Teaching the Basics

Beyond Drill-and-Practice

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When educators talk about using technology to teach basic academic skills, what they often have in mind is computerized "drill and practice."

Drill-and-practice software delivers sequences of worksheet-style questions, automatically adjusting their difficulty to match an individual student's responses. It's a method that thousands of schools have tried as a way to overcome children's shortcomings in arithmetic, writing, and reading, even as the term itself-sometimes derided as "drill and kill"-has gradually come into disfavor.

One of the few clear conclusions that can be drawn from research on education technology is that children do indeed learn basic skills from computerized drill-and-practice, at least in mathematics. Some experts claim that children's language skills improve also.

And yet, many educators have thought for some time that drill-and-practice is too slender a reed on which to rest children's progress in basic skills.

Teaching basic skills is simply more complicated than any single approach or any existing technology can address, say' Carol A. Shilinsky, the principal of the Accelerated Learning Laboratory School, a K-12 magnet school here that enrolls urban and immigrant children who have plenty of catching up to do academically.

Because much of the research on drill-and-practice examines poor children in urban schools, there persists a perception that the approach is particularly Media technologist Jane McDonald works with students at the Accelerated Learning Laboratory School's In-house television studio In Worcester, Mass. helpful as a remediation tool for disadvantaged youngsters. In fact, though, there is no evidence that drill-and-practice is somehow better or worse for children from poor families than for their more affluent peers.

The ALL school uses a limited amount of drill-and-practice through Josten Corp.'s. integrated learning system. But, Shilinsky says, "we don't want too much of it. It teaches certain thing to certain kids, but getting them to think is not one of them.

Ted S. Hasselbring, the co-dlrector of the Learning Technology Center at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College in Nashville, Tenn., agrees.

He identifies three broad steps that are necessary to mastering basic skills-developing the skill initially, becoming fluent at it, and being able to apply it across different activities and content areas. Drill-and-practice, he says, addresses only the second step-fluency.

Educators, unfortunately, have not always understood that, he says. "People have assumed that drill-and-practice will teach kids skills, but drill-and-practice was designed to develop fluency. That's the only reason why you use a drill-and-practice program."

Hasselbring has worked to develop computerized programs that address the first and third steps-development and application of skills. The development programs, which he calls instructional or tutorial approaches, consist of carefully designed puzzles, games, and activities. In math, for example, puzzles can encourage students to rely on memorizing rather than finger-counting. In writing, cognitive tools such as word-prediction software stretch students' vocabularies and knowledge of grammar.

These programs do not emphasize repetition. "We never let them practice," Hasselbring says.

The Learning Technology Center has also developed a set of video-based adventures that teach the application of skills. The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury challenges children in grades 5 and up to use mathematics to solve realistic mysteries.

While support for drill-and-practice seems to be waning, many educators say technology in general can be a great benefit to students who lack basic skills.

Computers make no personal judgments, a fact that can help children who are afraid of making a mistake in front of their teachers or classmates. Proponents of education technology also say it can motivate students, encourage them to work in teams, and take them a step beyond the lessons and materials they get in class.

The ALL school's emphasis on technology can be seen in every grade. The school is a partner to the Cambridge, Mass.-based Co-NECT program, which provides training and other support in blending an intensive use of technology with comprehensive professional development.

The school has one computer for approximately every four students, network and Internet connections in every classroom, and wall-mounted video screens. An impressive collection of video equipment is used for student projects and closed-circuit broadcasting.

Jayne E. Cardin teaches a combined 1st and 2nd grade class in which her children spend from 30 to 40 minutes a day on a computer as they rotate among several stations in the classroom.

At one computer cluster, students are visiting sites on the World Wide Web, an activity that motivates them to use technology, spell correctly, and explore the world, Cardin says.

At another cluster, every student spends time on the Reader Rabbit series of computer programs. These programs, published by the Learning Company, feature activities involving letter recognition, rhyming words, and word families. The class also uses Math Rabbit.

Although the activities are drill-and-practice, similar to the Jostens system, they mainly serve a diagnostic purpose at the ALL school. Teachers use weekly printouts to pinpoint children's individual problems, Cardin says.

Armed with that data, teachers place students in the small reading groups that are an essential feature of the school's primary grades. These groups are organized by ability and problem areas, and reorganized as needed.

The reading groups and the computer activities complement each other, Cardin says.

"It's important to have one-on-one [time] with the computer. It's the one place [students] are less dependent" on the teacher, she says.

Reader Rabbit doesn't let students progress to new skills without demonstrating a grasp of the old. But Cardin notes that they haven't mastered a skill until they can use it without cues such as rhymes and pictures and in a range of settings and activities.

One way she works on mastery is by having her 1st and 2nd graders learn to use a computer for word processing.

Cardin chose Microsoft Works over a child-oriented writing program that has fancy graphics tools, because her students were taking more pains with the graphics than with their words. "Using [the word processor in] Microsoft Works, they really have to focus on writing," she says.

Another key reason, however, is to prepare her students for Eron McGuirk's 3rd and 4th grade class, which relies heavily on a multi-user computer system called the Kl2-MUSE, or "Muse," to help teach literacy skills.

The Muse is a format for presenting information that is similar to creating a Web site, but text-only. Students across the country can use the Internet to log on to the system, which is housed on a computer at the University of Massachusetts.

Each student fills a collection of text-based "rooms—consisting of single paragraphs—with his or her research on school subjects. Students and visitors can move from room to room by typing in commands.

In a recent class, McGuirk's students are writing about the history ofWorce ter, coinciding with the city's 150th anniversary. One student's Muse project has rooms describing Worcester during the Ice Ages, Native Americans who once lived there, and the city today.

McGuirk, who has taught with the Muse for three years, says the method helps youngsters write strongly and fluently-a focus that could be blurred if it had the graphical emphasis of the Web.

She points to some dramatic results. One girl, a Vietnamese immigrant named Lam Du, entered McGuirk's class speaking "not an ounce of English," McGuirk says. The girl, who excelled at the Muse, left three years later as "one of the most fluent of all the kids" and a superb writer.

"It brought her out of her shell," McGuirk says of the Muse. "She found it easier to go into a [Muse] room than to speak in class."

Shlllnsky emphasizes that technology is only one aspect of the school's approach to education.

Among the other features: Classes have multiple grade levels and are organized in cluster' of three or four, to help teachers share ideas. Teachers apply strategies associated with teaching gifted students, drawn from the "accelerated learning model" designed by Henry Levin, the director of the Center for Educational Research at Stanford University-but for all students, including those with disabilities. It also has a higher-order thinking skills lab for all 4th and 5th graders, except for those who are new to the school in the 5th grade.

Much of the curriculum is taught through "authentic learning" and in individual and group projects, which teachers preserve in portfolio . And the curriculum is organized around school wide theme of "global studies," an approach assisted by experts from nearby Clark University's Teacher Center for Global Studies.

An accreditation report last spring noted that the school has been successful in blending these and other reforms into a coherent program. The results are evident in the school's test scores, which have gradually climbed above those of other Worcester schools since the school was started in 1993.

For Shilinsky, it's obvious that the technology hasn't taken away the teacher's pre-eminent role, whether in basic skills or other areas of learning.

"You have to take [teaching] beyond the technology," she says. "You have to think of student learning, and what's best, [as you're] going in."

Vol. 18, Issue 05, Pages 25-27

Published in Print: October 1, 1998, as Teaching the Basics
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