Tag Archives: historical thinking

Social Studies 11—Exploring Learning Through Technology

How do we know if what we are doing is making a difference? When we invest time, money and resources in projects, what are we hoping for as an outcome? How will we know if we have achieved it? We must never stop asking key questions: Have we chosen the right priorities? Is what we are doing working? If it isn’t working, are we prepared to acknowledge that fact and adjust our plans accordingly? How do we learn as an organization if we do not take the time to reflect on our work?

A year ago we launched a Social Studies 11 e-text project (you can read about it here). As JB Mahli, SS Helping Teacher (@JB_Mahli), explains it, “A key aspect of the pilot is the fact it is a grassroots initiative, driven and led by Social Studies teachers and department heads.” The purpose of the project was two fold: to explore putting our feet in the digital e-text waters and to see how the use of technology might provide an opportunity to reconsider “traditional” teaching practices. We did not just drop e-texts and iPads into classrooms. The teachers were also supported with key staff development opportunities, from bootcamp on the one hand, to exploring ideas around historical thinking and inquiry-based learning, on the other hand.  The teachers also looked at assessment practices and how to differentiate instruction or personalize learning. As we had rolled out a small pilot in phase 1, and added additional schools in phase 2, the timing was good to collect some feedback from teachers and students before we moved into Phase 3.

What did we want to know? Three things formed the crux of our query: Were students more engaged in their learning? Was student achievement increasing? Were we creating opportunities for students to personalize their learning? We set up a simple on-line survey and sent it out to the Department Heads. We wanted to know what was working well and what needed to be reconsidered before moving forward.

Our results (see here) provided us with a window into the experience from the teacher’s perspective.  Questions ranged from asking about student ownership and control, student ability to remix content and express historical ideas, to the student’s ability to represent their own thinking through their own lens.


Overall, teachers were candid in their responses. There was definitely a strong theme about the impact on student interest. One teacher wrote,

Engagement, engagement, engagement. Students were far more engaged in class content with the use of the iPad. This engagement provided more energy in the room and that allowed a more positive attitude toward all areas of the class. The iPad leads to more student centered activity, more trust, higher order thinking activities and more ownership over their learning.

Another teacher tempered his response with, “I am not sure if the level of thinking is improving…just the resources to investigate essential questions and inquiry projects is greater” to “Yes, I believe it has improved [student learning]. Students have shown their understanding by creating iMovies and other videos where they are the creators and ‘narrators’ of their story. The evidence of improved student learning is the portfolio of student created work.” Not all comments were glowing, one teacher felt the impact on student learning was “inconclusive at this time” and another indicated, “I would need more time to adequately determine this.” We need to be mindful that some of this technology is new to teachers as well and the learning curve can be steep. Time to learn together was identified as important.

The use of technology was strategically embedded in learning about effective instructional practices. We were clear that an iPad in the hands of a student was not the solution to a better classroom. The focus was on teaching and learning; it is the teacher that makes the difference. One teacher summarized this succinctly:

While I do believe that my teaching practice has changed because of the introduction of the ipad, having a helping teacher who has also been talking about using problem and inquiry-based instruction, as well as critical thinking and historical thinking is important as well. The iPad and a helping teacher has been essential if the district socials department is going to have any change in pedagogy away from content coverage.

The challenge of moving from content coverage to uncovering the content was seen as an important shift.

We repeated the survey (with a few student-friendly adjustments) with a small sample of students that were participating in the program from across the participating schools. The full results can be found in the prezi here.

An executive summary of both surveys is also available here. This, too, is fascinating and captures the key ideas that emerged.

Perhaps, for me, the most fascinating theme that emerged was that “All teachers described changes in their pedagogy which they felt were directly related to the impact of the Social studies iPad and E-text pilot.” At the end of the day, it is about teaching and learning. We provided support and learning for teachers to reflect together on their practice and create richer opportunities for student learning—perhaps we accomplished our goal after all.

Thank you to JB Mahli (Social Studies Helping Teacher, @JB_Mahli) and Dr. Donna VanSant (@vansantd) for their work in designing the survey instrument. Thank you to the many Social Studies teachers and students that were willing to complete the survey and be candid about their experiences. The project was supported with rich professional development opportunities (including workshops with @shareski, @neilstephenson, @JB_Mahli and @Iain_Fisher that focused on themes around Inquiry-Based Learning, Historical Thinking, Critical Thinking, Assessment and Differentiated Instruction). The E-text in question was the Pearson Counterpoints 2nd Edition.