information was readily accessible online and the student need only browse a few ready-made
timelines for all their answers. There is no transformation here. Where is the critical thinking?
Where is the creativity and the collaboration?
What if, however, we asked the students to generate a hypothesis about what makes an invention
significant and then develop a list of the top five inventions of all time in groups of five students? As
if that weren’t a tall order, what if we asked them to agree on a ranking of the relative importance of
each invention, collaboratively build a presentation and deliver it to the class. Remember, these are
fourth graders. Well, this is exactly what these students did, and they did a very nice job indeed.
Both the level of engagement and the insight demonstrated by their choices were outstanding.
So how did the fourth grade team pull this off? What structures, tools, and instructional
components would need to be in place to make this a success? What were the learning goals with
respect to extending the collaborative skills learned so far throughout the year?
We agreed that the project could quickly get out of hand if it weren’t very well planned out. We
decided to use Voicethread to help facilitate the collaboration. Voicethread is a tool for having
conversations at a distance around ideas or artifacts. Each contributor to a Voicethread record a
response to a prompt, or comment on the ideas of a thread’s owner. It is a highly structured form of
conversation in which everybody essentially has their turn to speak and potentially everyone can
The beauty of Voicethread is its flexibility, and in this context it was used as an
organizational tool both to test out their ideas and to document the final product.
Each student uploaded a picture to the group’s thread (or slideshow) in
Voicethread and spent their inquiry time working on a well-supported statement
for why this is such an important invention. This statement was then recorded on
their slide in the thread. When each student had completed their comment, team
members listened through these and prepared constructive arguments for or
against each invention to build consensus for a ranking.
Voicethread | website
When engaging in collaborative work such as this, several problems can arise. One common
problem is dominance, where one or two members take the lead and prevent any input, no matter
how valid, from other group members. The beauty of using Voicethread in this manner is that it
defused a potentially competitive situation; by taking the time to listen to the viewpoints of all team
members, no one or two arguments drowned out the other views of the group. Another common
problem is group think, where group members attempt to minimize conflict at the expense of
critical evaluation. In the students’ Voicethreads, it was apparent that some healthy conflict arose
leading to productive critical thinking and the generation of a final list that showed insight and risk-taking with new ideas. The dialogue in support of this was evident in the student comments on the
final slide where every student had the opportunity to provide their rankings and a supporting
The use of Voicethread to provide a safe and structured environment to foster collaboration yielded
a wide variety of best lists that demonstrated strong student engagement and participation from all
group members. Students critically examined what makes inventions important to society and built
consensus as a group on their own best list of historical innovations.