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Teaching Opinion

Response: Start With ‘Learning Goals’ Before Thinking About Tech

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 14, 2015 19 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series.)

Shawn Blankenship asked:

What comes first: the curriculum or the technology? During lesson development, should we consider the curriculum and determine the best way to force fit technology integration? Or, is it more important to choose a technology tool that is engaging and user-friendly for students and then force fit the curriculum? I know what I believe and what I feel the solution to be, however, this ‘force fitting’ practice seems to be happening in many classrooms.

Today’s post is the first in a three-part series responding to this question.

Today, educators Suzie Boss, Ken Halla, Jennifer Gonzalez, Kristina J. Doubet, Eric M. Carbaugh, Heather Staker, Katie Muhtaris and Kristin Ziemke provide their contributions. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Suzie and Ken on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Many teachers are, and will be, providing great advice in these three posts. Because of that wealth of wisdom, I’ll limit my comments to sharing two collections that readers might find helpful:

The Best Advice On Using Education Technology

The Best Posts & Articles Highlighting Why We Need To Be Very Careful Around Ed Tech

You might also be interested in previous Q & A posts on using tech in the classroom.

Response From Suzie Boss

Suzie Boss (@suzieboss) is an education writer and consultant who focuses on digital-age project-based learning to better engage today’s learners. Her books include Reinventing Project-Based Learning, 2nd Ed., and Bringing Innovation to School. She blogs for Edutopia and is on the National Faculty of the Buck Institute for Education:

Imagine going into a shoe store and having a clerk ask, “Do you have a foot that fits our shoes?” Completely backwards, right? Yet, we often find something similar happening when it comes to educational technologies. A shiny new tool comes along and, suddenly, educators are challenged to “fit” their teaching and learning activities to it.

Rather than starting with the technology, I encourage teachers (and students) to consider the learning goals they are trying to accomplish. Then consider whether technology would prove useful (or even indispensable), or be more of a distraction.

For example, does a unit or project involve research that depends on primary sources? Access to the American Memories Project at the U.S. Library of Congress or another primary source repository could be invaluable. Using Skype or Google Hangouts for original research would allow students to conduct interviews at a distance. On the other hand, a project that involves interviews with local subjects might be better conducted face-to-face.

How about modeling a solution or designing a prototype? Before jumping to a modeling tool like SketchUp or a 3D printer, you might have students start with simple doodles, sketches, or cardboard models to get their ideas flowing.

For a storytelling unit, you might want students to become filmmakers who can artfully combine script, images, and sound effects, or you may prefer to stick with words on paper. You might also offer students a choice of digital tools for content creation, depending on their experience and the time allowed for the assignment.

If you are considering technology for a project that could last several weeks, don’t limit your use of tools to the final product or culminating event. Across the arc of a project, from compelling entry event to closing reflection, you’ll find opportunities to leverage digital tools for better results.

Here are a few examples:

Projects typically have many pieces, such as curated resources, rubrics for assessment, student journals, and calendars. Keeping the components handy will help students stay organized and be better equipped to manage their own learning. One solution might be a bulletin board or designated project space in the classroom. But putting everything online means students will have access to resources from anywhere, anytime, and parents can also have a window into what students are learning. Online solutions can range from a simple wiki, a social network like Edmodo, or a learning management system like Moodle. Projects that involve collaboration between two or more classrooms, perhaps in distant locations, typically make good use of online spaces.

During the “messy middle” of a project, when students are typically working in teams, the right tools can facilitate collaboration. Google docs, for example, enable students to write collaboratively and edit or respond to each other’s work (while providing the teacher with a record of who contributed what).

Formative assessment is essential for PBL, and the right tools can lead to more timely, specific feedback. For example, you might have students keep a blog about breakthroughs or setbacks during a project. If they embed photos, sketches, or screencasts of their work in progress, you will have a better window into their thinking at this stage and can respond accordingly. Of course, no tool eliminates the need to have informal conversations and be a keen observer of student learning.

In Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects for the Digital Age, 2nd Ed., co-author Jane Krauss and I organized a wide range of tech tools according to the essential learning functions that they help to meet. Here’s a link to the recently updated appendix with the digital resources sorted to suit your goals.

Response From Ken Halla

Ken Halla, Ph.D. is a nationally certified teacher just completing his twenty-fourth year of teaching in Fairfax County, VA. In addition to writing, he regularly teaches in-services and can be reached at kenhalla@gmail.com or on Twitter @kenhalla:

I used to say that technology for technology’s sake was an expensive alternative to paper and pencil. But our students are not getting ready for a paper and pencil world, but rather a socially connected one that works at light speed. Not only that, but our most disadvantaged students have no devices at home and just using technology at school makes them more marketable to colleges and the working world beyond.

But, of course, we want to also use technology, to go beyond the ability of my grandfather’s students he taught in a one room school house over one hundred years ago. My book, Deeper Learning Through Technology: Using the Cloud to Individualize Instruction gives a practical tutorial to the answer of why we should move beyond the everyone in lock step progression of the industrial revolution to one of personalized learning.

Bill Gates in a Ted Talk discussed seeing a great teacher who was moving around the classroom, quizzing students on different topics, correct their work in real time (actually not, but my book goes through how to do this) and helping students work at different paces. Not only this, but why not allow students to retake formative and summative assessments until students master the material - something greatly enhanced with technology. Student work can be fixed and re-submitted until the learning is attained. Really why would you want to not let a student improve. Sure students still have to miss deadlines, but does the working world want imperfect work solutions or tasks completed repeatedly to perfection.

The steps outlined above,though, need the assistance of technology. Students need to be able to work collaboratively in Google Drive or turn in work for near live time correcting in Google Classroom. Videos need to be used for short lectures while the teacher uses his or her time to work with students who have difficulty on problem sets - be they math, economics or writing an essay. All of this dumps traditional teaching on its head. No more lectures and boring textbooks. Bring in the smartphones, laptops and students moving around the room seeking answers. Learning by doing using technology is the gift we can give our students. Anything less is cheating our future.

Response From Jennifer Gonzalez

Jennifer Gonzalez is a National Board Certified Teacher and editor-in-chief at Cult of Pedagogy, where she shares fantastic resources to help all teachers do their work better. She is the author of The Teacher’s Guide to Tech, a digital handbook for using technology in the classroom.

First, let’s look at the best-case scenario: Backward Design is the most powerful approach to implementing technology in the classroom. Just like when you’re planning a field trip, a hands-on project, or even homework, a teacher’s first step should always be to ask, What will students know or be able to do by the time they are done? Once the answer to this question is clear, the teacher is primed to consider which tools will best meet that objective. If a tech tool isn’t going to help students reach the goal, it needs to be replaced with something that will, even if that something is pencil and paper.

It sounds good in theory, right? But sometimes this principle doesn’t quite line up with reality. Sometimes we come across a tool and we love it so much we think, I just have to figure out a way to use this with my students! If you’re doing this, don’t beat yourself up over it. You just need to take a step back and ask that big important question in a different way: CAN this tool help my students reach an instructional goal? Which one? Can it help them reach that goal in a more effective, more robust, or more fun way than they could with low-tech tools? If the answer is yes, if you can thoughtfully use this tool to build learning experiences that challenge students and meet curricular goals, you’re doing it right.

Suppose you discover ThingLink, a tool that allows users to take any image and embed text, video, and links to other sites right in the image. Maybe your first thought is, This is amazing! I must use it! I will start planning a ThingLink project immediately! Fine. Have your moment. I felt the same way when I saw ThingLink. But don’t stop there; don’t just show the tool to students and throw together some low-level task that basically has them link an image to a bunch of other related resources and call it learning. Push yourself to go deeply into your instructional goals. Look at the verbs of your curriculum. Are students being asked to infer? They could use a Thinglink to demonstrate how they make inferences from a photograph. Does the curriculum require students to critique or judge something? They could use a Thinglink to point to portions of an image--a map, an advertisement, a visual representation of data--and judge that product based on a set of criteria.

If you can’t do it, if the only way to fit the tool into your teaching is through force, set it aside. Put it in a cool tools pile and remember it for later. Then find something else that does a better job of facilitating the learning you’re shooting for: It will be about ten minutes before something even more amazing comes along.

Response From Kristina J. Doubet & Eric M. Carbaugh

Kristina J. Doubet, Ph.D. and Eric M. Carbaugh, Ph.D. are associate professors in the College of Education at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Co-authors of the upcoming book, The Differentiated Flipped Classroom: Practical Strategies for Digital Learning (Corwin) and consultants with the ASCD Professional Learning Services faculty, they work with teachers across the nation and abroad on the topics of curriculum, assessment, differentiation, and digital learning. Follow them on Twitter @Flip_Diff:

Your question presents a dilemma perhaps more hotly debated than the age-old chicken/egg impasse. But the hinge-point of the question may actually be the phrase “force-fit.” In truth, we should force fit neither the curriculum nor the technology; they should work together as parts of a system. Good curriculum* takes a great deal of blood, sweat, tears (and time!) to develop. It makes sense that it would be a large cog in the educational system - one that does not turn as quickly or change as rapidly as some of the others (e.g., instructional strategies, assessment techniques, management routines).

But technology evolves and revolves with dizzying speed! The range of tools it offers should provide teachers with myriad ways to help their students access the curriculum. For instance, regardless of their learning goals, all teachers need to check for student understanding both during and after a lesson; tools like Padlet.com and Socrative.com provide streamlined avenues for doing so. Further, in any class, students should be asked to craft responses, be they to address writing prompts or to display mathematical thinking and reasoning. Word processing programs are only one platform for doing so; students can actually share their thinking collaboratively via tools such as Google Docs, TodaysMeet.com or Kidblog.org. And of course, the Internet provides teachers with portals to just about any curricular supplement they can imagine. Websites can provide students access to primary sources, demonstrations and labs, or student thinking while solving math problems. Bottom line, we should not, in this day and age, be forced to “force-fit” anything; rather, we should be free to explore our technological options to find the right tool for the curricular job.

*Important note of clarification: There are numerous conceptions of what actually constitutes “curriculum.” The preceding response operates under the premise that good curriculum outlines the learning goals students should work toward (conceptual understandings, knowledge, and skills) and provides a general sense of guiding questions, rich learning activities, and assessments with which students will engage. In this curricular “space”, there is plenty of room for teachers to assess where their students are in relationship to learning goals and adjust their teaching to meet the needs discovered. There is freedom to create - or at least adjust - learning experiences to leverage the interests and passions of the students in the classroom. Technology can help teachers do all of those things. If by “curriculum,” however, we mean something with less room for learning and teaching, such as lock-step pacing guides or scripted lesson plans, then attention needs to be paid to the curriculum itself. In such cases, it won’t just be the technology which will require “force-fitting;" it will be teachers and students, as well.

Response From Heather Staker

Heather Staker is the president of Ready to Blend and a spokesperson for student-centered learning. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools (San Francisco: Wiley, 2015). She co-founded Brain Chase Productions, which stages online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for K-12 students:

This is an extraordinary time to be a teacher. Unlike ever before, the disruptive innovation of online learning is unlocking previously unimaginable opportunities for teachers to accommodate individual needs, find time to build one-on-one mentoring relationships, and extend their subject expertise to more students.

Capturing the opportunities, however, is not as simple as finding a device for each desk; in fact, leading with the device and software is one of the biggest mistakes teachers can make. It’s a sure path to “cramming,” which means stuffing more screens into students’ already noisy lives without realizing any benefit--and potentially making their lives worse.

Instead, teachers need to begin their blended-learning plan by thinking of themselves as designers. The design process includes forming a crystal-clear picture of what’s to be accomplished and a vision for the end-user experience. Only later should decisions such as device and software selection come into play.

To get started with design, take the time to develop a compelling SMART goal. A SMART goal is specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time-related. This step is critical. It forces one to reflect on the why behind the effort. The “measurable” part is particularly important. How will you assess whether your investment hits its mark?

Next, daydream about, envision, and anticipate the student experience. Crawl into the student’s skin and look at school from his or her perspective. What experiences will help students experience a love of learning, thirst for progress, and sense of joy with their friends? Many times the answer lies in blending more experiences such as project-based learning, Socratic discussion, positive conversations with teachers, apprenticeships, and transparency in daily progress into the students’ program. Teacher-designers who do this step well will find deep wells of intrinsic student motivation that replace apathy and resistance with a genuine enthusiasm for showing up each day ready to engage.

After reimagining the student experience, put pen to paper and figure out how to bring it about. What elements of your system need to change to deliver the student experience with fidelity? Perhaps you will need to overhaul the weekly schedule, adjust the budget, rearrange or swap in different furniture, and collaborate with other teachers and the outside community. For broad changes, teachers usually need to ask the principal to form a heavyweight team that buys into the rallying cry and vision and has enough power to make the operational changes necessary to bring them about.

One element of these operational changes will be procuring the right devices and software. But if teachers place that task first, they miss the earlier design and visioning work that is critical to creating an end result that is more joyful and effective both for themselves and the students whom they serve.

Response From Katie Muhtaris & Kristin Ziemke

Katie Muhtaris @KatieMuhtaris has enjoyed teaching and learning with her students in the Chicago Public School system for the last ten years. She is Nationally Board Certified as a Middle Childhood Generalist and holds a Master’s Degree in Teacher Leadership. In addition to her devotion to her students, Katie also leads staff development in person around the country and digitally around the globe on Inquiry-based learning, technology integration, and reading comprehension strategies. Katie is the author of the blog Innovate, Ignite, Inspire where she writes about her day-to-day teaching practices and seeks to connect with educators around the world.

Kristin Ziemke @KristinZiemke has spent her career teaching and learning from children in both urban and suburban school districts. As a teacher of primary age learners in Chicago, Kristin engages students in authentic learning experiences where reading, thinking, collaboration and inquiry are at the heart of the curriculum. An Apple Distinguished Educator, National Board Certified Teacher and Chicago’s 2013 Tech Innovator of the Year, Kristin seeks opportunities to transform education through technology innovation. She collaborates with educators around the globe as a staff developer, speaker and write.

Katie and Kristin are the co-authors of Amplify: Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-5 Classroom and Connecting Comprehension and Technology:

When we ask ourselves which comes first, the curriculum or the technology, we’re firm believers that the right answer to that question is our students. The individual students that walk through our door each year guide how we address the curriculum and provide daily feedback on the types of technology that impact student learning. It doesn’t matter if you take the approach to force technology into curriculum or conversely force curriculum into technology, both practices leave you missing out on what matters most--student needs.

As educators, we may enjoy playing with a technology tool or even wrongly assume that students will be more interested in the learning simply because it’s “tech.” But just because we have the technology doesn’t mean we should always use it. We start with what makes sense and carefully balance tech and text so that students learn to leverage all the resources available to steer their own learning adventure.

We look for technology to amplify what we can do with our curriculum. We don’t force one over the other, but instead adapt and adopt what we know to be student-centered best practices and use technology as a tool to add layers to student thinking. Perhaps we connect our kids with a classroom in Hawaii during an extreme weather unit to learn first-hand about the impact of volcanic eruptions. Or maybe we involve kids with a blogging community so they can receive authentic, diverse feedback that helps them craft their voice as a writer. We carefully measure purpose and payoff and origami our curriculum and technology to create new opportunities for learning.

As we do this, we seek technology that is engaging and user-friendly. Tools that take too much time are not worth the investment. Tools that are engaging, quick to learn and easily capture student thinking should naturally find a home in our curriculum. We seek apps and websites that enable kids to create, collaborate and connect and then analyze how this new opportunity personalizes learning, builds understanding and adds purpose to the work kids do in school.

Ultimately, “force-fitting” is never the right solution. We explore natural places where a technology tool can elevate student thinking, expand their voice or teach valuable collaboration skills. As educators, we evolve both our curriculum and our craft, and look to our students to determine “what fits.” And when we start with what makes sense and invite our learners to lead, we find ourselves in place where thinking is at the heart of all we do. And if we can teach students to think, they can navigate any curriculum or tool we put in front of them.

Thanks to Suzie, Ken, Jennifer, Kristina, Eric, Heather, Katie and Kristin for their contributions!

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