Teacher Scholar Voices

Teaching With Tech Tools: Putting Student Thinking at the Center

Teacher Scholar Voices

Sharing of technological pedagogy often devolves into sharing of more tools–new apps, new sites, new search engines. I am guilty of this as well, and I have countless under-used usernames on obscure websites to prove it.   I don’t want to imply that these tools are not worthwhile–I’m sure they are great. But signing up for all these sites and services has not changed the way I interact with the internet.

But, what has developed my online engagement?  

  • Learning skills and tricks that apply across different platforms (like hashtagging)
  • Being pushed to use a familiar tool in a new way (setting up a WordPress blog that was not personal, but for team publishing)
  • Practicing the same skill over and over again, then seeing the fruits of this work (collaborative editing on Google docs)

As a teacher, I want my students to have these meaningful digital literacy experiences. I want students’ experiences with online tools to emphasize and stretch their own power as writers and thinkers.

My inquiry project through Mills Teacher Scholars and Oakland’s Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age initiative supported me in questioning and developing my own practice of teaching tech resources. Through working with these two professional development programs, I was supported to collect data and collaboratively analyze how my students were using technology in the research process. While the results of my inquiry (detailed here) have to do with teaching online research specifically, they also have implications for how teachers can integrate technology more broadly into their courses. Informed by the pedagogy of various disciplines, the following shifts will inform my own practice going forward.

Teach Tech Like We Teach Writing

Begin with a sheltered time for exploration and generation BEFORE refining and editing

Teachers of writing are familiar with the “writing process,” including steps like brainstorming and rough drafting, that encourage students to be ok with uncertainty, and to think broadly of bold ideas. In my class, these steps often take up to a day, and are a sacrosanct element of producing strong writing.

When we teach the writing process, we encourage students to open up their thinking at the outset–to brainstorm, to be comfortable entertaining ideas and topics that they will later refine–to begin broadly. This protected, low-stakes, exploratory time encourages original, bold, creative thinking. It keeps the elements of writing that intimidate students, like structure and grammar, at bay so that students can think generatively; before later filtering, sorting and refining those thoughts.

However, as a teacher of research, I had never before considered “brainstorming” and “drafting” as an element of researching. Just as in writing, I found that having a sheltered time for exploration, following “wrong” answers, and delaying final choice of topic helps students to think creatively.

You can read more about the process I used in my class for pushing students to explore multiple search terms and sources before deciding on a topic here, on the Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age website. What is important to emphasize is that it is not how I introduced the brainstorming step that seemed to matter, but simply that I added this step of teaching research as we teach the writing process. This exploratory space helped students to exercise voice and choice in the early stages of research, leading to profound differences in their final product.

Teach Tech Like We Teach Art

Teach metacognition and the Studio Habits of Mind

English teachers can learn from the expertise of art teachers, who have vast experience helping their students to make the most of the tools in the art room.   Technological tools are as varied, as specialized, and as versatile as an artists’ tools.

When we teach research as a process, we need to teach students a way of reflecting on the process. Luckily, our colleagues in the arts have developed the “Studio Habits of Mind” developed by Harvard’s Project Zero. Asking students to practice skills like “Stretch and Explore” or “Developing Craft” helps them see research and technology use as a creative, user-driven process that can look different for each person, as opposed to a concrete skill to master.

Teach Tech Like We Teach Science

In reporting/share outs, focus on process & experimenting

When students talk about their research or use of tech tools, focusing on sharing the process helps students be open to change. In a lab report for a science class, students can share out what they tried, what worked, what didn’t, what they inferred, and how they changed their “experiment” based on initial findings. Sharing out the process, and going public with a story about where this took them, helps students honor the uncertainty of the process itself.

At their heart, each of these shifts puts students at the center, emphasizing student thinking and cognition. As teachers we are tasked with supporting our learners in getting the most out of the tool, not in giving them more and more tools.


EDDA and LinkedIN Photo

Marguerite Sheffer teaches Humanities at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience in Oakland. She is currently pursuing a Doctoral Degree in Educational Leadership at Mills College, and has participated in Mills Teacher Scholars for two years.  Sheffer is also a Teacher Consultant with the Bay Area Writing Project. Her previous blog post series focuses on her inquiry around supporting her high school students with close reading.