Teleology + Wikis = Classwide Collaborative Essays


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Teleology is basically the study of how everything fits, from top to bottom, within a system. Since I’m a “big picture” kind of guy, I tend to present topics or units to my students from the bird’s eye view and burrow down into the details afterwards. I tend to point the finish line out to my students and then we make our way to that goal together.

Sometimes its difficult for students to move back and forth between the world of details, facts, and terms and the world of concepts, theories, and philosophies. One tools that’s helped me help my students in this effort is the wiki option in Moodle/Netschool to set up class essay assignments. What I mean by a “class essay assignment” is that I assign a single very high level essay prompt to the class and let them attack it as a team over a certain period of time.

060409201743thinkerA little background: I used to offer a test grade replacement assignment where students would take on one of the great books (Usually a chapter we agreed upon from Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Locke’s Second Treatise, Hobbes Leviathan, writings from the Founders, Lincoln, MLK Jr., Ayne Rand, Peter Singer, etc.). We would meet after they began their readings to talk about their progress. I generally asked them “What stood out most to you? What interested you in your readings”. I allowed the text to talk to them and would simply guide their study of that text via their reporting during our conversations. They would write rough drafts and we would go over them together. Finally, they would submit and resubmit their essay until we both thought it was an “A” paper.

Predictably enough, “A” students would usually be the ones that would take on this responsibility. I wanted, though, as many students as possible to scale this mountain…to see further on the shoulders of these giants. I needed to change something to entice the other students to tackle Great Questions and Great Thinkers.

cheetahEventually it came to me. Cheat! —> Let them help each other and let them all benefit (grade and intellectual-wise). Like a good baseball teams, not every player would do the same job. Some batters would hit homes runs and be done and others would grind it out on the bases…but each would benefit the “logos” of the project and the class.

The Assignment: A project I’ve used in class to satisfy this teleological approach is the class-wide wiki-essay. To begin, I present a really tough, general question at the beginnings of a unit.

My favorite is the Declaration of Independence prompt: Using the Text of the Declaration and other founding documents we have (or will soon) explored, analyze and explain the Founders teleology with support from the text. I assign this at the beginning of the unit and usually give students over a week to address the prompt. I open a wiki in our classes Netschool (Moodle) page with the prompt, some links, and some images embedded. I try to include more than just written evidence like songs of the time, newspaper articles, images, art, etc. So my seniors with different backgrounds will have something appealing to latch on to.trumbull-large1
Students are to collaboratively address the prompt en masse. Some students will add facts, others will edit the paper, and still others will polish flow or transitions. I don’t give my seniors specific jobs. I simply ask them to contribute according to their skill set.

I do however tell the students to keep track of their contributions and ill check it against the digital log that Netschool ( Moodle) keeps. This serves two purposes. Students are aware of much or how little they’ve contributed and they get to see how others either adapt or modify their ideas. It’s a wonderfully democratic process that shows them, in a fairly concrete way, how ideas interact with and refine each other.

Since the topic drills into the Declaration and other foundational pre-Constitutional documents (that the Founders themselves debated), they also get a taste of how serious people take ideas seriously but can also be flexible if they have a unified goal. To set up the foundation for a new nation, the Founders had to read Locke, Sidney, Aristotle, and so on. They learned from these giants of thought, but they also sifted out what was appropriate for the American Mind versus the European Mind. My students in this assignment were sifting through the Founders sifting!

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Keep in mind that terms like “Nature’s God”, “Supreme Judge of the World”, “Governments”, “One People”, “Men”, and so on show up not only in the Declaration but many documents of the time. The Founders were attaching as best they could their political philosophy of how things “should” be and tempering it with the particular historical facts of the time. They went from the lowest (government) and sought to attach it to the highest “Nature’s God” as best they could. This is the very definition of teleology.

Looking for the Founders teleology means students will have to do something they may not do very often: analyze & synthesize really high level thinkers. They are confronting their superiors as a team. Since they are a team, the risk and threat is low per person, but the potential for great success is high.
Since its a group project the grade is shared by the group. If the paper gets a 90, then everyone has access to that 90 if they wish. That grade, however, isn’t immediately entered in the grade book. It is a “wildcard” that can replace any low test grade from that particular six weeks.

So the success of the group helps students put a bandage over one of their lower test grades (maybe on a unit they suffered through or a unit where someone’s health in their family had deteriorated) …which then makes those lower achieving students very motivated to help in the class wide essay project.youdonthavetobegreattostart-530x600
In Moodle/Netschool (and most online wiki sites) every move in these wikis is kept track of by the program. So when kids report to me to defend their contribution we both know that I have access to whether what they claim was their work was really theirs. Those who are weak in putting together terms or data from that unit contribute with editing or flow.

Like all wikis, any one kid can erase everything, but I would know who it was and when they did it. Further, like all wikis, I can also pull up the last good version of that essay and reestablish it.

Students usually have a week or more to work together and I give updates on how complete the essay is. I’ll point certain students who contribute in class and thank them. I do what I can to motivate my student to tackle these tough assignments since the point is to have my students confront great minds so they can hone their skills to become great minds themselves.

Students map out (in this case) the Founders argument for Human Rights and the failure of the U.K. to protect them which, in turn, connects this struggle for independence with the very formation of the universe itself.

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About Thrasymachus

2013 Northwest ISD teacher of the year, Humanities Texas 2012 Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, and 2011 Outstanding Educator of North Texas Award (North Central Texas College). I'm currently a Regional Digital Learning Consultant with the Education Service Center Region 11 in Ft. Worth, Texas and a college government educator who incorporates philosophy, technology & humor. A student through and through, I walk with my students in their learning. Most importantly, I'm blessed with the 3 most perfect kids eva! I love on them ery day!!!
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