Are We Talking Technology or Are We Talking Learning

More and more, educators are recognizing that the true value of technology isn’t learning how to use the tools and devices, but rather using the tools and devices to learn (see here, here, and here).

Even a recent meta analysis of the research on 1to1 learning environments shows that when the studies focused simply on the presence of technology, there was no real improvement in learning. Yet, when a study focused on how the devices were used, certain types of use (those focused on effective instructional practices), there was a real improvement in learning.

We will never be successful having our technology help improve student learning if we continue to primarily discuss the technology.  Our technology conversations must focus on the kinds of learning we want for students. After all, if the goal of our technology initiative is simply to make sure that students have technology, when we are successful, all we have are students with devices (and perhaps distracted students at that!).

The good news is that Maine’s statewide BrightBytes data on technology and learning show that students and teachers feel they are encouraged to use their technology for learning:

Teachers and students encouraged to use tech for learning

But those data also show that, although we’ve done a pretty good job of teaching teachers and students how to use the devices and tools, we have a ways to go for implementing those tools and devices for learning:

Knowing skills and using for learning

So, our state data reinforce the need for our push for “More Verbs, Fewer Nouns” – our need to talk less about the devices and tools and more about the way we want to use them.

How can you tell if you are talking about Tech or talking about Learning?

You are talking about tech when you talk about the following:

  • Cost of devices
  • How easy it is (or isn’t) to manage
  • Wanting same device/platform K-12
  • Teaching skills or about the tools (out of context)
  • Tips and Tricks PD
  • Latest Gimmick/Gadget PD

And you are talking about learning when you talk about the following:

  • Specific academic content focus
  • Used meaningfully for learning task
  • Beyond facts to deeper understanding, to creativity and complex reasoning
  • Student engagement
  • Teaching tech skills as foundation to completing learning activity
  • PD on good instruction (with tech)

There is no doubt that we need “noun people” as part of ensuring technology is used purposefully for learning. We still need a technology infrastructure to support the learning activities for which we want to use technology. In the Maine Learning Technology Framework, they refer to that as Learning-Focused Access.

In Taking Classroom Tech Use to the Next Level: Specific Traits to Look For, the author points out that Alan November recommends six questions to determine if technology adds any value to the learning:

  1. Did the assignment create capacity for critical thinking on the Web?
  2. Did the assignment reach new areas of teaching students to develop new lines of inquiry?
  3. Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?
  4. Is there an opportunity for students to publish (across various media) with an opportunity for continuous feedback?
  5. Is there an option for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?
  6. Were students introduced to the best example in the world of the content or skill?

OoAnd the author points out, “Three of the most important traits they look at when evaluating a lesson are whether it is discipline specific, promotes critical thinking and whether technology is used in transformative ways.”

One approach to making sure that your education technology conversations are well grounded in learning is to create a shared vision for learning with a diverse group of stakeholders (at least including educators, students, parents, and community members). That shared vision isn’t a vision for the school or a vision for education technology, but rather a vision for the kids of learning experiences the school community want for its students.

Here are two easy-to-implement strategies for creating a shared vision for learning. Neither takes a lot of time to implement. One asks participants to think about a preferred future for children they care about and then the kinds of learning that they would need to be doing now to achieve that perfected future. The other asks participants to think about a good learning experience and then about the characteristics of that experience.

 

 

Ed Tech Research is Clear: Owning a Device Does Not Improve Learning

Scanning the media on education technology could easily lead one to believe we are wasting our money when putting devices into the hands of students.

Whether it is districts that have had disturbing problems trying to implement technology for learning (such as here, or here), or folks who tell us why we shouldn’t have devices in school, or schools that have decided that technology is too disruptive and have banned it, or authors who caution about the over-promising with technology (such as here, or here), it is not surprising that we are dubious of investing in education technology, and wonder “why bother?”

Digital LearningOn the other hand, educators in Washington County, PA, find that their devices benefit students, and in Auburn, ME, educators found that when they carefully selected apps aligned to their curriculum or participated in professional learning focused on using apps to build conceptual understanding of mathematics, student learning improved.

So what’s different between these two groups?

From my perspective, each of these instances are really just reflections of either the problems we experience when we focus on the device more than we do the learning, or the benefits of doing the reverse (the notion of “more verbs, fewer nouns”). It is ludicrous to look inside a classroom and decide if technology is a waste of investment or a distraction without also investigating how we are using them for learning. Simply having technology does not improve learning.

And there are plenty of authors and organizations out there who are anxious to help us be successful with education technology:

Here is our advice to your school when considering the value of your education technology:

  • If the goal of your technology initiative is to provide students with technology, then all you will end up with is students with devices (and probably distracted, off-task students at that).
  • Your technology initiative should consider the kinds of learning experiences you want for your students and the supports you put in place to help teachers create those experiences.
  • Keep in mind that student distraction is almost never a device problem. It is almost always a boredom problem. We must stop blaming technology and get better at engaging students with our teaching.
  • Make classroom management in technology rich classrooms a part of your school’s professional learning plan. Support teachers in developing strategies beyond sending kids to the principal and requesting that devices be locked and blocked.
  • When reviewing research on technology in schools, ask yourself if the study simply looks at the presence of technology, or if it looks at how the technology was used. Further, did the study measure student engagement? Don’t put too much value in the incomplete studies – we already know that owning devices doesn’t improve learning.

In short, start with the pedagogy, then think about the devices.

 

 

 

Let’s Focus on the Learning

As you move through the state and talk with educators about their technology initiatives, too often the conversations have focused on laptops and tablets and folks wondering if we could find devices that were less expensive.

Is it possible that in their thinking, all laptops and devices were created equal, in such a way that the only variable is cost?

Possibly it is the wrong conversation completely. The conversation shouldn’t be about price; it should be about value.

We may have missed the boat on the value conversation when we started spending too much time talking about the technology and the tools, or about providing technology and procurement.

We need to spend most of our time talking about what kinds of learning we would like to make happen with the technology. You can only get to the value conversation when you can discuss what you want to do with the devices and compare different devices and tools around how well suited they are to those purposes.

A really wonderful professor of elementary educational technology, Ralph Granger, used to say, “When you go to the hardware store to buy a new drill bit, you don’t really want a drill bit. You want a hole.” When it comes to educational technology, we need to talk less about our “drill bits” and more about the “holes” we want.

Or as Marc Prensky says, we need more verbs and fewer nouns.

And, as TPACK reminds us, when we align our educational arrows, we are talking about content, pedagogy, and technology (What instructional strategies might we use to teach this learning target, and what role could our devices play?).

How are you prepared to help make our educational technology conversations focus more on learning?

Motivating Students: Focus on 6 Strategies

There are many children who seem undermotivated, disengaged, and underachieving.

Many educators are frustrated by such students; some educators as they struggle with finding ways to engage those students, and some because they believe it is up to those students to be motivated or not.

While it is true that the degree to which students are “self motivated” is a key factor of student academic success, the idea falls flat when it is accompanied with the assumption that there is nothing teachers can do to help students be more self motivated, when, in fact, there are strategies for creating the conditions for student to be self motivated.

Great teachers have always struggled with the persistent question, “How do I motivate all children to learn?” (Although, the question is probably better framed as, “How do I create the conditions for students to be self motivated?”) And you are probably one of the ones wondering how to reach them (or I doubt you’d be reading this post). You are not alone.

Six strategies for motivating students

One approach to reaching all students is Meaningful Engaged Learning’s Focus 5 Plus 1, based on my research. Schools working to improve student motivation, engagement, and achievement concentrate on balancing six focus areas:

  • Inviting Schools
  • Learning by Doing
  • Higher Order Thinking
  • Student Voice & Choice
  • Real World Connections
  • Continuous Improvement

Here’s a brief overview of each strategy.

Inviting Schools
Sometimes, it may seem like this has nothing to do with academics or engaging students in learning, but positive relationships and a warm, inviting school climate are perhaps the most important element to implement if you are to reach hard to teach students. I heard over and over again from the students I studied that they won’t learn from a teacher who doesn’t like them (and it doesn’t take much for a student to think the teacher doesn’t like her!). It’s important for everyone in the school to think about how to connect with students and how to create a positive climate and an emotionally and physically safe environment. Adult enthusiasm and humor go a long way, and teachers are well served to remember that one “ah-shucks!” often wipes out a thousand “at-a-boys!”

Learning by Doing
When you realize that people learn naturally from the life they experience every day, it won’t surprise you that the brain is set up to learn better with active, hands-on endeavors. Many students request less bookwork and more hands-on activities. The students I studied were more willing to do bookwork if there was a project or activity as part of the lesson. Building models and displays, fieldtrips and fieldwork, hands-on experiments, and craft activities are all strategies that help students learn.

Higher Order Thinking
It may seem counterintuitive, but focusing on memorizing facts actually makes it hard for students to recall the information later. That’s because the brain isn’t accustomed to learning facts out of context. Higher order thinking (e.g. applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating, within the New Bloom’s Taxonomy) requires that learners make connections between new concepts, skills, and knowledge and previous concepts, skills, and knowledge. These connections are critical for building deep understanding and for facilitating recall and transfer, especially to new contexts. Remembering things is important and a significant goal of education, but remembering is the product of higher order thinking, not the other way around. Involving students in comparing and contrasting, drama, and using metaphors and examples are strategies to move quickly into higher order thinking.

Student Voice & Choice
Few people like being told what to do, but in reality, we all have things we have to do that may not be interesting to us or that we would not choose to do on our own. Nowhere is this truer than for children in school. So, how can we entice people to do these things? We often resort to rewards or punishments when we don’t know what else to do, but these have been repeatedly shown to be counterproductive and highly ineffective (Kohn, 1993). Instead, provide students voice and choice. Let them decide how they will do those things. This doesn’t mean allowing students to do whatever they want, but it means giving them choices (“Which of these three novels about the Great Depression would you like to read during this unit?”). Let students design learning activities, select resources, plan approaches to units, provide feedback about how the course is going, and make decisions about their learning.

Real World Connections
This focus area is often a missing motivator for students. Schools have long had the bad habit of teaching content out of context. Unfortunately, this approach produces isolated islands of learning, and often makes it easy to recall information learned only when they are in that particular classroom at that time of day; they are not as able to apply the information in day-to-day life. When learning is done in context, people can much more easily recall and apply knowledge in new situations (transfer). Making real world connections isn’t telling students how the content they are studying is used in the “outside world.” It’s about students using the knowledge the way people use the knowledge outside of school. Effective strategies include finding community connections, giving students real work to do, and finding authentic audiences for work (think project-based, problem-based, and challenge-based learning).

Continuous Improvement
Continuous Improvement takes skilled guidance, direction, and coaching from thoughtful teachers, who will place emphasis on assessing frequently, providing timely formative feedback, coaching, motivating and nudging, and monitoring of progress. Learners need to know what they are aiming at (clear picture of the learning target), and to see fairly immediately how they did with meeting the target. They can gather the feedback themselves, or a guide or coach can provide the feedback (or both). But that feedback needs to be as immediate as possible, and needs to be detailed enough to lead to improved performance. Learners need the opportunity to make corrections on their next turn (and, therefore, need opportunities for next turns!), and the next turn needs to be soon after the current turn. This isn’t about letting students just try and try and try until they get it. To focus on “re-do’s” is to focus on the wrong part. It is about strategically leveraging the clear target and the detailed feedback to improve performance.

These six focus areas aren’t new material; they are a synthesis of what we’ve known about good learning for a long time. The model is comprehensive, developed from education research, learning theories, teaching craft, and the voices of underachieving students.

But it is important to keep in mind that students need some critical mass of these strategies to be motivated. Teachers sometimes get discouraged when they introduce a single strategy and it doesn’t seem to impact their students’ motivation. The trick then isn’t to give up, but rather to introduce more of the strategies.

(NOTE: this is an updated version of the original Focus Five. “Continuous Improvement” was added as Focus Area while working in a district implementing proficiency-based, customized learning. Continuous Improvement had come up a little in the original research as “success breeds success,” but, without proficiency-based systems where teachers continue to work with students until they demonstrate some level of competency with a learning target, students don’t really notice – in a research study based on their perspective – the impact and importance of ongoing feedback and coaching, and success breeds success/continuous improvement didn’t rise to the level of a Focus Area at the time.)

Let’s Make Tech All About Learning

I have found myself lately in several conversations about the price of technology. The conversations have focused on laptops and tablets and folks wondering if we could find devices that were less expensive.

And I realized that, in their thinking, all laptops and devices were created equal, in such a way that the only variable is cost (and, if this were true, I would have to agree).

But it made me realize that we were having the wrong conversation completely. The conversation shouldn’t be about price; it should be about value.

Further, I realized that we miss the boat on the value conversation when we spend too much time talking about the technology and the tools, or about providing technology and procurement. We need to spend most of our time talking about what kinds of learning we would like to make happen with the technology. You can only get to the value conversation when you can discuss what you want to do with the devices and compare different devices around how well suited they are to those purposes.

I used to teach with a really wonderful professor of elementary educational technology, named Ralph Granger. He used to say, when you go to the hardware store to buy a new drill bit, you don’t really want a new drill bit. You want a hole. When it comes to educational technology, we need to talk less about our “drill bits” and more about the “holes” we want.

Or as Marc Prensky says, we need more verbs and fewer nouns.

And, as TPACK reminds us, when we align our educational arrows, we are talking about content, pedagogy, and technology (What instructional strategies might we use to teach this learning target, and what role could our devices play?).

I believe that part of that conversation needs to be around student engagement and motivation.

So I was very happy to see that the National Association of School Boards of Education is pointing out that student engagement needs to be a critical criteria for judging the value of our educational investments (including technology). One article on their recent report starts, “Education is a $600 billion a year industry, but that investment means little unless students are physically and mentally present and engaged to benefit from it.”

How are you prepared to help make our educational technology conversations focus more on learning?

 

Classroom Management is the Opposite of Motivation and Engagement

Recently, I attended a conference where table talks were a part of the lunch program. There were 12 or 13 topics, and we chose which table/topic we wanted to sit in on. Who ever was at the table collaboratively guided the personalized conversation on that topic. Twenty minutes later, a timekeeper let us know it was time to go to the next table of our choice.

During one of the rounds, I floated over to the Motivating Students table. This is clearly one of my favorite topics.

But very quickly, the teachers and school leaders at the table started talking about which classroom management strategies they use when students are not motivated. The talk focused on punishments and rewards.

And I started to panic, because I really wanted to get the conversation back onto motivation and engagement (and I know how counterproductive punishments and rewards actually are to learning!). How could I do that without offending these educators who were clearly struggling with what to do to motivate disengaged learners…

And finally I found a diplomatic way to redirect the conversation: “I find that when I'm doing a class activity that the students are really into and engaged, I really don't have any classroom management issues.” Everyone nodded that they had the same experiences. “So what do those activities look like? What is it about those activities that seems to engage the students?” And “boom” the conversation was focused on what motivates students.

But it was also in that moment that I realized for the first time that classroom management wasn't a sister skill set to motivation and engagement. It was the direct opposite of motivation and engagement.

Classroom management is what we do when our kids aren't motivated and engaged.

And, for the most part, we don't need to worry about classroom management when they are engaged.

Yes, orderliness helps students learn. And let's see if we can encourage and support our teachers in focusing more on proactive motivation and engagement, so they can focus less on reactive classroom management.

 

Shared Visioning in Action

I recently started a new job: Policy Director of the Learning Through Technology Team (LTTT) at the Maine Department of Education. It’s essentially the state tech director position, and its largest responsibility is managing the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI – 1to1 in 7th & 8th statewide – since 2001! – and making it easy for districts to buy in at other grades), and supporting schools as they think about how technology can support learning.

I have a small (but awesome!) team of 7 colleagues that help make all this happen. If you follow this blog, you already know I’m a strong believer in “Leading Beside” which includes both shared leadership and working from a shared vision. So it won’t surprise you that one of the first things I did with my new team was set aside a morning for us to build a shared vision.

We used the same process that Bette Manchester introduced to districts at the very beginning of MLTI: To think of a preferred future for young people we care about (the Preferred Future), then think about about what students need to start doing today to get ready for that Preferred Future (the Vision for Learning), then think about what teachers, schools – and the Learning Through Technology Team – need to do today so students can do what they need to do (the Strategic Plan). (A process Bette would credit to Bruce Wellman’s work.)

Building a Preferred Future

We started by thinking about a young person we care deeply about. Then thought out into the future, beyond middle school, beyond high school, beyond college or job training or military, and then a few more years, until that person was getting settled in their jobs and, perhaps, their family.

And then we thought about three questions:

  • Where would we like them to be able to work?
  • Where would we like them to be able to live?
  • Where would we like for them to be able to learn?

Here’s what the team generated:

These charts represent the Team’s Preferred Future.

 

Identifying Our Shared Vision Vision for Learning

The next step was to think about these same students today. If the charts above represent our preferred future for these young people, what do they need to do today to get ready for it?

Here is what we generated:

So, these charts represent the Team’s Vision for Learning.

 

Creating Our Strategic Plan

So, if this is what we believe students need to start doing today to get ready for the Preferred Future, what do do we believe teachers need to do, so students can do what they need to? Our thoughts:

 

And then, what do we believe schools (principals, tech directors, district administration, etc.) need to do so teachers and students can do what they need to? The Team’s lists:

These charts represent what we hope teachers and schools might adopt as their strategic plan.

But they also lead us to think about our own work and responsibility for making our Vision for Learning a reality. What does the Learning Through Technology Team need to do to support the work of students, teachers, and schools?

 

Prioritizing

Accomplishing 3 pages of strategic steps is a daunting task! (Actually, self defeating! We need a little focus!) I gave each Team member 6 dots to place on the charts. The prompt was, “Which are the most important pieces for us to work on right now.” All of them are important, and should be tackled as some time, but we needed to identify where to start. Team members could distribute their dots in an way they wanted (all 6 on one item, or spread out across items, etc.), but they each only had the 6 dots.

You can see where they placed their dots above.

That translates into the following as the Learning Through Technology Team’s Strategic Plan for the coming year:

  • Collaborate with our Vendors/Partners to give life to our Vision
  • Foster Postive Collaboration with School Leaders
  • Know the Field – where are their successes and challenges?
  • Improve Communications (Organizations, Schools, Partners)
  • Capturing data / Evidence of Impact

 

Where We’ll Go Next

It’s not enough to capture a Vision on paper. It needs to be used as a filter and a compass.

In order to do that, we’ll have to polish our Vision for Learning into a shareable document (it’s a little too rough for sharing in this current form), and create a mission statement. Then we can put together a “Compass and Filter” document (that includes our vision, mission, and strategic plan goals). We will use it to help us decide how to prioritize and do our work, and help us decide which new opportunities to take on. We can also share it with the schools, organizations, and other partners we work with (or might start working with) to see where there is alignment between our work and theirs.

But I’ll save that for future blog posts…