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Process Change: How to Do School Differently
If K-12 leaders don't transform their processes, technology will be "just a $1,000 pencil."
When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) last year issued a report saying that countries investing heavily in school technology have seen no noticeable improvement in their scores on international benchmark exams, education thought leader Alan November wasn't surprised.
"There is essentially no evidence that technology has added value to our core business" of teaching and learning," November said. But that's not because technology is a poor instructional tool. On the contrary, "I don't think we have a technology problem," he said. "What we have is a learning problem."
November said he believes the reason technology so far has failed to move the needle on a system-wide scale in education is that most K-12 leaders haven't changed their processes to take full advantage of technology's power. He points to research from Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff and others who have noted that process change is "absolutely essential" for technology to improve quality in any organization.
"Technology without process change is just a $1,000 pencil," he said.
During his 2016 Building Learning Communities (BLC) conference in Boston July 20-22, November and other speakers explored several ideas for how K-12 teachers and administrators can think differently about how they approach education — from the skills that students learn to the kinds of lessons that teachers design.
Making Thinking Visible
What Zuboff realized with process change, November said, is that "when organizations introduced new technology, they saw the greatest change when their workers were given more control. There was an immediate shift in productivity."
Technology empowers workers to collect their own data, he explained, without waiting for guidance from a supervisor who controls all of the information. He added: "Now you've moved the decision making to the people who are closest to the problem."
For schools, an example might be showing teachers how they can make their students' thinking more visible through daily formative assessment, and then using this information to put students into appropriate groupings for small-group instruction — or re-teaching a concept if many students are still confused.
Lainie Rowell, a former Apple Distinguished Educator and Google Certified Trainer who is now an independent ed-tech consultant, shared several ways that teachers can use technology to make their students' thinking more visible, even in low-tech classrooms.
For instance, if students don't have their own digital device, teachers can use a free service called Plickers to print out special cards that students can use to indicate their response to a multiple-choice question. Each student is assigned to a unique card that has a different design, depending on whether the student holds it up with choice A, B, C or D facing upward. (The unique shapes on each Plickers card help protect students' privacy, so they can answer questions honestly without worrying about what their peers think.)
Using the camera feature on a smart phone or tablet, the teacher scans the room until each student's response has been recorded by the Plickers software — and then the teacher can see how each individual student responded, as well as the class as a whole.
November demonstrated a free tool called Verso, a browser-based app designed to enable teachers to foster rich class discussions that reveal what students are thinking about a topic — while also taking their learning deeper.
Teachers create an activity by linking to a video or a document they want students to reflect on, then ask a thought-provoking question about it. There is a space in the assignment for teachers to model the kinds of responses they'd like to see from students, to make sure students understand the depth of thought that is required of them. Then, teachers assign the activity to their class.
"Verso gives the teacher immediate insight into what the whole class is thinking at once," November said. "And it gives the kids the safety of being anonymous. Plus, unlike with any other social media platform, the students don't see each others' responses until they submit their own, which leads to original thought. It's pretty amazing."
Shifting Control to Students
To realize technology's full potential in education, educators also have to relinquish more control to the students themselves, conference speakers said. And that means rethinking the role of the teacher as provider of all knowledge.
"The instinct of a teacher is to answer students' questions," November said. "But I believe you shouldn't answer any of them. If you do, you're creating a culture of dependency. We should be teaching students how to find their own answers to questions on the web."
Not only that, but students should learn how to ask more sophisticated questions and develop deeper lines of inquiry, he said. He pointed to the Questioning Toolkit as a resource that educators can use to teach students how to devise better questions.
"The answers to almost anything are available on the Internet," November said. "But if you don't know the right questions to ask in order to get those answers, it won't do you any good."
Having students design their own problems helps them learn how to ask better questions, he said. But many students don't have this skill, because "we've been spoon-feeding them the problems."
Harvard University physics professor Eric Mazur has shifted much the responsibility for learning to his students. His technique is to introduce his students to a concept by having them read about it or watch a video for homework, and then in class he asks a question that applies the concept in a whole new context. He has his students think about their response, then find peers who disagree with their answer and discuss the problem together.
It's a technique he calls peer instruction, and he said he has found it to be quite effective. In fact, using this instructional model, Mazur has realized learning gains that are three times greater than he saw when he used to lecture.
He demonstrated the concept with conference attendees, asking a question about buoyancy that required participants to apply what they knew about water displacement to a challenging scenario and then discuss their answer with a neighbor.
"Look at this: You all got fired up," he said when the demonstration was over. By taking an inquiry-based approach to instruction, "isn't it amazing how you can reawaken the creativity of the human mind?"
Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer with 17 years of experience covering education and technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.