Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning by Scott McLeod and Julie Graber

Harnassing Tech

Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning by Scott McLeod and Julie Graber starts with the fact that schools purchase a lot of technology and then hope for magic to happen. Since magic doesn’t in most schools they invented a practical protocol that teachers can use to help students engage in deeper thinking, do authentic real-world work, have more control and ownership of their learning, and be more involved in communication and collaboration. In addition to the protocol, they give concrete examples of how it can work with real lesson plans. Every school should have copies of this book.

Forward by William M. Ferriter

  • Over 70% of students who don’t graduate from high school report having lost interest by ninth grade. The majority say that motivation is all that prevented them from earning a diploma. These numbers indicate a systemic failure and an immediate need to transform education. We need schools to be different and to move away from routine cognitive work. If students extracurricular learning is richer and deeper than what they experience in school it’s time for us to catch up. Learning is more important than schooling and it’s time to rethink everything.


  • Most schools struggle with their technology integration efforts and digital technologies are not really transforming the learning experience. Educators continue to do the same things that they have always done and available technologies tend to function as add-ons. Many in the press see the impact of technology as negative. New digital tools bring us great power. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have pervaded our homes and offices so quickly.
  • We now have the ability to communicate with people all over the world. We can learn anytime, anywhere from anyone, about anything we want. We can create content, reach others, and collaborate in new and unimaginable ways. We can quickly access almost all human knowledge. There is no better way to cement schools’ irrelevance that to ignore the digital transformations that are reshaping the rest of society.

1. Seeking a New Approach

  • We start by looking at several frameworks commonly used as part of professional development efforts. What they have in common is that they start by using technology to replicate what is already being done and move towards transformations where students do things that they couldn’t have done before. In practice, however, these frameworks are difficult to implement in practice. They simply don’t help teachers know what to do different. Teachers are often frustrated and defeated as they struggle to fins meaning, make sense of the frameworks, and improve their practice.

2. Introducing the Four Shifts Protocol

  • Since the existing frameworks were too vague and general, Scott and Julie came up with what to look for and called their work the Four Shifts Protocol. These are specific, concrete look-fors and think-abouts that can help teachers contemplate instructional changes they might make.
  • A. Deeper Thinking and Learning: Look for student work focused around big important themes, messy problem solving, students designing and making things, students reflecting on their work, and critical thinking.
  • B. Authentic Work: Look for interdisciplinary work, use of the tools that people in the discipline use, use of authentic research, student-created real-world products or performances for an authentic audience, contributions beyond the classroom walls, and student agency when it comes to selecting what and how they learn along with how they will demonstrate the learning.
  • C. Student Agency and Personalization: Look for student ownership and control of the process, which leads to greater personalization, individualization, and differentiation. Is the work reflective of student interests or passions? Can students go beyond the given parameters?
  • D. Technology Infusion: Look for how the students communicate and who they communicate with. Are students working along or collaborating with others. Does technology facilitate collaboration? Does technology make learning possible? Do the tools overshadow the learning? Are digital tools used in a responsible manner?

3. Redesigning Elementary School Lessons and Units

  • Here we see how three somewhat innovative lessons can be taken to the next level using the protocol shits from chapter two as guidance.
  • Social Studies: We start with a mystery Skype activity where two classrooms from different schools connect and take turns asking questions to see if they can find out where the other school is located. While this is a fun activity the learning isn’t very deep. A redesign would expect students to delve into things like local geography, politics, language, vegetation, religion, and other differences of the other school’s environment.
  • English Language Arts: The original lesson has students select a book to read dealing with pumpkins. They then decorate a pumpkin to resemble their favorite character. Students also make short videos of children talking about their character while holding their pumpkin. The redesign would expect students to infer their character’s main traits and to supply supporting text. They would determine the theme of the story and create images that depict major events in the story. They then make a multimedia video using their images. The videos of all students are then made available on the Internet.
  • Math: The base lesson tells students to design a treehouse using 1400 square feet of boards and to make sure the volume is at least 250 cubic feet. They must include 2D sketches and explain why their dimensions are reasonable. The redesign requires a 3D prototype and a 3D printed scale model. Students then need to put together a persuasive presentation to essentially sell their product. This gives it an interdisciplinary aspect. Beyond the base lesson, a local builder could be asked to judge the work and have the winning design built. Student work would also be displayed on the Internet.

4. Redesigning Secondary Lessons and Units

  • High School Life Science: Student’s are to make a poster that about harmful water-borne bacteria and the best posters will be hung in the hallway. The refined lesson tells them that they are to inform the local citizens about harmful water-borne bacteria in their local river including its effects, prevention, and treatment. This requires them to select a presentation tool and medium and it will require the use of ELA skills. They also have an authentic purpose and audience.
  • Middle School Health: In the original lesson students pick a food and make five postcards that food would send as it travels through the digestive system. The revised lesson allows the students to choose how they will illustrate the trip through the digestive system. All they need do is explain what the structures look like and how they work. Their work will then be presented on the class’s website. They make videos or animations and again will need to employ and improve their ELA skills.
  • High School Physical Science: The original assignment asks students to fill in the blanks on a Google Doc as they listen to a teacher lecture about sedimentary rocks. The redesign asks students how the structures and processes of the Earth change the Earth and its surface? They can also explain why processes such as plate tectonics and national disasters change the Earth and its surface. In addition, they need to deal with the implications for cities, seaports, and countries when these changes occur. They should include examples and what we should start or stop doing and why. They are expected to aim their work at a specific audience and choose the tech tools they will use for their presentation that will go live when it’s finished.

5. Designing From Standards

  • Elementary Example: The standard asks students to understand that individuals and groups within a society may promote change or the status quo. The unit overview starts with whole group instruction that discusses an activist that stood for change. Other activists are explored during small group work with the teacher facilitating one group at a time. Students identify main ideas and supporting details as they work and present them using a graphic organizer. They brainstorm a list and select an individual or group to research. They choose presentation technology to share their findings as individuals or groups. They will interview people outside of school and decide how they would convince an audience that change is needed regarding their subject or that nothing needs to be done.
  • Secondary Example: The standard asks students to write informative and explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content. The lesson starts with students identifying an issue or topic that they are interested in with the end goal of writing to inform an authentic audience. Students will use a variety of technology tools to help organize their facts, details, and examples. They will write and share an initial draft and look for feedback from other students and adults. They will edit their work and decide which technology to use to present it to their audience. Finally, they will reflect on what went well and what they would do differently next time.

6. Implementing the Protocol—Techniques, Strategies, and Suggestions

  • The authors give some concrete suggestions here as they have found very few on other publications. This is complex work, but you don’t want to just insert technology into your classrooms and hope that magic will happen. Since the Four Shifts Protocol can be overwhelming, try selecting only a few sections to address at any given time. Ideally, you would hit every aspect multiple times during the school year and try to hit more than one at a time. As you do students will engage in deeper thinking, do authentic real-world work, have more control and ownership of their learning, and be more involved in communication and collaboration. This chapter also contains some tips for professional development and a call for suggestions for improvement.

Epilogue: Staying in Touch

  • Scott and Julie look forward to hearing from you. You can reach Scott at dr.scott.mcleod@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter @mcleod, and check out his blog at dangerouslyirrelevant.org. You can reach Julie at jckgraber@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @jgraber.

Scott Mcleod and Julie Graber

  • Scott is an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Colorado, Denver and a leading expert in PreK-12 school technology leadership. He is the founding director of the University Council for Educational Administration’s Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE). He has received numerous awards and has written over 170 articles and other publications.
  • Julie is an instructional technology consultant on a technology innovation team for Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency in Iowa. Her areas of expertise include deeper thinking with technology, authentic learning, curriculum design, and performance tasks and assessments. She is a regular speaker at local, state, and national conferences focusing on authentic work and student-centered, personalized, and project-based learning.
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