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There seems to be a lot of hyperbole thrown around about various educational technologies lately. See if you can guess which innovation received this praise:

Chalkboard Quote

No, it’s not Bill Gates on the marvels of the Khan Academy. It’s Josiah F. Bumstead, praising the chalkboard in 1841.

I’m certainly not the first to point this out (see “Is this press release from 2012 or 1972?”), but it’s easy to get caught up in the fervor of new technology. This allure is especially profound during a period of such prolific technological innovation in the classroom. However, whether we’re talking about chalkboards, SMARTboards, individually prescribed instruction, calculators, or laptops, the essential aim is not to repeat the mistakes of the past, but to learn from them.

How can the benefits and shortcomings of previous educational technologies help us build and employ better strategies for our students today?

To this end, our dialectic seems to be reaching the unsurprising agreement that the details of how a teacher or a school implements blended learning is the key to success (and that giant learning labs are a particularly impoverished form of blended learning). I think TJ nailed my hopes for blended learning in his last post, and I’d only add that my suggestion is not to ponder how blended learning could help liberate students from assessments, but from busywork (“rote tasks like homework, lectures, and busywork”).

All students, especially students in poverty, deserve to have experiences with technology that go beyond direct instruction and test taking. English teacher and avid blogger, Larry Ferlazzo, draws a distinction between agitation and irritation in the classroom. Irritation is “challenging people to do something that we want them to do” (like create data sets). Agitation, however, is “challenging them to do something that they want to do.” Can educators use technology to agitate our students “to amplify their human potential”?

Here are three educators who offer visions of what this might look like in action:

DYDAN

A former high school math teacher now working on a PhD at Stanford, Dan Meyer espouses the importance of being “less helpful” and helping his students encounter perplexity. He captures videos and images with his smartphone in a quest to help his students think mathematically. By recognizing the drawbacks of textbook problems and giving his students the opportunity to ask the questions, he embodies the vision of the agitating educator. His popular TED talk, “Math Class Needs a Makeover,” gives a great example of what this looks like in action.

In addition, Meyer’s “101 Questions” project extends a challenge to both teachers and students to harness the power of smartphones to find mathematical questions in the world around them.

BRICK

An ACE graduate and filmmaker, Brick Maier creates rich and structured moviemaking experiences for students. Maier’s “Tabletop Moviemaking” method teaches the writing process and digital storytelling with a production studio that fits on a desktop. The method, which was featured online in Wired Magazine last year, draws on a rich history of puppet theatre and drama and encourages students to master the elements of plot, digital literacy, the writing process, and filmmaking. The finished products can then be published on youtube and shared via social media, and students can watch their films alongside other student films (like those from workshops that Maier holds at organizations like Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia Writing Center).

SUGATA

Winner of the 2013 TED prize, Dr. Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiments demonstrated that students – even students in abject poverty who had never seen computers before – can learn to use the Internet on their own to teach themselves complex concepts (even in foreign languages). Dr. Mitra set up Internet kiosks, gave children an interesting challenge, and then left without telling them how to do anything. Putting the agitation vs. irritation distinction succinctly, Dr. Mitra claims that “if children have interest, then education happens.”

So what can we learn from the successes of these educators? Who else should we look to as we seek to understand the capacity for blended learning and educational technology to amplify our students’ human potential?

For that matter, what can we learn from TJ’s anecdote from our friend Joe Womac about the veteran teacher at Alliance Charter schools? Why did she feel that the new blended learning model helped her so much? How did the model allow for and support her students’ success? A look at the school’s website reveals that the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools are implementing a thoughtful, scalable model that incorporates both instruction and production. Those details are important.

While for-profit corporations might be content shilling for a vague concept of “blended learning,” reflective educators and practitioners will be compelled to talk about the nuts and bolts of what works, why it works, and how we can use it to give all students the opportunity to flourish and access their God-given potential.

Reflective practitioners will celebrate what students are doing with technology – not the technology itself. Students are asking probing mathematical questions; they’re making movies with establishing shots, setting tone with lighting, and crafting well developed plots; they’re teaching themselves advanced science in a foreign language!

There’s no hyperbole here, simply description.

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“Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence.” (Phaedrus, Plato)

Thanks to TJ for inviting me to join The Soul of a Nation and for surfacing our conversation about blended learning here. I’m especially excited to be a part of “The Great Blended Learning Debate Dialectic,” largely because I have so many questions about blended learning and the use of technology in education. It’s a fascinating, perplexing, and burgeoning area of educational innovation, and I hope you’ll join us in discussing and considering its implications and iterations here.

To start with, what are we talking about when we talk about blended learning?

Blended learning in relation to other education practices.newThe Innosight Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank, defines blended learning as “a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.” In other words, “blended” learning entails employing some combination of computer-based instruction and teacher-based instruction in a curriculum.

Now this is an exceptionally broad and flexible definition. In fact, the institute charts out eight distinct models of blended learning, which provide a sense of just how many diverse approaches fall under the umbrella of blended learning. A high school science teacher with a “flipped classroom” and a charter school that sends students to a “learning lab” for several hours a day are both using blended learning, but these are very different educational realities.

This wide definition might be a good place to begin. It provides the context for a conversation about how technology can improve instruction and increase student learning but also raises a series of questions. For instance, what kind of blended learning model best fits a Catholic school? What are our goals for implementing blended learning? Which models are the most effective in accomplishing those goals? What is it that makes blended learning so exciting in the first place?

As TJ points out in Part One of our conversation, a part of the appeal of blended learning is its efficiency and its potential to liberate teachers from the menial burdens of instruction. In a blended learning model, the computer can take care of the lectures, worksheets, homework, and grading. Depending on the details of the model, blended learning might even be able to provide individual data and feedback on student progress to help ensure mastery, allow for differentiation, and assist in remediation (though, just as an example, one high-profile charter school, Rocketship, does not receive such feedback from their much-discussed learning labs – see this video from a PBS segment on the school).

There is no doubt in my mind that blended learning can do many of the things folks claim it can. However, that does not guarantee that it will do those things in every setting if it is not used effectively (and in fact, to Catholic educators in particular, it also doesn’t mean that we should do all of these things). Blended learning – like any other educational intervention – is not a silver bullet. It does not provide a panacea for problems of learning differences, differentiation, or student motivation. But it can certainly help. So what should we do to deploy blended learning in a way that increases student learning in Catholic schools?

In pursuit of that model, I offer two early questions:

How can schools use blended learning and technology to improve curricula and enhance pedagogy in meaningful ways? In other words, how can we use technology not to “fill the pail” but to “light the fire?” One of the primary concerns with some examples of blended learning is the learning theory that undergirds some models. Instead of transferring the inadequacies of outdated pedagogies and textbooks to computer based delivery-mechanisms, why not use blended learning to get rid of rote tasks like homework, lectures, and busy-work?

Colorful, but liberating?

Rocketship again. Colorful, but liberating?

TJ rightly points out that education is fundamentally about liberation, but some folks may struggle to square the idea of “liberation” with certain models of blended learning (i.e. rows of students in computer stalls with headphones on). Certainly some technologies liberate the teacher from homework, grading, lectures, and worksheets: Should they be liberating the students from these burdens as well?

How can Catholic schools take advantage of the economic benefits and efficiencies provided by blended learning models without losing sight of the concern for the dignity of the whole person – cura personalis? A common refrain among Catholic school leaders is that mission drives budget, not the other way around. As blended learning models are introduced that can lower costs for schools, school leaders will have to consider whether these models are consonant with the mission of their school and of Catholic education before cashing in on any pecuniary advantages.

For example, consider whether blended learning looks the same for students in low SES schools and in upper SES schools. If there are discrepancies here, how do we account for them? The challenge is to look for economic solutions for our students and children that are also just and effective solutions. There are certainly equitable, effective, and promising uses of technology out there – but in a sea of offerings, how do we identify them?

Finally, a quick note on teachers and superheroes:

As much as I want to like the idea of “Bringing on Batman” as an alternative to “Waiting for Superman,” the metaphor still isn’t quite right for me . First of all, I’m wary of the current tendency to equate teachers with superheroes. It sanctions low salaries (it’s okay because they’re heroes!), obfuscates strategies for effective teaching, and places unreasonable expectations on teachers.

TrumpSecondly, the tools do not make Batman a hero. Virtue and courage (and extensive martial arts training) make him a hero. Donald Trump could probably afford a Batmobile, but would he use it to fight crime? Maybe not. If the Donald just sits in traffic, then he is not Batman: He’s a man with funny hair and an unbelievably expensive car.

In the same way, technology can and should help educators improve student learning, but teachers will ultimately accomplish this by using better strategies and harnessing creativity, patience, devotion, commitment, virtue, and skill – even when there’s expensive technology around.