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Keeping the Focus on Learning in a Tech-Rich Classroom

March 31, 2015 by

StudentQuite often, the focus of technology use from a student’s vantage point in a proficiency-based system is the production of evidence. Students are encouraged to use their devices to create products that demonstrate mastery of a standard. They do that with creativity and regularity. There are pages and pages of ways you can suggest they do this (check out Andrew Churches and Kelly Tenkley). Students love it and engagement often increases. So what’s the problem?

It’s the focus. Oftentimes, the technology becomes the center of the project. The evidence of learning takes a back seat as students get dazzled with “cool” transitions in presentation software or the multitude of effects they have available when video editing. Content moves from the center to the sidelines.

How do you keep this from happening? By helping students define the role of the technology they will be using. It is either part of the process of learning, or the production of products that show learning. Sometimes these two overlap—sometimes they don’t. In either case, most standards do not require you to assess technology use any more than you would be assessing the use of a pen over a pencil. Here are some tips to keep you and your students on track:

Address the learning goal first.

Each standard has a taxonomy attached to it. It may address foundational knowledge, requiring recall and comprehension skills. It may require application of new knowledge in a practical situation. When looking at technology use, it is crucial to keep the learning goal and taxonomy front and center. The tool should fit the learning need and not the reverse.

Our goal is always to move students to the 3 level where they show mastery of the concepts or skills outlined in the standard. Even better is when students reach for the 4—the level where they are using the knowledge to work at the highest critical thinking level appropriate for the task. It’s very important to understand the differences in depth of thinking that the two levels require. A 4 is NOT “more of a 3.” While movement to the 4 level may involve or even require technology, successful achievement of the 4 should be based on deeper content knowledge of the standard.

Explaining the taxonomy behind the standards is more than one article can cover, and hopefully your curriculum coordinator has provided professional development around the vision your district has for using a particular taxonomy to create your tasks. If your district has not identified a tool, Marzano and Kendall’s New Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge are good places to begin.

Work with your students to “unpack” your standards. Identify the learning goals embedded within each standard and the steps they will need to take to reach them. Have students re-word the standards in student-friendly language to help create a common understanding of the tasks ahead of them. This language can be used in project descriptions and rubrics. When there are connections between one standard and another, make sure students understand those connections.

Identify barriers that keep students from reaching mastery.

Regardless of the level of the task, there are going to be students who have trouble reaching the mastery level. To quote motivational speaker Tony Robbins, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” Time to make a change and identify the barriers that get in the way of student achievement—and then put in supports to get past them.

Technology can be a silent partner in this endeavor. Second grade teacher Molly Gallivan’s use of digital fluency logs is a perfect example. For years, she religiously did running records with her students, noting varying rates of progress in fluency, accuracy, and inflection. What did not vary was her students’ insistence that they were consistently nailing all three elements. They could only hear what they said as they read their passages and had no way to review their skills.

Molly recognized the barrier and set out to remove it. She created a way for them to record their reading on an iPad she had for her classroom. She paired her students and gave each a simple assessment sheet to use as they reviewed their recordings. Partners conferenced about strengths and weaknesses and rated themselves on the scale provided. They then indicated an area they would work on next time, allowing them to set a personal goal for improvement.

Molly reported astounding results. Students improved their fluency much faster than before and moved more quickly to increasingly complex texts. She has recordings to use as evidence as students work through the six fluency standards in grade 2. Students have autonomy and are actually working at a higher level of thinking than the standard requires. Their ability to set goals for improvement shows that they are working with that knowledge at an application or analysis level—a step up from the comprehension level the standards require.

Scaffold the learning.

We are all aware of the importance of scaffolding learning. When we introduce technology and ask that students work independently, we can’t make assumptions about the foundational knowledge they are working with. Molly’s students HAD to understand the concepts of fluency, accuracy, and inflection before they could self-assess their recordings.

This may seem like a blinding flash of the obvious, but it bears careful consideration. If you are asking your students to do a task that requires a higher order of critical thinking, there may be other skills they need. For instance, a student who is asked to take a position and defend it needs to be able to search effectively, identify the validity and bias of information, organize information and present it in a format that makes it easy to understand, and have a good grasp of writing conventions. You as a teacher (or even better, as a staff) may need to look at what students are being asked to do and backfill/strengthen some of those skills.

You’ll probably see that many of the “holes” are cross-curricular and can be addressed with the same tools from class to class. Here are some suggestions:

Vocabulary building: Don’t forget the dictionary and thesaurus features built into most devices. Web-based tools like Rewordify highlight difficult words in a webpage or passage and provide a glossary alongside the text with a number of viewing options. Rewordify also gives the option of creating flashcards from the text so students can practice their vocabulary skills.

Reading assistance: Most computers have a text-to-speech option that will read any highlighted text out loud. This can be helpful for those students who are auditory learners.

Teach students to use Google’s reading level search tools to help them find information they can tackle without feeling overwhelmed. Newsela allows students and teachers to search their database of nonfiction and current events articles by reading level. Summarizing tools like SummarizeThis can be very helpful in the “pre-search” process by turning the text in a webpage into a customizeable summary, thus giving reluctant readers a manageable chunk of text to digest.

Informational literacy: Learning to search is important. If you find your students are not good at it, or they insist on “googling” an entire question, take a step back and teach them search skills. It will be time well spent. Ditto for validity and bias. Remember, our students often take what they see online at face value. A lesson in skepticism is often a good thing.

Skill practice: Technology can provide students a great way to practice skills independently. Look for tools that give both them AND YOU feedback on student progress. I recently heard a student enthusiastically say, “I finished 1000 practice problems.” The teacher said in a quiet voice, “But he got 965 of them wrong.” If the practice site isn’t giving quality feedback to help students move forward in their learning, it isn’t worth using.

Differentiation: One of the best things about technology is how it allows students to access content in a number of different formats. Get familiar with the resources that bring content in video and audio form. Edudemic has published a great place to get started with their list of the 100 Best Video Sites for Educators. Books that are in the public domain can be accessed online in order to use text-to-speech or other digital reading strategies. iTunesU offers content that may supplement or even replace what is offered in your school.

Do quick formative asessements: If you are not leveraging technology to provide quick and frequent feedback, you are missing one of the greatest tools available. Commenting on a shared doc (comments can often be written or audio), participating in a classroom blog, or using a content management system’s messaging tool to touch base with students can often keep progress and motivation moving forward. Use social media to share resources or ideas—or to connect your classes to experts around the world. Send updates via Remind.com. Regular communication is key to success.

Assess the content, not the product.

Most of us think we know snake oil when we see it, but it amazes me how often we are still bowled over by a glitzy wrapper. A student who creates a model of the earth using Mindcraft is awarded a 4 over the student who draws a diagram and earns a 3. Why? Both show the same understanding of the content. The fact that technology was used does not always mean that the learning was deeper. If creativity is not part of the standard, it should not be assessed.

There are times when the technology can transform learning and the product may indicate that. A student who writes a persuasive essay, posts it on a blog, promotes it via Twitter, and responds to the comments in a way the shows a deepening understanding of the content has shown critical thinking skills—but the blog and Twitter are not part of the content. The fact that the student could defend (or adjust) his or her thinking is the assessable piece.

Let your students lead the charge.

Adding innovative technology use into a new proficiency-based environment can often seem overwhelming. Take a team approach when looking at some of the tools mentioned in this article and let your students become product specialists. Ask them to identify their needs and to try out the tools offered. If they don’t work, ask them to go look for ones that will. Do formative assessments on your teaching and their learning as a whole—trust me, students will tell you what is and isn’t working! Make “check and adjust” part of your classroom workflow, and you’ll find that life suddenly becomes much easier. Ultimately, it will help you develop a richer, more effective (not to mention efficient!) way to bring technology into your teaching and your students’ learning.

About the Author

A self-proclaimed "competent problem solver with a large dose of curiosity and stubbornness to find solutions," Lydia held her first teaching job at Hall-Dale High School as a computer teacher. She is now the K-12 Technology Integrationist for all three Hall-Dale schools. In this venue she is tasked with finding ways to leverage technology to improve teaching, learning, and student achievement. Lydia recently finished a second Master's degree - this time in Instructional Design and Technology from Emporia State University. She enjoys collaborating with others and relishes the opportunity to expand her personal learning network. She can be contacted via email at lleimbach@kidsrsu.org, Twitter as @lleimbach, and Google+ as Lydia Leimbach.

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