Carissa, a fourth-grader at P.S. 101, uses Google Docs on her classroom iPad to discuss themes in the class’s latest book with her group.

Blended Learning

How compatible are Common Core and technology?

NEW YORK — Technology is in every room at P.S. 101 in Brooklyn — it’s even in the hallways. Scan the QR code with your phone outside of the fourth-grade classroom of co-teachers Vanessa Desiano and Jamie Coccia and a video will pop up of a student giving a history presentation on early explorers. Step inside, and fourth-grade students are working together to discover the themes of chapter 13 in their latest book, The Birchbark House, and typing what they find on iPads.

Carissa, a fourth-grader sporting a jean jacket with a fur collar, types rapidly with two fingers into a shared Google Doc. She and her tablemates each have a role to play. “I’m the summarizer,” she said, her eyes not leaving the iPad. “I’m typing a summary into the Google Doc and then my group can write too and ask questions.”

Minutes later, Coccia turns on the Smart Board, a kind of computerized projector, at the front of the room. Answers from all of the groups are displayed. One group has chosen a picture from the movie “Frozen,” with “let it go” in all caps across the top — they explain to the class that it represents the theme of moving on after experiencing a problem.

The lesson is focused on a fourth-grade Common Core standard of locating and understanding themes, but the students are simultaneously working on separate Common Core speaking and listening standards that require them to carry out assigned roles in discussions and ask questions specific to a text.

“People have this fear that if you put technology into a classroom, kids will just be staring at computers,” said Principal Gregg Korrol. “But this class is using technology to engage each other directly in learning.”

In many American classrooms, the effort to teach the new Common Core standards has become intertwined with a growing movement to add more technology into daily lessons. New online standardized tests matched to the Common Core that will roll out in roughly 30 states this spring have only added to the urgency many school leaders feel to purchase more computers, tablets and software to prepare their students for the digital age. At the same time, the Common Core has spawned a growing marketplace of technology products that promise to get students ready for the new, tougher standards, including online libraries of reading materials linked to the standards, software programs to help struggling students catch up and Common Core educational games.

But are Common Core and technology really compatible? Often, educators and experts say, technology can help students become more engaged in the lesson, but sometimes it just gets in the way — especially when learning is best accomplished through kinesthetic experiences, which require being physically engaged in problem solving. The key to making the standards and tech work together, they say, is using technology to encourage critical thinking and classroom engagement — not replace them.

The Common Core, which has been at least partially launched in 43 states and seeks to establish consistent benchmarks across the country, is limited to English language arts and mathematics. But within those subjects, the standards have an intense focus on technology and digital literacy. While some standards explicitly mention technology — including requirements that students be able to handle computer troubleshooting, new media presentations and online research — many schools, like P.S. 101, find that technology can be useful to teach standards that do not require it.

Related: What it actually takes for schools to ‘go digital’

“Every instance when technology could be used is not listed in the standards,” said Carrie Heath Phillips, program director for Common Core State Standards at the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the groups that sponsored the creation of the standards. “Teachers will make appropriate judgments based on the lessons they’re teaching of when technology will be useful to students.”

Gregg Korrol, principal of P.S. 101, scans a QR code on a bulletin board and pulls up a video of a fourth-grade class presentation on early sea exploration.

Gregg Korrol, principal of P.S. 101, scans a QR code on a bulletin board and pulls up a video of a fourth-grade class presentation on early sea exploration.

Andrew Miller, an educational consultant who trains teachers on technology use with Common Core standards, said teachers often view technology integration as just “doing another thing.” But he believes that digital tools can be used to replace common classroom practices instead of just adding on. If students are going to be able to meet these challenging standards, he said, classrooms should immediately begin using technology.

First, however, teachers have to understand when technology will push a lesson further, and when it’s not relevant.

“They have to say, ‘I want students to know and be able to do these specific things,’ and ask, ‘How will technology help me do that?’” he said. “Sometimes the answer is ‘I don’t really see a connection, so I’m not going to use it.’ But often the answer is, ‘I can really see an interesting purpose for this, so I’ll push forward.’”

Technology is probably most applicable to the speaking and listening standards within Common Core, he added.

“They really call into question what it means to speak and listen in a digital age,” he said. “Students need to respond to each other and make presentations, but with technology we can do it in more creative ways.”

Instead of giving a speech in front of the class, students can present videos, public service announcements or even podcasts. And, much like in Desiano’s and Coccia’s classroom, students can have discussions with each other using digital communication tools. This allows all students to participate at once without the classroom becoming chaotic; they can even continue the discussion as part of their homework after school ends.

Jaclyn Karabinas, the owner of educational consulting firm ExpandED and an adjunct professor at Southern New Hampshire University’s School of Education, said technology will work across all sections of the Common Core so long as teachers use it to “redefine” classroom experiences — to create lessons you “absolutely could not have had” without technology.

Related: Are iPads or Chromebooks better for schools?

If students are simply reading online or typing up an essay, technology is not redefining the lesson. But, she said, if students can use technology to respond to critical comments on their digital work or do research to push their thinking forward — both requirements of Common Core — technology has added value.

“If you are studying global cultures, students can find the location on Google Earth and look at pictures. That’s the kind of thing you couldn’t really do at that level without technology,” she said. “But, when you are trying to understand the culture of a country with artwork, food and storytelling, that’s where you put the devices away. Sometimes you just want students to connect completely as humans.”

Korrol, the principal of P.S. 101, has a master’s degree in instructional technology. He also encourages teachers to put the screens away when it’s not appropriate. For example, he believes there is no substitute for writing with a pen and paper.

“When you are writing, your body is integrated into the learning in a way it’s not when you are typing,” he said, noting that math lessons that involve physical counting of objects to understand concepts in the real world also aren’t well suited to technology.

Korrol said technology can be useful in offering varying levels of rigor for students in the same classroom who are learning at different rates. In classrooms with laptops or iPads, students can be working on completely different assignments while appearing to work on the same thing — something he said is crucially important for student development and confidence. He said this “levels the playing field” for special education students.

Another new strategy for teachers, Korrol said, is, when testing, to use technologies that immediately display results to the teacher. If teachers instantly know what students understood from the lesson, they can then decide whether to re-teach the material or move on to something more advanced.

Related: Shift to online testing drives California schools to close tech gap

In any given classroom in P.S. 101, teachers may be using different technologies to teach the same material. Korrol said this is because he allows teachers to choose what digital products work best for them and encourages them to take ownership of their own lessons and be confident in their methods.

Karabinas said that allowing teachers to discover their preferred tools is crucial, and that she has seen many schools fail with technology because they didn’t allow teachers this freedom.

Carissa, a fourth-grader at P.S. 101, uses Google Docs on her classroom iPad to discuss themes in the class’s latest book with her group.

Carissa, a fourth-grader at P.S. 101, uses Google Docs on her classroom iPad to discuss themes in the class’s latest book with her group.

“It has to start with the teachers — the devices need to go in the teachers’ hands,” she said, noting that she had an iPad for two years before she could “wrap her brain around how to use it in the classroom.”

“It’s an art, so if you haven’t developed your own approach it’s almost impossible to teach,” she said.

Sixty-two miles north of P.S. 101, educators in Lakeland Central School District in Westchester County have learned the same lesson.

Linda Brandon, the director of instructional technology for the district, said technology use is a “mixed bag” in the district’s schools. Teachers who are comfortable with technology use it constantly, and other teachers only use it when it is necessary. At a minimum, students in the district are publishing more of their work online through digital media tools — something the Common Core requires across grade levels as part of its focus on new media literacy.

“Even as early as kindergarten, we are expecting students to publish information online. This has become our main focus,” she said, explaining that publishing online encourages students to take pride in their work because others will be reading it. This type of motivation even works in a math class.

“Last week I was working with a fourth-grade math teacher whose students were writing word problems,” she said. “They would write their problems, log in, post them, and then read and solve their classmates’ problems and comment on them.”

William McCallum, a mathematics professor at the University of Arizona who helped write the math standards, said they are largely “agnostic” about specific types of technology, and that teachers should decide for themselves what technology works best for their classrooms. Even standards that specifically ask students to “use tools strategically” do not dictate the specific tools teachers should select.

“They describe what students should understand and be able to do at the end of each grade, but they don’t describe how you get there,” he said. “How you get there is described by curriculum, and there are many curricula out there, some demanding a lot of classroom technology and some not demanding much at all.”

McCallum said teachers should be careful about selecting which technology to use, because some programs can appear to be helpful but may be “hiding the math.”

“As long as the technology is serving the mathematics and not the other way around, then it’s fine. But it’s actually hard to tell,” he said. “You can look at one computer game and tell that someone has thought through the math and added a situation that makes the math come out, but you can look at another game and it’s like the creator said, ‘Here’s a fun game. Let me see if I can add math to it.’”

He recommends that teachers use the technology themselves and then ask, ‘Is this something I could just as easily be doing another way, or is there something special about this tool that is helping me teach the mathematics?’” He offered the example of geometry software that often allows students to manipulate shapes in ways they wouldn’t easily be able to do on paper.

Related: Who was behind the Common Core math standards, and will they survive?

Given that the Common Core’s end-of-year tests are quickly approaching, this level of technology assessment and integration can be overwhelming — especially for schools that were not implementing digital technology before.

“Now that the Common Core is here, everyone is kind of floundering for professional development for that,” said Miller, whose services as an educational consultant have been in high demand lately. The best strategy is for schools to find teachers who are already comfortable with technology and offer them additional training in how it can relate to Common Core standards. Then those teachers can train the rest of the school, saving money and time.

This is the approach that the New York City school system is taking, said Lisa Nielsen, the ‎director of digital engagement and professional development for the NYC Department of Education.

“Teachers love learning from other teachers — the people who are currently in the classroom doing this work with real stories from real students,” she said. Teachers that Nielsen trains not only go on to train teachers in their own schools, but also do citywide training. She said the city is also encouraging teachers to go digital themselves, and join online learning communities to further their own training on technology integration. “Technology is working in the classroom, but it’s also working to teach teachers,” Nielsen said.

This is what is making technology integration so effective at P.S. 101, said Korrol. He started with a single teacher who was passionate about technology, removed her from the classroom and sent her for intensive training in technology integration. Her full-time job now is to coordinate technology use across the school and help teachers figure out how best to use technology in their lessons. This level of support, he said, is what makes technology ubiquitous across grade levels.

Just down the hall from where Carissa was typing into a Google Doc, Annie Lin’s fifth-grade classroom has their laptops open. Each student has chosen one of the seven natural wonders of the world and is doing research so they can write a descriptive introduction about it using sensory details they discover on the Internet.

At the back of the classroom, a student named Evan types “How long is the Great Barrier Reef?” into Google. He’s finished with his work, so he is helping his partner fact-check. He clicks into a bubble on his screen with his partner’s name on it. “She should add this because it will help me understand how big it is. I’ll be able to see it better,” he said, beginning to type out his note to her.

Korrol stands at the front of the room, observing the students’ work. “See,” he said. “There is more participation here than in a traditional classroom. Even when they are finished with their own work, they are still thinking.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about technology in the classroom.

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