Overcoming the SQUIRREL: Why PD Sessions Should Use Digital Tools Sparingly

Guest post written by Jaime LaForgia, Director of Professional Development for Discovery Education

Overcoming the SQUIRRELWhy We Love Digital Tools

For many, the term “in-service” or “professional development” conjures images of tirelessly boring days of sitting and getting information while some expert drones on and on about the latest and greatest in education.  But 21st century professional learning is different.  Think about your last experience. I’d bet within the last year, you’ve been in a session during which the presenter used cool digital tools like Kahoot! or Poll Everywhere, which most likely made your time together more fun and engaging.

But what was the purpose?  Using digital tools in professional development solely to create a “fun” and “interactive” environment completely circumvents the intended learning outcomes. I’ve learned this the hard way.

Why We Hate Digital Tools

Last fall, I planned a six-hour PD session with a group of teachers who were just learning about the new standards and the pedagogical shifts demanded of them. My learning targets for the day focused on understanding the need for evidence-based thinking, academic discourse about texts, and the meaningful instruction of academic vocabulary. I needed a quick and efficient way to get them into the standards in order to understand the vertical alignment and the importance of employing the instructional shifts into their current practice.   

Enter QR codes.

What better way to help them extricate the most important aspects of a rather boring document than through a QR code scavenger hunt through the standards?  

So off they went–phones in one hand, standards in the other.  I facilitated their learning as they scanned, searched, read, scanned, searched, read.  And this just got our day started!  There was so much more we accomplished.  We debriefed, experienced a model lesson, introduced the idea of close reading, and even had some co-planning time so their learning would transfer immediately to practice.

And transfer it did.  Later that week, I entered the school to do some classroom visits bubbling with excitement.  I couldn’t wait to see the teachers’ learning in action.  When I walked down the hall, however, I noticed several QR codes hanging in the hallways and on lockers.  I stood back and watched as students engaged in their content by scanning codes and writing their responses on a, for lack of a better term, worksheet.  When I got a closer look, I realized that much of what was being asked on their QR code was basic recall and recitation type of thinking.  Where was the evidence-based thinking?  The text-based discussions?  The rigor?  It seemed the only learning that transferred was that QR codes were really cool and engaging.

As the content creator of the professional learning, I knew I was using QR codes at the very lowest level of SAMR. But I wanted an easy tool that would enable us to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.  I was going for efficiency, not redefinition.  I knew this, but the teachers, through no fault of their own, did not. The QR codes were the shiny object that hijacked my learning goals.

Untangling the Quandary

So how do we overcome this pesky squirrel?

  • Use digital tools sparingly. It’s much more effective to use one tool in a robust and meaningful way than to expose your audience to three or four tools they can’t use well.
  • Let the pedagogy lead the tool.  Start with your learning outcomes, and plan with that end in mind.  If there’s a digital tool that, if leveraged, will enhance the learning you want to happen, go for it.  If not, skip it.
  • Connect the tool to the outcomes.  Digital transformation happens when teachers see how the technology can enhance their instruction.  If you’re learning about differentiated instruction, showcase a tool that will actually help teachers differentiate.
  • Focus on the learning opportunities, not the tool itself.  While we want our audience to know where to find the tool and how it functions, it’s way more important for us to spend time talking about how the tool can be used to impact student learning.  Learning about flexible grouping?  Show teachers how you can actually use the real-time data provided by a fun tool like Plickers to create groups.

One of cornerstones of effective professional development is modeling the best practices we’re learning about.  Because technology integration is so pervasive, effective modeling of digital tool use is more important than ever.  So next time you want to infuse a digital tool into your session, ask yourself, Is this how I would want to see it used in the classroom?  Then, make your decision.

Connect with Jaime on Twitter


The Problem with “Formative Assessment Tools” (part 2 of 2)

The Problem with %22Formative Assessment Tools%22 (part 2 of 2)In the previous post (part 1 of 2), we explored the fact that student response apps (Socrative, Kahoot!, Plickers, etc.) are often mislabeled as “formative assessment tools.” What makes them formative depends on the context in which they are used. Formative assessment is a process, and in order for a tool to play a part in this process the results/data it produces must be leveraged to differentiate instruction or learning.

The Problem

Now, let’s explore a second problem with these apps, which is the belief that they are not generally associated with higher-order thinking.

From what I have experienced, we are largely stuck in this rut when it comes to using student response tools, and there are two main reasons why:

  • For the most part, old school “student clickers” included only multiple-choice questions (and maybe a little something else), which is a format that tends to result in lower level questioning. It has been easy to copy and paste these inadequate practices (or questions) on to our newer technologies, even though these apps are capable of a whole lot more.
  • When it comes to classroom instruction, I also think it is easy to view student response tools as an all or nothing decision. Either the entire lesson is centered around their use, or they are not used at all. From what I have experienced (and have been guilty of as well), if these tools are the focal point of a class, chances are the students are simply answering one multiple-choice question after another (which aligns with the education world’s current fascination with hard, quantitative data). This means more lower level questions that travel in only one direction, from teacher to students. There is no encouragement of dialogue, collaboration, inquiry, etc. Everything is black and white, when we all know that higher-order thinking and inquiry-based learning are all about shades of grey.

The Solution

I do feel that multiple-choice and lower level questions have their place in the classroom, as higher-order thinking and inquiry are built on top of solid foundations and basic understandings. After all, you can’t think critically about nothing.

At the same time, I firmly believe that the majority of the questions asked in school, at the very least, should promote thought, curiosity and some level of exploration.

Here are two ideas as to how to encourage higher-order thinking with student response tools:

  • Flipped Clickers: Tony Wagner defines critical thinking as “the ability to ask the right question, ask really good questions.” In Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, the Distinguished level for Domain 3b (Using Questioning and Discussion Techniques) says, “Students formulate many questions, initiate topics, challenge one another’s thinking…” So, let’s flip the way student response tools our used by having students ask the questions. Overall, this shift can be accomplished by (1) the teacher promoting activities in which students have to respond with questions that they formulate (questions that can then be used creatively by the teacher to extend these activities), and/or (2) providing students with both student and teacher/administrative rights for as many tools as possible (for example, think small group literature circles in which students take turns leading the discussion). Just when you think you have all the answers, the students ask the questions.
  • Fewer Questions for a Deeper Understanding: One of the components of Danielson’s Domain 3b reads, “When teachers ask questions of high quality, they ask only a few of them and provide students with sufficient time to think about their responses, to reflect on the comments of their classmates, and to deepen their understanding.” This quote addresses head-on what needs to be done in order to promote cultures of thinking in our classrooms. Many lower level questions (such as those that accompany stories in basal readers), should be converted to only a few higher-order questions (with the help of something like Webb’s Depth of Knowledge), and around these questions thinking routines should be formed (in which student response tools do not serve as the focal point, but are used to assist in facilitating discussion and increase opportunities to respond). Additionally, teachers need explicit professional development on how to shift from lower level questions to rigorous thinking routines, rather than just focusing on converting questions from lower level to higher-order. A bunch of higher-order questions asked in the same exact way (with or without technology) as an equal number of lower level questions will do very little to deepen students’ understanding of what they are learning.

For both options, it is not an either/or decision regarding whether or not the response tools are used, but rather finding the appropriate level of technology integration to enhance or redefine student learning experiences.

In the End 

Once again, we need to emphasize pedagogy over technology by starting with the end in mind – higher-order questions and thinking routines – and then leveraging the tools that we have available to us in order for our students to arrive at the appropriate destination.

At the same time, we should keep in mind that although all educators are at different points on the learning curve when it comes to effectively integrating technology, the last thing we want is for instruction to be consistently inferior because technology just has to be included. Don’t try to cram a square peg into a round hole.

What are your thoughts on these apps? What are some unique ways in which you have seen them used to promote high-order thinking? Do you think there is a place for “flipped clickers” in the classroom?

Connect with Ross on Twitter.

The Problem with “Formative Assessment Tools” (part 1 of 2)

The Problem with %22Formative Assessment Tools%22 (part 1 of 2)The Problem

It started with generally clunky and overpriced “student clickers” by such brands as SMART Technologies and Einstruction, and over the past few years it has transitioned into slick apps like Socrative, Kahoot!, and Plickers. Time and time again we have seen these apps demoed during professional development sessions and written about on websites and blogs. Nevertheless, we need to be careful that we do not prioritize technology over pedagogy by referring to these apps as “formative assessment tools” when they are anything but.

When James Popham defines formative assessment, he states:

Formative assessment is a planned process in which teachers or students use assessment-based evidence to adjust what they’re currently doing.

In other words, if teachers or students are not leveraging results/data (from Socrative, Kahoot!, Plickers, etc.) to then differentiate instruction or learning, the app inspired dog and pony show does not qualify as a formative assessment.

Formative assessment is a process…not an event, questions on a piece of paper, or even an app. What makes an assessment formative depends on the context in which it is used.

The Solution

I do feel that professional development that includes these apps can start with the apps themselves, as “cool tools” are an easy way to grab an audience’s attention, but they should be presented within the context of formative assessment or something like Total Participation Techniques. In other words, “Why are we learning what we’re learning, and how can it benefit our students?”

Since what takes place after the apps are used – the differentiated instruction – is what matters most, the majority of professional development time should then be dedicated to this stage of instruction and learning. In other words, “We have our results/data, now what do we do with it?”

Here are some ideas as to what this could look like:

  • The presenter issues to teachers authentic student results from when one of the apps was used in her classroom. Some context is provided, and then the teachers are asked, “How would you modify your planning based on what you now know?” (In this instance, I would be particularly interested in any teacher questions that may arise to possibly gain additional context.)
  • The presenter issues to teachers authentic student results from when one of the apps was used in her classroom. Some context is provided, and then the teachers are asked, “Based on the questions and answers, how would you revise the questions to learn more about what the students know/don’t know?” (This activity can go hand in hand with the first bullet point. In Part 2 of this post we will dive deeper into quality questioning.)
  • The presenter uses an app to pre-assess teacher knowledge of a specific topic (possibly formative assessment). The results are immediately shared out and the teachers are asked, “Where should the professional development go from here?”

The idea is that the increased emphasis on “the after” during professional development will correlate with teachers thinking more deeply about “the after” during classroom instruction.

In the End

In the end, there is obviously nothing wrong with the tools themselves, but what matters most is the context in which they are presented during professional development, and ultimately the differentiated instruction that follows their classroom use.

None of these tools are that complicated, and any teacher can learn how to use them. However, what is complicated (and often times, messy) is what to do after the students’ results show up on our device. This is where our focus needs to be.

In Part 2, we will look at leveraging these apps to promote higher-order questioning and thinking.

What are your thoughts on these apps? What are some unique ways in which you have seen them used in the classroom and/or during professional development? How do you think they relate to the formative assessment process?

Connect with Ross on Twitter.

To BYOD or Not To BYOD: that isn’t the question

The road to learning

This is not a post that’s going to guide you and your questioning as to why or why not to go BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and is not going to provide you definitive answers as to the pros and cons. It is reflections of the BYOD process by some who have been through the implementation and truly what the answers were that it provided.  It is a collaboration of how educators led their schools to be #futureready in this time of flux and the need for leadership to benefit student engagement and learning.  For public schools, there is a movement to embrace the Future Ready Pledge….as an independent school educator personally, I think it is crucial for the larger education community, public and private, to come together to do what is best for our students through the modalities that best engage them. In this post, it is a…

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Making Waves: Student Radio Broadcasts

Making WavesRight now, one of my classes is finishing up their current Language Arts project, Making Waves. This project, which was inspired by Colton Shone, a journalism student at Arizona State, requires students to create a radio broadcast through the use of Apple GarageBand. Everything is wrapped in the essential question, “What is an effective radio broadcast?”

Students complete the project in groups of two. The majority of their work is done in a Google document, and I created a template to provide them with a starting point. (To save a Google file as a template, access your files > right-click on your file of choice > Submit to template gallery. After, copy the template’s link and share it with your students.)

A PDF version of the template is here, and below is a shortened version of these directions:

Rubric Creation

    1. Each group listens to three radio broadcasts from Colton Shone, one at a time. For each broadcast a table is filled out in which students (1) list features that should be included in an effective radio broadcast, and (2) describe how the broadcast has included each one of these features (evidence).
    2. Students call upon all of their information (from the previous step) in order to create a definitive list of features that should be included in an effective radio broadcast. Once each group has shared their information with the class, the teacher synthesizes all of the work in order to create a project rubric.

As a class, we decided that broadcasts should include such features as:

    • broadcasters speaking in a way that fits the mood of the story
    • guest appearances from at least two different people from the event
    • questions and answers that are thick, relevant, and realistic
    • music and sound effects, which add to the broadcast’s realism and enhance the story being told

Script Creation

    1. Each group chooses a historical event and then finds two noticeably different written accounts of the event. The teacher must approve of both the event and the accounts.
    2. Students synthesize the information from the two accounts in order to create an on location radio broadcast of the event, while referring to the project rubric for requirements.
    3. Before recording their broadcasts in GarageBand, students create a script (with the help of a few mini-lessons and a sample script). The teacher must approve of the script prior to its recording.


While creating an effective radio broadcast, students apply many Language Arts related skills. These include, but are not limited to:

    • researching for two different, yet credible written accounts of the same topic
    • dissecting the important information from two written accounts, by distinguishing the significant information from the trivial (summarizing)
    • synthesizing select information from the two accounts, which is a vital research skill
    • creating a polished script through the use of details, strong word choice, varied sentences, and proper spelling and grammar

Students have chosen such topics as the Giants beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl (the first time), the release of the original iPhone, the opening of Harry Potter World, Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit, and the sinking of the Titanic. At this point in time, the majority of the groups are working on polishing up their broadcasts in GarageBand, while I show them how to download free sound effects from websites and import them into their work. I look forward to wrapping everything up and providing students with the opportunity to publish and share their creations.

My First Post on Edutopia

A few weeks ago I went to EdcampNYC. After the event I spent some time talking to Monica Burns (@ClassTechTips), who blogs regularly for Edutopia, which has always been one of favorite websites for all things progressive in education. After conversing with Monica I was inspired to try to get some of my work published as well.

After about ten days and a handful of emails back and forth, my first post on Edutopia was published. The post – “Author Commentary That’s Simply App Smashing” – describes a reading comprehension activity that is enhanced through the use of a few iPad apps. I am most proud of the fact that one of my fourth grade students, Meghan, took the time to contribute a student reflection of the activity, which she wrote on a day’s notice.

Here is a link to the blog post on Edutopia.

BYOD: An Implementation Timeline For School Districts

BYOD Timeline 2
For the fourth and final installment of the BYOD series, we will take a look at a recommended one-year timeline for BYOD implementation from an administrative/district standpoint. But first, here is a quick rundown of what has already been discussed!

Part 1: Lessons learned from a BYOD pre-pilot
Part 2: Top 10 apps for BYOD
Part 3: A recommended teacher implementation timeline for BYOD

To provide some perspective, as mentioned prior, “This year, my district has begun the process of implementing BYOD in what is being called a pre-pilot, and my students and I were delighted when we got the call to be the first classroom in the entire district to have the honor.” The timeline below reflects the lessons that we have learned from the pre-pilot, and the district goal for next year is to involve teachers from grades 5 and up on a volunteer basis.

May of current school year – Email from Superintendent (and possibly Director of Technology) to all teachers
Although there have been rumblings and informal conversations about BYOD (which are vital in promoting change), it is important that district leaders place their stamp of approval on the initiative. Through this email, the Superintendent should (1) express excitement for what is taking place, (2) attach a list of answers to frequently asked questions in order proactively minimize concerns and restraining forces, (3) announce that the district is asking for BYOD teacher volunteers from grades 5 and up, and (4) announce that the Director of Technology (and possibly pre-piloting teachers) will be scheduling a face to face meeting with every school in order to address any questions, thoughts, or concerns related to BYOD.

May-June of current school year – Face to face meetings between Director of Technology/pre-piloting teachers and every school

June of current school year – Official request for teacher volunteers
Send out a Google Form, asking for teachers to submit their names for the pilot. After all submissions are made, each building principal will be made aware of his/her piloting teachers. The form should also ask for teacher input in regards to what BYOD related professional development they would see as beneficial.

July – Professional development agenda/timeline is distributed
Although the feedback of the piloting teachers must be considered when creating the agenda/timeline, here is a starting point that will undoubtedly end up changing based on feedback.

Summer 2014 – Professional development session 1, 3 hours

  • Address problems being solved by BYOD and reasons for BYOD:
    • Bridges the gap between school and home in order to promote 24/7 learning.
    • Meets students and teachers “where they are” by leveraging devices with which they are already familiar (iOS devices, Android devices, Chromebooks, etc.).
    • Takes advantage of an abundance of technology that is not being used for educational purposes.
    • Proactively teaches students how to use their devices appropriately and get the most out of them, rather than banning the devices out of fear.
  • Discuss (1) the importance of teaching digital citizenship and provide resources for doing so, (2) teaching device responsibility, (3) lessons learned from the pre-pilot, and (4) a possible teacher implementation timeline for BYOD, which includes ongoing communication with all stakeholders.

Summer 2014 – Professional development session 2, 3 hours

  • An overview of (1) different operating systems that might be used by students (2) “top” mobile applications along with demonstrations, with an emphasis on free apps that work across many types of devices and the web, and (3) ways in which teachers and students can find apps on their own, such as through Apps Gone Free.
  • Participants should also be introduced to the SAMR Model, and they can engage in a group activity in which they leverage apps to redefine a lesson of their choosing (as opposed to using the technology as a mere substitute, or “technology for the sake of technology”).

November 2014 – A 2-hour session in which participants share their successes and failures

May 2015 – A 2-hour session in which participants share their successes and failures

June – Reflection survey
All participants are asked to complete a survey in which they reflect upon the BYOD initiative and all that they have done. This survey will assist with the future practices of the piloting teachers, and also help to refine the initiative for those who wish to become involved in the upcoming years.

Special note: Throughout this initiative it could be advantageous to store all related resources in a learning management system (LMS), such as Schoology or Edmodo. As a result, (1) all parties involved would know exactly where to go for their BYOD resources, (2) professional development would be ongoing, as educators would be able to constantly interact with one another and share ideas, and (3) best practice is modeled. Schoology and Edmodo are two systems that run beautifully on mobile devices, and teachers and students would benefit from using one or the other in their classrooms, with or without BYOD.

Once again, what is listed above is a tentative timeline and it is subject to change based on input from all stakeholders involved. If you have any suggestions, thoughts, or questions, please leave a comment!