Content-Area Literacy Teacher Inquiry

Technology by Design: Using Technology to Foster Critical Thinking


Beginning with the end in mind, Jennifer Estabrook rethinks her 8th grade curricular design and technology use using the TPACK framework. Note that some links to media are not longer available.

Originally published on March 26, 2011

While sorting through boxes of books in the attic not too long ago, I stumbled across the Britannica Encyclopedia set purchased by my parents in 1968 by a smooth-talking door to door salesman. In the working class community I grew up in, this was somewhat of an anomaly, so our volumes were borrowed by cousins and neighborhood kids long after I had left home. As far as I can remember, this resource was used by all of us for one thing and one thing only: to painstakingly copy word for word the weekly history reports we passed in to Mr. Hebert. He always returned them the next day, and if you wrote neatly, spelled every word correctly, and didn’t miss a comma or an end mark, you’d get an “A+” and a whistle from Mr. Hebert. I got a lot of whistles, and I adored the grandfatherly Mr. Hebert, but I still don’t know much ’bout history. Today, of course, the Britannica Encyclopedia is online, and Mr. Hebert is long gone, but I fear that for many of my middle school students, the research process is much the same, albeit less painstaking thanks to Google and copy + paste.

According to its corporate home page, when Google was founded in 1998, its mission was “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Now, twelve years later, there is hardly an aspect of our digital lives that Google is not part of, but for most, Google continues to be synonymous with research and the Internet. In theory, instant access to all the world’s information should make us smarter. Paradoxically, some have begun to ask Is Google Making us Stupid? and Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind? These are fair questions to ask. Today’s students have grown up in an age when a sea of information is at their fingertips, but what good is access to the world’s information if students aren’t learning to think about it? Could it be that in our zeal to integrate the newest, coolest tools and applications, we are foregoing sound educational pedagogy that fosters critical thinking?

As a practitioner, I am mindful of the importance of critical thinking at the heart of every learning activity, but when integrating technology, I can easily lose focus, get mired in the minutia of the technology. Over the years my students have had rich opportunities with a variety of digital technologies, but many times I’ve felt that the technology dominated the lesson. I lost sight of the purpose, the intended learning outcomes, the guiding questions.

My concern with this disconnect led me to the work of Punya Mishra and Matthew Koehler who assert that good teaching requires an understanding of how technology relates to the pedagogy and content. TPACK, or Technology Pedagogy and Content Knowledge, is their framework for thinking about these three forms of knowledge and how they intersect. In other words, practitioners need to consider what is being taught (the content), and the means of teaching it (the pedagogy) before considering the digital tool or resource that is most appropriate. Hitting that sweet spot in the middle is the challenge of good instructional design.

Redesigning Curriculum for the Digital Age

I like to think of myself as a thoughtful practitioner. When designing learning activities, I refer to state and national standards, consider the needs of my students, and scaffold instruction to nudge my students toward independence and higher order thinking skills. But lately I have been troubled by my reliance on technology to keep my students engaged rather than to support learning goals. To find that sweet spot where technological knowledge, content knowledge, and pedagogical knowledge intersect, I needed to refocus on what I knew about good instructional design: Begin with the end in mind.

Our grade 8 curriculum includes the reading of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, a perspective of the Holocaust that has limitations and leaves students with many questions. Each year I spend more and more time answering their questions and providing supplemental readings in my haste to get through this unit. This year, I wanted my students to answer their own questions, do the hard work of sifting through information, have the opportunity to engage in deep inquiry that promotes critical thinking. In other words, the content would be similar, but the pedagogy needed to change. For that I turned to the Big6.

The Big6 is an information and technology literacy model that outlines a six-stage process to solve information-based problems: task definition, information seeking strategies, location and access, use of information, synthesis, and evaluation. Each of these stages provides rich opportunities for students to not only practice information seeking skills, but more importantly, to engage in higher order thinking skills. The power of this model is in how closely the skills align to standards developed both by NETS and the American Association of School Librarians for 21st century learners. Typically I have been teaching these skills in isolation, and I fear the purpose was lost on many students. To become lifelong learners, I realize students need a lot of practice solving their information problems from start to finish.

The final piece of the design puzzle was determining how to integrate technology. I wanted students to use technology at every step of the process. In addition to locating information, I wanted them to use technology to store and organize their resources and information. In addition, I wanted them to have the opportunity to create content that reflected the digital age in which they were writing: content presented in a multimodal format that combines text with images, sound, video, and hyperlinks. Since inquiry is messy business and often difficult to manage, I also needed a way of tracking the process in real time. Finally, I wanted them to use a technological platform to display their knowledge for others to view and use.

I decided that using a wiki would meet the requirements for my students’ inquiry around the Holocaust, but this would be new territory for me as well as my students. Fortunately, I’m comfortable experimenting with new technologies and learning along with my students. This was the least of my concerns. My greatest challenge would be keeping them interested and on task throughout a prolonged process and preventing them from taking shortcuts. Experience has taught me that students enjoy what I call the “hunting and gathering” of resources for inquiry, but interest quickly wanes when required to extrapolate and synthesize information.

Using Wiki for Collaborative Inquiry

Because wikis are collaborative web sites that provide tools for gathering information, creating content, editing, and sharing digital files, it is a natural platform for inquiry based learning. Using a wiki allows for a continual process of asking questions and active investigation that leads to more questions. Theoretically, there is no final product. This is what may make it unsettling for both students and teachers, but there are certainly skills that should be assessed along the way. And so with a heterogeneous group of 18 grade 8 students, we were off.

An overarching essential question we explore throughout much of the year is What are the consequences of intolerance? More specific guiding questions include: Who is Anne Frank? What is the Holocaust? How could the Holocaust happen? Once the story of Anne Frank is introduced, students raise many more questions. Their interest is sincere, and their questions are thought-provoking: Why did Hitler and the Nazis want to kill Jews and other groups of people? How could they get away with it? Why didn’t anybody try to stop them? How did they know who was Jewish? Why didn’t they all just leave? These are questions that are difficult to answer, questions that lead to further questions about the roots and consequences of racism, prejudice, stereotyping, and intolerance; about the use and abuse of power in societies and what individuals can and should do; and about the danger of looking the other way when witnessing instances of oppression or persecution.

The Holocaust Inquiry Assignment was designed to mirror the Big6 process, and learning activities were created to teach the subskills of each step. Through modeling and guided practice, students were exposed to a host of critical skills: identifying and narrowing a topic, choosing appropriate sources, accessing a data base, distinguishing between primary and secondary sources, searching the Internet, evaluating websites, notetaking, synthesizing information from multiple sources, and citing sources. For many students, it can be a laborious process.

During these early steps, our class wiki was used to brainstorm and house resources that could be shared by all, but once students were ready for Step 4, Use of Information, the wiki was used for notetaking. Since this step is the most difficult for middle school students, a lot of time was spent on instruction and practice. I needed to be sure my students were extracting the most essential information from their sources, not simply copying and pasting. To monitor this step, I required students to copy and paste the text of each source one paragraph at a time into their pages, then take bulleted notes below. By chunking this task, students were better able to manage the arduous task of notetaking.

Moving from notetaking and gathering media to the creation of a webpage requires the higher order thinking skill of synthesis, the ability to sort, organize, and present new information. In the Big6 framework, this is Step 5, the culmination of our weeks of hard work. Needless to say, students who had successfully managed the earlier steps were better equipped to design their webpages. Brandon, who’s a strong verbal/linguistic learner, navigated the process easily with his topic The Hitler Youth Movement as evidenced by some of his notes above. In his self-evaluation, he noted:

Creating the webpage was easy for me because I am technologically adept, and it was easy to form paragraphs from my notes. I learned to take things one-at-a-time and not to rush taking notes or form final drafts before I had done my rough draft.

For other students, the process is taxing, requiring more guidance and encouragement from the classroom teacher. Still, some students lost momentum and took shortcuts along the way. Kevin, who is visual and artistic, found the process of extracting information most demanding:

The most difficult was getting the information because everything I found I had to put in my own words instead of just copying, and I’m not really used to that.

Kevin willingly admitted to his propensity for copying and pasting, but with enough cajoling made some significant progress in the revision of his web page. Unfortunately, in his desire to be done, he copied and pasted his final paragraph that had to be deleted prior to submission, sacrificing part of his grade. Still, I believe a lesson had been learned.

Evaluation, the final step in the Big6 process, is one of the most important tasks for both teacher and student. In our current educational climate that values grades and test scores, it is often the step that is largely ignored. From the beginning, I wanted students to honor the process over the product, to reflect on the learning that took place each step of the way. For that I developed a questionnaire for them to reflect on both the process and their products. In, addition, I wanted students to provide feedback to one another as they do with all pieces of writing, so I created a Peer Editing Checklist tailored to this particular assignment. Finally, students were evaluated during each step of the process with the rubric I designed to mirror the Big6 framework.

There is much to think about now that we have paused in our inquiry of the Holocaust. I use the term “paused” because nearly every day a student will make a connection back to our overarching question, What are the consequences of tolerance? For me, this is the greatest lesson of all. Inquiry is a recursive process, a continual process of questioning, discussing, and making connections, all of which nurtures critical thinking.

Reflections on Integrating Inquiry with Technology in Middle School

Whenever I’m asked what I like about teaching, I often comment on the pace and variation of the school day. I like that I see a different group of students every 45 minutes; it suits my restless temperament. A beloved colleague, whose energy level makes me look sluggish, is often heard appealing to her students to, “Let’s just bang this out.” My sentiments exactly. Who doesn’t like to get things done? But like many other educators, I am becoming more and more concerned about my students’ lack of stamina for learning, the kind of stamina required for deep reading, writing, and thinking. In this age of information overload, bits and pieces of knowledge are presented to us so quickly in tweets and headlines, we must ask ourselves if our students are truly understanding the big picture.

Guiding students through the process of inquiry is not for the faint of heart. It’s messy and time-consuming and unpredictable. Nevertheless, I fully understand that today’s students will face limited opportunities if we do not prepare them for the digital world they are growing up in and embrace 21st century learning. The Holocaust Inquiry provided both my students and me many learning opportunities, as well as rich casual discussions that took place as we worked. Those moments are impossible to quantify.

This is what I learned:

  • Using a wiki became my best management tool. For this Holocaust Inquiry, using a wiki to house and manage resources and information was a natural fit. Since everything is tracked in real time, I could check progress daily and comment on their individual pages. I could evaluate the strength of their sources, check for citations, and monitor the note-taking process. Each day I would flag individual students I needed to work with.
  • Our students may be digital natives, but they are not digital experts. In general, the two areas I realize my students need much more instruction and practice are in locating and using information. Despite many opportunities afforded them in middle school to search for and evaluate sources, they still search for information carelessly and haphazardly when using the Internet. Students also need more practice to independently extract the most relevant details from a source, i.e. take reliable and truncated notes.
  • When your back is turned, they will take shortcuts. O.K., so they’re middleschoolers. Of course some will take the low road if left unattended, but it’s our job to hold them accountable for every step of the way. This is where expert planning and classroom management comes into play. The Big6 model provides a framework that is easy to apply and adapt to any problem solving situation. Check it out.
  • Sometimes less is more. Since this was a class of mixed ability, I found it necessary in some cases to make adaptations to the assignment. For example, in the case of three students, I helped each locate one good source and altered the minimum requirements for length of text to one paragraph. Helping students of varying abilities feel successful isn’t a cop out, it’s good teaching.
  • Student choice = student engagement. It goes without saying, that when students are investigating something of interest to them, they are far more engaged. That’s not to say that the classroom is quiet and students are at their desks. On the contrary, there was a workshop atmosphere that doesn’t always happen when students are assigned work by me.
  • When using technology, students quickly become the experts. Call it foolhardy, but I’m always up for launching something new, often before I’ve thought of everything that could go wrong. Besides, experience has taught me that when it comes to technology, I’m surrounded by experts. I’m always amazed, and ever so pleased, that it’s often the most unlikely student who figures out how to do the one thing that has stumped the rest of us. One such student figured out how to embed a video on his page and helped several classmates do the same.
  • You never know where it may take you. True story. One student, a resilient and brave young lady who was out of school for several weeks, wrote, without my knowledge, to the Holocaust survivor whose book she read for her inquiry project. This dear woman has not only kept in contact with the student, but also spent a day at our school sharing with us her experience as a child during the Holocaust. It was an amazing day.
  • It’s all about the questions. An inquiry project wouldn’t be complete without returning time and again to the questions posed from the start. How are students constructing the knowledge as they read, watch videos, & share information with one another? When asked to reflect on what they learned, here is what some of them said:

Something like the Holocaust could happen again if we just stand by and do nothing.

I learned that the Jews were innocent people and many were loyal Germans who fought in World War I. They didn’t deserve to die or lose family members.

Kristallnacht was a turning point because at first the Germans placed restrictions on the Jews and took away their rights, but then things got more violent on that night. The Holocaust didn’t happen overnight. It grew and things got worse and worse for Jews.

Check out some of the other topics (PDF links no longer available):

  • The Warsaw Ghetto.pdf
  • The Nazi Party.pdf
  • The White Rose.pdf
  • Charlene Schiff .pdf

Best Practices for the Digital Age: Where’s the H.E.A.T.?

Lakeside living and an empty nest create the ideal conditions for summer reading and reflection. This summer’s Big Question: How well did I do designing and integrating digital age learning experiences, and how can I do it better?  As I learned and wrote about earlier in this resource, designing curriculum for the digital age is no easy task. It requires that teachers combine content knowledge and sound teaching practices with digital technologies that continue to evolve. For many of us, early attempts to integrate technology were all about the tool.  Now we know that when technology is used in isolation, we risk neglecting the development of higher order thinking skills and fostering the ability to read complex texts, skills that colleges and employers are telling us their students and employees lack.

Fortunately, standards and more examples of best practices are beginning to emerge. Most educators are familiar with the well-established Performance Indicators developed and revised by ISTE (NETS) as well as the framework established by The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Classroom teachers and school administrators looking to gauge the effectiveness of their instructional practices should also look to the work of LoTi, Inc., an educational consulting firm specializing in 21st century learning.  First recognized for its Levels of Teaching Innovation framework, LoTi has recently published its Digital Age Best Practices.pdf This is a highly relevant and important document highlighting six instructional practices that are aligned to the NETS and have empirically shown to improve student achievement. In addition, Dr. Christopher Moersch, executive director of LoTi, has conceptualized the essential components of a 21st Century classroom as the acronym H.E.A.T. – higher-order thinking, engaged learning, authentic connections, and technology use. The H.E.A.T. framework measures the level of integration of these four components. For the classroom teacher, this is a useful tool for planning instruction as well as assessing the impact of daily lessons on students. It is this framework that I used for assessing the H.E.A.T. in my own classroom.

One of the unanticipated advantages of using Web 2.0 literacies in the classroom is the opportunity to look back on a year’s worth of student work and reflect on their performance, the quality of assignments, and how well the methods of assessment align with learning objectives. Our class wikis and blogs provide pages and pages of student work, reflections, and discussion threads which in turn allow me to evaluate my own level of technology integration. I began this resource last spring by sharing the Big6 process used for our Holocasut Inquiry, but I experimented with other digital literacies last year as well. Our class blog was used as a platform for responding to literature, as well as for a more structured Virtual Literature Circle; my Honors English class used a wiki to co-author short stories based on the Heroic Journey; and, using the wiki, this same class followed the Big6 process to investigate topics of personal relevance and write argumentative essays. Looking back, some clear trends emerge. Referring to the H.E.A.T. Framework.pdf, this is how I measured up:

H. Higher order thinking:  Levels 4 -6:  Fostering higher-order thinking skills is my strength as a classroom teacher. After introducing new content, I routinely expect students to extend their thinking. They become familiar with process verbs that reflect level of thinking and learn how to generate questions that require critical thinking. Evidence of higher order thinking skills are present in the Holocaust Inquiry project where students were required to synthesize information among texts and create a web-page.  Students who co-authored short stories also had to employ critical thinking when applying the archetypal heroic quest pattern to an original short story. (Here’s a link to the Hero Journey Short Story.pdf assignment and a story Healing Flower.pdf by Abby and Emelia.)

E. Engaged Learning: Levels 2-4:  Engaged learning refers to the degree to which students are self-directing their own learning and collaborating with others.  This is an area I continue to struggle with both in practice and philosophically. Although I continue to plan for more collaborative inquiry each year, the reality of state and national testing and demands of our local curriculum require a considerable amount of teacher-directed instruction.  Nevertheless, I found some success with the wiki as well as our class blog.

I experimented with a Virtual Learning Circle in a class of struggling and reluctant readers with mixed results.  Students chose one of three highly engaging YA novels (Speak, The Hunger Games, and Shattering Glass) and met face-to-face to plan a timeline for reading and responding to the novel.  Since each of these novels deal in some way with the theme of power and how it is used and abused, we began our forum by discussing what power is and our need for power.  Students were to return to this theme in their own literature circles. My hope was that students would engage in rich threaded discussions about the books and construct meaning together. The reality was that they were responding primarily to me. Even after a lot of modeling and discussion about how to ask questions, some students never went beyond retelling what they had just read.  On the other hand, they were highly engaged in both the reading and responding. Take a look at “Making Connections” as well as the individual book discussions in our blog Let’s Talk Books.

Students in my Honors English class have had more experience with collaboration and self-directed learning.  They enjoy the opportunity to work with others and have the skills and motivation to make it successful.  While co-authoring their short stories on the wiki, they had rich conversations among themselves as well as with other peers who offered feedback. (see Short Story discussion.pdf)

A. Authentic Learning: Levels 3-4:  Authentic Learning refers to the opportunities students have to apply their learning to real-world situations that may extend beyond the classroom.  Although each year my students have experiences that are authentic in nature, they are certainly not routine.  I frequently help students make connections to the world beyond the classroom, but to be honest, they are often considered enrichment opportunities.  For example, after completing our Holocaust Inquiry, we invited a Holocasut speaker to visit. Students developed and posed questions that were relevant to their own topics.

Students in the Honors class engaged in inquiry projects that were of relevance in their own lives. Although not required, several communicated with experts via email to investigate their questions. For example, Kathryn, whose family is experimenting with organic farming, contacted a local organic farming association and interviewed several members.

T. Technology Use: Levels 4-6:  The level of technology use in my classroom is also a strength.  Although I am a digital immigrant, I am energized by using technology both professionally and personally.  Since having one-to-one computing in the classroom, teaching has become more exciting and easier on many levels. I like change and I like new challenges, so the rapidity with which technology is changing education suits me just fine.  We are very fortunate in Maine to have laptops for every middle school student and most high school students.  The MacBooks are fully equipped with software for students to engage in a range of new literacies that honors their own learning styles and preferences. That being said, there are many times we close the laptops and engage in face-to-face discussions, wrestle with a text with paper and pencil, and read real books.  I hope that never changes.

As suspected, with help from the H.E.A.T. rubric, I discovered that my strengths in the classroom include fostering critical thinking and integrating technology; however, I have some work to do to help prepare my students for the digital age. My primary goal for this year is to provide my students with more opportunities for authentic and collaborative writing and learning. But to make it meaningful, I realize I need to develop better strategies for keeping students on task and ensuring all students contribute equitably. To help me turn up the H.E.A.T. in my classroom, I recently added two titles to my professional bookshelf: Inquiry Circles in Action by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels and What’s the Big Idea? by Jim Burke, both by educators I have trusted for years. The best thing about teaching is the chance to try it again.