Energizing the collaborative classroom
How tech tools can help teachers peak into the thinking and learning of even their shyest students.
By Dr. Sheryl Abshire
I am in my 41st year in education, and I’ve spent the last 19 years as a CTO, so I have seen the evolution of educational technology. When I started teaching in 1973, the exciting new technology was a cassette recorder. Since then, I’ve seen ed-tech trends come and go. Right now, a noteworthy trend around the country—that I think is a long time coming—is the increased emphasis on using technology to individualize and personalize learning.
It’s a lot of work to do that. One of the things that has been particularly helpful in our school district has been pairing students up and having them work in teams to collaborate, cooperate, innovate, and create. Managing a collaborative classroom is hard work for a teacher who has 25 to 30 students. She’s trying to monitor these groups, she’s trying to pull students out and individualize, she’s trying to get her finger on the pulse of learning so she can direct, redirect, and help students feel confident.
We were fortunate to pilot the very first Flexcat systems. We had input into the development and design of the system, which includes a microphone that a teacher wears on a lanyard and pods that let her listen to and talk to small groups around the room. What we have seen is that this system gives teachers the ability to manage an active and engaged classroom in a way that was heretofore impossible.
Teachers can monitor groups in real time, interject feedback in real time, and focus groups that need to get back on the rails. Students are keenly aware that the teacher is monitoring them, so we’ve seen an increase in focused learning in these groups. Students are much less distracted and more productive, and the work in these collaborative groups is much richer. And it’s reduced the time it takes to get and stay on task. We have found that to be a real game-changer for education in our classrooms.
Shy students shut down in a large group. They don’t have the confidence to talk in front of 30 students, but they’re much more confident in front of four or five. Using this tool, a teacher can draw out that shy student from across the room.
Teachers aren’t comfortable with a new tool or strategy unless they’ve used it. For more then 30 years, there’s been this constant nagging conversation about how technology is something that you have to add on to what you’re doing. That’s a myth. Technology doesn’t add on; it’s a tool. When I was a teacher and they gave me a blackboard, it was a tool. If an activity requires collaboration, and we have a tool that makes that collaboration more effective, you can bet that we’re going to expose our teacher to that tool.
Our technology center introduces teachers to tried and true tools. We use the Flexcat in PD as teachers develop projects, brainstorm, and reflect. This lets them see the tool in action and see how it will work in their own classroom. We do a lot of collaborative work in our PD, and teachers use the system and say, “What is that? I need that.” We then train the teachers to use the system and it becomes embedded in practice. Teachers understand how it works and how it strengthens instruction.
We now have Flexcats in some but not all of our classrooms. Our schools and teachers are working towards a full deployment because they see the benefits. Teachers are writing grants and being very creative when it comes to funding. When they get the tool, they are fired up and ready to go. The work that we do in the technology department is to make sure that when they do get started, every tool is connected to student learning…every single thing.
Collaboration and cooperative learning are not new strategies in the classroom. When I began teaching 41 years ago, we were using these techniques. There has been an ebb and flow in pedagogical approaches, but it comes down to this: Individualized learning is the strongest learning, and in cooperative groups, you get to that quicker. In a group of three, you can see personalized learning happen. And with the Flexcat, I’ve seen and heard children coach each other, teach each other, learn from each other. It’s fascinating to me to have a tool that allows teachers to peek into the thinking and learning of children, because if we can do that, we are on the road to true personalized learning.
Dr. Sheryl Abshire is the Chief Technology Officer for the Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Louisiana. She has worked as a school principal, K-5 teacher, library/media specialist, classroom teacher, assistant professor at Lamar University, and as an adjunct professor at McNeese State University & Louisiana Tech University. She is a past chair of CoSN, the present Chair of the CoSN Policy Committee, and the past President of the Louisiana Association of Computer Using Educators. She also served on the FCC Universal Services Administrative Corporation Board representing our nation’s K-12 schools and libraries.