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Liberate Your Use of BioInteractive Resources in Under 10 Minutes
Congratulations! You found a BioInteractive resource. You love it. You want to use it. It’s perfect for your class.
Except that the accompanying tried-and-tested, step-by-step instructions do not match your needs. Perhaps you have a different learning goal in mind than the one intended by the educator who designed the resource. Or maybe your learners come from a different background than the one intended for the resource — maybe it was designed for 16-year-olds and you teach adults. Or perhaps you just want to use the BioInteractive resource to probe existing knowledge in the classroom, brainstorm a solution, or analyze an experiment in a way that differs from the original instructions.
If you want to use the resource, you’ll have to design your own activity around it. But that takes time. And you, like most educators, don’t have any.
What if there was a tool kit, a set of pedagogical methods to draw from, that would let you customize your selected BioInteractive resource for your classroom in under 10 minutes? Interested? Read on!
Liberating Structures are a set of 33 easy-to-implement ideas for structuring group discussions. The developers of these tools sought to recruit the voices of all people in a group and to give each voice equal weight. In other words, these tools aim to make conversations more equitable.
You may already be a Liberating Structures practitioner. While these tools were created for the business world, many will be familiar to educators by other names. The table below lists some Liberating Structures and links them to their classroom equivalents. You will recognize them as versatile, learner-centric approaches that can be rapidly deployed in many classroom contexts.
Jigsaw (with lots of adaptations)
While most educators would easily recognize these six Liberating Structures in their classroom forms, this leaves 27 other, potentially new structures to explore. The best part: each structure’s description is usually five to seven steps, which are each one or two sentences in length and take only a few seconds to absorb and adapt.
How to Use Liberating Structures to Modify a BioInteractive Activity: An Example
Let’s say I want to use a BioInteractive Phenomenal Image, activities that use photographs that can be linked to core biology concepts. They are called “Phenomenal Images” because they are unexpected in some way and trigger curiosity. They invite learners to investigate them more deeply and to formulate hypotheses to explain what’s going on.
How can I create an activity in my classroom that uses a Phenomenal Image to encourage each learner to hypothesize and explore scientific methodologies in a way that might be different from the one suggested with the resource? And just as importantly, how can I design this activity, from scratch, in under 10 minutes?
This is where a Liberating Structure can help me. My favorite is 25/10 Crowd Sourcing. It’s similar to dotmocracy or dot voting. 25/10 is the tool to use when I want my class to brainstorm ideas, giving each learner the opportunity to contribute one thought. Then, through an anonymous process, each idea is evaluated and rated by five other learners, producing a ranked and prioritized list of ideas for the class to consider.
Let’s go through how 25/10 might be adapted and deployed in conjunction with the “Mozambique Mounds” Phenomenal Image to encourage each learner to formulate hypotheses. They then use the output from this activity to discuss how these hypotheses could be tested. We will look at how to do it in three classroom contexts: in-person, synchronous online, and asynchronous online.
For this activity, we will need one index card for each learner. The activity begins by showing the Phenomenal Image and asking “What do you think is going on in this picture?” In the case of “Mozambique Mounds,” the prompt might be adjusted to something more specific that we want learners to explore, like “Come up with a hypothesis to explain this pattern of vegetation on the ground in Mozambique.” Give five minutes for learners to write their best hypothesis on a card. Learners should not write their name on the card or leave any clue about the authorship.
Next, we need to separate each card from its author to further anonymize them. We will do this by having learners move around the classroom. Each time they encounter someone, they exchange cards. No reading, just pass the index cards. Laughter and quick personal chats are allowed as long as it doesn’t impede the exchange of cards. After 15 seconds, a bell rings (or lights shut off, or some other sign to stop milling). Learners read the idea on their card. Then, on the back of the card, they rate the idea on a scale from 1 to 5 (5 expressing highest appreciation for the hypothesis in explaining the phenomenon). We repeat this process — exchanging cards until a signal is given and rating the hypothesis — until the back of each card has five ratings. (To avoid being influenced by others, learners should not look at previous ratings until they’ve decided on their own.) The person adding the fifth rating then sums up the ratings. This process should take about 15 minutes, three minutes per cycle.
Learners then form a line, from those holding cards with the highest ratings (maximum 25) at one end of the line, to those with the lowest ratings (minimum 5) at the other end. Ask the learners holding the top 10 ideas to read the hypotheses aloud and note these hypotheses publicly (e.g., on a whiteboard). Once the top 10 ideas have been presented, a whole-class discussion ensues, analyzing the evidence for and against each hypothesis, and how each hypothesis might be tested. Reading the top 10 ideas should take about 5 minutes, and the discussion can take anywhere from 10–30 minutes.
What I like about this activity is that it encourages learners to start from an intriguing concept and to formulate a hypothesis rather than immediately telling them what happened. It sharpens their curiosity and their abilities to think like a scientist. It also gives a voice to every learner, since they each have to put an idea on an index card. The exchange hides the authorship of the ideas, so the ideas are considered on their own merit rather than based on the status of the person who wrote them. It also ensures that no learner feels like they are “in the hot seat” when their idea is considered or not considered for further discussion. And, through crowdsourcing, it taps into the wisdom and knowledge of the group and provides many ideas for consideration. I have found that this activity works well every time I’ve used it.
Online Synchronous Classroom
How can we do this activity in an online setting? The key elements of this will remain the same: give a space for each learner to contribute an idea, ensure the anonymity of each idea’s author, and give several peers the ability to rate an idea without seeing how others scored it.
There are several tools that can assist in this process; I’ve had success using Google Slides. I create a slide for each learner, share the document, and ask each learner to use a slide no one else is on (which is indicated by the absence of other user icons on the slide). This works in small classes. For large groups, you may need to preassign each learner to a slide by creating and sharing a spreadsheet containing the names of each learner in the class and a slide number. Note that while the anonymity of each author cannot be guaranteed, during the activity, learners will not have enough time (or much incentive) to check each slide’s authorship against the spreadsheet.
I ask each learner to write their hypothesis on their slide. I then ask each learner to move ahead by two slides and to read the idea written on that slide. Learners must then write, in the Speaker Notes section at the bottom of the slide, their rating from 1 to 5. Once they are done, they should “hide” the rating by selecting “View” from the top menu and unclicking “Show Speaker Notes.” That way, the next learner to read this slide will not see the previous rating and it will not influence their own scoring.
I repeat the instructions to move. Learners read the hypothesis on a slide, uncover the Speaker Notes, add their ratings, and hide the Speaker Notes for the next rater. This continues until the cycle is repeated five times and the last rater tallies the scores. I then ask learners who had a slide with a score of 25 to read the slide’s hypothesis to the class. We do this with all slides with a score of 25. Then 24. Then 23, and so on, until the top 10 hypotheses have been read and the discussion ensues.
Online Asynchronous Classroom
Though I've had success with Google Slides in synchronous contexts, learners often require real-time clarification of directions (a few learners get lost during movement between slides or have difficulty hiding their comments from Speaker View), which makes it less suitable for asynchronous contexts.
When 25/10 is used asynchronously, other tech tools can smooth out the process. Apps such as Padlet and Dotstorming, both of which have a free version, allow each learner to contribute a hypothesis anonymously. These ideas are posted to a collaborative (cloud-based) whiteboard; learners can access the whiteboard and rate the ideas or vote on them.
Here there are a few ways to modify the activity. For example, instead of rating five ideas on a scale from 1 to 5, learners can read all of the hypotheses and award a total of five votes to the ideas they consider most intriguing, including giving more than one vote to the same idea. The Dotstorming app can hide the scores from learners until everyone has voted, ensuring that learners aren’t influenced by groupthink.
After revealing the top hypotheses as voted on by learners, you can discuss the evidence for and against each hypothesis, and how to test them, on the course LMS’s discussion forum.
Exploring Liberating Structures
The examples described above provide a sense of how easy it is to design a classroom activity using the Liberating Structures framework. There are 33 Liberating Structures for educators to explore. Where to begin?
One way to explore the Liberating Structures collection is to identify a learning objective and need for your classroom. There is a vibrant Liberating Structures community of practice that develops and shares tools to help those who use them. One such tool is an automated Google Sheet where users answer a few questions about their goals and receive suggestions for the best structure to use. You can also use this printable structure selection sheet by identifying your goals and then which structures they correspond to.
Researchers have identified which structures are most helpful to biology instructors. Ferguson et al. (2015) introduced Liberating Structures to a group of K–12 health and science instructors. The researchers then followed, over the course of two years, how often the instructors used each tool. Other than the ones commonly used by educators (shown in the table above), the researchers found that the following structures were most often incorporated into health and science classrooms (listed from most to least popular):
- Drawing Together
- Celebrity Interview
- What, So What, Now What? (W3)
- Appreciative Interviews
- Nine Whys
- Discovery and Action Dialogue
If you don’t immediately need to use a new structure but want to explore the collection, you may want to check these structures as your starting point. Keep in mind that you may need to adapt the suggested prompts to make them work in a classroom setting.
Liberating Structures provide, well, structure and help to define clear roles for learners as they work together to explore a topic. Research has borne out that structure is important in the classroom; learners prefer it, it leads to improved learning, and it can make the classroom more equitable by reducing performance gaps among learners.
What makes Liberating Structures powerful is that they make it easy to customize BioInteractive resources for our learners and our classrooms. Their philosophical underpinning ensures a learner-centered approach. They give a voice to each learner and promote equitable classrooms. So, give them a try, and in a few short minutes, you, too, will be adapting your favorite BioInteractive resources to your goals and learners.
Ferguson, Alesia, Robert Ulmer, Keith Harris, Ilias Kavouras, and Ashley Richison. “Applying Liberating Structures (LS) to Improve Teaching in Health and Sciences: Pilot Study Results.” Journal of Health Education Research and Development 3, 3 (2015). https://doi.org/10.4172/2380-5439.1000136.
Haak, David C., Janneke HilleRisLambers, Emile Pitre, and Scott Freeman. “Increased Structure and Active Learning Reduce the Achievement Gap in Introductory Biology.” Science 332, 6034 (2011): 1213–1216. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1204820.
Lipmanowicz, Henri, and Keith McCandless. The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash a Culture of Innovation. Seattle, WA: Liberating Structures Press, 2014.
Neill, Connor, Sehoya Cotner, Michelle Driessen, and Cissy J. Ballen. “Structured Learning Environments Are Required to Promote Equitable Participation.” Chemistry Education Research and Practice 20, 1 (2019): 197–203. https://doi.org/10.1039/c8rp00169c.
Sandoval, Vanessa. “Investigating a University Classroom Where the Participants Are Purposely Invited, Included, and Engaged through Liberating Structures.” Master’s thesis. The University of Texas at El Paso, 2017. ProQuest (10619936). https://www.proquest.com/docview/1975373820.
Singhal, Arvind, Lauren E. Perez, Kristin Stevik, Erik Mønness, and Peer Jacob Svenkerud. “Liberating Structures as Pedagogical Innovation for Inclusive Learning: A Pilot Study in a Norwegian University.” Journal of Creative Communications 15, 1 (2020): 35–52. https://doi.org/10.1177/0973258619875600.
Tanner, Kimberly D. “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity.” CBE—Life Sciences Education 12, 3 (2013): 322–331. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.13-06-0115.
Annie Prud’homme-Généreux is the director of Continuing Studies at Capilano University. She was one of a handful of architects of Quest University Canada’s Bachelor of Arts and Sciences. She has designed and taught undergraduate courses in biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, evolution, nutrition, neuroscience, and astrobiology, to name a few. She is a past recipient of the National Association of Biology Teachers’ 4-Year College Teaching Innovation Award. She holds a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology, an MA in science writing, a BSc in neurobiology, and is currently completing an MEd in distance, digital, and open education.
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