Paperless: Re-imagining the Urban Charter Paradigm

Paperless: Re-imagining the Urban Charter Paradigm

Earlier this spring, Emily and I had an inspiring, thought-provoking visit to several of the country’s best urban schools. We encountered many, many things we hope to replicate within our school walls. Yet, one of our starkest, most consistent observations was the glaring absence of technology. Over and over, we recognized ways that technology could have improved the experiences of both students and teachers. After visiting school after successful school that, frankly, could have been operating 30 years ago, we walked away even more confident that the right answer for our students is blending the foundational lessons of our best traditional schools with the aspirations and innovations of reimagined, next-generation schools.

First, the amount of paper we saw – do nows, worksheets, guided notes, exit tickets – was staggering. Doing the exact same activities digitally* could have done much more for students and teachers than simply save a few trees: Teachers could have captured an accurate snapshot of the entire class’s progress during class and significantly reduced their grading time. Students could have gotten quicker feedback and been building a searchable database of notes for easier reference later.

Of course, technology should enable much more than just the exact same activities done more efficiently. Learning, practicing and reviewing skills can become more engaging. Instantaneous feedback can motivate students, help them better monitor their own progress, and lessen the chance that they cement misconceptions through continued, uncorrected practice.

More importantly, technology can help address the two biggest challenges we witnessed:

  1. The vast majority of the classrooms we entered had students diligently working – all on the same thing. It didn’t matter that some were lost and others unchallenged. In a classroom of 25 students and one teacher, differentiation is very, very hard. Even the best teachers struggle to pull it off. And differentiation, as practiced traditionally, is quite different than individualization – a feat that would be impossible for any human, superstar or not.
  2. True college readiness does not mean simply that students have mastered discrete skills – even advanced discrete skills. It means persistent engagement with complex texts and problems. It means tackling ambiguous questions and tasks. It means self-regulation, self-direction and self-motivation.

The promise of technology for addressing challenge #1 is clear. (Even if the current availability of high-quality, adaptive digital content isn’t yet supporting true personalization, the rotation of students through engaging technology centers ensures teachers work consistently with targeted small groups.)

But how can it support challenge #2?

For us, technology allows teachers to increase their focus on these higher value-add activities. Top schools work to ensure kids have strong foundational skills, are able to apply those skills to complex situations, can think critically, and persevere. Yet, while ultimately foundational skills are just a small piece of the puzzle, teachers often spend most of their time and energy trying to fill these gaps. We believe kids will thrive – and teachers will have more fun – when we support teachers in turning their attention to developing higher order thinking and building relationships with students.

Ultimately, schools that use technology to enable true transformation – and not just to tinker at the edges – will do more than all of these things. They’ll empower teachers to inspire, develop, and support students to take charge of their own learning, persist through challenges, pursue passions, and explore. Teachers will prepare kids to thrive in a variety of contexts and situations, to succeed in an uncertain, ambiguous world, and to be our next generation of leaders, creators, entrepreneurs, and problem solvers.

*Much of this isn’t being done because the technology isn’t yet nearly as user-friendly and powerful as it should be. Changing practice is hard – especially for successful but overworked teachers. And teachers have been burned many times before on technology that doesn’t live up to the hype.

[Blog post written by Executive Director Micki O’Neil and first published on Foundations College Prep blog on June 5, 2013.]

Written by Micki O’Neil

Executive Director of Foundations College Prep in Chicago.

One comment

  1. Wonderful post, Micki — many thanks. Your last couple of paragraphs really hit home with me. I started working in the ed-tech space in (gulp) 1981, with Electronic Learning magazine, a startup at Scholastic Inc that covered such amazing new marvels as the TRS-80, Apple II, Commodore PET and Atari computers. There has grown, since then, a 30-year legacy of technology mostly adding burdens to teachers’ lives and workdays — and always because it has been used simply to bolster and tweak current (traditional) practice.

    Your post illuminated how that tide is turning — finally. There have always been pockets of much more creative and transformational technology use. But the kinds of strategies now being pioneered in blended, personalized, breakthrough model schools demonstrate how technology, at last, is doing what we all hoped it would eventually do: help teachers do even better what they’ve always tried to do well, even in challenging circumstances like 1:30 classrooms. Many thanks.

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