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.

Voices from the Field: Stephanie Krajicek

Stephanie KrajicekLast summer I attended the ISTE conference (formerly called NECC) in Denver, Colorado. ISTE is sponsored by the International Society for Technology in Education and is one of the largest educational technology conferences. While I was there, I tried to attend as many sessions possible related to technology and language acquisition, which is where I met Stephanie Krajicek, whose enthusiasm drew people like a magnet to her poster session. Her presentation focused on Technology Integration for English Language Learners (ELLs) and was a colorful and engaging amalgamation of ideas she has used in her classroom and with other teachers. Now a graduate student at Purdue, Stephanie continues to provide training to teachers on using technology matched to the needs they have for working with ELLs. I was able to catch up with her after the conference by phone and she provided some great practical tips.

Focus on the Learning

Stephanie’s poster was brimming with colorful screenshots of student work using many different technologies, especially social-networking applications—those that encourage students to communicate and collaborate with each other. She notes that the problem is not having access to interesting and engaging tools, but finding the right one.

“Many students,” she reports, “may or may not have had access to technology, so you have that extra level of language teaching.” An example she gave was that a common standard is to compare and contrast main characters in a story, which can be difficult concepts for ELLs to begin with, but adding technology means you may have to teach them what it means to log on, what a mouse is, when to right-click vs. left-click. She cautions that you have to be able to determine how much content knowledge they are going to get out of a technology that is complex.

With the teachers she works with now, she starts with a specific project, challenge, or need they have in their classrooms, and then she finds tools to help them meet those needs. She focuses on what they have access to—right now—and how it can be used to meet their needs. She’s done her homework, too, and has amassed a list of many different tools that can be applied in different situations for students at varied age and language levels. You can find some of the examples she’s identified, presentations, and helpful tips on her blog at http://eyeontransformation.blogspot.com/.

A Short List

So what are some of Stephanie’s favorite tools? Below are a few we talked about.

Storybird. Storybird is a collaborative site this is intended for families with younger children. One of the best aspects, according to Stephanie, is that the interface is really simple to use so you can get kids writing and creating short books literally by “clicking on the page and typing.”

The focus is on telling stories, but a benefit is that it allows ELLs to not only tell their stories but to share them. “Too often,” Stephanie admits, “teachers forget that final critical step of the writing process—publishing.” Storyboard allows them to publish their stories for each other, their teachers, and their families. Since the stories “go beyond the teacher’s desk” they carry greater weight, they have greater consequence. Students can also collaborate on stories and share them with each other during the writing process.

I visited the site and noticed that it is in “Public Beta,” which means that it’s free for now, but probably until they can figure out a reasonable business model. There is drag-and-drop art of many different styles students can incorporate into their work, and they can put text anywhere they want to with a click of a button. Storybird automatically creates covers, for those that might need that help, but they are also customizable. Your account tracks the storybirds you are working on, those you’ve published, and those you want to read, so you could actually create reading lists for students.

Webbing tools (concept maps). Stephanie notes that when teachers get caught up in teaching content they might overlook the need to help ELLs use higher-order thinking skills in the target language. Content requirements, especially in the higher grades, often include abstract terms, like compare and contrast, analyze, organize and others. Webbing tools provide visual supports for students to master skills like these using language and images that can visually be organized, linked, or highlighted. She likes to use them for prewriting, as well.

Many teachers have access to the popular Inspiration and Kidspiration software (Kidspiration is designed for younger students), but Stephanie has been using the web-based version of Inspiration’s concept-mapping software called Webspiration. Like Storybird, Webspiration is in free Public Beta but the plan is that it will eventually be offered as a subscription service, hopefully with a break for schools and following acceptable guidelines for secure use by younger students.

Webspiration is similar to its offline versions, and you can even upload or download files from Inspiration. But Webspiration adds the component of collaboration. You can collaborate synchronously or asynchronously, but Inspiration recommends you not collaborate with more than 25 people synchronously. In most settings, more than 3 or 4 might get confusing, anyway. There’s also chat functionality for additional real-time interaction. Collaborators do need an account, so you should follow acceptable use for setting up accounts for students.

Comic strip makers. There are several free and for-fee online and offline tools that allow students to make comic strips or cartoon-like presentations. The benefit for ELLs is that they are highly visual and give them an opportunity to practice English skills with simpler language. Plus, they’re fun and engaging. A short list follows (an Internet search will find many more):

  • Chogger. Create comics with drawing tools or by uploading your own images.
  • Comic Creator from readwritethink. Free online tool from the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English with templates for short black-and-white comics.
  • Comic Strip Maker. Create one-page, three-panel dialog-based comics using one of six character templates.
  • Make Beliefs Comix. Make three-panel comics you can print or e-mail using characters you can manipulate with simple click-driven commands.

Feed aggregators. Aggregators pull in information from different kinds of websites, such as news sites, blogs, and others. Google Reader is an example, but many e-mail programs also serve as aggregators. (You may find helpful the comparison of dozens of different aggregators found on Wikipedia.) The idea is that you can pull in information you are interested in from your favorite sites, or even set up searches for specific content that shows up in your mailbox—or reader—every day.

Stephanie notes that after time of constant English use, ELLs can bog down and tune out. It’s just tiring to process all that information in a new language. Feed aggregators allow you to provide access to background knowledge in their native language to keep the learning going. Some of the things she suggests you try are:

  • Give students access to current events, those that parallel what you’re doing in your instruction, in their native language.
  • Provide extension activities for students who need enrichment.
  • Teach research and writing skills by having students bookmark and annotate websites, perhaps using a social-bookmarking tool like Diigo covered last month, and monitor their work. You can make sure they are finding relevant information, highlighting the most pertinent information, summarizing correctly, and making sure they’re not plagiarizing.

Walk the Walk

Stephanie had more great tips, both at ISTE and on the phone, so maybe we’ll hear from her again. When I asked her what higher education faculty could do to better help their teacher candidates learn about and use technology effectively, she emphasized modeling. She says that most of the technology experiences for many teacher candidates coming to her workshops is using Blackboard (or other learning management systems), but that’s not technology integration. That’s information management.

Since space is limited, Stephanie recommended—in a very 21st Century skills sort of way—that you might want to follow some higher education faculty that are modeling what they want teachers to do through social networking. One of her favorites is the English Companion Ning. She’d like to see something comparable for ELLs. A short list of sites she follows is below. Maybe we can all follow her lead and set up a feed aggregator to follow them. Thanks, Stephanie!

It’s Not the Technology

We all learned a valuable lesson tonight at the ISTE keynote, it’s not the technology that matters in educational technology. Education trumps technology. That was evident in tonight’s opening ceremonies and keynote.

Unfortunately, what should have been an interesting presentation about global problem solving—what I hoped would be an especially relevant example of 21st Century skills—ushered in the opening ceremonies with a yawn through the use of a 19th (or perhaps even 18th) Century teaching style. Yes, I would call it teaching, because most information presentation is teaching. Visualize this…mumbling economics professor with his back to the classroom filling up chalkboards by writing over and over his notes in text you can’t read in the first place. Substitute presentation software for chalkboard, and you’ve got the idea.

This was a valuable lesson, though. Too many pundits claim that technology has limited impact on education. Well, tonight thousands of us learned first hand that it’s more likely that some teaching styles are the culprit. The ISTE conference is a tough crowd. Many of these folks are exemplary educators who work with technology day in and day out, but their end result is focused on student learning. They deal with a tougher audience—kids. They know what it means to engage them and keep them focused on learning targets. And much of this crowd is pretty savvy when it comes to using technology to do so.

Jean-Francois Rischard is a very knowledgable man. He was the Vice President of the World Bank, after all, and he was presenting on 20 global issues that we need to solve in the next 20 years. He’s even written a book on it. How more compelling could that be?!? Yet, despite the topic, despite his obvious depth of knowledge, the audience left in droves. Why? Because it’s not the technology that matters.

The example we saw tonight didn’t embody the principles of 21st Century teaching and learning. These educators saw that, and just like their students, they needed more to simply be engaged—on this very important topic! They were quiet and polite as they left, but after 10 minutes of sotto voce lecturing to the back of the stage, too many of them had had enough and the deserters began. Mr. Rischard outlined seven points for his topic. I tried to count them off, but I think I only got to the third one. Fourth tops. I was trying to stick it out for the planet, and my blog reader, but even that couldn’t overcome his teaching style. Maybe I’ll buy the book. It is an important topic, after all.

I try, and hope that sometimes I succeed, to model 21st Century skills when I present, because they still seem nebulous to some. Sometimes it’s hard to do, and we lapse back into our comfort zone, which for too many teachers is lecture. I’m guilty, too, but I keep working at it. That being said, I’m optimistic that I will find some good models over the next couple of days. I usually do at this conference. The poster session after the keynote had some interesting examples, and I’ve highlighted many overlapping sessions tomorrow. Here’s to being positive and “Exploring Excellence,” the conference’s motto.