Absolute mastery of a subject may remain out of reach, but there are degrees of mastery. In that sense, students can master a subject—to a degree. This is broadly recognized, as in the ancient game of chess, which confers titles of chess master and grand master on players with varying degrees of expertise.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink writes that mastery is "the desire to get better and better at something that matters."1
When I dissect this definition in the context of the classroom, I'm struck by two elements. First, students must have a desire to get better. Second, they must feel that what they're learning or doing matters. Ultimately, to pursue mastery, classrooms need to focus on five "musts"—and technology supports them all.
1. Creativity and Play
When we teachers talk about our curriculums, we often refer to the "work" students are doing. This word does not have positive connotations for most students. Telling students they'll be working doesn't elicit smiles or laughter, excite creativity, or inspire innovative thinking.
Students have done a lot of work in school—and it isn't fun. It usually involves listening to the teacher, taking notes, or working on a challenging set of problems or a complex writing task. It often happens in isolation, and their work is usually judged. This work also bears little relevance to their lives beyond the classroom. This may explain why so many kids claim to hate school.
The way we define a task has a big effect on how it's perceived. What if we stop referring to learning as "work" and start calling it "play"? When students hear the word play, they think of fun activities that involve movement, friends, and toys. So why not make the classroom a place where students play as they learn, interacting with their peers using tech toys?
A Great Way to Test
As a 9th and 10th grade English language arts teacher, I've replaced pen-and-paper quizzes and test-preparation sessions, which are definitely work, with a different kind of quiz—fun "space races" using the student-response system Socrative, in which students work together to answer questions in a group competition. I create quizzes on Socrative and group students; each group's objective is to get its colored rocket to the finish line first. I've used space races to do icebreaker activities, reading quizzes, final exam reviews, and SAT preparation sessions. The races encourage students to talk, ask one another questions, and work as a team to find answers. They change students' perception of the activity from work to play.
They also give me immediate visual feedback in the form of an Excel spreadsheet that shows which questions each group of students answered correctly or incorrectly. If a large percentage of students missed a particular problem, I can review that information and give them opportunities to practice similar problems.
A New Take on Field Trips
I create Instagram scavenger hunts using the popular photo and video sharing app to encourage students to explore, capture, and share what they're seeing and learning. Students must find and take pictures of specific items, then pair those pictures with "fun facts." This turns field trips into more playful, exciting, and social experiences.
For example, when I took my students to San Francisco's Chinatown during our unit based on Amy Tan's book, The Joy Luck Club (Putnam, 1989), I compiled a list of 20 items I wanted them to find. The list included locations that were mentioned in the novel—such as Waverly Place and the First Baptist Church—as well as culturally significant items.
To encourage them to listen carefully to the docents leading the tours and use their mobile devices to research, I required students to include a fact they learned with each picture. One student took a photograph of the entrance of the Tin How Temple and added, "In temples, people burn paper lanterns in a hearth to give thanks to their ancestors." To ensure we were all able to see the pictures, I asked students to attach the hashtag #ChinatownScavengerHunt.
Teachers can use a myriad of fun apps to build in meaningful activities that students perceive more as play than as work. Teachers can also use a variety of free technology tools, from Socrative to Google forms, to continually check in with students and collect data to determine where they are on the road to mastery. Technology makes the abilities of both individuals and groups more visible, which makes it possible to identify areas of strength and weakness and then adjust the "play" happening in the classroom to home in on specific skills.
2. Student-Centered Learning
Many classrooms still arrange desks in rows facing the front of the room. This creates the illusion that there's a single source of information in the classroom—the teacher. It also conditions students to sit quietly and consume information passively. It's crucial that teachers begin to shift the flow of ideas to create a learning community in which all members of the class are valued participants who actively contribute to the collective intelligence in the room.
Technology can give every student an equal voice in the classroom, but the key is providing students with a safe space to share their ideas and interact with and learn from one another. Many teachers have tried discussion strategies like Socratic seminars to create equitable conversations. However, hurdles exist that can make it difficult for Socratic seminars and other in-class discussion strategies to be successful. Technology can help overcome these hurdles.
Most Socratic seminars begin by asking students to read and annotate one or two articles in preparation for a discussion. If teachers post the readings online and pair them with an online discussion board or thread, students can share ideas, ask questions, and begin to think more deeply about the topic before the in-class discussion.
Technology can improve the process in another way. Traditionally, Socratic seminars have two circles. The inner circle of students asks questions and discusses concepts from the reading, while the outer circle observes the conversation taking place. Those in the outer circle typically keep a written log in which they ask questions, comment on points made, and compliment strong contributions. However, the only audience for their ideas is the teacher.
Teachers can use a back channel tool like TodaysMeet.com or Twitter and project the stream of questions and comments from the outer circle onto the board. This enables the observing students to play a more active role and expands the audience for their ideas. For example, while groups of students were doing their Google presentations on the historical context of John Steinbeck's novel, Of Mice and Men (Covici Friede, 1937), I set up a TodaysMeet back channel and asked the students watching the presentations to take notes as a group. It was a great way to crowd source the information to ensure everyone had access to the most important points. Moreover, if students know their peers will read their observations, they're more motivated to do their best work.
The more teachers can shift from a teacher-centered class to a student-centered one, the more students will naturally engage. Arranging the furniture in our rooms to foster interactions among students is a great place to start. Weaving technology into our methodology to create more opportunities for communication, collaboration, and transparency is the next step to driving deeper learning and engagement.
3. The Freedom to Choose
Most teachers desire the freedom to teach the way they want without the administration telling them how to do their jobs. Ironically, many of those same teachers don't give students the freedom and independence they also crave as learners. Too often, we opt for uniformity over individuality because it's easier to manage.
In overcrowded classrooms like mine, technology creates opportunities for students to not only pursue their passions, but also decide how to approach activities and assignments. For example, this year my students created digital stories. They started by interviewing a family member, capturing the audio using Voice Memo on their iPhones or Easy Voice Recorder. Then they wrote a narrative about this person's life, focusing on a particular moment, event, or influence because their digital stories would only be 3–4 minutes long.
One student interviewed her father about his relationship with her mother. Her parents were divorced, and the student lived with her mother. After the interview, the student told me that she had learned a lot about her dad that she didn't know before their conversation and, as a result, felt much closer to him. Another student interviewed her mother about losing her father, the student's grandfather, to lung cancer. The digital story that blossomed from that sad conversation is one of my favorites.
Students wrote their narratives in Google documents, which they shared with me. Students received both formative feedback and peer reviews before they started recording their digital stories.
When the time came to make the digital stories, I presented a variety of strategies and tools that students could use, from stop-motion animation and RSA animation (in which an illustrator draws images as a presenter speaks) to iMovies; Animoto; and GoAnimate. I offered drop-in tech trainings and tech troubleshooting in my classroom at lunch to support them throughout the process.
The hodgepodge of devices, coupled with the variety of technology tools that students were using, created a messy and, at times, chaotic learning environment. This was not always comfortable for me as an educator. I couldn't answer all the students' questions, but I was able to model how they could tackle problems when they didn't know the answer. I also encouraged students to help one another solve problems. Students began coaching one another and creating video tutorials to share their expertise with a particular tool or strategy.
The outcome was incredible! In each of those 170 videos, I saw a student's personality and a distinct creative process. Not only did students demonstrate speaking and listening skills in their interviews, write a narrative piece, publish and collaborate using technology, and use media strategically to tell a story, but they also had the freedom to decide how to put it all together to create a finished product they were proud to share.
4. Shared Goal Setting
The first day of school is usually a blur for students. They wander in a daze from class to class, where teachers load them with syllabi, class rules, and lists of materials. They're told what they'll study and what they need to bring to class, but there's little conversation about why they should learn these things and how best they might learn them. It's crucial to include students in the process of identifying the goals of an assignment or the learning objectives of a class so they feel their work has purpose.
Teachers can use crowd sourcing as a strategy to collect ideas from students about what they think would make the class successful, what skills they'd like to learn, and what topics interest them. Students can post their ideas using sticky notes in a low-tech classroom or a virtual corkboard, like Padlet, in a high-tech class.
On the first day of school, I ask my students to complete the sentence, "This class would feel like a community if ____________." I then have them brainstorm the behaviors they believe would make the class feel like a safe, supportive, and respectful community. Students typically mention the need for respect and for making everyone "feel like they matter." One student noted, "This class would be a supportive community if we talked to one another, helped one another when someone doesn't understand something, defended one another, and talked to new students."
I also use this strategy for academic purposes. Instead of lecturing on Shakespearean sonnets, I ask students to use mobile devices to do their own research, discuss the information they find, and share their notes.
An activity like crowd sourcing enables students to move around as they add notes to a board or pin sticky notes on the wall. It gets them moving, thinking, and sharing, which is far more interesting to them than spending the class period trapped at a desk.
5. Timely and Specific Feedback
I recognize the importance of providing my students with quality feedback. However, the more students who are jammed into my class, the harder it is for me to give them the authentic feedback they deserve. Technology has played a pivotal role in helping me provide feedback and assess student performance while juggling 170 students.
In the past, students submitted their work on paper. I did my best to provide written feedback in a timely manner. Despite my best efforts and lots of late nights bent over assignments with a red pen in hand, I struggled.
Transitioning to a paperless classroom with Google docs has been incredibly freeing. Students share work with me the day it's assigned, so I can provide continual formative feedback and check in on those who need extra support. At the beginning of the year, students always ask, "Why do we need to share our document with you when we've not even begun writing yet?" I explain that I want to check their progress and support them as they work. I leave comments with links to my flipped classroom videos if students struggle in a particular area. I complete detailed rubrics anchored in the Common Core State Standards using Google forms. (To see my Argument Essay Rubric, go to http://goo.gl/vvWxtx.) Then I send students individual e-mails with feedback using Google spreadsheets and scripts, such as FormEmailer, Flubaroo, and Doctopus.
Installing a script on a spreadsheet enables me to automate certain procedures. For example, I complete a Google form rubric for each essay I read and assess. These data are collected in a Google spreadsheet. Once I'm done grading those assignments, I can install the FormEmailer script onto that spreadsheet, which enables me to send each student an individual e-mail with his or her feedback and grade. (To watch the screencast I recorded on installing FormEmailer, go to http://catlintucker.com/2013/02/formemailer-send-emails-directly-from-spreadsheets.) Last year, with the largest student load I've ever had, I managed to give more detailed and timely feedback than ever before, thanks to technology.2
At Their Own Pace
Because our current education system groups students by age, not ability, teachers are in the challenging position of having to support a wide range of students with varied skill sets in their journeys toward mastery. This is a daunting task, but technology offers educators tools to better support students in developing at their own pace.
I learned most of what I know about effective uses of technology by connecting with amazing educators through social media, reading education blogs, and attending conferences. I have aggressively pursued my own learning.
If schools want to effectively shift to the Common Core State Standards using technology, they need to offer teachers hands-on training and professional development that pairs technology with concrete strategies that teachers can use with their students now.
We can't get every student to completely master a topic. However, the beauty of technology is that it helps us teachers give students the tools, skills, and resources they need to continue learning on their road to mastery.
Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead, p. 109.
For a more complete description of how to use Google apps like these, visit my blog at http://catlintucker.com.
Catlin Tucker (@CTuckerEnglish on Twitter) teaches 9th and 10th grade English language arts at Windsor High School in Sonoma County, California, where she was named 2010 Teacher of the Year. She is the author of Blended Learning in Grades 4–12: Leveraging the Power of Technology to Create Student-Centered Classrooms (Corwin, 2012).
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