Yes, even teachers make mistakes. I know because I’m one of those imperfect teachers. I’ve taught students of all ability levels, and I’m the parent of three amazing children who, like my students, have very different capacities for learning. As director of instruction and digital media at a 1:1 school district, my perspective comes from professional practice, 20/20 hindsight and daily life experience.
Reflecting on my practice and the challenges my colleagues and I face, I want to share four common mistakes that impede technology integration and thereby student achievement and growth.
1. Using technology for technology’s sake.
Simply using technology in the classroom does not boost student achievement. Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model (substitution, augmentation, modification and redefinition) upholds the principle that the level at which teachers integrate technology determines its impact on student achievement and learning.
The lowest level of SAMR is substitution, or using technology as a substitute for non-tech without a significant change in the learning task.
Digital textbooks may replace paper textbooks, but will this shift in itself strengthen students’ ability or desire to read?
Students may submit reports in Google Docs instead of turning in hand-written papers. This platform certainly provides an efficient way to collect assignments and give electronic feedback, but will the task in itself generate transformational learning experiences? Or will you likely see the same issues, such as unclear theses and poor essay structures, as when students submit reports on paper.
The mistake is not in using technology in these ways; it’s limiting students to using technology in these ways. If edtech only serves the purpose of task-efficiency and submitting assignments, students will use technology in your classroom just enough to hate it. The key is purpose and balance.
2. Allowing technology to distract from understanding.
Is tech driving your instruction, or is instruction driving your tech? Nothing is more disheartening than seeing a teacher frustrated because a website or app isn’t running properly, the school’s Wi-Fi is down or students simply struggle to use the tech altogether. If success in student learning is contingent upon the successful functioning of technology or the students’ ability to use it, expect disappointment.
I vividly recall a lesson on characterization. I was determined to have each student in my English class create a Prezi to demonstrate understanding of the main characters in Romeo and Juliet.
I thought I’d simply show students how to download the Prezi application and choose a template. Instead, I spent the majority of the class period demonstrating how to create accounts, type text and insert pictures as well as how to share their presentations with the class. Even the few who successfully made it to the last step had little or no time to share and discuss their thinking.
It was a nightmare for both me and my students! Should I have broken down the steps to create a Prezi over a longer time period? Yes. Could I have let my students decide how to demonstrate their understanding? Probably.
I should have identified and focused on a learning goal. Did I want my students to learn about characterization or did I want them to know how to create a dynamic Prezi? That was the day I learned that technology doesn’t teach, teachers do.
3. Providing an audience of one.
Are you the only audience for your students’ work?
Imagine preparing for a big performance, knowing that only one person will be in the audience. Unless the lone audience member is Simon Cowell, you probably wouldn’t be motivated to put much effort into preparation.
Likewise, a letter grade from a one-teacher audience is usually not enough to motivate students to perform academically to do their best work. The fact is, many students don’t care about our opinions — at least not as much as they want positive feedback from peers. Sure, kind words from a teacher can please students; but admiration from peers will intensify motivation.
Once I stepped aside as the only “audience member” and used technology as a vehicle for students to write and collaborate with peers in other classrooms and across the globe, I saw motivation to do great work increase. One year, I created a “global classroom” in which my students collaborated with students from more than seven countries! I was ecstatic to see how excited my students were to write, research and solve problems related to the content.
For example, when teaching my students opinion writing based on sound research, they worked with students from India to research and responded to the question, “How effective is disaster management in your country?” I discovered my students were staying up late into the night (due to different time-zones) just to see how the students in India would reply to their posts and what they thought about the topic. (It was even more exciting for my students to see the students in India doing the same thing.)
My students learned from their Indian peers about tsunamis and cyclones and how residents are affected when government fails to respond. Meanwhile the students in India learned about Hurricane Katrina and the tornados that affected Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 2011.
More importantly, my students learned how to express their views about a topic based on sound research, which is an important college-readiness and workplace skill. They also addressed the Global Collaborator standard within the ISTE Standards for Students, which expects students to “use digital tools to broaden their perspectives and enrich their learning by collaborating with others and working effectively in teams locally and globally.”
4. Neglecting authentic student voice and choice.
My real full-time job is being a mother of three kids, one of whom is a slightly complex sixth grader who is having the toughest school year of his life. The best way to describe his learning style is to say he can be distracted by anything and is disinterested in everything, at least everything adult-driven. His teachers say he’s smart but unorganized and unmotivated. So why am I sharing this?
Well, as I sat on my balcony writing this post, my son handed me a list of items to buy so he can complete a self-made project: a micro switch, a DC motor, three pieces of wire… . He immersed himself for days in a coding website and is convinced he can create a prototype for a voice-command responding robot.
My first thought is, “Why can’t he put half the effort into tasks at school?” Then it hits me: He has ownership! Despite his inability to complete tasks at school, he has chosen to explore, research information and problem-solve in order to see this task through to completion because he owns it.
Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like A Pirate, says that academic success has much to do with a teacher’s attitude and “willingness to relentlessly search for what engages students.”
This is not to say that teachers should just let students code and create prototypes, but if we embed student voice and choice throughout our curriculum and instruction, students will move from completing their assignments to driving their learning. Also, as in my son’s case, their efforts and investment in completing tasks will be more authentic.
In a similar vein, one year I decided to give students more agency in the research paper process, which requires framing a thesis, organizing ideas and citing sources. They researched the issues and needs of a target population of their choice within our community. They fictitiously wrote grants to create nonprofits that function to service their target population. They created a budget, a plan and a purpose. They pitched their proposals to a panel of teachers and community leaders who would, in turn, fictitiously award the funds needed for their nonprofits.
What technology did students use in this project? They used whatever technology necessary to reach their team’s goal. They created websites and digital flyers, video PSAs, schoolwide polls in Google Forms to collect data, graphs and charts to represent results of data collection. One team even used a semi-virtual conference strategy to present their proposal.
In doing so, they addressed at least three of the ISTE Standards for Students. They were:
Knowledge Constructors, who “critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.”
Innovative Designer, who "develop and employ strategies for understanding and solving problems in ways that leverage the power of technological methods to develop and test solutions… build knowledge by actively exploring real-world issues and problems, developing ideas and theories and pursuing answers and solutions.”
Computational Thinkers, who “collect data or identify relevant data sets, use digital tools to analyze them, and represent data in various ways to facilitate problem-solving and decision making.
The following year, I received this email from one of my ninth graders from that class. It read:
“In your class, we learned valuable skills that will actually be applicable throughout our lives. I thoroughly enjoyed creating and writing the grant proposal. … I applied to a program and was selected among 50 female students across North America! … I could not have done it without the skills I learned in your class. …Thank you so much!”
This was my reply to the student:
“I am grateful to have had a role in your learning; however, please understand, your teachers are simply educators — from Latin "educe": to develop … to bring out potential or hidden talents. … I’m saying YOU had it in you this whole time. I just provided a platform (and a little coaching) to pull it out of you!”
What’s more exciting is that this student was part of a team awarded grant money to make their ninth-grade research project a reality. During the summer preceding their senior year, they successfully created Each One Teach One, focused on closing the achievement gap caused by summer learning loss.
Essentially, I’ve learned through my experiences and through observation of others that whatever choices we make about technology or pedagogy, if we foster student-agency in their learning, academic success will be much more sustainable and authentic.
Nira Dale is an Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), English teacher and a K-12 instructional specialist for Florence City Schools in Florence, Alabama. Nira has also been named the PBS Digital Innovator Lead for her state. She has presented and facilitated various professional development sessions, workshops and webinars on pedagogy and instructional technology through local and international platforms.