Category Archives: Classroom Instruction that Works

Educational technology myth

Recently I participated in a Webinar titled “Opportunities and Challenges for Web 2.0 in Schools” given by Tech & Learning Magazine. One of the hosts was Alan November. He brought up a very intriguing myth about educational technology that really made me think. The myth is that educational technology broadens the perspectives of students by giving them greater access to a wide range of thoughts, ideas, and opinions online. Until recently, I believed in this myth. But after hearing Alan’s explanation, I realized I could be wrong. Essentially, he said that the myriad of choices on the internet make it possible for people to pigeonhole themselves into narrower and narrower points of view. While choices abound, students are selecting sources (blogs, social networks, list services, & news sites) that match their current outlook on the world. Rarely are they experiencing different points of view and incongruent perspectives. In the old days of three major news networks and town news papers, people were forced to see and hear about information that was foreign to their way of thinking and world view. Now, if you are so inclined, you can easily ignore most information other than the views you want to hear. As Alan November put it, some people are fans of the Huffington Post and some are fans of Fox News, rarely do they experience each others ideas.

Coincidentally, the next day I read about a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center called “Sharp Growth in Suburban Minority Enrollment Yields Modest Gains in School Diversity” ( It said while African Americans and Asians are becoming slightly less segregated, Latino students were becoming more segregated in U.S. suburban schools. One of the possible causes cited was the proliferation of schools of choice that offer customized programs, themes, and curricula around Latino culture and language. Many Latino families are self-selecting these unique schools for their children. Of course, this tends to concentrate and segregate them. Now I have always been a proponent of school choice. I believe that it results in more innovation, customer satisfaction, and accountability. However, choice, in educational technology or school enrollment, seems to have the unintended consequence of segregating some groups of students.

Diversity in our schools seems to be suffering from both self-selected incidents of segregation, and segregation of thought as students constrict their online experiences to just those ideas and opinions that affirm their current beliefs. So what can we do about it? One answer is simply good teaching. One of the best classroom strategies for opening student minds to the world is Identifying Similarities and Differences. Using this strategy, teachers can help students understand other points of view and encourage classroom dialogue and debate about ideas, cultures, and perspectives that cause students to think and revise their developing views.

History tells us that segregating ourselves is not good for society. Yet school and online choice have strong merits. How can we enjoy the benefits of choice without the pitfalls of segregation?

Written by Matt Kuhn.

Rethinking homework, Part 2 of 2

In Rethinking Homework Part 1, I described how three chemistry teachers had made the decision to place their lectures on vodcasts, allowing students to listen at their own pace, while freeing class time for discussions, labs, and activities.

In another example of Rethinking Homework, Diana Laufenberg, from the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, engaged her students in President Obama’s address to Congress on February 24 using Gcast, a resource that lets you record a brief podcast using your cell phone. Students were given the assignment of watching the President’s speech, then recording a brief summary of their thoughts and questions regarding Obama’s stimulus plan. The students were likely relieved that they did not have to sit and write a reflection, but instead were able to use their cell phones to give initial reactions to the speech.

These two examples paint a very different picture of homework than a student struggling through a worksheet late in the evening at the kitchen table. They make homework purposeful, engaging, and leave class time for higher level discussions and activities. If homework looked this way more often, educators and students would likely have a much more positive opinion of the practice than they currently do.

What other best practices have you heard of that engage students and provide meaningful learning experiences outside of class time? What steps do school leaders and decision-makers need to take to broaden these types of experiences to all students? We welcome your comments and questions!

You’ve got your education research in my real-world experience!

You probably remember the television commercial—someone carrying a jar of peanut butter collides with someone holding a chocolate bar. At first, they’re angry with one another, until they taste their accidental creation and realize they’ve made an uncommonly good candy bar.

That’s a little like what happens here at McREL. We “mash up” top-notch researchers with experienced educators to generate new insights and uncommon sense about education. By taking rigorous research and blending it together with professional wisdom from experts, we create something more meaningful and reliable than either would be alone.

In our blog, you’ll hear a mix of voices. You’ll hear from our researchers, who have an uncanny knack for using data to analyze some of education’s most vexing challenges. And you’ll hear from our seasoned education experts, who combine creative thinking and practical experience to challenge conventional wisdom and come up with new insights to education problems.

We hope you’ll find that by blending our researchers’ command of regression analysis and data crunching with our education consultants’ experience with real-world breakthroughs and successes, that the result is something unexpectedly insightful and uncommonly practical in your work as educators.

Rethinking homework, Part 1 of 2

Out of all of the instructional strategies originally identified by Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock (2001), homework continues to be among the most controversial. Every time I get to this strategy in our workshops, I inwardly steel myself for some lively conversations. At its best, homework is a fun way to bridge classroom learning with out-of-school experiences. At its worst, it is a mundane set of worksheets, math problems, and lower level questions. While educators see the benefit of the former, they far too often see the latter and it is this that brings such controversy. In recent readings and Twitter connections, I came across two very different homework strategies that teachers are using that I think show the dynamic learning experiences that can happen if homework is structured, purposeful, and (by all means) engaging. I’ll post these in two separate blog posts.

In the December 2008/January 2009 issue of Learning & Leading with Technology, chemistry teachers John Bergmann, Aaron Sams, and Brian Hatak described how they began creating vodcasts (PowerPoints with animation and recorded audio) of their chemistry lectures. Now, their chemistry homework is a quick, “just-the-facts” session while precious class time is used for labs, experiments, and discussions. These vodcasts can be found on the teachers’ Web sites (linked to their names). Delivering the basic content in digital format taps into this generation’s comfort of getting information when they need it, listening at their own pace, and being able to repeat sections that didn’t make sense the first time. Likewise, it actually enriches what happens in the classroom. No longer do they need to sit and listen to a lecture in order to get basic details. Now they can use the concepts and details to which they’ve been introduced to evaluate, generate and test hypotheses, and think critically.

In Part 2 of this post, I will describe how a teacher uses cell phones and the President’s address to Congress to engage her students in out-of-classroom learning.

Written by Elizabeth Hubbell.