Written by: Vanya Katsarska, Aviation Faculty, National Military University
“ThinkQuest” Competition offers an inspiring learning experience to students and teachers all over the world. Students work in teams and create websites on various educational topics. In the process they not only practice their English, but they also learn research, writing, teamwork, and technology skills.
The presenter would like to share her experience and inspire other teachers to set off in quest of knowledge, technology literacy and global collaboration.
If I had to describe contemporary students in one adjective, it would be neither curious, nor lazy. I would say digital. Digital kids. They play PC games, pass online tests, communicate via the internet, research using web materials, etc. I strongly believe that we, teachers, should mirror the way our children/teenagers are learning outside the classroom. And to do that, we have to integrate wikis, blogs, webquests, podcasts into the language classroom as much as we can and engage and motivate our students to learn.
I’d like to discuss a project which inspires students to learn, think, connect and share – the ThinkQuest Project.
ThinkQuest is an international competition for primary and secondary students. Students are challenged to create the best educational websites – on any school topic they choose. Using their creativity and skills, kids should develop a unique website in terms of content and web design. These sites are hosted in the ThinkQuest Library, a rich resource visited by millions worldwide. The idea is to help children in the English-speaking countries and all over the world with their school work and home assignments. Students write FOR students tough school topics in a simple and straightforward way. It’s something like a wonderful encyclopedia created by students for students.
A ThinkQuest Team must be comprised of at least 3 and no more than 6 student members and one Primary Coach. The team may also include one Assistant Coach. Teams compete in one of three age divisions: age 12 and under; age 15 and under; age 19 and under. Teams may be comprised of students and coaches from within a single classroom or from many different classrooms, schools, communities, or countries around the world. Multi-location teams and multi-language websites are encouraged because they give global perspective to the topic.
2006 ThinkQuest Competition had 12 prize-winning web sites and they were created by multinational teams of students from countries including: Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Egypt, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Romania, Singapore, Switzerland, the United States, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
Topics for the Thinkquest Competition vary from very broad to narrow ones. For example in the “Geography & Travel” category, “World Guide” is a website for all countries around the world – click on a country and you can see the capital, population, language, religion, etc. There are also websites for a single country – “All about Turkey,” “Croatia.” There are even narrow topics – “The fountains in Kansas City.” You may be sure that an exciting journey of a thousand sites begins with a single click on the ThinkQuest Library. There are over 6000 websites on a wide range of topics in various categories: Books & Literature Business & Industry Computers & the Internet Health & Safety History & Government Philosophy, Religion & Mythology Science & Technology Social Sciences & Culture Sports & Recreation.
ThinkQuest Competition? Why not? Benefits.
- Developing reading skills
No matter how glamorous the web design is, how catching the flash, students are not going to succeed if they don’t have solid content in excellent English. While developing their website content students gain various skills and strategies in reading and writing.
ThinkQuest Competition is a wonderful way to enrich students’ vocabulary. As we all know, there is a reciprocal relationship between vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension. The better the students’ vocabulary knowledge is, the better they perform with reading comprehension tasks. Similarly, the more the students read using the appropriate skills and strategies, the more their vocabulary develops. This project plays an important part in both vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension. In the process of creating their project, students use different ways of reading – skimming and scanning, extensive reading and intensive reading. They also develop various reading skills and strategies which are often elusive, even mysterious for students to acquire – inferring; distinguishing fact from opinion, statement from example and main ideas from supporting details; using appropriately the appendix, the chapter headings, different tables, graphs, diagram, charts.
- Developing critical thinking and evaluating skills
Although the Internet may appear to be an easy concept to grasp, it can be a very unfriendly jungle out there. In fact, just telling students to go to the Internet to search for something is similar to, as several authors put it, “trying to get a drink of water from a gushing fire hydrant” (Warschauer, Shetzer, & Meloni, 2000, p. 85).
Anyone in the world can make a website for little or no cost at all. Thus, we have opinions which may not be credible. While developing their websites students learn how to compare ideas, judgments, and opinions in the text against their own ideas and against those of other writers. The Web provides opportunities for students to learn to question, classify, and analyze what they read. Thus they develop their critical thinking and evaluating skills.
- Developing skills and strategies for research work
That’s new ground for the younger students. Planning, searching in books and internet, note taking, using information is something our children are unaware of. The coach should teach them the whole process – from determining key words and phrases to evaluating information. The coach should teach them exploratory research which structures and identifies problems and constructive research which develops solutions to problems. Students also learn and use various research methods – case studies, interviews, experiments, observations, etc.
- Ensuring student-centered approach
After finishing their research, students become producers of knowledge – which is a highly rewarding outcome. ThinkQuest is a person-centered approach that tries to enable students to realize their potential and develop a justified feeling of satisfaction. The fact that the students themselves have created something gives them a great feeling of personal achievement.
- Going global
Students research and present their findings to an authentic audience. The teacher is no longer the only audience to their work, they go global. And I believe the more the learners are exposed to real world tasks, the better language users they will become.
- Learning about copyright issues
The Foundation takes plagiarism very seriously. Any plagiarism or copyright violation results in the disqualification of the students’ website. During the process students learn how to find out if something is copyrighted or not. They also learn how to contact people in order to get permission to use things like images or clip art. The point is to learn what research is really like.
- Developing writing skills
Much of the information students need for their website is buried in long, difficult-to-read reports and articles. Students need to simplify it and make it clearer for their peers. Sifting through all the info to find memorable facts is difficult. They find out that some sources have only a few relevant sentences, while others are long and contain too much technical language. Creating “middle ground” between the two extremes – difficult, technical, adult language and simplistic, childish language – make for an immensely challenging writing task. Sometimes due to the huge amount of data available, it is hard not to cram in everything they could. However, site’s content has to be of reasonable length so that readers would stay focused.
KISS is the rule in writing – Keep it Simple and Straightforward!
Communication is one of the barriers teams need to overcome, but they all learn to be flexible. Time zones need to be crossed in order for this to work, and there is always someone who has to be up early or stay up late. Synchronous and asynchronous communication among team-members allows learners to practice specific skills such as negotiating, persuading, clarifying meaning, requesting information, and engaging in true-life, authentic discussion.
ThinkQuest gives students the chance to work with children from diverse cultural, religious, and geographical backgrounds. It acts as a bridge for cultural exchanges that deepen understanding and enhance the trust and friendship among the young people participating in this program. It promotes mutual understanding and tolerance, respect for identities and cultural diversity.
- Putting Technology to Good Use
Great content is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. ThinkQuest shows us how technology can be put to good use. One of the girls participating in the competition says: “During the summer, I spent at least two hours each day doing tutorials for Flash and Dreamweaver.”
- Team work
Here’s what one ThinkQuest student has said: “In the beginning I was bossy and wanted everything to be done my way. Some of the team members quit because of my unwillingness to share tasks, so I was left alone to do most of the work. I had to find new team members to help. That year, I learned two important values: teamwork is the key and a team without respect for each member flounders.”
The ThinkQuest Competion helps students become more responsible and cooperative in relation to other people.
Is all that glitters gold? Disadvantages.
The ThinkQuest Project takes a great deal of time, energy, and commitment. You must be warned that many teachers and students get addicted to ThinkQuest and put their lives at risk. It breaks up real-life friendships and leaves school cafeterias empty.
ThinkQuest challenges students’ intellect. All skills are valued – languages, drawing, webdesign. The project cuts across lines of race, religion, culture, politics, and distance for a common goal, a common good. Anybody who does ThinkQuest does not go unrewarded. Even if kids don’t get the trip to SanFrancisco, they get a big Award. For they have gained knowledge. They have acquired new skills. They have practiced their English. They have worked together as a team. They have learned to sacrifice. A quest has a beginning and an end. Both are important, but the end is determined by what you do in the middle, how much you work, how much you try, how much effort you put in. And even if the end is not the end students were expecting, they know that they have done something great. And that is reward enough.