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The Future of Instruction I: Teachers and Technology

Think about the best teacher, the best class, the best learning experience you ever had. In that class, you were engaged. You were challenged. You were excited. You had new insights, and left the class a different person, confident in your new knowledge and skill, but even more, confident in yourself as a learner.

In educational innovation, all we have to do is to make every hour of every educational day as good as that best learning day of your life. How hard could that be?

The path to creating outstanding lessons every hour in every subject is being made a lot easier by new technologies, but it's not the technologies you're probably thinking about. Research on computer-assisted instruction (CAI), where students are assessed, placed at the appropriate level, given on-line lessons, and assessed on key outcomes, is not showing much of an impact on learning in math or reading.

While CAI will surely continue to play a role, I believe that real breakthroughs in teaching methods will come from classroom (as opposed to individualized) technologies that help teachers orchestrate diverse technological as well as non-technological resources.

The problem in designing effective and replicable teaching methods is that different approaches are likely to be effective for different objectives and for different parts of the lesson itself. For example, well-designed video may be ideal for presenting new content where visual input is essential, but not for practice, mastery, or assessment. Cooperative learning (non-technology) may be ideal for practice and mastery, but not for introducing new concepts to students. Teachers may be optimal at explaining ideas to students and adapting to the learning needs of a particular class, and they can be good at motivating and personally engaging students, but technology can help them give students a visual image of concepts, and can help with assessment and individualization. Computers may be ideal for assessment and for differentiation (e.g., allowing high achievers to go on to "challenge" content), and they can offer exciting games and simulations, but are not yet very good at teaching new material.

In theory, every lesson might contain some appropriate mix of all of these technology and non-technology resources, but an unaided teacher would have difficulty organizing all of this and adapting it in light of children's responses on the fly. The future of instruction may be in exciting new technologies, but those technologies alone will not transform the classroom--we will always need an equal focus on new tools AND effective human methods paired with effective professional development.

Next week, tune in for more thoughts on the promise of technology and teachers working together.

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