Every Outcome a Process

A true process orientation also means being aware that every outcome is preceded by a process.

-Dr. Ellen Langer, Mindfulness

Right now I am waist deep in writing my new book on digital student portfolios. It will be out at some point in 2017 with ASCD. In this forthcoming text, the audience is teachers and how they can facilitate this authentic assessment process in their classrooms with success.

I’ll be honest – I have reached a bit of a wall. My experience as an administrator for the past nine years has left me with many experiences in setting up performance-based portfolios, developing curriculum that leads to essential understandings, and guiding a school to embed this type of technology initiative over time. What my experience has not provided is a strong understanding of using digital tools to assess student learning progress over time.

That means going back to the books. I don’t have the knowledge yet to write with confidence about the day-to-day growth students make and how a teacher might document this learning. Currently I am reading Digital Reading by Franki Sibberson and William L. Bass II. On my to-read list is Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks, In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, Conversations by Regie Routman, and Inside the Writing Portfolio by Carol Brennan Jenkins. Two of these texts are steeped in technology. All are grounded in pedagogy. As I explore these resources, I plan on writing the prior and following chapters that bookends this topic. I’ll complete this part of the text when ready.

I’ve realized as an author that we don’t have to be the expert on everything we write about as educators. Yes, we should “know our stuff”. But when putting together a resource that might benefit a wide audience, I have found it unavoidable to encounter an area where my knowledge and skill are lacking. Am I not an expert now? Not yet…

With my last book, I received feedback that the fourth section (“Myth #4: Technology Improves Student Learning”) was the heart of the text. It was effective in describing how pedagogy drove the need for technology, which led to the technology enhancing and even redefining the pedagogy. What’s interesting is that this was the section I struggled with the most. The topic of blended learning was still somewhat foreign to me. I had to spend extra time in our school’s classroom that employed this instructional approach in order to write about it.

One wonders with any book we read how much the author was challenged to put into prose what they observed, knew, and wanted to convey for others. Writing forces us to stop when we aren’t familiar with something and reconsider what we yet need to know. Writing is a canary in the coal mine, alerting us to gaps in our knowledge and skills as we travail toward an acceptable outcome. Writing is a process independent of a worthy audience, and publishing seems secondary to the act itself. Our lives are better for the experience either way.

Technology for the Sake of Technology: Consider the Why and the How

For many reasons, technology is very tempting to embed into classrooms without a lot of thought behind our intentions. Its newness piques students’ interests, it connects learners with the wider world, and it can provide a seemingly limitless number of resources for communication, information and entertainment.

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But does it lead to learning? It depends not on what a teacher is using, but how it is used and why it might be needed. In my recently published book, I highlighted the conditions John Hattie found in his research about effective use of technology in schools, from his seminal resource Visible Learning: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Routledge, 2009, p. 221-227):

  • When there is a diversity of teaching strategies
  • When there is teacher training in the use of computers as a teaching and learning tool
  • When there are multiple opportunities for learning (e.g. deliberative practice, increasing time on task)
  • When the student, not the teacher, is in “control” of learning
  • When peer learning is optimized
  • When feedback is optimized

Beyond these situations, I also suggest that teachers make the purpose for implementing new technology into classrooms to revolve around some type of real world project or to address a community problem. For example, one of our teachers wants to replace her desktop computers with Chromebooks. 

Here were two ideas we discussed for this integration:

  1. Create an official Howe Elementary School welcoming website via Google Sites for new students and their families, where maps of the school, informational videos, and important information would be posted and kept current.
  2. Train the students to teach residents at an assisted living center how to use Google Apps for a variety of reasons, such as communicating via Gmail and Hangouts with family members who don’t visit them often enough. 

As I think about these possibilities, I feel a sense of enthusiasm for what could happen in this classroom with access to mobile technology. But just bringing in Chromebooks: Not the same. It is so easy to state “I need technology in the classroom” without thinking about the why and how. The shiny new pencil tends to lose its luster when its potential is not realized. We can do better.