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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 8|No 7|April|1999


Scoring High
with New


by Jamie McKenzie

(About the Author)

Despite the five billion dollars being spent annually to equip American schools with networks, we have no credible evidence that this huge investment has translated into improved student performance on important learning tasks such as reading, writing and reasoning. We have been lax with regard to assessment and unfocused with regard to program. We have surfed and fiddled and frittered too long. Our students deserve something much more substantial.

Even some of the best educational research into Internet uses by teachers (Becker, 1999) paints a somewhat sorry picture of how these new tools are being used with students by most teachers. (click here to go to "Internet Use by Teachers" Web site at University of California Irvine

Becker's data show that even those teachers with access to four or more networked classroom computers were rarely taking full advantage of the student learning opportunities available.

For STUDENT RESEARCH USE, teachers would score 1.0 if they did all three of the following, .66 if they did two of the following, .33 if they did just one of the following and .00 if they did none of them . . .

  • Have the students use the World Wide Web in at least 3 lessons during the year.
  • Have the students use the Web at least 10 times.
  • Choose an Internet browser software as one of the three most valuable pieces of software used in their teaching.

For STUDENT PROJECTS AND PUBLISHING, teachers would score 1.0 if they did all three of the following, .66 if they did two of the following, .33 if they did just one of the following and .00 if they did none of them . . .

  • Have students do e-mail in at least 3 lessons.
  • Have a class participate in a cross-school collaborative project.
  • Do a lesson where students became expert in a topic and put their information on the Web.

Across all teacher types, regardless of access, the scores came out as follows:


Source: Teaching, Learning & Computing - 1998,
"Internet Use by Teachers,"

These scores are distressingly low, but the scores for those teachers with the most robust Internet connections at home and in school, while better, are still pretty discouraging, since they are meeting, on average, only two of the three criteria for student research and less than one for student projects.

Some of us who have been working the Internet and schools for the past five years would argue that the three tests of use employed by Becker to reach these scores are "entry level" descriptors of use hardly robust enough to indicate the kind of substantial, daily program integration which would merit the huge expenditures required to equip classrooms with four or more networked computers.

Teacher Internet Access Types Student Research Student Projects & Publication
Neither home or classroom access
Home only
Classroom modem only
Both home and class modem
Home & classroom-LAN with 1-3 computers
Home & classroom-LAN with 4+ computers

Source: Teaching, Learning & Computing - 1998,
"Internet Use by Teachers,"
Data from Table 13, page 11

Becker's sample of teachers is an interesting one, not entirely representative of teachers nationally. If anything it is somewhat loaded with more inventive and constructivist teachers than usual. One major portion of the sample was picked in a random, representative manner (the national probability sample), but two other portions (the purposive samples) were selected 1) from schools engaged in "educational reform" programs or from 2) high-end technology schools. We need exercise caution before generalizing to the nation as a whole based on this sample skewed toward the inventive and experimental.

What is striking after considering the sample as somewhat skewed is the meager evidence of substantial program integration even under the best of circumstances.

However, this article intends to show that with due focus upon effective strategies, adequate investment in professional development, and a concentration upon information literacy, schools should be able to justify their investment in electronic information and tools as students will learn to read more strategically, write more persuasively and reason more coherently.
A New Testing Landscape
Many American states as well as Canadian provinces, Australian states, and countries like New Zealand have been radically shifting the nature of test items to require more independent thinking and inferential reasoning. Along with curriculum standards which call for problem-solving and decision-making, we are seeing a dramatic change in testing which requires that students know how to make up their own minds and figure things out for themselves.
Many of these new tests offer fewer multiple choices and expect students to draft their own responses. In many states, the failure rate approaches or exceeds 50 per cent as thousands of students find themselves ill prepared to respond to such challenges.
An Example from Massachusetts
Fourth graders in Massachusetts read a story about a young girl, Anastasia, who brings home a pet and argues with her mother to let her bring the pet inside. The mother resists. Anastasia persists. The mother resists. Anastasia tries again. And so it goes . . .
"What kind of person is Anastasia? Justify your answer with examples and evidence from the story."
This kind of question requires the reasoning skills we associate with the research process. The student must put 2 and 2 together in order to develop and then support a reasonable answer.
The Need for Strategic Reading:
An Example from Virginia
Student scores on demanding tests are likely to rise dramatically if we teach them to start with the questions before they read the passage. They can then read the passage strategically, knowing what clues they need to confirm their hypotheses.
In most cases, two of the multiple choice answers can be rejected logically without even reading the passage. We must teach students to begin by discarding these two. Once they have narrowed down the choices to two survivors, they must know that one is a "teaser" put there to trap them and one is correct. Their job is to pose a hypothesis for a right answer and then read just enough of the passage to dispose of the teaser.
Try it on this next question which is a sample item from Virginia. Which two answers can be discarded immediately?
Which of the remaining two seems most plausible?
What is the main idea of this passage?
A. The sculpture of each President’s head on Mt Rushmore is created from plaster models.
B. Borglum planned the final appearance of Mt Rushmore by rearranging plaster models of the Presidents’ heads.
C. Carving huge likenesses of four Presidents on MR involved years of hard work on the mountain face.
D. Numbers were painted on the rock of MR to show the amount of stone that needed to be removed from each part of the Presidents’ heads.
When we speak of teaching strategic reading, we expect that students will learn the strategies employed by proficient readers as identified by research into effective reading. Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop (Keene & Zimmerman, 1997) describes how Colorado teachers have used this approach to strengthen the reading comprehension of elementary students.

Researchers have found that proficient readers - ones with strong comprehension abilities - use their minds quite differently than those who read word by word, sounding out the words without much understanding of content.

Teachers model each of the strategies one at a time and then give students ample opportunities to practice each strategy until it becomes a habit of mind. Once a reasonable level of mastery has been attained, they move on to the next strategy and devote a month or more to the new one until it, too. is mastered.
Drawing from Mosaic (pp. 22-23) we can derive a strategic approach to challenging reading questions and passages.
  • Questioning

    Students begin with the questions rather than the passage, and then they pose more questions about the questions. We build answers to big questions by figuring out the smaller or "subsidiary" questions which point the way to an answer.

    In the Mt. Rushmore question above, for example, the student looks at the question . . .

"What is the main idea of this passage?"
And new questions come to mind . . .
"Which of these 4 choices look like a main idea?"
"Which look like details?"
"Which answer looks like a 'teaser' or trap?"
"Which answers seem like facts rather than ideas?"
"What's me best hunch for the answer?"
"What clues do I need from the passage to check my hunch?"
"Where should I look for these clues?"
If we provide students with explicit practice of this questioning approach, they then turn to reading passages with far more purpose and skill.
  • Picturing

    We encourage students to think visually and to use all of their senses as they look at the questions and move to the passage.


    Picture used with permission of the National Park Service

      They bring a picture of Mount Rushmore up into their "mind's eye."

    They also look at the passage somewhat like a cluster diagram, wondering how its contents fall into categories.

    Instead of starting from the first word of the first paragraph and reading each word and sentence in order from beginning to end, the student browses over the paragraphs and tries to identify the structure. The student looks for "the big picture" and only digs down deeply where the most important information is likely to lie awaiting.

    It is no accident that we say "A picture is worth a thousand words." These visual strategies give us a way or organizing and grasping complexities. They help our students to translate the words into meaning. They convert details and fragments into pictures.

    "I get it!" they proclaim, as the main idea comes into focus.

  • Awakening prior knowledge

    Prior knowledge comes in handy right off while discarding obviously wrong answers before turning to read the passage itself. The trick here is to sharpen students' awareness of their substantial knowledge base so they will "dredge up" whatever they know before reading. It may take some intentional "searching" to bring the data up from storage, but it pays off in better performance.

    The technical word used in Mosaic and in reading research is schema. If we think of mental scaffolding and the reading task as the construction of meaning, prior knowledge helps to provide the structure upon which to "hang" insight. Prior knowledge provides the context that lends more significance to details and fragments.

    In this next example from the Virginia test, notice how it takes some prior knowledge of words such as "convince" and "persuade" to discard the first two answers as not matching "the factual style" of the article.

You can tell from the factual style of this article that the author’s main purpose is to -

F convince people of Borglum’s talent
G persuade people to visit monuments
H explain how to make large sculptures
J tell about an actual historical event
"Explain how" and "Tell about" are both more likely to match "the factual style" of the article.

    Think in terms of jigsaw puzzles. Ever look at the picture on the box before putting the pieces together? Why? The picture helps us to sort and sift the fragments. It works somewhat like that for reading. If students start by considering what they already know and bring it into the reading process, they will be ahead of the game.

  • Inferring
The most important ideas in the "new" reading tests are not directly stated. They must be inferred . . . figured out by reading between the lines and putting clues together. The students must play Sherlock Holmes - must be "infotectives" operating on hunches and suppositions, testing hypotheses. Like a good detective, they look for evidence, seek patterns, notice breaks in patterns and manage to dig below the surface to find, create or extend the meaning.
Inference is closely associated with the next strategy and they often work "hand-in-hand" as the student tries to "puzzle things" out . . .
  • Synthesizing

    Synthesis is somewhat like moving the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle around until a picture emerges. It is the thoughtful melding, combining and rearranging of the details, the clues and the elements of a passage until a solid idea or interpretation emerges.

Students who learn to outline their own ideas with a cluster diagramming program like Inspiration may grasp the puzzle metaphor as they "drag" their thoughts and information around on the screen.

(click here for free sample copy at

    The next step is to teach them to outline other writers' thoughts and ideas so they can see the connection between the reading and the writing act . . . the way that ideas are arranged within passages.

  • Fluency

    If at first you don't succeed . . .

    The best readers have a trial-and-error spirit which keeps them at the task . . . making use of every tool and trick in their repertoire until they have some success.

    Fluency refers to their ability to move across a menu of strategies until one works. They do not allow themselves to get stuck in one place trying the same wrong tool or strategy over and over again, harder and harder. They are toolmakers and tool-shapers as well as tool-users.

    Our job is to equip them with good strategies and also teach them to develop their own (as outlined in the December issue of From Now On - "Strategic Teaching" click here to go to the article at

Four Main Strategies to Enhance Student Performance
This article proposes four main ways to employ new technologies to strengthen student reading, writing and thinking:
  1. Make research, writing & questioning central to schooling (Information Literacy)
  2. Make strategic teaching a priority
  3. Identify and practice the 60 toughest questions
  4. Emphasize mindware


1. Make Research, Writing & Questioning Central to Schooling

Unless the school makes research, writing and questioning central, the networked technology will be used rarely and tangentially, with a tendency toward special events and trivia rather than "bread and butter" issues. Rank and file teachers want to see more than "virtual field trips" and fanciful bike tours of distant continents. They want to see activities which pay off in higher scores and better performance.

The first step is to make research a daily event in every child's life, not just something which happens once a year in February or March when we suddenly devote several weeks to a "state project." Research is the best practice for the kinds of strategic reading discussed earlier.

The February issue of From Now On described in some detail how to employ each of the following three strategies to make research a daily event . . .

  1. 500 Miles - a year long study by each student
  2. Essential Unit Questions
  3. Daily Research Puzzles

To be a successful thinker, reader and writer, each student must possess a Questioning Toolkit - a set of questioning strategies which will support the kinds of reading for meaning outlined earlier. Infotectives have highly developed repertoires of questioning skills.

As a beginning, consider the toolkit outlined in the November, 1997 issue of From Now On.

Essential Questions Subsidiary Questions Hypothetical Questions Telling Questions Planning Questions
Organizing Questions Probing Questions Sorting & Sifting Questions Clarification Questions Strategic Questions
Elaborating Questions Unanswerable Questions Inventive Questions Provocative Questions Irrelevant Questions
Divergent Questions Irreverent Questions

(go to the article for full description)

Ideally, we would hope to see students develop the capacity to formulate their own questions. For a dozen strategies to enhance student questioning abilities, click here for the article, "FILLING THE TOOL BOX, Classroom Strategies to Engender Student Questioning."

Writing as Process - We are also beginning to see more and more clearly the interplay between writing, thinking and reading. To optimize the technology return on investment, we need to invest in substantial professional development designed to make sure all teachers know how to provide the kinds of support needed to make Writing as Process a fundamental program element.

Writing as Process is essential if we want to see growth in student abilities because the model provides a basis for strategic intervention by teachers.

It turns out that the critical variable when improving student writing is prolonged, intimate and highly strategic teaching. The work of writing instructors such as Lucy Calkins, Peter Elbow and Linda Flower (see references below) eloquently illustrates the extended journey required to achieve growth.

Writing improves when the writer internalizes an inventive process of reworking early efforts. Young people learn to be reflective and questioning about their own performance and efforts. They are both strategic and playful. They are versatile and fluent. They develop a rich palette. They fill their toolkit with writing skills. They generate a "bag of tricks." They learn to shed the lazy, the cheap and the plastic in favor of the authentic and the genuine. They develop a passion for editing and revision.

Great writing teachers may prove an inspiration. How? Dialogue. Extended engagement. Commitment. The process is commonly torturous and time-consuming. Teacher and student enjoy a highly personalized exchange that cannot be reduced to simple formulas or recipes. The process cannot be easily packaged or replicated. There is no compact twelve step program. It is an intensive human communion requiring persistence and devotion. Teacher and student consider intriguing issues like these . . .

  • How can we capture meaning so that it still shines for others?
  • How can we weave and organize our thoughts so they flow with just the right amount of dramatic tension?
  • How might we extend our grasp of words and their meanings so as to avoid ho-hum, cookie-cutter sentences?
  • How do I find my voice?

Effective writing teachers show their students how to extend their own growth, showing them models like the Six Traits of Effective Writing (click to see example) approach to revision and then encouraging them to develop their own questions.

In all too many programs there is insufficient attention to the nexus of writing, reading and thinking. Writing as process helps to close that gap.

2. Make Strategic Teaching a Priority

The secret to changing student performance is timely intervention by a skillful teacher who is constantly watching and diagnosing student efforts. As outlined in the December, 1998 issue of From Now On, a teacher may intervene in four basic ways . . .

1. Adds to the student toolkit

The teacher frequently monitors the toolkit of each student to see which tools have “slipped through the cracks.” The teacher intervenes to provide each individual student with enough support to make essential tools a permanent part of the toolkit.

2. Untangles wrong thinking

Effective teachers ask students to reveal the patterns of their thinking. Once the teacher knows how the student is approaching the problem, the teacher may help to untangle the thinking and may suggest some better strategies to apply in the future.

3. Empowers independent problem-solving

The effective teacher rarely picks up the student’s problem and rarely touches the student’s mouse or track pad. The emphasis is firmly placed on developing independence and autonomy.

4. Encourages invention

Independent problem-solving often requires the invention of new tools and strategies. Sometimes it simply requires new ways of using old tools. Students must learn to modify their toolkit, making new tools and bending the old ones to the new tasks at hand.

(go to the article for full description)

3. Identify & Practice the 60 Toughest Questions

Regardless of the state, the same 5 dozen challenging questions and reading tasks occur over and over again.

  • Can you suggest a better title for this passage?
  • What was the author’s purpose?
  • What is the main point here?
  • Can you tell what attitude the author might have toward (insert issue or subject) from this passage?
  • What is wrong with the logic used by the author?
  • What were the most important factors leading to the character's decision?
  • What kind of person is Sam?

Schools need to make lists of such questions and then blend them into the daily lives of students so they encounter and practice them in social studies, math, science, art and all of the subject areas.

It is not enough to provide practice. Students must participate in group sessions during which a teacher may model an approach to that kind of question. We need to "surface" the inquiry process which works best for each of these questions rather than just assuming that all of our students may figure out the best strategy independently.

4. Emphasize Mindware

Some software programs can actually enhance the way we do our thinking. Inspiration, as mentioned above, is a kind of mindware which encourages a more visual approach to thinking. Sustained practice under the right conditions might help students to "put their heads around" some complex thinking processes.

In much the same way, various software tools such as spreadsheets can help students to do a different kind of data analysis and scenario testing - seeing what happens if variables change. This is precisely the kind of mathematical reasoning and inference required more and more often by state mathematics standards and tests.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that these more "constructivist" uses of computer software have taken hold in classrooms.


In some respects the Internet and networked computers are only half a product . . . like a car without a highway, gas or destination, like a CD player without music, like a guitar without strings or strummer.

In all too many cases we have "put the cart before the horse." Enamored with the glamor of networking and inspired by the workplace readiness arguments of futurists, we have rushed to place cables and computers in all classrooms without completing the design of the product.

What we have slighted in this process is the development of sound, worthwhile, effective learning experiences and activities which would take advantage of the new technologies to achieve new levels of student performance. We have operated on the (mistaken) notion that equipment and access would translate into performance benefits.

We have allowed too many from outside of schools to tell us what we needed, and we have welcomed their selling of half-baked solutions which ignore decades of serious inquiry into the pre-conditions of effective teaching and learning.

This article attempts to demonstrate how networked computers could make a difference in student learning if we would just install them with the proper accompaniments of professional development and program development.

The most important thing to remember is that great teaching is more important than great equipment!



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