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High Possibility Classrooms: Student Agency Through Technology-Enhanced Learning

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Imagine a classroom where very young students produce beautiful paper puppets that are scanned and then used to inform writing narratives. Picture a classroom where the teacher tells elementary school students on a regular basis: "Questions are more important than answers." Visualize a classroom with long bench-like seats that are set up around work tables and where there is no teacher desk -- a place where the teacher uses a process called Q U E S T and BYOD to support middle school students in understanding what topics in the curriculum are important to them. Envisage a high school classroom where eager students learn film protocols in a digital media unit alongside their visual arts teacher who is a successful Australian filmmaker.

Does this all sound a little too idealistic? Even if you've already created learning spaces like these, there is lot more that we can learn from a new study of Australian school classrooms.

Scenarios described in the opening paragraph capture some of the characteristics of technology-enhanced learning from qualitative research with four exemplary teachers -- Gabby, Gina, Nina, and Kitty -- who taught students in early years, elementary, middle years, and high school classrooms.

Theory; Public Learning; Contextual Accommodations; Life Preparation; and Creativity bubbles pointing to HPC (High Possibility Classrooms)
"Figure 1"

The doctoral study of these teachers' classrooms was conducted across a two-year period. The research wanted to find out how a particular group of "high-end early tech adopters" conceptualized their knowledge of technology integration. If we could more deeply understand how excellent teachers (meeting six rigorous criteria) use technology to enhance learning, might their example provide inspiration and fresh approaches for all K-12 teachers?

The 5 Conceptions

What emerged from the data collection and analysis was that exemplary teachers conceived their knowledge of technology integration around five conceptions: theory, creativity, public learning, life preparation, and contextual accommodations.

Within each of these five conceptions (see Figure 1) are multiple themes of teaching practices and student learning processes (see Figure 2) that align with what young people require for their education right now in schools.

Chart showing benefits and outcomes of Theory; Public Learning; Contextual Accommodations; Life Preparation; and Creativity
"Figure 2"

The pedagogical framework inspired by these practices is known as High Possibility Classrooms or HPC (Hunter, 2013; Hunter, 2014; Hunter, 2015). This is teacher knowledge for practice, in practice, and of practice. A summary of how the HPC conceptions and themes work in concert with one another is provided below. Think about whether this is what you already do, or what you could add to your teaching repertoire.

1. Theory

The four exemplary teachers consciously applied their knowledge of education theories (Bruner, Piaget, Vygotsky) when integrating technology into practice. This action related to:

  • How it drove construction of learning in the classroom
  • How it enhanced purposeful teaching approaches while also allowing planning to be more focused (the teachers planned hard to teach easy)
  • Enriching the subject matter that students were learning, and how technology-enhanced learning promoted greater opportunities for reflection
  • Shifting the students' conversations and thinking
  • Enabling "authentic" student engagement in in what they were learning (for example, filmmaking protocols when learning how to make films)

2. Creativity

This conception exposed how technology gave students many more ways to be inventive. They could:

  • Produce or make things
  • Play ("thick play" fitting with Papert’s ideas of hard fun)
  • Focus on joy and celebration in learning
  • Benefit from their teachers' differentiation of learning activities

Example: Gabby's six-year-old students created this grammar video using SMART Notebook software:

Early childhood: Grammar film made by students to teach the rule of 'bossy e' from Jane Hunter on Vimeo.

3. Public Learning

This meant that technology provided new ways for students to display learning to an audience beyond the classroom teacher. For example:

  • Technology helped to scaffold students' performance, making it easier for them to demonstrate or share their work with others.
  • Technology enhanced students' learning outcomes -- they liked being in these classrooms, and parents wanted their children to be in classrooms where they did well in all school assessments.

4. Life Preparation

Through this conception, technology in learning gave students:

  • Ways to understand the world beyond school
  • A voice
  • A sense of ownership over their work as they thought about future career possibilities
  • The means to bridge the worlds of school and life outside

Example: Gina's math students created a Mythbusters-style video to investigate the correlation between long-jumping ability and the jumpers' heights:

Mythbusters: Making films in the Mathematics classroom. from Jane Hunter on Vimeo.

5. Contextual Accommodations

The final conception in the HPC model reflects the adaptations made to maximize the effectiveness of technology for teaching and learning. The teachers wanted to:

  • Navigate both the personal aspects of their own technology use and how that played out professionally
  • Examine implications for how the school day was organized (longer blocks of learning time so that students could achieve flow with their learning)
  • Nurture a community of learners
  • Define who they were as teachers and what 21st-century teaching meant

Imagine Yourself as a Student

It wasn't always easy to teach in the way that the teachers in this study believed learning should occur, as current structures in many Australian schools focus on testing and often quite narrow assessment regimes.

Common to all four of these teachers was a deep fascination with technology. They did not use it for all learning, but most of the time over the school week. Their approaches varied, but they ended up in the same place: engaged classrooms where students are empowered and given a voice to take control of their own learning. Teachers stepped out of the way.

Recently on Twitter, I saw this comment: "Students run into these kinds of classrooms, not away from them." Would you want to be a learner in your own classroom? In a High Possibility Classroom, there is no denying that teachers and students would say, "Most definitely."


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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

This is fascinating. I have been experimenting for years with a number of different ways that technology can improve my middle school students' learning, but I'm not familiar with these 5 conceptions. I think moving my students' writing to blogs has brought about the most significant improvements, as it gave my students a much bigger (and more meaningful) audience, which led to interactions back and forth in response to their writing, plus it taught them to participate in online spaces. They even chose to go back to their blogs outside of school and continue their conversations, which is kind of like "Students run into these kinds of classrooms, not away from them."

Jane Louise's picture

Thank you for this observation Laura - blogs still remain powerful ways to give students a voice - they also provide a forum for students who you don't necessarily 'hear' from in class. The framework is new and drawn from evidence in exemplary teachers' classrooms.

A.Lakhani's picture

Hey Jane, thank you for the wonderful insights on meaningful technology integration. :)
I would also appreciate your help with a problem that I am facing with technology integration. In our school, we have (6) Android Intel tablets in each kindergarten classroom for students to work on technology integrated tasks. However, planning tasks which lead to enhanced learning with the tablets is getting challenging, as its hard to find free apps which would lead to collaboration and communication and be related to the content we are focusing on. If we opt for interactive websites, there are many options but the students rarely work like working on them; probably because of the small interface or the touch. Furthermore, children generally work independently on such tasks. How can I overcome/minimize these problems and promote creativity and collaboration (peer work) with tablets?

Dr Jane Hunter's picture
Dr Jane Hunter
Senior Lecturer conducting postdoctoral research in STEM education

Hello A.Lakani - in Kindergarten you are trying to build the way students interact with mobile devices and with each other - I think the use of apps is fine but they are not the full story of how we use technology to enhance learning in classrooms. A project I did with 8 kindergarten teachers and their students in 2015 involved students working in pairs in a Social Studies and STEM context to take photos and then use the photos in an creative app like Chatterpix for example to demonstrate what they learned. If each Kindergarten class has 6 Intel tablets at your school I would suggest this becomes a group and students rotate through other learning stations (these might be non-tech, books, images, artefacts and so on) set up to support students achieving the learning outcomes. That way everyone has a turn of the Intel tablet/s and they just become another way to learn rather the sole focus. Remember at this age students are just starting to share ... and it is our job to scaffold them to collaborate and be successful. This project is coming out in paper soon - check my website for details in April. You may like to read about another project I did last year with Kindergarten and tech - access it here - it has some good ideas https://medium.com/@janehunter01/high-possibility-classrooms-in-kindergarten-is-it-really-the-hardest-year-to-teach-in-school-a85efda9a66d#.dvf0fs2nt
Thank you for your interest.

A.Lakhani's picture

Thank you Jane. Yes you are right, we do have station teaching in our school. I was also conversing with my colleagues from school about the use of tablets in our classrooms, and we shared a lot of ideas about using various apps. I think the key is to explore further and find more apps.
I would love to read about the project and learning more from your experience :)

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