By Sarah Hampton
From STEM programs to one-to-one device campaigns, we hear a lot about the importance of technology in the classroom. Like most initiatives, this is for good reason! We live in the digital age, and producing students who can responsibly and productively use the numerous technologies at their disposal is a crucial 21st century skill. Also like most initiatives, our tendency might be to view technology use as a bothersome requirement handed down by well-meaning administrators. When we approach anything with this attitude (read: the oft-dreaded professional development), we miss out on the spirit of the requirement. In this case, that means implementing technology in ways that genuinely improve student learning or enhance classroom organization and workflow. In this series of posts, I will share my favorite tech tools for streamlining my middle school classroom and promoting student learning. Let’s start with Google Drive, one of my favorite student-centered learning tools.
Technology is useful when it allows you to do something you can’t do with a whiteboard and markers, or when it allows you to do something better or faster. Google Drive frequently allows me to do both. You probably already know that Google Docs is a powerful collaborative writing tool. Multiple studies have found that web-based collaborative activities, done well, can promote learning outcomes, teamwork, social skills, and basic computing skills among students (Zhou, Simpson, & Domizi, 2012, pg. 359-360). In addition, I love how easy it is to give comments in Google Docs and how easy it is for students to work together. If you haven’t incorporated it yet, then make a class writing project a priority. Here is one example. If you are already a Google Docs pro, then check into using Slides or Forms. Our school frequently uses Forms for quick polls and surveys. Google Sheets is also a must have, particularly for math and science teachers. I would like to demonstrate how powerful this app can be by sharing how it helped me create one of my best lessons this year for middle school algebra (my class included mixed ages of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade Algebra 1 students).
After watching the Olympics this summer, I started to wonder why some countries seemed to do better than others. I posed that question to my students and we brainstormed two main categories that we thought might correlate with a country’s Olympic performance: population (greater probability that gifted athletes live there) and per capita income (more opportunities for athletes to practice and/or have access to high quality facilities and equipment.) I had each student pick three to five countries, research their populations, per capita incomes, and total medal counts in the past four summer Olympics, and add their information to the class spreadsheet. Then, in groups, they created a scatterplot for their assigned factor and analyzed the data using linear regressions to see which factors more highly correlated with Olympic performance. If you want more specifics or want to see the results, then check out our class spreadsheet. You can also find instructions for a similar project at Mathalicious.
This project was organically cross-curricular and addressed multiple algebra standards by necessity. It incorporated geography, because the students placed push pins in their countries on a giant world map, and economics, because they wondered why some countries’ per capita incomes were very high or very low. It gave meaning to population density when the students saw the size of a country on the map and then noted its population on the bar graph. (Iraq and Canada have similar populations? But Canada is soooo much bigger!) It increased number sense when they created bar graphs, scatterplots, and histograms and realized that some of the values were literally off the charts--like the per capita income of Monaco (which presented the perfect opportunity for me to introduce vocabulary like “outlier.”) Astonished, students were naturally curious enough to research why. This led to lessons on digital literacy as we discussed how to appropriately locate, evaluate, and use information from the internet, a skill that is frequently overestimated in today’s students according to a study commissioned by the British Library and JISC (University College London, 2008).
The students really got into this project and even asked to do an extension! They hypothesized that countries with lower average temperatures would perform better in the winter Olympics, so, of course, we analyzed that, too. This matches perfectly with the International Society for Technology and Education’s claim that, “When students take responsibility for their own learning, they become explorers capable of leveraging their curiosity to solve real-world problems” (ISTE, 2017).
As it turns out, we weren’t the only people to look at what factors affect Olympic performance. After the project, my students found two websites that helped explain things further. The first was written by an economics doctoral student and the second by a senior editor at The Atlantic. (Bian 2005, O'Brien 2012) The other sites concluded that the same factors we studied were major contributors, and their charts and methods remarkably resembled our own, albeit with some more advanced statistics in the case of the doctoral student’s article. My students’ excited comments indicated that they felt validated in their reasoning and felt that they were doing “real math.”
This project hit the sweet spot: students were engaged in deep and relevant learning, and Google Sheets significantly contributed to its effectiveness.
How have you used Google Drive to create more student-centered environments? What outcomes did you see when you used them? Did anything (good or bad) surprise you? I would love to learn from your experiences by reading your comments!
Students proudly displayed their results in the hallway outside our classroom.
Citations and Further Reading
Bian, X. (2005). Predicting Olympic Medal Counts: the Effects of Economic Development on Olympic Performance. The Park Place Economist, 13(1), 37-44. Available at: https://www.iwu.edu/economics/PPE13/bian.pdf
International Society for Technology and Education. (2017). Essential Conditions: Student-Centered Learning. Available at: http://www.iste.org/standards/tools-resources/essential-conditions/student-centered-learning
Mathalicious. (2017). Hitting the Slopes. Available at: http://www.mathalicious.com/lessons/hitting-the-slopes
National Writing Project. (2017). Directions for Teachers Participating in Letters to the Next President: Writing Our Future. Available at: http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/doc/nwpsites/writing_our_future/directions.csp
O’Brien, M. (2012). Medal-Count Economics: What Factors Explain the Olympics' Biggest Winners? The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/08/medal-count-economics-what-factors-explain-the-olympics-biggest-winners/260951/
University College London. (2008). Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future. Available at: https://www.webarchive.org.uk/wayback/archive/20140614113419/http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/programmes/reppres/gg_final_keynote_11012008.pdf
Zhou, W., Simpson, E., & Domizi, D.P. (2012). Google Docs in an Out-of-Class Collaborative Writing Activity. Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 24(3), 359-375. Available at: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1000688.pdf