Tag Archives: studentcentered

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 thecreativeeducator.com for the featured image)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.




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.

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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.

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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!