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.


Tech-tonic Shifts

Please note: Susan Swift, a dynamic language arts teacher at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, IA, asked me to contribute some thoughts on a book she’s writing about technology integration. This and the next three posts (at least) are in response to Susan’s request.

I’m not sure whether she realized it or not, but Susan has selected an ironically appropriate topic and title for my chapter. As a former music teacher, I’m pretty well versed in the idea of tonics as they relates to sound. That combined with my current status of helping educators plan for, integrate, and evaluate technology-based initiatives can truly be summed up as approaching the idea of “tech-tonic” shifts from many perspectives. In music, tonic shifts (some might say modulations) follow certain rules or guidelines. They are usually prepared for, some quite eloquently so. Sure, some day an Arnold Schoenberg will come along and bend those rules completely, but in all reality he and his contemporaries were also working from some very strict rules of their own. Every domain has some accepted ways of doing things, and we can all learn by knowing some of those rules or guidelines.

Unlike musical composition, there may not be hard-and-fast “rules” for technology integration (or any other change effort), but there are certainly lessons learned–both in education and from the larger field of organizational change. After leaving the classroom, a fortuitous accident led me to further study in instructional design for both general education and corporate training. Adventures in this field include product and program evaluation as well as providing technical assistance to a wide range of folks. Some of this has been official, such as serving in leadership roles for a Regional Education Laboratory and two Comprehensive Centers, both of which are programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The latter, the Comprehensive Center, is specifically charged with “building the capacity” of state education agencies (SEA). A daunting task, if you think about it. And not one to take lightly. Show up on the front step of any SEA and say, “I’m here to build your capacity,” and you won’t make it past the door.

So, with a few well-earned battle scars and even a few checkmarks in the win column, with those in the other column probably providing stronger evidence for what not to do, I hope to share a few ideas. I’ve culled these from my experiences from working with educators from across the country in terms of supporting organizational change–from single schools to entire states. Whether wanting to focus on isolated integration in a single classroom or school or working on whole-scale organizational change, these are some of the rules I’ve learned.

Continuum Theory

While I often work with schools and districts that are beginning their journey of technology integration, we’ve been using digital technologies in classrooms for quite a while. I didn’t use a personal computer in my own education until working on my Master’s degree, but computers have been in classrooms for almost half a century! That means lots of years of experiences and lessons learned. One of the most important lessons learned that I keep returning to time and time again is one that comes from those early days of integration, and that is, as teachers (and school leaders) integrate technology, they do so across a continuum. This lesson was first (and perhaps best) presented by researchers for the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) project in the 1980s (Dwyer, Sandholtz, & Ringstaff, 1991). Yes, the 1980s. We’ve been doing this “tech stuff” that long.

The basic lesson from that time is that educators adopt technology along a continuum. This is a foundational truth I find holds true in every technology initiative I’ve worked with, with mentions found repeatedly in the literature since that time in various reincarnations, such as the National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers (NETS-T) from ISTE and the (what’s old is new again) SAMR model. Maybe I need to recycle some decades old idea with a new label?

The ACOT researchers described their continuum with 5 stages, from Entry to Innovation. Along the way, teachers build their skills and knowledge and learn how technology provides support to create learning opportunities that just can’t be done without the technology. Yes, I went there. Things you can’t do without technology. It’s not just about efficiency. It’s about creating new learning environments. Need proof?

In Virginia, students can access and control the same telescopes astronomers and other space scientists do to explore the night sky (the catch is the Virginia telescope is in Australia because it’s night there when our kids are in school). There are other probes students can interact with, from the bottom of the Puget Sound to a rover on Mars. Students are also interacting with their favorite authors and others through telecommunications that bring them into their classrooms in real time or through asynchronous blogs or chats. And kids are running their own businesses, filming their own documentaries, and writing their own apps. Do that with paper and pencil.

It takes some time to get to that stage, however, whether you think of the continuum as having 3, 4, or 5 stages. ACOT says 5. ISTE says 4. I sum it up in 3:

  1. Replication. Teachers begin by using technology to replicate what they are familiar with. If they are familiar with a lecture followed by students working independently on handouts, they might support a lecture with presentation software and print out (or post digital) handouts for students to complete. If they like collaborative groups and problem-based learning, they incorporate technologies that allow students to work together in and outside of classroom and solve problems.

  2. Adoption. Teachers start to see the value of technology, become more efficient at what they do, and even try some new things that the technology makes it easier or more effective. Gradebooks and lesson planning tools are ones that many teachers first see increased benefit from using. Not only do they make grading easier and save time in terms of creating, storing, and sharing lessons, but these tools also have added benefits like securely sharing grades with students, sending out notifications, running reports, and even providing communication opportunities with parents.

  3. Transformation. This is where teachers create activities or entire learning environments that just can’t be done without the technology. I’ve given some examples, but what might be considered transformative is continuing to change. We’ve seen this recently with the widespread emphasis of personalized learning, blended learning, mobile learning, competency-based learning and the impact these trends are having on well-worn (and some would say outdated) educational stalwarts, such as seat-time and Carnegie units.

Continuum of Adoption

Continuum of Adoption

All of this may be interesting, but what does this mean for supporting change? How does this promote technology integration? For me, the golden rule of the continuum is: you have to meet the teacher where s/he is. A teacher at any stage can use technology effectively and promote student learning. If the teacher is at the replication stage, a change agent (often a technology coach) can focus efforts at supporting that teacher as s/he learns to use technology to replicate what they feel comfortable with. When they’re ready to move up the continuum, they will, if given the support they need. Transformation, while fun, can also be challenging. And if you’re not there, don’t expect to get there immediately. Maybe not even in a year. And some teachers never will.

My hope is that all teachers first feel comfortable in the stage they naturally find themselves and occasionally push themselves beyond. Those who may not believe transformation is their goal might benefit from working with someone who is at that stage, because it is possible for all teachers. But it doesn’t have to happen every day or every lesson. The first goal for all teachers is promoting student learning, and change agents can help teachers reach this goal every stage of the continuum.


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.