Last year was my first year teaching technology in an elementary school. As I followed the district’s technology curriculum, and I realized that I would be teaching keyboarding for four weeks in the fall and two weeks in the spring. I was baffled as to what could actually be accomplished in the six half-hour sessions I had in which to “teach” keyboarding. The application we were using was one that the district had purchased, and it allowed me to track each student’s progress, but my expectations were low. I added student information to the program, and set goals for each class based on their grade levels, as I was instructed to do. Students logged in that first day and tried to do their best work, but before long, they were frustrated and didn’t want to practice anymore. The goal was “too hard”. “I can’t do it” was what the kids kept saying. They knew what they were supposed to do, but were quick to give up. I immediately found myself adjusting individual goals so that they would have something more realistic to work for instead of giving up and going through the motions. But we honestly didn’t accomplish much. We were all relieved when the keyboarding unit was finished and we could focus our attention on more fun digital tools.
This year, when preparing for the keyboarding unit, I tried a different approach. Instead of setting student
goals in the program, I set the class goals low, so everyone could achieve. And then I did something that would encourage them all to keep working hard. I let them set their own goals. I started by creating charts on labels that I fixed to the back of notecards. I distributed them at the start of every class.
Goal 1 was the attainable, class goal. A majority of students were able to achieve it during the first class. When they surpassed the goal with 90% accuracy, I put a sticker on the chart and the student and I decided together what the new goal would be. Typically, we aimed for three more words per minute than their best score. We wrote it under Goal 2, where students could remind themselves what they were working toward. The difference in how students responded was amazing! Even when they were unable to achieve their goal right away, they quickly learned that each time they completed their practice exercises, their speed and/or accuracy improved. They got excited. I could hear them talking to their neighbors about how close they’d come. And the big reward was the flag they earned after they achieved their third goal. The “perseverance pennants” boasted the students’ names and growth and were hung around my classroom for all to see.
Some of the less motivated students were still resistant to the idea, afraid of failing. So I worked with them one on one, explaining that they only way to become good at keyboarding was to practice. None of us are born good at typing YET, but the more we do it the better we get. I watched them type a couple of the practice exercises and showed them how they were improving each time. Eventually, they were able to get that goal sticker, and then they were hooked. One of my typically unmotivated students actually told me “I can do this!” (I love those reminders of why I became a teacher!)
Here’s what I’ve learned through experience:
- Individualizing learning goals to something that’s attainable actually motivates students!
- Including students in the process of setting their own goals makes the process more personal, and reminds them that they’re working for themselves, instead of for a teacher.
- Making learning fun, by adding a challenge or gaming element can engage students like nothing else!
Looking back on the keyboarding unit, which I completed in early October, I now realize that I was creating a learning environment that promoted a growth mindset. The data that resulted from this new way of teaching keyboarding is remarkable, showing increased typing speeds of as much as 20 words per minute within one month. Many of the students even wrote down their account information so they could use the web-based application at home. It made me consider how I teach other units in my classroom, and I’ve found myself making efforts to promote a growth mindset in other ways.
As a technology teacher, I have struggled with teachers who don’t feel comfortable enough with technology to introduce it as a learning tool in their own classrooms. It’s what inspired my innovation plan, which focuses on how I can encourage other teachers to join me in creating learning environments that promote a blended learning environment. I’ve come to realize how similar their mindset is to that of my students who focus more on their end results than their process. There are a number of students and teachers in my school who shut down at the suggestion of doing something they don’t know how to do. They don’t want to fail. Those are the people I focused on as I designed a 3-column table for a unit that incorporates cloud based learning. I also used created the same unit using Fink’s Understanding by Design (UbD) template. Through all of these designs, I’ve made an effort to create an environment in which students are not afraid to fail, but are open to the idea of just learning. I’ve considered the following points as I’ve created my lessons, and I recommend them to those teachers who are making efforts to reach their students.
As I’ve introduced my 3rd-5th grade students to Office 365 this year, they have spent the past two months creating and sharing documents and presentations with me and their classroom teachers. Occasionally, as students are working in my class, I’ll open their cloud-based work and help them edit a document they’re working on. They are always pleasantly surprised when they see information being added, questions being asked, or mistakes being fixed in their own documents. They enjoy the fact that they can work with a teacher instead of for a teacher. Success in learning shouldn’t be about the answers, but the student’s process in solving the problems. Understanding the significance of how they make things happen changes the mission of an assignment. This brings me to my next suggestion…
Lose the Red Ink
Teachers need to eliminate some of the right answer/wrong answer assessments from their lessons. Grades should be based on what students learn, not what they answer correctly. Lose the red pen and quit indicating the “wrong” answers with X’s and check marks. Use fun colors and ask questions that give students opportunities to explain why they responded the way they did. Give them a chance to defend their responses by demonstrating how they came to their conclusions. And if they can come to the realization of what they did wrong all by themselves, credit them for what they’ve learned! Anyone can find the answers! We should be teaching them to think!
A part of my job is to manage the apps on the 360+ iPads in my school. I spend a lot of time looking for applications that help our students learn independently. I get most excited about those that are adaptive, and that are game-based (and free). When provided with a game-based activity, students aren’t afraid to fail. They expect to fail, even repeatedly, before they figure out what they’re doing wrong and find success. I’ve found a number of game-based apps that provide students with opportunities to improve their learning independently. I’ve scoped them out to grade-appropriate classroom devices, and I’ve encouraged teachers to provide time for students to work independently or in centers.
I’m a firm believer in using technology as a learning tool. It’s the basis for my innovation plan, and a great way to promote a growth mindset. Students are capable of learning independently and need to be encouraged to do so. Teachers who provide opportunities for students to learn from resources other than the instructor promote a growth mindset. They can put the power to learn in the student’s hands, making them comfortable with failing as a means of succeeding.
When I taught at the high school level, students would often approach me to tell me about something incredible they’d learned on the computer. Sometimes it was about an app they’d discovered and used, and sometimes it was about a webpage or graphic design they’d created. I began working those victories into my lessons. If the student was comfortable presenting it himself, I’d let him do so. If not, I’d make sure to let the class know who was responsible for the information I was sharing. It gave the independent learners a true sense of accomplishment to be the focus of a lesson, and it inspired other classmates to work independently to make their own discoveries. It also made for some great discussions between the students, as they learned from one another.
At the elementary level, I didn’t expect there would be as many such opportunities but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. One of my fourth grade students started his own journal in OneDrive and shares his folder with me and his teachers so we can read his work. Sharing that idea with his classmates encouraged many of our gifted writers to do the same.
Independent learning doesn’t require technology. It comes from success and failure. It can happen outside the classroom, on a vacation, or a family outing, on a soccer field or even from getting a new pet. When a student feels that he or she has learned something important enough to share it with a teacher, (good or bad) that learning needs to be celebrated. In fact, taking time to celebrate independent learning regularly would encourage students to take notice of learning opportunities as they present themselves. A growth mindset needs to be cultivated not just in the classroom, but everywhere.
I once heard a teacher remind her third-grade students to “have a growth mindset”, as she brought them to my computer lab for standardized testing. I remember thinking to myself that it was a silly thing to say to a group of kids. After all, the phrase shouldn’t be a part of an elementary student’s vocabulary. The practice of having a growth mindset should be a natural one. We’re all born with an ability to learn from our mistakes, and the only thing that would inhibit a growth mindset would be for someone to make us feel bad about our failures and mistakes. And yet that’s exactly what traditional teachers do when they base student grades on right and wrong answers. The best teachers model a growth mindset and remind students that while they haven’t yet mastered a subject, they are getting there! They are willing to learn from their own mistakes, which is the key to the success of my innovation plan. Lose the fear! Be adventurous. Explore! The worst thing that can happen is that something will be learned!
Fink, L.D. (2003) A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.