Transforming Education with Technology

Robert J. Gravina, Chief Technology & Information Officer and Megan Power, Learning Experience Designer, Poway Unified School District
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Robert J. Gravina, Chief Technology & Information Officer and Megan Power, Learning Experience Designer, Poway Unified School District

Remember when you were in elementary school and your teacher asked for volunteers to come to the board and complete a math problem, or spell a word? Almost every hand went up. Problem-solving and spelling with chalk in hand was an engaging activity. At least it was for the students who were selected. Not so engaging for the students who knew the answer and weren’t selected, and definitely “disengaging” for those students who sunk down in their seats for fear of being chosen.

This is the way I was taught to teach some 30 years ago and the way we continue to educate young teachers about to enter the field. Interactive Whiteboards (IWB) are the latest version of this “writing on the board” engagement ritual. Much like 30 years ago, the majority of students in any given classroom quickly lose interest in IWB activities, especially after fifth grade. This is not meant to diminish the value of IWB’s. It’s just unfortunate that the way most of us currently use them does not seem to hold much promise.

Even when we do successfully engage students, it is, at best a short-term engagement, and usually limited to the classroom. Research tells us that student engagement in the classroom occurs about 17 percent of the time (see Project Red). That means that 83 percent of the time students are not engaged! And yet, we continue to talk about how we can engage students in their learning.

When was the last time you attended a conference and didn’t hear the word “engagement” 150 times? I have come to believe that engagement of a limited numbers of students, for limited amounts of time, is a painfully low bar and limits our student’s true talents and abilities.

  ​Technology has the ability to assist with the goal of moving beyond simple engagement, and to create classrooms that fascinate students   

What if we “moved the bar” from engagement to fascination and created learning environments that support students in the discovery of their passions? What does a fascinating classroom look like? In some ways, that’s an impossible question to answer, because each classroom will look different, reflecting the passions and talents of the students and their teacher.

I am privileged in my role to see many outstanding teachers work their magic with students. One such teacher is my co-author, Megan Power. My first opportunity to witness Megan’s remarkable talents was when she and her kindergarten class created a video news broadcast using a very simple software that animates any inanimate object, putting a face and moving mouth on anything - a phone, a chair, a library book, etc. Megan’s students animated American icons, including the Statue of Liberty, the bald eagle, and Mount Rushmore. They then interviewed these icons on their news show. This is the place in this article where readers will pause and think, “What a cute idea!” And of course, it is “cute”, but it is actually much more. These five year olds had to learn how to distinguish fact from fiction on the internet (something most adults struggle to do). They had to develop a storyboard, write the script, film, edit, direct, act, and produce and then publish their video.

Think about whether these Kindergarteners would have remembered that the wing span of the American Bald Eagle is six feet, or that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France, if they had been told this, rather than learning through “fascination.” This is an example of one teacher’s commitment to fascinating instruction, but I can give you many more examples around our district and I am sure you can think of even more which you have seen. It is however, important we understand this is not something we can just lay at the feet of a teacher. This is work that must be done on a larger scale-a school wide, district wide and nationwide scale and it begins with changing the vernacular.

If our goal is to move beyond traditional engagement we have to make changes in how we think about learning. Three years ago our district had the opportunity to develop and scale this idea by opening up our newest school, Design39Campus. When visitors first arrive at the campus they are typically taken aback by the architectural design of the school. Looking beyond the shiny new campus, the custom made furniture, and the one2one environment, you soon discover where the magic really happens. Walking round the campus you can’t help but notice that students all around are not just engaged and doing their work. They are completely focused and excited about their learning experiences. With myriad, ever-changing choices in learning, students at D39C are able to discover and deepen content knowledge and hone their application of skills. You see kindergarteners learning the concept of patterns through their interest in and curiosity about the human body, art and architecture, or animals and nature.

Second and third grade students are exploring the “Kumeyaay” Native Americans through the inquiry process, asking the essential question, “How did the San Diego of long ago shape San Diego today?”

Using essential questions as springboards, students have the ability to explore through many different avenues according to their interests and passions. You see a small group of students huddled together in a more remote area of campus and, as an adult, your first thought is to ask: what they are doing? Looking closer, you see they are fourth and fifth graders filming their public service announcement about homelessness and are not only completely into their project, but they are actually choosing to work on this during their lunch time. Seventh grade students use the design thinking process to create activities to teach kindergarteners their content in a way they can understand and enjoy. Observing these students playing collaboratively-created board games, reading children’s books they wrote, facilitating directed drawing activities, and more, you clearly see the fascination and pride-of-creation on their faces. The seventh grade teacher did not need to conduct a formal assessment. These middle school students demonstrated mastery of the concepts and were able to self-assess, based on their kindergarteners’ reaction and understanding of the concept of photosynthesis. The use of technology is not the highlight in these learning experiences, technology simply assists in making these experiences possible and is utilized as a tool throughout projects.

All around the Design39Campus, there is energy and fascination for learning. Students and teachers (we call them Learning Experience Designers) work together to create learning experiences that get students inspired and wanting to learn. Using our guiding principles, we are working to create a learning environment that promotes student choice and shows trust in students. We utilize the design thinking process, a human centered design approach.

When you put all of these aspects together, you create an environment that truly electrifies learning. This type of learning does not need a brand new building or new furniture; it needs a new mindset. It needs people looking at their current structures and practices and reimagining them. Technology has the ability to assist with the goal of moving beyond simple engagement, and to create classrooms that fascinate students, helping the next generation to find their passion and to create a curiosity for learning that will last a lifetime. We hope this new way of thinking about the use of technology in the learning environment will spur you to rethink your own vision for technology.

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