sort of description for other students.

“The students have rights to add, edit or remove anything from the folders. Some have created pages with masses of information, others added notes with embedded videos, there are even notes with the IRB numbers of books they found in the library,” she explains.  “The key is to put the resource up there and then let the other students decide whether it’s a good resource to use.”

But the Genre Blocks are not just about resources. The students also post their own work for their peers to review, or post and comment on work of professional photographers.

Encouraging independent learning and analysis

To enable a discussion about the resources, many students attach a discussion block underneath a resource. Other students can then give comments, discussing the resource’s relevance and quality. “This is essential, because these are A-level students who are learning to appreciate and learn things independently. It shouldn’t just be about me telling them this is a great photo,” says Lucy.

Essentially, the Genre Blocks function as a Wiki-style resource created by the students at the college, covering the information they need on the A-Level photography course. This makes it extremely useful for new students, who now have a great place to start when beginning their work on a new genre.

“The students have really reacted well to the Genre Blocks,” Lucy says. “They enjoy using them. It saves them a lot of time when they want to start some work, and they enjoy finding, sharing, recommending and posting stuff.”

If you want to try something similar, check out Lucy's Genre Block recipe.

A green screen and creative suite

As winner of our Best use of itslearning awards 2012, Lucy will receive a MacBook, webcam, microphone and video editing kit. I asked her if she had any plans for the prize.

“We’re going to convert one small office in our department into a blended learning room, with a green screen, where we can make teaching videos,” she says. “The students will use the ‘studio’ multimedia versions of the sketchbooks they have to hand in at the end of the year.”

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