This is the third in a series on the characteristics of a meaningful learning environment. The previous posts were Active Learning: Engaging Students’ Minds and Collaborative Learning: Building Knowledge in Community.

The Constructive characteristic of the Technology Integration Matrix describes instruction in which students to use technology tools to connect new information to their existing knowledge. Experienced teachers know well that with sufficient motivation, students can memorize and, in the short term, parrot back all sorts of information we teach them, whether it’s a dictionary definition, a mathematical formula, or the date of a medieval battle. But if the student hasn’t tied that information to something they already understand, it’s a structure built without a foundation and typically is soon lost.

As with the other four characteristics, there is a shift from teachers primarily taking responsibility for learning at the lower levels of technology integration to students taking greater responsibility and functioning more independently at higher levels.

I wanted to address the Constructive characteristic this month because of the unusual situation many teachers find themselves in this fall of 2020. In many locations, students will be resuming classes with greater gaps in prior knowledge* than ever before due to the not-always-effective move to remote learning during the COVID-19 crisis. Some of the statistics coming out of states and cities about the percentage of students who did not even once log into their LMS in the past spring are gut-wrenching.

*Prior knowledge. Although some educators prefer to distinguish between “prior knowledge” (non-academic experiences) and “background knowledge” (academic experiences), the TIM does not make this distinction. As used in the TIM descriptors, the term “prior knowledge” refers to everything a student knows about a topic, whether obtained in school or out of school.

Now more than ever, teachers and students should be leveraging technology to identify gaps in prior knowledge, to close those gaps, and to more efficiently make connections between prior knowledge and current curriculum topics.


The Constructive Characteristic at Each Level of Technology Integration

ENTRY LEVEL. At the Entry Level, the ball is primarily in the teacher’s court. The teacher is responsible for delivering new content to students and for making the connections between the new content and what the students are already expected to know. Assessment of prior understandings is especially important this year. Technology can provide short but frequent assessments and give immediate results via the class LMS, online surveys/quizzes, or other student response options. In all likelihood, many teachers will find a wider range of gaps than usual this year due to the fact that some students may have had the desire, access to technology, and support of parents to have kept up with remote learning, while other classmates did not have the necessary support or were unready for remote learning for other reasons.

Certainly, we don’t want to just turn back the clock and re-teach the previous semester’s lessons. That’s not in any of the students’ interests and is a particular insult to those students who were able to keep up last spring. It’s going to take a great deal of effort, but tech can assist us as we identify the gaps in each student’s prior knowledge and match that up with individualized, just-in-time supports whether it’s a link to an online video, a remedial piece of software (no “drill and kill” please!), a webpage, a simulation, a presentation, or other OER (Open Educational Resource). Teachers should also check with their colleagues in the previous grade level to determine if supplementary learning objects or other targeted reources are available from the previous year’s curriculum.

ADOPTION LEVEL. At the Adoption Level, students begin to utilize technology tools themselves to build on prior knowledge and construct meaning. The teacher provides structured opportunities for students to make those necessary connections. For example, a teacher might share a concept map about the relationships between prior knowledge and the new content. A few of the items on the concept map would already be completed. The students would be expected to complete the remaining items. This sort of activity not only teaches the connections between the old and new knowledge, it is also modeling how students will later be able to use concept mapping software independently. Other sorts of graphic organizers, such as K-W-L charts or flow charts can help students to see the relationship between the old and new. Journaling software is also helpful as a place where students can record the connections they are making.

ADAPTATION LEVEL. At the Adaptation Level, students are beginning to use technology more independently to connect previous knowledge to the new. They have opportunities to explore the functionality of technology tools available to them and can begin to make adaptations that work best for them. Continuing our concept mapping example, now students are creating their own concept maps from scratch and choosing styles and types of concept maps that are best suited to the task at hand.

Likewise, the teacher may have introduced some version of notetaking or journaling software at the Adoption Level. Now at the Adaptation Level, students are beginning to use features on their own that connect prior knowledge to new knowledge within their notetaking—perhaps by color coding or tagging sections of text. Whatever the tech involved, at the Adaptation Level students are beginning to work independently and have some freedom to begin customizing their use of technology in ways that work best for their respective learning styles. There as a sense in which the old teaching adage “I do, we do, you do” sums up the first three levels of the Technology Integration Matrix. At the Entry Level, it’s mostly the teacher using technology. At the Adoption Level teachers and students are commonly using technology in the same or similar ways. Now, at the Adaptation Level, students are beginning to “make technology their own.”

INFUSION LEVEL. At the Infusion Level, the students consistently have opportunities to select technology tools and use them in ways that best facilitate their construction of understanding. The teacher provides the context for the activity and supports students in their selection of technology tools. Many tools and resources are available to meet the needs of all students. After analyzing a problem, one student may choose to work entirely in a text-based format, another may select visual tools, a third might choose a presentation or web format demonstrate learning.

Also at this level, students are taking on more responsibility for evaluating their own relevant prior knowledge and taking steps to close gaps on their own. This is an extremely important step in the direction of students taking charge of their own learning. As adults, if we are reading a news article about, for example, a conflict between two countries and the article references a nineteenth-century treaty we are unfamiliar with, we take a moment to quickly fill in the gap in our own knowledge because we know that’s essential to our understanding of the original article. That process comes so natural to us as adults that we sometimes forget “filling in the gaps” as we construct our understanding is a learned skill.

TRANSFORMATION LEVEL. Creativity is the hallmark of the Transformation Level. Students have the knowledge, the experience, the means, and the support to construct and share knowledge in ways that may not have been possible without technology. Not only are students now choosing which technology tools would be best for a particular task, they can combine them in unconventional ways, since they know the strengths and weaknesses of many different tools.

In my previous role as Director of FCIT, I hired hundreds of staff over nearly two decades. Some hires were students. Some were graduates. What was I usually looking for in a hire? For most positions, I wanted a resourceful employee. One with experience using the tools we had available. One who could analyze a problem and select the best tools for the task. One who could think out of the box and leverage our available resources in creative ways. I was always looking for motivated staff who were ready, willing, and able to run with any assigned project. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every high school graduate met that description?

Roy Winkelman is a 40+ year veteran teacher of students from every level kindergarten through graduate school. As the former Director of FCIT, he began the Center's focus on providing students with rich content collections from which to build their understanding. When not glued to his keyboard, Dr. Winkelman can usually be found puttering around his tomato garden in Pittsburgh.