Mobile devices: “If you can’t beat them, teach them”

Mobile tech distraction_000020297594_LargeAs you start reading this, stop and take note—how far away is your smartphone? When did you last check it? Did you check it just now?

You’re not alone. In just a few short years, many of us have become addicted to our mobile devices. They’re nearly always within arm’s reach, and many of us cannot help ourselves from checking them (or fixating on them) regularly, no matter where we are, what we’re doing, or who we’re with.

What does that mean for students and learning? Bryan Goodwin, president and CEO of McREL, takes a look at what the research says in his latest column for Educational Leadership. What he finds is that, while we know some educators are doing great things with mobile device technology in the classroom, such approaches are too new to have been subjected to rigorous study.

What the limited research so far tells us is cautionary: 1) laptop use in classrooms may actually diminish attention and focus; 2) interruptions caused by texting decrease attention and comprehension, and 3) mobile devices and the Internet may be habit-forming. Further, researchers are concerned that our ability to concentrate, in general, is decreasing and that mobile devices may cause students to think they are multitasking successfully—which they’re not.

However, as Goodwin notes, whether we like it or not, mobile devices are a “fixture of modern life.” So he suggests teaching students how to live and learn with them. For example, research supports two key ways students can fend off technology distractions: by focusing learning in short sprints, followed by brief breaks, and taking hand-written notes.

Read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International.


Sometimes the best technology is no technology


In 1989, I became the principal of a technology magnet school. Nine years later, I was named an Apple Distinguished Educator. As the lead author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd Ed. (2012), I remain an active proponent of technology-infused learning. Technology enables learners to do or create things that might not otherwise be possible. Knowing all of this, you might ask why I, of all people, would ever advise educators to restrict technology in the classroom.

In one of the episodes* of CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, Leonard reminds his roommate and fellow scientist, Sheldon, of a situation in which Sheldon learned to swim—on the floor—using the Internet. Sheldon defensively asserts, “The skills are transferable. I just have no interest in going in the water.” Clearly, there are times in the learning process when students learn best by actually “going in the water.” Take driver’s education, for example.

Do you remember the learning sequence in your experience? You likely started in the classroom, learning the declarative knowledge necessary to drive a car, such as the rules of the road, standard traffic laws, and other basics. You might have also spent time in a simulator, practicing evasive maneuvers that would be dangerous for a novice to attempt on the road. Still, you and your teacher clearly understood that the textbook and the simulator were no replacement for actually sitting behind the wheel. An app would not have cut it; simulated experiences wouldn’t be an adequate substitute for gaining real, experiential knowledge.

In math classrooms, many teachers are now augmenting—and sometimes replacing—direct instruction with apps or video instruction provided by third-party sources, such as Khan Academy. While these apps and websites do offer a way for many learners to reinforce their understanding of basic skills and processes, many elements of student discourse and reflection are lacking.

Recently, when I visited a middle school algebra class, I watched as students worked independently on their laptops, completing Khan Academy lessons related to the day’s learning objectives. Following that 10-minute exercise, students closed their laptops and were grouped into triads based on where they were in the Khan Academy progression. Each triad worked on a small number of algebra problems, discussing different ways to solve the problems. Some worked on interactive white boards while others worked on paper. They engaged in deep thinking and true problem solving, opening up a dialogue about math. Students helped each other, challenged each other’s thinking, and, ultimately, learned from each other.

At the end of the class, I asked a few students what they liked about the way the teacher structured the lesson. Yes, they liked being able to work at their own pace online, but every one of the students I talked to expressed that what they really liked about the class was the time they spent talking to each other about the learning. Uniformly, students agreed the conversations were the best part of the learning experience; the feedback they received from others deepened their understanding of the concepts.

Could the teacher have accomplished a similar objective by putting students in a variety of TodaysMeet rooms or Google hangouts and have them share their thinking in that way? Maybe. But the real question is, Why do that? Good educators plan their instruction intentionally. They think about what they want their students to understand and master, and then adapt their strategies to accomplish that goal.

The real art in teaching lies in knowing when and how to use technology to enhance learning. Sometimes, it’s better to use a textbook or a whiteboard. Other times, engaging students in online simulations and computer-assisted learning will be appropriate strategies. And, sometimes, it is best to just unplug and engage with other humans, face-to face, in real time.

*Season 2, Episode 13. Great show.


2014-PitlerHoward_7046_webA former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL's executive director of digital solutions. He is co-author of the second editions of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.) and Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and was the lead developer of McREL's Power Walkthrough® classroom observation software. He can be reached at hpitler@mcrel.org  or followed on Twitter at @hpitler.


Emotional intelligence: The leader’s key to great communication

IStock_000021215908_LargeWhen it comes to communication, teachers are like everyone else: When they listen to or interact with their leader, they want to feel inspired. Many school leaders are good at inspiring an audience with articulate, rousing speeches, but research shows that what’s more important are the small, everyday interactions that are driven less by rhetorical talent and more by emotional intelligence.

In their latest Research Says column for Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein look at what emotional intelligence is and how it bolsters leadership at any organization. Defined by Salovey and Mayer as the ability to monitor one’s own emotions and the emotions of others and use this information to guide interactions with others (1990), emotional intelligence appears to distinguish good leaders from great ones.

For instance, when writer/psychologist Daniel Goleman conducted an analysis of the competency models of 188 large companies, he found that, among the important ingredients of excellence performance—technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence—emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels. Further, the higher an employee’s level in a company, the more important it became. As Goleman noted: “Without [emotional intelligence], a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.” 

To read more about the links between the emotional intelligence of school leaders and school performance, get the entire article here.

Posted by McREL International.


Empowering teachers with collective efficacy

IStock_000034688362_SmallIn 1999, I embarked on my first year of teaching, eagerly anticipating leading my own classroom and filled with much hope, promise, and possibility. However, as my initial year unfolded, it turned out to be a no good, terrible, very bad year (so disappointing that I even wrote an editorial about it for the Denver Post). I consider myself a very positive person—a team player—so this experience was as much a surprise to me as anyone else. What changed my hope to despair and, eventually, my profession from teacher to education consultant?

In thinking about all the subsequent years I spent teaching—some great, some tough, and some just-okay—I remember one significant moment. One morning, as we greeted students on the first day of school—the same year that I was elected to serve as the language arts department chair of a low-performing suburban middle school—my principal advised me that if test scores didn’t go up, the blame would fall squarely on my shoulders. In that moment, I realized that there was no “team.” As an individual teacher, I felt inadequate to carry that load alone; worse, I worried that remaining a teacher might cost me more than I was willing or able to give.

While I always had at least one supportive colleague within my grade level or department, a whole school, we-can-do-this-together vibe was missing from the schools where I taught. Typical divisions between primary and intermediate grades were evident and “that’s not my content area” conflicts sprang up regularly. When it came down to school-wide, collective will and effort to effect change, it always fell short because teachers were working in relative isolation, with heavy loads to bear.

Not wanting to coast on fumes and become the teacher counting the years to retirement, I divorced the job I wanted to do my whole life. But, with my hope and determination to make a difference in education still intact, I searched for a way to change the system. I landed at McREL, an organization whose motto is, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This ideal resonated with me, feeding my desire to build a better system in which “change” meant better schools, better teaching, and better learning. I finally hit upon what I had been dancing at the edges of for years, collective efficacy.

In early 2012, as part of a federal grant called the North Central Comprehensive Center (NCCC) program, McREL began working with the South Dakota Department of Education (SD DOE) to implement a strategy that supported South Dakota’s Priority and Focus Schools, as part of its Elementary and Secondary Education Act Waiver. We used a customized version of Indistar®, a web-based continuous improvement planning tool, to develop the South Dakota Leading Effectively, Achieving Progress (SD LEAP) tool. Built on the principle that the people closest to students should be the ones determining the path to improvement, SD LEAP was designed to help South Dakota schools establish leadership teams to guide their continuous improvement processes.

Later that year, we hit the rural roads of South Dakota, training educators on the new tool and informing them that SD LEAP and school leadership teams were an effective, support-based way to lead school improvement, not compliance-driven. While many were willing to give it a try, just as many thought this was yet another swing of the pendulum; if they waited long enough, it would quietly die like so many past reforms.

In April 2014, a small team of McREL and SD DOE staff traveled more than 900 miles across the state to capture, in video, the success stories of five schools using the SD LEAP system. As we sat down with teachers and leaders at each of the schools, we heard responses like, “I felt empowered,” and, “It wasn’t just me doing it, it was all of us.” One teacher, who had been mulling retirement, shared her renewed sense of excitement about the work her team was doing, and had chosen not to retire. That really resonated with me. Teachers were now eager to review data and discuss individual kids, especially the ones who were hardest to reach. A palpable sense of collective commitment and relief emanated from each frame of the video, telling me we were on to something. As I watched the interviews, two words—collective efficacy—hit me like a ton of bricks.

What does collective efficacy have to do with my terrible, no good, very bad first year of teaching? Working with educators across the country over the past six years has convinced me that, while there will always be a need for professional development in the areas of leadership, instruction, curriculum, and assessment, what schools really need to effect change is a partner to help them maximize all the great resources, staff, and ideas they already have—a partner to share the load and help build collective efficacy.

As a teacher, I never felt we lacked the “right stuff” in terms of resources or professional development for staff. Deep down, I felt unable—as an individual teacher—to make broad, sweeping, systemic changes. What was really missing was a collective will and belief that we all needed to move in the same direction, systemically changing our instruction and culture to increase student achievement for each and every kid. As I listened to teachers share their experiences in the SD LEAP video, I realized that they felt like they were, indeed, enough. Because, as a group, they were much more than enough.

Don’t take my word for it—spend a few minutes watching our video, “South Dakota LEAP – Leading Effectively, Achieving Progress,” or exploring the NCCC website.


2014-HoakHeather_6737_webMcREL consultant Heather Hoak develops and implements technical supports for the North Central Comprehensive Center, the Victoria Department of Education and Early Childhood Education, and other McREL projects and clients. For more information about SD LEAP, contact Heather by e-mail or at 303.632.5512.


Simple interventions can help students overcome “stereotype threat”

IStock_000027658075_SmallIn his latest Research Says column for Educational Leadership, McREL President and CEO Bryan Goodwin sheds light on the psychological phenomenon known as “stereotype threat,” its effects on learning, and how schools can help their students overcome it.

Stereotype threat, he explains, refers to situations in which people feel at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their race, gender, or social group. In the classroom, especially as students get older and begin internalizing negative messages about stereotypes and developing their personal identities, this subtle but powerful phenomenon has a tangible effect on achievement. Researchers at Princeton, for example, found that minority children who were asked to report their ethnicity prior to a test got 21 percent fewer correct answers than those who were asked to report their ethnicity after the test.

However, Goodwin writes, research has also shown that rather simple interventions can reverse these effects. In one study, both black and white 7th grade students were asked to spend 15 minutes writing about the role of personal values in their lives at the beginning of the term in a targeted course. During the term, this simple exercise cut in half the number of students earning a D or lower, reduced achievement gaps by 40 percent, and reversed previous declines in performance.

Goodwin concludes that, while promising, interventions must also be accompanied by high-quality instruction and a challenging curriculum, and they must be carried out in a way that doesn’t further stigmatize students.

Read Bryan's column on ASCD's Educational Leadership site.

Posted by McREL International.