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.”

References

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.

 

Lessons Learned from Coaching, Part 2: Assumptions

This is the second in a three-part series on my reflections of coaching teachers. In 2016, I helped develop and launch the Dell Certification process for Mentors through my work with Advanced Learning Partnerships. The focus is to help new coaches develop skills to help others reach their goals. The first lesson learned was about what I see as the true role of coaches—to build the capacity of others to reach their goals. This second takes a nod from coaching expert Jim Knight.

Listen for Contradictions to Your Assumptions

The above is a piece of wisdom hidden in the work of Jim Knight’s (2007) popular book on instructional coaching. Most coaches I’ve met have read the book, many completing book studies on it. I’ve participated in several book studies with it myself, sometimes as a participant and sometimes as a facilitator. There are a lot of great ideas in the book and in the work of the Kansas Coaching Project (now the Instructional Coaching Project). Some day I may write about the value of Knight’s “Big 4,” which provide a hierarchical framework for beginning coaching conversations, but the idea of assumptions is one that deserves a bit of exploration.

“But first…a story.” (If you’re one of my former students, this is where you’d insert a groan.) After the classroom, I’ve been coaching different groups of educators for the better part of a decade. If you count back to the beginning of my teaching career, when some of my middle school boys referred to me as “the band coach,” then I’ve been doing it all my career. I was working with a new district this past year that had me literally running from one coaching visit at one school to the next over a series of 3-4 days. Luckily, the district have some excellent EdTech coaches that were able to build a stronger coaching bond with their teachers and could continue the coaching conversations in person when I couldn’t be there. It’s a tough model to implement—the outside expert—but it works well when there is someone on the ground between visits.

I tried to see each of the 30 or so teachers I was working with three times over a period of a few months. The goal was to help each teacher develop a personal goal for the coaching visits and to ultimately help them implement new skills in their classrooms, either with my help or having me observe at the end. As might be expected, the teachers ranged in their levels of technology proficiency and willingness to collaborate. One in particular seemed reluctant to meet, often finding last-minute scheduling conflicts, so I had to be persistent and flexible in order to get into her classroom.

At our last session, I watched as this English teacher led her students through a traditional grammar lesson followed by the exploration of a text in which students explored a website she had given them to explain historical references or figurative examples in a text they were reading. The students had to find specific examples and describe their genesis using the website and hand write their responses on paper. I was very underwhelmed. This was technology coaching, after all. There was very limited technology use, despite all the students having access to their own laptop and a district Google account with all the resources that provides.

In our debrief, I walked in with my assumptions clouding my vision. I assumed this teacher just didn’t want to try new technologies, didn’t trust me, and wasn’t going to make any progress on her goal. She had skipped our last session, after all, and this class just wasn’t what I had hoped to see. What unfolded, was just the opposite.

When I asked about the very traditional grammar lesson and whether she had tried other—perhaps technology-based—alternatives she commented enthusiastically that “Yes” indeed she had! She had picked up on the mention of an online grammar resource in our initial training sessions and said her kids had really enjoyed it, but they had exhausted the limits of the free version. She had convinced her principal to seek funds to provide access to the site for all teachers in the school. Wow.

When I asked about whether the kids might possibly find and record information in another way, perhaps using a shared Google doc and perhaps the research tools, as we had gone over earlier in the year (Harumph!), she commented that again, “Yes, they had been using Google docs.” But this lesson was more about building background knowledge and knowing her kids and some of their challenges simply with keyboarding and using the new resources, she thought the paper-based route would help them get through this foundational lesson quickly so she could apply that knowledge in a more substantial matter later when the tools would have greater benefit.

She thanked me for the resources that had been introduced and for the opportunity to work through some of them. Most of all she enjoyed collaborating with other teachers across the district and having the time to share ideas. She said the whole experience had really been beneficial to her. Just because what I saw that day didn’t set my little techno heart ablaze, it didn’t mean that this particular teacher hadn’t been pursuing her own goals for technology use. Again, it was a good lesson for me. I had to step back and refrain from imposing what may have been my goals for her. Not all teachers are going to be as enthusiastic about technology the way I am, but that doesn’t mean they can find ways to support teaching and learning in their classroom. As a coach, I need to remember to keep helping people move forward by making progress on their own goals, not necessarily to the same place I want to be, and especially to not assume that if I don’t see something that it’s not happening.

RESOURCES

Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching. A partnership approach to improving instruction. NSDC.