The bell rang. Everyone signed off their desks or hurriedly typed in reminders to themselves. Some were dumping lessons or data into their computers at home. A few gathered at the printers while something they wanted to show was printed out. Ender spread his hands over the child-size keyboard near the edge of the desk and wondered what it would feel like to have hands as large as a grown-up's. (Card, 1977, p. 5)
In the book Ender's Game, written 30 years ago, author Orson Scott Card described a future Earth where students would use their desks not as a writing surface but as a tool to manage, store, and create information.
That future is here, and with it a demand for new essential skills. Challenges also come with this future, including the need for schools to maintain accountability, address state standards, and respond to the interests and concerns of a range of stakeholders. Schools around the world are acting on these challenges, and educators can learn from the experiences of a few that have positioned themselves at the forefront.
What are these essential skills? A key one is connecting existing facts and remixing them into something new. We don't want students to regurgitate the information we present; we want them to invent new ways of putting facts together. Besides invention and innovation, students need to demonstrate problem solving, creative and critical thinking, leadership and collaboration, and global awareness and communication. Students who exhibit these skills are empowered to take control of their own learning. They are creators, not simply absorbers.
Technology is often discussed as an essential part of a 21st century education. But, as Heidi Hayes Jacobs (2010) says, "the way to modernize our work is not to use a computer instead of a typewriter and call it innovative" (p. 18). Schools and programs that use technology thoughtfully can better equip students with these essential skills.
As teachers committed to technology in schools, we have developed working relationships with several schools that use digital technology creatively in the service of student learning. We realized that three learning environments we had contact with—an urban science-focused school, an interdisciplinary program, and a rural school district—use similar approaches to technology integration, so we spent time investigating and observing their successful practices. We present here what we learned from these models.
The Science Leadership Academy: Driven by Inquiry
Science Leadership Academy is a public high school in Philadelphia that partners with the Franklin Institute, a science museum. All students in Philadelphia are eligible to apply; acceptance requires no more than one C in 8th grade, proficiency in all areas on the state assessment, a work sample, and a successful interview. The school is committed to—and achieves—diversity; 49 percent of the student body is disadvantaged, and there is a mix of ethnicities, with the main groups being black students (49 percent) and whites (34 percent). Science Leadership Academy has forged an environment in which students create meaningful content, apply learning to real-world experiences, and pursue individual interests. The project-based curriculum focuses on the core activities of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection. Subjects are integrated across the curriculum.
Students use laptops, social media, and other digital tools in all classes; and the school puts digital tools directly into their hands. Each student receives a school laptop to take home. Teachers encourage students to use technology to collaborate. For example, teacher Diana Laufenberg assigns her students to spend Election Day researching and documenting the local voting and election process together. Juniors and seniors fan out around the city to collect primary source data: audio and video clips at polling places, photographs, and voter interviews.
Laufenberg opens a chat room on a protected online forum for students to discuss the events of the day while they're fresh in their minds. On subsequent days, students formally document what they learned from observing voting in action. They post photos and videos to Flickr and write blog posts reflecting on their experiences. During the 2008 presidential election, Laufenberg's class partnered with a school in Texas to share data and compare notes.
Laufenberg finds that students carry the conversation about Election Day over into their daily lives, through Facebook and Twitter. The one-to-one laptop policy enables this sharing; because every student has immediate and personal access to essential hardware and software, students make connections and navigate the world of communication quickly.
Science Leadership Academy uses multiple measures of student success. School assessments include students' written reflections and presentations, and teachers evaluate these demonstrations of learning with a schoolwide rubric that requires students to explain their process as well as the content. Twice a year, in addition to the standard report card, every teacher prepares a two- to three-paragraph narrative about each student's work and progress. Teachers use these narrative report cards during parent-teacher conferences and involve the student in the conversation, which gives teachers and families a holistic picture of each child.
Such a well-defined program doesn't come out of thin air. The school planned its approach and curriculum carefully before it opened, in a way that reflected its core values of inquiry, collaboration, and reflection. In 2006, the school held two curriculum conferences that featured progressive thinkers in education technology, including David Warlick and Will Richardson. School leaders hired all teachers by April; staff members then met once a week using an online forum called Moodle (http://moodle.org) to hash out ideas. They spent two weeks together in person in July.
The school is now in its fifth year. Staff members still meet for two hours once a week to reflect on their practice and the school's mission. They often ask one another, What's the worst consequence of your best idea? This helps ensure that the school stays true to its mission and values, rather than playing it safe.
Integrated Studies Program: Beyond Segmented Subjects
For students to become critical thinkers and apply their learning to new situations, they must see how learning and content from different disciplines connect. This means teachers must integrate learning across disciplines. The Integrated Studies Program (ISP) at Camden County Technical High School in Sicklerville, New Jersey, takes such an interdisciplinary approach.
Math teacher Nicolae Borota and science teacher Mike Ritzius conceived of the Integrated Studies Program because of their frustration over watching students drop everything at the end-of-class bell. They saw how math and science content areas overlapped, offering unlimited opportunities for learning. So they created a program built around project-based learning and constructivist theory, putting students in charge of their own learning. More than 100 students in grades 9–12 are part of this innovative model.
Borota describes this program as a hybrid learning environment that includes both direct instruction and teachers guiding students to pursue their own learning with school-provided laptops. The program's in-school space is a 3,600-square foot renovated masonry shop with 53 desktop computers around the perimeter and long tables in the middle of the room. During the five regular class periods that they participate in the Integrated Studies Program, students move freely around the room, working on self-designed and self-directed projects. They receive both individualized and group instruction from five content-area teachers who float around the classroom. A teacher may at times spend as much as an hour guiding one student.
Each learner works with a teacher to develop a project centered on his or her interests. At the project's completion, both student and teacher analyze whether the student has achieved the learning goals spelled out at the beginning.
One student created an interactive website to teach the geometry concept of similarity. Visitors to the website moved through a haunted house by overcoming obstacles and challenges related to the concept; built-in tutorials helped visitors who had trouble solving challenges. The student learned both the math concepts and the web design skills for building the site on her own.
Group and teacher-led projects also take place. For example, one project on the development of the atomic bomb involved every student. Groups of students were assigned various roles: scientists who supported creating and dropping the bomb, scientists opposed to developing it, U.S. and Japanese citizens, political leaders, and people in the media. Each group researched historical, political, and scientific facts they needed to substantiate their persona's position. Teachers gave students criteria for the project, and the rest was up to them.
Students used online libraries, watched interviews with survivors of the Nagasaki bombing, and read everything they could about World War II to get into the mind-set of their persona. Students also created artifacts—models, videos, songs, or anything that would help them argue their case about the decision to create the atomic bomb. After two weeks, the groups shared their knowledge with all 90 students in the class. Students then got into groups that consisted of one representative from each team (one scientist who supported the bombing, one Japanese citizen, and so on) and each group engaged in a debate among themselves, each debater using his or her research to support his or her persona's point of view. Teachers presented direct questions for debate, such as "Do you think [those who decided to use the atomic bomb] considered how harmful the after-effects would be to the surrounding area, wildlife, and humans?" Teachers planned for this debate to take two hours, but students had a different idea: After lunch, they organized themselves back into groups and continued the debate the rest of the school day and the following day as well.
To facilitate project-based learning, students use Project Foundry (www.projectfoundry.org), a website that enables students to create a time line and benchmarks for completing projects. Parents can log in to view their teenager's work and leave comments. Projects are stored in an electronic portfolio, giving students the ability to access or revise projects years later.
Moodle course management software is also part of the independent learning process. Teachers upload video lectures and other content to the Moodle site. Students progress at their own pace, using discussion boards and wikis to learn with their peers. They use Moodle's instant messaging feature to contact their teacher if they are struggling with a concept or assignment.
These tools free teachers up to work with individual students as needed. Teachers also conduct weekly seminars with students in which they clear up misconceptions and facilitate group projects, basing the guidance they provide on what they see in students' work on Moodle and their talks with students.
Rural Student Empowerment
Five years ago, Van Meter School District in Iowa began to think about how it needed to adapt to a changing culture and student body. Van Meter is a rural town west of Des Moines. The entire K–12 district has 630 students, a blend of rural and suburban kids who are mostly white and 10 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price lunch.
Exponential growth, including huge facilities being built by major corporations, is hitting Des Moines and surrounding communities. Van Meter's school board members want to maintain their district's small-community feel and ensure that the philosophical foundation they built their schooling on is solid as they anticipate becoming a more populous area. Thus, they began to proactively examine their approach to teaching and learning.
In 2009, the district invested in laptops for each of its students in grades 7–12. After one year, they extended this provision to 6th graders. Van Meter High School now offers an elective course in social media and personal learning networks.
This summer, librarian Shannon Miller approached colleagues in her own professional network to expand this course by connecting her students and herself to learners three time zones away. Miller invited William Brannick, principal of Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast Catholic High School in Philadelphia and Patrick Larkin, principal of Burlington High School in Vermont, to share their students' learning with her own students during the course. The three educators used Google Docs to plan and organize the course, and in September 2010 they began a collaboration that has students at all the schools connecting with their peers through Skype and blogging. Students critique one another's blog posts and also together debunk stereotypes about their communities. (For example, Iowans don't all drive tractors!)
The students are learning essential skills in communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. They have also learned that social media is not only about socializing, but also about learning from and with their peers—and that their peer group is far broader than they could have imagined.
At the middle school, teacher Shawn Hyer hosts class discussions online through a Ning network he created. Hyer found that when students respond to discussion prompts online, their communication takes on a life of its own. As Van Meter superintendent John C. Carver explained,
Two years ago, [Hyer] would post a question on the board, have the students write in [individual] journals, and talk about it. Now, when kids write, every kid sees every other kid's response. The shy kid's thoughts are elevated to the same level as everyone else's. Some questions … have kids commenting on them 30 to 60 days afterwards.
Features for Success
Several features common to these learning sites can guide other schools interested in transforming teaching and learning with technology as a component. Each of these schools
- Erased content area boundaries. Units and projects focus on integrating and applying skills.
- Set up methods to teach and assess students through projects, with the emphasis on doing, not remembering content.
- Continued to address state standards and perform well on state-assessments.
- Gave students freedom and responsibility to use digital tools as they see fit, rather than predefining how technology should be used for learning.
Developers of these programs know technology is not the essence of education in the 21st century; it's the infrastructure. Technology in these environments is, as Science Leadership Academy principal Chris Lehmann says, "like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible." But what's most telling in these schools is that these skills are embedded in their cultures. Educators do not just teach them or model them—they live them every day.
Teachers have the power to show students what it's like to "have hands as large as a grown-up's." The programs described here show how to do so: by embracing change and erasing the line between teacher and learner.
Card, O. S. (1977). Ender's game. New York: Tom Doherty Associates.
Jacobs, H. H. (2010). Curriculum 21: Essential education for a changing world. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Mary Beth Hertz
(@mbteach on Twitter) is technology teacher at the Alliance for Progress Charter School in Philadelphia. Gerald W. Aungst
(@geraldaungst on Twitter) is supervisor of gifted education at the School District of Cheltenham Township in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.
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