Innovative Technology Doesn’t Mean Instructionally Innovative

Note: This is a guest post by Frank LaBanca, EdD, Director of the Center for 21st Century Skills at EDUCATION CONNECTION.

Have you seen the latest mini tablet computer? It can shoot video, take photos, play music, send and receive email, and browse the web. Therefore, we must immediately buy one for every student and figure out how to use it in the classroom later.

Isn’t this too often the paradigm in education? We jump on to what’s trendy without stopping to consider how the tool can effectively be used in the classroom to promote high-quality learning. Moreover, the quick-to-adapt device bandwagon often neglects evidence-based best practices.

I often suggest to educators that before they adopt a new technology tool, they should determine what they want students to learn. I often guide the discussion by referencing 21st century skills including:

• information literacy• collaboration
• communication
• innovation/creativity
• problem solving
• responsible citizenship

These skills, coupled with high-quality, standards-based content are the foundation for learning. Once foundational decisions are made, then efforts can shift to determine what digital tools work best to promote that learning.

Just because the technology is innovative doesn’t mean the instructional approach to using it is. As my colleague Jonathan Costa argues, when we retrofit with technology, we rarely change the paradigm. Take, for instance, the high school teacher who converts from a “chalk and talk” to a PowerPoint or interactive whiteboard presentation. There’s no real difference in pedagogy–it’s still direct instruction. Watching a video on YouTube may not be very different from a VHS or DVD, or for that matter, a filmstrip with cassette. If we replace the inferior textbook with the just-as-expensive online digital version, we still have the same lousy product that may not harness the power of authentic primary-source resources or evidence-based practice. Device-agnostic technology that provides access to the Internet and appropriate Learning Management Systems, coupled with a committed teacher, is often all that is needed to help students become powerful consumers and producers of knowledge.

Instructional technology must be transformative to be innovative. If we are utilizing technology in a meaningful way, its instructional value must offer options that couldn’t exist without the tool. Online collaboration tools are such an example. A forum allows a written conversation between students that can take place asynchronously. Internet telephony (VoIP) services, such as Skype, allow students to communicate synchronously with experts in faraway cities, states, or abroad. And certainly the creation of digital media products including animations, videos, and podcasts provide a voice for students to communicate, tell their story, and share their novel ideas and learning. When their peers can provide online comments and feedback, the power of the technology becomes even more apparent. The recent boom in smartphones and tablets has lead to the development of millions of apps. Many apps have great educational value, but perhaps there is even more learning potential when students develop, market, and showcase their own.

The real question, ultimately, is, “Does technology help our students become better independent, self-directed learners?” That’s the game-changer. It’s not about the latest fancy device, hot off the shelf. That device is just a tool– it’s not knowledge and it’s not a skill. Just because we haphazardly give students technology tools doesn’t mean they are going to learn better–the evidence definitely supports that. Learners purposefully interacting with the tool and using it for production, facilitated by thoughtful, forward-thinking educators, is the way to get to a student-centered learning environment that improves engagement and achievement.

Center for 21st Century Skills at EDUCATION CONNECTION provides students and teachers with innovative, quality, timely, and evidence-based programs and services that increase learning achievement and engagement. EDUCATION CONNECION is a non-profit regional educational resource center in Connecticut dedicated to promoting the success of school districts and their communities.

Clicking Our Way to Great Teaching

They have different names, such as clickers, pods, or devices. But whatever you call them, hand-held electronic response devices (ERDs) are showing up in many schools as a means of facilitating formative feedback to students and teachers. The first generation of ERDs gave all students in a class the opportunity to respond at the same time to multiple-choice questions. The next generation allows students to key in numbers and letters to give answers to open-ended questions. A new self-paced learning application, called Questions for Learning (QfL), uses the second-generation devices to pose questions on each student’s ERD. QfL allows students to go at their own pace through a series of increasingly difficult questions.

As students enter their answers, they receive immediate feedback, and their responses can be summarized for the teacher and presented on a computer or whiteboard. In this formative assessment, teachers can get immediate indicators of students’ learning of lesson content, so they can adjust the level and pace of the lesson to meet the needs of the class. Teachers can also quickly identify individual students who are struggling with the content, and give them additional teaching right away.

I’ve seen students using self-paced devices. It’s a remarkable sight. Kids are very highly motivated to get right answers as quickly as possible, and to advance to higher-level questions. Teachers assist kids having difficulties, which are immediately apparent. Perhaps most importantly, every child is actively engaged and achieving success.

Research on the use of ERDs is still limited, but two studies by the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York in England found that QfL helped to improve upper-elementary students’ learning. One study showed positive effects on math achievement, the other on grammar.

The classroom of the future will surely have some means of giving teachers and students immediate feedback on students’ learning, and quick means of accommodating differences in student proficiency. QfL seems like a major step in this direction. The findings of the early research are encouraging, and as clickers get ever smarter, the possibilities seem exciting.

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Better Teachers or Better Programs?

This post originally appeared on Education Nation’s The Learning Curve blog.

Several years ago, I happened to be visiting a third grade reading class in a suburban, middle class school. The teacher, I will call her Ms. Fields, had just been named Teacher of the Year for the district, and she was truly outstanding: Enthusiastic, inspiring, a real delight to watch as she taught her high reading groups. However, as is my habit, I wandered over to see what the low reading group was doing. They had two pages from their basal’s workbook. Each had words arrayed on it inside puzzle-piece shapes. Their assignment was to cut out the puzzle pieces on one page, paste the words on synonyms on the other, and then color in the outline, which depicted a cat.

The kids were working happily. They quickly saw that this was a cat puzzle, so they paid little attention to the synonyms. So the task, for them, was a cutting-coloring-puzzle task, not a synonym task. These are not the skills a low-achieving third grader needs. This kind of assignment communicates to the kids in the low group that they are never going to be good readers, but as long as they are quiet and busy, no one was going to ask much of them. Of course, I’ve seen this kind of meaningless time-filling, motivation-deadening activity in traditional reading classes throughout the U.S.; this was only remarkable because it was Ms. Fields, Teacher of the Year, doing it.

You won’t find many teachers better than Ms. Fields, but even she could have profited from programs or professional development to use any of many proven alternatives to the grouping strategy that made the cat puzzle necessary.

I bring up this painful memory to make a point about an important question of educational policy: Should policies focus on better teachers or on better programs? Any sane person would say “both.” Clearly, we want the most capable, intelligent, caring, and hard-working people we can find teaching in every classroom. Current policies strongly emphasize this goal, with an increasing focus on policies such as value-added accountability, new sources of accomplished individuals to enter teaching (as in Teach for America), and higher standards for schools of education. Evidence for the effectiveness of these policies is minimal right now, but if they do result in a more capable teaching force on a large scale, that would be terrific.

Yet better teachers is only half of the equation. We also need better programs, meaning better professional development, textbooks, software, and other supports to help current teachers make a bigger difference.

The current administration is investing in several initiatives designed to improve the programs available to educators. One is Investing in Innovation (i3), which is supporting the development, evaluation, and scale-up of promising programs, and there are parallel efforts at the Institute for Education Sciences and NSF. Another is School Improvement Grants (SIG), where very low-achieving schools receive substantial professional development and coaching.

Yet the headlines focus on policies based on the idea that if we could only recognize good teachers and get rid of bad ones, all would be well. The problem is, almost all of the teachers I know or see in my work are already doing the best they know how to do. They are getting up early, working hard all day, and then spending their evenings grading papers, reading compositions, and planning for the next lessons. As in any profession, there are some bad apples who need to be weeded out, and we’d love to have more good ones entering and staying in the profession. Yet right now, we have 3 million teachers already in our schools, and what they need are opportunities to learn about, choose, and implement proven, effective strategies.

Education policy needs to continue to find ways to attract and retain the best teachers, but without an equal focus on helping teachers learn and effectively apply new ways of teaching, kids in third grade will be coloring in cats for a long, long time to come.

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It’s the Right Time to Do the Right Thing

Over a 37-year career in educational research and reform, I’ve always been an advocate for using proven programs and practices to improve schools. In that time, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone opposed to the idea in principle. In the academy, there are those who argue about which research designs and measures should count as evidence of effectiveness, but in the world of education practice and policy, this is not the problem. Instead, educational leaders always have a good reason why, even though they strongly support the idea of evidence-based reform, they can’t do it right now. They complain that the evidence is never clear, and they don’t have the time or expertise to figure out what really works. But mostly, they say it’s just not the right time.

Why is it not the right time? The number one objection, of course, is a lack of money. Another is that there are too few proven programs to choose from right now. Another is that there is an election coming, or one has just taken place, or that some other issue is more important. At the moment, for example, evidence-based reform is on hold because of the upcoming election, because Common Core is coming, because school districts are figuring out what to do with Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind waivers, and value-added assessments of teachers, not to mention the long-delayed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The current continuing resolution prevents progress in Congress, and then there’s the possibility of sequestration. Plus lack of money.

Each of these concerns is legitimate in its own way, but if we really wanted to base educational policy and practice on evidence, we could do it.

In terms of knowing what works, there are now several good guides: The What Works Clearinghouse and our Best Evidence Encyclopedia are good places to begin. Programs that were funded by i3 at the Validation or Scale-Up levels had to show moderate or high levels of evidence, respectively.

In terms of resources to implement proven programs, a bit of zero-based budgeting could readily solve the problem. The average per-pupil cost in the U.S. is more than $10,000 per year. I’m not aware of any whole-school reform model that costs as much as 1.5% of that ($150 per student). Deciding not to replace retiring paraprofessionals, or repurposing Supplemental Education Services (SES) funding no longer required in states with waivers, these costs can be covered without any increases in funding.

Fundamentally, it is only tradition, inertia, and politics that hold back evidence-based reform. Every Title I school in America could be using proven models of their choice within five years, without any doubt. All we need is leadership that recognizes that there is only one time to do the right thing: Right now.

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