VIDEO: Turning on Technology: Using Today's Tools to Study Yesterday's
Running Time: 10 min.
I prefer to use a concept map to explain complicated processes -- such as integrating technology -- when it is important to see the overall picture but also drill down into the details. The concept map for our curriculum at Ferryway School, in Malden, Massachusetts, shows the forces that have shaped our approach. (Download the PDF; open it in Adobe Reader for clickable links.) The instruction, development, and analysis of the curriculum occurs simultaneously but at varying degrees of intensity.
Often, we hear that a curriculum should be interdisciplinary, but what exactly does that mean? For one thing, the curriculum should involve multiple subject areas. Our curriculum started as an elementary science lesson on natural resources and simple machines.
But because student-performance data on the state's standardized science exam indicated that our students did not understand these subject areas in a deep and meaningful way, the teachers decided to use a new approach: They chose to embrace a project-learning strategy to connect science and colonial history through a local historic site that dates back to the 1640s, the Saugus Iron Works.
The teachers knew that their students would likely enjoy a field trip to the Saugus Iron Works if they had the knowledge to understand its significance. (Also, it didn't hurt that the proposed curriculum scheme aligned with state standards in science, history, and English-language acquisition.) The delivery vehicle for this new approach was a custom-designed Web site called a project-based unit. (On the concept map, see the circle under "Development" that reads "Saugus Iron Works PBU.") The PBU allowed teachers to creatively weave together a set of lessons that effectively integrated the different subject areas they were covering.
Creating the Right Project
Tufts University graduate student Andy Mueller joined our curriculum-development team as an engineering intern, and his expertise resulted in a lesson on designing a waterwheel. One of the most challenging questions on the state science exam is an open-response question that requires students to solve a design problem. Having teams of students build their own waterwheels gave them the same opportunity the early colonists had at the Saugus Iron Works -- to learn to harness the power of water through trial and error.
In order to build an efficient waterwheel, students needed to understand the engineering concept of torque. Mueller's multimedia presentations used text, graphics, animation, and narration to present that concept. Students could navigate through these presentations both at school and at home.
With their understanding of torque, the students were able to build better waterwheels by considering the impact of radius and volume during the engineering-design process. Additionally, the students learned to apply some complicated mathematics in order to calculate the torque of their waterwheels. In this case, technology helped give students the knowledge to become better problem solvers and perhaps future engineers.
Curriculum development requires a dedicated team of educators who have good instructional skills. The instructional team for this curriculum started with a core group of fifth-grade teachers. They, in turn, enlisted the support of other educators. As the technology specialist, I helped translate their curriculum ideas to the Web. A Web-based curriculum enhances the collaborative nature of instruction simply because it's easier for everyone to access and work with the curriculum. For instance, when students travel to the computer lab, the computer teacher can help them perform online research and create concept maps to explain processes, such as the rock cycle.
Once the collaborative spirit was unleashed, other teachers offered their assistance. The educators shaded in gold on the concept map had a direct role in helping the core teachers develop and implement the curriculum: Our consumer-education teacher taught students how to design and sew rock-people costumes. The technology teacher taught the hands-on skills needed to construct waterwheels in the school-technology and woodworking shop. The support of these exploratory teachers significantly enhanced the students' mastery of subject content.
During classroom instruction, support staff, such as special education aides and other paraprofessionals, provided additional assistance to students with learning disabilities to ensure they could complete their tasks. Our school district uses an inclusion model that groups students with differing ability levels. Project learning requires students to work cooperatively to complete major assignments and solve problems.
The curriculum directors encouraged us to be innovative, but they also emphasized how important it was that the unit lined up with district content standards. One of the most difficult aspects in justifying project learning is that it requires extra time, which clashes with the time demands of preparing students for standardized subject exams. We've found that broadly distributing the curriculum-implementation duties over a diverse team of educators increases the probability of success in project learning.
The Passport System
A successful curriculum is one that inspires students to own their learning in such a way that their achievement is a natural by-product. One of the most important motivational tools in the Saugus Iron Works curriculum is the use of a passport system. As students complete activities, which spiral upward in difficulty, they earn passport stamps. We also require students to keep an organized portfolio of their work. Learning to physically organize their portfolios helps them organize their thoughts and ideas when completing assignments. (Fifth-grade students take pride in this visual representation of their progress.)
When the curriculum first launched, most of the work was paper based, but as the teachers acquired more technology skills, the work became digital. As you might suspect, the team has embraced concept mapping as an effective tool. Students absolutely love the opportunity to build visual representations of their learning, and doing so addresses the NETS-S call to use technology for creativity and innovation.
Another increasingly important method of capturing student achievement, especially with regard to project learning, is shooting classroom video footage. The tendency is to focus on what the teachers are teaching and their techniques, but when we videotaped classes, we saw a dynamic learning environment in which students were constantly sharing. The videos helped confirm that project learning was working, and it gave teachers the confidence to continue developing the curriculum.
But does project learning result in what some consider real student achievement -- standardized-testing results? An analysis of student performance on the state's standardized science exam has repeatedly shown that our students do better on questions that relate to the project-learning curriculum. In fact, the project's effect is strong enough to raise overall average achievement by 7 percent, despite the fact that it covers only 20 percent of the science standards.
These results inspired our team to use the same curriculum approach to teach animal adaptation and biomes in the fourth grade. If students could enter fifth grade having had an authentic project-learning experience in biomes, we reasoned, then their fifth-grade teachers could work on mastery of that content as well as teach the waterwheel project.
Successful projects require a school structure that encourages curriculum integration and innovation, with a special emphasis on ensuring that the technology is always on.
Robert Simpson is a technology specialist at the Ferryway School, in Malden, Massachusetts.
Ironclad Education: Engineering Success in Project Learning
Here are online resources relating to Ferryway School's project-learning curriculum: