One enthusiastic educator's exciting journey to teaching mastery
One enthusiastic educator's exciting journey to teaching mastery
About a year ago, after watching the movie Most Likely to Succeed, I became super interested in Project-Based Learning (PBL). I saw what High Tech High's students were capable of, and I knew I wanted my students to experience the same level of growth, confidence, and passion. This led me to applying for (and receiving!) a grant to visit that school, along with a few others, who specialize in PBL. At the same time, I got the news that I would be teaching grade 6 this year- the year our students carry out the PYP exhibition.
It's like it was all meant to be.
Here's a trailer of one of the most inspiring edudocumentary I've ever seen - Most Likely to Succeed. If you haven't seen it yet, I suggest you organize a viewing with your staff. Inspiration is all but guaranteed.
Teaching in an IB World School, I feel skilled and knowledgeable about the inquiry-based learning approach. Our staff collaborates to set the scene for inquiry, to facilitate our students' research and then push them further. Through inquiry, we've seen our students become confident, empathetic and knowledgeable world citizens.
However, when we review our planners at the end of the unit of inquiry, I've noticed that I only sometimes have students who took action inspired by our unit. Some students will make the first step on their own, but not the majority. Often, I found the potential for action was largely untapped.
After watching Most Likely to Succeed, I saw that PBL would help me reinforce real-world connections, and make learning meaningful and relevant to our students. PBL is founded on the premise of presenting real-world context to our students. The project, or action, is naturally embedded in the design of PBL. In addition, these real-world projects are cross-curricular by nature, reinforcing all our PYP transdisciplinary skills (communication, research, self-management, thinking and social skills).
These projects are also open-ended, which means they are also easy to differentiate. And if action, and choice, are so naturally embedded in the project, then there's your student engagement!
On a larger-scale, I believe PBL will help our students gain experience as agents of change in their school, community, and world. Those experiences can fuel them to be engaged citizens of the world, and really, that hits the core of why I became a teacher!
About ten days before school ended, I remember announcing to my class that this was our last Monday together before summer break. To my surprise, I heard a few groans and more than a few: "I don't want school to end!". I had been used to this when I taught in a low-SES neighbourhood, where summers off often meant a complete break from a steady and predictably-safe environment. But hearing this from my mostly well-off kids, who had plans of world travelling, specialized summer camps and endless play dates? I didn't expect it!
So I took the time to explain that we had all worked hard this year, and that we all deserved a break to relax now! To enjoy the hot weather, the long sunny days, eat tons of ice cream and play with our friends outside! And of course, we will all see each other again before we know it.
This class discussion made me think about the importance of closure. After spending all our days together for the better part of a year, even I'm sad to leave my crew. We have all those inside jokes! We have shared so many good and bad times together! Saying goodbye can be hard, specially for those not returning to us next school year, so it's important we do it right. Here are a few traditions I have in place to ease the transition, and to give everyone a peace of closure for the end of the school year!
The Most Detailed Attendance
It's almost comical how anal I become about the June calendar. "Will anyone NOT be here tomorrow, or for the rest of the year? X, will you be here? Y, when are you guys heading down to the States? Z, last year you had to finish early last year- what about this year?" In spite of my daily inquisitions, one or two students always end up leaving without coming back, sans warnings to themselves, to me or to their friends. And every year, this simultaneously bugs me and saddens me.
I think it is SO important for students to know when they are leaving school, and for their friends (and teachers!) to get a chance to say goodbye! Kids need the closure of goodbye hugs. It's essential that the adults in charge (a collaboration between teachers and parents) respect our shared children, and respect the relationships they've cultivated over the year.
Celebrating Summer Birthdays
I've written about the importance of celebrating birthdays before, but here I go again! It's so important to celebrate student birthdays, even if they occur on weekends or during the summer. This shows students that are thought-of and cared for all the time, not just when it conveniently fits our calendar. Also, I've had students not want to make birthday drawings for other kids because they thought their July birthdays wouldn't get celebrated. That bad attitude turns around quickly when they hear that I do ALL birthdays!
I typically schedule summer birthdays throughout the month of June, ensuring everyone gets their own day. Their birthdays are written on our calendar, and a little note is sent home explaining to parents why their child will be talking about their birthday a month early!
End of Year Awards
For the last two years, I've started the tradition of End of Year Awards with my students. Each award is personalized for the student and everyone gets one!
We roll out a red carpet (red paper if we have it...this year, I painted a red carpet on craft paper), put on award music and a video of a disco ball on a loop and we begin our ceremony! We go over the rules first: everyone claps for everyone, and everyone has the right to go to the end of the carpet to do their dramatic catwalk! My teaching partner and I put on our TV show host voices, and dramatically call out the awards like this: "for doing the right thing even when no one is looking, Mr. Integrity goes to... *kids do a drumroll* Johnny!" and then we do a round of applause, and pause for pictures.
End of Year Breakfast
If we don't have too many classroom allergies, I love to host a good classroom breakfast as an end of year activity. Each student is assigned a piece of food or cutlery to bring in. I set up our class tables as one mega table, so that we can eat family style. I even like to do place settings, and I have the kids help me in setting the table.
When it comes time to eating, I tell the kids a story from my past. When I was the army, the higher-ups always served the troops first, and they ate last. This is because leaders show the example, and put others first, and (I always liked to imagine) as a sign of respect for the troops. I always add that it's a little thing I can do to show them some love for a great year together!
The Importance of Traditions
These are a few of our little classroom end of year traditions. They change over the years depending on the kids. They help in the planning of it all, and they are the reason any and all these events are successes- it's thanks to their enthusiasm and participation that anything we do goes well. These traditions are a way of showing one another how much we mean to each other, and, for the end of the year, it's a celebration of all we've accomplished. What are some of your must-dos for class celebrations?
Identifying Current Barriers
As evidenced by the literature, there is a large divide between recommended technology integration, and what actually takes place in classrooms. Some believe that the dramatic reconstruction of society due to technological advances has not extended to school settings due to administrative or financial constraints (Mao, 2014 cited in Dolan, 2016). These are mainly external barriers, also identified as first-order barriers by Ertmer (1999), that can be easily resolved with redistributed finances. I believe the cause of this static teaching situation is far more complex.
In order to reconcile the technological disconnect present in schools, it is important to address the many intricate reasons that contribute to this divide. While researchers have identified a laundry list of obstacles, I have chosen to identify the most prominent barriers, the ones that are deep-rooted into the psyche of educators, and have the greatest impact on the current situation. Together, traditional teaching beliefs, lack of guidance and constantly evolving technologies create a trifecta of barriers that prevent any progressive transformation from happening.
Teacher beliefs, and their impact on teachers’ practices, have been widely researched. Described as “the individual conceptions about desirable ways of teaching and conceptions about how students come to learn” (Beijaard, 1998, as cited in Hermans, Tondeur, van Braak, & Valcke, 2008, p. 1500), teacher beliefs have a great impact on what goes on in the classroom. Hew and Brush (2007) go on to explain that a teacher’s beliefs will determine their attitude, and that in turn, this impacts the daily goings-on of teaching.
Teachers beliefs are formed by past experiences and help maintain and form future experiences, as they are a lens through which all future experiences are seen (Ertmer & Ottenbreit-Leftwich, 2010). New information, about best practices when integrating educational technology, for example, are filtered through a teacher’s belief system (Ertmer, 2005). They are deeply ingrained- so much so, that it is unlikely that a teacher could simply be persuaded to change their beliefs (Ertmer, 2005). This means that teachers will use teaching methods with which they are familiar, and that have had success in the past.
Teacher beliefs directly impact whether or not teachers will integrate technology into one’s practice. Vannatta and Nancy (2004) ascertain that teachers’ beliefs and disposition towards technology act as predictors of successful technology implementation. More precisely, traditional beliefs are shown to have a negative impact on classroom use of technology (Hermans et al., 2008), and teachers who believe using technology in the classroom is a valuable endeavour are more likely to use it in their teaching (Ertmer and Ottenbreit-Leftwich, 2010).
Hermans et al. (2008) stated that teacher beliefs are a determining factor of why teachers use technology in the classroom. Experienced teachers’ beliefs hold an even more significant value; should they not see the value of integrating ICT into their practices, not only will they not use it, but less experienced teachers will be deterred from initiating, or even continuing, their classroom uses of ICT (Brinkerhoff, 2006).
This may be too big a jump for many teachers who have a traditional teaching style: the pressure of changing their pedagogical beliefs and integrating technology makes them resentful, and more likely to resist change altogether (Zhao & Cziko, 2010). Yet presented in the right way, Matzen and Edmunds (2007) suggest that integrating technology into one’s teaching practice may be the right opportunity for teachers to try out a new teaching style (in this case, a constructivist one).
No Clear Objectives
As technology rapidly evolved, and was naturally woven into the fabric of our daily lives, it became clear technology would have an important role to play in education. Yet no one told teachers what they should do with it, or what successful technology integration would look like (Means, 2010). Literature on effective technology implementation has been limited (Means, 2010). As a matter of fact, there is no adopted standard definition of technology integration (Bebell, Russell & O’Dwyer, 2004). Without guidance, standards, or a model to work towards, is it no wonder that this objective has not been achieved? Working in such ambiguity would be a challenge for anyone.
Even the vernacular used in this field is unclear. The development of educational technology is accompanied by a large amount of buzzwords, that often, are empty of meaning or significance. Chief among them, the catch-all phrase of ‘21st century learning’. Many have attempted to define this term, yet a single definition remains elusive. In various research papers, 21st century learning skills can be defined as including: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, higher order thinking, information literacy, cultural competency and awareness, lifelong learning, digital citizenship, empathy, creativity, innovation, and many more (ISTE, 2007). This list of desired outcomes seems all-encompassing, and not solely reserved for the 21st century.
Technology is developing and evolving so quickly, it is impossible to keep up. Every minute, 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube (2016). This is one small example to illustrate the accelerated growth of the industry. As there is constant change and evolution in the field of technology, there are continually new ICTs being developed, new advances and discoveries being made and increased creation of programs and Apps. This means teachers have access to a growing, unlimited bank of resources at their fingertips. Should someone be able to identify a gap in educational technology, it is only a short matter of time before someone answers that need.
The ever-changing nature of technology has been frequently identified as a barrier by teachers (Ditzler et al., 2016; Dolan, 2016), but I believe it has been mislabelled. The quickly developing realm of ICT is clearly a benefit and should be embraced. While it may be threatening or intimidating to teachers that the field of technology is constantly changing and evolving, it’s dynamic nature should inspire teachers, not scare them.
The real issue is placed at the core of the current predicament of education- technology poses a threat towards conventional teaching methods. Traditionally, teachers have acted as sage on the stage; all-knowing transmitters of information instructing passive students (King, 1993). The sheer amount of material being thought of, created, and shared through technology greatly threatens the transmittal model- no teacher could ever know all the programs or Apps. Even so, most teachers have clung to this model, rejecting the transformational potential of technology, by using ICT for low level operations (Ertmer, 2005). Claiming that the great deal of ever-changing information is a barrier is really only a façade for the fear and anxiety teachers feel about change.
Current Use of ICT
Is the potential of educational technology being maximized? Not at all. In spite of the numerous benefits offered by educational technology, schools have not been using computers to their full, transformational potential (Blin, 2008). Examining current use of educational technology will highlight a blatant misuse of a potentially powerful tool. In addition, exploring the current ways in which teachers currently utilize ICT in their teaching practice will reveal the true origin of the problem.
Replicating Traditional Teaching
By and large, teachers are using technology to replicate traditional styles of teaching. In a study exploring the classroom use of tablets, Ditzler, Hong and Strudler (2016) found that applications were limited, and mainly geared towards productivity (such as calendar, and word processing). Similar findings were highlighted in a survey of over 6,000 high school Quebec students (Karsenti & Fievez, 2013). They noticed tablets remained unused for most of the classroom time. When they were used, it was overwhelmingly to support traditional teaching tasks, such as reading a digital textbook, or to employ a word processing or dictionary App to take notes on class lectures (Karsenti & Fievez, 2013). The situation is much the same in higher education. Blin (2008) found that professors mainly used the school’s online portal to upload materials that would be presented during face-to-face interactions.
Naturally, teachers play a deciding role in whether or not technology will have a place in the classroom, and what that place will be (Schnellert & Keengwe, 2012; Thomas, 2007, 2008; Wenglinsky, 2005; Wiburg, 2003). Overwhelmingly, using technology does not change one’s teaching methods. Typically, teachers who use technology in their teaching practices use it to imitate their usual teaching styles (Ertmer, 2005). This has been proven many times over; teachers with traditional philosophies are likely to use technology to support their conventional methods (Ertmer, 2005), and teachers who already use student-centered practices are likely to continue doing so when implementing technology (Matzen & Edmunds, 2007). Therein lies the problem: if instructional practices remain the same, so will learning, no matter which tool is used to deliver information (Clark & Mayer, 2011).
Transforming through Constructivist Applications
As all schools have access to some level of educational technology (Means, 2010), we might have expected to see a transformation in pedagogical execution. However, technology is not transformative by its mere presence, but by the manner in which it is implemented. Meaning, it is not the mere physical presence of technology that will transform education, but rather, the ways in which they will be implemented into teaching practices. If thoughtfully and prudently implemented into teachers’ practices, ICT can work to augment student agency and transform traditional roles of both student and teacher.
The power of transformative ICT use is unlocked when coupled with constructivist, student-centered learning situations (Honey & Moeller, 1990). That is, teachers who align themselves with Piaget’s learning theory, that children learn by constructing knowledge based on their own experiences and interactions, will see greater results. Researchers have also identified that teachers who favour constructivism, focus on higher level thinking, and their students tend to create media, as opposed to simply consuming it (Dolan, 2016; Ertmer, 2005; Hickey, Moore, & Pellegrino, 2001; Jonassen, 1996).
Leont’ev’s (1978) Activity Theory (AT) provides a framework by which we can structure and categorize the different usages of digital technologies. According to this theory, activities are a series of actions that use material objects to work towards a goal. The outcome of these action will vary, depending on what the actions are, and be categorized as either tool, tutor, resource, or environment.
In Stevenson’s (2008) application of AT employing educational technology, he classified 60 ICT classroom activities using this framework. The two most popular categories were those that supported traditional teaching; 89% of observed activities had students consuming media (Stevenson, 2008), a very passive form of education, if that at all. These types of activities do nothing to alter the current roles of teachers of students, but rather, only preserve traditional teaching methods.
The other two categories of AT represented a much less popular type of ICT use. Accounting for only 8% of the activities, these types of endeavours lent themselves to a constructivist, student-centered philosophy, wherein students were actively participating in their education creating and evaluating media.
Information Computer Technologies (ICT) typically follow Moore’s Law, wherein technology becomes cheaper, better and faster every 18 months. The advent of the Internet, and the accompanying technologies that have been developed over the last few decades, has completely transformed every aspect of our daily lives. Technology is omnipresent, thanks to social media, smart technology, wearable technology, cloud computing, e-learning, artificial intelligence, data mining, the Internet of Things, and so on. The world is now so connected that physical boundaries are often inconsequential. Information is available at the press of a button, global communication and collaboration is a daily occurrence, and universal connectedness is the new normal.
Naturally, many thought this technological revolution would extend to education (Blin, 2008). Yet the realm of education moves at a slower pace. Despite numerous advantages, the world of education has largely been unaffected by the technological revolution. Not to say that schools have not integrated computers- they have- but the current use of educational technology has by and large only been used to support traditional methods of teaching.
For decades, researchers have explored the potential, and current function of computers in the classroom. Current discussion about educational technology attempts to identify and overcome barriers. The discord between the current use of educational technology and its optimal applications must be addressed in a concrete fashion. This paper seeks to examine the ways in which technology can be most transformative and effective in teaching and learning, identify the gaps as to how technology is currently used in classrooms, and propose a series researched-based professional development (PD) of workshops as a solution to merging those two paths into one.
Benefits of ICT
When properly implemented, educational technology offers a wide range of benefits affecting many parties. These benefits have long been documented by academics and teachers alike. By fully exploring the benefits allotted by technology, in terms of accessibility, benefits to students and teachers, and potential as change agent, it will be easy to see why so many schools seek to integrate educational technologies.
Years ago, concerned parties recognized how inaccessible technology was: the cost alone would surely widen an already large academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor. This oft-referenced ‘digital divide’ has changed meanings over the last twenty years (Dolan, 2016) as 100% of American public schools have access to instructional computers connected to the Internet. That is to say, accessibility to computers is essentially a non-issue nowadays. Even outside of the school setting, students commonly use technology: 92% of students between 12-17 years go online daily (Lenhart, 2015). With physical accessibility no longer a key issue, it is crucial that we consider the numerous advantages of educational technology as extending to all students and teachers.
Even for classrooms having access to only one technological device, accessibility remains high. The portable nature of many technological devices (such as touch-screen tablets or laptops) means greater flexibility in use by students, teachers and schools (Catholic Education-Diocese of Parramatta, 2010). More precisely, it offers potential for individual or group use and easy redistribution of resources within a class or school.
Educational technology is also accessible to learners of all levels. A textbook, for example, is only accessible to students who can read at a predetermined level, and only offers content on one topic, as presented by one author or group of authors. The information available is limited, and dated. With access to the Internet, any ICT offers unlimited, up to date content from a variety of sources. With facilitated access and distribution of information, educational technology efficiently simplifies the teaching process (Martin, Berland, Benton, & Smith, 2013). Learners of all levels can access the information they require.
Benefits to Teachers & Students
Teaching is also positively impacted by the use of educational technology. While traditional materials intrinsically dictate a certain teaching style, the flexible nature of technology empowers teachers to use a wider array of teaching strategies (Fernández-López, Rodríguez-Fórtiz, Rodríguez-Almendros & Martínez-Segura, 2013). Educational technology also simplifies inclusive teaching, as differentiation and student assessment are made easier (Isabwe, 2012; McClanahan, Williams, Kennedy, & Tate, 2012; McKechan & Ellis, 2014; Wasniewski, 2013). The option to quickly transition to different applications increases the accessibility of educational technology, as any teacher wishing to make a cross-curricular connection may easily do so (Murphy & Williams, 2011).
Using ICTs in an educational setting has been shown to benefit student learning in a plethora of ways. Educational technology has been commended for increasing student results in standardized testing, increasing student learning and motivation (Churchill, Fox & King, 2012; Hew & Brush, 2007; Kinash, Brand, & Mathew, 2012; Rossing, Miller, Cecil, & Stamper, 2012).
The benefits of educational technology also extend to students with special needs. Specifically, tablet use has been proven to be beneficial to students with learning difficulties, as was presented in the case study by McClanahan et al. (2012), wherein a student with ADHD displayed significant increase in reading ability due to working with a tablet computer. Both reading and writing are more accessible and easier to learn when taught with educational technology (Fernández-López et al., 2013; Murray & Olsece, 2011).
Educational technology also positively impacts the development of soft skills, such as communication, interpersonal skills and character traits. In a study by Matzen and Edmunds (2007), having and using technology in the classroom was shown to increase the frequency and quality of interactions among students. Similar studies have shown that teachers who use technology have seen an increase in the number of student-teacher interactions, thus boosting communication and collaboration not only between students, but also between student and their teachers (Beebe, 2011; Geist, 2011; Henderson & Yeow, 2012; Hutchison, Beschorner, & Schmidt-Crawford, 2012).
When using technology, students have demonstrated improved organisational skills, in both their tasks and the structure of assignments (Churchill et al., 2012). Killilea (2012) found that students’ computer literacy skills were positively impacted when teachers used educational technology as meaningful tools in their teaching. Use of technology in an educational setting has also been proven to increase students’ inventive thinking (Hew & Brush, 2007).
The most powerful benefit technology can offer the institution of education is its potential to transform our field. Educational technology naturally lends itself to student-centered learning environments. By empowering students to be independent lifelong learners, giving them access to information like never before seen in the history of the world, and connecting them to the world in ways that were never possible before the advent of the Internet, educational technology could revolutionize what happens inside our classrooms. As Matzen and Edmunds (2007) claimed, technology can act as a catalyst for change.
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