Tech Training Outside of Content

Our district is distributing 13,000 iPads in the next 24 months. We have ~1,300 staff who need to be trained on instructional methods with technology in addition to functional training on a new platform, using GSuite effectively and building a course in Canvas.

Training has been touchpoint number one for our team. We’re not in a culture where it’s normal – or expected – for you to go research and try something before requesting in-person help. Before this year, there was no in-person help. When I started this role in July, we were starting from ground zero. To handle how-to requests, we started a YouTube channel and a simple ticketing system. On Mondays, we host some simple how-to training workshops to get functional basics down. Otherwise, all of our training has focused on instructional changes in the classroom.

The hardest thing about building a culture of exploration and self-driven growth is the temptation to just fall back on what would alleviate people’s stress, but not actually solve the problem. Designing an effective workshop is much more than answering the questions asked. We’re constantly evaluating ways in which we ask teachers to engage with the principles of instruction we’re modeling without falling into the trap of giving lesson templates to be repeated throughout the district.

Orange Flowers Ruin Camouflage flickr photo by mikecogh shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Move training beyond content

It’s difficult to model a lesson completely void of content. In fact, I think it would be bad practice to do so because ignoring content for the sake of context is a disservice to students. Content is important. But, in this case, it needs to be the backdrop. The lesson we’re modeling may be based on science, but we want to pull out the instructional practices that can be applied anywhere, not just in the immediate context. We use “metacognitive moments” embedded at strategic points in the task which ask teachers to identify what would work in their situation.

Prompts that force teachers to abstract to the lesson, not go through a lesson

Stemming from moving beyond content, my content expertise is in high school science. We focus on helping teachers apply the methods we’re modeling to their classroom using their expertise. I cannot tell an elementary english teacher to model the lesson in exactly the way I did. But, I can ask probing questions and push that teacher to reflect on what the principles of the lesson are, where they’re already utilizing those ideas, and where they could implement more.

Avoid key phrases like “compare and contrast”

Trigger phrases can immediately drop the level of discussion. Compare and contrast is especially egregious because people – teachers and students – fall back to a two-circle Venn diagram to complete the task without analyzing the problem. Action verbs are important…we do want people to compare and contrast, but we avoid the trigger attached to the status quo.

Encourage big thinking

When you’ve never had training on changing practice, you don’t know how to think big. Or, you don’t feel empowered to take the risks. Our workshops are often the first time a teacher has been encouraged to express agency and implement the big ideas. We regularly get emails weeks after a workshop where a teacher has taken something they’d learned and implemented it successfully. Excitement is palpable and it pushes them to continue to try new things.

Repurpose existing tools for new uses

“Hacking” education is all the rage right now, but the term comes with baggage. I don’t want teachers to feel like they need to be “hip” or a “rockstar” to change practice. We ask them to repurpose something – a tool they use regularly – to accomplish a new task. danah boyd talks about using Wikipedia article discussions to teach lessons about history, culture, and context in her book, It’s Complicated (jump to page 190 for the example). The idea is simple in merit but difficult to implement, especially if you’re not used to thinking beyond the immediate function.

Desmos in Science

I’ve wanted to try the Desmos activity builder for a long time, so I finally did. We were finishing up the nervous system, so I grabbed a graph of an action potential and went for it. Here’s a live student link if you want to give it a try.

I set up a few slides with an image of an action potential superimposed on a graph. I then asked students to identify different regions on the graph using the activity input tools.

The really powerful moment came when I revealed their work superimposed on the question. individually, it was easy to see in the dashboard that most people had the right shape.

Superimposed, we could really dive into the differences between the sketches.

At the AP level, we focused on the scales and how it lines up with the chemical concentration in the cells. I’m also glad I had this question first because it immediately helped me target students who were struggling more than others.

From there, I used the same graph but superimposed a horizontal line and asked students to mark the rest state voltage as well as the threshold voltage. Again, the superimposed image gave students a lot to think about.

As a lesson, I’m happy with how it went. Students were able to self-assess and gain insight from seeing multiple, simultaneous responses. I’m thinking hard about how to break the content barrier and get teachers to look at it’s utility for feedback and metacognition.

As a teacher, what could I have done better? What would you have done differently? Can you help me get a true graph of the action potential (ahemplease?).

(Both screenshots are mine, names are anonymized).