3Rs…low tech

I found myself thinking about the fact that when I prepared the video on the theme of “classroom innovation” for my application for the Google Teacher Academy (as of this writing, Google has not yet notified applicants as to whether or not they have been selected), I spent almost my entire 60 seconds talking about Web 2.0 tools I use–and more importantly, my students use–in my classes. I suppose this makes sense given the focus of the teacher academies, but I began to wonder if perhaps the focus on technology caused me to fall into the same trap that so many other teachers fall into, a sort of false equation: technology + students = innovative.

Don’t get me wrong…I absolutely LOVE technology, especially the use of Web 2.0 tools to take my students’ work and perspectives out of the classroom and help them truly interact with the viewpoints and perspectives of others. I just wonder if I put too strong an emphasis on technology as a factor in innovation as opposed to technology as one of many tools to use in the innovative classroom. Furthermore, just who was being innovative in my video? The students? Myself? Or no one? When we talk about innovation in education, what’s really important?

When using Google’s “define” search parameter, the definition of “innovative” is as follows:

Adjective:
  1. (of a product, idea, etc.) Featuring new methods; advanced and original.
  2. (of a person) Introducing new ideas; original and creative in thinking: “an innovative thinker”.

Where in the definition is the use of technology? Are some teachers (and others) assuming that students using technology is automatically innovative? Are other methods and approaches that don’t use technology being relegated to “less innovative” as a result? Are our students and community members also connecting innovative with technology, perhaps at the exclusion of innovative thinking or innovative creation that is accomplished without the use of Web 2.0 tools?

What makes an approach (with or without tech) innovative? How does innovation connect to “rich, relevant and rigorous”? The definition above helps with the first question: New methods, advanced, original, creative. Of course, that makes me wonder if anything I do is truly innovative. I don’t think I do anything that’s new….I strive to apply the best methods, activities, and assessments to my instruction at all times. I keep my eyes open to ideas, resources, and strategies that may not normally be associated with world language teaching, but they are ultimately ideas, resources and strategies that others have proposed.

Perhaps the subject-specfic skills maps from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills can be of some assistance in pushing forward the conversation on innovation in the classroom. Although the use of a variety of technologies and media is reference throughout the world language 21st century skills map, a quick look at the “then and now” page, highlights the truly “supporting role” nature of technology.

Technology plays a key role, but not the only role, in the rich, relevant and rigorous 21st century classroom

Many of the characteristics listed in how languages are taught in the best classrooms “today” coincide with strategies associated with “innovative” teachers and programs: assessment for learning; authentic assessment for audiences beyond the classroom and the teacher; interdisciplinary instruction, practice and assessment; instruction that is truly crafted to achieve the desired results (“backwards design”), etc. Technology is an important support and media literacy is a critical skill our students need, but it’s clearly only a piece of the innovation puzzle.

The other day in my advanced French class, we analyzed the lyrics to a classic French song, watched a short film made using the song more than five decades later, and then students connected their own definitions of love (crafted using the song lyrics) to the chapters they were reading in a French novel–first after reading one of two chapters about the relationship of the two characters, and then after getting more information in the second chapter. Other than using a projector to show the video, there was no technology in this lesson.

Was it innovative? Perhaps. Using the definition above, it approached the song, the film based on the song and the novel (which was written before the song) in a new and hopefully creative way. The lesson was rich in content: not only French (as the academic content requiring students to use their linguistic proficiency to understand and respond to multiple authentic documents), but also in connections to literary analysis from their language arts classes and standards in the visual and performing arts. It was also relevant to students, all high school sophomores, juniors and seniors who have had and witnessed various types of relationships and definitions of “love”. Relevancy was further enhanced by the exploration of a theme across several decades, including one interpretation in 2004. And because the song, the film and the novel were all originally created by (and are all well-known among) native French speakers, students viewed, analyzed and discussed the same material native French speakers also experienced, thus giving the American students insight into cultural products and perspectives that monolingual English speakers cannot access. What about rigor? Linguistically, the lesson was quite rigorous: it demanded extensive application of the linguistic concepts across the years the students have been studying the language. It would have been even more rigorous if I had connected this particular lesson to an authentic assessment, but later the students will be completing a student-created museum with exhibits about the novel, its themes, and the author.

Another blogger talked about the curiosity box: a box in which he places random objects for students to use when analyzing a concept. Students pull an object out the box and must find a way to make and explain a connection between that object and the concept they are studying. I first learned about this approach several years ago. At the presentation I attended, it was called a synectic summary. Students love it–I use it to help them make and express connections between authentic art and literature, music and literature, or to create a richer, more meaningful analysis of current events from French-speaking cultures around the world. If innovation and creativity are inextricably linked, we must find more opportunities to push students’ thinking beyond bubbles, lines and text boxes, and into creativity generators, like the curiosity box. We must go beyond being innovative ourselves to help students see connections where they had never thought to look before so that they will become innovative thinkers and leaders. We can model innovation, but students must practice innovation. Technology may help, but it is not required.