I’ve never been shy about my passion for fertilizer.
Technology has changed a lot about the way we live and work, but one area stands out as an exception: education. Many teachers still have to use the same tools—blackboards, textbooks, overhead projectors—that their own teachers used decades ago.
That’s beginning to change. New apps, games, and websites are helping teachers work with their students in new ways and making it easier for them to connect with their colleagues.
At the same time, states and districts are increasingly focused on giving teachers better feedback and doing more to help them keep learning. And reforms like the Common Core State Standards are creating a nationwide market that is encouraging more companies to develop innovative tools for teachers.
Thanks to these three trends, I think that in five years the average quality of instruction in America’s schools will be meaningfully better than it is today.
I recently had the chance to spend time with some of the new technology products being designed for teachers. Some of them are focused on teacher training, others on supporting their classroom work or helping administrators give them feedback. Although it’s too early to say which ones are going to break through and reach scale, I thought I would share a few of the ideas that seem especially promising to me.
Of course, I’m not a teacher. What’s really exciting is the way educators are responding to these tools. You can click on the links below to see teachers’ reviews of most of these products on Graphite. And if you’re a teacher who has used one of these, you can add your own comments there as well.
BetterLesson hosts lesson plans for English and math from 170 master teachers. You can search for plans by grade and subject. The master teachers have posted notes about how they use their plans, along with video summaries. You can also see how each lesson applies to a given Common Core standard, and how the lessons connect throughout the year.
ThinkCERCA helps teachers create reading assignments that push their students’ critical thinking skills. For example you can take a topic like the government’s role in promoting good health and assign various texts for different reading levels. Students go through a series of exercises, including constructing an argument and citing evidence from what they’ve just read. Teachers can evaluate their students’ work and assign content to help students with areas where they need to improve, right there in the tool.
LightSail is an e-reader app with a library of 80,000 texts. Students can track their reading progress and earn badges as they go. Teachers can set challenges for their classes and assign tests. They can see who hasn’t been reading lately and compare their class’s progress to others in the same school. (If I were in a class using LightSail today, I might look a little lazy. I still do pretty much all my reading on paper.)
Fine Tune is designed to help teachers practice evaluating their students’ writing assignments. The idea is to let teachers rate sample essays and then give them feedback by comparing their ratings with the ratings given by a panel of experienced teachers.
This is an especially important area, because the Common Core puts such a big emphasis on improving students’ writing skills—not just in traditional writing-intensive courses like English, but in other classes like history and science too. I think the next big challenge in this area is to help teachers give students coaching that helps them become better writers. That’s a tough problem, and I’ll be curious to see how developers approach it.
Many teachers already use Edmodo to communicate with students and make assignments. Edmodo recently expanded by launching a new library of Common Core–related content, such as assessments that help teachers see how their students are doing with the various standards.
BloomBoard is an interesting example of the intersection between teacher feedback and professional development. It’s a repository where administrators can write classroom observations and then connect teachers with resources to help them improve, including videos of really effective educators. Teachers can create their own groups and hold real-time chats about their work. Schools can even analyze their spending on professional development. (The Gates Foundation is an investor in BloomBoard.)
It’s great to see so many companies doing innovative work. But we’re just at the beginning of this transformation, and the tools will get a lot better. I know from experience that the best way to improve your products is to get feedback from your users, so I hope teachers will have a chance to try out these and other products and give the developers their honest opinions. Getting great tools into teachers’ hands is one of the keys to delivering on the promise of a great education for every child.