So even though I had come back from the edge, and I had turned myself into the teacher who had found his passion for not only art of teaching, but also for the subjects I had to teach. And I had designed some amazing lessons using the secrets from the previous blog posts.
But the truth was… it was not working as well as I had hoped.
Something was off.
So I did what any great teacher does and I went to the source and surveyed my students about my tech class.
I was glad to find out that they loved the tech projects we did, and they even liked my teaching style, but what they didn’t like was my speed of delivery.
It turns out that I had only a few “Goldilocks” students in each class. Goldilocks students are those students that your lesson was built for. Here is what a normal breakdown of my class would be (according to my students). Of 28 students, 12 would be lost because I was going too fast, 12 would be bored because I was going too slow, and the remaining 4 would be with me. The Goldilocks kids are the ones paying attention and answering questions. The other 24 students were messing about because they were either lost or bored, and at any rate they were not with me, and when a student is not on-task and engaged, then they are disengaged and messing about.
So what do you do with 24 of your 28 students who are not with you even though you have an amazing lesson?
I had great lessons, but what I needed now was good pedagogy.
For the past few years there has been rumblings in the edtech world about the "Gamification of Education." When I first heard this term I panicked thinking that people wanted to turn my classroom into a video game, I soon found out that this was not the case. Which was a good thing, because I am not a video game player and the thought of my classroom as a video game made my skin crawl. My research into gamification took me in many different directions, but what really intrigued me was the use of badges to show students' competencies. Badges are the reward system used by many video games to show the progress of players to complete certain tasks.
As part of my research I even started to play a few video games, the first one I tried was Cut the Rope. I was impressed with how the game taught me as I progressed through the levels – just in time learning. The game only taught me what I needed to know for the next task I was to accomplish and over time my skills built one upon another until I became quite good at the game. Passing off levels without thinking twice, I would just use the skills taught in the previous levels as I acquired a new one. I was in a cycle of learn the skill/use the skill and I was becoming a Cut the Rope champ.
It was during my Cut the Rope days that I couldn't help but think back on how we sometimes get this wrong in education; we force Spanish language students to learn years of conjugating verbs and they still can't speak the language. Music lessons are similar – we get students bogged down in music theory instead of just teaching them how to "rock!" So many students give up before they get better. If we reverse that and teach them just what they need to know to get to the next level the conjugated verbs will still happen, but later on as they need each verb.
So I liked the idea of badges, but groups like the Open Badges Project focus on digital badges and here I am teaching young elementary students, they don't even have social media pages, so how were they going to show off these digital badges? The showing off of your badges is important to the success of gamification. So I started to look for physical, real-world, badges for my students. I looked at lanyards and tokens (like at summer camp) and "Live-Strong" type bracelets.
But it wasn't until I stumbled across little one-inch buttons that it hit me.
You see, each elementary student has a backpack, the perfect place to put badges, or buttons as I discovered, so that they can show the world that they have earned something for their tech skills. Another unseen bonus that I discovered from the badges going on backpacks was that the student's backpacks hang at the back of the classroom, which now act as a reminder to their teachers that they have tech skills. If a teacher needed a student to take photos during an upcoming field trip to the museum, she just needs to scan the backpacks and find a student who has earned their Digital Photography badge.
I based my badges on competency and not seat time. If you already had the skill, or you were a fast learner, you could breeze through earning a badge. But if, however, you needed extra time, then you could go as slow as you needed to. You see, the entire badge program was “flipped” meaning I recorded little videos to show students each step that they needed in order to have the skills they needed to earn a badge. The badges are pass/fail, just like a video game. No complicated rubrics, just a single checklist. Cut the Rope didn’t use a rubric with four levels for each step, you either passed the level or you started again. With my badge you either make a good podcast, or you do it again. Simple is better.
I made the whole tech badges system centered on the idea that students can use their technology to improve their world — all projects fall under the essential question of, “How can we use technology to make our world better?” But to be truthful, the theme of the badges could be anything. If I were a science teacher, I could make all of the tech badges centered on science concepts.
This whole process of getting kids to use technology to improve their world progresses towards the culminating event of the Kids Can Make A Difference Festival, and the vehicles to get them there are the social media channels of, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, blogs, etc. By allowing students to publish the results of their work on the school’s social media as they prepare for the annual festival that is held near the end of each school year, both the web and the festival provide the much needed authentic audience that the students are craving. When you tell a student that if their video is good enough, it will be published on the school's YouTube channel, they get excited.
I designed my badges for students in grades 3 through 5. Each year the students focus on a theme, which is an international charity. For the purpose of this book, I will be using the charity of Kiva.org. I like this charity because over years your account grows as you micro-lend out to people who need a helping hand to make their lives better. I really enjoy the diversity of the projects featured by this charity. One of my students could be focused on farming in Nicaragua while another might be helping a group in the Congo buy flour and charcoal for a family to resell to send their children to school.
Parts of the tech badges system are intended to be repeated each year, and since Kiva.org has so many aspects to what it does, students are not bored with having to repeat certain badges.
This past summer at a technology conference, I attended a session on, of all things, edtech badges. I found it to be very interesting and in-line with the work I had been doing with my own students for the past few years. Then the teacher next to me whispered to her friend in disgust, “This is ridiculous, students should learn for the love of learning and not for some silly badge.” The friend mumbled something back in agreement and then they promptly left the session. I was left sitting at my skinny little conference table in shock.
How can teachers be so naïve? Do we really think this generation of students want to learn for the sheer joy of learning? Who are they trying to kid? Research shows that this new crop of students is mainly motivated by three things; choice, effort and persistence. All three of which are part of a solid badge program, the joy of learning is not so much (although that does come later).
Choice: when I showed my students how they choose their final products for each badge they cheered. They loved the idea of being able to choose how they demonstrate their learning. With just one badge like Filmmaking, I will see a variety of films, instead of just a bunch of cookie-cutter or fill-in-the-blank type projects.
Effort: Students want to know that their effort will be recognized. This is something that badges do really well. Every badge has an element of “sharing” so they get a chance to show the world what they have done as well as having a tangible badge they proudly wear on their backpack.
Persistence: Students truly, deep down inside of themselves, do not want badges to be easy to earn. They want them to require some persistence – this is what gets the respect of their peers. One of the hardest badges to earn at our school is the coveted Filmmaking badge, the reason it is so hard to get is because we only make a few movies each year.
So, to my teachers who sat next to me at that convention, I hope that your little “Badges? We don't need any stinkin' badges!” world that you live in is working for you, but for the rest of us, badges could just be the thing to get our students the tech skills that they so desperately need.
I must admit that I was worried at the beginning of my new badges program about using extrinsic motivation to motivate the students to learn. Would the students just do the program to get the badge and in the end not really be caring about anything more? Also, what about the student who likes to take things slow, would he be teased because he only has two badges while his classmates have 8?
It turns out that my fears were false. The truth was that my students soon forgot about the actual badge and instead focused on the cool things that they were learning to do on their iPad. Sure, they loved getting the badges, but more importantly, they connected to the cause and charity that my badges program supported.
I remember one of the lead singers from the first iPad band talking to me about how happy she was that her voice was going to help get books for students that didn’t have any. She felt like she could do her part to make her world a better place. I know it sounds corny, but she had done so much research on the problem of illiteracy in the world that she told everyone one she could talk to that they should buy a ticket to see her perform and help buy some books for kids in Nicaragua to learn to read. Just before her mom fixed her hair and put on a little makeup she said to me, “Mr. Flick I never thought I would ever be able to sing in front of people and I never thought that I could make a difference, but tonight, both things are going to happen.” After her song, when the crowd was in disbelief of her amazing performance, and she still had the mic in her hand, she told them to go over and fill the donation jar.
The motivation of getting a badge got her to try the digital music badge, but soon she was doing it for so much more.
While it is true that some students earn a badge for something that just wasn’t their cup of tea, many are like the girl I just mentioned. They find talents and passions they never knew they had as they work towards a better world.
Since my system is meant for students in grades 3 to 5, these students will be in school, college and university for the next 6, 10 or even 15 years. And then when they are done schooling, they need to find jobs, start a family, etc., so they probably won’t have any time for super-hero, world-changing projects — so maybe when they retire 50 plus years from now they can start making their world better?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think our world can wait that long.
If you were to ask 1000 teachers what they thought the purpose of education is, you would undoubtedly get a lot of different answers. The reality is that there is not one singular purpose to education. Instead, there are many, and the purpose I want to focus on with my technology projects is to give students opportunities to find their passions in order to become productive members of society.
If you really think about it, isn’t this what all teachers want?
If I am a math teacher, don’t I want to inspire my students in such a way that there will be a few students that find out that math is the subject they are truly passionate about? Students that had no idea that they could be a math whiz, but now with my help they have found a spark that will hopefully last a lifetime. This is how great teachers make great scientists, writers, poets, etc.
We want to give our students tastes of different subjects and materials and hope that they find the one that “fits” them. A concept that Ken Robinson compares to dormant seeds in Death Valley that are, “simply waiting for the conditions of growth.” The Element (Penguin Group 2009). Conditions that we as teachers have control of. We need to awaken our students with a big watering can of potential.
After a few years of running my new and challenging tech curriculum and tech-clubs I had a student named Austin who signed up to be in my newly formed morning news podcasting club, and as standard procedure I asked why he wanted to be part of the morning news team on the application. His answer was that he wanted to get over his “shyness problem.”
As things developed with the morning news podcast, this shy 5th grade student ended up expanding my mind as to what I thought young students were capable of- just like Dr. Tyson promised me they would. In fact, he inspired me to write this book.
Austin had been trained on how to use our little elementary school’s news podcasting studio and was really getting the hang of being a newscaster. His shyness seemed to be disappearing with every chance he got to be behind the mic.
Then one Wednesday it happened. It was a cold December morning in 2009 and Austin had turned up at his usual time to do the morning news. His 4th grade sound tech had cued up all the sound effects, checked the mics and was now ready for the show to start at precisely 8:05 AM. Meanwhile, Austin had prepared the normal script, complete with the lunch recess weather forecast, the hot lunch menu, birthdays, etc.
At 8:05 AM the sound tech counted down, 5... 4... and then silently turned up the mics as her finger signaled for him to start.
What came out of this 5th graders mouth was amazing. He was off script and totally ad-libbing his show- sure, he was still covering the news, birthdays, etc., but he was doing it his way. As I watched his sound tech scramble to keep up, a smile grew across my face as I realized he got it; he had found something that he was really good at, and he knew it.
The show ended, he hung up his headphones and walked out of the studio to be the new shining star of our elementary school. All I could do was smile as he walked off to his first-period class.
Austin was a seed who found the right conditions to grow and flourish.
It was then when I found out that the most rewarding part of teaching is when you see a child find a passion for something that they never knew they had. This is what great tech projects can do for our students. That is why I designed my tech badges program for my elementary school.
I still vividly remember the day a few years ago when I came home and announced to my wife that, “I quit!”
I was an elementary technology teacher, and I was done with teaching.
Maybe it was because my wife was a middle school principal at the time and had dealt with teacher meltdowns before, or maybe it was because my wife was my wife and knew my limitations -- anyway she just looked up and said, “Okay.”
It wasn't just one particular thing that set me off; it was the culmination of many things that caused me to become disenchanted with teaching. I remember thinking to myself in many different teaching situations that this, “wasn't what I signed up for.” I was turning into another cynical teacher — one who realizes that perhaps the mountain to education reform was just too big and too steep to conquer.
My wife gave me some time to cool-down before discussing my options. She started by asking me to explain what was so wrong with my job. I thought about her question for a moment and then explained that I had thought that technology would make my classroom so much better – students should be well-behaved and lessons should be amazing because after all, I was using technology.
I was a tech teacher for crying out loud — this should be my dream job!
After many different conversations on the matter over the period of a couple of weeks, I decided not to quit my job. I decided instead to change my job.
The problem, as I soon figured out, was not the technology itself, but it was instead what we did with the technology that matters. Teachers who take their infamous worksheets that they have had since the 90's and just make a Google form out of them aren't exactly embracing the capabilities of technology. The status-quo does not get better with technology -- in fact, I would argue it gets worse. So the hard reality is that teaching does not get better with technology per-se; we as teachers must use the technology as a tool to make things better.
My second problem was that I thought technology would make better students, but it doesn't. Students who are not challenged will turn in so-so tech assignments. Students who are not challenged will be bored and cause trouble. Don't believe me? Tell your students you will now be reviewing how to make bullet points in Word — step-by-step for 60 long minutes. Watch how quickly your class falls apart. I came to realize that to our students technology can be really boring because we are not challenging them with it.
So I started to search the web for educators who were doing great things with students and technology.
I clearly remember the first time I saw an unbelievable technology project made by young students. I was searching the Internet for information about podcasting, and eventually I came across a website that had a middle school principal who had done a few podcasts. His name was Dr. Tim Tyson and at the time he was the principal of the Mabry Middle School in Marietta, GA.
My research into podcasting continued as I was lead to his school’s website (he still keeps it archived at www.MabryOnline.org). I was amazed to see how much this principal was podcasting, but that was not the unbelievable part. What happened next changed me as a teacher for the rest of my life.
While on the Mabry website, I saw a link to their 2007 film festival. I clicked the link and soon I was watching the film-work his middle school students had done. I was blown-away to say the least. I had never seen this type of quality work from college students, let alone middle schoolers.
Within days I was on the phone to Dr. Tyson asking him all sorts of questions. Starting with the biggest one I had, “Who really made those movies?” He told me in a matter-of-fact tone that his students had. I told him I didn’t believe him. He laughed and explained to me that he gets that a lot. He assured me that they had a high expectation when it came to the tech projects that the students make at his middle school. At Mabry they do not allow their students to do sloppy film work. Instead, they needed to follow a quality checklist with areas like sound, lighting, etc. He went on to explain that most teachers allow students to do poor work when it comes to tech projects because they don’t know what to look for; after all they are (insert subject area here) teachers, not filmmakers. He went on to explain that you don’t need to go to film school to know what makes a good video. He stressed that a student should not be allowed to turn in a video that looks like it was shot during an earthquake or has such poor lighting or sound that you cannot see or hear what is going on. And he did this back in 2007!
It was like he flipped a switch inside of me. I had no idea that young students were capable of such great work. Here I was an elementary tech teacher and now I knew what I wanted my students to do. I wanted them to make such incredible technology projects that people would be calling me someday asking who really made them. I wanted people to say, “There is no way a third grader took that great photo.” Or ask, “How many grownups helped make that movie about the civil war?” What I wanted were unbelievable tech projects for my elementary students. I wanted to push my students to do great work with technology, not just mediocre work. I wanted them to do projects that they could put in their digital portfolios and say with pride years later, “Yeah. I made this movie when I was in elementary school, pretty cool, huh?”
This is what I wanted, but where was I to begin?
Like many teachers, I had never studied filmmaking, graphic design or web programming. However, allowing students to do a poor tech project was like letting them write stories and allowing them to do anything they want – any way they want.
Poor grammar – sure.
Spelling errors – yup.
Bad punctuation – you bet.
Or, it is like allowing students to solve math problems any way they want – no order of operations, no learning your times tables, etc. We as teachers would never allow this to happen in our other projects even if the students worked hard at it. We would correct them and teach them the proper way. Yet, when it comes to projects that use technology, we allow bad presentations, videos, podcasts, web pages, etc. to be made by our students. All because as teachers, we have no idea what to look for and how to grade these projects.
The biggest problem is that when it comes to technology, the tables are turned, and we consider the students to be the experts and we, as the teacher, are the learners. We are intimidated by our students, after all, they know live in this world and we are only tourists. But the reality is that technology actually makes our role as teacher more important than ever and not obsolete. We, as their teachers need to step up and show our students how to use technology better. So what I needed now was a way to get students to be experts with technology, even if I myself was not an expert.
To get better technology projects, we need to demand better technology projects. No different than what we expect from their projects in reading, writing, math, science, geography, etc. We must demand the very best technology projects from our students. The employment-world they will soon be entering into will expect nothing less than this.
In a world where facts are now free, what do we do with students?
For example, the other day I was on a tour of a “high-tech” middle school and I walked into a classroom to see students filling out an online quiz on the rivers of South America. Since the students weren’t allowed to use their technology to find the answers, they had to regurgitate their answers from memory.
So here was a classroom full of students with iPads staring up into space hoping that they could recall from memory some basic geography facts.
Why on earth did these students need to memorize the names of the major rivers of South America?
Facts are free, they could find these answers in seconds using Google.
The teacher was proud that his students were using technology in his classroom, but is this really the best we can do?
For students to not just survive, but thrive in this new world, they need more than facts. Anyone can get facts. They need to be thinkers and creators.
But as teachers, most of us teach facts. So what are we to do?
It comes down to skills. We, as teachers, need to shift from teaching facts to teaching skills. This is why I changed my whole approach to teaching technology and came up with a badge program that not only motivated my students to learn new skills, but it also forced them to think and to create projects using just their iPads.
I remember after the first iPad project I heard a student talking to his partner saying that he had no idea that his iPad could make animations - I knew I was on to something big.
This is why badges are so important; we have students that think that technology is only for entertainment and teachers that think technology is only good for looking up facts. My badges allowed both groups to move beyond these basic rudimentary objectives and do so much more. I don’t want to sound sensational, but the badges allowed students to literally change their world for the better.
I will be explaining more about my badges program in upcoming posts.
- Brad Flickinger
“How can we use technology to make our world better?”
When I first started to consider an essential question for my tech badges program, I must have tried seven different ones before settling on the one above. The first one I tried was “How can I use technology to make my world better?” but I did not like how sounded so selfish — with a single student in mind. I knew from the onset of this system that I wanted students to work together and collaborate. So I soon changed the “I” to “We” and the “My” to “Our” so that students knew from the beginning that they cannot do it alone.
When my system was being peer reviewed, I had one colleague suggest that I remove the word better. He said that it suggested that our world was broken — I ignored his suggestion — because the world is broken. If fact, the world is so broken that I started this whole system based on two facts that were so obvious that I could not ignore them anymore.
Here are those two facts as I see them…
Fact A - I realized that we could not wait for this techno-generation to grow-up before they make a difference. They had to be taught at a young age how to improve their world. We need changes to start now, not 10 or 20 years from now.
Fact B - This generation is stuck in a technology rut. Most of them have settled on just using their technology for just gameplay and entertainment. They need to learn that technology is a tool that they have the ability to change the world with.
At one time, I was going to drop the word technology from the essential question, but I felt that, as a technology teacher, I should keep it. I guess if I was a math teacher, I would change the word technology to math. But that would be a different book entirely since I have no idea how to use math to make our world better. This also means that you as the reader, know that this book is about how students use technology to improve their world.
- Brad Flickinger
Brad Flickinger is the Technology Resource Facilitator for The Metropolitan School of Panama in Panama City, Panama.