Eureka, someone else found it!

Dr. Puentedura, codified something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but he got there way before I did. I do have an excuse for not putting a name and a not-at-all catchy acronym to it since was in high school in the mid-80s when he thought of it and called it SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition).


SAMR is a pedagogical model applied to the use of technology for students, but I think it’s much more broadly applicable. For example, you could substitute a simple digital watch for an analog one with no functional change. On the other end, there are many things that we can do because of computers and the internet that we couldn’t have imagined before. Jobs, such as digital literacy coaches and search engine optimization specialists exist now that weren’t even a gleam in eyes of all but a few crazy people or visionaries. In those and many other cases, technology has redefined what’s possible.

The classroom is a microcosm of the larger world, or at least it should be (which makes up the “authentic” part of “authentic learning”), so the SAMR model applies to goals and activities there as well.

It was the worst of times

As much as I, as a teacher, use technology everyday in my 2nd grade classroom (fiction and non-fiction videos, finding activities and lesson plans (huge shout-out to TeachersPayTeachers), taxonomy, communication with colleagues and administration, reports, storing assessment data, etc., etc.), my students don’t put their hands on technology in my classroom. And that’s the way, uh huh uh huh, I like it. But seriously, I’m not concerned that they’re not getting exposure to technology (South Korea, home of Samsung and LG, has the fastest internet speeds in the world, and over half my class of 7 and 8 year old already have a mobile phone. I’m honestly not exaggerating. After I found my 7- and 8-year-old students were calling their parents during the school for any number of reasons without asking or telling anyone at the school, the parents and students all had to sign a technology policy prohibiting it. It boggles the mind to think that a student would call a parent if they were having some sort of real issue at school before they talked with the staff.), it anything, I’d say they may be getting too much, but I start feeling like a Luddite or a curmudgeon when I say that out loud.

For example

Here’s what I actively hate: Using technology as nearly a direct substitute for an existing technology (e.g. smartboards for whiteboards), but someone has promoted it as better, cooler, and it does way more stuff, so it’s actually supposed to (using the SAMR model) augment learning activities. But all the smartboards I’ve used so far are, to put it very politely, sub-par. You have to re-tool your slides or activities for the proprietary white board app, and that takes time. Then if you switch to another smartboard manufacturer, they have their own software, so you have to convert the interactive activities to their software, if it’s even possible. And if it’s possible, you better hope they convert without any loss of functionality. You’re also tied to your computer or a tablet to work with the smartboard’s software. In addition, smartboards aren’t all that accurate, especially when younger kids don’t have very good fine motor skills to begin with. They weren’t accurate for me, and my fine motor skills are fully developed. Hopefully you don’t have any software or hardware issues either. Interactive display tech is never going to be as awesome as Minority Report made it out to be. Never. I can say that because by the time I’m wrong, I’ll be long dead.

And unless your school’s architect or contractor did some decent planning and your school has the money to really trick your classroom out with a sliding whiteboard to cover your smartboard, your smartboard is worse than useless because you can’t use it as a whiteboard and it’s not magnetic.

A whiteboards isn’t embedded in the classroom. Sorry, it actually is embedded, if by embedded you mean “fixed firmly and deeply in a surrounding mass; implanted.” But that’s not the definition of embedded we’re interested in if we want use technology in the classroom. When access to the smartboard is completely controlled by the teacher and only one or two students can use it at once, then engagement with the rest of the class is extremely low. If you’ve been an elementary school teacher, you know that low engagement means chaos. Fail.

Smartboards fail on another level as well, the most important level of all. By using a smartboard and doing typical interactive smartboard activities (multiple choice, sorts, etc.), what do students learn that they can apply beyond the immediate classroom? In other words, if students are going to use technology in the classroom, they need to learn technology-based skills which help them to think in new ways about how to find better solutions to questions more quickly, communicate more effectively, and create compelling presentations, not just your classroom, but other classrooms and definitely beyond the classroom. Smartboards fail on every single level when it comes to authentically embedding technology in the classroom.

I’d like to hear from anyone who’s overcome any of the issues I’ve mentioned. I’m honestly not trying to play devil’s advocate or just dump on smartboards for the sake of argument. I know teachers who have whiteboards and have worked hard to use them. They’ve given up. I had a smartboard. I got rid of it in favor of a whiteboard, a big, beautiful, useful whiteboard, which I use everyday. There aren’t any technical barriers to using it except when one of my board markers goes dry or won’t fully erase.

In short, I view smartboards and any other technology which promises to be an enhancement to existing analog technology with extreme skepticism. I’d rather have a new set of books. I’d honestly rather have a bare wall than cover any of my wall space with a smartboard. You get the idea. At best, bad tech in the classroom is an expensive manipulative.

Let’s talk best case scenario, because all the stuff I just covered makes me seem kind of grumpy. Let’s get happy.

It was the best of times

I believe tech can transform many educational experiences for the better, but it doesn’t happen by accident and the teacher has to be on his or her game.

Understanding By Design is backwards in the best possible way. Like Stephen Covey’s 2nd habit, educators should always begin with the end in mind. In other words, what do you want your students to learn? Then how will you assess them to see if they’ve learned what you want them to learn? What activities should you create in order to give them all of the tools they need – knowledge, skills, and ideas – that will make them ready for those assessments? Finally, what do they know, are capable of, and how do they think? This is a combination of their prior knowledge, the cognitive abilities (see Piaget’s Stage Theory of Cognitive Development), and where those two things place them on the taxonomy (Bloom’s, to use one of the most well known). Those tools will help them build a bridge between where they are at the beginning of the lesson and where they need to be by the end.

In a world that is filled with data, teachers are only able to help students learn a small number of ideas and facts. As such, it is important that we give students the tools needed to decipher and understand the ideas…If a student is able to transfer the skills they learn in the classroom to unfamiliar situations, whether academic or non-academic, they are said to truly understand. ( Smith, M., & Siegel, H. (2004). Knowing, Believing, and Understanding: What Goals for Science Education? Science & Education, 13(6), 553-582. doi:10.1023/

I don’t want to just rephrase Kim Cofino‘s excellent post, 3 Steps to Transforming Learning in Your Classroom, so you should probably read it if you haven’t already. I think she provides an excellent road map for authentically embedding technology in the classroom. As a 2nd grade teacher in an incredibly diverse school (Out of , my own classroom presents some wonderful opportunities and challenges.

Step 0: What do you want them to learn?

That whole Understanding by Design (UbD) thing is actually Step 0, so let’s start there. For that extra special challenge, I’ll assume I’m working with my 2nd graders on a social studies unit about culture.

I use the American Education Reaches Out (AERO) social studies standards (PDF) and here’s the over-arching theme/learning expectation for Standard 4 – Culture: “Students will understand cultural and intellectual developments and interactions among societies.” There are 2 performance indicators (what they students should be able to do by the end of the unit) for 2nd grade:

4.2.d Compare and contrast social environments in different cultures.

4.2.e Describe the expectations of how to act in one’s own culture and compare this with behavioral expectations of other cultures.

I’ll walk through 4.2.d for this example.

Step 0.5: Scaffolding (aka Climbing the taxonomy)

Both of those performance indicators end at level 2 in the revised Bloom’s taxonomy, which is “understand”. “Compare” and “Compare/Contrast” appear as outcome verbs in both level 2 and level 4 “analyze”, but stopping at level 2 is more appropriate for this outcome specifically and for 2nd grade in general because of the level’s definition and example:

demonstrate comprehension through one or more forms of explanation (e.g. classify a mental illness, compare ritual practices in two different religions)

Step 1: If students can’t relate, your unit’s not great

This is ridiculously simple that I wish I’d thought of it before. What can be more relevant or relatable to students than the other students in their class except the students themselves? Lower elementary students are just beginning to develop an awareness greater than themselves, so asking them to compare and contrast cultures they or their friends aren’t a part of would leave them pretty flat. It’s pretty easy to see where this is going, especially at KKFS, which is a very diverse international school. Paring students up, ideally with friends, will help raise the levels of relevance and cooperation. Engagement will likely be quite high.

Step 2: Big things have small beginnings

As Cofino mentions, creating real-world tasks for lower elementary is challenging, but the type of presentation and the steps it would take to make it are totally real-world skills: finding and understanding a definition of “social environment”, searching different types of media for at least roughly matching parallel examples in each culture; saving these examples in a document and playlist; writing a short script for their presentation in front of the class as an introduction to the specific aspects of social environments they compared and contrasted and interstitial explanations to point out the differences and similarities in each case; writing a short conclusion; and presenting their media to the rest of the class with their partner. The presentation would definitely help illustrate (one of the action words (PDF) the similarities and differences between social environments in different cultures. All of the activities and the skills to complete them are very authentic. There’s nothing platform or application specific about them, so they can use the technical and cognitive skills in every grade and as an adult in the workplace. I use them myself all the time when teaching them or anyone else.

As for hardware, tablets are robust and easy for them to use (especially because of the physical interface: even laptop keyboards are too big for them; a touchscreen is easier for them to use than a touchpad or mouse).

Step 3: If you build it, they will come

The first audience for this project is the easiest of all to discern, their fellow classmates. And me, since not only am I to assess if they achieved the goal, but I’m curious about the information as well. One thing though, I wouldn’t let any group present on the same thing (e.g. “How are the elderly are treated in country X?”) for several reasons. I’m looking to compare groups against other groups and I want their classmates to be engaged while the presenters are…well…presenting. If a child thinks they’ve heard something before, good luck keeping their attention. This goes for adults too.

The need for as little obvious overlap among the topics as possible becomes more important the larger the stage. These presentations would be great for the entire school since International Day at KKFS is one of the biggest events of the year, especially since it cuts across all the divisions and takes up an entire school day. The 2nd graders would get a chance to practice their presentations with me and their partner, then the whole class, and then finally, do it several times for small groups with students, teachers, and administrators from all the divisions.

Next: From the small screen to the classroom

Fortunately, COETAIL has a handy, dandy lesson planny…ahem…lesson planner to help me design this technology-rich unit deliberately. While I expect the students’ projects will be quite novel, an amazing reflection of their knowledge, partnership, and skills, I’m grateful I don’t have to invent the wheel by creating the process. I’ll stand on the shoulders of giants to help my students achieve great things.