Technology is continually changing the world around us, including through the increasing automation of jobs and tasks we once thought required human capabilities. Machines are becoming ever better and faster at answering a variety of questions, and in many cases now vastly surpass human productivity. But one skill that remains inherently human? Asking important and interesting questions needed to solve the problems at hand.
Encouraging kids to be more inquisitive, to go beyond the knowledge their textbook may provide, and to stop taking the world around them for granted is key to teaching the critical thinking skills they will need to thrive in a changing world. It can also help give students a sense of ownership of their own education. Research on the ways people learn shows that approaches that actively engage the student can both improve learning of academic skills such as literacy and numeracy and foster competencies such as creativity and collaboration, as well as critical thinking.
Although technology can’t replace these human skills, it has the potential to help schools implement a more “hands-on, minds-on” approach to teaching them. To date, though, investment in technology in schools has largely failed to live up to this potential. A recent analysis of 15-year-olds’ reading, math, and science abilities across dozens of countries around the world shows that access to and frequent use of computers is not correlated with improved learning. The One Laptop Per Child program across developing countries has similarly failed to transform educational outcomes. Unfortunately, many educational technology projects and interventions have focused on giving children access to hardware—computers and devices—and on “explaining,” “delivering,” and “displaying,” rather than on necessarily “engaging,” “exploring,” and “empowering.” Even worse, the students who are farthest behind have the fewest opportunities to interact more meaningfully with technology in the classroom. In the United States, for example, studies have shown that low-income children are more likely to use computers for “drill and kill” exercises, which provide little improvement over a worksheet.
However, a few recent innovations are harnessing technology to aid teachers in more active pedagogy that teaches critical thinking skills. These interventions are proving to have an impact on a variety of outcomes for student learning, and are also shedding light on ways in which technology is most effective in education.
For example, the Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment (SMILE) is being used around the globe to help thousands of children learn to ask good questions. The program allows students as young as first-graders up through adults, as well as teachers, to create, present, exchange, answer, evaluate, and reflect on questions generated by themselves and their peers. With the program, teachers can assign activities related to any subject, students can create questions that others rate and give feedback on, and teachers can monitor the questions and answers that students provide. Questions may be based on photos students upload and can be open-ended or multiple choice.
The program can be accessed from any device with a simple web browser, either through SMILE Cloud from anywhere with an internet connection, or via SMILE Plug, a Raspberry Pi-based palm-size server that runs off of a battery in rural areas without access to reliable electricity or Internet. So far, SMILE has reached more than 25 countries and 700,000 educators and students.
Evaluations have shown that SMILE is effective at improving students’ critical thinking skills over time, leading them to ask more sophisticated questions as they engage more with the program. In Ghana, for example, students and teachers in five pilot schools have been using SMILE for the last two years, while the program has been continuously evaluated. Early results after 3 months of using SMILE in class showed no statistically significant improvement in students’ critical thinking skills. However, students did show significant improvements after one year, particularly in schools where teachers were comfortable using SMILE on a daily basis. The total number of questions generated and peer-evaluated by the 500 participating students surpassed 30,000 in one year and kept on growing, while the quality of their questions changed from simple recall questions—“Who are the presidential candidates?”—to more complex questions that indicated critical thinking, such as, “Which of the following candidates is different from the rest, and why?”
The most important lesson here is that the process of developing critical thinking skills is probably not too different from the process of language acquisition: It takes time and good guidance along with ample exposure. Another important lesson from the experience of implementing SMILE is that student performance varies depending on how cohesive the overall implementation is at each school.
Since SMILE is integrated with existing curricula, it is in some ways minimally invasive of school plans. But it also forces a large shift in the teaching process, with SMILE taking the role of knowledge-keeper and questioner, and placing the teacher in the role of co-investigator with the students. This change to classroom dynamics is a key part of SMILE’s innovation, particularly compared with the many technological education interventions focused on passive exposure rather than meaningful engagement and true digital literacy. And there certainly has been resistance to this shift.
Often, when teachers and students are asked to come up with and reflect on questions that require critical thinking, they shy away at first, because teachers are more comfortable with traditional lecture style teaching, and students with passively receiving knowledge in traditional classroom settings. In some cases, students will search learning resources and Wikipedia using SMILE Plugs and come up with questions that teachers can’t answer, and teachers may struggle with the fact that they are no longer the sole source of knowledge and information in classroom. Training teachers to lose their sense of authority as the principal knowledge source can be a major challenge, especially in developing regions where rote memorization is commonplace. To help teachers get used to this transformation, SMILE employs a peer-evaluation system and support structure along with a "SMILE master" who visits each school to provide training and guidance routinely.
It may sound obvious that the better a program is implemented the better its results are, yet too often education projects are handed over to teachers to implement without oversight, and student outcomes are measured without looking at how differences in implementation influence results. In the case of SMILE, the results become better when the program implementation focuses on higher teacher motivation, better integration in the classroom, and higher frequency of use. SMILE's design encourages more cohesive implementation because it uses data such as real-time learning analytics and the SMILE question ratings system, and recognizes high performing teachers. In fact, early data show that teachers' motivation to use SMILE has a bigger impact on student learning than students’ motivation, a finding that can help shape the types of training and implementation support that schools need to make such programs work.
Despite the challenges, new educational technologies like SMILE have the potential to aid teachers in transforming their classrooms into “hands-on, minds-on” learning environments. For that, however, they need to be designed in a way that engages both students and teachers, that is evaluated over sufficient time to allow deeper learning outcomes to become apparent, and that considers the adequate level of training needed to help teachers effectively integrate technology into their classrooms.
How to achieve these results at scale is a good question for the global education community—one that might earn a top rating on SMILE.