Beyond the Test: How Have We Learned This Decade?

Opinion | Technology Trends

Beyond the Test: How Have We Learned This Decade?

By Betsy Corcoran     Dec 31, 2019

Beyond the Test: How Have We Learned This Decade?

The quiz seems deceptively easy: The past decade has seen literally hundreds of technologies and ideas emerge, many aimed at engaging or involving K-12 students and supporting student learning. So have students learned more?

According to that “big” test, the PISA, math and science test scores of all U.S. students have been largely flat since about 2000. But is asking how much students have learned the right question? What about how they have done that learning?

My bet: We’re partway along a path toward making fundamental changes in learning. And core to continuing that momentum will be changes in both tools and practices that support students’ close partners in learning, namely educators.

A decade ago, many people grumbled that walking into a school was like taking a trip back in time to say, the 1950s. No more. These days, millions of students in the U.S. and elsewhere regularly use software and curriculum developed within the past decade, often developed by small companies and former educators. Google, which officially debuted Classroom in 2014, is arguably as widespread in schools as Google’s usage is in the workplace.

In many schools, students juggle multiple devices and frequently tackle projects that go far beyond rote learning and give them the experience of learning through doing. Teachers pivot from large shared screens to online polls on handheld devices. Conversations about the role of privacy and digital citizenship wash into social studies and current events. Homework is increasingly done online, tapping into resources that might have been compiled a state or even a country away. Parents can digitally tap into not just grades but assignments.

Life in school, in short, looks more like life outside of school. The experience is sometimes chaotic. The specific tools to support learning may change from year to year, or class to class. Yet even that kind of change signals to students that the technologies that touch their lives, in work, studying or in leisure, are going to continuously change.

Many of those technologies support collaboration. Working together takes many forms, from editing or reviewing others’ contributions, to doing work jointly and finding partners who might be located in other places. Those kinds of efforts were not possible without the current crop of tools—and increasingly creating and collaborating with a team is a part of how we work.

We’ll always debate exactly what content and how much content students should learn to prepare for their lives post school. But how they learn has changed in big ways. And knowing how to learn inside and outside of school gives students a head start on their future life.

But using technology is only a part of the journey. Learning is fundamentally social; learners need peers, guides, mentors and, yes, teachers. Even as industry has built fresh tools for students, we too frequently left educators on their own, scrambling to keep up.

Educators are clearly letting us know that they need more support. In Chicago, teachers went on strike not so much about paychecks but over disagreements around staffing, class size and affordable housing, said Robert Bruno, a professor and director of the labor relations program at the University of Illinois in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. One of the most popular articles in EdSurge this year described demoralization among the profession, and how “systemic pressures, such as top-down initiatives or punitive evaluation systems, can deplete teacher autonomy.” Doris Santoro, who chairs the education department at Bowdoin College and has written a book on the topic, noted in the piece that teachers may feel they can no longer tap into what “makes their work morally good.” Programs such as Breathe for Change, which emphasize mindfulness and meditation for educators, are growing popular.

What will signal that those needs are being taken seriously? Watch for a combination of powerful messages, supportive technology and, of course, that most mercurial resource— additional funding—to gauge whether we are taking educators’ needs as seriously as we have taken students’ needs.

The new message: Everyone is a learner: We are hearing a steady drumbeat about the importance of becoming lifelong learners: Bootcamps are cropping up to serve those looking to make a significant career shift, and online communities and professional learning circles are all becoming a part of the lingo of every industry. Educators have a head start here: The best teachers have always been lifelong learners. But in the past, many of the “professional learning experiences” offered to them have been flaccid or poorly designed. As ongoing professional learning becomes a part of all of our lives, watch for emerging professional development experiences for educators that have the hallmarks of the best learning tools: Are they research-based? Personalized? Collaborative? Do they engage educators as learners?

Mobile, mobile: The rise of mobile technology as a powerful platform for learning experiences could benefit educators tremendously. Even more than office workers, educators are constantly in motion. Delivering powerful professional support via mobile platforms could be game-changing.

Money? The crucial question. Three sources of funding came together over the past decade to accelerate investments in technology for learning. Under the Obama administration, federal grant funding helped districts and schools to build out technology plans. Nonprofit foundations contributed hundreds of millions of dollars of support. And private-sector investors increased their investments in education technology as well.

Will we see comparable resources devoted to educators? Without those kinds of investments, students will ultimately suffer.

Students will not learn to navigate the world with technology alone. But if we build and provide great tools and support structures for students and educators, we will build a world of powerful learners in the decades to come.

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