VISIBLE THINKING: Digital Place Mats

I first learned about Place Mats as a student working towards my B.Ed. almost a decade ago. This instructional tactic appealed to me then because of it's dual purpose of allowing independent student thought followed by authentic collaboration.

When using Place Mats during a task, students independently document their thinking in individually allocated spaces surrounding the centre space of the paper. Following a designated amount of time, students then share their thinking with one another. At this point, group members consolidate their thinking into a single, co-created "thought product" documented in the centre space of the Place Mat.

There are many benefits to using this instructional tactic. It provides all students with a voice. This is especially beneficially when prompting groups to incorporate all members' thinking into the collaborative space. Place Mats are suitable for small groups of various sizes; simply include enough individual spaces for each member of the group. When used as a brainstorming tool in preparation for further learning, Place Mats allow students to access the background knowledge of others, along with their own. Equally important, Place Mats make student thinking visible.

Now that I've got Place Mats 101 out of the way, let's consider how they can be used within the Google Apps for Ed (GAFE) ecosystem. The intuitive sharing and collaboration tools built into GAFE make it ideal for digital Place Mats.

Here's a blank digital Place Mat template recently used by students in my class:

As you can see, this Place Mat was designed to support collaboration among five students. For this particular task the focus was Word Choice, and groups were assigned paintings for which they were to:
  • independently brainstorm relevant descriptive words
  • collaboratively decide upon the most descriptive word for the painting
Here is a snapshot of the task as assigned via Google Classroom (interested in more about Google Classroom? Check this out!):
As you can see, all students were assigned an individual copy of the Place Mat (copies not used by the group were Marked As Done in the assignment details). Each picture was made available to all students as View Only. As you can see from the awesome obsolete technology-themed group names above, each painting is assigned to one group.

At this point, all five students were working within a single shared document. Group members then began independently brainstorming descriptive words, each in their own designated space. As with traditional Place Mats on paper, it's important to establish the norm of privacy and respect of other's work before beginning the task. An oral discussion followed independent work time, in which students shared their thinking and decided upon one descriptive word that best captured the essence of the painting.

As you can see, the digital Place Mat allows thinking to be made visible when students are working independently and in a small group setting. To push student thinking further, groups were instructed to share their Place Mats with the whole class, giving all other students CAN COMMENT privileges. This allowed students to provide meaningful feedback to each other. It created an authentic way in which students could further make their thinking visible.

Clearly, a digital Place Mat is a valuable instructional tactic for making student thinking visible. Equally important, however, are the products co-created by students when used to support subsequent learning experiences. Place Mats, whether digital or traditional, give a variety of access points to the content in focus, so that students may use the thinking of others' to support their own understanding. Digital Place Mats take this a step further, by capturing constructive feedback from others through the comments feature.

Interested in trying out a digital Place Mat in your class? Grab a copy of the Place Mat Template here and modify as you see fit! Let us know the creative ways that you use a digital Place Mat in your classroom @inquireinspire #visiblethinking

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