Finding the Right Fuel for New Engines of Learning
by Adam Bickford, Susan Tharp, Paula McFarling, and Monica Beglau
eMINTS Evaluation Team, and Monica Beglau, eMINTS Program
MultiMedia Schools • October 2002 

As a teacher and principal, I spent untold hours trying to explain what was happening in my classroom and school to well-meaning administrators and other observers. "Why are the kids always up and moving?" "What are they doing with that grocery list and the telephone book?" "Where are the textbooks we bought you?" As my students and teachers engaged in unusual and atypical methods of teaching and learning, I struggled to help people understand and comprehend what was different and why we were so committed to connecting the activity in the classroom to the real world.
Editor's Note:
Lessons are where the rubber meets the road. In my grandfather's day, the wheels were propelled by a hayburner. We've moved from hay to coal, to gasoline, to jet fuel, yet our lessons perpetuate the lecture-driven model that my grandfather experienced. How technology is used for learning is determined by the types of lessons into which we introduce its potentials.

The Teaching, Learning and Computing survey by Hank Becker taught us much about the people who implement the lessons [see ] but only very recently have the types of lessons themselves been a subject of research. In Missouri, the eMINTS program (enhancing Missouri's Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies) has documented proof of raising student performance on its statewide assessment test. Their research is available online [see], but it is perhaps even more important for MMS readers to examine what's been learned about which types of lessons work best to develop 21st century skills, and which types are best left behind. This story provides this information, to guide your work in aligning practice with research, in order to improve student achievement.


I knew that I had joined with kindred spirits when I met the innovators who were responsible for the eMINTS (enhancing Missouri's Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies) program. The program combined the teaching practices I had believed in throughout my career with the unlimited resources of the Internet and multimedia technologies. Further, the research model that was being designed to measure the success of the program centered directly on the very attributes I held as critical to high-quality teaching.

Using specific and detailed notes from multiple classroom observations, written narratives of teacher progress during professional development and classroom visits, and focus groups, the eMINTS program evaluation team identified teaching typologies that characterized typical teaching practices in eMINTS classrooms. These classrooms were equipped with significant levels of multimedia technologies, and the participating teachers engaged in over 200 hours of professional development over 2 years with substantial in-classroom support.

As evaluators, we welcomed the opportunity to visit and talk with the eMINTS teachers. In conducting our observations and interviews, we focused on identifying objective differences among classrooms. Our understanding and classification is based on what we were able to see and on what teachers told us about how participating in the eMINTS project has changed what they are doing in their classrooms. We came to this project from a variety of professions and had no pre-existing idea of what we were expecting to find. Instead, we let the teachers show us what they were doing and tell us what they thought was going on. The lesson typology is one project of our visits.

Lesson Typology:
Key Characteristics of Teacher-Centered Lessons, Student-Centered, Facilitated Lessons, and Student-Centered, Unfacilitated Lessons

Achieving credibility with policymakers and answering the critical questions posed by numerous education groups was the foremost twofold purpose of the evaluation study undertaken by the eMINTS Program evaluation team. In addition to substantiating the anecdotal reports of participating teachers and staff, the study was designed to validate our premise that how teachers taught was as important as what they taught or even as important as what tools they used. We needed a reliable set of teaching models or descriptions that could take us into future studies of teaching practices when we would manipulate other variables that make up the complex environment of today's classrooms to determine what was actually making a difference in student performance.

The overall lesson typology is organized around three homogeneous types of lessons, designated here as "teacher-centered," "student-centered, facilitated," and "student-centered, unfacilitated." A fourth category, hybrid, was used to classify the teaching activities of teachers who were experimenting with new instructional approaches during the observational period. These types differ substantially along four very general dimensions: the characteristic activities of the teachers, the characteristic activities of the students, the learning tasks observed during the lesson, and the characteristic ways the eMINTS equipment is used in the lesson.

Teacher-Centered Lessons

Teacher-centered lessons are typically situated in traditional, teacher-centered classrooms. In these lessons, the predominant teaching method is whole class lecture or demonstration, typically broken up by individual student instruction.

Teacher Practices: Teachers control the pace and content of work, they control the available time for work, and through their control of the classroom, they exercise control over the knowledge available to their students. In teacher-centered lessons, instruction is organized around discrete instructional tasks, e.g., completing worksheets, and the sequence of these tasks is dictated by a conventional single disciplinary structure. That is, language skills are taught in a language lesson and mathematics skills are taught in a math lesson, with almost no overlap or interdisciplinary work.

Student Activities: Students in these lessons are largely passive receivers of knowledge. Their activities have a limited acceptable response, i.e., tasks and assignments have "one right answer." These answers tend to be simple, declarative statements, much like responses found on worksheets. The structured nature of activities and the focus on single subject areas limit the time students have for understanding and completing assignments. Finally, students generally have no opportunity for inquiry. This is due in part to the role of the teacher as the controlling source of information and in part to the number of activities students are expected to complete over the course of a lesson.

Lesson Tasks: The central role of the teacher as a controlling element in the teacher-centered lesson impacts student opportunity for learning by creating an environment organizedaround discrete assignments and tasks. This is seen both in the progression of a lesson through academic subjects and in the discrete nature of activities within particular subjects. The scope of student activity is limited to specific materials presented in a textbook or specified by district curriculum. The discrete nature of classroom work emphasizes simple learning of immediate academic goals. Typically, this emphasis puts a premium on the memorization of information at the expense of higher-level comprehension.

Use of the eMINTS Equipment:

The eMINTS program equipment consists of a laptop for the teacher, an interactive whiteboard and high lumen projector, a teacher workstation, including scanner and printer, a digital camera, and one Internet-connected computer for every two students in the classroom. In the teacher-centered lesson, the eMINTS equipment is used in a limited fashion. Information resources available from the Internet are used like textbooks, that is, students are instructed to read materials off of their screens rather than out of a book. eMINTS equipment use is not integrated into classroom instruction, and the computer work is often used as a fill-in or reward activity.

We observed that teachers whose practices fell mainly in this teacher-centered typology often worked very hard at trying to force the technology to do what they had always done as teachers, just electronically. For example, during many teacher-centered lessons, teachers scanned mathematics or language worksheets and projected them on the classroom interactive whiteboards and had students come to the front of the classroom one at a time to solve the problems while the rest of the class followed along on their own paper copies. Students who attempted to work ahead or whose attention strayed from the worksheet often were reprimanded and, in at least one instance, had their papers confiscated by the teacher.

Student-Centered Lessons

While teacher-centered lessons are relatively simple to describe, student-centered lessons are not. Close control over student activity characterizes teacher-centered lessons. This is seen in the discrete character of learning activities and the rigid scheduling of subjects during the school day. In student-centered lessons, students have more control over the conduct of their work. Giving students this control requires a new role for the teacher, new lesson activities, and a more explicit approach to assessment.

Two types of student-centered lessons were identified. The first, the Student-Centered, Unfacilitated Lesson, is more problematic. These lessons appear to put less emphasis on specific learning activities in favor of unstructured classroom time. The other type of lesson, the Student-Centered, Facilitated Lesson, places the learning activity at the center of a classroom's work. In this type of lesson the eMINTS equipment is used as a resource to facilitate higher-order learning in a cooperative environment.

Student-Centered, Unfacilitated Lessons

In many ways, the student-centered, unfacilitated lesson represents a misapplication of the eMINTS resources and equipment. When discussing their roles, teachers of student-centered, unfacilitated lessons describe their activities as inquiry-based teaching. However, the observations of these classrooms suggest that these teachers have removed themselves from their academic roles in the name of student autonomy. The results are lessons without clear goals, without integrated activities, and without observable student progress on educational tasks.

Teacher Practices: In the observations of student-centered, unfacilitated lessons, teachers take on one of two typical roles. Either they focus on enabling the technical activities of their students (e.g., helping with searches, instructing students in use of the software, etc.), or they remove themselves from most classroom activity. Both roles have the effect of distancing the teacher from the academic goals of a given lesson and from the student learning environment. Typically, teachers of these lessons set general goals for their students, but they do not structure lesson activities and tasks in grade-appropriate ways. Lesson goals are implicit or, if stated explicitly, are not reinforced as part of the interaction between student and teacher. They do not provide students with academic support to enable the satisfaction of the academic or curriculum goal; rather, they assume that students possess the requisite skills to make sense of Internet materials and Web pages on their own.

Student Activities: For their part, students are engaged in the work; they use computers, use the software, search the Internet, etc. However, activities are performed without a clear goal and much is not related to completing a lesson task. In these lessons, students do not appear to gain an understanding of how to apply computer resources to the completion of their lessons, and much of their activities appear to be undirected searching or technical "doodling" with different software attributes (e.g., creating elaborate animation effects in PowerPoint slide presentations).

Lesson Tasks: In terms of learning within this type of setting, the academic goals are difficult to understand. There is no obvious or explicit relation of the lesson activity to a curriculum goal. In some cases, the lesson goal is too complex for students to understand and complete, i.e., it has not been sufficiently structured into grade-appropriate activities. For example, in one lesson students were asked to conduct a search about "rocks and minerals," as opposed to specifying the topic (e.g., "find information about three kinds of quartz"). In the absence of a clear and manageable academic goal, the technical aspects of computer use predominate. Internet searching and applying software "bells and whistles" become ends in themselves. In other cases, the teacher has apparently removed him- or herself from the classroom. For example, in another unfacilitated lesson, the teacher graded papers at her desk while students were allowed to surf the Internet freely.

Use of the eMINTS Equipment: The use of eMINTS equipment, including computers in these lessons, reveals a lack of integration of the technology into the curriculum. Simply put, computer work in these lessons does not contribute to the overall lesson. However, in most of these lessons, computer work was the central activity during the observation period. One may argue that learning about technology—how computers and software work—is a legitimate curriculum goal. However, in these lessons, it appears that acquiring technology experience and experience on the Internet have replaced other curriculum goals.

In one student-centered, unfacilitated lesson, a teacher was observed providing students with a bewildering array of Web sites related to native trees and telling them to find out everything they could about the trees that grew in Missouri. The students quickly lost track of what they were expected to do and most ended up flitting aimlessly from site to site without a purpose or task to guide them.

Student-Centered, Facilitated Lessons

The student-centered, facilitated lesson is the more positive of the two types of student-centered lessons observed. In many ways, this lesson type embodies the goals of the eMINTS program and inquiry-based instruction.

Teacher Practices: The teacher's role is much more than lecturer. Teachers in student-centered, facilitated lessons vary their teaching activities and methodology according to their lesson's instructional goal. Teachers lecture, conduct group discussions, facilitate student brainstorming, etc., when appropriate to the academic goal of the lesson. The essence of this type of lesson lies in the structure of the "learning task." Teachers structure the lesson as a series of tasks and subtasks. Each task is broken down into grade-appropriate activities, that is, individual activities are constructed to meet both the abilities of the student and the appropriate curriculum standard. These activities have an explicit sequence to them, and each has stated criteria for completion. The teacher communicates them to the class in a variety of ways, e.g., through written performance rubrics, through daily classroom meetings, and through individual consultation sessions. In all cases, lesson criteria are stated and reinforced at multiple points throughout the lesson. The goals of the lessons are constructed by combining district curriculum goals from a variety of subject areas. Lessons are less focused on issues of basic mastery and stress higher-order comprehension and logic.

Student Activities: In student-centered, facilitated lessons, students have "bounded autonomy," that is, they have great latitude in the completion of specific tasks, but the tasks themselves are bounded by the overall structure of the lesson. For example, in many student-centered, facilitated lessons, students are able to choose background colors, typefaces, and pictures to include in their documents or slide presentations. However, the activity of creating the document or presentation occurs within a general structure of tasks established by the teacher, for example, as part of a WebQuest or other extended activity. In these lessons, students' opportunity to "inquire" occurs in the completion of these tasks. Because they have control over their work products, students appear to feel empowered to complete subtasks to their satisfaction. Because the teacher does not occupy the classroom as the absolute authority over information, student work tends to be integrative; students take information from several sources (the Internet, other electronic sources, textbooks, reference materials, etc.) as appropriate. Student work also tends to be collaborative. Students confer and discuss assignments within and between student teams. Students confer with the teacher at predetermined points in the sequence of a lesson.

Lesson Tasks: The instructional and academic goals of a lesson are stated explicitly. Teachers embed these goals into specific tasks and subtasks. The tasks and subtasks relate to each other in clear and understandable ways. Teachers express the goals and tasks of the lesson in multiple, and often repeated, ways. In their interaction with students, teachers explicitly develop and deploy classroom knowledge and expertise. This sharing is seen as appropriate intellectual interplay between teachers and students. Often, teachers will devise an extensive division of labor among students, e.g., relying on students to assist each other with basic computer operation tasks, establishing consulting and conferencing arrangements among groups of students, and creating an environment where students have substantial responsibility for their learning work.

Use of the eMINTS Equipment: In this type of lesson, all of the individual characteristics, i.e., the teacher's construction of the lesson, the students' activities, the cooperative classroom climate, etc., work together to support a classroom community organized to maximize learning. In all of this activity, the relationship between the use of the eMINTS equipment, the teaching activities, and the learning outcomes is kept explicit. In this environment students are fully engaged participants in the educational endeavor. eMints equipment is fully integrated into the lesson plan and is used whenever appropriate to meet the academic goals of the lesson. Computers are used as one source of information along with books and other resources. A premium is placed on the appropriate use of technology within the structure of the lesson and activities.

Observations in classrooms where the practices are truly student-centered, facilitated often revealed pure educational magic. Students in one eMINTS classroom were observed developing an M&M dispenser that could be used in a zero gravity environment such as on the space shuttle. Students verbalized a large number of questions about space and gravity that they wanted answers for while the teacher recorded their questions and initial hunches on the interactive whiteboard. They then formed research teams to investigate their questions, starting with pre-selected Web sites the teacher had found for them. Their task was clearly outlined and resulted in a cross-curricular adventure that produced learning on multiple levels in multiple subject areas.

Hybrid Lessons: An Intermediary Stage

Between each of the three homogeneous lesson types is a heterogeneous lesson type, the "hybrid lesson." The majority of observed lessons fall into this category, and the category reflects the attempts of eMINTS teachers to use their technology in creative ways. Hybrid lessons combine characteristics of facilitated and teacher-centered lessons, most typically by attempting an innovative computer lesson in a teacher-centered classroom.

Teaching Practices: In these lessons, teachers typically work very hard to facilitate an inquiry-based activity. However, the effectiveness of this activity appears limited by the prominent role of the teacher as the main source of information. Typically, teachers undertake these activities without providing students with sufficient background information about an assignment, the tasks necessary to complete the assignment, or its grading or scoring. In these lessons, the working environment does not encourage student independence. In student-centered, facilitated lessons students always know what to do and, in time, become comfortable progressing from one activity to the next without extensive prompting. In hybrid lessons, students still rely on the teacher to give them permission to proceed from one activity to the next. Teachers in hybrid lessons tend to answer more student requests about more topics—both technical and substantive—than teachers in either teacher-centered or student-centered, facilitated lessons.

Student Activities: For students, these lessons are difficult to complete. Students are certainly engaged in operating the computer, but they typically do not have an opportunity to inquire into any subject. Often, hybrid lessons appear to be unrelated to the other work of the class. In many cases, the computer work is limited to one subject and must be completed in the time normally allocated to that subject.

Lesson Tasks and the Use of the eMINTS Equipment: In terms of learning, the computer activities in hybrid lessons are seen as discrete activities. In these lessons, there is an almost mechanical approach to using WebQuests, i.e., WebQuests are implemented as they are received, rather than adapted to meet the needs of a particular class.

For example, the teacher of one lesson remarked to the evaluators that the WebQuest their class was working on was "a lousy WebQuest. All they are doing is completing a worksheet. Couldn't they do this with a textbook?" Rather than adapting the WebQuest to the class's needs, this teacher used the activities as she found them. In this sense, the WebQuest was used like a textbook. The results are lessons that are not substantially different from lessons in teacher-centered classrooms.

It is clear that the teachers of hybrid lessons have made changes in their teaching. It is clear that they are attempting to implement what they believe are "inquiry-based" lessons. They have moved from the traditional, teacher-centered lesson towards something more facilitated. But it is also clear that they have not yet found ways to fully implement student-centered, facilitated lessons, even though the content of individual lessons has changed.

Making Sense of the eMINTS Classroom

One major result of our analysis is to understand the ways teachers adapt to new instructional environments, like the eMINTS classrooms. Some teachers choose not to adapt, using the resources available to them sparingly and using the eMINTS equipment as if it were another set of textbooks. To be fair, many teachers of teacher-centered lessons felt the external constraints on their classrooms—everything from pressure to stay on schedule with other teachers in their schools, to building and district pressures to improve test scores, to parental concerns over the character of their children's' work—prevented them from using inquiry-based instructional practices more often.

Among those teachers who have integrated the eMINTS environment into their instruction, those teachers observed conducting "student-centered" lessons, there are two types. The first, what we have called "unfacilitated" lessons, is clearly a misapplication of the technology. In these lessons, computer use is often an end in itself, rather than being a tool to further student knowledge and understanding. These lessons are examples of a type of counterfeit technology integration. In the effort to integrate the technology into the class, the instructional goals behind technology use appear to have been lost.

On the other hand, the facilitated lessons show what is possible when technology is integrated into a well-thought-out and intellectually stimulating instructional plan. Students in these lessons are mastering their material using computers, projectors, and the Internet as tools. These types of lessons underscore the central role of engaged and creative teachers in producing environments where students can work, explore, and understand. Most of the student-centered lessons were of this second type, which speaks volumes about teachers are capable of doing when they have the resources and training they need.

Taking Stock: What Characteristics Do You Observe in Your Classrooms?

Now that you understand the four classifications of lessons, you can take an inventory of which dimensions are being demonstrated in the lessons you observe. Use the form on page 23 to compare which type of lessons result in the greatest number of observed dimensions, and to guide the staff development efforts your team will develop to improve results.

Communications to the authors may be addressed to Adam Bickford, project coordinator, eMINTS Evaluation Team, Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis, University of Missouri, 602 Clark Hall, Columbia, MO 65211;; Monica Beglau, eMINTS Program, MOREnet, 3212 LeMone Industrial Blvd., Columbia, MO 65201;

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