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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 1

Gamifying my 5th grade math course has been one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my teaching career. After two and a half years of introducing gamified elements, I am finding a number of benefits:

  • Students are learning by exploring
  • Their education programs are truly differentiated by content, pace, and path (which leads to higher engagement)
  • I spend less time performing rote/repetitive tasks such as grading and delivering canned lectures
  • I spend more time having meaningful interactions with my students
  • Students cover more content in the course and develop better mathematical reasoning skills
  • We have more class time for enrichment, such as games and projects

At this point, there are so many systems in place, that the gamified environment part of my class could almost function on its own. Most of my planning involves eliciting student feedback, involving parents in the process, making minor tweaks, and helping guide students in crafting their own creative content. As I’ve shared my process with other educators, through presentations and writings, I have come to see that providing a still photo of what my class looks like now doesn’t capture the experience in a way that’s easily reproducible. When I first started using Khan Academy, I could never have predicted how it would come to be used in my class. I decided a journal of my experience could demonstrate that a gamified classroom doesn’t come out of a box: it starts with a problem to be solved, it’s designed around the specific needs of each individual class, and it happens in baby steps with a lot of trial and error.

Step 1: A Problem to be Solved (Fall 2013)

I started my teaching career as a humanities teacher, and taught only English and history for the first 10 years I was in the classroom. three years ago I was asked to teach 5th grade math in addition to language arts. I attended the Summer Math & Science Workshop (Now held at The Fay School, but previously at Dana Hall), and in a course taught by Lainie Schuster got a glimpse of the potential to change how math was taught by focusing on games and activities that teach mathematical reasoning as a precursor to algorithms (shortcuts/processes).

Once I got into my classroom, I soon realized that the materials provided left me dangerously unprepared for the needs of my students: the 5th grade text began with decimal place value and operations, while a number of my students struggled with whole number place value and operations. The following unit centered on complicated word problems with volume and rate and time, and they assumed students had a solid grounding in fractions. As I got to know my students better, I realized that many lacked the ability to demonstrate the most basic operations (2+3 or 4-1) using manipulatives or diagrams, even though most could solve these using traditional algorithms.

Student performance on quizzes from the text was poor, and when I assigned worksheets or homework from the text, some students did great work, others turned in work that was incomplete or demonstrated poor understanding, and some turned in nothing at all. I would spend hours after each assignment correcting student work and struggling to understand the errors in their processes. Even when I could figure out the error, trying to remember which student made which error or to communicate improvements in writing was almost impossible. It took several months for me to develop an understanding of individual students’ conceptual understanding of math, and even then, I struggled to find the time to connect with each student to help them correct conceptual errors or provide differentiated material that was appropriately challenging.

Step 2: Research (December 2013)

I realized that the way I was teaching math was not efficient enough to meet the wide range of student needs in my classroom and that I was spending too much time performing activities that could probably be done better by a machine. I had used Google Apps for Education to promote collaboration in history and Language Arts classes, and I’d seen 1.0 style math games where students solve simple equations for points, but I was a relative newbie regarding cutting edge EdTech. I was looking for something that could adjust to student needs and report on progress to the teacher.  I figured either there was something out there that could automate much of the work I was doing and, if not, it needed to be built.

Math Blaster, a 1.0 style math game

I consulted my school’s director of technology, Aaron Grill, and he introduced me to some of the terms I was describing, such as “Teacher Dashboard,” and “Adaptive Learning,” as well as to a wesbite called Khan Academy. I’ve spent so much time using and talking about this platform in the past two years, I’ve had friends repeatedly ask me why I don’t work for Khan Academy, and I’ve even had students accuse me of being Sal Khan in disguise.

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 9.10.32 PM
Problem set from Khan Academy

I’ve learned the hard way not to introduce a platform to my classes until I feel comfortable as an end user – when I’ve tried to roll out programs based on marketing materials or online reviews (sadly, the line between the two can sometimes be blurry), I’ve encountered apps that were glitchy, hard to understand, or sometimes still under construction. Once I had played with Khan Academy for a few hours on my own, I knew this was the well-designed and responsive platform I was looking for.

Step 3: Roll- Out (January 2014)

Once I was confident that Khan Academy was the right tool to use with my students, the next step was getting them to use it. I started by creating classes and setting the grade level to grade 5. In class, I used Khan Academy’s search bar to find something related to what we were currently learning and used the projector to show the activity, ‘Ordering Fractions,’ to the class. We tried some practice problems, and I typed in the answers the students volunteered. I also demonstrated how they could access videos and hints when they needed support.

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 10.40.23 AM
Video suggestion sidebar

Then, I assigned the students 15 minutes of homework on Khan Academy that night. I chose to assign minutes rather than number of problems or even number of completed activities, for several reasons. First, I wanted to measure student effort – if students completed the same activities, some would finish much faster than others. Struggling students would struggle to meet basic expectations, while advanced students would breeze through. I wanted to ensure that each student was being challenged appropriately. If someone spent 15 minutes of genuine effort learning a new skill, but only got two questions right, I wanted to reward that as much as someone who spent 15 minutes getting everything right – since the platform is designed to give students work at their own level, the student who gets a lot of questions right will be rewarded by moving forward to more challenging content.

First Impressions

Right away, I realized that while I had solved some problems I was encountering in class, I had also created a whole new set of problems to be solved. While students had been challenged by the content of their textbooks, they (and their parents) were at least familiar with the format.

Once students were solving problems on their computers, they encountered new challenges. The largest issue I found was that when students wrote their answers on a piece of paper, they were more likely to write out the steps they took to solve the problem. When working on a computer, students tried to do more in their head, or they used the awful ‘scratchpad’ function built into Khan Academy.

In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about the specific instructions I gave students and parents to help make their use of the platform more effective. If I were to go back to the beginning, though, the biggest change I would make would be to have students spend several periods using the platform in class before asking students to complete anything at home – that way I could observe their work and give more feedback on their process before they were expected to use Khan independently.

Despite the challenges, there were enough initial benefits to using the adaptive learning platform that I decided it was worth working out the kinks. Although I was still learning how to read the data Khan was generating, even at the outset I could tell which students were putting in the right amount of time at home and which were not (some were even spending too much time!). Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 10.46.00 AM

I could also tell a great deal about their persistence and willingness to use resources. A student who gets one problem incorrect and moves to another activity requires a very different type of support from a student who tries the same problem 20 times and keeps getting it wrong, yet doesn’t use a hint or a video. I was always hoping to see the student who got a few right, a few wrong, took a hint or two, and then completed five in a row correct.

Next time, I’ll go over four more steps:

  • The process rules I instituted to help students use the platform effectively
  • How I used points to incentivize students and add excitement
  • How I learned to better read the data being generated and choose the right recommendations for my students.
  • How we went from using Khan Academy as an independent learning tool to part of a process of gamified learning in leveled groups

Your Impressions

Are you dying to add a gamified learning thread to your class but unsure where to begin? Are you deep into the process and have something to share? Do you think the whole gamification thing is a fad that’s past its peak? Share your thoughts in the comments below!