Common Language: The Power of a Good Continuum

Like I said last week, I love a good continuum, but while SAMR has good intentions, I’m not convinced of how helpful it is to truly impact the ultimate goal of schooling–improving student learning. But since my Mother used to tell me, “If you can’t say something nice…” I decided this week to share a continuum that I believe does help impact student learning. It’s from my friends at Henrico County Public Schools outside of Richmond, VA, and it’s the Technology Innovation Progression, or TIP Chart.

Developed under the guidance of professional friends and colleagues Tom Woodward, Debbie Roethke, Gaynell Lyman, and others, the continuum does many things to improve the interactions teachers and students have with technology. It’s also the centerpiece of two national recognitions for excellence from the American Libraries Association and the Consortium for School Networking. Despite the awards, it’s creators will be the first to admit it’s not the “be all and end all,” but it has done more to promote quality conversations about teaching and learning with technology in many of the school districts I have worked with. That’s something that a simpler continuum often does not do.

It’s Not Easy Being Simple

I understand that simplicity has it’s appeal, and that since technology integration is a complex issue that a simple framework reaches some people. But I find the SAMR too simplistic and results in oversimplified conversations about what teachers–not to mention students–should know and be able to do to improve student learning. The ultimate goal of technology integration is improved student learning, remember, so we need a continuum that helps students understand what that looks like. SAMR does not do that. The TIP Chart does.

The TIP Chart covers four categories (only one of which is presented above. Follow the link to the full chart on Henrico County’s website). The four categories are based on the 2007 National Educational Technology Standards for Students from ISTE. They include:

  • Research and Information Fluency
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Creativity and Innovation

A single post is not the place for a detailed exploration of each. What is possible is spending time reviewing the structure of the TIP Chart to better understand how it can be used. I use it as a foundation for conversations with educators at every level, from the classroom to the superintendent’s cabinet. In fact, after initial use in one district, the director of secondary schools said to the gathered group, “for the first time, I feel like I have the language to talk with a teacher about what creativity and innovation is, and is not, and what they can do to work on it.” The TIP chart, while addressing complex and sometimes misunderstood concepts like creativity and innovation, uses simple language to make these concepts tangible.

It wasn’t easy to distill these complex concepts down to the simple language that now exists. The TIP chart has and will likely continue to evolve. In fact, several of my districts have started by using the TIP chart to have conversations about technology integration and moved on to create their own continuua that sometimes address the same concepts and sometimes include other concepts they value (e.g., curiosity, imagination, flexible learning environments, global citizenship, etc.).

The following graphic provides an overview of the structure of the chart. For each category, you’ll find more teacher-centric activities described on the left. As you move to the right, you’ll find descriptors of more student-centered learning activities. It’s not that the left is bad and the right is good, or vice versa, it’s just a way to interpret those types of instruction. Many teachers move back and forth from one side to the next, sometimes during a lesson or across a unit. One of the greatest benefits many teachers find with the chart is that while the top row describes what teachers do–in a way that is far less punitive than most state teacher evaluation instruments–it also describes what students are doing (in the bottom row) for the simple reason that if students are to take greater ownership of their learning, the actions students take to do so have to be understood and described.

Tip Chart structure

By academic, I’m referring to those simplified, well-structured activities all teachers use to teach concepts and allow students to practice skills (e.g., five-paragraph essay, proofs, scales, etc.). Authentic implies the instruction incorporates problems or phenomena that students will find outside of school–whether actual problems or problems with a real-world context. I’m not just saying “word problems,” which are usually still simplified academic problems. Authentic problems are complex, also referred to as ill-structured, and may have more than one correct answer or no correct answers. Academic exercises are used to train students. Authentic problems require students to perform new skills.

There’s more to it than that, but that’s a good start. Please take time to review the full TIP Chart from Henrico County and consider how it might support teaching and learning in your own school or district. I’ll dig into it in subsequent posts.

SAMR: Have we missed the point?

I’m a big proponent of continua theories of change simply because change is complex and doesn’t happen quickly. We progress and grow in stages over time. It’s not like today I’m not fluent at Spanish but tomorrow I will be. Or bowling. Or particle physics. Developing expertise with anything takes time, especially technology.

Different continua have been used to describe the ways teachers and other educators develop technology proficiencies. Probably the first, or at least one of the most well-known early continua theories, was developed through the original ACOT (Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow) project (Dwyer, Ringstaff & Sandholtz, 1991). In the late 80s and 90s, teachers were observed learning to use the new Apple personal computers, and the observers described patterns of how teachers routinely developed proficiency across five stages.

To date, I believe the ACOT project resulted in the only continua of proficiency based on evidence from practice. It was observational evidence, which is not like conducting a research experiment, but there was still sufficient evidence to make generalizations about how teachers develop proficiency.

And I use the word continua, not continuum, because the ACOT researchers developed a multi-dimensional look at technology proficiency. The ACOT continua describes ways that technology proficiency can develop across five stages by considering

  • What the teacher is doing
  • What resources are being used
  • What the students are doing
  • And the learning environment

ISTE (the International Society of Technology in Education) has also published continua related to their National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers. While not based on observations of a known set of teachers, the standards and the continua are based on expert practitioner advice. In ISTE’s case, that’s 10s if not 100s of thousands of expert practitioners across the globe. It’s still not an experiment, but pretty good advice.

And ISTE took the continua idea to a new level, developing continua for all five of its NETS for Teachers and the substandards that support them. The ISTE continua also describe how teachers use technology to help promote student learning—and learning in complex ways—like communication and collaboration, and critical and creative thinking. Again, the focus is not just technology, but how teacher use of technology supports student learning.

These standards are under revision and will be announced this summer at ISTE’s annual conference. I look forward to see what the new continua look like as they will have to address the new NETS for Students released last year.

Sometimes, Simple is Not Best

This brings me to the current fascination with a popular continuum: SAMR. It’s the current darling of the EdTech world, especially for EdTech departments in districts and teacher preparation programs. I have no personal vendetta against SAMR, but I’ve come to realize why I don’t find it very helpful. One of those reasons is, perhaps, the primary reason for its appeal: it’s simple. For me, it’s too simplistic. Or perhaps the way we interpret is.

The acronym stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition. So, on the surface, it’s a continuum, right? Yes, but a continuum of what? What’s the focus? During conversations I’ve had in the districts that have adopted SAMR, usually the focus is the technology. The most common interpretation is that Modification is better than Augmentation is better than Substitution because of the technology teachers use.

But I counter, what’s the purpose of school? Why do teachers get up every day and go to work? Why do we send a nation of young people to school every year? Why is schooling a core expectation for the citizens of our country? Ask these questions and most people will say, “it’s for the kids.” Which, for me, is the best answer. We have schools so our kids can reach their potential, academically and otherwise. It’s not about the technology.

It’s not that the continuum idea is a bad one, and I’m sure the intentions were well meant. But you can oversimplify complex concepts and lose sight of the real purpose of promoting student learning. Any one technology is likely to have very little impact on changing practice and impacting student learning without some work on building teacher capacity. This can often mean tackling deep-seated philosophies of a teacher’s role and even the role of students in the learning process. No technology alone is going to do that.

Consider the level of Substitution. Many of my tech compatriots suggest that teachers replacing paper-based worksheets or multiple-choice tests with word processing or quizzing software represents Substitution. But not for a veteran user of PBL, or expeditionary learning, or inquiry-based learning who never used worksheets or multiple-choice tests. I never did. What does Substitution look like at that level of student-centered teaching? Interpreting that Augmentation is better in some way because the teacher used a different tool misses the point.

I highly support the use of a continuum of proficiency—or tech proficiency development. Let’s just be careful of what they really mean and keep our sights set on what’s important: improved student learning. Tech is cool. Tech is fun. But tech is not what it’s all about. In the words of one of my favorite quotes by organizational theorist and professor Russell Ackoff…

“You can’t simplify a complex problem or complex situation into a simple situation with a simple solution. Solutions must address the complex parameters of the situation.”


Dwyer, D. C, Ringstaff, C, & Sandholtz, J. H. (1991). Changes in teachers’ beliefs and practices in technology-rich classrooms. Educational Leadership, 48(8), 45–52.


Why Audience Matters

In the past week I’ve had reminders from two great educators in different parts of the country who remind me why audience matters. This is something that comes up often in my work but not something I believe many classroom teachers routinely think much about. For a long time, there were only a few things classroom teachers could do to expand the audience for student work. But the audience for student work is now unlimited thanks to the many safe ways that teachers and students can share work beyond the school walls. And that can be a game changer.

Let’s begin with this quote from David Dulberger, a dynamic fifth-grade teacher at Emma K. Doub School in Hagerstown, MD. His review of Piktochart actually prompted this post. In his review (which you should read if you’re interested in creating infographics, but you should probably bookmark his blog for ongoing great ideas), he makes this statement,

“I have found that my students are inclined to work harder on projects that will be showcased to an audience greater than their parents and me. By simply clicking the publish button, my students know that their work can, and often will be, viewed with more than just our classroom community. The concept of having a 5th grade student publish an infographic to the web may sound outrageous to most people, but my students, and many others around the world are more than capable. “

This is a simple, yet powerful statement. When student see value for their work outside of the classroom–when the audience is greater than just the teacher or their peers–they often feel the pressure to do a better job. That’s the power of audience. Simply by changing the audience for student work, students will want to do better.

The importance of audience is underscored by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their popular instructional design model, Understanding by Design. I use UbD when working with teachers on curriculum design, especially designing performance tasks. A key component of their framework for performance tasks is identifying a relevant audience, and as often as possible, I encourage teachers to design tasks with an audience that goes beyond the classroom to make the tasks more relevant to their students.

Need more convincing? Consider this e-mail from Becki Price, another fifth-grade teacher (just coincidence), but she’s in Round Rock, TX, where I had the privilege of working with a cohort of teachers using Chromebooks. Teachers in the cohort were trying new ideas for student projects, and Becki reflected on a science project. I didn’t get to see it in action but was able to chat with her about it during my last visit. Here’s what she says,

“I wanted to share with you that we wrapped up our first project for the second semester. I took the ideas you shared with me and the student’s projects are posted on my webpage for the world to see! The kids are really excited about this, and some are suddenly not pleased with their final product since it’s out there for everyone to see and compare.”

The Audience Continuum

Perhaps because I taught music, I had the concept of audience drilled into my head all of my career. Everything we did was ultimately for some audience outside of the classroom. We prepared concerts and shows for parents, the community, and competitions across the country. Many school music groups now have their own Facebook or websites with videos of performances that make it even easier to share their work.

But what about a regular classroom? What can those teachers in other content areas do? Digital technologies, as illustrated by these two great teachers, make that easy. Whether using a secure website, a blogging service just for kids, or allowing older students to use social media or other means to promote their work, there’s no reason any teachers shouldn’t be able to “break down the classroom walls” an expand the audience for student work.

As a final example, I use a portion of The Continuum from the Dubuque Community Public Schools (see below). This portion of The Continuum provides guidance for teachers to plan for and implement lessons and activities that promote student communication and collaboration. In terms of audience, my standard story is as you move up The Continuum and you’re trying to promote student communication, the level of audience for student work should increase.

That interprets to moving from an audience of one–just the teacher–to the rest of the classroom. From there, that middle line is really important. It represents the break between inside and outside of the classroom. Moving beyond the classroom means that student work is viewed first in the larger school or family-centric community, but ultimately by the world. In the two fifth-grade examples, note the impact of making the audience the world: same content standards and same learning goals + largest audience possible = increased student interest, engagement, and desire to succeed.

The Continuum

Expanding audiences for student work

Now it’s your turn. Take a lesson you’re working on (or that a teacher you know is working on) and explore ways of expanding the audience. Very often it takes very little work. You may have to explore a new tool, like these teachers did, but chances are most teachers have access to a range of free and easy tools they can use to expand the audience for their students’ work.