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Log on Education: the Three Ts of Elementary Education

By Elliot Soloway, Cathleen Norris, Phyllis Blumenfeld, Ron Marx, Joe Krajcik, Barry Fishman

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 43 No. 12, Pages 15-19
10.1145/355112.355116


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Currently, the U.S. is enjoying the best economic periodever. Now is the time, then, to address the substantive challenges in elementary (K12) education; if we can't now remedy the problems with all our resources, the alternative is simply unthinkable. And who better to spearhead the federal government's initiative than Astronaut-extraordinaire, John Glenn (Rep.-Oh). Glenn's unimpeachable integrity will enable him to build bipartisan consensus for the biggest change in public education in 200 years. Glenn will go down in the history books as the man who fixed K12 education in the U.S. Quite a set of expectations to lay on someone. If anyone can do it, it's Glenn.

At President Clinton's request, Glenn formed The National Commission on K12 Science and Math Education (www.ed.gov/americacounts/ glenn/toc.html), with luminaries such as President of Intel Craig Barrett and Senator Ted Kennedy. The Commission is holding public hearings around the country and listening to what folks think needs to be done about public education in the U.S.

On March 7, 2000, ACM hosted a day of presentations to the Commission on the role computational networked technologies can play in addressing the challenges facing K12 education. This column is a version of our 10-minute speech on how the country should spend a few billion dollars on education.

The Commission instructed us to focus our remarks on teachers and issues of teaching. We were told that giving yet another rah-rah speech on the wonderful things children can now do with computers was not acceptable. Interestingly, the most effective presentations were those adhering to this directive. Indeed, we all can tell a story of how a child in a school used a computer and the Internet to accomplish an amazing project. But the Committee was right in asking us to move beyond the inspirational anecdotes and address the real issue: We need a broad range of new ideas and new programs to help K12 teachers integrate technology into the daily fabric of their instructional practices.

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The Three Ts of Teaching

To support teachers and teaching, we believe the following three Ts must be addressed:

Tasks. The standards-setting bodies such as the National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics, National Research Council (NRC) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are quite explicit and clear on what activities and projects children need to engage in during school. If we are going to hold teachers and schools accountable, then our task is to align the standardized tests to assess the standards.

Tools. Good tools can make a huge difference. Young people growing up now, fortunately, don't know the agony of the low-speed dentist drill. We need to construct a new generation of computationally based networked tools to support teachers and teaching.

Time. Reorganizing how and where teachers spend their professional minutes and hours is the single most important, most productive change that can be made in K12 education.

As we will argue, technology can play an integral role in addressing these three Ts.

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Tasks: How Should Kids Be Learning?

We all can identify with the images of learning science in school presented in the table's left-hand column. Most likely we can all identify with images of conducting science in our daily jobs presented in the right-hand column. The NRC, in their historic, challenging, insightful, and ultimately hopeful report on science education, argues that science education in school needs to be more consistent with the images on the table's right-hand column.

Why is there such a need to teach children the process of science? Consider Carl Sagan's eloquent argument: "If we only teach the findings of science without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience? Both are presented as unsupported assertions... The method of science ... is far more important than the findings of science." (Sagan, C. The Demon-Haunted World, 1996)

Indeed, the fact that the fullness of the moon causes the ocean's tides to rise is just as unbelievable as the the fullness of the moon causing people to turn into werewolves. But, through the process of scientific investigation and argumentation, one can understand which of these facts actually has a basis in empirical reality.

Here's the rub: the standardized tests are not aligned with standards focusing on science understanding and science process. Rather, the standardized tests, by and large, still focus on testing children on the factson "assessing what is easily measured." For example, consider the following test item:

  • Gutters, rivers, drains, and streams are examples of
  • A. Where water flows
  • B. Underground water
  • C. Uphill flow of water
  • D. Precipitation

Well, "C" can't be right, and "B" is not quite right; but "D," "A" or both are reasonable. What does a question like this really test? How to take tests.

The results from standardized tests do matter: schools are put on probation, or worse, children are held back from advancing a grade based on test scores. The message is clear: Don't teach curriculum that is standards-based, but rather, teach to the standardized tests. In fact, in a district where we are working in middle schools to enact an inquiry-driven, standards-based, technology-pervasive curriculum, the school's superintendent actually told the teachers, in the middle of a semester, in the middle of curriculum units, to stop teaching the curriculum and focus on preparing the children for the standardized test. Such a pronouncement only serves to drive everyone up the wall and essentially guarantees no learning whatsoever is going to take place.

Inasmuch as testing isn't going to go away, we need a way to support the standards-based curriculum and support standardized testing. A suggestion: use the computational tools that support the children in their inquiry to provide ongoing feedback and assessment to the children themselves, their teachers, and to local and state boards of education. This technique is called "embedded assessment." The data generated in this way can be every bit as rigorous as current standardized test data. There are no external tests in the workplace; embedded assessment seems to work quite well on the job.

Therefore, we recommend that the Glenn Commission mandate resources for aligning a new generation of standardized assessments with the national standards. The mechanism is there (computational technologies); the money is absolutely there. What is needed is the vision and the will.

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Tools Make A Huge Difference

Almost daily, the newspapers document yet another demonstrable increase in U.S. industry productivity due to the use of computer-based tools. In particular, white-collar professionals, except for the few holdouts, employ general-purpose productivity tools (spreadsheets and word processors) and domain-specific productivity tools around the clock. If an accountant finds herself on a dessert island without her Excel macros, big trouble.

K12 teachers also use office productivity tools, but essentially no profession-specific, computation-based tools are in routine use. This must be remedied. Tools need to become integral to the professional life of a K12 teacher. The following are types of conceptual tools.

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Classroom Tools

The old black gradebook is still a cornerstone tool for teachers. The first obvious step is to create a gradebook on the computer using a spreadsheet. Basically, the value-added of a computer-based gradebook is the automatic calculating of student grades. And, if a teacher is just starting out with computers, this sort of transition makes good sense.

However, in the Internet age, a teacher's gradebook can/should be a community-based tool that enables all manner of interaction:

  • Students should be able to see, online, how they are doing, since the computational tools they use send daily monitoring information to their teachers' gradebooks;
  • Parents should be able to log on and see gradebook entries for their child. Conversations, synchronous and asynchronous, will naturally spring up;
  • School administrators should be able to see what is going on in classes;
  • Prospective students, parents, and community members who want to see what's in store next year, or, say, how a particular teacher is running a class can log on and check out student-produced artifacts, and so forth.

Yes, some work needs to be done in order to ensure privacy. But the point is that a computer/network-based teacher's gradebook is the bridge between the classroom and the community.

Without a TV guide, watching television would be much more difficult. A comparable chaos would ensue if a curriculum weren't available. But, teachers are not curriculum developers; while they can definitely develop the odd lesson, teachers don't have the time, skills or inclination to develop a coherent, 180 days worth of curriculum. So teachers are always on the lookout for a productive lesson (one day), activity (several days), or unit (several weeks). The following are several Internet sites providing teachers with cirricular materials.

  • The New York Times learning network puts out a daily lesson based on news stories in the New York Times. The lesson can be emailed directly to the teacher, or is available on the Web (www.nytimes.com/learning). Very thoughtfully, the Times learning network provides explicit links between the lesson and various state and national standards groups.
  • Bigchalk.com provides teachers with the free ExplorAsource Web site. Here, instructional resources (such as books, Web sites, and lesson plans) are linked to state standards and national standards. Basically, they have taken the time and energy to correlate resources, standards, and learning topics for much of K12.
  • Free services and resources for teachers are offered (see school.discovery.com and www.school.aol.com). These sites have free services and resources for teachers. (AOL's online gradebook is a bit anemic, but it's only its first pancake.)

At some point these sites are going to start charging subscription fees for their services. But right now, there is a free lunch and every school in the world should be logging on and exercising these free services extensively.

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Professional Development Tools: Inservice

A common locution in school administrators' jargon goes like this: "We inserviced the middle school teachers one day last August on X, so now they know how to use X in their science, math, social studies, and language arts classes." X equals PowerPoint, Excel, HyperStudio, and others. While all the evidence suggests that one-day inservicing results in little learning, this approach to professional development for K12 teachers is still overwhelmingly dominant. It's easy to arrange and to manage, and it's easy to assign and track continuing education credits.

But, there is real hope. The Internet, as a hybrid communications and information medium, enables new types of learning opportunities. For example:

Communities of practice. There are many books that present the best practices of master teachers. But the written word, even augmented with static images, is not an effective medium in which to convey craft knowledgeknowledge that is rooted in action. And, there are many videotapes of master teachers demonstrating their art. But alone, those too are not effective at communicating since they are too rooted in the particular.

Teachscape, Inc., is creating a Web portal where all the media are accessible in the context of conversations among teachers of varying levels of expertise. Inservicing, then, is an extended process that starts in August and continues through July. Streaming video is used to present video of instructional techniques while chats, threaded newsgroups, and document sharing all support the communities of teachers working together, as professionals, to increase their expertise.

Preparing tomorrow's teachers for technology. The U.S. Department of Education this year has brought over $260 million to schools and colleges of education around the U.S. in a dramatic effort to integrate technology use and instruction into "pre-service" (undergraduate teachers in training) and graduate education programs. The number of potential teachers affected is in the thousands; the challenge now is to add three zeros to that number.

Voices from the field. At snapshotsurvey.org, we provide schools and districts with online survey technology so they can quickly and simply tap into the needs and concerns of their educators. For example, Dennis Bruno, the technology director for the Glendale, PA. school district, is making a major push to introduce various technologies into his small district. This past May, Bruno added six Glendale-specific items to the survey and collected responses from all 70 educators in his district. While he is still digesting the results, Bruno commented: "The survey ... has provided important information to guide our activities in the fall."

This is a fair and accurate statement. The Internet is enabling a complete revolution in how teachers are inserviced.

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Community Development Tools

This is a short section, not because we have run out of words, but because we have found little activity in this space. Where are the Internet-enabled, parent/teacher associations that leverage the Internet in provocative ways? There is ample evidence that the involvement of adults outside the school with education inside the school makes for a more productive learning environment. Surely the Internet can enable such interactions to take place in new and novel ways.


The single most important change we can make in education is redistributing how teachers apportion their time.


To conclude the "Tools" section, we recommend the Glenn Commission mandate resources for aggressive development and aggressive deployment of teaching tools; the mechanism is therecomputational technologies, and the money is absolutely there. What is needed is the vision and the will.

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Time

The single most important change we can make in education is redistributing how teachers have their time apportioned. Currently, there is this obsession with "contact hours"; we seem to believe that to make teachers effective we have to maximize the number of hours a teacher meets with students. However, in all other white-collar professions, time during the workday is allocated to meeting with colleagues and to learning new methods. In fact, there is empirical evidence that schools in which time has been set aside for a "common planning period"where teachers meet with fellow teachers to plan their instructional activitiesis correlated with schools in which significant improvement in education has been achieved.

Businesses are exploring the manner in which to reapportion the ways to use computational and networked-based tools to reapportion how their employees spend time, such as using telecommuting and videoconferencing. Schools simply must rethink the 50-minute period, an effective way to organize work in the industrial age, but this isn't the industrial age. To their credit, some schools are exploring "block scheduling," where a class is basically given a double period every other day. Blocks give children the time to dive deeply into an investigation. Blocks give teachers the time to dive deeply into guiding their students' investigations.

Doubling teacher's pay would certainly increase the likelihood that highly talented individuals would enter the teaching profession. That doubling is not going to happen. But making the quality of the work experience less like an assembly line and more like a white-collar experience may well have the same impact. We emphasize that the most important change we can make in education is redistributing how teachers apportion their time.

Thus, we recommend that the Glenn Commission mandate resources to dramatically redistribute how a teacher's time is apportioned; the mechanism is therecomputational technologies, and the money is absolutely there. What is needed is the vision and the will.

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Final Words

The post-World War II era saw the passing of the GI Bill. That legislation provided the funds to enable millions of citizens to get an education. In turn, those retrained folks were the fuel for U.S. industry. The post-Cold War era also needs to see the passing of a massive education bill. In order to prepare this country to fuel the next epoch, we need to retrain, reinvigorate, and rebuild our educational system.

The past history of our limping, half-hearted commitment to educational change has clearly shown the truth of the equation: a little + a little = nothing. But, the Glenn Commission is poised to spend the billions that are needed to turn around a system as complex as public education. Technology is the mechanism that is transforming productivity in U.S industry. Technology can do the same in education. May the Glenn Commission have the vision and the will to see this transformation through.

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Authors

Elliot Soloway ([email protected]) is a professor in the College of Engineering, School of Education, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Cathleen Norris ([email protected]) is a professor in the Department of Technology Cognition in the College of Education, University of North Texas.

Ron Marx, Phyllis Blumenfeld, and Joe Krajcik ({ronmarx, blumenfe, krajcik}@umich.edu) are professors in the School of Education, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Barry Fishman ([email protected]) is an assistant professor in the School of Information University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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Tables

UT1Table. Images of learning in the classroom.

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