Tools of Technology
Technology has become an important instrument in education. Computer- based technologies hold great promise both for increasing access to knowledge and as a means of promoting learning. The public imagination has been captured by the capacity of information technologies to centralize and organize large bodies of knowledge; people are excited by the prospect of information networks, such as the Internet, for linking students around the globe into communities of learners.
There are five ways that technology can be used to help meet the challenges of establishing effective learning environments:
• Bringing real-world problems into classrooms through the use of videos, demonstrations, simulations, and Internet connections to concrete data and working scientists.
• Providing “scaffolding” support to augment what learners can do and reason about on their path to understanding. Scaffolding allows learners to participate in complex cognitive performances, such as scientific visualization and model-based learning, that is more difficult or impossible without technical support.
• Increasing opportunities for learners to receive feedback from software tutors, teachers, and peers; to engage in reflection on their own learning processes; and to receive guidance toward progressive revisions that improve their learning and reasoning.
• Building local and global communities of teachers, administrators, students, parents, and other interested learners.
• Expanding opportunities for teachers’ learning.
An important function of some of the new technologies is their use as tools of representation. Representational thinking is central to in-depth understanding and problem representation is one of the skills that distinguish subject experts from novices. Many of the tools also have the potential to provide multiple contexts and opportunities for learning and transfer, for both student-learners and teacher-learners. Technologies can be used as learning and problem-solving tools to promote both independent learning and collaborative networks of learners and practitioners. The use of new technologies in classrooms, or the use of any learning aid for that matter, is never solely a technical matter. The new electronic technologies, like any other educational resource, are used in a social environment and are, therefore, mediated by the dialogues that students have with each other and the teacher.
Educational software needs to be developed and implemented with a full understanding of the principles of learning and developmental psychology. Many new issues arise when one considers how to educate teachers to use new technologies effectively: What do they need to know about learning processes? What do they need to know about the technologies? What kinds of training are most effective for helping teachers use high-quality instructional programs? Understanding the issues that affect teachers who will be using new technologies is just as pressing as questions of the learning potential and developmental appropriateness of the technologies for children.
Assessment to Support Learning
Assessment and feedback are crucial for helping people learn. Assessment that is consistent with principles of learning and understanding should:
• Mirror good instruction.
• Happen continuously, but not intrusively, as a part of instruction.
• Provide information (to teachers, students, and parents) about the levels of understanding that students are reaching.
Assessment should reflect the quality of students’ thinking, as well as what specific content they have learned. For this purpose, achievement measurement must consider cognitive theories of performance. Frameworks that integrate cognition and context in assessing achievement in science, for example, describe performance in terms of the content and process task demands of the subject matter and the nature and extent of cognitive activities likely to be observed in a particular assessment situation. The frameworks provide a basis for examining performance assessments that are designed to measure reasoning, understanding, and complex problem solving. The nature and purposes of an assessment also influence the specific cognitive activities that are expressed by the student. Some assessment tasks emphasize a particular performance, such as explanation, but deemphasize others, such as self-monitoring. The kind and quality of cognitive activities observed in an assessment situation are functions of the content and process demands of the tasks involved. Similarly, the task demands for process skills can be conceived along a continuum from constrained to open. In open situations, explicit directions are minimized in order to see how students generate and carry out appropriate process skills as they solve problems. Characterizing assessments in terms of components of competence and the content and process demands of the subject matter brings specificity to assessment objectives, such as “higher level thinking” and “deep understanding.” This approach links specific content with the underlying cognitive processes and the performance objectives that the teacher has in mind. With articulated objectives and an understanding of the correspondence between task features and cognitive activities, the content and process demands of tasks are brought into alignment with the performance objectives.
Effective teachers see assessment opportunities in ongoing classroom learning situations. They continually attempt to learn about students’ thinking and understanding and make it relevant to current learning tasks. They do a great deal of on-line monitoring of both group work and individual performances, and they attempt to link current activities to other parts of the curriculum and to students’ daily life experiences.
Students at all levels, but increasingly so as they progress through the grades, focus their learning attention and energies on the parts of the curriculum that are assessed. In fact, the art of being a good student, at least in the sense of getting good grades, is tied to being able to anticipate what will be tested. This means that the information to be tested has the greatest influence on guiding students’ learning. If teachers stress the importance of understanding but then test for memory of facts and procedures, it is the latter that students will focus on. Many assessments developed by teachers overemphasize memory for procedures and facts; expert teachers, by contrast, align their assessment practices with their instructional goals of depthof- understanding.
Learning and Connections to Community
Outside of formal school settings, children participate in many institutions that foster their learning. For some of these institutions, promoting learning is part of their goals, including after-school programs, as in such organizations as Boy and Girl Scout Associations and 4-H Clubs, museums, and religious education. In other institutions or activities, learning is more incidental, but learning takes place nevertheless. These learning experiences are fundamental to children’s—and adults’—lives since they are embedded in the culture and the social structures that organize their daily activities. None of the following points about the importance of out-of-school learning institutions, however, should be taken to deemphasize the central role of schools and the kinds of information that can be most efficiently and effectively taught there.
A key environment for learning is the family. In the United States, many families hold a learning agenda for their children and seek opportunities for their children to engage with the skills, ideas, and information in their communities. Even when family members do not focus consciously on instructional roles, they provide resources for children’s learning that are relevant to school and out-of-school ideas through family activities, the funds of knowledge available within extended families and their communities, and the attitudes that family members display toward the skills and values of schooling.
The success of the family as a learning environment, especially in the early years, has provided inspiration and guidance for some of the changes recommended in schools. The rapid development of children from birth to ages 4 or 5 is generally supported by family interactions in which children learn by observing and interacting with others in shared endeavors. Conversations and other interactions that occur around events of interest with trusted and skilled adults and child companions are especially powerful environments for learning. Many of the recommendations for changes in schools can be seen as extensions of the learning activities that occur within families. In addition, recommendations to include families in classroom activities and educational planning hold promise of bringing together two powerful systems for supporting children’s learning.
Classroom environments are positively influenced by opportunities to interact with parents and community members who take interest in what they are doing. Teachers and students more easily develop a sense of community as they prepare to discuss their projects with people who come from outside the school and its routines. Outsiders can help students appreciate similarities and differences between classroom environments and everyday environments; such experiences promote transfer of learning by illustrating the many contexts for applying what they know.
Parents and business leaders represent examples of outside people who can have a major impact on student learning. Broad-scale participation in school-based learning rarely happens by accident. It requires clear goals and schedules and relevant curricula that permit and guide adults in ways to help children learn.
Designing effective learning environments includes considering the goals for learning and goals for students. This comparison highlights the fact that there are various means for approaching goals of learning, and furthermore, that goals for students change over time. As goals and objectives have changed, so has the research base on effective learning and the tools that students use. Student populations have also shifted over the years. Given these many changes in student populations, tools of technology, and society’s requirements, different curricula have emerged along with needs for new pedagogical approaches that are more child-centered and more culturally sensitive, all with the objectives of promoting effective learning and adaptation (transfer). The requirement for teachers to meet such a diversity of challenges also illustrates why assessment needs to be a tool to help teach- ers determine if they have achieved their objectives. Assessment can guide teachers in tailoring their instruction to individual students’ learning needs and, collaterally, inform parents of their children’s progress.
• Supportive learning environments, which are the social and organizational structures in which students and teachers operate, need to focus on the characteristics of classroom environments that affect learning; the environments as created by teachers for learning and feedback; and the range of learning environments in which students participate, both in and out of school.
• Classroom environments can be positively influenced by opportunities to interact with others who affect learners, particularly families and community members, around school-based learning goals.
• New tools of technology have the potential of enhancing learning in many ways. The tools of technology are creating new learning environments, which need to be assessed carefully, including how their use can facilitate learning, the types of assistance that teachers need in order to incorporate the tools into their classroom practices, the changes in classroom organization that are necessary for using technologies, and the cognitive, social, and learning consequences of using these new tools.