What Actually Works in EdTech? with Tom Murray

Today Thomas C. Murray @thomascmurray is the 2017 US “Thought Leader of the Year” and shares what actually works in edtech. In this podcast, Tom shares the research and highlights, some of which are included in the book Learning Transformed that he co-authored with Eric Sheninger. (Enter the book giveaway contest.)

This episode is sponsored by Bloomz.com

Sponsored by Bloomz I’ve been using Bloomz for three years now and I love it. Go to www.coolcatteacher.com/bloomz to find out why Bloomz is the best parent-teacher communication system out there. I’ve included a comparison matrix with features to help you figure out what system is best for you.

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Below is a transcript modified for your reading pleasure. For information on the guests and items mentioned in this show, scroll down to the bottom of this post.


Transcript for Episode 119

What Actually Works in Edtech? With Thomas C. Murray

Link for this show: www.coolcatteacher.com/e119


 [Recording starts 0:00:00]

VICKI:               Today, we’re talking to Thomas C. Murray. @thomascmurray

Point A: We need to be asking what works because we're spending a lot of money on education technology.

He’s the co-author of Learning Transformed. http://amzn.to/2ulm8s1 So, Tom, what actually does work in Edtech?

TOM:           Hey, Vicki. What an honor it is to be with, my friend. So great to be on your show. So, Vicki, here’s what we’re seeing; nationwide, we’re spending billions of dollars on educational technology. So many times, we’re seeing schools and teachers thinking that technology is going to solve the learning issues that we’re seeing, and that technology can just transform old practice. And that is not the case.

You know, Vicki, when I was a cabinet member in my school district, where I served for 15 years, my very last board meeting, the school board president looked at me – and this was the budget meeting, and, Vicki, that’s always the fun one, right – school board president looks at me and says, so, Tom, if we’re going to spend this additional x dollar amount of money on this technology, will student achievement increase next year?

And I got to tell you, Vicki, that’s actually a great question, coming from the person that’s in charge of tax money and signing on the dotted line. So what does work? What is it that actually works?

Point B: Since edtech has been around a while now, some research is emerging to guide us in its use

TOM: Vicki, let me tell you a couple of things. So we did, through Future Ready Schools  and my teams at the Alliance for Excellent Education,  we partnered with Dr. Linda Darling Hammond, one of the top known researchers in the world when it comes to education and what works, and our team at Stanford University, to dive into the topic of what is it that actually works.

Research Finding #1: (What Works) Learning must be Interactive

TOM: So, first, what was found was that the learning has to be interactive. We have to make sure that when we’re using technology with kids, that the kid is actually interacting with the learning. To give you some concepts or some concrete examples of that, very quickly; interactive learning, the national Edtech plan coins that as active use versus what we would contrast being passive use. So what works is when students are actively using the technology.

Research Finding #2: (What Works) Use Technology to Explore, Design and Create

TOM: It really dovetails nicely with the second point in the research of what actually works without Edtech; and that’s the use of technology to explore, to design and to create, and that’s showing worth the money every time.


Research Finding #3: (What Doesn't Work) Converting Worksheets to Technology

But the flipside to that, what’s not, is what I would probably deem the most prevalent practice in our country, in my opinion, and that’s the “digital drill and kill.” We take the worksheets of yesteryear that used to be in the desk, in the folder; we put them on a Chromebook or we put them on an iPad, and all of a sudden we’re celebrating that we’re paperless, we’re celebrating that everything is online. And then that’s the case; we haven’t changed anything, we’ve just made it more expensive.

Research Finding #4: (What Works) Teachers are the Most Important Aspect of Effective Technology Integration

And so, Vicki, what really works, first and foremost, it’s remembering that the pedagogy is the key. The teacher is the most important aspect when it comes to integrating technology, not the device.

When we take a look at the third aspect related to the research on the use of technology, it’s the right blend of teachers and technology. And what that actually means is something we’ve always known; what’s right for one student is different than another. And that’s just differentiation, or personalization now being the buzzword we’re all using, when we take a look at what actually works.

Question: How Do we Improve Education in America?

VICKI:          Now, you were actually named education thought leader of the year for the US for 2017,  which is a pretty big title, Tom. You know, people are asking you policy questions all the time. When people ask you how do we improve education in America, what’s your answer?

TOM:           Well, I appreciate that. And some people like to joke that, do I just sit back and think all day? Is that what that’s all about? And I’ll be the first one. You know, I’m not a huge advocate for awards. It’s a nice honor by any means, but I would share that with the countless educators that I work with around the country that do an amazing job for kids every day. What’s the answer?

Focus on on Fostering Good Relationships Between Teachers and Students

TOM: I’d say, first and foremost, the key to a solid foundation in education comes down to relationships. Our job is about loving and caring about kids and doing whatever it takes to help students move forward. We all know, as educators, kids come to us with amazing issues on their backs, and then sometimes they’re walking into our classrooms with struggles that many of us have never faced. And so we need to, number one, make sure that we are loving and caring about kids and doing whatever it takes.

Policies should focus on creating authentic, personal learning experiences

From a policy end, one of the ways, in working with the Senate and the Congress in Washington, D.C., one of the areas that I’m truly trying to push is making sure that we’re creating dynamic, authentic and personal learning experiences for kids.


                    You know, we’ve standardized so much related to, No Child Left Behind, and a Nation at Risk prior to that; and we’ve standardized so much over the past number of years, we’ve often lost the authentic side of things.

How do we make learning personal? How do we make it authentic; not just for students but for teachers as well, when we talk about things like related to professional learning and so on and so forth? So focusing on relationships and loving and caring about kids, but then how do we create dynamic, authentic learning experiences.

And where we started, Vicki, when we look at the use of technology, technology can be an amazing accelerant for student learning, and it can also help provide and amplify great teaching practices.

Question: What can we do about so many teachers leaving the profession?

VICKI:          Tom, a lot of teachers – and you talk to these teachers, so you know what they’re saying. A lot of them are getting out of education because they feel like they’re in a strait jacket, they feel like they’re being dictated to of what to say, they feel like they’re being scripted, and they don’t feel like they have the autonomy and freedom to have these dynamic, authentic, personalized learning experiences in their classroom.

The Leadership Gap

TOM:           And I would agree with that, Vicki. And I think it’s awful that we’re losing so many great people that love kids because of that. And you know what that comes down to, in my opinion; there’s a leadership gap in our country. We need to have dynamic school leaders, and our work through Future Ready Schools is focused on that, that create a culture of innovation in their schools where teachers can take risks when teachers stumble, because it’s going to happen just like leaders are going to stumble, that they’re picked up and walked behind and encouraged. And when leaders are creating that environment, teachers are thriving.

But in toxic school environments that are not having such a culture of innovation, teachers are leaving in droves. And so one of the things we need to make sure that we have is dynamic school leaders that can help lead the way to empower teachers so teachers can run and do what teachers do best. Some of the best people that I’ve ever worked with in the world are brand new teachers that have a heart for kids, that are doing whatever it takes. And we need to encourage them, we need to love them, and we need to do whatever it takes to support them along the way. And that’s a school leadership issue that we need to deal with nationwide.


Question: What is the answer to those who blame the leadership in Washington, DC for this?

VICKI:          Well, you know, some people blame, want to point, of course. Everybody blames D.C. for everything, but they want to say this toxic test culture started with some of the legislation that we’ve just put so much pressure to change things. Should we pull back on the pressure, or what do we do?

TOM:           You know, I think when we look at No Child Left Behind, and then that was a bipartisan bill back in the day, it did put that pressure on to accountability and testing. But it did bring some good things out when it started to look at places like subgroups.

Understanding inequities is a good byproduct of recent education legislation

TOM: And, Vicki, we have huge inequities in our country when it comes to our students of color in certain areas, our females and the opportunities they have, or maybe in some of our rural districts. And so it did put a magnifying glass on those things. And that’s a good thing, because it really pointed out some of the issues in our nation we’ve had related to severe inequities in certain areas.

Over standardization is a problem

TOM: However, what I would say is where it’s been negative, and where we probably all agree on this, is the incredible pressure related to things like testing and accountability, and in areas that it’s been tied way too much where it hasn’t just been a snapshot or a metric. You know, I look at standardized testing and I think I reflect back to 30 years ago, I was taking a standardized test in second or third grade; however, it was a very different metric. That was some sort of a benchmark or maybe just a common assessment. It didn’t come with today’s pressures or today’s national scores that we see.

ESSA should help states and local districts move back from over standardization

TOM: So what do we do? Fortunately, with ESSA,  the new law of the land, it’s giving a lot of power back to the states; it’s giving a lot of power back to the local districts, which is absolutely a good thing, in my opinion. But what we want to do; make sure we have strong leaders that make strong decisions for kids.

Teachers must learn how to effectively use their voice to advocate for schools and children

And what can we do? If I’m a teacher; use your voice. Use your voice in a respectful way, but show what and why and how things are going to be better for kids. I think sometimes as educators, we don’t give ourselves enough credit; we think, nobody is going to listen to me, or nobody is going to listen to that person. But as we continue to bind together for kids and preach, truly, what’s best for kids, people will listen. You know, we vote people into power.


                    And so we continue to put people in positions that make poor decisions; well, then we need to maybe vote differently. And so I don’t want to say that from one side of the aisle or the other, but what I say is we all have a voice. We have a voice, first and foremost, for serving kids, but we have a voice also politically at the local, at the state, and also at the federal level. And I would encourage every educator to truly fight for what they believe in.

Those who say they are “just a teacher” miss out on their power

VICKI:          And you and I are both a product of the fact that we were really just regular educators. We still are, but we have a voice because we chose to exercise the voice through the web, right?

TOM:           You got that, Vicki. And sometimes I’ll hear that, “hey, I’m just a teacher; I’m just a teacher. “And my response is always, then you have just the right opportunity to transform the lives of children every single day. And so our teachers are the backbone of the freedom in our country; our teachers are the backbone of supporting and loving kids of our country. And so I don’t want to ever hear somebody say, “I’m just a teacher”, because they do have just the opportunity to change the lives of people every single day.

VICKI:          Because, teachers, we are remarkable. When somebody says, “I’m just a teacher,” I’m like, “oh, yeah, you are a teacher, and teachers are remarkable. They are amazing.”

And we’ve got a lot to think about. The book is Learning Transformed. Check the show notes for our giveaway. And thank you, Tom.

TOM:           Vicki, it’s always a pleasure, my friend. Great to hear your voice today.

 [End of Audio 0:09:19]

Learning Transformed Book by Eric Sheninger and Thomas C Murray

[Transcription created by tranzify.com. Some additional editing has been done to add grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors. Every attempt has been made to correct spelling. For permissions, please email lisa@coolcatteacher.com]

Full Bio As Submitted

Thomas C. MurrayTom Murray

Tom serves as the Director of Innovation for Future Ready Schools, a project of the Alliance for Excellent Education, located in Washington, DC. He has testified before the United States Congress and works alongside that body and the US Senate, the White House, the US Department of Education and state departments of education, corporations, and school districts throughout the country to implement student-centered, personalized learning while helping to lead Future Ready and Digital Learning Day.

Murray serves as a regular conference keynote, was named one of “20 to Watch” by NSBA, the “Education Policy Person of the Year” by the Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2015 and “Education Thought Leader of the Year” in 2017. His latest book, Learning Transformed, was released in 2017 with ASCD. Connect with him at thomascmurray.com or @thomascmurray.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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