Deeper Learning with Technology

Three classroom tips to prepare high school students for the future.

GUEST COLUMN | by Kevin Zahner

CREDIT SmarterSchoolsWe hear it often. Employers want college graduates with critical thinking skills, and colleges want students to have developed these skills before they arrive on campus. High schools have a big responsibility to prepare students for success in college and beyond.
Technology can help.

Teachers in Denton, Texas, are using technology to help students explore the relationship between problems and the questions they raise – a process known as inquiry-based learning. Like teachers around the country, we have found that savvy use of readily available tech tools can help improve student engagement and ensure students are prepared for the future.

As a teacher, I’ve often wished that I had more opportunities to hear from my peers about what works in their classroom.

As a teacher, I’ve often wished that I had more opportunities to hear from my peers about what works in their classroom. It’s also important for parents and employers to understand how students are learning in schools today – so that they can help build these critical thinking skills at work and at home. So here’s my three-step approach to promote deeper learning in my classroom.

1. Get students to ask questions.

School-age kids need practice thinking about their thinking. They thrive when they receive a combination of validation and suggestion to guide them toward the kinds of thoughts that help find answers and solve problems.

To do this, I create a space where all students can access and work through an essay prompt on one shared document. To save time and ensure that every student’s voice is included, I use online collaboration tools such as Google Forms and Sheets.

As they attempt to understand the essay prompt, students have to ask basic questions to figure out what information they need. Technology allows all of my students to view and edit the same document, at the same time. They learn to work together and I’ve found it strengthens the bonds within our classroom

Getting students to write their own questions allows teachers to show them the importance of asking questions to learn. It also builds their confidence to know that if their questions are not going to point them in the right direction, they can trust their professors or professional leaders for guidance.

2. Help students evaluate questions.

During class discussion, we talk about the kinds of questions we value. This helps students gain the confidence they need to distinguish between questions that are helpful and those that could be changed to become more useful. Students work together in small groups on computers to assess the value of each question.

The first step is about thinking, this second step is about evaluation. It teaches students to make decisions while understanding that those decisions could change with new information or ideas. It’s the kind of ability that colleges and employers are looking for in the people they choose. In a professional setting, people might call someone with this skill “flexible” or “creative,” “a real team player.”

3. Encourage students to prioritize research.

The importance of prioritizing is understated in many high school classrooms. Anytime I have the opportunity to let students make a decision, I try to leave the room to let it play out. This often leads to students asking things like, “How will I know if it’s the right one?” I remind them that there’s only one way to find out: test it.

Each group is tasked with rating the questions based on which ones should be the start of preliminary research. This is when students put their questions to the test. Inquiry-based learning is about building and rebuilding our understanding based on new information. It’s as critical as thinking gets.

For my students, this inquiry-based approach to learning has meant an average achievement gain of about 20 percent on essay assessments, and a 10 percent increase on the College Board Advanced Placement exam.

In my history classes, students are becoming more aware of their thought process as they try to understand the demands of a problem–better preparing them for the rigors of college. The trick is creating a learning environment where students have control of the content–and that’s where technology plays a powerful role.

While it’s too soon to make definitive conclusions about the connection between this approach and achievement gains, we know that our students are reading more critically and beginning to better develop their own ideas when making arguments and writing essays. Instead of being handed a pattern to apply to a problem, the students are the ones coming up with the pattern and making decisions about how to respond – a lifelong lesson that will serve them in college, career, and beyond.

Kevin Zahner is a high school history teacher in Denton, Texas, and a contributor to the Smarter Schools Project (smarterschoolsproject.com). He can be reached at kzahner@dentonisd.org.

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