Do we need to protect children from technology overload?

I recently came across a posting on Doug Lemov’s field notes that expressed a common concern – technology overload among students. Mr. Lemov has had a powerful influence on contemporary education, and anyone in the field recognizes the contributions he has made to helping teachers and schools grow. I also agree with the overall sentiment of providing students time away from screens, though I see an alternate way to address this need. Here is a link to his post, along with my response:

Technology in School: My View as a Parent


I do agree that all of our lives (not just students) are “over-infused with technology,” though I come to a markedly different conclusion about how to respond to that problem. We have a crisis in education, largely because schools do not create an authentic reflection of the world outside of schools and because teacher-centered learning in a 30:1 analog environment simply is not efficient enough to meet the needs of students.

The work I have done with students and teachers in well-managed, technology-rich environments has made it clear that no human teacher without technology can achieve the type of results that are possible when using tech effectively. Most narrowly conceived, the idea of results refers to standardized test scores, but even when this definition is expanded to other indicators of success (reducing teacher prep time and student anxiety, helping students build social-emotional skills, etc etc). Digital technology is a tool – when used effectively, it can create efficiencies to support a wide range of goals.

As for the need to “unplug,” students certainly need time away from devices, but to use that time to have students sit and write with paper and pencil begs the question, why not quill and parchment? Better yet, why not stone tablet and chisel? We tend to see the technology innovations that were present in our own childhood as permanent and immutable, but writing by hand is a dying art. In fact, typing may be gone in a decade as we rely increasingly on voice-recognition.

If students are to unplug, they should be playing, inventing, painting, collaborating, etc, etc. (Even collaboration can be made more effective with the use of technology tools). I have a personal weakness for paperback books, and technology has yet to provide a satisfactory alternative, so I still believe there is a good deal of value in time spent reading physical books.

Ultimately, the use of technology to help us do “old things more efficiently” can help create time in the instructional day to allow us and our students to innovate, play, and enjoy face time with us and with each other. We should take advantage of this extra time, not to train students to use outmoded technologies and to pass standardized tests, but to engage their creativity and allow them to develop skills that they are interested in and will actually prove useful in their lives outside of school.


(Thanks to for the featured image)

Best of Both Worlds (My Gamification Journal Part 3/3)

In Part I of my Gamification Journal I described how the needs of my students led me to begin using a Blended Learning approach to teaching math and I recounted the initial encouraging result. In Part II, I described how I extended the use of the online platform (Khan Academy) to personalize instruction and replace our math textbook. I also shared the significant impact this change had on standardized test scores. In this entry, part 3 of 3, I will explain how my approach to Blended Learning evolved over time, specifically how improving communication and incorporating group work and project-based learning helped balance out the digital approach with the human side of education.

Table Groups

Perhaps the most significant advantage that Khan Academy has afforded me has been the ability to create leveled groupings within my math class. While it was important to reduce the time I spent grading homework and classwork, and it was informative to have data visualizations of my students’ progress through the course content, unless that data influenced my teaching, it served little purpose. In addition, giving students individualized homework assignments was a nice treat, but unless these assignments corresponded to the work we were doing in class, the impact would be limited.

Math Group Template
Shared GoogleDrawing for assigning work to leveled groups

Once I had some experience with the platform and sufficient data about the abilities of individual students, I was able to create leveled groupings that roughly corresponded to student grade levels. While leveled groupings are not a revolutionary concept, being able to combine information from our online platform, standardized test scores, and my own observations made the grouping decisions quite reliable. In addition, since I was constantly receiving new information, the groupings were dynamic, and as students progressed, the groupings were adjusted to reflect their differing rates of progress.

Enabling students to learn new topics with their peers created an entirely new classroom environment that helped them to build Social Emotional skills while learning math. In fact, when students first began working in groups, most of the coaching support I provided was geared toward helping them develop good collaborative processes. As they developed their abilities to communicate effectively and work as teams, the rate at which they learned new math concepts was greatly increased. On average, whether they were starting the year above or behind grade-level, most students completed the rough equivalent of two years of math content.

Communicating with Stakeholders

One of my biggest regrets in implementing a gamified approach to learning was that I waited so long to invite parents into the classroom. Many of my peers were shocked that I would consider inviting parents into a full classroom, but I couldn’t imagine any real downside. I asked my principal for permission, just to be on the safe side, and fortunately he fully supported the idea.

Once parents began visiting,  the change was like night and day. Up until then, I felt like I was always playing catch-up in communicating to parents the purpose and the methods of a blended learning/gamified approach. I spoke about it on parents night, wrote about it in the course syllabus, and sent home e-mails explaining the changes. Still, I was regularly having hour-long phone calls with parents to explain the changes. Most of these chats went really well, and once parents were convinced that I wasn’t just using computers to avoid teaching their children, even some of the biggest skeptics came around. Still, there simply wasn’t enough time to win over every parent with this approach, and many of these conversations were taking place too late in the year.

I created an online schedule using the appointments feature built into Google Calendar and parents could sign up to visit a class during which students were using Khan Academy for small-group, inquiry-based learning. I explained up front that they were not going to be witnessing a lecture and that I would not be available to talk (especially about their child!), but that I would be doing what I normally did during such a class. That meant circulating from table to table, either to observe or to jump in when students were struggling, or sometimes to review incoming data from the work students were completing.

KA Good Shot

I didn’t have to say much or do much, because they could easily see the culture of mathematical inquiry that had been established in the class. Students were asking and answering each other’s questions, helping each other stay on task, and most were communicating about math in a way that was quite sophisticated. I made sure to fill the role of coach/facilitator so that it would be clear the visitors were there to observe the work the students were doing and not to observe me. The feedback I (and my principal) received was overwhelmingly positive – one parent was so impressed that he asked me how to spread this approach throughout the school, and even offered to sponsor our summer blended learning workshop to help make it happen.

I was also fortunate to work at a school that believed in and supported technology integration. The tech integration that was happening at Browning was being shared in our publications to parents and alumni, in the school’s tech blog, and at school events. We even had a talented digital communications expert on staff who captured classroom footage and interviewed teachers, created professional quality videos, such as this one to document the work we were doing and to share it with the community. Without the support of the school’s communication staff, it would not have been possible to do the type of innovation that made technology integration so effective.

Having parent support is an essential part of any curricular or pedagogical change, and I strongly recommend having a proactive approach when implementing changes in your school. While it is helpful to have administrators and faculty members on board, I have found that if parents are supportive of your objectives, they can be instrumental in helping you to win the support of the rest of the school community, particularly your students!

Going Deeper

Despite the successes of these skill-based programs, I think the real real value add of the gamified approach has been the fact that blended learning has afforded me the planning time and instructional time to go beyond traditional curricula. I established a routine whereby we worked in our Khan groups two out of every four days. Because of the efficiency of allowing students to work at their own levels, they made more progress within the traditional curriculum in just half the time. It also freed me up to be more creative during the remaining days, confident that we could complete enrichment activities without falling behind on content.

My favorite enrichment activity was the creation of visual model videos using Explain Everything and iMovie. I emphasized the importance of understanding the meaning of numbers (especially fractions and decimals) and the meaning of operations. Watching a student visually demonstrate something like “four divided by one-half” was very useful in assessing whether they had grasped the concept rather than simply memorized an algorithm. With the additional class time, I had students animate and narrate visual models of equations which we then watched as a class.

I also encouraged advanced students to explore a math topic of interest to them (such as ‘The Meaning of Zero’ or ‘Price to Earnings Ratios’) which they researched and presented to the class. Finally, we used some of our non-Khan time to play math games, participate in more structured explorations, and even conduct traditional assessments. (Because it’s possible for students to receive ‘help’ when completing Khan activities at home, it was important to have a number of ways to measure student achievement.)

What do you think?

I’ve tried to share as much of my journey as possible, but clearly there is a lot I’ve had to leave out. If you choose to pursue a gamified approach in your school, I imagine you will encounter many of the challenges and successes I did, as well as many I have not. I hope this 3 part journal will help you get started or to continue work you are already doing. I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below. Whether you are new to gamified learning, an old hand, or a parent who is experiencing gamified learning with your child, please share your thoughts below!

My Gamification Journal: Part 2 (Immersion)

In my last post, I described my first steps toward creating a gamified math class using Khan Academy. I started, not with the goal of gamifying, but with the need to tailor instruction to meet the needs of individual students. Introducing Khan Academy helped me to assign different work to different students and assess their progress, while reducing the time I spent grading and planning. At first, I used Khan mostly as a tool for homework and as a resource for teacher-centered instruction. In this entry, I’ll describe how I fine-tuned the use of blended learning, with a focus on the following:

  • Using points and leaderboards to increase engagement
  • Establishing routines to help students use the platform most effectively
  • Learning how to make the most of the data generated by Khan to understand my students individual habits and needs
  • Developing a collaborative learning model around the blended platform
  • Transitioning from a traditional “one-size-fits-all” curriculum to a course designed around individual learning plans

Step 4: Let the Games Begin (March-April 2014)

After rolling out the Khan Academy homework program in January, I started to get the first valuable information that helped me better understand my students. For the first time, I had an objective measure of the amount of time students were spending on their work. In addition, Khan had built-in gamified elements that were surprisingly effective – students received “energy points” for watching videos and answering questions; in addition, badges recognized larger accomplishments, and status indicators measured their progress through grade levels.

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 8.31.33 AM
Graph of Student Activity from Khan Academy

I initially set a goal of 20 minutes per day, spread across any 5 days each week. I thought that making homework time flexible would give students more ownership over their time. I wanted to recognize that students have active lives outside of school – rather than e-mailing back and forth with parents asking their child be excused because their soccer game ran late the night before, students could simply take that night off and complete their minutes another night.

Once Khan Academy provided me data on “time spent,” it became immediately clear that I had made of errors in my subjective assessment of effort. While in some cases I had accurately estimated how much time students were spending on their work, in others, I had credited bright students with more time than they actually spent, and I did not fully appreciate the effort of some struggling students. While measuring the amount of time students were spending on homework was helpful, it was only the first step – I had to make sure that those who were putting in effort were able to maintain it, and those who were not would improve.

Fortunately, I found that just such a mechanism was built right in to Khan Academy. The first element of gamification that caught on in my class were Khan’s ‘energy points,’ which students earned by watching videos or answering questions. At the time, I was completing activities on Khan Academy as a student so I would know what my students were encountering. Since I could go through problem sets quickly, I earned a lot of points in a short period of time, and when I projected activities on the board, students would point out how many points I had earned. Soon, a little competition developed where a number of students tried to beat my energy point score. One student in particular (if you’re reading this, you know who you are!) was so determined that he spent many times the required minutes, and soon I was unable to keep up with him.

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 12.19.23 PM
Khan Academy Leaderboard

Before we began, I thought some of these were a little silly, and I doubted if students would really care about earning points and badges on a math website, but I was surprised when I saw the excitement it added to the class. Since every student is motivated differently, it was helpful to have a number of ways to encourage different students. Khan also began e-mailing me a weekly ‘leaderboard’ that listed students in order of the number of minutes they had completed that week. Every Monday, I would show the top students on the leaderboard. The students who had not made the leaderboard weren’t called out for it, but most of them really wanted to make it up there for the next week. Sometimes I would use “promotions” such as offering a trip to the park if everyone made the leaderboard for the week.

Step 5: Fine-tuning (May-June 2014)

Soon, homework completion in my classes had improved significantly, which also helped increase engagement in lessons and activities. As time went on, I tailored the specific rules in response to what I heard or observed. For one, some parents complained that 20 minutes 5 nights a week (100/week) was too much, so my principal and I decided 15 per night (75/week) would be sufficient.

I also had to adjust my grading policies to account for the quality and not just the quantity of time spent. Since I entered the homework grades each week, some students would simply wait until Sunday night and do all 75 minutes in one night, which I knew was a much less effective learning strategy than spreading time out over the week. Students could earn energy points for watching videos, and some would just set up a video to play on their computer while they did other things. One inventive student even realized he could play movies in several windows at the same time and complete a week’s worth of homework in ten minutes. If he hadn’t chosen to use the same video, I might not have even noticed! I then added a rule that students would only get credit for the time from a video if they completed the problem set associated with it. It could be a bit tedious to play detective on what activities students completed, but I really only needed to look deeper if I thought something didn’t seem right – the goal was creating a culture in which students come to appreciate why they are doing the work, instead of forcing them to do work.

Other students were skipping the recommendations I had made and exploring other topics. In some cases, I thought it was great that an advanced student was trying out Trigonometry; when a student struggled with dividing whole numbers, though, and was instead spending time on Calculus (unsuccessfully) or “Counting to 5” (even successfully), we would have to have a talk. I sometimes had to award less than full credit to students who completed their minutes but seemed to be ‘gaming the system.’ Since I wanted to encourage exploration, though, I told them that they needed to spend at least half of their time on my recommendations, and they could spend the other half on any activities they chose. As time went on, I encountered a number of similar situations and had to make value judgments about when I would follow their lead and when to insist they follow mine.

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 9.22.34 AM
Recommendations page

While energy points and minutes of homework were instrumental in getting the blended learning program started, at some point, I needed to involve other metrics of student progress. As much as I liked the fact that students could work at their own level, it was becoming clear that some students had not stepped up to take ownership as I stepped back my “management” of their learning. Still, I didn’t want to cater to the lowest common denominator and revert to a system where everyone does the same work, so I had to look for alternatives.

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 2.42.51 PM
Grade level progress for a full class

I started setting guidelines about the minimum grade level progress I expected. Some students had already mastered all of the 4th and 5th grade level course work on the platform, while others had only completed about 30% of 4th grade. I set class goals, such as ‘everyone completes at least 50% of 4th grade’ by a certain date, gradually moving the bar forward. That way, advanced students could move ahead and other students could work on remedial material but still know when they needed to put in extra effort to push forward. If students were really not capable of meeting the minimum milestones, I would work out a separate plan with them individually so they still had a milestone to work toward.

Step 6: Into the Void (Fall 2014)

For all the challenges involved in the roll-out, the initial benefits of blended learning were substantial. Instead of spending hours each week correcting homework assignments, students were receiving feedback on their answers in real-time with no human grading required. They were also able to access hints and videos while completing assignments at home. I was able to understand and target gaps in students’ foundational understanding and to provide personalized learning paths for all of my students. The difference in achievement and engagement between the first and second halves of the 2013-14 school year was so stark, I decided to take the leap and drop the textbook entirely for the coming year – we were rolling out a new 1:1 iPad program for 5th grade, and I took the opportunity to rely on Khan as the backbone of the curriculum.

Ditching the textbook was a big change, and not without its challenges. I started to realize, though, that the content available through Khan Academy offered everything a text offered and more. Some students had begun approaching new problem sets by pressing the ‘hint’ button again and again until they had shown all the hints available – the result looked just like a page out of a textbook – even without videos, students were able to learn new topics without being specifically taught them.

Khan Academy “Hints”


Others preferred to dive right in to new topics with a combination of applying prior knowledge and trial-and-error. When I compared the new way to the old, it seemed like the only thing missing was the paper. Using Khan as an in-class teaching tool as opposed to just a homework tool helped me to better understand the process students were using to approach new concepts or practice old ones, and these observations eventually became part of our established routines, and the instructions I gave to incoming students the following year.

The first issue that jumped out in students’ processes was that many students were not writing out their steps when solving problems online. Khan has a built in ‘scratchpad’ feature, but it’s just not the same as writing on paper; aside from the fact that it is hard to write legibly with a finger and the space is too small, the work disappears when a student moves to the next problem so there is nothing for me to refer to when a student has difficulty. Reminding students to write out their work did not have enough of an impact, so I began including written work as part of the homework/classwork grade: I still let them decide whether a given problem could be done in their head, but they needed to at least list the problem sets they had completed and the time spent on each one. I provided each student with a graph paper math journal and checked-up regularly on their entries.

Making a smooth transition to blended learning, though, took more than just getting students to keep journal entries. I was fortunate to have a principal who was very supportive of technology and innovation, but these new methods raised a whole host of concerns for parents and some administrators. I had not fully realized the technophobia present in a place as modern as New York City – some parents insisted that their children ‘couldn’t learn from computers,’ or seemed to think that students spent their entire math periods staring, zombie-like, at computer screens while I hung out at my desk drinking coffee with my feet up. Others were so accustomed to a yearly program (September is whole numbers, October is fractions, etc, etc) that the idea that students would be learning different topics at different times just didn’t compute.

Building Consensus

In my next entry, I’ll explain how the program evolved both to improve the quality of instruction and to better communicate the value add to all stakeholders. By adding a leveled grouping component, students were better able to learn and problem-solve collaboratively – anyone observing a class could easily see students’ enthusiasm and their engagement with both the content and with their peers. Scheduling class visits for parents and co-workers allowed others to appreciate how technology wasn’t an end in itself but part of a larger process. I also began posting videos (both instructional and in-class footage) and other resources online to help parents understand how Khan worked and to see how it was integrated into class. Some parents felt left-in-the-dark because they couldn’t look up the day’s lesson in the text and re-teach it to their children as they “helped” them with their homework, so I began finding ways that parents could access instruction online (I still think such a model is problematic, as it assumes students should be learning at home from tutors and parents rather than encouraging teachers and families to find ways for students to learn while in school, but that’s a story for another day).

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 9.43.59 AM
Impact of blended learning initiative on Grade 5 2015 mean ERB scores

Fortunately, as time went on, the benefits of the program became clearer to more of the community at-large. Families that were most resistant began to come around once they saw the progress their children were making. Struggling students were able to move quickly through remedial content, and advanced students were challenged in a way they had not been before. When test scores came back showing double-digit percentile increases in mean and median scores, I was ecstatic. Of 26 students, 13 improved by over 20 percentile points in either reasoning or computation. One student’s reasoning score jumped from the 20th to the 90th percentile. Though there is a lot to be learned outside of test scores, they were one more way to show that the risk was paying off.

What do you think?

Do you have a story to share about implementing a blended learning program? Are you looking to gamify your classes? Please share your thoughts on this latest entry or tell us about your personal experience with blended and gamified learning.