TEQ #13: Teaching Small for Big Results – Tom Krawczewicz

“Inch by inch, life’s a cinch. Yard by yard it’s really hard.” – Morgan Wootten

If you spend any time on social media or the expo floor at an education conference, you will come in contact with people who want to convince teachers that they have THE Gamechanger that will alter education forever. In order to do so, though, teachers must change their entire practice or personality, or students need to use a particular tool (“they will be so engaged that learning will be fun and easy”), or both. Teachers have been hearing the hype for several decades (or more). While the changes are real, the effects may be a little overblown.

For me, the foundation of education has not changed. I want my students to learn the content or ideas I am presenting. Thinking, reflecting, and creating with that content then follows. Continually, more tools become available to help teachers and students to that aim but that does not mean that there is a need to completely redefine education. It’s a matter of refining aspects of our trade given the advances in research and technology, which in turn will be beneficial to teachers and students.

Game changers do not need to be major, all-encompassing actions. Actually, game-changers can only happen after several smaller actions have occurred. You can’t hit a grand slam unless three other players have found a way to get on base. James Lang, in his excellent book ​Small Teaching​, argues that small changes in what teachers and students do can lead to significant learning. Some of the concepts he focuses on are retrieving, connecting, interleaving, practice, and explaining. None of these are new to education but research has continued to show their effectiveness.

As I read the book I asked myself: How am I doing this in the classroom? How are my students doing it in and out of the classroom? If we weren’t doing it, then I wanted to figure out how we could. At the same time, I wondered which technology tools I could or even should use for any of the practices. Knowing my students, the practices I wanted them to do, and the available tools, in that order, led me to incorporate small changes to what I was already doing. Instead of major overhauls, I decided to incorporate some “small teching.”

The first step was to use technology for something that we already did every day without technology – a quiz. Admittedly, this was “just” low-level substitution use of technology according to some social media gurus and is, therefore, according to them, not worth it. And yet, substitution has always been part of the technology integration process in all fields. The first time I used a calculator or spreadsheet, it was substitution. It was only later that I started creating graphs in spreadsheets and secret upside down messages on the calculator. Substitution allows us to do things faster and more efficiently, freeing up time to do more of the things we couldn’t do otherwise. After all, what teacher doesn’t want or need more time? In this way, using technology can be a selfish act from the teacher’s standpoint, but that is acceptable as it can lead to other benefits.

For my literature courses, students are asked to read some of the text for homework (don’t @me!) and they take a quiz at the beginning of the next class. The quizzes contain plot-based questions to show they’re prepared to participate in the day’s discussion. A couple of years ago, I decided to go digital with the quizzes and let the computer grade the hundreds of questions each day. In this case, substitution saved me at least an hour of grading each night plus I also knew immediately who was and was not ready to participate in the class.

I’ll readily admit that the benefit to me (time saved) was probably more than for the students (immediate feedback on how they did on the quiz). I managed to overcome the guilt I felt about that because that extra time and energy allowed me more time to read. This led me to books such as Lang’s and others. I started to wonder if students could also do some of these things in class. I even, for an oh so brief millisecond, had the thought that I could use this newly acquired free time to grade students’ retrieval practice questions. After I finished somewhat nervously chuckling to myself (I need something, anything but more grading!), I decided to try to fold retrieval practice into what students were already doing.

Now, for each quiz, students answer a couple of key questions from the previous class. These are no-stakes questions (they aren’t graded) and part of the quiz they are taking that day. Immediately, I know who understands the key takeaways from the previous class and who needs more help. The students get daily retrieval practice and now the benefit swings in their favor. Because I have the questions “packaged” by lesson, I can arrange it so students can answer them three days, one week, or one month later, giving them spaced practice and interleaving. Socrative, Quizizz, and Google Forms are my tools of choice for them to use. This coming year, I plan to have students do more explaining and will incorporate either Flipgrid, Google Docs/Forms, or Recap to make this possible.

As educators, it’s important to understand pedagogy, our students, and the types of available tech tools. For me, research-driven practices plus small teching equals learning results for students. That’s a win-win equation and one that a variety of tools can be used to solve.

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Tom Krawczewicz has been a teacher of English and Computer Science at DeMatha Catholic High School in Maryland since 1991 and currently serves as the Director of Academic Resources. During his time at DeMatha, he has taught all grade levels of English and computer courses from survey to AP Computer Science. He has a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Maryland and an M.S. in Education Media Design and Technology from Full Sail University. He was named the Fr. James Day Teacher of the Year at DeMatha in 1996 and the Washington Metro Area Private School Teacher of the Year by the Washington Post in 2011. He is also the head coach of DeMatha’s Varsity Swim Team. He can be found on Twitter at @tkraz and email: tkraz@dematha.org

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