Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Are we just salespeople for Scholastic?

Beginning in first grade, I remember being elated every time that white and red Scholastic book order box was delivered to my teacher's classroom. It meant the chance to get my brand new books, which I would inevitably devour in the coming days. That was in the late 1980s and 1990s. Now, while Scholastic is still successful as a company, many more online markets -- not to mention the Kindle and Nook -- are fierce competitors for the book selling company. 

Our Media Specialist strongly encourages students and teachers to buy their books from Scholastic, in hopes of earning points towards free books, merchandise, and funds for our school. But have we gone too far in supporting this company? Are there other, cheaper ways we should encourage our staff and students to buy their books from? You decide.

Connecticut Judge Rules Teachers Are Salespeople For Scholastic

Remember those Scholastic Book Clubs from school, when you could use the money you saved up to buy your favorite books from a catalog?
Well, according to a Connecticut judge, the teachers who hand out the catalogs, help students make purchasing decisions and collect the orders are actually salespeople, even though they don't receive any money. And if those teachers are salespeople, that means Scholastic Book Clubs Inc., based in Jefferson City, Mo. and with no physical presence in Connecticut, has to pay the state $3.2 million in sales tax, according to the ruling.
Here's Connecticut Supreme Court Judge Peter Zarella's explanation, via the Hartford Courant:
"... some 14,000 Connecticut classroom teachers acted as the company's representatives soliciting, processing and delivering books sales to students. While not compensated for their services, teachers received book catalogs from the company...collected orders and payment from students...received shipment and distributed books to the students."
It's an interesting argument and one Scholastic, which hasn't commented on the ruling publicly, appealed when it was originally made by the state's Department of Revenue Service.
Article available at:

Friday, March 30, 2012

A Memorable Parent Email

I have had the opportunity to work with hundreds of students over the years, many of whom walk into my class hating English, especially reading and writing. I make it my mission to win over these nay-sayers and have them see how vital language arts and all aspects of written and verbal communication are to their lives every day. While I cannot win all of them over, I think I do a pretty decent job engaging many of them.

One such student walked into my classroom last fall announcing he hated English and wanted nothing to do with my class. All he loved was math and science, and that was all there was to it. Of course, I immediately took that as a challenge and worked to get to know him and what truly motivates him. Now, at the end of the third marking period, Nathan is allowing himself to become engrossed in what we are studying and the important historical implications of the literature we are reading. He became so passionate about the Civil War time period that he delved into his visual literacy essay and wrote one of the best essays I have ever seen on the assignment.

Immediately, I emailed his mother and got the following response. This is truly why I teach...

Thanks for the note. 

He really liked that specific painting and was excited about it.  When he shared the assignment with me I did not know where he was going to go with that picture.  Actually, I  tried to get him to use one of the other "easier" pictures.  Then he started rambling on for a good 20 min about all the details and what they meant.  I was impressed and thought that you had probably discussed some of it at school.  It is very funny the things that grab his interest sometimes.  He did spend more time on this then I have seen him spend on anything else.  He really wanted to write a good paper and it showed.  He is slowly turning a corner and is now way more open to new ideas ie. using a thesaurus on to help with word choice.  He was unsure about how to fix the transitions.  It was a discussion point one night at dinner and he said he understood but clearly he still needs to work on those.  All in all I was very proud of his effort, and good ideas on the comparison not just looking at what was on the picture but what it symbolized.  He is so excited he go an A which should make him finishing a History paper tonight that much easier for him.  I to a happy for the A but really did not care what grade he got I was happiest to see that he put all he had into it this we have not seen in quite some time. So for me it was an A moment no matter what the grade.

Thank you for whatever encouragement you gave.  I really think that Nathan senses that you understand him and his sometimes offbeat personality. Thank you for everything this has been the most wonderful year for him as far as English goes and he has learned a tremendous amount.  Hopefully he can carry it over to his other classes.  I really do not think I can ever thank you enough for all that you have done for him this year. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Virtual Education Companies Under Close Watch

As online learning expands to more schools, educators and policymakers are emphasizing the importance of holding those companies accountable. I couldn't agree more. 

Virtual Education Companies Face Increasing Scrutiny

The expansion of virtual education puts companies that provide e-learning services under the microscope

As researchers, politicians, and the general public have begun to question the results of fully online virtual schooling, private providers—particularly for-profit companies—that supply curriculum, content, and sometimes instruction and school management for online education are facing the most scrutiny.
Recent studies suggesting declining achievement among full-time public virtual school students don't always distinguish between publicly and privately run schools. Still, the private sector and its two biggest for-profit providers—K12 Inc. and Connections Education—appear to be taking most of the heat.
Some have begun to ask whether those companies have exaggerated student achievement to drive investment. One stockholder evenfiled a lawsuit in late January against Herndon, Va.-based K12 alleging that the company violated securities law with statements it made about its students' performance on standardized tests.
Researchers, meanwhile, have warned that virtual public schools run by independent for-profit and nonprofit organizations are growing faster than states can hope to regulate them. They also say that, while virtual schools' struggles to meet some performance measures may stem from the enrollment of many students who have problems in brick-and-mortar schools and take the virtual alternative as a last resort, those students failing to complete their studies is equally troubling under funding models in which money follows a one-time count of student enrollment from early in the academic year.
And there are even hints that virtual education leaders from public and nonprofit-managed virtual schools are growing wary of the motivations of their for-profit counterparts and their endeavors with full-time virtual students.
"We do not have a Consumer Reports, we do not have an Underwriters' Lab, and to say that we can accept this in good faith is to be naive about education," says Liz Pape, the president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Virtual High School Global Consortium, or VHSGC, which is based in Maynard, Mass., and serves 15,000 students. While the VHSGC is an independent nonprofit, it is similar to most state virtual schools in that its courses serve primarily as supplements for students whose main course of study is in a regular school. Pape has been admitted to the State Virtual School Leaders Association.
"But on top of measures of quality and accountability, what are [for-profit providers] putting out there in terms of our goals around a continuous improvement process?" Pape continues. "How important is it to improve performance versus how important is it to improve stockholder returns?"
Research from the National Education Policy Center, or NEPC, at the University of Colorado at Boulder suggests that student achievement in virtual charter schools run by for-profit companies is lagging while the enrollment count—and funding dollars—directed to such schools are ballooning.
The study, released in late January, found that only 27.4 percent of full-time virtual charter schools run by for-profit companies achieved adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act in the 2010-11 school year, compared with 51.4 percent of brick-and-mortar charter schools managed by private for-profit or nonprofit organizations. In the same year, enrollment in virtual charters run by either for-profit or nonprofit organizations rose from just over 80,000 to nearly 120,000 students nationwide, it found.
But it did not say whether the poor AYP showing was related to a rise in enrollment, nor did it account for schools that use a hybrid model that combines online and face-to-face instruction. It classified such schools as brick-and-mortar schools.
Gary Miron, the lead author of the study and a professor of evaluation, measurement, and research at Western Michigan University's College of Education and Human Development, in Kalamazoo, concedes that AYP is a crude measure of academic success, and says it's possible that the reason many virtual schools aren't making AYP is because of a higher rate of student turnover in virtual schools, rather than the performance of students who stay enrolled. But even so, low AYP marks indicate a structural problem, he says.
"We don't have the right financial mechanisms and the accountability mechanisms in place," Miron says of the AYP disparity. "It's interpretable. Something is going wrong here. It could be for other things, because they're getting paid for kids they are not serving."

Ronald J. Packard, the founder and chief executive officer of K12 Inc., says that other measures of for-profit virtual schools as a whole, and K12-run schools in particular, show a more favorable picture, and that the increase in enrollment at virtual schools has been driven by school systems or individual parents that have experienced benefits of virtual learning.
The company is now involved in efforts to use independent research to demonstrate the effectiveness of its programs. That research, Packard says, has been expedited in part to counter a December 2011 New York Times article that profiled the K12-run Agora Cyber Charter School, based in Wayne, Pa., as a school simultaneously generating rising profits and posting subpar student achievement.
In a lengthy statement in response to the story, K12 argued that the Times story selectively incorporated some facts about achievement at the companies' virtual schools while omitting others, relied too heavily on unnamed sources as vehicles of criticism, and purposefully advanced "an anti-parent choice policy agenda."
Further, Packard says, while full-time virtual schooling is not a desirable option for every student, the growth in the number of students at K12-managed institutions, as well as at other virtual schools, is essential for an increase in quality of virtual offerings.
"The more you have, the more you can continue to invest in better and better results, content, and systems," Packard says, pointing to a flurry of consolidations among companies in the virtual education marketplace, including K12's purchase of Kaplan Inc.'s virtual education division in May 2011.
Packard adds that his company has been able to invest roughly $30 million in development of a new adaptive math curriculum for grades K-5 because of revenue generated from increasing enrollment.
"It's very hard to do what we do. Both Kaplan and Insight Schools [another private virtual school provider] had lost a significant amount of money doing this," Packard says. "It takes an enormous amount of efficiency to deliver education."
Barbara Dreyer, the president and CEO of Baltimore-based Connections Academy—the nation's second-largest for-profit online learning provider, after K12—also says that while the expansion of virtual providers' scale can help drive product development, it can also hurt early measures of effectiveness.
"A unique factor affecting the performance of Connections Academy schools, and most other full-time virtual programs over the last few years, has been the high number of new students being tested, which last year often ranged between 40 percent to 60 percent," Dreyer wrote in a February email. "It is not realistic to move scores in a very short period of time, particularly for those students who have been in some [other] form of schooling for a long period of time."

Research and Regulation

Another NEPC study, released last October, suggests that for-profit-managed public virtual education has grown most quickly where it is least regulated, and that demand by districts or students for virtual education doesn't necessarily mean it has been proven effective. The study also implies that previous research on blended learning—in which elements of online and face-to-face instruction are combined—has been applied to arguments by companies to state and district education agencies to sell the merits of fully online learning for some students.
Luis Huerta, an associate professor of education and public policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, says that K12 Inc. and others have also pointed to a meta-analysis of several hundred studies on virtual education to underline the potential to deliver high-quality instruction virtually. They do so, he says, despite the fact that the analysis, from the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, found that all but a handful of those studies pertained to postsecondary education, not the precollegiate system.
"That in itself is very disingenuous," Huerta says. "Many would argue that most innovations come from the private sector—that the private sector is most equipped. But in this context, there is no evidence that what they are engaged in is really innovative."
Though many researchers question why it appears students at public virtual schools run by for-profit private providers are lagging behind their brick-and-mortar peers on measures of achievement, they generally argue for more research on, and regulation of, the field, rather than its abolition.
Miron of Western Michigan University, for example, says he is planning future research that he hopes will explain the causes of the persistent gap in AYP scores between for-profit virtual schools and their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
He also wants policymakers across states to make amendments to how virtual schools receive state funding. Such changes could include a smaller allocation per student for what is perceived to be a cheaper method of education, or paying privately run virtual schools for student course completions rather than course enrollments. The course-completion method of funding is used by the publicly run Florida Virtual School. ("Florida Virtual Update," this report.)
Either measure would help constrict profit margins for private virtual schools, Miron says, and curb what he considers out-of-control growth.
Meanwhile, Jo Vos, a project manager with Minnesota's office of the state legislature, says the state government sees online learning—full- and part-time—as an important part of the future, despite a recent report showing completion rates for the state's full-time virtual students to be decreasing over time.
Although the report found that 25 percent of Minnesota high school seniors enrolled in a virtual school dropped out—compared with just 4 percent of seniors at brick-and-mortar schools in the state—Vos says there is an understanding that one contributing factor to the discrepancy is that many students turn to virtual schools as a last resort.
She also stressed that it was unclear in the report from the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Officer whether virtual schools managed by private-sector companies performed any better or worse than those managed by district personnel.
"In terms of accountability, it is the school district or group that is establishing the online school in the first place that has to ask the hard questions, even when you're using a private provider to do everything," Vos says. "There has to be accountability there."

Full article available at:

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Career Mapping: Can it help prepare students for college?

State policymakers are catching on to the concept of student learning plans as a way to better prepare students for college and careers. What role do they have in middle and high schools today?

Career Mapping Eyed to Prepare Students for College

Secondary schools are becoming more intentional about helping students discover their career interests and map out a plan to achieve them.
About half of all states mandate that schools help create individual or student learning plans, and most others have optional programs. Enabling students to make their own plans puts them in the driver’s seat and encourages a long-term look at their course selection so their choices match their career goals, experts say. Often, districts give students online accounts with passwords to track classes; create an electronic portfolio of grades, test scores, and work; research careers; and organize their college search.
The practice is picking up momentum with the increased emphasis on college completion, which research shows is more likely when students take rigorous courses and have a career goal.
But these career maps take an investment in technology and training. Finding time during the school day can be a challenge, and the job of overseeing the process often falls on already stretched counselors, according to researchers and program administrators. In some states, the plans have helped students understand the relevance of what they are learning, prompting higher enrollment in Advanced Placement courses and increased high school graduation rates. Others, meanwhile, have not yet experienced the same payback on their investment. As with many education programs, the rollout is left up to districts, creating a patchwork of approaches throughout the country.
“The focus on individual learning plans is so students enter college prepared to do good work,” said Chad d’Entremont, the executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy. The Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit published a policy brief last year with research showing plans were linked to improved academic motivation, engagement, decisionmaking, and personal accountability. “The learning plans are providing a support system that we traditionally counted on families to provide,” he said.

Online Tools

Building Pathways
How a career-exploration unit works.
While researchers have been promoting student learning plans as a reform strategy for nearly two decades, state policymakers are catching on to the concept as a way to drive college and career readiness. Students create plans starting as early as the 6th grade. Of course, they can—and often do—change their minds about their career path. Advocates say the plans can be fluid and be a way to personalize learning and level the playing field for students who might not otherwise have access to resources for college planning.
Typically, a student might have a career-exploration unit in 7th grade. Through an interest inventory, in which the student answers a series of questions about preferences for working, say, with people or numbers, indoors or outside, his or her interests are matched with career clusters and pathways. If a student, for example, finds his or her passion is in nursing, the student would then look more deeply at what the profession pays, the employment opportunities, and educational requirements.
In planning high school courses, the student would be sure to take enough science credits. Perhaps he or she would sign up for a dual-enrollment class in chemistry and anatomy at a local community college with the idea of transferring those credits to a university nursing program after graduation.
Planning is often done online with interactive tools aimed at engaging today’s tech-savvy students. Some K-12 districts buy ready-made software products; others partner with higher education, state departments of commerce, or business groups to come up with customized packages.
Knowing that high school students today connect best with online materials, the College Board recently launched a new interactive college-planning site, the And U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., recently introduced a bill to pilot a project in which students beginning in 1st grade could start portable online college-planning and -savings accounts.

Hands-On Help

Some consider student learning plans one of the “softer reforms” that get pushed aside because of policymakers’ focus on accountability, said Mr. d’Entremont. While most policymakers aren’t against the idea, it’s reasonable for districts to think about cost and capacity.
Todd Bloom, the chief academic officer for Hobsons, the Cincinnati-based company that produces Naviance, an online career- and college-readiness system, said the depth and breadth of individual learning plans are expanding, and the cost can run less than $5 per student per year. “It’s not a hard sell,” he said. “It’s socially desirable to have that vehicle. ”
In Rhode Island, many schools use the Web-based system
“It’s a great tool to plan ahead, reflect on what they’ve done, and explore careers,” said William Pepin, the director of guidance at North Smithfield School in North Smithfield and the president-elect of the Rhode Island School Counseling Association. “It pushes students to think in a new direction.”
The process works best when students have an interested teacher or mentor who has been trained, time to devote to the plan, and the approach is tailored to local conditions, according to research from the Rennie Center. Interest inventories also are an important component, along with access to technology and short- and long-term benchmarks.
Beginning in 6th grade, the District of Columbia requires students to launch an Individual Graduation Portfolio that they revisit each year and have a counselor approve.
“The biggest challenge is the time. There are so many things competing,” said Colleen McGuire-Horvath, an academic-planning specialist in the District. Students work on the plans independently in computer labs or at home. But since most students are comfortable with technology, it’s easy to use, she said, and the feedback has been positive. “It’s a student-owned vehicle,” said Ms. McGuire-Horvath. “Rather than telling students to do this or that, they have power.” Students like scanning their artwork and writing into the electronic portfolio, she said, and the expense is minimal to the district at $150,000 a year for the software, license, technical support, and training.
It’s optional in Kansas, but most districts have students complete Personal Plans of Study. Many use technology, such as the online career-exploration game The Drive of Your Life or Kansas CareerZoom to check out job opportunities.
“That’s what you have to do to engage students,” said Kent Reed, a school counseling consultant for the Kansas education department. “It’s a generational thing. Kids have different learning styles, some are more visual, and you have to address that.” In the fall, the state will roll out a new career-interest website through a collaborative effort with the state commerce and education departments and the board of regents.
At Hesston Middle School, with 260 students in grades 5-8 in Hesston, Kansas, teachers have developed an interdisciplinary career unit for 8th graders to begin the four-year planning process. In language arts, students learn to write a résumé and cover letter. Math covers how to make a budget to live on based on career choice.

Making Connections

In his social studies class, Shannon Rewerts has students research a career and put together a five- to eight-minute speech and presentation board to share with parents at a career fair. “It’s pretty intense with the project,” he said, noting, however, that students also say it’s their favorite unit all year. Students score high on the economic questions on the state test, which Mr. Rewerts said he covers in the career unit and is a good indication that the concept works.
In anticipation of Minnesota passing some kind of individual learning plan legislation, the Minneapolis district set milestones for students in grades 6-12 to meet and track through a program called My Life Plan. With the lowest ratio of counselors to students in the nation, 799-to-1, the system is trying to maximize its staff resources to make sure every student—not just those who might walk into a counseling office—develop a plan, said Shelly Landry, the leader counselor in the office of secondary transformation in the district’s counseling and guidance department. Because teachers were reluctant to give up instructional time, the activities are tied as much as possible to academic standards, and counselors come into the classroom to deliver the content.
Through the planning process and partnerships with community agencies for work-based learning, students are seeing the connection between their high school choices and their career aspirations, said Ms. Landry. There have been significant increases in students taking AP and International Baccalaureate classes, as well as more applying for college in recent years.
Individual Career and Academic Plans in Colorado have been around for a while, but this year, a new mandate took effect with middle school students. To make sure the milestones for each grade were aligned with college expectations, the state consulted with the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley.

Staff Pushback

As with any unfunded mandate, there was some pushback, said Judith Martinez, the director of the office of dropout prevention and student engagement for the Colorado education department. To connect students with the process, counselors often take the lead, and then classroom teachers get involved. The state hopes the program will increase student engagement, clarify graduation requirements, and keep students from dropping out and help them better understand how academics are relevant to their career goals, said Ms. Martinez.
South Carolina’s legislature allocated $21 million to pay for additional counselors when it required students in the 8th grade to develop individual graduation plans beginning in 2006. Five years later, 81 percent of students surveyed said they thought the annual planning conferences with counselors and parents helped them better understand the relationship between their career goals and academic progress.
Yet a goal of the program was to increase high school graduation rates and that did not happen, said Jay Ragley, the director of the office of legislative affairs for the state. “It’s difficult to peg why we are not increasing graduation rates. That goal has still eluded the state,” he said, adding that it’s been a challenge to get parents used to the idea of career planning as early as middle school.

Success Linked to Details

“In theory it sounds great, but it’s all about implementation,” said Ellen Foley, the interim director of district redesign and leadership at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Following up and getting students to remember their passwords and work around any technical glitches can be tricky. “It has great potential in terms of opening a dialogue, but it also could become a pressure and burden to do another thing,” she said.
Counselors have a lot of duties, especially in those districts where there have been cuts, she said. “In some cases, where students have so many needs, triage is going on. Counselors are just thinking about how to keep kids in schools this week or this month, rather than on college.”
However, in an era of “college for all,” Ms. Foley said, counselors know they have a key role to play. College success is not just about academics, it’s also about developing college knowledge and tenacity that can be supported by linking with community-based partners, she suggested.
The big benefit is the multiyear approach to planning and the concept of relevancy, said Mr. Bloom of Hobsons. If students understand why, for example, they need to take calculus to succeed in a college class and meet their end goal, they buy into the rigor. The focus is on “course” readiness for college, said Mr. Bloom. “You can’t just not have a plan and hope and wish you get your dream job and career.”
Ms. Landry said she’d love to expand student learning plans to elementary school in Minneapolis to get students and families to buy in earlier. “Kids are saying the plans helped them to know the process and it challenged them,” she said. “It opens their eyes to careers they hadn’t considered and just the idea of going to college.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mixed Feelings about Technology Moving Forward

Technology will only advance learning if it is used to support literacy and inquiry, William Oehlkers and Cindy DiDonato write. How do you feel?

Will Technology Advance Learning, or Prove a Distraction?

The iBooks are coming! The iBooks are coming! Like some invading force, these tablet devices carry great promise. They allow students to rid themselves of back-straining printed books and replace them with portable devices that capture thousands of colorful, interactive pages with multimedia elements, three-dimensional graphics, and photo galleries. At the same time, they threaten to replace traditional texts and even libraries, a development already in progress in some halls of learning, where library stacks have been displaced by computers and carts of high-tech tablets. The hoped-for outcome is a revolution in reading in specific and learning in general.
We use the word “threaten” advisedly, as the history of technology has been a bumpy and uncertain path with numerous cul-de-sacs. In 1933, Elementary English, a journal for teachers, advertised the manual typewriter as a device that would dramatically change writing and spelling: “Education must assume control of this new educational tool.”
Other technological advances tell a similar story. When “talkie” motion pictures became popular, hopeful educators jumped on the movie bandwagon. Then there was the talking typewriter, a short-lived effort to teach 3-year-olds to read using an electric typewriter. Next up was educational television. When the personal computer arrived, teachers were encouraged to individualize instruction by becoming educational programmers (as if they didn’t have enough tasks to fill their days). The educational use soon focused mainly on drill-and-skill activities.
When the Internet burst onto the scene, some thought it would change education by allowing students to access information far beyond classrooms and school libraries. But this access came with a challenge—students were faced with hyperlinked text that sent them into distracting territory.
All of these ventures initially seemed hopeful, and yet as we look back, not one has fulfilled its promise. Today, the manual typewriter serves virtually no schoolchild. Few movies are produced solely for the educational audience, and educational television, once thought to be a breakthrough, is relegated to a single channel in most metropolitan areas. Even the computer has been corrupted as students sneak onto forbidden websites or insist on listening to their favorite music while studying. Music usually wins out.
The iPads, iPhones, and other devices that allow immediate contact with everyone and anyone at all times have become a distraction in the classroom, supporting the notion that multi-tasking is a dubious way of getting an education. Last year, the PBS “Frontline” series aired the program “Digital Nation,” which included a segment on multi-tasking and tackled the issue of whether laptops are a massive distraction or a valuable tool in the classroom.
Not long ago in Education Week, Arthur E. Wise wrote: “Technology has failed to transform the way schools operate. Schools have added hardware, software, courseware, and technical support, but in ways that continue the familiar forms of teaching and learning. Technology does not substitute for labor, and efforts to improve the management and deployment of human resources have generally not succeeded.” ("Out of the Box: Ending the Tyranny of the Self-Contained Classroom," Jan. 25, 2012.)
"We believe that iBooks, tablets, and other technological tools can be worthwhile if they are seen as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves."
The central question, as we look forward to another great leap in education, fueled by the iBook and tablets, is whether these devices, like those that have preceded them are toys or tools, and if tools, what sort? To prevent this new generation of devices from becoming merely peripheral tools in the 21st-century classroom, some thought must be given as to how they will be used and by whom.
We believe that iBooks, tablets, and other technological tools can be worthwhile if they are seen as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. For this to happen, they need to be used in a rich, meaningful context. We further believe that this context can be project-based learning. In our experience, these tools are servants—intellectual assistants that enable the learner to go beyond his or her intellectual capabilities. Like any tool—a hammer, for example—they can be used well or misused.
In project-based learning, students identify an authentic, messy debatable question, inquire as to possible answers, and respond by making a presentation, producing an innovation, or planning an event. They use technology to search for information, communicate with others locally and abroad, store vital information, and present their findings. We call this version of project-based learning technology-inquiry education, or TIE. This has the potential to literally harness technology in the service of learning. For TIE to be implemented, teachers need to engage in meaningful professional development. Otherwise, we fear that a great deal of time, energy, and money will be spent on the latest “toys” with no discernible improvement in learning.
We recently worked together with middle school teachers on a social studies unit about Egypt as an extension of our graduate course in middle and secondary reading methods at Providence College. Part 1 of the unit dealt with the historical Egypt, which most of us experienced in our own school days: the pyramids, the pharaohs, and hieroglyphics. In Part 2, students studied the modern Egypt of the Arab Spring, and were confronted with the question: Should U.S. foreign aid to Egypt, presently about $6.50 for every man, woman, and child in this country, be continued?
While technology itself could not answer this question, it helped students in their pursuit. They used the Internet to gather information from websites based within and outside the United States, including accessing online videos and other reports from Al Jazeera. Students used word processing to prepare written reports for the unit, Skype to talk with students in Egypt, a wiki to store information and resources, and multimedia to present findings. Additionally, video was used to record the entire unit. The unit concluded with a more traditional debate dealing with the question of continued foreign aid. In the background, technology supported the students and enhanced the learning experience.
These latest developments could fuel significant improvements in learning, or tablets and the like could join their predecessors as well-intended but harmless diversions. So, what will it be, technology toys or tools?
If technology is to be employed as an integral tool, it must support fundamental literacy, serve the inquiry process, and extend the learning experience. When education leaders catch the vision of a technology-inquiry approach, they will succeed in making a real difference in the lives of students, defying the belief that the more education changes, the more it remains the same.