The Six-Week Personal Essay Challenge: Week Four - The First Draft

Hi Readers,

It’s Nhung here. The outline last week posed many welcome challenges for the spaghetti noodles that are my thoughts - and I found lots of gaps and loose strings in my argument. Matt urged me to tie these strings together with some important suggestions, which I was so glad to take up. (Honey, I love you! You clear-thinking you!)

I decided to simplify my outline and focus on a single question I would like to pursue in grad school: “How do teachers keep up with the ever-changing ed tech landscape while delivering learning moments and motivating students?”

Here’s the first draft of my essay:

My first flipped classroom fell flat.

Early last year, school management wanted to try the flipped classroom. Meetings were filled with hope: we would cut overhead costs (especially hefty teaching salaries) while delivering our stellar materials to more students - even those who live in different provinces. This new model would free us up to devote most of our classroom time to practicing for mastery.

We devoted a great deal of energy to planning our take-home materials. Each tightly-scripted video formed part of (what we considered) an exciting storyline. A model teacher and camera woman spent an entire afternoon filming just two 15-minute clips, recording and re-recording after each blunder. An intern took a day off from her other duties to edit the videos (using pirated Camtasia software that kept causing her laptop to crash). When the team had finished the videos, I gave them a final check and uploaded them to the Internet. To ensure that students watched and learned from our content, we created Google Form quizzes for students to complete after each video.

However, I soon learned that students weren’t watching our homemade videos, citing busy workloads at their day schools. Frustrated, I surveyed my students’ lnternet learning habits. My findings humbled me: these students followed TEDx, had favorite blogs in their fields of academic interest, and used multiple vocabulary apps on their mobile phones. These were expensive, high-quality programs, and they clearly outshone our homemade videos. In fact, rather than being a fun diversion from “normal” schoolwork, our videos had become yet another piece of drudgery that students had to “get through” before they could watch the videos they preferred on YouTube.

In our case, the flipped model failed to motivate students. My experience left me wondering: as a teacher and curriculum designer, how do I use technology to engage students whose native language is the Internet (especially given that my native language is traditional, face-to-face classroom interaction)? I don’t have a full answer to this question, but I believe that a successful classroom experience, with or without technology, must prioritize measurable learning.

In my experience, learning usually occurs in a sequence. First, the student reflects on his/her learning style, hopes, dreams, strengths, and weaknesses. Secondly, the teacher introduces knowledge. And finally, the student applies his/her learning to increasingly complex, real-life problems.

Technology can clearly assist with Step 2. In just the last few years, we’ve seen Labster provide students access to lab equipment and experiments they could otherwise only dream of. Kahoot turns learning into a quiz game. Sugata Mitra’s internet-based “School in the Cloud” experiments pose open-ended questions for students, who then propose answers.

But what about Steps 1 and 3? Can ed tech assist teacher-student relationships in Step 1? And how does ed tech help with Step 3, the practice of which is necessary for students to move toward self-study and lifelong learning? (When my students feel a false sense of mastery after passively reviewing video course materials “just because the syllabus asks them to,” a few more hours have been lost forever - time that would be better spent with students exploring topics they hold dear.)

Technology will continue to play a larger role in both classroom and lifelong learning opportunities. Because technology changes so quickly, how do I train myself to handle whatever tools I may encounter in the future? How can institutions best prepare educators for a profession that is undergoing so much change? How can teachers be trained to support all students equally in a tech-focused world? My preliminary answer to these questions is that educators need multidisciplinary collaboration, including deep-rooted support from the IT team as well as school management. I would love to use my opportunities at [name of master’s program in learning, design and technology] to explore how school systems are grappling with these problems, and how educators can use technology to motivate students and facilitate real learning.

Matt’s Comments

This is really, really high-quality stuff, Nhung. You do a great job of sharing your story - you’re humble, reflective, and clearly motivated to learn. You’re also very clear about the specific questions that you’d like to explore in grad school. Lovely job!

A couple of thoughts for you. Over the years, lots of folks have proposed theories of learning (Montessori, Vygotsky, Piaget, Bloom, Gardner, etc.). If you’re going to propose your own theory - or even just mention it - I think it would make sense to acknowledge these other folks. I don’t get the sense that you think of your theory as a replacement for theirs - rather, it’s just your shorthand way of describing your experience. Is that right? If so, make sure that comes across :)

It would also be good to say a bit more about the relationship between Steps 1 and 2. What’s the connection between a student sharing hopes and dreams and a teacher introducing knowledge? Can’t you just start at Step 2? If not, why not?

Try to address these questions for next week. We're getting close!