On the Lookout for Tech that Goes Beyond the “Meh”

By: Kara Carpenter
A few months back, I was visiting an elementary school where the principal was an enthusiastic technologist, with a 1:1 laptop initiative and a summer TV-based intervention, among other things. But he lamented that some of his teachers were fundamentally scared of technology and afraid of change (a familiar story).
We then visited a fourth grade class, where the teacher was comfortable and fluent with technology. All the kids were on their 1:1 laptops, working their way through an ELA lesson on folklore, and it looked impressive. Each kid was working at his/her own pace; some had headphones for ELL support; the teacher was keeping track of all their progress on this intense dashboard. On the surface it was a technologist’s dream.
But the teacher seemed a little hesitant by the enthusiasm of all the visitors, so I stopped to chat with her a few minutes after class. To insert a little context here, I could tell after just a few minutes in her class that she was a great teacher by the way she interacted with her students and the classroom culture, so I was really interested in her opinions. She told me that on the one hand the ELA program helped her keep track of students who were lost, but her entire language arts block was taken up with this software program. She missed her reading groups and kids getting excited by what they were reading not just finishing their work. This was not a teacher who is afraid of technology; she just recognized that this particular technology was kinda “meh.”
After our chat, I thought back on what the students had been doing, and I realized that they were fundamentally taking a standardized test, reading short passages about folklore and answering multiple choice questions. What kid is going to develop a lifetime love of reading by doing that everyday? I thought back on all the great reading teachers I have worked with over the years and wondered how long they would stick with teaching if that was their curriculum.
Too much educational technology mimics the “meh” teaching, taking the standardized test, lecture, or worksheet and making it digital and adaptive, then slapping the word “innovative” on it. Gamification folks, this means you, too. Just throwing stars, points, or leaderboards on it is not innovative either. These are not going to do anything for the kid at the back of the pack, and the research is pretty clear that extrinsic rewards actually make you less likely to enjoy the activity once the reward is gone.
As a first time attendee at the ASU+GSV Innovation Summit this year, I’m on the lookout for educational technology that supports great teaching and addresses the needs of struggling students rather than just replicating uninspired methods. So what might this look like? I’m looking for games or tools that engage students and teachers in great thinking.
One example of a company on the right path is Ponder (though they’re not here at the Summit). I was impressed by their presentation at EdLab’s recent Demo Night in New York.  Students use this web-based tool to tag texts with short sentiments and see more academic language to use in class discussions or written responses. A student might tag a particular section with “Duh” and see “Of course” and “Obviously” as suggested academic vocabulary. Teachers quickly see what parts of the text students respond to and whether they are responding at a cognitive, evaluative, or emotional level.
I imagine that teacher I visited using this kind of tool instead. She would still have the reading groups and rich texts that she missed, but she would also have the analytics to help her encourage class discussions and identify struggling students.  Here at the Innovation Summit, I’m going to keep her in mind as I evaluate all the new products and companies that are here this week. I hope to be impressed.
kara profile 3Kara Carpenter is a National Board Certified Teacher with a PhD in Cognition and Learning from Columbia University. She co-founded Teachley, a company creating K-5 mobile games based on cognitive science research and extracting insight from children’s gameplay to help teachers identify what students understand and what to teach next.

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