A Nation at Risk sounded the alarm of educational mediocrity in American schools (Gardner & National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). American students had fallen behind other nations in math, science and literacy. For the three decades since A Nation at Risk, this nation has engaged in a standards movement to reform its schools. The focus on content mastery by American students was strengthened in early 2002 when President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. The standards based reform continues today with schools under more pressure than ever to improve student scores across standardized tests. This nation as come to a point where high stakes testing is driving curricular decisions. It is not working.
The most recent results for the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) survey were released December 2010. PISA tested 15-year-olds from sixty-five nations in three literacies: reading, mathematics and science. In reading literacy, the United States averaged 500 (on a scale of 0 to 1,000 with a mean of 500). The average of all nations was 493, not measurably different. In mathematics literacy, the United States averaged 487, lower than the average of all nations of 496. Science literacy results were similar. The United States scored an average of 502, which is not measurably different that the total average of 501. The United States scored in the middle of the pack, right around the mean score, mediocre still (Fleischman, Hopstock, Pelczar, Shelley, & National Center for Education Statistics, 2010). Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was surprised by the results; “We have to see this as a very serious wake-up call for Americans” (Mathis, 2010). The United State’s educational system has been doing more of the same for the past 30 years and students are standing still in terms of results compared to other counties who are progressing. It is time to do something different.
The educational system continues to teach students the same way students have been taught since the Industrial Revolution, in factory-like settings. Content is siloed with little regard to how subjects interact and relate to the world outside of school, the things that make learning relevant and intrinsically motivating. Maybe American schooling has always been this way. Perhaps the results have always been mediocre. Maybe the big change is the stakes are higher today than generations ago. Where, as eloquently foretold in A Nation at Risk, “Knowledge, learning, information, and skilled intelligences are the new raw materials” in today’s global society (Gardner & National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983, p. 7). In a post digital, 21st century world, the skills and knowledge needed for success has changed. What’s clear is the educational system today is unimaginative, uninspiring and failing for so many of America’s youth, especially children from poverty or of color. When schools face disappointing test results, all resources shift to preparing students for standardized tests. If a choice is between taking a class to the computer lab or prepping for the test, teachers choose test preparation (Pflaum, 2004). Schools resort to scripted instruction, where students are expected to sit still, be quiet, and work on rote drill exercises (Kozol, 2005). Students are not learning.
Maybe the students themselves have changed. Perhaps the legacy educational system in place today did work for 19th and 20th century students, American youth growing up and living in a pre-digital age. Maybe today’s young people learn differently than past generations. According to Prensky, today’s students have grown up surrounded by digital technology, which has fundamentally changed the way students think and process information (2001). For the past 30 years, American schools have been trying to force students into the mold of a standards-based curriculum, deeply rooted in behaviorist philosophy. Maybe it is time to adapt the educational system to the way students learn. One way to align education toward students’ strengths is to integrate multimedia applications into the curriculum, particularly in high school math classes.
Multimedia is using several types of digital media to communicate or present ideas. Text, still pictures, video, audio, or animations are combined to create multimedia presentations or projects (Barabash & Kyllo, n.d.). Although not a necessary component, interactivity, when present, is a key feature distinguishing multimedia projects from more traditional, multi-material projects. Interactivity puts control in the user’s hands in how the multimedia project is experienced, offering greater flexibility in its value. Examples of multimedia applications that can be used in the classroom are movies, slideshows, animated cartoons, podcasts, and video podcasts. Multimedia can be both a means of delivering content in a more interactive, contextual manner (teacher directed) or student created as a vehicle for learning content more deeply and as evidence of understanding. The student-created projects are the most impactful.
Creating multimedia projects are fun and interesting. They infuse creativity into the learning process. Students are generally highly motivated to bring digital tools into their projects, but multimedia projects should not be used solely as a way of engaging students for engagement sake or using technology for technology sake as often happens (Pflaum, 2005). Pedagogy drives lessons; technology is a vehicle by which learning can be enhanced. “Filmmaking broadens the way kids look at a topic… They think like scientists instead of science students” (Shorr, 2005, p. 33). For example, backward design is a common educational planning methodology. Creating podcasts require beginning with an end in mind and using research, editing, and revision to achieve that end. Students have fun making the podcast, but the important outcome is the internalization and deeper understanding of the content arising out of the podcast creation process (Villano, 2008).
Why multimedia applications? Multimedia projects offer many benefits as a pedagogical tool. This paper limits itself to just two reasons: constructivism and democratic learning.
Contrasting the predominant practice in today’s schools of treating students as ‘empty vessels’ by which teachers ‘fill students up’ with facts, skills, and discrete pieces of data, constructivism requires the learner to create their own meaning. Students learn by creating structures or schema based on prior experiences, and evaluating new information against these constructs (Bollinger, 2004). Memorization of facts does not lead to true understanding nor does it help students transfer learning from one domain to another. Relying upon strict memorization does not help students learn to think critically or to problem solve. It also does not help students test well on national, standardized tests. Teaching for understanding is the process where students are able to evaluate what they learn and interpret meaning from it (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
Multimedia projects are naturally aligned to the constructivist learning theory because students are working with content as they are creating the project. They are not simply cutting and pasting information. Multimedia projects are complex and iterative, requiring visualizing, planning, researching, writing, creating, editing, re-writing before the project is finished (Villano, 2008). Applied critical thinking is crucial in creating high quality multimedia projects because information is integrated across multiple subjects such as math, language arts, science, and technology (Steelman, 2005).
Multimedia projects lend themselves to democratic learning in several ways. “An inquiry-based approach leading to a product emphasizing analysis and synthesis of information should be our highest educational goal. With this methodology we are teaching students to be creative, productive citizens in a democratic society” (Steelman, 2005, p. 19). Generally, students are able to choose their topic within the framework of the learning objectives. Students are able to tailor their project to a learning area they are most interested in or find most relevant to their life (Steelman, 2005). Often projects are collaborative and students are able to work toward their strengths. Working together allows students to value each other’s contribution and facilitates learning to be effective team players (Steelman, 2005).
Why does this author believe multimedia projects should be used in high school math classes specifically? Algebra is a required course for graduation in California. Students who struggle with passing Algebra become frustrated with school overall and become at risk for dropping out entirely. This author believes part of the difficulty is in the abstractness of algebra and it is generally not taught in a relevant way. Students simply do not understand why they should learn algebra and how it fits in real life. Multimedia projects are a way of contextualizing and applying math skills and concepts, making it more concrete. Multimedia projects begin with topics relevant to students or identifiable to real world problems and have students apply mathematical learning in the creation of the projects.
Lastly, a great deal of math education is in the form of teachers lecturing, working out a few problems as examples, and students completing redundant problems as homework. Math concepts are rarely integrated or learned in real world context. The audience for student work is the teacher and no meaning for student work exists outside of the class. Multimedia projects, on the other hand, require integration of concepts and skills. They are not redundant but require students to use and think of what they learned in new ways, to apply concepts to problems. Multimedia projects are appropriate for authentic audiences. Students create their projects with the expectation of peer or community consumption of their work, which motivates them to do their best work.
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