Saturday, November 17, 2012

Technology is More Than a Distraction

It’s unsettling to hear that some 90 percent of teachers believe that today’s technologies are creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.” Unsettling, not for the fear mongering it conjures about the future of student achievement, but for the belief that technology exposure actually reduces the ability to learn and progress and achieve. Technology is ever-present in our daily lives, and if educators are to train our nation’s youth to compete with their global peers, public perception must move away from the thought that technology is distracting. Increasingly, there are compelling examples of high-achieving classrooms that exist thanks to technology instead of in spite of it.
Take, for example, the San Jose Charter Academy in California, a school highlighted in John Chubb’s new book, The Best Teachers in the WorldThe K-8 school, which has a predominantly low-income and minority student population that boasts test scores somewhere between “proficient” and “advanced,” adopted a blended learning model four years ago. This model combines typical, large-group classroom instruction with personalized learning sessions in large learning labs. In these labs, which accommodate up to 68 students at one time, students work individually on computers with programs tailored to their levels. This frees teachers to offer small-group instruction or help struggling students one-on-one, while simultaneously keeping high-achieving students on task. In addition, the online assessment system gives teachers diagnostic and predictive information on each student, relative to state standards. The technology at San Jose Charter Academy, in other words, maximizes the teacher’s role and amplifies her reach.
While the technology here is helpful, its success depends heavily on educators and their willingness to embrace and employ it in the classroom. Just as teachers don’t give students a scalpel and a frog, and tell them to have at it, they shouldn’t do the same with computers. Thomas Toch recently highlighted Rocketship Discovery Prep, another California school known for its stellar results among disadvantaged youth. But Toch was quick to mention that technology is a tool, not an instructor. Rocketship’s 640 students spend about a quarter of each day in learning labs working individually on computers. To keep students engaged, on task, and achieving, teachers must wholly incorporate lab work into their overall instruction. Without that, the 100-student learning lab might likely turn into chaos. But with tailored software aligned with academic standards meant to continually challenge and hone students’ skills, computers cease being a distraction and become an invaluable piece of the teaching and learning puzzle.

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