A camera hangs from one corner of the classroom. Microphones run along the ceiling. And a wall of mirrors masks an observation room in which up to 40 people watch individual teachers and groups of students experiment with new technologies, digital content, and instructional strategies.
This laboratory, located in Ohio’s 7,700-student Mentor district, offers a new strategy for supporting educators trying to bring blended learning into their classrooms—an approach that some say could serve as a model for other school systems.
Educators and policymakers for years have worried about teachers’ ability to adapt to new technology and use innovative and productive ways to improve student learning. Rather than providing teachers with straightforward professional development or training with tech tools, the laboratory in Mentor, which district officials call Catalyst, gives educators the ability to test out digital tools in front of their peers—and oftentimes, strangers—and get feedback before deploying those strategies in the classroom.
The idea behind the lab is to create a safe space for educators to be creative and take risks—where failing, and trying again, is celebrated.
Mentor’s efforts are drawing widespread attention. The laboratory, housed at Ridge Middle School, has hosted nearly 150 visits from mostly school districts and some education technology companies since it was launched in late 2013. The vendors want to see how Mentor uses and integrates either their own or their competitors’ products. Forty percent of the visitors have come from outside Ohio, some have come from Canada, and one even came from Beijing.
“No one had ever [told me] before, ‘It’s OK if it doesn’t work the first or second time. As long as you’re making some kind of progress, that’s all we can ask for,’ ” said Tracey Dunn, a kindergarten teacher at the 500-student Hopkins Elementary School. She spent two months as Catalyst’s first guinea pig, using the adaptive curriculum MobyMax, interactive e-books from the website Raz-Kids, and other technologies.
“While it’s not the most comfortable thing for a teacher to be on display [and] to be constructively criticized,” Ms. Dunn said, the opportunity she gets from the lab to learn from peers who can “see what I don’t see while I’m teaching is huge.”
Providing educators with professional development in technology through trial-and-error observation by their peers is relatively rare, according to those familiar with efforts to help teachers master digital tools.
Although Mentor was one of the first districts in the state to have Smart boards in every classroom and meeting room, it intensified its focus on piloting various tech devices about three years ago. The district is now implementing a series of blended-learning initiatives at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, and has assigned 14 instructional coaches to help with them. Mentor officials are also planning a rollout of blended learning in the district’s nine elementary schools during the 2016-17 academic year.
As the district expanded its technology programs, Mentor officials decided to set up the lab to help them figure out how teachers could make the best use of various tools and systems.
Today, the district selects one teacher each academic quarter to use Catalyst, which is financed with profits from casinos in the surrounding community. (The startup tab, including furniture, came to $52,738. Annual physical costs are around $20,000 to keep the lab stocked with the latest technologies.) Participating teachers receive a $10,000 honorarium to integrate the most successful components of their tech experiments into their home classrooms once they’re done and to serve as on-site experts for using digital tools in their schools.
The Catalyst program is staged in a renovated industrial-arts classroom. Furniture in the lab sits on wheels so that it can be moved to suit various instructional approaches. Students can write with dry-erase markers on floor mats, clipboards, an 8-foot magnetic wall, and plexiglass panels mounted on cinderblock walls.
A key piece of the lab is its separate observation room, framed by mirrors the students can’t see through. On the other side of the glass, administrators, teachers, school board members, parents, community members, and other guests can talk freely about what they’re witnessing without distracting students or interrupting the teacher.
In the early days, Jeremy Shorr, the district’s director of innovation and educational technology, spent time in the lab with Ridge Middle School Principal Megan Kinsey, watching 7th grade math teacher Tommy Dwyer at work using Chromebooks and software such as the learning-management system Schoology, as well as the video-editing tool Camtasia.
“Tommy would teach while we sat there and watched, and at the end of the day, we’d tear apart the entire lesson and rebuild it from scratch,” Mr. Shorr recalled. “It was tiring for him, more so than for us. [But the experience ultimately became] a testament to the ability of a teacher’s willingness to change and grow. We can’t do this without that.”
Mr. Dwyer now learns from sitting on the other side of the glass and watching other teachers experiment with new tech tools. “It’s one thing to read about something online, but seeing someone using it gives it more credibility,” he said. It provides “more comfort to teachers when they go to implement it.”
Some observers familiar with educational technology say iterative approaches such as the one used in Mentor are desperately needed, at a time when many teachers are under pressure to master the use of new digital devices and tools quickly, and to improve students’ academic achievement.
Programs like Catalyst can help educators, but only if they’re created in collaboration with, and continually supported by, district administrators, said Susan D. Patrick, the president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, in Vienna, Va.
“Empowering teachers as the designers of the future of education is wonderful and required to make the shift to dramatically advancing what is possible with technology,” Ms. Patrick said. If learning labs are going to be replicated in other districts, she said, it requires “shared vision [that allows for] innovation, continuous improvement, and sharing new instructional methods.”
Other Labs Taking Hold
Other districts are using peer-observation to help teachers gain skills and confidence with technology.
In December, the 480-student Grant Beacon Middle School in Denver opened an “Ideation Lab,” in which teachers experiment with blended-learning in an environment that can easily be reconfigured depending on the day’s goals. Like the Catalyst program, the Denver classroom has drawn visitors from around the country.
“Part and parcel for our space is a belief in ‘design thinking,’ [and our belief that] it’s cool to take risks,” said Kevin Croghan, Beacon’s site director of blended learning and learning environments.
Mentor district representatives researched 22 districts using 1-to-1 student-to-device programs while preparing for Catalyst’s launch. (The district is 1-to-1 in multiple buildings using iPads and will be 1-to-1 in grades 6-12, with MacBooks for grades 9-12, in 2015-16.) They then set up a model of the Catalyst program, turning Mr. Dwyer’s 7th grade math classroom into an observation area.
The Mentor district’s experience makes it clear that teachers, contrary to popular belief, are eager to acquire new skills using technology, particularly if doing so helps their instruction, said Shiang-Kwei Wang, the associate dean at the New York Institute of Technology’s school of education.
In a study published last year, Ms. Wang found that middle school science teachers were more likely than their students to use technology in and out of the classroom.
The idea that most teachers are less capable, or less willing, than so-called “digital natives” to become adept with technology is a fallacy, she said. The challenge is to support teachers’ use of tools in ways relevant to their day-to-day work.
Many teachers “don’t know how to use technology to meet instructional needs,” Ms. Wang said. “We need to design systems to support them.”
In an effort to further help teachers, Mentor is building a nearly 16,000-square-foot professional-development center, scheduled for completion in August and including lab and observation space to further enhance teachers’ ability to use technology in the classroom.
Superintendent Matthew Miller said the $3.5 million center, named Paradigm and paid for with state grant money, will be a valuable training tool as the Catalyst concept extends into more classrooms.
John Watson, the CEO of the Evergreen Education Group, a consulting and advisory company in Durango, Colo., said the fact that an established, traditional school—not a new or charter school—has embraced an unconventional and job-embedded approach to professional development for technology is “particularly interesting and important.”
“What they’re doing is far more than we often see in terms of the dedication and resources spent for necessary levels of professional learning,” Mr. Watson said.
Ms. Dunn, the kindergarten teacher, advises other districts interested in following the Catalyst model to start small, tailor their approach to school and teacher needs, and—in keeping with the spirit of the lab itself—be prepared for missteps along the way.
“You can’t make sure everything is going to work,” she said, “so you have to be willing to try and see.”
Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week as Behind a Looking Glass: Teachers Help Peers Master Technology