Critical Thinking for Personalized Learning

Critical Thinking

This post is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. The building block of Critical Thinking helps to construct a firm foundation for personalized learning. In many classrooms, teachers don’t provide the time necessary for critical thinking in order to develop original solutions to problems. Many of the problems that are provided to students also have only one possible right or wrong answer and don’t encourage true critical thinking. When students are given the opportunity to utilize all of the resources available within a classroom (including their own ingenuity) to solve problems, they can be challenged to personally connect to their learning and construct new understanding.

Strategies for Promoting Critical Thinking

  • Provide Time for Reflection – After being presented with unfamiliar content and ideas, students need time so that they can accommodate that new information within their previously developed schema of that topic. This process involves making sense of new concepts by constructing or reconstructing personal frameworks of thought. Solely telling students to accept the information and moving on to new content doesn’t enable them to work through this process. Students can reflect in a variety of ways, and an effective practice for reflection is for students to learn what ways best help them to make sense of new information. Some strategies could include drawing an illustration; creating a mind map or graphic to understand how concepts are interrelated; or restating information in your own words and making a recording for playback.
  • Ask Open-Ended Questions – Essential questions proposed at the beginning of a lesson can set the stage for new learning and helps students focus on the core components of a concept or process. This practice helps students answer why they should be learning this information and explains why they should give it their attention. Personalizing the questions will again help students become more connected to that content, so they should also learn how to ask their own questions about topics. Effective questioning for both teachers and students requires practice. Closed questions have one right or wrong answer, and it is virtually impossible to connect to those questions personally. Open questions provide students with opportunities to answer them in a variety of ways based on personal experiences and understandings. Encourage students to provide evidence to support their thinking as they answer open questions to reinforce the connection between personal experience and new content.
  • Design Rigorous Assignments – So much time in school is spent doing rote types of assignments and activities that involve answering closed questions – completing worksheets, taking notes, etc. Rigorous assignments are those that stretch student thinking with complexity, intricacy, and divergency. Even when teachers have students complete projects or hands-on activities, many of the steps for completing those assignments are pre-determined by the teacher and often stifle true critical thinking. Having students design their own strategies for showing their thinking adds rigor to an assignment. Exploring and discovering new processes for using tools (such as technology) can also add complexity to learning tasks – and promotes effective digital learning, rather than just digitized learning. This practice is often a struggle for many students, especially because many of them are unused to being asked to really think in school. Initially, teachers may have to model the process of critical thinking for students in order to scaffold steps for completing a rigorous assignment.
  • Expect Every Child to Contribute – When posing questions to students, teachers sometimes rely on the first few responses from a couple of students and proceed to additional concepts. Struggling or introverted students begin relying on others to answer all of the questions in class while they remain silent. This practice keeps them from thinking critically about the content. Every student needs to grapple with the information and contribute to the collective understanding of each concept. Using a student response system can provide each student with a voice and assist in sharing ideas. Likewise, synchronous and asynchronous participation in discussion forums can also serve to help students process their thinking about what they are learning. Even having students turn to each other and discuss new information or to answer an open question and then share their thinking with the class provides a greater opportunity for participation.
  • Provide Multiple Ways to Show Understanding – Having every student utilize the same application or complete the same process to show their understanding can limit opportunities for critical thinking. Providing multiple ways to show understanding can enable students to think through the process or the application that better meets their individual needs or capitalizes on their personal strengths or interests. Again, it can be daunting for students to learn all of the possible ways that they could show what they know, but teachers can help facilitate this process by providing choices, modeling thinking, and being open to a variety of learning strategies. Engaging students in the process of developing a rubric for evaluating their thinking and assignments can also support personalized learning.

There are many more strategies for encouraging critical thinking in classrooms, but teachers can begin utilizing the five strategies described above for personalizing the learning experience for students. As with any strategy implemented with fidelity, on-going practice and support will also help both teachers and students develop more expertise in critical thinking.

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Building Blocks for Personalized Learning

Building Blocks for PL

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article for eSchool News entitled, “The Advantages of the BYOT Classroom.” At the time, I was the Coordinator of Instructional Technology for Forsyth County Schools in Georgia, and the advantages that I listed were the qualities that I had observed in classrooms that effectively utilized Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) to transform teaching and learning opportunities with students’ personal technology tools.

Now, I’m collaborating with several schools and districts around the country that are beginning to implement Personalized Learning to better connect students with engaging academic content; to facilitate the development of digital age skills; and to utilize technology to provide access to anytime, anywhere learning. These benefits occur as districts, schools, and teachers recognize that students have unique strengths, needs, and interests that must be considered within the design of instruction. The methods for addressing student individuality may differ, but they include the same hallmarks of the BYOT classroom. In the illustration above, I refer to these as building blocks, as they collectively construct a firm foundation for personalized learning.

Over the next several weeks, I will focus on the concepts included within the illustration of building blocks to highlight why they are essential, foundational components for personalizing learning. I will also include strategies for encouraging the development of each building block within your own personalized learning implementation plan.

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Digital vs Digitized Learning

Digital vs Digitized Learning

As teachers begin to shift toward greater personalized learning experiences for students, their initial steps build upon what they already know from face-to-face instruction. Districts usually provide teachers with easy to use Learning Management Systems (LMS) that can facilitate new learning opportunities with technology. However, the greatest potential of learning with technology tools is that teachers and students can transform the traditional learning environment, processes, and products. Just providing teachers with an organizational tool, such as an LMS, will not lead to transformative practices. Teachers need on-going support if they are to truly transform their classrooms into ecosystems for digital age learning.

A Model for Redefining Learning

The SAMR Model developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura provides a guideline for explaining the digital transformation. The four levels within this model are Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition. At the Substitution level, teachers merely replace the traditional methods of instruction with digital tools, so instead of reading a printed textbook, the students are printing out their own pages from an online textbook. Instruction is at the Augmentation level when the use of technology benefits a commonly performed task, such as, having students submit their work within an online dropbox instead of having to turn papers in to their teacher in the classroom. At the Modification level, there is a significant change between what happen’s in the traditional face-to-face classroom and the digital age learning ecosystem. An example of this type of instruction is to design an authentic project and to share it in order to receive immediate feedback from others. Finally, instruction reaches the level of Redefinition when something is created that could not exist without the use of technology tools, resources, and access. Furthermore, the ideas and products are also student-generated.

Digitized Learning

Digitized learning encompasses the first two levels of the SAMR Model – Substitution and Augmentation. Compare the Assignments in the above illustration. The Digitized Learning Assignment has the students reading from an online textbook instead of a printed textbook. Rather than writing answers to the chapter questions on paper, the students are writing answers in a document file on a computer. They are told exactly what to create for their end product – a slide show that lists facts of information. Then they are submitting these products within an online dropbox. There are some benefits to this instruction. Namely, all of the student work can be organized online, and they can access the required information and complete the Assignment asynchronously. However, the level of instruction involved requires no creativity or critical thinking.

Digital Learning

To prepare students for an ever-increasing digital world, they need to engage in robust digital learning experiences. In the Digital Learning Assignment in the above illustration, the students are reviewing a variety of multimedia content so that they can learn from multiple resources and points of view. They are asked to reflect on that information to develop an opinion and to create a product that defends their opinions based on evidence. This requires a high level of critical thinking. They have to share their product for feedback and to incorporate that feedback into a finished, published version of their project – providing them with a more authentic audience for their endeavors. By focusing on this type of assignment, the digital learning is more likely to reach the Modification or the Redefinition levels of instruction.

Next Steps…

Review some of the learning experiences that your are providing for your students that involve technology. Consider what level of the SAMR Model are you addressing with your instructional tasks. One simple way of moving to more truly digital learning experiences, instead of solely digitizing learning, is to provide open-ended assignments that encourage students to make choices. Until they have more practice and experience, students often prefer digitized learning activities because they require less effort, and we have taught them how to succeed by following basic directions. Districts and schools can assist teachers by providing the necessary digital resources, a sustainable digital curriculum, consistent professional learning, and achievable expectations. Likewise, multiple opportunities for on-going feedback, support, and collaboration with a variety of digital tools and content can help your students become effective and creative digital learners.

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The Issue of Equity in Learning Opportunities

A Scenario of Inequity

When discussing Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT), the issue of equity is always a concern; however, schools have many issues with equity regarding learning opportunities. Teachers within a school may utilize different teaching methods and strategies, so students may utilize different resources for different purposes. Some teachers choose to use project-based learning to engage students with content at school. Other teachers work especially hard to create and nurture a caring learning community, and they understand what motivates and inspires their students to learn regardless of the obstacles in their lives. Schools often have varying availability and access to digital tools and resources. This access might be due to the resources students already have in their lives and that they bring from home, but sometimes it’s due to the ingenuity and vision of the school leadership to pursue every available avenue to ensure student success.

A Shift in Thinking – Sharing Ownership of the Learning

When schools encourage students to bring their own technology tools and devices, they have new ways for connecting with each other, their teachers, and content. Some schools provide students with technology resources within their classroom for collaboration or provide devices with a one-to-one implementation. Regardless of the methods used to ensure students have technology tools, digital resources, and access, students need to share in the ownership of their learning experience within their learning community. This shift often requires that teachers empower students in the learning process. Teachers have to be willing to try new things with technology tools and understand that students may be the best “just in time” experts to explain about a new concept, solve a technical issue, or ask engaging questions. Teachers don’t have to specify how a project should be undertaken and completed. Instead teachers can offer choices and provide guidance for each student to find ways to share his or her own unique voice in order to show what they know.

A Scenario of Inequity

One of the most inequitable learning scenarios occurs when students go to school and discover that they have the teacher that doesn’t choose to use technology; or doesn’t choose to engage in project-based learning; or doesn’t choose to ask engaging questions. Meanwhile, their peers may end up in classrooms with teachers that employ digital learning and personalize the learning process. All students need to develop digital age skills to be successful in an ever-increasing digital world.

Ensuring Equity in Schools

One way of ensuring equity at schools is by guaranteeing that each teacher has access to a sustainable equitable digital curriculum as a foundation for personalized learning. Some teachers will be late adopters of technology, but if they have access to a repository of resources populated with lesson plans and learning activities designed by more capable trailblazers they may be more willing to try new strategies. Consistent modeling, support from school leaders, coaching, and quality professional learning can be the tools that these teachers need for success. By providing teachers with access to sustainable digital resources, in addition to helping them develop personal goals and achievable expectations, schools can become closer to providing an equitable learning experience for students.


Perceptions of BYOT

When you see a student with a personal mobile device in the classroom, what do you think is happening with that device?

BYOT Perceptions

In the above illustration, what is the student doing? Here are some possibilities…

  • conducting research
  • creating a project
  • texting a parent, friend, or teacher
  • watching a video
  • playing a game
  • reading a news article

As educators, we could argue the instructional merits of what is happening with the smartphone that the student is holding. Many of our initial thoughts and concerns are framed by our own perceptions and experiences of how we personally use technology.

I read a heavily circulated article this week that detailed some research from the UK on the banning of students personal technology tools. This research revealed that students perform better on standardized tests when their schools ban the use of personal mobile devices. Apparently, this improved performance was due to the lack of distractions. Obviously, I can’t argue with the research, but I do have several questions and thoughts related to the focus of this study and the topic of banning students’ technology tools.

Q1: Why is there so much importance placed on student performance on standardized tests when we have to learn to thrive in a nonstandardized world?

I understand the importance of accountability, and in education, we keep trying to find just the right assessment that will tell us whether or not teachers are effective and students are mastering the appropriate content and skills. However, in our globally connected work force, many of us are faced with choices on the job that challenge us to be creative, communicate well, and think critically. A standardized test should not be the only form of measurement to assess student learning and skills in the conceptual age when they need to generate new ideas for solving problems.

Most students carry mobile learning tools in their pockets. These are the tools they will carry with them in the real world, and these resources should be maximized for success in that complex world.

Q2: How will students learn how to manage distractions and develop the self-discipline to utilize personal technology responsibly when it is banned from school use?

Of course, students¹ personal technology tools can lead to distractions; likewise, students can be distracted by anything that removes them from the tedium of traditional teacher-directed instruction – even their own thoughts. In order for students to learn how to use their devices responsibly, they need to be nurtured and guided with some strategies for learning with these tools; for focusing during a conversation; and for completing tasks at hand. We have all seen adults who have difficulty using their devices responsibly, but most of us are self-taught in their use. By bringing their technology tools to school and with the support of their teachers, students have a greater potential for developing new responsible habits.

Q3: How do schools think they can successfully ban student devices?

With the influx of mobile technology tools, including those that are meant to be worn, there is really no logistical way to successfully ban student devices from school. Students will have the devices in their pockets, bookbags, and even on their wrists. A more sustainable approach is to focus on the responsible use of technology, and the first step in this process is to develop a learning community that acknowledges and respects student access to their devices. It is also important for educators to be prepared with digital resources and curriculum so that students have something to do with their devices when they bring them to school. Learning how to ask the right questions that inspire student inquiry is essential for mobile learning.

Now, note the thought bubble in the illustration…

What do you suppose that the student is thinking?

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The Passback Effect of Mobile Technology for Early Learners


What is the Passback Effect?

We have all witnessed the Passback Effect when sitting in a restaurant, and to keep a young child content and quiet, parents hand over their own technology device. This phenomenon also occurs when parents pass smartphones or tablets to their children in the backseat of the car or in a shopping cart. The result is usually the same as the child becomes enamored with the device, and the parents earn several precious moments of silence. What are the children doing with the device? Most likely, they are playing a familiar game, but they could also be taking photos, listening to music, surfing websites, etc. The possibilities are endless, since they are holding the doorway to all of humankind’s recorded history within their little fingers.

What are the ramifications of the Passback Effect? It is difficult to tell how the use of mobile devices at early ages changes student learning. I considered making two columns for positive and negative effects, but I decided that those two categories were too limiting and judgmental. Maybe the results are just what they are since the devices won’t be going away anytime soon. Because teachers will have to realize that many young children will enter Kindergarten and pre-school with so much exposure to digital content and tools, there are many aspects of technology use that will have to be taken into consideration. I have listed five traits below, but feel free to respond to this blog post with your own suggestions and strategies.

Ramifications of the Passback Effect

  • Increased understanding of technology – Young children will continue to become even more adept at using technology, and when something doesn’t work, they will have developed the resiliency to just try another method. Of course, these children are developing their own strategies for how the devices can and should be used, but they may not know specifically how to learn with them. Teachers need to learn how to ask questions to focus on the learning, but they also need to be willing to learn alongside and from students and develop the confidence to say “I don’t know.”
  • Accustomed to making choices – Since the students are choosing their content and developing their own strategies for using devices, they will want to make choices about the ways they learn. Teachers will have to focus on scaffolding learning experiences to keep the students engaged and developing new academic abilities and to provide choices that match with the students personal interests and talents. Lessons will need to be carefully planned with short meaningful chunks of information followed by interactive assignments and formative assessments in order to maintain student attention.
  • Distracted by technology – Through the implementation of the pass back, parents have often unknowingly supported the concept that technology is a distraction device. After all, it is meant to keep the children quiet. However, when I have seen classrooms with multiple technology tools available, those learning environments are active and full of communication as students share their experiences. Teachers will have to nurture positive uses of technology and may need to help students become producers of content rather than solely consuming information.
  • Unaware of social norms – Because children have been focused on the technology, they may not be aware of when it is time to put the devices down and look someone in the eye in order to have a conversation. Some educators mistakenly ban technology tools for this reason; however, a more effective strategy is to nurture mindfulness and teach students appropriate behaviors for face to face communication as well as appropriate online netiquette. They have modeled most of their behaviors after the adults in their lives, and unfortunately many adults have difficulty with the responsible use of technology.
  • Ready for online learning – With all of this early access to online resources with mobile technology tools, students will be prepared for learning online. They may even enter school possessing mastery of many of the traditional standards taught to students in the primary grades. This early preparation will continue to move learning away from the one-size-fits-all model of instruction, and each student can begin progressing at his/her own personalized pace through online learning environments. These educational spaces will need to be dynamic and visual to meet the needs of early learners.

It’s an exciting time in education that will continue to transform traditional classrooms. The Passback Effect will have a lasting impact on young children as it demands change to engage their learning and forces teachers to adopt new teaching strategies.

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The Distraction Myth of Learning with Technology

The Distraction MythIn facilitating the integration of technology tools within classrooms, I’ve heard teachers complain that devices can be distracting. This was also one of the fears that Lisa Nielsen (@innovativeEdu) addressed in a recent blog post – Confronting Fears – #BYOD for Students. The idea that technology itself is a distraction to students is a myth. It is perpetuated by educators who believe that banning technology will keep students more focused on the learning happening within the classroom. Technology, however, does have the potential to be a distraction for several reasons:

  • Students have developed their own norms for how technology should be used, and responsible use isn’t nurtured within classrooms.
  • The use of technology is often teacher-directed when it is utilized so students have few choices about the process or product.
  • There is an assumption that compliance with direct instruction means that students are engaged and focused.
  • Technology use is sometimes perceived as an extra add-on to traditional instruction instead of integral to the learning process.
  • Teacher lectures, direct instruction, and independent work with worksheets are regularly used as a means of behavior management to keep students quiet and pacified, and technology use encourages interaction.

Here are some strategies for addressing the issues listed above.

  1. Teachers and students should collaboratively develop expectations and guidelines for the responsible use of technology tools. These procedures should be posted and continually communicated and practiced. Remember that students will sometimes make mistakes with technology, and they should be consistently redirected, as necessary, with how to use technology responsibly.
  2. Students generally know how to use to technology, or they are generally able to quickly adapt to its use. However, they don’t usually know how to learn with technology. This is something that teachers can facilitate by utilizing the expertise of the students in the classroom to help each other. Teachers can also make assignments more open-ended so that students have opportunities to make choices in both process and product.
  3. Students can be distracted by many things within a classroom, even where technology tools are underutilized or banned. Many students have learned to play the “game” of school. They can look at a teacher and pretend to be focused and learning even though there thoughts are elsewhere. Teachers can create opportunities for collaboration, communication, and critical thinking in learning activities. In dynamic, active classrooms, there is a greater opportunity for effective technology use to support digital age skills.
  4. Technology by itself isn’t always engaging. Teachers have to utilize a variety of instructional strategies and digital content to engage student learning. With the effective integration of technology tools, teachers are able to personalize learning, flip the classroom, provide differentiated learning, and work with small groups and individuals – knowing that the students can utilize technology to access learning resources.
  5. Teachers have to model the desire to learn by learning alongside students new ways to utilize technology and discover new facets of a topic. With technology tools, students are readily able to access information, so there is no need for a teacher or a textbook to be the sole source of content. This can be intimidating for teachers who often perceive that their role is to disseminate everything they know about a subject.

By developing a positive learning community within a classroom, a teacher can take the initial steps necessary to begin integrating technology tools and resources. With consistent perseverance and practice, soon these teachers can find new ways to transform learning experiences while dispelling the myth of distraction while learning with technology.

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