Integrating Technology: Don't Over-Plan?

Have you ever been to an over-planned party? One where the host or hostess has planned every minute of the party so carefully that the guests felt like marionettes? Where the host or hostess, in effect, says "Stop having that un-managed fun, and come over here to do my structured fun instead?" This party planner knows that preparation is vital to a great party, but has not yet learned that the guests need to be able to participate naturally. Some fun can be planned in advance, but some fun must happen spontaneously, based on who attends.
No, don't start socializing! We haven't played the icebreaker game yet!
Now go back to that last paragraph and change the party to a classroom, the hostess and guests to teacher and students, and the fun to learning. Go ahead, I'll wait here.


We can't help it. We plan.

Teachers are planners. It's what we do.

To keep our students as productive as possible, we plan our classroom management procedures carefully. We prepare rules that keep students focused, and we keep tricks and tools up our sleeves to respond in case a class or a students slides off track.

Like any army general, a good teacher knows that luck favors the prepared. When teachers start a new unit, we carefully considers the standards, and plan effective lessons, activities, and formative and summative assessments. If following the Understanding by Design model by McTighe and Wiggins, we may even plan the assessments before planning lessons and activities, in order to be sure that everything lines up properly.

As best as possible, we are ready. Teachers are planners. It's what we do. 

Pictured: a teacher planning during her "free" period.
But as teachers, what kind of party do we host? Are our assessments and lessons so structured and pre-planned that we end up limiting the learning we were hoping to encourage?  High school teachers hoping to integrate technology into their assessments often run the risk of spoiling the party through over-planning.

Does the content dictate the assessment?

In our classes, content is what our students need to learn. Assessments are vehicles for the students to demonstrate their learning. These two pieces are obviously linked: the assessment should be designed in such a way that learning is clear. A piano student does not demonstrate that she learned a new song by writing a poem about it, and scientific research is not usually well-explained though interpretive dance.
"Here the atoms form a covalent bond by comparing neo-classical ballet forms to a modern Scandinavian interpretive style."
However, in our zeal to plan the best possible experience for our students, sometimes we over-plan. 

If my main objective is for student to understand the causes and impact of the American Civil War, how many ways are there for a student to demonstrate deep understanding? As a teacher, I am tempted to plan the best assessment possible. But best for whom? Do I really know my party guests better than they know themselves?

What if the guests choose the party games?

"Class, we are finishing up our unit on Huckleberry Finn. Next Tuesday will be 'Impress Me Day." I want you to team up with a partner, and bring me some kind of project that shows me that what you learned. Focus your project on the main elements we studied, such as setting, dialect, [fill in unit objectives here]. You may use any type of project as long as it: a) shows the depth of your learning, and b) impresses me with your creativity and effort. I'll be inviting [fill in local administrator or outside visitor here] to come and see your projects."

Teachers in the habit of over-planning shudder at this sort of scenario. "What if the students turn in junk?" they might say. "What if they don't do it? What if they have questions I can't answer?"

These are all legitimate questions for a well-planned teacher to ask, but we should remember that even if I carefully scripted a special poster project, delineating the number of illustrations, the number of direct quotes, the size of the poster board, and the types of allowable fonts, these questions would still remain.

I said 1/2" margins In Helvetica! This is 5/8" margins in Arial! You ruined everything!
In fact, leaving the project-type open-ended frees us from a lot of other worries, such as making sure we have enough materials and trying to sell the students on a particular type of activity.

What does this have to do with Technology?

Teachers are often under pressure to integrate technology into their lessons. "How am I supposed to integrate technology on top of all the other things I have to do?"

By leaving a project open-ended, you let your student choose the projects and tools that fit best, and you know what? Very often, technology is the tool that makes most sense. Many high school students will naturally find technology tools that fit their project, and the one who don't can be easily re-directed.  Kids want to write a play? Tell them you want it on video, preferably on YouTube. They want to write a plain research paper? Tell them to post it in a blog. Some kids have little access to technology? How about a mock text message interview with the book's author (or a real one, if the author is still alive)?

You don't have to specify the technology, because that's not the point. You want a product: students choose the tools to make the product.

The whole point to technology is that it gives us tools to do things. Some tools are better than others for certain tasks, and the ability to choose a technology is more important than the technology itself (says a guy who learned to program in Fortran in college). True technology preparation is in knowing how to select a technology that is the most helpful.
Anything in this book is more useful than my knowledge of Fortran programming.

Are we really supposed to stop planning? Won't that end in disaster?

OK, you got me. Eisenhower once said "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." We can't really stop planning, because our students depend on us for a strong educational experience. What we really need to do is change what we plan.

In the "Impress Me Day" scenario above, could I, as a good teacher, just sit back and say "No planning needed for this project"? Of course not. But rather than spending my time developing the project guidelines (we've all read the "Project Guidelines" handouts for students; I've even written my share), I should be planning how to evaluate an open-ended project:
  • What rubric can I use, or do I need to make one?
  • Will students work on this project during class time, or out of school?
  • What do I consider sufficient (or proficient) in the demonstration of learning, and, more importantly, how will I communicate this to my students before they begin working?
  • How will I judge the good projects from the great ones?
  • How will I distinguish between great project content and great project presentation?
  • How will that translate into a grade?
    Your project must be this tall to receive an "A."
These are questions that require plenty of thought and planning. But this is a far better use of a teacher's time than specifying fonts and margins. Suppose you had Stephen Spielberg, Taylor Swift, and Albert Einstein in your class. Would you get better work from them by creating limiting project requirements, or encouraging their own unique talents? [Note to self: get autographs before the course ends.]

Overly idealistic? Sure, maybe. Many student may not be ready for this Utopian model of open-ended-ness. But I would like to suggest that this should be the end goal for high school seniors: that you can say "Impress me" and they can combine their own talents and the best tools available to be impressive. If our students are not quite ready, the best thing we can do is to start getting them ready.

It's hard to give up control. That poor imaginary hostess I've been picking on wanted the best party for all of her guests. So now, instead, because I feel guilty about picking on someone (even an imaginary someone), let's re-invent her scenario:

Our hostess is throwing a great party. The flow of conversion is happening naturally, and the guests are having laughing and enjoying themselves. The hostess is using her time introducing more introverted guests who need encouragement, to help them feel more comfortable. She is providing snacks that her guests will enjoy, and prompting topics of conversation during lulls. She is making sure she checks in on every guest, to be sure everyone has what they need. She is not creating fun, she is letting the fun happen, but she is well planned with everything she needs. In short, she didn't over-plan what everyone would do and say; she planned in advance how to be helpful when needed.

Now go ahead and translate that last paragraph into a classroom again. Better yet, translate it into your classroom. I'll wait here.

A learning party. Not pictured: the hovering hostess.


Image credits
www.fearonstage.com/stage-fright-and-neurology/
www.amazon.com/Totally-Useless-Skills-Rick-Davis/dp/0874067073
www.vista.yumaunion.org/index.cfm?pID=512
districtthreeed.blogspot.com/2011_08_01_archive.html

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