Portal is a brilliantly simple game: you navigate through a sci-fi space-station type-place, besieged by errant robots and killer forcefields, armed only with a “gun” that creates manhole-sized wormholes. While it looks like a first-person shooter, in this puzzle game you don’t go blasting your way through levels; you leverage the meticulous physics of the game to divert enemies, leap chasms, and move steel blocks into useful positions. The smart and generous folks at the studio behind the Portal franchise, Valve, have created a project, Teach With Portals, that helps STEM teachers develop lessons with the game software by enabling players to design their own levels for the sequel, Portal 2.
At first glance, this sounds like a great project, and one that will turn heads because it smashes an award-winning video game head-on into the edtech buzz of “gamification.”
But I don’t think that the success of a project like this will lie with the fact that it makes learning STEM principles (be they physics, chemistry, or geometry) “game-like.” Here’s what’s more important:
The Portal games are fantastically good physics simulators. The shoulder-mounted wormhole slingers are more or less the only improbable physics element in the game. Falling and flung objects accelerate in perfect gravity-driven arcs. Massive objects exhibit significant inertia. Bodies in free-fall, say moving from one wormhole to another without interruption, continue to accelerate. Everything, from steel cubes to sliding androids to the protagonist, moves with a precise conversation of momentum. Sure, there are lots of education software titles that simulate any sort of physics from cannon-firing trajectories to airplane flight. But the environments inthe Portal games are devilish imitations of the real world, where if you slide a box along a slick floor with too much force, it won’t stop where you estimated and will tumble over the edge of a hole. The physics of the game aren’t “intuitive” because the physics of so many real-world situations aren’t “intuitive.” Instead, the physics in the game is real-world honest: a little messy, precise and consistent, and not always what your brain estimates until you start moving.
Valve has made it so that users can “mod” the game, which is game-speak for “make your own levels.” Rather than setting out to create an educational and precise physics simulator, the folks at Valve set out to create a great game. Realistic physics was a critical element of the gameplay. Portal in this instance becomes a potentially great educational tool by adding the modding capabiliites after establishing the imagination-stimulating power of a physically realistic virtual playground.
The interrelated questions of technology, ethics, and justice are among the prime forces that pulled me into education in the first place. Two years in, I’m still trying to sift these things out, but a recent email exchange about this post on giving teachers freedom to experiment got my brain churning. I firmly believe that teaching kids in low-income communities (and high-income communities as well) demands taking risks. But whenever there are life-outcomes that depend upon risk-taking, there are inevitably issues of morality. Technology complicates these. The metaphor I use for thinking about these things equates teachers with engineers: we’re using whatever technology is appropriate (books, rulers, iPads, algorithmic personalized learning software, etc.) to solve a problem (students need to learn). Experimentation is absolutely fundamental to engineering; I also believe it is fundamental to good education. What is tricky is that experimenting in education involves the fates of kids.
After fighting to get a class set of iPads and experimenting for a year with those, I’m keenly aware that just getting tech into a classroom does not necessarily have any impact on student learning. But I’m also aware of the importance of experimentation and iteration. As a first-year teacher, everything I did was an experiment from my perspective. That felt scary because yes, I wanted to see measurable academic success from my students (as did my administrators). But it also felt scary because I couldn’t help thinking about it in terms of bioethical principles.
Without going into a digression, part of my previous job revolved around writing and editing policy ideas about bioethics. I saw those daily teaching experiments (which over the course of a student’s development, slowly add up into an education) as analogs to a series of medical experiments. The connection is wildly imperfect, but education is a major factor in socioeconomic life; so is access to quality health care. Nevertheless, I think anyone who has taught in low-income schools gets the gist that you’re responsible for a series of small lessons that are components of a child’s opportunities.
Sometimes you’re asked to use (or have nothing more) than educational tools (instructional techniques, materials, tech tools, etc.) that are inferior to the task at hand. Bioethicists ask questions about the moral responsibilities of health care professionals applying techniques to help patients or to run experiments to find new, better techniques. Bioethics as an academic field is founded on these four principals:
respect for autonomy (people should be able to make choices about their health care)
nonmaleficence (doctors and scientists should not hurt people)
beneficence (doctors and scientists should help people)
justice (make the whole system help everyone as fairly as possible)
Here’s how I see that mapping to education in this context:
In K-12 education, autonomy isn’t really there: our society mandates elementary and secondary education.
As a teacher, I was painfully aware of when I was doing things that weren’t helping my students learn. All things considered, a flubbed lesson probably didn’t hurt my students. But a year of bad teaching for students, as we know from the statistics, is a painful blow. Yet here’s the rub: experimentation, by definition, requires failure.
In a medical experiment, autonomy + nonmaleficence = a patient willingly agrees to try, say, a new drug, and the doctor takes every precaution to ensure that the drug and the trial for testing it will pose a minimal risk of harm.
In an education context–where technology can accelerate the rate and range of experimentation–where is the balance of experimenting when you know that failure is necessary but may have costs in students learning?
Teachers, like doctors, want to help people. I think that even when considering the most convoluted edtech questions, it’s important to always ask: “Is this going to help kids learn?” When we’re talking about edtech, there are lots of situations where technology actually doesn’t help–instead it hurts. So if tech isn’t the thing that will help, then don’t dwell on it. The moral responsibility is to use the tool or technique that will help, or to find it if you don’t have it.
Finally: justice. For me, education is all about justice. If a solution will level the playing field, close achievement gaps, or generally make things more democratic, I want it. Technology can do this in some instances. But what has made things more just in the realm of bioethics is experimentation that adheres to these principles. In education, I think that justice requires more experimentation. Principles like these could help guide it.
That’s a first stab at synthesizing some of my thinking on this. It is incomplete, but it’s also an experiment.
So you’re headed to summer Institute? You know you’ll need a laptop, Microsoft Excel, and toilet paper. This technology alone isn’t going to make you a great teacher, but there is an explosion of tech tools that can help. Problem is, there are too many to test and every moment at Institute (awake and asleep) is precious. So I’m going to try and “differentiate” my tech recommendations by aligning them to 5 out of 6 strands of the Teaching As Leadership rubric.
As you dive into teaching, you’re going to have a lot of technology tools and ideas thrown at you. But any technology is fundamentally a tool that helps you solve a problem. And the more problems a given tool can solve, the more useful it is to have in your toolbox. Think about a kitchen. Many specialized kitchen gadgets seem useful, but most are a waste of counter space. You’re better off with a small set of high-quality tools–a heavy fry pan, a sharp chef’s knife, and a sturdy wooden spoon–than you are with a juicer, a garlic roaster, and an ice cream maker. In cooking and ed tech, you have to be shrewd about which tools to use and which tools to discard.
Invest in students and their families
Maybe your summer classroom will have an LCD projector; maybe it won’t. Purposeful videos and short clips are one way to hook students into a lesson, start a discussion, or introduce a concept.
Arrange virtual visits. Investing students by exposing them to role models is another powerful approach. Find a video of a successful actor, athlete, or public official discussing the importance of grit and hard work. Even better: invite someone inspiring that you know personally to “visit” your class via Skype or Google hangout.
Make your phone a more powerful investment tool. There are also a host of communications tools that can help you mobilize student families and influencers. Start getting comfortable with a parent contact tracking system that works for you. Hint: a Google spreadsheet is a lot better than the back of a notebook.
Also, services like SnappSchool, Remind101, and SendHub are specially designed to allow teachers to group message parents and students so they get timely information about what’s happening in class.
Your five weeks at Institute are a crash course in teaching, but one of the primary goals is to make you an effective lesson planner. Because lesson planning involves synthesizing large amounts of curricular material into concise unit and daily plans (and creating and sharing those plans with other teachers), your personal digital organization is likely going to need an upgrade.
Put files where you need them. You’re likely to get CDs of files tailored to your Institute and subject area. Copy everything on any disc or flash drive into a logical folder on your laptop. Arriving to a morning session and realizing that the disc you need is sitting in your dorm room means wasted time asking around the room for the files you need.
Setup a cloud file-sharing service that works for you and your colleagues. “Cloud storage” refers to services that allow you to store computer files online, or “in the cloud.” Several software companies offer cloud storage services that include powerful free accounts. If you want all the gritty details, check out this article. Below are my personal suggestions.
Chances are, you’re going to get invited to a Dropbox folder for sharing files with other corps members and your advisor. If you don’t currently use cloud-based file storage for your most important files, get on the bandwagon. “I can’t find that flash drive” or “my computer crashed” are no longer any excuse for losing your work.
Dropbox is currently the gold standard of file-syncing services, but their free plan only gives you a base of 2GB of storage. This is plenty if all you’re syncing and sharing is Word docs and Powerpoint presentations. Photos and videos will start to eat that up quickly.
Fortunately, Google just launched a very similar product called Google drive. Just like Dropbox, it keeps a single folder on your computer synced up with your online Google account, and any number of other computers on which you install the free software. Google gives you 5GB for free.
If you still need more cloud storage, Microsoft also recently launched their SkyDrive software, which does essentially the same thing (syncs a designated folder on your computer with the cloud). While it’s 7GB for free with Microsoft, as of this writing their Mac OS client is buggy, so I won’t recommend it just yet for Institute use.
Use the cloud file-sharing service to share things that are useful. At the very least, you’re going to want to share a Dropbox folder or a Google drive folder with your collab partners–for lesson plans, student tracking data, behavior management plans, classroom procedures and systems, etc. If you felt you had to do everything yourself in college, get over it. Part of effective teaching is about begging, borrowing, and stealing. Or just dropping your materials in a shared folder.
And if you’re sharing files, be purposeful and consistent in how you name them, since other people may not understand what “monday lesson.doc” or “fractions.ppt” mean. Folders, organized chronologically, are your friends. As are logical names like “2012-05-27-pratt-lesson-fractions.doc”
Again, the kind of technology you have in your classroom will determine much of what you can do here. At Thomas Edison High School in Philly, summer 2010, we had desks, chalkboards, and chalk. A good teacher can execute effectively without fancy kitchen gadgets, but here are some suggestions that you can implement in a wide variety of settings.
Clearly present academic content. This can be as simple as making a screencast on your laptop or tablet that captures the minilesson (“I Do”) portion of your lesson. Why record yourself teaching ahead of time? There are three major advantages. First, it forces you to explain content clearly and succinctly. If you watch yourself over and it doesn’t make sense, erase and start over. Second, if you can playback your recorded minilesson for a class to see (on a projector or large screen), you can circulate among your students, managing behavior or supporting them while they take notes. You’ve essentially cloned yourself for 5 minutes. Third, a recorded lesson can become a differentiation tool. Using ShowMe, a free screencasting app for iPads, you can record a short lesson, hand the device to a small group of students, and then work with another group while the iPad users can watch your explanation as many times as they need.
Need a refresher or a starter idea on how to present an objective? There are several growing communities where you can find screencasts of high-quality lessons. TFAnet’s video hub is one. The ShowMe site is another. But if you’re teaching elementary or middle school math in states that have already shifted to Common Core, you’re in the most luck, as LearnZillion.com is actively recruiting highly effective teachers to make videos aligned to all the math standards. Did I mention it’s free? And they’ll be posting English / Language Arts lessons this summer?
Manage student practice & check for understanding. The best tech tools for doing this require 1:1 classrooms, where every student has a computer, tablet, or Internet-enable device. If you’re in such an environment, get an account on Socrative or just build your exit tickets as Google forms. If you don’t have a 1:1 class at Institute this year, you won’t be alone. Some of the most powerful tools you will learn to use for managing student practice and checking for understanding should be readily available anywhere: pencils, paper, and spoken questions.
Reinforce rules and consequences. You’re going to learn a lot of classroom management techniques at Institute. Whatever those techniques are, they will be more effective if you can keep accurate track of how you’re implementing rules and consequences. Currently, the best tool for this is ClassDojo.com, which lets you assign each of your students a cute digital monster and the track positive and negative behaviors (and award or take away points) in real time and online. The company behind it is a fast-growing startup and has recently added student accounts so that your scholars can log in and see their personal record from home. ClassDojo is designed to project the class monsters on a screen so that students can see their point totals at any time. But what if you don’t have a projector? No sweat. Since you’re first learning these techniques at Institute, ClassDojo’s mobile app (iPhone/iPad/Android) can still be immensely useful to you for tracking class points and reflecting on how effectively and fairly you are doling out rewards and consequences.
Implement time-saving procedures. Ideally, any technology you use at Institute should save you time. If doing something digitally is faster, good. If paper and pen is faster, go with that technology.
Track student performance. Here’s a place where you may see a lot of difference between Institutes. Some regions have adopted tools like Kickboard for student data tracking. Others use the powerful and time-tested trackers build in Microsoft Excel. Learn whatever your Corps Member Advisor tells you so that you can get hands-on help and share data effectively with your Corps Member group.
If you’re eager to digitize student work as part of your tracking, however, there are a few exciting products that have appeared very recently or are still in development. One available now for free is ThreeRing.com. Three Ring is a web app that stores and sorts student work that you feed in as .pdf or .jpg files. It also includes a mobile app that allows you to take pictures of student work with a smartphone, tag it, and upload it for saving, storing, or grading later.
Continuously Increase Effectiveness
My first suggestion here is simple: open up your favorite word processor or email client and start typing about what you’re learning, what you’re messing up, and what you’re doing well. Hit save. Send it to someone whose feedback you trust, or simply go back and read it the next day. Asking for help and reflecting on what you are and are not doing as a teacher will go a long way towards improving along the TAL strands for “Gauge progress and gaps,” “Identify contributing student actions,” “Identify contributing teacher actions,” “Identify underlying factors.”
As for “Access relevant meaningful learning experiences”–see my suggestions above for TFAnet’s video hub and LearnZillion. Or find the Teach Like a Champion skill that you need to brush up on and watch an Uncommon Schools teacher model it for you. Watching good teaching won’t instantly make you a better teacher, but unless you see good work and mediocre work, it’s hard to figure out how it’s done.
Lots of folks are going to tell you that you’ll “work harder than you ever have” at Institute. If you’re going to work that hard, then you had better work productively. That means that technology should never get in your way–it should help you be relentless, and it should help you protect your mental health.
Expand time and resources. Again, time spent trying to fix technology is time wasted at Institute. Save yourself time by creating a “cheat sheet” document that sits right on the desktop of your computer with all the passwords and login information you need for your college network, your school district network, and any tools that you’ll need to initiate when you don’t have Internet access. Sure it’s 2012, but you’re going to find plenty of situations where connections are poor or inaccessible. That’s another reason why file syncing services like Dropbox and Google drive are critical: they store your data on your computer and in the cloud, so you have all your files at the ready even when you’re offline.
Expanding time and resources also means making smart decisions about technology that helps you and technology that distracts you. In this regard, email and social networks can be a double-edged sword: great for staying in touch with loved ones and seeking advice and support, but black holes for precious time. So go through your inbox and unsubscribe from the email lists that you don’t really need. Turn off the frivolous notification updates in Facebook, Google+, and Twitter–on your computer and your phone..
That doesn’t mean forsake the communication tools that connect you to friends and family. In the pressure cooker of summer Institute, it can be easy to lose touch with people who need to hear from you and whose words can help you sustain your energy. In this regard, I like intimate social platforms like group texting. For almost my entire time in the corps, four fellow CMs in my region have kept in touch daily with a service called GroupMe.com. It handles group texting across any wireless provider and device and archives your private conversations. A few hundred characters exchanged between us before school each day has been a crucial outlet for stress relief and a ready source of encouragement.
This is hardly an exhaustive set of recommendations for technology that can help at Institute. Got any other ideas or suggestions? Please drop me an email or post in the comments and I’ll update this document.
This is cross-posted at the AlwaysPrepped blog. They’re a startup building an awesome product that aggregates data from the best online teaching tools (Khan Academy, ClassDojo, Manga High, etc.) into one hub for teachers. Go sign up for the beta: http://alwaysprepped.com/
Effective teachers are self-reflective. They think critically about what they do and they work continuously to increase their effectiveness. But the habit of improving your skills through critical self-reflection is not unique to effective educators. It’s something experts in any sector do. It matters in education and it matters in education technology. Ed-tech journalist Audrey Waters made a powerful case for the importance of critical self-reflection in edtech recently by presenting “The Audrey Test”, an assessment for techies to identify what they do and don’t know about education. I have to admit that I’ve worked in technology and I now work in education, and after reading her assignment, I’ve got some serious studying to do.
What’s going to be on the test?
The purpose of the test is to ensure that education technology entrepreneurs understand education research and policy in addition to how to build effective internet technology. The test starts off with important questions that gauge the utility of any good tech tool:
“Do you work closely [with] your potential users (teachers or students, for example) about product development?”
“Is your tool available across platforms?”
Then she asks test-takers to tackle education theory:
“Who is Paolo Freire? John Dewey? B.F. Skinner? (Why does knowing these names matter?)”
“How do things like “self-efficacy” and “stereotype threat” shape learning?”
She moves on to pointed queries on education markets and public policy:
“How many K-12 students own a cellphone? A smartphone?”
“Who pays for technology in the classroom?”
Then she closes with focused self-reflection:
“Are you an autodidact? Is everyone?”
“Have you ever taught? Have you ever taught online?”
Waters took her cue for the proposed exam from Stack Overflow co-founder Joel Spolsky’s “Joel Test”, a checklist of things that the experienced coder argues effective software development teams must do to be successful.
How do you study?
Do I think that any edtech entrepreneur would benefit from mastering at least 80% of the content on “The Audrey Test”? Absolutely. Do I think that’s what she’s demanding? No. One key point of her post (and the “Joel Test” she is riffing on) is that effective edtech innovators must be self-reflective. They have to ask what’s missing in their projects and they have to think clearly about why they’re trying to solve a certain education problem with technology.
Mr. Pratt self-reflects, deploys technology
At the beginning of this school year, I prepared each of my four sections to begin using our class set of iPads. I had three classes of girls up and running, but my boys class was not meeting my expectations for classroom behavior. There was no way I was going to let them use iPads, I told them, if they couldn’t follow basic procedures for entering the room and preparing for class.
I sat down with a mentor and walked through a typical Teach For America exercise in self-reflection, asking:
What were my mindsets (beliefs, assumptions) about these students?
How did those mindsets drive my actions in the classroom?
How did my actions create student mindsets?
And how did those student mindsets drive student actions?
A few minutes of honest reflection led me to conclude that I was assuming each day that my boys class couldn’t meet my behavior expectations. This meant that rather than encouraging the block of students that was on point, I was simply waiting for class to go haywire long enough that I declared “No iPads” for yet another day. This reinforced for my off-task students that they couldn’t meet the expectations, so they continued to misbehave. My thinking drove their actions.
I didn’t break the cycle with a new technology tool (even though we had 30 iPads at our disposal). And there wasn’t a specific education theorist I turned to. Instead, I sat down with a colleague and said “What are the gaps in my thinking? How can I get better at managing this class so I can teach with new technology?” My test, like Audrey’s and Joel’s, was about self-reflection. I changed my focus from the off-task students to those who demonstrated they were ready to use the iPads. Showing that I believed in them changed student mindsets and behaviors across the class. That made room for the iPads to support academic achievement.
So if you’re a teacher, a coder, or an entrepreneur interested in education, take “The Audrey Test”, and if you don’t pass, that’s fine. Build on what you do know, go learn what you don’t, and reflect on how you, your team, and your project can continually increase in effectiveness.
Hi, I'm Andrew Plemmons Pratt. I am the Program Manager for New Classrooms in Washington, DC. (Though opinions expressed on this site are entirely my own.) I taught 7th-grade English in Prince George’s County, Maryland as a member of the 2010 Teach For America corps. I write about literacy & edtech here—along with stuff like industrial archeology and bread baking.