MIT Blossoms: Tech That Uses Teachers

It’s a basic tenet of this post and this blog that we trust teachers. Once, a student is through the schoolhouse doors, in our experience, the extraordinary expertise, classroom smarts, and dedication that the vast majority of teachers offer are the strongest contributors to student success. In a world of budgetary apocalypse, ballooning class-size and disintegrated home lives, teachers are up against it. And often it feels as though every new reform effort we hear of somehow denigrates or marginalizes their efforts and abilities. Especially when it comes to technology, reform almost universally means taking something away from teachers.

That’s part of what’s so refreshing about MIT Blossoms (Blended Learning Open Source Science Or Math Studies). As Annie Murphy Paul reports on the Slate Future Tense blog, Richard Larson, a professor of engineering systems at the university, conceived of the program in the mid-aughts as a way to bring technological advantages into classrooms without squandering the talents of teachers. Inspired by a visit to China, Larsen came up with a system that integrates professional pre-recorded lectures with teacher-driven classroom group activities.

The idea has benefits that are both practical and pedagogically sound. On the practical side, the open-source Blossoms lessons effectively bring expertise into the classroom at levels that the average teacher simply can’t match. As we know, a number of institutional and cultural forces often conspire against getting many teachers with specialized knowledge into the classroom. Competitive career pressure and uncompetitive wages for educators keeps ambitious young people from pursuing jobs in in the field. Further, institutional teacher-certification priorities often favor the Masters of Education over advanced degrees in subject-related fields and effectively bar teachers with advanced specialization from school districts. Blossoms lectures, like other tech teaching tools, help bridge that gap and bring world-class expert instruction into any school, anywhere in the world.

On the pedagogical side, the Blossoms system effectively creates a productive classroom experience. The lessons unfold as a series of mini-lectures. The classroom teacher starts a video which runs through a first module before stopping to introduce a related activity that helps students integrate the information they have just learned. These activities, which rely on the active and able participation of the classroom teacher (who is asked to do what he or she often does best -- classroom management and reinforcement), frequently take the form of group experiences. Students will work on problem-solving, role-playing, or other forms of socially engaged learning. These let students work within a structured environment under the guidance of their teacher while also drawing on the power of social involvement. As Paul reminds us, in almost every respect, this reflects best practice for both students and teachers.

In the last year, we’ve written about structured but socially integrated teaching methods in Mexico and at Exeter. Especially when technology is involved, often it seems that the tech crowd wants to fold these innovations into their utopian narrative. But they seem, just as often, to pick out the wrong lessons from some of the striking success stories out there. In the iPad-happy current era, champions of tech see the individual device in the hands of the individual student as a revolutionary symbol. But as we’ve seen before and as we see here with MIT Blossoms, the most exciting and most promising efforts, in our humble opinion, are those that tie students tighter to each other and to their teachers.

Tags: Technology in Education, Pedagogy, NYC Teachers, Politics of Education
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