With lawmakers’ attention focused on better test scores and year-end performance, educators who attended the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) annual conference in New Orleans March 20-22 were reminded that although the road to student achievement might end in assessment, it begins with creative minds at work in the classroom.

Many of the more than 12,000 educators and stakeholders who attended this year’s meeting applauded educator and author Margaret Wheatley when she called the current education system too focused on speed and efficiency and pleaded with colleagues not to lose sight of more traditional values in the face of change.

“We are trying to create humans that operate at the speed of machines,” Wheatley cautioned during a morning keynote address. “What we need to realize is that human beings operate at the speed of life, not the speed of light.”

The hour-long presentation championed the values of communication and creativity in the classroom, while calling into question the competitive nature of the current federal law.

As school administrators fight to keep schools from being labeled in need of improvement, Wheatley–president of the Berkana Institute and author of Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future–questioned whether a national preoccupation with assessment and Adequate Yearly Progress will evolve into a monoculture of pedagogical approaches, one that discourages ingenuity for fear that new ideas will fall short of the federal standard.

Rather than reach for the first thing that works, Wheatley suggested, educators should brainstorm about ways to create change, use their creativity to foster new ideas, and listen to those around them for guidance, support, and vision.

“For us to do our work well,” she said, “we must be in relationships with lots and lots of people. …You can’t just speed up life and expect good things to happen. [Right now,] the only place we’re getting is sick and tired, and overwhelmed.”

Getting personal

Though students might not process information at the speed of machines, educators who attended the many general sessions and roundtable discussions held throughout the weekend reaffirmed the belief that technology has its place in the classroom–if not to speed up the learning process, then to personalize it.

For instance, in an afternoon session entitled “Best Practices in Using Technology,” a few California-based educators discussed very different ways that technology can be used to spur effective, hands-on learning in the classroom–and the kind of innovation that Wheatley encouraged.

One such methodology is Project EAST (Environmental and Spatial Technology Initiative), a service-based approach to education that provides students with intensive, high-level technology training and requires them to use their newly acquired expertise to head projects and experiments that make a difference within their communities.

Through Project EAST, students are exposed to a variety of technologies depending on the scope of their project. For instance, if a class decides to build a web site for a local community organization, students might receive training in computer programming and web design. If the goal is to create a television spot for a local nonprofit organization, students might receive lessons in computer animation. Or, if the idea is to draft an electronic response system for the local fire department–as was the case in one California district–students might learn to use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and imaging devices, among other advanced tools.

Rowland Baker, western regional director of Project EAST and a project director for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, said the program has opened doors for hundreds of at-risk students who otherwise were in danger of being left behind.

As part of the program, students at the Clark Magnet High School in La Crescenta, Calif., a suburban community about 15 minutes outside of Los Angeles, used GPS and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to map portions of the Los Angeles Harbor and test its waters for lead and other contaminants. Chief among their findings was that water in the harbor contained more than five times the amount of lead and other pollutants allowed under federal regulations. The discovery made the front page of the Los Angeles Times on three separate occasions, according to Baker.

At Santa Ines Valley High School, another group of Project EAST students used GPS mapping technology to chart an ancient aqueduct system running around the Santa Ines Mission, one of the area’s historic landmarks. Project EAST students in other parts of the country have embarked on ambitious projects to save their schools money by implementing solar panel technology, research and restore environmentally protected areas around their schools and communities, design building projects, and experiment with cutting-edge virtual reality technologies, among other innovations.

The idea, according to Baker, is to provide “real-world projects” that elicit “real-life results.” For students, he said, the technology is viewed as a “seamless extension” to help them accomplish their goals.

Project EAST, which has evolved into its own nonprofit foundation to support programs in a number of schools and districts across the country (but mainly in Arkansas and California), procures funding for its projects by working with industry partners to provide the often-expensive equipment at a fraction of the cost to schools.

The typical EAST project, Baker said–including lab time, software, and training–carries a price tag of $140,000. But prices vary, and the training is intensive. In a course on computer animation, for example, students received hands-on, guided instruction from animators who worked on the Disney movie Toy Story.

A cheaper but equally effective means of spurring creativity and higher-order thinking among students by means of technology is through the use of WebQuests.

Considered the architect of the WebQuest model along with colleague Tom March, education professor Bernie Dodge of San Diego State University has put together a popular web site for teachers that includes some 1,500 WebQuest activities sorted by subject and grade level.

A WebQuest is an inquiry-oriented activity in which most or all of the information used by learners is drawn from the internet. “This is about putting teachers in charge of their own curriculum,” Dodge said. “A good WebQuest asks kids to do something amazing, then provides the resources to help them do it.”

As an example, Dodge led attendees through “The Martian Haiku Quest,” a 15-minute, internet-based lesson asking

participants to team up and write a poem about Mars and its relationship to Earth. In completing the exercise, participants were encouraged not only to share in the history of Mars, but also to think critically about the presentation of these facts and form a creative response based on their findings.

Dodge predicts WebQuests will become increasingly beneficial as 21st-century employers show an interest in recruiting talented young people who are familiar with technology and can think for themselves.

“This is where the jobs are,” he said. “This is what [employers] want.”

Exhibitor news

Elsewhere, in the conference exhibit hall, the search for new learning solutions continued.

The College Board highlighted its latest resource: the SAT Readiness Program for the New SAT, a guide for teachers, counselors, and administrators to help students prepare for this important test. The program takes into account both new and revised portions of the SAT, including the new written portion, revised mathematics sections, and critical reading items. Using the program, educators can tailor the resources to class and individual needs; create a customized preparation course; provide resources for home and independent study; and highlight the concepts and college-success skills emphasized on the new SAT, which will be given for the first time next March. Another College Board product, Real SATs Online, offers the ability to deliver a full-fledged preparation course across the internet with self-paced learning for students and a suite of useful reporting tools and metrics for educators.

Etraffic Solutions, an international provider of online content and applications for K-12 and adult learning, demonstrated its Accelerated School Administrator Program (ASAP). ASAP provides individualized professional development that prepares school administrators and teachers to be more effective leaders. The program, designed specifically for principals and teachers, contains a mix of online technology, group and individual work, and personal coaching from experienced educators.

Films for the Humanities and Sciences and the Shoah Foundation, established by renowned filmmaker Steven Spielberg in 1984, announced the two organizations would begin distributing a program intended to reduce violence and racism. “Giving Voice” intermingles interviews with a diverse group of teenagers with the testimony of Holocaust survivors and witnesses. The package consists of a 25-minute reality TV-style documentary, a 43-minute film of eyewitness Holocaust accounts from the Shoah Foundation archive, and a teacher’s guide with classroom activities that tie the two videos together. Schools can purchase a VHS copy of the film for $89.95. The DVD version is priced at $99.95.

The International Education and Resource Network (iEARN) bills itself as the largest, most experienced online K-12 network in the world. iEARN was designed to help students acquire skills in critical thinking, cross-cultural awareness, and experience working with new technologies. After joining, teachers and students are invited to enter online forums, meet other participants, join existing internet-based projects, or work with others internationally to create and facilitate their own projects.

MyLearningPlan.com, an online service that gives schools a way to manage their professional development efforts, aims to save educators time, money, and frustration by leveraging the power of the internet to meet state certification requirements and improve service to staff. Teachers can use a private identification and password to maintain records of all training activities, set up and view their individual learning-plan portfolio, participate in online-learning modules, and print completion certificates. School administrators can use the site to approve activities and print reports. All users benefit from a streamlined workflow, which automates many tasks and provides faster access to records and information, the company said.

PBS TeacherLine, a provider of online solutions for teacher professional development, is using a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to give school and district administrators fast, effective solutions to help teachers meet the “highly qualified” requirements under No Child Left Behind. TeacherLine now offers more than 80 research-based online and facilitator-led courses for teachers at every grade level. Courses in math, reading, technology integration, teaching strategies, science, and curriculum mapping all aim to address NCLB requirements for highly-qualified teachers and qualify for graduate credits at many colleges.

PLATO Learning and ASCD recently announced professional development for American educators at Nova Southeastern University’s (NSU’s) Fischler Graduate School of Education and Human Services. NSU has joined with PLATO to supply online professional development opportunities designed to fit the busy schedules of educators. Through its joint partnership with ASCD, PLATO enables educators enrolled in select ASCD online professional development courses to receive graduate-level credit with the Fischler School.

See these related links:

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Project East

The WebQuest page at San Diego State University