Scenario Learning with a Collaborative Twist

For the last few months, many of teachers at my school have been extolling the benefits of Google Docs with their students. There simply is no doubt that when we approach writing as a collaborative medium, there is a fundamental shift in the paradigm and both students and teachers are forced to rethink what we value and how we work.

As a technology leader, the question I often field is: “I can see how amazing the technology is, but what can I do with it?” While the counter-question – “how long is a piece of string?”- doesn’t work wonders for the imagination, the point is that many teachers will really struggle to think of ways of applying collaborative documents – quite apart from the rules, parameters and conditions in which it takes place.

I think that when we’re faced with daunting new technology, one possible approach that works wonders is scenario learning. This is why I’ve been exploring the value of hypothetical, imaginative and lateral thinking with my Year 7 Connected Learning class this term. I also cooked up this semi-real, semi-fictional scenario to get them thinking about the roles that historians, public relations experts, education consultants and ethicists play in important decisions where key stakeholders are required – in this case, with reference to the World Heritage arm of UNESCO:

September 11th Scenario

Ground Zero is a term that refers to the site on which the New York Twin Towers were built. On September 11, 2001, the towers were destroyed when two planes carrying passengers were hijacked and crashed into them.

Currently, there are plans afoot to build two new replacement towers, along with a multi-storey shopping complex, a local mosque and a number of other amenities. At the same time, the World Heritage Panel is considering whether or not to list the site as an important cultural heritage site. If the listing goes ahead, constraints will be placed on further development, but at this stage the nature of these constraints is unclear.

You are an expert (historian, public relations officer, education consultant or ethicist) sitting at the table for a FIVE MINUTE preliminary meeting to consider whether or not the site should be proposed for World Heritage Listing. In the event that it is accepted by the World Heritage Panel, arguments for or against further development around the site will need to be considered.

In your meeting, you may consider one or more of the following (start with one and add others if you have time):

  • should the new twin towers be built?
  • is it appropriate to build a mosque nearby?
  • is it appropriate to build a shopping complex?
  • what limits (if any) should be placed on further development?


You are to record your position as an expert in a group Google Document, which will be a TRANSCRIPT of the first five minutes of your discussion. NB – your discussion does not have to be resolved in any way at this stage. However, as you are working in groups of FOUR, your document will include experts from all of four fields we have studied this week.

As they began working, many kids struggled with how to get started: “who should write first?” “what should I say?” were among the questions asked by weaker-ability students. I encouraged kids to simply write something from the perspective of their role, irrespective of what other kids were writing or might write. In this scenario, starting with an introduction from the perspective of, say, the ethicist, students needed to simply get their main argument across into the document before reacting to the views expressed by other roles. The other key ingredient to this kind of task is imagination. “As the public relations expert, who do you know?” “As the ethicist, whose story have you heard most recently that has moved you to the point where you need to advocate on behalf of this person?” You might say that since the very core of scenario learning is the imagination of the scenario itself, imagination feeds imagination!

The results were qualitatively different to a conventional script or singly-authored piece of work, and I argue that it’s very important to discuss differences between collaborative authorship and single authorship with students. As a follow-up task, I had my groups email a published copy of their document to another group in the class. The outsiders then read the published version carefully and produced an ISVAPS on it (a scaffold that focuses on I)ssues S)peakers V)iews A)lternatives P)roblems and S)olutions). At this stage you have a whole range of learning and talking points:

  • which transcripts were resolved? which were not? why/why not?
  • who had the most unique alternative perspective on the issues
  • were there any “unexpected” issues that arose? why?
  • what have you learned about how you work in this kind of group?
  • what does this tell you about some of the problems that UNESCO needs to deal with?

At the end of the day, it’s great to see how easy this kind of learning can be with a good scenario. Hopefully it’s just a little bit closer to how things in the real world work?

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About Michael

Cellist, singer/songwriter, school teacher, nerd, recent scooter enthusiast and failed philosopher.
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