Pump Up the Volume! More Talking in Class, Please!

Last year, an ed tech startup called Desmos faced a curious conundrum –classrooms using its math app grew quiet, too quiet.

Teachers use the Desmos “Activity Builder” tool to create a series of self-paced math challenges using an online graphing calculator. There was just one problem, said Dan Meyer, Desmos’s chief academic officer: With each student deeply engaged in a different part of the lesson, “teachers were having trouble starting class discussions.”

The hush was troubling, because students learn a lot from debating ideas, sharing feedback and collectively exploring big questions. So, this fall, the company added three new features, dubbed the “Classroom Conversation Toolset,” to let teachers pause the app classroom-wide, snap every computer to a particular screen, and cloak student identity to anonymously share answers with the entire class. In doing so, Desmos joined a handful of other startups using tech to boost student interaction and class discussion, so that in the rush to personalize learning we don’t lose the benefits of learning together.

It can be tricky to find the right mix, admits Heather Kohn, a high school math teacher in Marlborough, Massachusetts, who uses the Desmos app a few times a month. “I want to give my students the freedom to explore on their own,” she said – except of course, when she wants their undivided attention.

Before the Conversation Toolset, when Kohn wanted students to take a break from individual work for a class discussion, she had to make them close their laptops – far enough that they could no longer see the screen, but not so far as to shut down the program. Kohn called the maneuver “Pac-Manning,” because the frequent laptop closings and re-openings evoked the video-game creature. “Now, I just click pause,” she said.

One recent morning, Kohn used the Desmos app to teach a ninth-grade algebra class about graphing simple functions. Working in pairs, the students tackled progressively more challenging problems in the app. Kohn monitored everybody’s work from a dashboard on her tablet computer as she circulated around the room, helping those who struggled and checking to make sure the high fliers weren’t missing anything by moving too fast.

“I like to focus on the outliers,” Kohn said. She soon noticed that several students were making the same mistake on multiple challenges. So she clicked pause, which elicited good-natured moaning and groaning. “I know,” she said. “Can I have all eyes on me for a minute?”

Kohn then snapped every computer to one of the early challenges, where the tricky concept first appeared. She projected that screen on a whiteboard, and displayed every student’s answer – but only after clicking the “anonymizer,” which swapped student names with the names of famous mathematicians.

“What do you notice about these graphs?” Kohn asked. “Are they exactly the same shape? What is different about them?”

After a five-minute discussion about shifting functions by tweaking equations, and after jotting a few examples on the whiteboard, Kohn un-paused the app and let the students return to self-paced work.

While personalized-learning software can generate rapid, individualized feedback, reaching students who are truly struggling requires a human connection that no algorithm can replicate, according to Andrew Rowland, co-founder and CEO of Classkick, another ed tech startup geared to social learning.

“Teaching will be one of the last jobs taken away by the robots,” said Rowland, “because software will never be the same as a human who is thinking about what you’re thinking and can use that understanding to say, `here, let me unlock this for you.’”

Heather Kohn speaks with two of her algebra students, Ian Minier and Harrison Paul. Using a math app by Desmos, Kohn can circulate through the class and use a dashboard on her tablet to monitor every student’s progress through a self-paced set of math challenges. Photo: Chris Berdik

Launched in 2013, Classkick’s app lets teachers with iPads or Chromebooks create lessons for any subject. When students log on, they can submit answers by typing, writing on a touchscreen, snapping a photograph or making a voice recording, based on the instructions. Teachers see every screen from their computers, and can send students quick feedback using a messaging function. And when a student has a hard time, he can click a button to virtually and anonymously raise his hand, creating a class-wide prompt that can be answered by a peer or by the teacher. The basic version of the app is free, while the  “pro” version with a few more bells and whistles costs $11.99 a month.

Amy Roediger, a high-school chemistry teacher in Mentor, Ohio, outside Cleveland who uses the Classkick app, said she was “pleasantly shocked” by how readily students helped each other.

“It’s like a team-building exercise in the context of a chemistry lesson,” said Roediger.

Another Classkick user, Douglas Ragan, who teaches chemistry in Hudsonville, Michigan, said students are far more comfortable showing their work when he projects their screens, compared to doing the same task at the chalkboard.

“It’s a different dynamic when they don’t have get up in front of the whole class,” he said. “A whole level of nervousness is just eliminated.”

Sharing answers and the thinking behind them is also the goal of a third social-learning tool, called Pear Deck, launched in 2014 by former teachers in Iowa City.  Teachers put questions about any subject onto Pear Deck slides, accessed with a class login code (cost ranges from $99 for a class account to $1,499 to sign up an entire school). When students respond – by typing, drawing, dragging markers around a map or graph, or multiple choice – their answers appear collectively, and anonymously, on the teacher’s projected screen.

It isn’t always about finding the right answer, noted Michal Eynon-Lynch, Pear Deck’s co-founder and chief operating officer; it’s also about, “seeing other people’s ideas, understanding that there are different ways of thinking that have value, and learning how to talk about those differences in a respectful way.”

That said, Pear Deck is now working on more options to personalize lessons in the app. Earlier this fall, for instance, user feedback led them to add a student-paced mode that teachers can toggle to as they see fit.

“A teacher might decide in the moment to help students who are really stuck while letting other students move ahead,” said Eynon-Lynch. “We want to give teachers that flexibility, without going completely down the rabbit hole of personalized learning where everybody is just doing their own thing. We’re still trying to find that balance.”

As Kohn’s algebra students understand, learning isn’t a race to the finish line. Two students who sped through more challenges than their peers – Ian Minier and Harrison Paul – said the first class discussion led them back to a function they’d already shifted along the Y-axis, to experiment with moving it along the X-axis as well.

“When she hits pause, maybe we’re on a roll, and so at first we’re like, ah man!” said Minier. “But, it kind of forces everyone to pay attention, and we always learn something different.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

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Chris Berdik

Chris Berdik is a science journalist who has written about a wide variety of topics, including the intersection of science with ethical issues and the peculiarities of the human brain. (“Why Our Brains Make Us Laugh,” for the Boston Globe, for example.) His book, Mind Over Mind: The Surprising Power of Expectations, was published by Current, an imprint of Penguin, in 2012. A Harvard graduate with a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford University, Mr. Berdik has been a staff editor at The Atlantic and Mother Jones. His freelance articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and Boston Magazine, among others, and his radio and multimedia stories have appeared on Smithsonian.com, WBUR (Boston’s NPR station) and Sciencestage.com, among others.