Are we thinking about what we’re asking students to think about?

An anecdote at the end of a recent New York Times article caught my attention because it raised the question of what constitutes meaningful student work. For a unit on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, students in a Michigan high school were given a choice of assignments: give a regular class presentation (meh) or use a 3-D printer to illustrate a theme from the novel (super cool!). The teacher proudly Tweeted one such student artifact: a 3-D gavel that illustrated the novel’s theme of social justice.


Or … is it?

Without wading into the thornier issue that the assignment was slyly related to a side business the teacher was running out of his basement (the focus of the Times piece), I had a question about the educational value of the project: What do we imagine students are thinking about when they engage in this sort of exercise?

Learning to use software and a 3-D printer to manipulate shapes and objects is a perfectly valid objective. But this was supposed to be an opportunity to think about themes from the novel. The student who chose the printer assignment probably didn’t put much thought about social justice into the task.

We know from cognitive studies of how our brains process information that we must at some point concentrate on what we’re learning to develop long-term memories. As University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham states: “Students remember … what they think about.”

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Today’s “high tech” students need “high touch” learning environments

We’ve all seen it: A group of teenagers sitting together, perhaps at a restaurant or the mall, but all of them glued to their phones, barely interacting with the friends right next to them. As common as this sight has become, it still gives us pause. What, you may wonder, is this doing to our kids?

In September’s Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin takes a look at the effects of our “plugged in” culture on students and their teachers. One clear effect, he finds, is how students relate to others: One analysis of more than 70 student surveys, for example, found that empathy among college students is at its lowest level since 1979—a whopping 40 percent lower.

Not surprisingly, researchers and educators alike have noted a loss in the ability of students to have deep, empathic conversations. In an article for The Atlantic, one such teacher in Kentucky described how, in a classroom interview activity, most of his high school students were unable to move beyond the scripted questions and engage in more spontaneous, authentic dialogue. His solution? He asked his students to record their conversations on their smartphones, watch them later, and self-assess their conversation skills.

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Look Before You Launch: 6 questions to ask before you add more tech to your school

Over many years of guiding schools and districts on integrating technology and instruction, the costliest mistake I see is the rush to purchase hardware and software without first identifying a clear purpose and plan for the new technology. This kind of oversight can lead to misuse or neglect of expensive equipment and systems, resulting in little of the intended impact on student learning outcomes. Before you add new technologies to your school or district, here are six vital questions—and a few related ones—I recommend you ask first to help you look before you launch.

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Mobile devices: “If you can’t beat them, teach them”

As you start reading this, stop and take note—how far away is your smartphone? When did you last check it? Did you check it just now? You’re not alone. In just a few short years, many of us have become addicted to our mobile devices. They’re nearly always within arm’s reach, and many of us cannot help ourselves from checking them (or fixating on them) regularly, no matter where we are, what we’re doing, or who we’re with.

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Sometimes the best technology is no technology

In 1989, I became the principal of a technology magnet school. Nine years later, I was named an Apple Distinguished Educator. As the lead author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd Ed. (2012), I remain an active proponent of technology-infused learning. Technology enables learners to do or create things that might not otherwise be possible. Knowing all of this, you might ask why I, of all people, would ever advise educators to restrict technology in the classroom.

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Leveraging technology to focus on learning

Mobile technologies are an integral part of our daily lives. Where is the closest gas station? Ask Siri. Which toaster is best for my needs? Check customer reviews on Going out to dinner with friends? Ask Yelp for a good restaurant within five miles of your house, make reservations on OpenTable, and forward the reservation to your friends, complete with driving directions. Mobile technologies have made our lives easier and are transforming the way we work and get things done. It isn’t about the device, but what the devices allow us to do. How can we translate this savvy use of technology into classroom learning experiences?

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Use a personal learning network to keep up with instructional technology

Given the pace and breadth of technology innovation these days, keeping up with the latest in instructional technology is difficult to do alone, especially if you’re not sure where to begin. Establishing a personal learning network (PLN) can keep you on the cutting edge of instructional technology, creating many layers of support that you can access when necessary.

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Big Data, Big Brother, and the Nest

“Big Data” is a current buzzword in education and in society in general. Look at the programs for most major educational conferences, and you’ll see any number of sessions focused on the use of data to improve student learning.

But big data goes beyond a school or district keeping some basic information about their students’ achievement. Big data is a collection of data so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using traditional data processing applications. It takes the power of massively parallel software running on tens, hundreds, or even thousands of servers. Big data companies in the educational space include inBloom, Pearson’s PowerSchool, and Infinite Campus, among others.

As an educator, think of the power of being able to look at a data set of all elementary students in the country, including all of their formative and summative assessments, all of the various curricula they are experiencing in their classrooms, their behavioral data, health data, and IEP information. Add to that all of their demographic data and the effectiveness of their classroom teachers. To be able to immediately make sense of those data to diagnose and prescribe educational solutions for every student would be tremendously powerful.

Having access to this information sounds truly transformational. What could be the harm?

Here’s what gives me pause. Google recently announced that they had purchased Nest for $3.2 billion. I have a Nest thermostat in my home and I love it. It provides me with easy access to data about my heating and air conditioning usage, how my usage compares to previous years, and where I stand in relation to others in my area and nationwide. It also knows when I am home and when I am away and adjusts my home’s temperature accordingly. All of those things make me a more efficient homeowner and save me money. This dataset would be similar to the scope of data a school district might collect on students in its attendance area.

Buying my Nest didn’t initially cause me any real concern, but with Google’s purchase of Nest, my thinking has changed. Google already knows with whom I communicate via e-mail (Gmail), where I go in my car (Google Maps), what I watch on YouTube, what I post on blogs (Blogger), and what I search for on the web. Add all of that to the data my Nest is now providing to Google, and the data cloud of my personal information continues to grow.

Don’t worry, though, because Google keeps these data secure. So did Target. And Neiman Marcus. And the National Security Agency.

Am I ready to pull my Nest off of the wall? No. In my opinion, the actual realized benefits, so far, outweigh the potential risks. I’m proceeding down this path with the full realization that my data should not be considered totally private or secure, but trusting in the companies to take every reasonable precaution to safeguard my data.

As educators and parents, we have to consider the same benefit-versus-risk equation when thinking about student data. How valuable would big data be to educators throughout the country? What are the possible implications of a “national school database” being hacked (see this recent story by Education Week) or being opened up to commercial marketing use?

Does your opinion change when considering this through the lens of an educator versus that of a parent? Your comments are welcome.

A former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL’s chief program officer. He is co-author of the second editions of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works and Classroom Instruction That Works, and he was the lead developer of McREL’s Power Walkthrough classroom observation software.

Authentic, Personalized Learning: Pre- and Post-Technology (A Case Study)

McREL has long maintained that technology, when used thoughtfully and intentionally, enhances good instruction. But it’s not about the technology itself; it’s about technology working together with a well-designed lesson or project focused on clear learning targets and differentiated by student needs and learning styles.

I just read a blog post by Krista Moroder, an educator in Wisconsin, and it really resonated with me. Krista’s reflections, posted at EdTechCoaching,  help us remember that good teaching isn’t something new, created by modern technology tools. Many of us got into education because of great teachers in our own past. Technology can, however, make good instruction even better.

With her permission, I’ve reposted Krista’s column below.

-Howard Pitler

Authentic, Personalized Learning: Pre- and Post-Technology (A Case Study)

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One-to-one initiatives require a “core vision”

4.1.1Leslie Wilson co-chairs the National Steering Committee of One-to-One Directors and facilitates networking and collaboration among one-to-one visionaries. As a founding member and CEO of the One-To-One Institute based in Lansing, Mich., she created and implemented model programs and services based on Michigan’s Freedom to Learn Program.  

While leading Michigan’s one-to-one teaching and learning initiative, Leslie recruited McREL to facilitate technology training for the state and Leading for Technology staff. We are reposting her  blog as a resource for schools, districts, and states that are implementing or considering one-to-one initiatives.

You’ve Got ‘Tablets’ and Now You’re 1:1? Really?
By Leslie Wilson

More and more districts are acquiring ‘tablets and saying ‘we are now 1:1’. I always ask what that means. What is 1:1? The definitions are many as districts glom on to sexy, inexpensive, long-life battery, lightweight devices instead of foundational, robust, multi-tasking, creativity devices (which also by the way, are lightweight, have long-life batteries, etc., etc.). One-to-One Institute’s work amplifies the message that a quality, student-centered 1:1 employment is complex, transformative work. The focus points are teaching and learning and not hardware, software, and apps. A shared vision, strategic project plan and leader must accompany the program from its embryonic inception. What are the goals? How will they affect the current culture and expectations? What kind of messaging, practices and policies need to accompany this effort?

To transform teaching and learning to a student centered, personalized instructional setting, there are key components—project plan elements—that have to be addressed to be successful.  Leaders need to know, understand and guide the ‘change’ process. A 360 degree professional learning program must be embedded for all stakeholders. Teachers who will need to change their practices from adult-centered, static systems to student driven, experiential operations require time, guidance and learning communities to ensure the shift of practice. And overarching policies must direct the practices.

Human and funding capacities are also of primary importance. How will we acquire and deploy devices?  Maintain/repair them?  Refresh them? Scale out our program? What about battery replacement? Yes, even the ‘tablets’ have batteries that die. Do we buy a new one for $100 (1/3 or ¼ cost of a new tablet) or do we have a plan for replacing all of them in 18-24 months? Do we lease or purchase? What in-house funds can we reallocate to this program (if it is a priority)? What do administrators, teachers, parents/guardians, etc., need to know and do differently in this changed state?

At a time when school funding is in crisis, stakeholders need to understand ‘why’ their schools are investing in technologies when staff is being laid off and programs being set aside. Calling on and sharing research and best practices will be crucial to district’s messaging. If tablets are the chosen devices, a district must be prepared to provide technologies for students to create, multi-task, store and produce robust results/activities in addition to what they will do on the limited functionality tablets…and they need to honestly share this need and solutions to provide additional device support.

There is a much bigger picture and quality impact on education with authentic one-to-one implementations. It has to be about core vision, beliefs and strategies that complement what’s needed for learning and producing in the 21st century. It is not as simple as buying a cool tool. We can all have cool tools and have the same old, same old education system resulting in the same old, same old results.

Leslie Wilson, CEO One-to-One Institute  Read more of her blog.