Relationship, Relevance, and Rigor in the Digital Classroom

EdSomewhere between the fuzzy hum of kids connected to a digital reservoir of information and the serene silence of kids contemplating natural wonders, there is a rising chant. The chant began with a few bold teachers and instructional leaders realizing, just a decade or so ago, that the old mode of teaching and learning was becoming less and less effective.  Now, just eighteen years after the first student accessible computer was plugged into a classroom wall, the chant is being picked up by teachers and their students all over the country, all over the world. The chant is a repeated chorus of a handful of words – words like inquire, create, build, adapt, produce, innovate – and because they’re the words at the root of all real learning, the chant can’t be denied.

At the National Digital Learning Day event held at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, that chant picked up considerable volume as experts from all fields of education made the case for a new curriculum, a new way to build understanding and skills in kids who are natives of the digital world. Superintendents, Congressmen, FCC Commissioners and business leaders, joined with teachers and administrators around the country to explain, to illustrate and to urge.  But the chorus that resounded was clear – we need to change how we do school and we need to change it now.

Digital Relationships

A young lady from Talladaga, Alabama shared the stage with her school division’s Superintendent and her school’s tech specialist. The group shared the story of how their once failing high school with a 63% dropout rate was transformed, almost overnight, to cutting edge learning environment where kids looked forward to school. They reduced their dropout rate by 19% in just two years. The young lady was asked what she thought about her school’s new approach. After a very brief pause she smiled and said of her teachers, “I’m just glad they decided to trust us.” Pressed to explain she added, “At first, the teachers didn’t know much. They were…well, not too tech savy. But they trusted that we could bring information to them while they were bringing stuff to us and we would all learn together.” And learn they did.

Her remarks nailed the aspect of digital and product-based learning that teachers seem most leary of. The transformation from “teacher as provider of knowledge” to “student as center of production” requires a fair amount of trust, a good deal of letting go of control, and a willingness to partner with students in learning – theirs and ours. This is an uncomfortable place to be for one who is accustomed to setting the pace and creating the parameters of what and how students gain understanding.

Several years ago, when I designed and taught an African American Studies curriculum at Albemarle High School, it occurred to me that I was not going to be the content expert. I decided out of necessity that the students would be charged with becoming content experts and graded on how much they could teach me about African American history, literature, art, and culture. To reciprocate, I taught them how to make documentary film, how to record a podcast, how to create a multi-media presentation with Prezi, how to search the internet for primary source documents. It was one of those light bulb moments that altered the way I taught everything after that. The relationships that were formed by taking on the role of co-learner and by giving students the spot behind the lectern was transformative. For them and for me. And all I had to do was trust them. To trust that given the opportunity, they would use the tools provided and learn. And learn we did.

IMG_0392Digital Relevance

 Tom Wheeler, Chairperson of the Federal Communications Commission, said in his closing remarks (and I paraphrase), “We can’t predict what the future will be like for our students, but we can make a pathway to that future and we can start today.” Many districts, like the one in Talladaga, like Albemarle County, have already been at it for a while. That pathway will be paved with opportunities for students to have authentic, real world, real time experiences that will give them insight into the possibilities that lie ahead. It will lead immediately to the acquisition of skills and habits of mind, to adaptability, mental agility, and intellectual risk taking. And we as teachers and instructional leaders have to task of designing those opportunities and facilitating a classroom that’s relevant to 21st Century kids.

This idea of digital relevance extends to teacher as much as to students. Every teacher who has ever taught content divorced from its practical application has been asked the question by some kid at some time, “Why do we have to know this?” Using digital resources to create relevant and authentic projects for students provides both the question and the answer. No one asks “Why do we have to build suspension bridges?” Or “Why do we need to make weather predictions?” And teachers need to find relevance and authenticity in their work as much as students do. How many teachers have already been driven from the profession due to the soul crushing effects of test prep curriculum?

There is, however, one great obstacle that cannot be ignored. If teachers are asked to innovate, to create project-based challenges for students and invent rubrics for assessing them, if they’re to be expected to collaborate and cross disciplines, they’re going to have to be given the time to do it. And 45 or 90 minutes of planning each day will not be sufficient.  Barnett Berry, CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality pointed out during a morning panel discussion that curriculum redesign must begin with redesigning the teacher workday to provide adequate time for creating and evaluating the work we give students. There are plenty of models from which we can borrow and a lot of creative people in our buildings. Surely we can create a work environment that provides teachers with the time and support they need.

 Digital Rigor

 Rigor is defined by some as the difference between a test with twenty multiple questions and a test with one hundred. We know better by now I think. But there is a prevailing belief that activities like game design and creating computer animation aren’t academic enough. That they don’t have a content basis outside of the computer science class.  It may be hard for the uninitiated to see rigor in activities that kids actually want to do. To dispel that myth, I suggest every one go to their computer immediately and try to create five minutes of scratch animation. See how long it takes. Keep track of how many decisions, calculations, and adjustments you have to make before you’re finished. I think many will find it’s the hardest mental work they’ve done in a while.

Watch the students at Sutherland Middle School go through the processes of making a short film and it quickly becomes apparent that it’s rigorous. The negotiation, the scheduling, the technical problems that inevitably occur, all of these require a great deal of critical thinking, backward mapping, and problem solving. Or check out the kids at Monticello High School writing and recording original music in the digital studio and you’ll see a dozen Virginia State learning standards being conquered every day. What’s fascinating though is how focused, intent, and purposeful students are in completing this work. They’re operating at such a high level of congnition that it actually feels good to them. They’re challenged and they’re responding with energy and enthusiasm.

In Albemarle County, our Academy programs for Engineering and Health and Medical Science are founded on the notion that content married with practical application and the right resources will enable students to acheive at extremely high levels. No one would accuse these programs of lacking rigor. Seeing students huddled around computers with CAD software or on-line simulators performing tasks similar to those performed by the professionals they hope to become is the norm in these centers. So why shouldn’t it be the norm in all our schools? In all of our classrooms?

AllianceExcellentEducationSo What Shall We Do?

The Alliance for Excellent Education, who sponsored the Digital Learning Day events in DC, state it as their mission to “promote high school transformation to make it possible for every child to graduate prepared for postsecondary learning and success in life.” Their efforts include work on the FCC’s E-Rate program to provide affordable resources and technology to all schools and President Obama’s EdConnect initiative that will endeavor to bring high-speed broadband access to 99 percent of our schools within the next five years.

Perhaps the most useful thing they provide for teachers in the classroom is an initiative titled Project 24. This program provides on-line resources, professional development MOOCs, webinars with leading tech educators, and individualized attention to the needs of teachers who desire to expand digital learing opportunities for their students.

We can also help each other. No one teacher can possibly stay on top of the rapidly changing, ever growing list of digital resources available. By cultivating collaborative relationships with Librarians, Instructional Coaches, PLC members,and other teachers, a culture of relevance and rigor will grow and the pathway to the future that Mr. Wheeler spoke of will be wide enough for all of us to walk up together.


2 thoughts on “Relationship, Relevance, and Rigor in the Digital Classroom

  1. Trevor, your point about teachers needing to make a leap of faith really rings true for me. Allowing students to experiment with tools that you don’t necessarily know well yourself can be intimidating and messy, at times! But once you watch students problem solve, teach each other, and experience the power of directing their own learning, you realize it is the path to building life-long learners.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Trevor! We definitely can learn from one another, and I find that is the most exciting/beautiful part of the process. (I also love it when the students teach me a thing or two! They know ALL about digital rigor!)

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