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.


10+ Popular Digital Resources for Teachers from 2014

10+ Popular Digital Resources for Teachers from 2014

I actually look forward to “Top 10” lists that sum up educational trends of the year. They always have new things I’ve missed or resources I need to investigate further. They’re much better than those stupid year-end predictions that never seem to come true, like “This will be the year of…(fill in the flavor-of-the-moment resource)!!”

This year I decided to create my own list. There’s no empirical research behind it; no data to prove their popularity. These are just a few digital resources for teachers that I’ve observed in classrooms across the country. This year I truly made it “coast-to-cast” by working in districts from Pawley’s Island on the coast of South Carolina, to Redlands, California—just shy of the Pacific—and many in-between. These are resources I see teachers using or ones that teachers have introduced to me presented in no particular order. It was hard to keep it to 10, so I didn’t.

  1. Socrative. If I had the data, I bet Socrative would be the most popular digital resource I’ve seen in schools this year. It showed up a few years ago as a polling tool, but the updated version and new data reporting tools make it even more useful. I know some teachers like Today’s Meet, but Socrative is far more powerful. Whether used as a quick formative assessment or for actual quizzes or tests, Socrative provides teachers with a range of data—some that can be represented visually on the fly—that can confidentially be tied to individual student records for monitoring purposes. I’d be really surprised if someone in your school isn’t already using Socrative.
  1. Blendspace. This media-blending tool seemed to find a larger audience this year, probably due to the addition of assessment and data monitoring functions. I’ve used Blendspace in the past because it’s just so easy to find and link resources, but the additional functionality takes this resource beyond just a fun curation site to a powerful classroom tool.
Performance task presented in Blendspace

Performance task presented in Blendspace

  1. Kahoot! is really a hoot! O.K., it’s just a quiz game, but kids love it. I thought the gaming nature would only appeal to younger students, but I’ve seen Kahoot! even enjoyed by high school students. The concept is simple, but the graphics and music seem to make forced-choice quiz review or actual quizzing more engaging. Turn it around and have your kids come up with the questions to raise the cognitive demand.
  1. WeVideo. It’s about time video editing was free, easy, and online so we can get to our files from anywhere. There are others out there, but I have probably seen teachers and students using WeVideo more often this year than other video-editing tools, even MovieMaker and iMovie. With WeVideo, platform doesn’t matter, and you can use what you know from these older video tools to create your own videos for flipping your lessons, or have your kids create video-based digital stories, lab reports, documentaries, and on and on.
  1. Tackk. No one’s had to use HTML to create web pages for a while now, and sites like Weebly and Google Sites have made it easy for students and teachers to create attractive sites for assignments and projects. Tackk is a new entry in this market and shines above most others simply because it’s just so darn easy! Kids can focus on the content and quickly get an attractive web page up to share their work. Commenting and chat are built in, so the usual monitoring of social networking components is necessary, but we teachers should be already doing that with our students instead of avoiding these powerful tools.
  1. Thinglink. How quickly things change. Yes, we can all easily create, edit, and post video from devices like our phones—something that used to take expensive tools and software. Thanks to Thinglink, we can also now annotate videos and images with the click of a button. How cool is that? I’ve seen some interesting biographies and book reports using Thinglink, but there are many possibilities. Think of the exploration of primary source documents in multiple formats—very interesting possibilities. There’s a public and an education version.

Seven through 10 are some Google Tools you may or may not know about. I find a mixed bag of teachers who do or don’t know about these free, powerful tools that can add to their classroom. Very often, I seem to be in districts where teachers don’t realize the district has their own Google Apps for Education (GAFE) domain. This alone provides a wide range of security and functionality if your GAFE administrator sets it up correctly, so I’ll focus on some things you can use within your own GAFE domain or externally. I’m saving Google Class, possibly for next year. It’s still a little new to make the Top 10.

  1. Usage rights. Let your kids search the Web for images and what do they do? Almost every kid I see goes to Google Image search and copies and pastes directly from the found set—no concern for attribution or whether the image is even legally available for use. Most don’t even visit the site where the image is actually located. I even see watermarks and copyright symbols printed on images in student projects. Google’s made it easy to find images students can use in their projects through their Search Tools. Complete the image search as you usually would, then select Search Tools, and pick one of the Usage Rights. I suggest “Labeled for noncommercial reuse with modification” to get the maximum number of options, unless kids are just going to copy and paste, in which case they can use “Labeled for noncommercial reuse,” which implies no modification. You choose what’s best for your purpose.
Finding images you can use in a Google Image search

Finding images you can use in a Google Image search

  1. Research Tools. Open any Google doc or presentation, select the Tools menu and click on Research: Up pops the research pane that allows you or your students to do a full search of text, images, or other from within your document—including filtering by usage rights (see #7). You can add links to primary sources on the Web directly in your document, and auto-generate a list of citations following MLA, APA, or Chicago style. Why isn’t every teacher using this?
Using Google Research Tools

Using Google Research Tools

  1. Google is connecting everything, even people. Google Hangouts are basically multi-point videoconferences that can be supported by computers, tablets, or phones. There’s no need for expensive web- or videoconferencing services. Google does it for free. And just like email (or Gmail), Twitter, or other social tools, you can share images, text, and links.
  1. I personally haven’t used Moderator, but since I work in several districts with GAFE, teachers report to me it’s an easy way to support a class discussion if you’re not using a learning management system (e.g., Edmodo, Canvas, or even Google Class). It’s a discussion forum. Simple. Easy.

And the +! It really was hard to narrow down the choices. In addition to my top 10, this year I’m going to spend more time with two presentation tools that teachers tell me are easy to use and highly engaging. eMaze was described to me by a teacher as a cross between PowerPoint and Prezi but easier to use. It sure looks it. Powerpoint is so abused in classrooms and Prezis often make me queasy, so I’m interested to see how eMaze stacks up. PowToon is another presentation tool that I’ve heard of for a couple of years but I haven’t really seen any students using it in the schools I visit. It looks like it might take the place of xtranormal (not sure what’s going on there!) that was popular several years ago. The learning curves looks a little steeper for PowToon than eMaze, but I’m old and kids will probably figure it out far faster than me.

There you have it. Just a smattering of fun and helpful resources I see in classrooms across the country. I know there are plenty more, but many teaches often tell me, “I don’t need to know everything. Just give me 1 or 2 good tools that work.” Pick one and let me know how it goes.

Teaching Teachers: Considerations for Design

When I was in college, I couldn’t wait to get into my own classroom. The learning and camaraderie was fun, but I just wanted to be in charge and put all those things I was learning into action. Theory is one thing, but I wanted to see it in practice. I wanted to be in charge. For that reason, I know I developed some of the same behaviors antithetical to learning in my own classroom that I now struggle with when I work with teachers. One of my goals is to design instruction that helps my own students, most of whom are teachers, to overcome some of my own poor behaviors.

Teaching can be a lot of fun. One of my favorite parts of teaching is seeing kids learn something new. There’s no audible “click,” but often it seems like you can actually see that change when a kid processes something new and develops a new understanding or adds something new to their repertoire. It happened a lot with my middle school students, but I could still experience it with my high schoolers. That’s not always the case with adults, though, who tend to be more resistant. Typical of adults, it shouldn’t be surprising that with so much learning going on in my own classroom, that the one that was most resistant to learning was…me.

It’s not like I shut out the possibility altogether, but there’s a strange switch that occurs with many people when they move from student to teacher. I know I went through it, and I run into it time and again with the teachers with whom I work. I’m not sure how it happens. It may be an artifact of our school culture, but happen it does, at least in many cases.

In most schools, teachers work alone. The bell rings, they close the doors, and it’s time to get to work. They’re in charge and what they say goes. There’s a saying in education, “don’t smile until Christmas,” and I’m not the only one guilty of perhaps embodying this philosophy a bit too strictly.

Now that I work with teachers and even teach teachers, some of these strange cultural behaviors are more readily apparent, and they really make me struggle as I try to learn from and help my teachers learn new things. Following are some behaviors I know I’ve exhibited that are now challenges I face when designing learning for teachers.

I don’t know it all. There was a time when teachers may have known it all—or at least all the content they needed to impart for a test or entry into a career. But there’s more to teaching than just the facts and figures. Many of the teachers I run into truly do know all of the facts, figures, and processes covered in their curriculum. But it astounds me that I run into many who can’t tell me why they’re important. Why study math? Science? Social studies? Some of the answers I receive are astounding, and not all that convincing.

In my first classrooms, I tried to know it all, and many of my students expected me to, but now it’s different. I’ve seen that not only that I don’t know it all but that I never really will. There’s just too much to know! And more to know day after day. So now I tackle my online instruction as an opportunity to learn rather than a requirement to teach.

I learn new things from my students and the teachers I work with every week. They share their experiences, new resources they’ve found, and we sometimes work through problems together. The process really helps me, and I believe that those who are willing to work with me in this way also benefit. I tell my students that activities are a conversation, and if I misinterpret or misunderstand something, they should let me know. We should talk about them so we both better understand each other. That said, I rarely have a student speak up or contradict what I say or comments on their work. Why? Well, they’re almost all teachers and many are still playing the know-it-all game.

One of the most powerful things I’ve learned to say, albeit reluctantly at first, is “I don’t know.” But I can’t leave it at that. I may not know, but we can figure it out together, or you can help me to learn it. That has been a great benefit. There’s been one more benefit to realizing I don’t know it all. A tremendous burden has been lifted from my shoulders because one thing I do know now is, I don’t have to know it all. Whew! Now if I could just convince a few others…

I’m not always right. This is a tough one. The stereotypical image of a teacher is of the all-knowing font of knowledge that has the final say. Being the final authority is an approach I probably did take more often than not when I first started teaching, but it’s really a trap. I know why I did it. It made me appear to be the authority that my students could trust. But if you want to wear those shoes, the first time you aren’t right, you then spend most of your time doing damage control and you never really gain that trust back.

This issue comes to the forefront when commenting on the work others have done. Outside of the classroom, this is pro forma. I remember the first paper I wrote for my new “corporate” job (I use quotations because I worked in a non-profit with a lot of other former teachers, so it was more corporate than a school, but not entirely so). I had just published my dissertation and thought I had this writing thing down. The paper I got back was covered in red pencil from an editor. I was livid! How could this be? I had a Ph.D.! I was the expert!

In the end, what happened was I learned that while I knew a few things about educational technology, our editors knew a lot more than I did about writing, especially writing for different audiences. Their comments weren’t intended to be punitive, but informative. Sometimes they were intended to make me think deeper about my topic and maybe to consider different perspectives. They were actually trying to make me sound better, perhaps smarter, and to make my writing better so people might think I was always right (well…maybe right most of the time). I began to trust them and rely on their feedback.

Giving feedback to teachers is a challenge. If a teacher works under the mindset that they are always right, even a simple question can shut down communication. At least once in every class I teach I have students tell me they are struggling with my class and feel like they’re failing. Generally, they have the highest grades in the class and are exemplary students, but I may have posed questions or even taken a point or two off an assignment. To those students, less than perfect is failure. I gave up on perfect long ago and am much happier for it.

In terms of design, I try to be very confirming with my feedback. I try to pose questions rather than make statements, pull in references or data, but even those can cause some people to raise their shackles. Very often, however, I do have students that make erroneous statements or flawed or conclusions. At this point, I’ve taken the stand that it’s better to let them know than to let it slide by. It can take its toll on communication, but communication has to take a back seat to learning.

I can’t do it alone. A former colleague of mine once said, “Collaboration is an unnatural act conducted by two nonconsenting adults.” It may seem that way, but collaboration has become one of the most necessary skills for success in the world of work—in just about any occupation. It should also be true in education, but many of the educators I work with don’t see it that way.

I have to admit that working in cooperative groups was one of the most difficult things I had to learn once I left the classroom and worked in “the corporate world.” But the truth is that since I don’t know it all and I’m not always right, having other people who knew things and could do things I couldn’t do actually made me more effective. Our skills and knowledge often complemented each other. In this case, I really believe that the sum of the parts was greater than the whole, especially since collaboration can lead to creative solutions or opportunities that I just couldn’t come up with on my own. I just didn’t have the experiences or knowledge to do so.

The 21st Century Skills movement has encouraged educators to provide students the opportunities to collaborate and build collaborative skills, but I find few teachers willing to work collaboratively themselves. At this point, I encourage but don’t require collaboration in my online courses. When collaboration is an option, I try to provide structures for collaborating, perhaps job aids or templates, and I encourage collaborators to reflect on the activity. What did each person do? What did they bring to the table? What was the benefit? Collaborating with someone new, however, seems to still be a challenge, and until the participants feel comfortable and realize they don’t know it all and aren’t always right, it can be a slippery slope to traverse.


I’m still working on these factors in my learning design and consulting work. Sometimes I think I should go in and pretend to be the all-knowing font of knowledge who can’t be wrong—I think teachers expect it of me. But it’s a loosing game in the end. I’ll keep plugging away and hope you share some ideas you have for designing better learning for teachers.