Is a classroom really a laboratory?

It’s hard for me to track back and know whether I heard this somewhere or whether it just popped into my head, but I imagine the former. It usually comes in the form of a thought I think I should tweet.

“Your classroom is your laboratory.”

But then there’s a secondary thought that immediately follows.

“Maybe, but not for everybody.”

Many teachers don’t view their classroom as a place to experiment. I think there are a couple reasons for this. First, the accountability movement. Putting more pressure on teachers by putting more weight on how their students do on standardized tests and other accountability rules means teachers are less likely to take risks. They’re more likely to implement the district approved, research based lesson plan, over and over. This is because, if something doesn’t go well, then they are “covered”. In other words they failed but they failed trying something that the people “above” and “around” them said should work. This is fundamentally different than trying something that you developed on your own.

It’s playing it safe.

Intimately tied to the previous reason, the second is a fear of risk taking. There is a fear that if you take a risk and fail then you’re somehow a worse teacher.

Nope, you’re a better teacher because you learned something valuable about educating young people.

The students might know you made a mistake (gasp). Your administrator might know you made a mistake (GASP). But this is what education is about. You are a professional, you should be treated as such, and you should be able to take calculated risks in your classroom without fear of what might happen if things don’t go as planned.

In fact, the more we design our lessons to go as planned, the more we fail to adjust for the learning. It means that I’m dictating the pace, flow, and motion of the class to the point that I’m (likely) not being responsive to students needs. My time spent with my students is rigid and doesn’t flex based on their understanding of the concepts. Everyone has to decide where they’re going to land on the “rigid to flexible” scale but always erring to the rigid means less responding to student’s needs.

And I want to be clear. Some of you may be thinking, “look, you can’t just try a bunch of stuff on a whim.”

To which I say, of course not! Scientists don’t do this either. I’m not suggesting that teachers shouldn’t use research to inform their practice. I’m just saying that there are effective learning tasks that haven’t been developed yet and you might be just the person to develop one (or two, or ten, or a hundred…). Helping a student to understand a concept or idea is a complex task for a lot of reasons. This means that every lesson plan needs your mojo. It needs your creativity. It needs your flexibility. It needs to be a mash up of research, your knowledge, your creativity, your students’ knowledge, your gut, and a plethora of other factors.

pexels-photoIn that mashup it’s not unlikely that some aspect is going to flop. We need to be okay with that and learn from it, because there will also be days when you hit a home run. And there are few greater feelings in this profession than designing a creative lesson that just kills it. If you stay in the box all the time it’s difficult to capture that feeling.
Teaching is a creative endeavor. It has to be. But if we don’t work in an environment where risk-taking is encouraged and valued then it’s difficult to grow, and get better.


A bit of Coercion is Okay

Let me start by establishing that I recognize the problems with grades. I understand that they encourage learning to be competitive, often don’t provide a great window into students’ understanding of specific concepts, and cause kids to only worry about the number and not the learning. So if you’re in that camp, I’m Right there with you. I get it. However, I’ve still got a foot in the other camp. Let me explain.

In an ideal world students would be driven to learn by their own curiosity and passion for learning. This ideal is unrealistic. It certainly happens in bubbles and in spurts, but generally speaking, much more learning in school is being done because we require students to do it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t constantly be trying to tap into their curiosity and to intrinsically motivate them. I’m just saying few students are intrinsically motivated to learn polynomial long division or stoichiometry, for example. So, as Tony Robins pointed out in his TED talk “Why We Do What We Do”, motivation is a balance between the intrinsic and the extrinsic. If we go too far in either direction we’ll likely fail to get the learning outcomes we desire.

Following this line of reasoning I sought to solve the problem of low engagement with the videos that I have in my flipped classroom. I badly wanted my students to seek out the information in the videos because they realized they were an important part of understanding the math. However, I could tell many students either weren’t watching the videos, weren’t watching them with engagement, or were making an honest effort but still weren’t getting the most out of them. I’ve toyed with adding some sort of quizzing feature in my videos before, and the last couple of years have used the WSQ model, but I hadn’t done it wholesale. I decided that with the start of the new trimester I would have each of my students sign up for EDpuzzle and I’d just simply make them watch the videos and answer questions along the way (by giving them a small grade for doing it). Also, they would be due by certain dates. I told this to my students on the first day and waited for the complaining as the trimester rolled on.

But they loved it.

After a couple of days and a couple of videos the students, in both hours, commented on how they liked it better than the previous way. They -liked- having the questions in the video (they said it helped them stay focused). They appreciated the structure that the due dates gave them. I had students that never watched or took notes on videos before, asking me questions while they were watching them. Even though I am now taking a grade for the videos and the quizzes within them, my students are happier because of the change in format and I’m happier because students are getting more from the instruction.

The moral of this story is, if you’re struggling to get students to do something via intrinsic motivation, a little extrinsic motivation probably isn’t going to hurt. Especially if the result is more learning and engagement.

-Note: I thought about the fact that in life there is rarely an “EDpuzzle program” and a teacher making sure you participate in everything you’re asked to participate in or that will benefit you. However, I think the learning and engagement that I’m getting outweighs the life lesson that I’m losing. I’m sure there are differing opinions on this and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Relation to Key Topics in Ed Tech (Deeper Learning through Technology)

In this post I’d like to lay out a couple ways that my grant engages with current topics in educational technology. My grant addresses a major topic and that is 1-1 device initiatives. Schools and districts all over the state are starting to give devices to each of their students to use in class. One of the problems with these initiatives is that they are often top down and the result is poor implementation. Even though devices can be used to increase deep understanding, they are frequently implemented ineffectively. My grant proposal provides several ways in which students will leverage the technology in effective ways.

Although I wasn’t explicit about this in my outline or write up, one other issue in ed tech that I’ll be addressing if I get the devices is the balance between high tech and low tech tools. I have had success with students using collaborative whiteboards for example and tablets cannot replace those. When considering which technology to implement it’s important to not focus only on high tech tools.

Last, the entire overarching goal of this technology is to get students to think deeper about mathematics. To me this is what we should be trying to leverage technology for in all disciplines. Technology has great potential to be a catalyst for critical thinking if it’s implemented carefully. A side effect of effectively implementing these technologies is that ideally they give students ideas for how they can support their learning in the future. We want students that are digitally literate and that can leverage technology to become effective lifelong learners.

Proposal Evaluation (Deeper Learning through Technology)

In this post I’d like to briefly elaborate on how I’ll evaluate the successfulness of my implementation of tablets for every student. (Read the outline of my plan here and the details here.) There are a few simple ways to measure the effectiveness of the devices. The first, and simplest, will be looking at student’s grades on a year to year basis. For instance, were the averages of my calculus classes worse or better in the year that I implemented tablets compared to previous years? I can also look at how specific students did in my class compared to their previous math classes. But beyond that, to really drive at my original goal (helping students consistently reach a deep level of understanding in mathematics), I’ll have to look beyond their grades.

The first method I’ll use will be their blogs. I’ve had students blog for three years, with some of the prompts being reused. I will be able to look back and compare blog posts on specific prompts. Students’ writing is one of the best places to understand how deeply they understand a concept. I also will gather students’ perceptions of how they felt the tablets helped them understand math. They will have several years of experience in learning math more traditionally to compare my class to. In addition to surveying students during my class, I will follow up with students after they leave high school. One of the problems I identified was that many students struggle in mathematics beyond high school. I will survey students about their success in college level math and ask them how they felt my integration of technology contributed or detracted from that success (or lack of success).

I think it’s also valuable to videotape my classroom on a somewhat frequent basis to both evaluate my teaching and my students’ learning. The first thing I’ll be looking for is growth in a number of areas. How are my students improving in the quality of their discourse around mathematics in my class? How frequently are students using graphing utilities on the tablets without being prompted to use them by me? How is my instruction evolving based on the increased formative data I’m getting? The process of videotaping will require reflection on the tablets’ effectiveness and I think this is best done through writing. I will blog on the success and failures of their implementation and adjust accordingly my teaching accordingly.

I think the advantage to implementing tablets is that they are such powerful, dynamic tools. This is advantageous because if I have an idea that doesn’t go well (maybe having students make video lessons for example) there are countless more ways to use them, so I can dump that activity and use them in different ways. With the combination of hard data (grades) and more subjective data (like blogs and surveys) I will be able to decide if the technology is effective or not and make adjustments accordingly.  

The Total PACKage (Deeper Learning Through Technology)

In this post I’d like to specifically lay out how pedagogy, technology, and content will be balanced in the context of my current classroom while utilizing this technology (tablets for every student). You can read the basic outline of my plan here, so I’ll get right into the details. My ultimate goal is for students to leave my classroom as deeper mathematical thinkers and I didn’t take the decision to write a grant for tablets lightly. I considered what is required for students to understand concepts deeply and settled on a few necessities: writing, exploration and play, and feedback. There are countless ways to achieve these in the context of a math classroom, the problem lies in accomplishing them on a regular basis. Tablets provide a means by which we can accomplish these aspects of learning as frequently as possible (or as frequently as pedagogically sound).


When I first settled on these three aspects of learning as a focus for this grant I began searching for what other math teachers do to increase these things in their classroom. The first thing I noticed was the emphasis on providing lot’s of collaborative space (which essentially meant whiteboards) as well as having a student centered environment. I currently have my classroom organized into pods and each pod has a collaborative whiteboard on it. In addition I have large whiteboards on three of my walls. I currently have a fairly student centered, collaboration focused classroom. In addition, I teach higher level math where much of the content cannot be accessed by simple “hands-on” manipulatives that are common in lower mathematics. This is to say that I considered “low-tech” options but have either covered them (collaborative space) or don’t need them (hands-on manipulatives).

I then looked to “high-tech” options. I decided that most of the technology I looked at would be most effective in the hands of my students. For instance, if I only had one tablet in my classroom I might be able to show a demonstration with it, but students wouldn’t be able to explore the mathematics on their own. Once I decided on devices, I needed to choose between tablets or laptops. I decided to go with tablets for two main reasons. First, they are better for creating things that require a camera (video projects, interesting image projects, etc.). Second, they are much easier to draw or write on.This comes up frequently in mathematics and is especially handy with some formative assessment tools (Nearpod for example). This often much more intuitive for students than using an equation editor. As outlined below, the positive changes these devices can bring about are many.


I currently have my students maintain blogs to increase writing in my class. On days in which there is a blog post assignment I must reserve a computer lab. This usually is not a problem but it requires breaking up whatever we are doing in class to go to the lab. Students usually don’t finish the writing at the same time so students that finish early are frequently left with not much to do. I want writing to be more of a “regular” thing in class and less of a field trip. I think it would send the message that writing is simply an important part of the learning process. Having a class in which each student has a device means that the flow of class doesn’t need to be interrupted for writing and students can do the assignments as soon as they reach that point in the lesson.

Tablets also provide students with powerful tools for exploring higher level mathematics. Software like Desmos, Geogebra, and Wolfram Alpha demonstrations allow students to easily play with math and make difficult concepts more accessible. Pedagogically speaking it makes it easier for a teacher to allow students time to engage with concepts prior to formal instruction. This gives students a chance to actively engage their prior knowledge with the new ideas (Bransford, 1999). They can begin to construct understanding of concepts and then the teacher can follow up with a more formal lesson to help the student make the final connections. The more frequently this happens, the more the student owns the learning.

In addition to exploration and play, historically many higher math concepts (slope fields, solids of revolutions, complex graphs, etc.) were only accessible through sketching graphs (by hand) or through graphing calculators. Both have severe limitations in their capabilities compared to the aforementioned utilities. (For instance, see the activities on composition and operations on functions located here. This is a concept that’s very difficult to see purpose in, but in creatively using Desmos it becomes one of the more engaging topics in the unit.) With these new tools students can access content that historically would’ve seemed mysterious. Granted, I could take students to the computer lab whenever I wanted them to use these tools, but the situation where these tools are more beneficial than drawing or graphing calculators comes up so frequently in higher math that it’s not reasonable to do so. Not only does this technology make these tools consistently available to students, but it also can help make my pedagogical decisions more in line with the constructivist philosophy of learning.


In order to decide how to teach a concept (or especially re-teach a concept) it’s helpful to have an understanding of your students’ understanding of a given concept (or group of concepts). To do this teachers are frequently formatively assessing their students. The more frequently we formative assess the better idea we have what students know. One problem with it is that much of the time it’s based on our “feel” for their understanding. For instance, we might use questioning frequently to get an idea of their preconceptions or misconceptions. The problems with this are that it doesn’t give us specific data about our entire class, we often overestimate our students’ understanding of prerequisite skills, and it’s difficult to narrow general understandings down to specific concepts. There are countless tools designed for tablets that give very specific formative assessments to students and provide valuable insights into their learning in real time. These assessments can happen frequently and drive instruction almost on a minute to minute basis is every student has a device.

When trying to design tasks in which students construct knowledge we must do our best to gain insight into how far they’re coming in their understanding. The better our understanding of their understanding, the more effective each class period is for students. In addition, this gives the students an understanding of their weaknesses and in preparation for their summative assessments they will know which concepts to focus on. Lastly, this allows students to develop a good study habit. Instead of just reading about concepts students should use self quizzing to reveal misunderstandings and force themselves to try to recall information or concepts. This forces them to honestly evaluate which ideas are stored in long term memory and which ones they merely thought were stored there.

In the context of my current classroom and teaching assignment, tablets can make the three main areas of teaching (technology, pedagogy, and content) blend together well. We can dig into content more easily and deeper than before. We can create more situations in which students play with mathematics as an entry point to lessons. We can assess in low stakes situations more frequently and effectively. Students can write on a regular basis. Tablets, implemented effectively, give my students countless more opportunities to understand mathematical ideas more deeply.


Bransford, J. (1999). How people learn brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Closing the Cycle – The Testing Phase

The last couple of weeks we have been in the testing phase of my current grad class, Learning Technology through Design. The problem that I’m trying to address is that teachers are consistently short on time and quite frequently work unpaid overtime. My goal is to help teachers find more time as well as (hopefully) start a wide conversation about why this is so important, not only to the sanity of educators, but also for students. You can read about my ideas for accomplishing this (in fact these are the ideas that I’m “testing”) here. In designing my test I wanted to talk with the people this affects the most: educators. I grabbed a few of my close colleagues and we went in my classroom and I did a couple things. First, I explained the problem I was trying to address and how I planned to address it. I then walked them through one prototype, explaining my thought process as I went. I then asked them a series of questions, focusing on what the prototype did well and where it was lacking. I also asked them to take the perspective of the general public or an administrator and provide feedback from those perspectives. (I did the same thing for the second prototype.) My main objective was to have quality conversations and to get honest feedback on what I could do to improve my prototypes.
This phase culminated in a couple of 20-30 minute interviews with colleagues regarding my prototypes. It was almost like a soft opening. I wanted to get feedback before I launched these resources to the public space. One aspect of my prototype that was lacking was brought up by one of the teachers. She said something to the effect of “well what’s the pay off if we give teachers more time?” In other words all my messaging was making a case for finding teachers more time and why the lack of time is problematic. I didn’t site any specific examples for what happens when teachers are actually given more time and freedom. Obviously this is a natural extension that I would’ve missed without going through the test phase.

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Prototyping Lab – Balance

The purpose of this lab was to take a big idea (Like the meaning of life or the value of creativity) and create a physical representation of that idea. One thing I struggled with was deciding on a big question to tackle and then figuring out how to encapsulate that idea into something I could physically make. Once I decided on my view of the meaning of life (as the topic) I still struggled with how to take that idea and turn it into something physical. So, I took some time to incubate the idea and did some chores around the house and it hit me.

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