Do your students have room to discover?
It has been just over a year since I first launched BlendedLearners.com. The months since I wrote my first blog post have been the most exciting of my career. I have had the chance to work with dozens of teachers and school administrators, leveraging EdTech to support best instructional practice and improved outcomes for their students. I have long been an advocate for strategically implementing technology, as opposed to ‘tech for tech’s sake,’ but recently I’ve come to realize the difficulty of using the momentum behind EdTech to drive instructional best practices.
Where “Blended Learning” Falls Short
As I continued to work in schools and blog about my experiences, I kept coming up against the same challenge: technology can only promote higher-order thinking and student-centered learning if the stakeholders understand and value higher-order thinking and student-centered learning.
Blended learning is, without a doubt, one of the hottest buzzwords in education today. Many schools are looking to implement a “station rotation” model for blended learning. For teachers used to whole group lessons, the idea of conducting a class with several stations can feel overwhelming. I urge educators to begin by exploring each station independently. How will teachers use data from the online platforms to decide what topics to cover? What skills are required to adjust from whole group lectures to small group instruction?
For many schools, these pedagogical aspects of blended learning feel overwhelming. It can be tempting to just focus on setting up the computers and making sure the software is installed. After all, the when the superintendent is coming for a walk through in a few weeks, and test results won’t come back for a year, having something that ‘looks like’ blended learning can seem like a higher priority than a program that produces measurable results.
In the same way I found the EdTech label limiting while working in schools, I often wanted to write about topics related to education that may have had no direct correlation to technology. For example, in many blended learning models, there is a ‘collaborative’ aspect to learning; it has been well-documented that collaborative learning has benefits over direct instruction, yet many teachers have been burned by past experiences with “group work,” not realizing that effective collaborative work requires scaffolding, clear expectations, and ways to assess the various participation levels of different students in a group. On several occasions, I’ve wanted to write a post that focused solely on how to get started with collaborative learning, but felt it didn’t quite fit with an “EdTech Blog.”
Another common EdTech practice is using devices for real-time assessment – I’ve coached a number of teachers on using Google Forms or Kahoot for a quick pre-class check-for-understanding or exit ticket, but in many cases, giving each student a mini dry-erase board can be quicker, cheaper, and just as effective. But where does that fit on a site called “Blended Learners”?
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The EdTech Retrofit
I came to realize that while the efficiencies of technology can make innovation possible, technology can also reinforce poor habits and instructional practices.
Interactive whiteboards are a great example: their very design reinforces a teacher-centered learning model. Though they provide opportunities for students to work at the board, I have generally seen them used to enhance lecture-based teaching. Even when used interactively, it is hard to see the value add of writing on the board with a virtual marker (which needs to be calibrated regularly and still doesn’t feel as natural as a dry erase marker).
This type of technology can be a significant drain on resources. Even once everyone has been trained to use it, a great deal of valuable instructional time can be wasted on waiting for the projector to warm up, or restarting a frozen computer. For the time and money spent on buying interactive whiteboards and training teachers to use them, schools could much more easily roll-out student devices that would allow every student to interact with the learning material simultaneously.
When schools and districts begin with the mindset of “technology integration,” in order to make the integration ‘strategic,’ we are forced to come up with the instructional problem we would like to solve and retrofit it into a technology framework. I have seen time and again how challenging it can be for this sort of process to have a significant impact on learning. It is much easier to develop a strategic solution to an educational problem when we begin with the problem to be solved.
Creating Room to Discover
I’ve wrestled for months to identify the mindset shift among educators that would have the greatest impact on students, and to capture such a shift in a few words: The phrase, “Room to Discover,” kept coming to mind. As I think about all the challenges faced by students, administrators, teachers, and schools, so many of them boil down to not having enough room for discovery.
When teachers implement data-driven instruction by grading stacks of pre- and post- assessments, but become too overwhelmed with granular information to meaningfully support student needs; when students memorize times tables and words like “quotient” and “numerator,” but don’t connect math class to the numbers they encounter in their lives; when curriculum specialists create pacing calendars to accommodate hundreds of standards, but cannot tell if students can reasonably master them in the time allotted; these are the results of trying to do too much with too little, of trying to apply piecemeal solutions to problems that require vision and creativity.
What if, instead of being provided a list of instructions, students, teachers, and administrators had the room to discover their own solutions? What if each student saw their classroom, not as a place to memorize facts and take tests, but as a Room to Discover?
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What do you think?
Is it possible to make a technology initiative truly strategic? Are we better off making sure schools use technology, or should we focus on improving instructional best practice? Please share your thoughts in the comment box below, or e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org