Intentional and Reflective Use of Technology in the Classroom

By: Gil Gallagher, Middle School Director

How does the effective use of technology in the classroom foster student engagement and learning? Middle School Director Gil Gallagher explores this ever-changing subject.

The landscape of technology in education is overwhelmingly complex, and the need to teach remotely has amplified that complexity significantly. I am continually in awe of the flexibility and creativity of teachers—both at Field and in the wider world of education—who made massive, often existential pivots to help students continue to learn and connect under extraordinary circumstances.
Now that we are no longer driven by the intensity of a crisis, we can return to the intentional and reflective work of using different kinds of technology as tools to meet our learning goals for students. That is a key element of practice that the pandemic erased: the idea that technologies are tools with particular uses rather than just the water we swim in. Technology is much more "the water" than when I was in middle school—or graduate school—but in a Field classroom, teachers consider and intentionally select technologies to meet their aims. Those technologies range from large post-it notes and sharpies to speech-to-text extensions to audio recording software.
When considering the effective use of technology in the classroom, one of the first things that come to mind is the whiteboard. I was recently drawn to an elaborate flowchart that one of our seventh-grade English teachers created. It spanned the entire length of the board and mapped out the steps from brainstorming to final revisions of a project they were working on in class. Throughout the lesson, students—each armed with their own whiteboard marker—went to the board to add examples from their work in progress. At the end of the class, the teacher took a high-resolution photograph of the whiteboard and posted it in their online classroom. For homework, students wrote a description of their process and compared it to the idealized process they discussed in class.
Another powerful technology that comes to mind is the graphic organizer, those elegant shapers and containers of thinking. I was walking the halls the other day and came across a group of 8th graders sitting in pairs, giving each other feedback on drafts of their essays. Each student had a pen or pencil (classic tech) and a graphic organizer, designed to help them capture their peers’ main idea in their own words, keywords in their thesis statement that conveyed their “stance” on their big idea, and two or three questions that they might ask. There was also a single laptop sitting between them on which the students’ thesis statements were visible—those thesis statements were the “texts” they were considering together. The next step for the students was to take their peers’ feedback and revise their thesis as they geared up for further research and revision.

Laptops do linger behind both of these examples, and, of course, computers are powerful and valuable tools for learning. In a seventh-grade science classroom, I saw students using a virtual simulator to learn about genetics and heredity. Once again, the students were paired around one device; each student had a graphic organizer with blank data tables and space to capture their observations and conclusions. The simulator allowed the students to change different environmental factors to create particular changes in a population of rabbits—to select hair color, eye color, and tooth or leg length. Students ran simulations over and over again, to play out generation after generation of rabbits making more rabbits, eating vegetation, and being eaten by wolves—all to draw their conclusions about the impact that the environment had on how those genes were  expressed over time.
There are so many ways that collaborative digital documents allow for creating, collaborating, and interactive feedback. I’m a big fan of an extension called mote, which allows teachers (or students) to quickly record brief audio seamlessly in a comment on a shared document or within a form. When I use this tool in my classroom, I have students listen to that verbal feedback and then paraphrase it in a reply. This process allows students to hear—and return to if they want—feedback with a human voice (mine!) and to actively make it theirs.
I had a conversation last year with a colleague struggling with some of her students’ physical and emotional “pull” to their devices. Her concern was rooted in an incorrect expectation that everything she did in the classroom had to live, in some form, in the digital world. This internal expectation was clearly a holdover from the days of virtual schooling, another residue of COVID’s disruption. She expressed considerable relief when I told her that she really didn’t need to do that—and probably shouldn’t.
Schooling has certainly changed as a result of the pandemic and by technology’s increasing hold on our daily lives. This process of change is ongoing, and at Field, we approach change with purpose and intention and in service of our mission and our students. That means letting go of routines and practices that were essential when we could only see our students in a grid but which do not serve them when we sit together in circles or small working groups and teams. 
Field teachers will continue to experiment and play with all kinds of technology. It is indeed exciting (and sometimes worrisome) to see the types of technologies that are emerging—that can level the educational playing field for students with particular learning needs and can facilitate meaningful collaboration with people on the other side of the planet. We will also stick to our values as we make decisions about the tools we choose to help our students to create, connect with others, ask big questions, and reflect on their learning.  Down the road, those thoughtful choices may mean we use technologies that haven’t been conceived of yet and that have been used with purpose since I was in middle school.