About Cari Zall

Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online environments. She currently works as the Curriculum and Instructional Support Manager for an online high school dropout recovery program, and is the Assignment Editor and a writer for The Educator’s Room, an online education magazine. Cari is certified in Gamification and has worked on several projects incorporating Gamification into online and traditional education environments. Her areas of expertise include Gamification and Student Resilience & Motivation; Conflict Resolution & Collaboration, and social justice education. Prior to her teaching career, Cari worked for 15 years in civil litigation and as a human rights activist in Northern Ireland and Washington, DC. She holds a BA in Conflict Analysis & Resolution, an Masters in Teaching, and an MA in Political Science. Cari is a James Madison Fellow, and is the author of the book, How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks: A Teacher Faces Layoff, Unemployment and a Career Shift. You can finder her on twitter at @teachacari.
Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson, advocate for 21st century learning

Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson, advocate for 21st century learning

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear Utah state Senator Howard Stephenson (R, Salt Lake) speak about the success of Computer Assisted Instructional Software (CAIS) and its hugely successful impact on learning for mastery in Utah schools. Sen. Stephenson has served in the Utah Senate since 1992 and has become a leading voice in innovative technology for the classroom. His focus is finding opportunities and avenues for students to gain more personalized instruction for mastery and to move public education out of its 19th century factory model.  For background, I encourage you to watch both Sen. Stephenson’s TED Talk and his AXL Talk, both which showcase his thinking about learning and education, as well as demonstrate how Utah has instituted the use of CAIS for mastery and personal learning in many classrooms across the state.

I asked him when he first got interested in the idea of personal mastery as a focus of education.  His interest goes back to his own personal experience in school:

 “I had been a student in a small high school on the northern border of Arizona, where my graduating class was 22 students. I wanted to take Trigonometry because I had the desire to pursue a meaningful college major

[the senator ultimately majored in Psychology and Aerospace Engineering], and I needed that level of math, but we didn’t have enough students provide a class for Trigonometry. So the school provided me an individual flip-chart program where I had a sleeve on the right side of the page that covered the answers and the problems were on the left side, and as you would work the problem, you would flip the sleeve to see if you were correct. However, it couldn’t intervene if I had questions. But even without the intervention, I knew that kind of immediate feedback was much more useful than struggling with homework not knowing whether I got an answer right or wrong. Students have to do this every day, turning their work into teachers then getting a score a day or more later, which does nothing to inform the student’s mastery or help them improve as they work the problem.   A score is not immediate and not interactive.”

Sen. Stephenson explains that this immediate and interactive aspect of the work he is doing now is what makes Computer Assisted Instructional Software so effective as an education tool. The evidence for its impact goes back to the earliest theorists on learning. Jean Piaget, a pioneer in education psychology, contended that anyone can achieve mastery in a subject area if they receive immediate, interactive feedback while doing the work. Providing students access to a system that gives that kind of feedback allows activation of Benjamin Bloom’s theories of higher levels of learning and thinking. The idea instituted in Utah is that students use the software to learn the content itself, complete with immediate feedback and interactive learning tools, so that students gain mastery of the content itself at their own pace. The other thing it provides is similar to what children get when gaming: that immediate feedback that causes spikes of dopamine in their brains, bringing fun and enjoyment into the mix. Connecting important content instruction to the same brain process kids use while negotiating a computer game can create that same engagement and reaction.

So where do teachers fit into this process, and how might they shift their practices if they were to institute CAIS in their classrooms? Sen. Stephenson:

“This practice should not be overlaid on the 19th century tradition of the didactic lecture model. It should replace the lecture. By empowering students to receive the immediate interactive feedback, both the skills and content knowledge can be delivered in a more personal way – that frees the teacher not to be the “sage on the stage” – to not have to deliver the same lecture on fractions the same way, focusing on the middle of the bell curve of students, hoping that most of them will get it.

“Instead of being the content deliverer, the teacher is freed to be the person who engages the students in the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy such as synthesis, collaboration, creativity, etc. Those are the types of engagements that give teachers greater joy in teaching anyway. So rather than slogging through the content knowledge in a didactic way, the interactive software can do that in a personalized way for each student, and then the teacher can truly engage the students in collaboration and other higher level thinking and engagement. The future role of the teacher is to be the one who challenges the students to be evaluators and critical thinkers, not the one who has to deliver the base information in the same way every time.”

This method of education harkens back to the years prior to the institutionalization of the industrial public education model we have operated under for over a hundred years now. Back then, those who sought education learned from the content materials available and then engaged with a professor or expert in higher thinking conversations and collaborative projects. The challenge in our modern world is scaling that kind of personalized education to the massive amount of students and classrooms across the country. That is where a CAIS system comes in.  The use of CAIS is similar to the flipped classroom model, except that CAIS can be used in the classroom or at home, depending on the technology available and the age of students.

Utah classrooms where it has been employed have seen marked changes for their students. Over 350,000 students in Utah currently receive personalized learning through CAIS systems every day in almost all subject areas, including English Language Learning. This many students learning in a model that is personalized for mastery this way goes against most of today’s education practices. How Utah did it was to employ what Sen. Stephenson calls a “scarcity model.” Instead of making it yet another education mandate or initiative handed down from the top, something that educators were forced to embrace, the state followed the model it had used with its dual language Chinese immersion programs. They introduced it only in a few schools at first. Then when success and progress became apparent, more schools wanted in on the process. (By the way, Utah is 1% of the nation’s population, but now has 1/3 of all dual language Chinese immersion classes in the country). So similarly with the software programs, they offered it only to educators who wanted to try it themselves. The teachers had to propose a plan for how to use it and why they wanted it in their classroom, providing complete buy-in from the teachers engaged with the program. Once that first round of teachers had seen success in their classrooms (including higher test scores), other teachers clamored to submit proposals for the process. By enacting this method, the state has seen huge gains and the teachers using CAIS become the point of growth for education best practices in their schools, rather than the practices being mandated from the policy level.

Sen. Stephenson believes that in this day, students should not have to “power down” when they come to school. There needs to be a significant – and yes, even disruptive – shift to using the widely available and affordable digital learning technology that is out there to provide students a more personal path for mastering content, and to provide teachers the opportunity to reach those higher levels of learning practice with their students.

Research now shows that simply dumping devices into a classroom does not improve learning or mastery, even in the 1:1 models. Studies are now showing that student performance actually drops when a device is introduced to the classroom without actual learning software as part of its purpose. Teachers receiving devices for their classrooms are often not trained to use them in a way that provides the immediate, interactive feedback useful for a student to gain mastery, and most devices end up being used simply for their apps or as another version of a textbook.  The CAIS model uses technology in an effective, personal way that takes the focus off the device itself and puts onto the student’s individual mastery of the subject.

Senator Stephenson concludes:

“Our students are digital natives. They already come to the classroom at the earliest ages able to navigate a digital world. The polices and practices in place in most schools ask them to completely ignore their skills and the joy they get out of their digital lives when they come to the classroom. But if a classroom were to embrace the use of software to allow children to engage the content instruction they need for all that left-brain work, then teachers could work more individually with students, students could move at their own pace, and the classroom as a whole would have more opportunity for those right-brain activities that would make education have so much more impact.”

Is there any opportunity for CAIS programs in your state?  Perhaps it is time for teachers to lead the way and take advantage of technology out there to make their classrooms more innovative, personal, and connected to mastery, rather than using it simply as an additional curriculum tool.

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