What can a management technique teach us about classroom learning? Using the Johari window model to support inquiry learning


At the end of every academic year I like reflect on all the work I’ve done from a broader, more macro perspective. I do this because I find when I’m caught up with the “doing” of something, I miss all the interesting ways it might provide insight into my other work.

A great example of this came up at the end of a third year undergraduate course I teach on Organizational Theory and Behaviour. A major goal of the course is to get the students better understand themselves as members of a team through a series of self-reflective and collaborative management techniques. One of the techniques I use is the Johari window, which helps people better understand the relationship/contrast between how they see themselves and how others see them.

The idea of the Johari window is simple, users and their peers select a set of 5 or 6 adjectives (from a pre-determined list of 56) that they feel describe them, and understanding comes from the similarities and differences between the sets.

The classical Johari window with its four “panes”, the red lines show the goal of the exercise: to grow the “open area” and reduce the other three

There are four “panes” in the window, each showing a different type of personal awareness: the open area, shows what I know about myself and what you know about me; the blind area, is what you know about me and I don’t know about myself; the hidden area, is what I know about myself but you don’t; and finally, the unknown area, which are things that aren’t known by myself or by you. The goal of the Johari window is to expand the open area and reduce the other three through the processes of self-disclosure, feedback, and shared/self-discovery.

In my management class, the students love this activity — it makes them aware of the gaps in their own perspectives of what they know about themselves and what others know about them.

It wasn’t until after the course was done and I took the time to reflect, that I realized my research on learning and collaboration (particularly in K-12 classrooms) could be viewed through a similar lens. Although the traditional Johari window focuses on personality traits, there’s no reason we couldn’t re-apply it as a way to thinking about students’ understanding of any topic under investigation (e.g., climate change or ancient Greek civilizations).

This becomes particularly powerful when students are engaged in inquiry-based curriculums — curriculum which focus on complex, open-ended problems, and where students work together to determine paths for investigation and develop solutions. A major challenge in these kinds of environments is how to make individual students aware what they knowabout a topic, what their peers know about a topic, and also critically whatnobody knows about it. Sound familiar?

The challenge in an inquiry curriculum is how do we make the unknown visible to the students and the teacher?

In an inquiry curriculum, the similarities and differences between individual students’ knowledge and understanding is often more subtle and complex than in a traditional Johari window. Making the nuanced ideas that individual students hold “in their heads” visible to themselves and others requires more than just 56 adjectives.

I started to think about the role that various technologies or technology supported approaches could play in making these ideas visible and to help students in reducing the “unknown” in their investigations. I started to map them to a Johari window in terms of how they could increase the class’ open aera (which I began calling the community’s knowledge), and reduce the other three areas (blind, hidden, and unknown).

A Johari Model for Inquiry Learning

A Johari window reimagined for inquiry education

Searchable/Filterable/Connectable Notes:

By giving students the opportunity record their ideas digitally for the rest of the class to see and respond to, we can provide opportunities for reducing the blind and hidden areas.

These notes can also be a place for students to ask questions of their peers, or to work as a class to develop hypotheses. By making these open to the whole class, we provide opportunities for feedback, discussion, and for identifying unknown areas for further investigation.

Tags and other Semantic Metadata:

The use of user submitted tags and other forms of metadata can allow systems to automatically connect ideas together and help students find trends that they may have otherwise missed, which can significantly increase the class’ open area.

These tags can also be used to create aggregated visualizations of student work (such as polls, or quizzes), which can show gaps in the class’ knowledge or possible conflicts of ideas, making them particularly valuable in reducing the unknown area.

Software Agents and Data Mining:

A combination of software agents (small pieces of software that can respond to emergent patterns of individual or whole class activity — a simple version would be something like recommender systems for Netflix) and data mining can also play a key role in increasing the class’ open area.

For instance, agents can track the work of students and find complementary patterns with the work of their peers and take action, such as recommending the students collaborate or read each other’s notes. Encouraging students to collaborate may also help identify gaps in their knowledge, further reducing the unknown area.

Expert Facilitators:

Although not a technology, expert facilitators, such as the teacher or professionals in the field of study (e.g. a marine biologist) play a critical role in support class inquiry. These facilitators can recommend possible sources of information, best practices, or methods for approaching problems and overcoming roadblocks — which are all critical in reducing the class’unknown area.

The goal of a Johari window for education: An increased open area of community knowledge

Managing any classroom, let alone one engaged in persistent inquiry, is a challenging task. As educators and designers, we need to regularly re-frame how we see the classroom, in order to gain new perspectives on how to support student learning. In this case, applying the Johari window to classroom practices helped me better understand the challenges faced by students when they are collaboratively engaged in classroom inquiry, and how technology could play an important role in it.

Hopefully by sharing my own insights, I’ve helped us as educational researchers and teachers to increase our open area and reduce our collective unknown area. Feel free to share your thoughts on this and let’s grow our community’s knowledge further.

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