“If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.” -Frank Zappa
Inside of every student I’ve ever taught lives a passionate, curious mind that can either flourish or stagnate, both inside and outside the classroom. The teachers that get it — that get you — are the ones that help bring you there, but that is not all teachers, not by any means. I think everyone, by this point in their life, has had experience with at least one teacher that stands out in their minds as inspirational: a teacher that’s helped you become a greater person in this world.
Ideally, every one of the teachers a student encounters in their life would be great: would take pride in being the best teacher they can, would love what they teach, would be empowered to teach their own style and their own lessons and curriculum, and would genuinely care about the students as individual people. But not every teacher can do this, and not every teacher knows how to be this.
What makes matters even worse is that this isn’t what the system values. I think one of the most misguided attempts to make teachers more effective has been the focus on standardized testing and rewards based on test performance, as best exemplified in the U.S. by the disastrous No Child Left Behind program.
Having students score higher on a standardized test doesn’t necessarily give you any information about what a student can do other than succeed at taking that test. But success on those tests is what’s been financially rewarding for teachers and schools, and so that’s what has been prized by administrators, school districts, and entire states. This is disappointing, to put it mildly, because as I’ve noted before:
1.) There is no amount of control you can take away from a bad teacher that will turn them into a good teacher.
2.) There is nothing worse you can do to a good teacher than take away their autonomy as to how and what they teach to their students in their classrooms.
The teaching system isn’t set up to reward whether teachers are inspiring and empowering students to go out and learn, think critically and competently, evaluate information and sources, see through ruses and faulty logic, and to care. To care about whether they’ve found the more relevant, accurate information, whether they’ve synthesized it logically and consistently, and whether their conclusions and arguments are robust and high-quality. Appallingly, it’s set up to care about a test score.
And I’m telling you, right now, that I intend to change that, and I want to get every teacher I can on board to help. Because we have got to let students know that they are not defined by what anyone else has to say about them. They aren’t defined by awards and accolades, nor by defeats and reprimands, and they certainly aren’t defined by how they score on a standardized test, or by how much funding their school gets based on those tests.
But they should take pride in what they achieve, and they should definitely take pride in what they can accomplish, create, and do.
So, what can we do about it, to help everyone get there; to help every student achieve, and care, and develop these critical skills?
First off, I’d focus not on standardized testing, but on the standards of “what can you do?”
And, perhaps unbelievably, there’s a huge push away from the mess that was No Child Left Behind and towards teaching students with the goal that they’ll be able to be mathematically, verbally and analytically literate at a high level throughout their education.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is a collaboration among a number of different groups, including the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), to create a set of K-12 standards in language arts, literacy and mathematics that will be suitable for all students, nationwide, in every state.
They’re very transparent as to how they made these standards, what the key english language arts and mathematics points are, what some common misconceptions are, and where you can download the full standards for yourself. So far, across the U.S., they’ve been adopted by 45 states plus the District of Columbia.
They are poised to take effect in these states at the start of this upcoming academic year, and understandably, there’s a lot of anxiety over them. For one, the standards are long, detailed, and difficult to digest. For another, it’s unclear how funding will be tied to these standards; they are still very likely to incorporate some type of high-stakes standards-based testing, which will surely be controversial. And finally, because it’s new, there are no pre-existing, comprehensive educational resources that are compliant with these standards. It’s very likely that many of the early ones will be lazy and uninspiring, and with this push towards standardization, it seems like it’s going to be more and more difficult to create individualized education plans and projects, tailored to students’ individual needs.
And you know that every student has different needs.
But I think I can help, at least for high school-level (9-12) classrooms where any reading, writing, or analysis is required. If you can forget about the tests and focus on education, on your students learning, staying interested and engaged, on finding and pursuing their passions, then this is for you. For the past seven months, I’ve been working for a company called trap!t, growing and developing their science and health sections for quality, breadth, depth, and — perhaps most importantly — the truth. (I’ll keep on doing that, and writing here, so don’t worry about either of those suffering.) But you don’t have to restrict yourself to the topics I’ve chosen, nor to science and health; each user can create their own collection of high-quality content on any topic they choose. For example…
Maybe you teach history, but even the most up-to-date textbooks don’t cover current events. So you tell each student to pick a current event that interests them, and to write a paper on it, citing and evaluating sources. Or you teach biology, or physics, and want your students to write about a recent discovery / breakthrough / controversy. Or maybe you want to teach them how to make a written argument, and so you allow them to choose a politically polarizing topic. All of these (and more) make excellent assignments, and trap!t can be an invaluable resource to a classroom; just put your topic in to the discovery engine and let it go.
What they get out is a collection of relevant articles from websites across the world, chosen from over 100,000 quality sources, on that topic. This works for any news, science, environment, politics, education or health issue, as well as for recent books, theatre productions/performing arts, and media topics. And it gives them this information with a strong visual interface, with quick and easily scannable summaries, a variety of perspectives, and in an extremely organized layout.
But best of all, it’s trainable and personalizable so that each student’s experience will be unique. By liking and disliking (with justified reasons!) different articles, students can be at the controls of their news-gathering experience. The ability to perform quick, simple research on any topic, to follow breaking and timely stories, and to train and personalize their own experience is a unique new tool in this age of digital learning, and it couldn’t come at a better time. How do I know?
Because I, personally, have gone through the new Common Core State Standards Initiative for literacy, language arts, and for subject-specific reading and writing goals, and have synthesized for you a short version. Below, you can see what the general reading, writing, speaking/listening and language standards are for high school students, as well as (in yellow) what standards trap!t excels at helping students meet, and (in green) for what standards trap!t is a truly exceptional tool.
I love the way their faces light up when they realize that this isn’t a typical search engine, and that research doesn’t need to be tedious. [...] It’s also fun watching them become meaningfully engaged in something that’s digital. When they’re on the computer, they’re switching back and forth between many different websites, and it’s hard to get them to stay focused. But Trapit “traps” them; it caught their attention, and held it. When a site is sticky, then I know it has great potential.
By providing current, breaking news in a way that no textbooks can, with a variety of hand-checked, quality sources that no single periodical or newspaper can match, and combining it with the students’ abilities to personalize it and tailor it to their own particular interests and point-of-view, I am convinced that this is not only a great tool from a student’s perspective, but from a teacher’s, as well.
The ability to incorporate digital learning into a classroom is crucial, but not as crucial as the ability to get a student internally motivated in furthering their own education. The combination of being able to make individualized assignments while simultaneously meeting the new core standards is going to be one of the toughest challenges for all teachers, and trap!t gives everyone a great tool — maybe even the best tool — for making it happen. But I can’t make this happen on my own; I need your help if we want to improve education under these new standards and keep classrooms from being invaded by micromanagerial administrators and curriculum experts, and particularly from test-preparation companies.
What I need are teachers and educators — preferably public high school teachers, but any educator, including home-schoolers, is still extremely helpful — who are brave enough to be willing to give this tool a chance. Would you be willing, during the first couple of months (September or October) of the school year, to give it a try?
I want to help you help your students across all disciplines, improving their reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. How do they evaluate the quality of information in a source? Can they identify bias and perspective? Can they determine what’s a fallacious argument, and apply their own reasoning to discriminate between two opposing points of view? Can they justify why articles are good or no good, and what makes a source reliable vs. unreliable? And will you join me on the cutting edge of this education frontier? Leave a comment below and/or email me at — ethan AT trapit.com — if you are willing to do any of the following:
- Incorporate using trap!t with students in a classroom during the upcoming school year,
- Provide any feedback or ideas as to how trap!t could be integrated in a specific classroom,
- Be willing to help answer questions that ensure students will have a high-quality educational experience,
- Design a lesson plan that can be used in any digital classroom that both incorporates trap!t and the CCSSI,
- or, most usefully, be willing to use trap!t in your class and participate in a Proof-of-Concept study, which means filling out a Q&A sheet and possibly having a conversation with me about your experience.
You know how passionate I am about giving everyone the highest-quality educational experience we can, and I’m working to marshal all the resources I have access to in order to help make that happen. If you know of a school, classroom, or teacher where this might help, spread the word and pass it on. Trap!t is free for all users, and if you have any issues, technical, political or otherwise, I’ll do everything in my power to help you overcome them.
Education with trap!t isn’t the answer to everything, of course; students need more than any one tool, no matter how good it is, by itself. They need great teachers who care about them. They need to make and accomplish things. But they also need to learn how to find, sift through, analyze, think critically about, synthesize and evaluate information, and communicate what they’ve found effectively. Don’t just help them get there; help them blaze their own paths towards that goal!