I noticed on one of my observation visits that the teacher almost never put down her clipboard. On it, she kept a chart that allowed her to track student progress and comprehension, take notes on students who needed additional help after short conferences, and what elements of her lesson plan were working. Over the course of the period, a wealth of information flowed onto a few thin sheets of paper. There has to be a better medium for capturing that data, I thought.
My iPhone came to mind—surely there was some way of capturing what was mostly qualitative information in a digital format that was more flexible and durable than the butcher paper progress charts on the wall. But the first ways I would incorporate a smartphone into classroom instruction are significantly different from the educational games described in a recent Fast Company article, “A Is for App.” While fascinating, the report makes it clear that a there’s a divide between educational technology that focuses on engaging students and educational technology that amplifies the power of a key classroom variable: the effectiveness of the teacher.
One of the key points from the Teaching As Leadership chapter on how to “Execute Effectively” is amusingly blunt: insist on seeing reality. The teacher I was observing was taking notes on the reality before her: were students learning what her lesson was intended to teach?
Effective teachers, writes Farr, are constantly using a variety of methods to capture information about where students really are. “They use brief end-of-lesson assessments, student interest surveys, and objective-mastery tracking systems to get a better understanding of student progress,” he says.
Now some methods for checking for understanding are instantaneous, simply, and brilliant: having students simultaneously write answers on small white boards or index cards, signing the first letter of a correct response in American Sign Language. Those results are more ephemeral than any note that ends up on the a clipboard, but part of the point is to make sure that your lesson is effective in the first place and to check for instances where you must re-teach a concept you failed to communicate. Yet what if you could capture those small, rapid checks for understanding and analyze them within the context of more formal assessments? That’s a lot of data you could work with. Again, a smartphone is a tantalizing device because it can handle just such a task.
Now, in her article, Anya Kamenetz explains some impressive instructional tools, especially the TeacherMate, a cheap handheld device that elementary school children can use to practice math and reading skills that align with lesson objectives. A Chicago South Side elementary teacher explains:
the software on her laptop lets her track each student’s performance. Once a week, when she plugs each student’s TeacherMate into her docking station, she downloads a record of their game play and generates reports for herself as well as for parents. Then she sets the precise skills, levels, and allotted time for the upcoming week. The programs are synced with the reading and math curricula used in the school — right down to the same spelling words each week.
This is to what I’m imagining: fine-grained results that test individual student understanding of specific lesson objectives, safely and flexibly stored in a digital format for export and analysis. Kamenetz reports that Arne Duncan is a fan of the platform and the company that makes the software and designed the device, Innovations for Learning, has seen the tool adopted in 500 schools in 15 states. All very impressive.
But the article makes it clear another premise that companies in the education technology space rest upon is that smartphones, OX laptops, and learning software, “are tools for expression and connection, not just passive absorption,” unlike Sesame Street and, apparently, teacher instruction. And this is where things start to get wish-washy. “A system built around tools that allow children to explore and figure things out for themselves would be radical for most developing-world schools, which emphasize learning by rote. In the United States, which is currently so in love with state curriculum benchmarks and standardized tests, it could be just as hard a sell,” writes Kamenetz.
Huh? Why is structured learning the opposite of creativity?
Education that quashes student creativity is obviously no good. Kids should experiment, express themselves, and learn from a diversity of perspectives. But leaving room from student creativity and ensuring that they can comprehend complex passages of text or sift information from word-based math problems are not mutually exclusive.
Simply put, a lot of stories about innovation in educational technology are overshadowed by the myth that the way we teach now is suffocating students and their only salvation is in devices that will make them digital artists and publishers.
I think all students should learn to be digital artists and publishers. Just throwing the tools at them isn’t going to do that. Using technology to leverage good teaching seems like a better approach.
Contrast the educational quiz games model with one that expands the power of teachers to collect and analyze data from their existing lessons. That’s the focus of a successful company not mentioned in the Fast Company piece called Wireless Generation. Here’s a summary from my CAP colleagues that makes the clipboard and pen system sound downright medieval:
The company’s core program is software, which allows teachers to use a handheld device—rather than paper—to assess and collect data on their students. The data teachers collect can be used to immediately create web-based reports on individual students, classrooms, schools, districts, and even demographic subgroups. The better and more immediate data allows teachers and administrators to easily monitor student progress and tailor their instruction to students’ needs. The online nature of the data also allows teachers with similar classroom issues to find each other and collaborate on solutions. Because they can track students’ progress over time, it is easy to see what is working and what’s not.
The company makes its mission clear right on its website: “The test for any Wireless Generation product or service is always: does it really help educators to do their jobs?” The assumption being, no matter how good the software or hardware of our new magical learning devices, teachers are not going to vanish from classrooms any time soon. So innovation in educational technology should make the most of their work, especially since effective teaching is so highly correlated with student achievement.