In their foundational work, “Inside the Black Box” Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam identify a fundamental factor that inhibits educational improvement. They suggest that policy makers and innovators often ignore what actually goes on in the classroom, a.k.a. “the black box”. According to Black and WIlliam,
Learning is driven by what teachers and pupils do in classrooms. Teachers have to manage complicated and demanding situations, channeling the personal, emotional, and social pressures of a group of 30 or more youngsters in order to help them learn immediately and become better learners in the future. Standards can be raised only if teachers can tackle this task more effectively. (William and Black)
As a classroom teacher, I spend my day with 150 people inside the black box. The time spent face to face with my students has the potential to inspire, motivate, and enlighten. If teachers had new resources and tools to maximize the effectiveness of these interactions, they could transform the educational experience for students in the classroom.
Since the publication of Black and Wiliam’s work, we have had sixteen years of experience, trial and error, innovation and change, but can it be said that teachers are more effective than they were in 1998? Since the classroom experience is so difficult to quantify, we have little evidence to cite about teacher effectiveness. Artificial test scores divorced from classroom experience are a mixed bag. State test results might rise, but SAT scores are falling. Teachers themselves have a difficult time quantifying and assessing the effectiveness of their instruction.
In Edtech we make tools that extend learning beyond the walls of the classroom, tools that entertain, tools that engage, and tools that deliver content, but most of these tools leave the classroom alone. Despite our best efforts to change the system, the classroom is still a black box, even though we know the instructional strategies that work and the teaching methodologies that yield learning results.
So what does drive learning? In his groundbreaking work, Visible Learning, an analysis of over 800 meta-analyses of classroom strategies, Dr. John Hattie identifies over 130 factors that yield learning results. Looking at his list, the most effective factors involve the kind of structure and feedback the teacher provides for the students. Most of these factors are uniquely human and relational, not technological, and they deal with what goes on inside the black box.
This is where we need to place our focus in Edtech: creating emergent systems that facilitate and encourage effective teacher student interactions. These are the very tools that teachers desire most. According to a 2014 Gates Foundation Publication “Teachers Know Best: What Educators Want from Digital Instructional Tools,”
Certain types of products that teachers said they need for specific instructional purposes are simply not available; in other cases, there are products available, but teachers aren’t using them or don’t perceive them to be effective. These market gaps present opportunities for product developers to create new digital instructional tools or improve existing ones to better meet the needs of teachers and students. (Gates Foundation)
It turns out that the tools that teachers want are also the ones students need. As a classroom teacher and am keenly aware of the need for better instructional tools. So many tools require tech that we can’t afford, training that we can’t access, and time we don’t have, and they don’t leverage the power of effective classroom instruction.
That’s why I created Oncore, a classroom instruction app that helps teachers collect formative assessment data as learning is taking place. Oncore is a feedback tool for the teacher that integrates into a teacher’s daily workflow, capturing the data that matters most to the teacher-student relationship, encouraging the instructional strategies and classroom environment most conducive to learning.
Oncore changes the culture of the classroom. Using Oncore, teachers collect one-touch data as they interact with students. Oncore then uses this data to drive instruction, promoting equitable engagement with students and helping the teacher to construct meaningful, collaborative classroom experiences. Oncore teachers become activators and assessors of learning, and students thrive in this engaging environment.
Teachers need tools that add value to their instruction while also easing their workload. If innovators and policy-makers focus on developing and implementing instructional tools such as Oncore, they will tap into one of the most powerful resources in education, the classroom. They will open the black box.
Photo “Student Teacher” by BES Photos, Some Rights Reserved