Author Archives: spahnsocialstudies

Consistent Policy in K-12 Online Education

The world of online education is expanding at an incredible rate. Each year, more and more K-12 students are enrolling in online courses to supplement, or at times, replace traditional coursework.  Even though the phrase used is “K-12”, most K-12 online providers offer courses only for secondary students.  By law, however, if a student is eligible to attend school, then online schools must accept them as well.  The expansion of online education requires further study of sound policy, implementation of such policy and the impact online education has on enrolled students.

Please take a moment to review the work of Bonnie Magnuson and Greg Spahn, two students from Bemidji State University who explored the need for consistent policies in K-12 online education as part of their graduate work.  The paper can be viewed here.


Filed under Assessment

K-12 Online Schooling-Focus on the Students!

The main focus of current research for K-12 online learning and online schooling involves the administration of online schools and legislation affecting this field.  Some proponents of K-12 online learning and online schools propose funding online schools adequately, expansion of online schools in the name of school choice and altering or eliminating teacher certification for online schools (Chubb, 2012).  Others suggest that the most effective online schools have been able to convince policy makers to shed old ideas and paradigms regarding schools and school funding. These old paradigms mainly address the fact that virtual schools require little physical space, a vast change from budgets heavily weighed down by physical building needs (Watson & Gemin, 2009).  Another large portion of research has been devoted to the de-localization of school control, advocating for greater state control, especially in the realm to online learning (Chubb, 2012; Patrick & Powell, 2009). State led online learning initiatives for K-12 students would implement the state as standard-bearer, allowing for equitable access and opportunity to online course work and schools.  With control over online education granted to the state, all students within that state will have the same educational opportunity regardless of resident district.

Unfortunately, lost in the shuffle of policy formation, implementation, control and legislation are students.  K-12 students should be the focus of online learning policies. More research should be conducted looking at age-appropriateness and appropriate developmental needs for online learners.  Current research focuses on the suggestion that online learners should be self-regulated, motivated and reflective (Kim, et. al, 2012).  While many agree these attributes are advantageous for any learner, how can professional educators teach and model them in an online setting? Can professional educators teach persistence, motivation, reflection and deep thought?  If so, can any student, regardless of age or development level learn them in order to be successful?

Much more research needs to be conducted to understand the many facets of online learning- especially as it applies to K-12 students.  A developmentally appropriate, differentiated education should be available online as it is in most traditional schools.  It remains to be seen if an online or blended learning model is appropriate for all or most learners, just as it remains to be seen if traditional schools are appropriate for all learners.  Regardless, the focus of K-12 online school research needs to shift from policy to students in order to ensure current and future students benefit from this educational movement.

Chubb, J. (2012). Overcoming the governance challenge in k-12 online learning. Creating Sound

Policy for Digital Learning, Retrieved from

Kim, P., Hisook, F., & Karimi, A. (2012). Public online charter school students: Choices, perceptions

and traits. American Educational Research Journal,49(3), 521-545. doi: 10.3102/0002831212443078

Patrick, S., & Powell, A. (2009). A summary of research on the effectiveness of k-12 online

learning.International Association for K-12 Online Learning, 1-11. Retrieved from

Watson, J. & Gemin, B. (2009, July). policy and funding frameworks for online learning. Promising

practices in online learning: International Association for K-12 Online Learning, Retrieved from

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Filed under Pedagogy, Social Studies

Movies Make Me Think! Using Historical Inquiry and Film in the Middle School Classroom

All too often, history classes look like this:

Parents grew up with history classes that resemble the iconic Ben Stien giving a dry lecture; some may have been the young man sleeping on the desk! With this paradigm solidified, the concept of a dry, Stein-like history classroom are passed to their children, who become our students.

Adam Woelders, an IB teacher at the Pacific Academy in Vancouver, British Columbia challenges this assumption using the same tool presented-Hollywood films-and a historical inquiry based method to his classess.

Woelders starts with the premise that showing clips of films in a history classroom is a beneficial activity.  An acknowledgement is also made that Hollywood films are, at times , inaccurate.  In an action research project, Woelders, studied “how historically themed film can be used to scaffold activities that encourage middle school students to conduct inquiries of the past and critically evaluate feature films and documentaries”.

The historical inquiry based method is rooted in essential unit questions.  While using the film, Joan of Arc, Woelders poses the question, Who was Joan of Arc ? A simple, yet focused questions.  Woelders proccess first has students complete a K-W-L chart on Joan of Arc, after which clips from the movie are shown.  Students then must formulate an answer to their question using primary and secondary historical sources, comparing the information they gather to the movie. This approach allows for student inquiry, information finding and meaning making centered on historical figures and events.  It brings history to students, not students to history.

This approach also allows for critical and creative thinking by students.  By evaluating multiple sources and considering multiple perspectives, students will gain an appreciation for history and historical context.   Woelders research also speaks to the power of essential questions, graphic organizers and comparing Hollywood with what really happened, a skill that is needed in our society.

Woelders, A. (2007). “It makes you think more when you watch things”: Scaffolding for historical inquiry using film in the middle school classroom. History Teacher40(3), 363-396.


Filed under Pedagogy, Social Studies

Marc Prensky-A Huge Leap for the Classroom

Marc Prensky, a preeminent author and commentator on education and the impacts technology has on education, presents a compelling argument for a flipped classroom and increased peer-to-peer interaction in his 2011 article A Huge Leap for the Classroom.

Prensky outlines the need for a paradigm shift in education. He cites Sal Kahn and his work with Kahn Academy as critically important and effective in teaching and reaching today’s students.  “Kahn’s approach improves pedagogy by allowing one of the best ‘explainers’  [teachers] to be the one who does the explaining to all, by making those explanations infinitely repeatable, and by utilizing class time in the most productive way.” Here, Prensky is talking to the power of a flipped classroom, one where the teachers records and delivers content via video presentation and the students are assigned that video for homework.  Class time, now devoid of heavy content delivery, can be used by the teacher to answer questions, supplement content and work with students in a small group basis.  Prensky cites the research based success of one-on-one tutoring as the foundation for this model.

A flipped classroom is good, Prensky argues, but it can be better.  The feasibility of one-to-one teacher/student ratio borders on the impossible.  With social norms and budgetary concerns, this model is unsustainable and is a political non-starter.  What is possible, Prensky argues, is the ability to use students during class time, as one-to-one tutors.

To illustrate his point, Prensky takes the reader to the classroom of  Physics Professor Eric Mazur of Harvard.  Mazur, frustrated with the delivery model of a lecture based classroom and the lack of impact it had on student understanding, ventured into the world of a flipped classroom. Mazur would record content and require his students to watch the lectures the night before class.  This gave a learning benefit to his students, but the benefit was limited.

Still pushing forward, Mazur, along with other Harvard colleagues, developed software called Learning Analytics.  This software allows for the teacher to electronically pose questions to students in class about the previous nights’ content.  This software allows the teacher to review student responses in real-time and assess the retention of information and the level of content mastery.  Mazur takes it a step further.  Once the question is posed and responses given, Mazur groups students and forces them to justify their answers to each other.  The groupings vary, and some models advocate to group those who grasp the concept with those who do not, while others call for students to find another with a different answer and convince the other that their answer is the correct one.

The approach of having students ‘tutor’ each other has multiple advantages.  First, it provides for better conceptual understanding.  Secondly, it allows for individuals who have similar thought patterns and logic sequences to explain concepts to each other, an act that improves content mastery.  This approach forces everyone in the classroom to be both teachers and learners.

As this approach progresses, Mazur has added cameras and microphones to the classroom to record and analyze student interaction and feedback.  Also, as the software develops, teachers can pinpoint who gave what answer and where that individual was sitting.  This allows for more efficient and beneficial groupings.

The power of this approach is embedded conceptually in the use of class time.  If one can separate the idea of content delivery during class and use that time for a more beneficial action, like Mazur has done at Harvard, students will learn more and retain their learning.

This approach is fascinating and it can be seen in many online classes.  Students are grouped and allowed to teach and learn from each other in an asynchronous manner.  It is difficult to surmise the application of this to a k-12 classroom.  If students are engaged and if they watch and attend to the content delivery at home, this system can work.  However, if students have struggled with homework completion prior to utilization of this model, why would they attend to content delivery at home and watch the videos? If that happens, the system falls apart.

Below is a video by Marc Prensky in which he speaks of the the changing role of the teacher.  I thought it fit this article well.

Prensky, M. (2011). A huge leap for the classroom. Educational Technology, Retrieved from


Filed under Pedagogy