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EdTech & Design, Engagement, Opinion, Promising Practices, Teaching

Technology and Student Engagement

Kids are connected all day – except in school.  Therefore, we should get them connected in school as well and this will naturally result in greater engagement and improved learning.  Right?  Wrong!  No doubt, the novelty of using cell phones or iPods in Science class would get rave reviews from many student, but that does not necessarily mean that they would be more deeply engaged or that they would learn more, particularly once the novelty had worn off.

 Teachers have long used curiosity as an entry point for learning and stimulating student interest can be an effective strategy, but the attention that results from heightened interest is only a way station on the road to intellectual engagement.  Moreover, a constant focus on finding ways to stimulate interest can divert teachers from pedagogy to performance and create the need for escalating entertainment in order to capture students’ attention, which wears teachers out while distracting them from more important and effective work.  What is needed is a way of moving from external motivation that has to be constantly refreshed to internal motivation that fuels itself.

 The transition from external to internal motivation, and thus the kind of deep engagement that creates understanding which can be applied in novel situations, comes when curiosity is amplified by connection.  That is, only when a student finds an inquiry not only interesting but also meaningful does it become truly engaging.

 Making studies meaningful requires much more than simply making them interesting.  It requires well-conceived curriculum and expert instruction designed for the specific interests and abilities of particular students.  It requires enough, but not too much, challenge, carefully calibrated levels of support, choice that affords an appropriate level of control to the student and immediate descriptive feedback that enables and develops self-regulation in learning.  In short, it requires skillful teaching.

 Skillful teaching can be enriched and leveraged using technology, but it doesn’t work the other way around.  Technology cannot compensate for poor curriculum or weak instructional practices.  It is the craftsman and not the tool that determines the quality of the work.

However, good tools give a craftsman much greater power.  So what is it that technology could give us?  It could enhance students’ ability to access, process and share information.  It could provide practical support for a “universal design for learning” (see http://www.cast.org or http://www.udlcenter.org). It could help teachers to keep students within their individual “proximal zone” so that they experience an absorbing “flow” that brings out the best in their learning.  It could allow teachers to provide choice that differentiates instruction and personalizes learning without requiring individualization.  It could provide tools for immediate personalized feedback to students and thus support the “assessment for learning” that research has shown to be so beneficial.  It might even finally allow educators to shatter the industrial age batch-processing model of lock-step instruction and enable students to learn at their own pace in their own way.

 There is a great deal that technology could do, and doubtless most of it is already being done somewhere, but not by accident.  Technology delivers on its promise only when educators harness its potential in service of well-conceived curriculum and effective instruction that is tailored to the needs, interests and abilities of their particular students.  Otherwise, it is sound and fury signifying nothing – a lot of ‘heat’ perhaps, but probably not much ‘light.’


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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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