In conducting two new workshops for school leaders called Assess Yourself, and iPad for Assessment, we have discovered an interesting approach to ascertaining just how students are using technology in your school. It's called a Photo Learning Walkthrough. A previous article in this series, Assessing the Impact of Technology, explained how to use an iPad to quantify the results of a learning walkthrough of your school, using the online instrument Education 3.0 Walkthrough. This instrument provides a list of things to look for, with the familiar four-point Likert scale to measure the presence or absence of each item, like this:
This week's article describes a different mode of walkthrough assessment, using photographs rather than Likert scales. Here's how it works.
1. Set your goals
What do you want to accomplish this year at your school? How do you want things to be different? What do you want to see more of? Less of? What modes and styles of instruction do you want to encourage? Discourage? How do you want students to be using technology? How not? One school we worked with set forth these goals:
So you see that these are not summative goals, but process goals. A summative goal might be, 50% of our students get in to the college of their choice, or 50% of our students score above average on the state test. These kinds of summative goals can't be approached through a learning walkthrough. Nor can these kinds of goals be accomplished without careful attention to the kinds of process goals listed above. Our undue attention to a small subset of summative goals over the last few years has drawn our attention away from the day-to-day processes that really make a difference. So set some goals that you can see and hear in the hallways and classrooms and laboratories and libraries at your school. It's these goals that you will quantify and track with your Photo Learning Walkthrough, hereinafter referred to as PLW.
2. Adopt a protocol
The principal of the school in this case set a standard procedure for conducting the PLW on a weekly basis. Each week, she and her assistant principals would walk through the school, iPad in hand, and shoot a photo whenever she saw students at work. No exceptions -- three students seated on the floor in the hall talking with each other; snap. Open a classroom door, see 20 students filling out a worksheet, snap. In the library, see a student giving a presentation to a small group, snap a picture. The only students you don't shoot, according to this school's protocol, are those passing between classes. After 25 photos, she'd stop shooting.
As long as you follow your protocol consistently, shoot whatever you see, and leave out value judgments as you decide what to shoot, the PLW will work as an assessment device. The school in this case did their walkthrough's randomly, at various times of the day, and varied their routes through the school to cover every place where students were to be found, including on the athletic fields.
3. Walk through and shoot
Follow your protocol, grab your iPad (or your iPhone, or your digital camera) and shoot. Shoot students and teachers at work. Shoot everything, making no selective judgments. Shoot a consistent number of photos on each walkthrough.
Sit down with your iPad. Make a little spreadsheet with Numbers, like this:
Now, open the Photos app, and find the 25 photos you just took. Consider the first goal, student engagement. Look closely at each photo. Does it provide clear and convincing evidence of the kind of student engagement you'd like to see at your school? If yes, give it a 1. If not, give it a 0. Enter the total points for student engagement into cell B2 of the spreadsheet.
Next, consider the second goal: integration of technology. Go through each photo in turn: does it show the integration of technology into the curriculum? Give each photo a one or a zero, and enter the total into cell B3. And so forth until today's column is filled.
Repeat the process next week, or whenever your protocol dictates. When you've amassed enough data for an analysis, your spreadsheet will look like this.
Compute totals for your columns and rows, like this:
Now look, think, and learn. First of all, in the case at hand, fewer than half the photos provide evidence that the school's four goals are being met. So, we know there's work to be done. On the other hand, we'd want to know what was going on at this time last year on this same measurement; and we'll want to measure it again next year, or next month, in the very same way. Day by day and week by week fluctuations are not to be worried about; it's the accumulated totals that matter.
And while the photos provide substantial evidence of student engagement, the amount of collaborative learning seems low in comparison. On the other hand, the overall fluctuation of evidence on all four goals combined is relatively stable.
Once you've gathered and analyzed a large sample of data, do the totals and email the spreadsheet to your leadership team. Project your iPad as a photo frame with the (now huge) collection of photos playing one after the other on the big screen. Ask each of the team to look at the combined spreadsheet on their iPad and talk about what they conclude. Close the meeting with a discussion of what we need to do next to move forward toward our four goals. Repeat this discussion at the next faculty meeting.
Repeat steps 3 and 4 each week throughout the school year. Repeat step 5 monthly, and step 6 quarterly. The result will include an interesting assessment of your progress toward these goals, and a periodic reminder and discussion that should provoke continued growth.
(To practice steps four and five right now, with someone else's data, connect to iPad Photo Walkthrough.)
Computers and the Internet in many ways have made it much easier to find the answers. What they haven't done much about is helping us to ask the right questions. And it turns out that the asking the right questions, rather than finding the right answers, may be more important to good education. This week's article suggests some ideas for posing the right questions in a technology-rich classroom environment.
In 1956 Benjamin Bloom (the father of Educational Objectives) related a story about John Dewey (the father of American Philosophy) and a visit to a classroom:
John Dewey ...asked a class, "What would you find if you dug a hole in the earth?" Getting no response, he repeated the question; again he obtained nothing but silence. The teacher chided Dr. Dewey, "You're asking the wrong question." Turning to the class, she asked, "What is the state of the center of the earth?" The class replied in unison, "Igneous fusion."
The class knew one right answer to one particular question. But they had no idea whatsoever of the underlying concept, or of the context in which the question (or its answer) were relevant. The easy access to answers provided by the web and its powerful search engines, make it even easier for our students to fall into the trap of finding the answer quickly without having a clue of why the answer is important or why it was asked in the first place.
(In fact, a Google search on the teacher's question leads you to a 19th-century science-fiction book by Jules Verne, and to several esoteric research centers on earth science, none of which is directly relevant to the kinds of understandings called for in the national and state earth science standards. Though Verne is a master of the style and his books remain worth reading for their own sake, neither his novel nor the rest of the Google references take us in the right direction.)
Dewey's question is a better one. (For a good time, enter it verbatim into Google and see what you find.) It's better, not because it's easier to Google, but because, in a good instructional context, it is more likely to lead to fuller understanding. It's also more concrete; it's easier for a child's mind to picture; has no single right answer; it can lead in many (mostly relevant ) directions.
But the last thing you'd want your students to do is to enter the question into Google and click the search button. Instead, you want them to imagine the context, to predict the results, to explore the possibilities, all before they open their computers or go online. A good question, in a good classroom context, leads in those directions.
A popular approach to curriculum development called Understanding by Design focuses on the key questions that should guide lesson planning. Advocates of UBD say that every lesson, every activity in the classroom, should first and foremost be led by an essential question, and that "the answers to these questions cannot be found, they must be invented." These kinds of questions seem to work well in a classroom with ubiquitous access to online information sources, where the answers to lower-order questions can be found quickly and almost without thinking. Good questions make students think, and make them use the online resources in a very different way.
In last week's article, fifth grade students misunderstood the topic the teacher assigned to them for their computer project. She told them to do a report on the Central Powers. They missed the context, as well as the closing s, and ended up finding lots of information on air-conditioning (Google led them like a faithful retriever to the web site of the Central Power Cooperative). Had the teacher helped them form an essential question before they started their computer work, things might have gone better. A better question for this assignment might have been:
What did we call the two sides in World War I, and what were they fighting about?
Think of a topic you need to cover in the next few weeks. How might you design a good question to guide your student's online research, and to give some structure to their multimedia presentation? Here are some examples:
The latter questions are more interesting, more concrete, and more likely to promote good uses of online sources.
Beyond the question
It's not enough to pose one of these provocative questions, and then let the students loose on the Internet. A good teacher will outline a procedure for thinking about the question, and structuring the research process. The process might begin like this: