“When the focus shifts away from what students know to what they can do, it changes the culture of the classroom and places importance on the real skills students will need to be successful.” – USA
Ben Smith’s high school physics students have long benefitted from his ability to integrate technology and a 21st century skills-based approach in the classroom. And Smith is doing everything he can to help other students and schools around the globe benefit, as well. As a recognized technology education innovator, Smith has had the opportunity to share his knowledge and practical information with districts from his home state of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Singapore, among other places. Smith’s down-to-earth approach to evolving pedagogy to produce 21st century thinkers has served him (and many students) well, and as an ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) board member, he’s in a position to influence change. Today, Smith shares his views on education reform and some great advice for teachers seeking to make a difference.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
Most of my work has involved best practices in integrating technology in the classroom. I have worked with my friend and business partner to develop planning documents to guide thinking on how to incorporate thinking skills and 21st century skills spelled out in the National Education Technology Standards (NETS-S) into teaching. Most recently, I am serving on the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Board of Directors. We are working to improve teaching and learning for students throughout the world. My proudest achievement was to be awarded the Making IT Happen jacket from ISTE for contributions at a national and international level.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
I have worked with educators around the globe. I hope that the biggest change with these educators is in their pedagogy applied towards teaching and learning.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
My philosophy for designing educational activities is to be vague. I use a backwards design model to examine what I really want students to be able to do. I have students work with me to investigate concepts. The summary piece is one where the vagueness becomes important. When we ask students to communicate information and give them the exact guidelines for doing so, that is typically what we get. Students will not go beyond. Instead, I ask students to tell me what they learn and then work with those students to develop what it might look like.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
I think one of my strengths is to make use of technology in non-traditional ways. We can use software such as MovieMaker for sequencing activities. Give students tiles that have the elements of a story or the steps in solving a problem.
Use the software to drag and drop into a particular order and narrate the explanation of your choices. This is one example. My classroom is mostly paperless so we are always looking for new ways to collaborate and communicate. Another example is to have students explore a concept including the use of a simulation. Students can then screencast to communicate what they learned.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
There are two main obstacles. The first obstacle is the high-stakes testing that takes place as a result of NCLB (No Child Left Behind). Schools focus most of their attention, professional development and resources in bringing students to be “proficient.” As a consequence, students who are already proficient or advanced are mostly ignored.
We rarely discuss how to improve education for groups of students who are already successful. The second obstacle is a lack of recognition of what is important in educating students. We center our work on the content of math and reading – as required and encouraged by law. This neglects the real need for education to examine the skills needed for success.
These include collaboration, creativity, problem solving, and communication. Students need to be better at these types of skills rather than knowing things. Knowing content is not enough to be successful.
What is your region doing right to support education?
Pennsylvania has used two programs (now defunct) to develop quality education. The first is called Keystones. Educators throughout the state are identified as Keystones at a school, district, region and state level. State-level Keystones were brought together for a week-long summit. I was identified as a Keystone and attended the summit. I returned as an instructor. It was the most valuable professional development experience of my career and linked teachers across the state in promoting best practices and creating a real community of practice. The second program was called Classrooms for the Future (CFF). The program provided laptops for classrooms in the main content areas. It also provided funds for an instructional coach. The real difference was a requirement for teachers and schools to engage in professional development that was towards a modern approach to teaching and learning.
What conditions must change to better support education?
Testing as a means for evaluating the success of schools needs to be eliminated.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
The best opportunity is to work towards skills rather than content. When the focus shifts away from what students know to what they can do, it changes the culture of the classroom and places importance on the real skills students will need to be successful.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
New teachers should get involved. This can be done at a number of levels. Within the school there are many opportunities to reach students through clubs, sports and other activities. You should also look to be involved in decision-making at the school level. There are often committees that will allow you to participate in the school as well.
You can form personal and professional bonds with teachers in the building. The idea of getting involved, however, needs to extend to a larger community. Join professional associations within your content area (NSTA for science teachers, NCTM for math teachers, etc.). I would also recommend an organization such as ISTE because it is a place where learning and innovation are at the forefront.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
The trend I see helping students the most is BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Whether students have a device on their own or from a school, this places power in the hands of students. The device itself is not the only necessity. Schools must work to show them how to make use of the device to reach their goals – collaborating, finding information, creativity, etc. These devices break down the walls of traditional education and extend learning to anywhere anytime.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
Although I really believe it is not about the tool but rather what we have students doing with it, the tool I would give them is a computing device. The device could take almost any form – phone, tablet, or computer. The key is to change the way we teach and raise expectations for all students.
About Ben Smith
Ben Smith has been a physics teacher at Red Lion Area High School, located in south
central Pennsylvania, USA, for over 20 years. In addition to teaching honors physics, AP Physics, and engineering, Smith serves as the Science Department chair and as the technology resource teacher assisting with technology-related professional development in the district.
Smith was identified as a Keystone Educator in Pennsylvania for outstanding integration of technology into his teaching. He attended the invitational statewide Keystone Summit in 2005 and returned as an instructor to the in 2007. He has also been identified as a Star Educator by Discovery. Ben has earned a number of competitive grants, including the Olin Flinchbaugh Charitable Trust and Best Buy Te@ch Award.
Smith has served as a consultant to ISTE as well as a number of school districts throughout the United States. In this role, he has worked with the Singapore Ministry of Education and the U.S. Virgin Islands Ministry of Education to prepare technology coaches and integrate technology. He runs an education technology consulting business called EdTechInnovators with Jared Mader.
Birthplace: Baltimore, Maryland
Current residence: York, Pennsylvania
Education: BS in Physics from Lebanon Valley College, M.Ed in Teaching and Curriculum from Penn State.
Website I check every day: MacRumors – I can’t help myself.
Person who inspires me most: My Wife, Lottie.
Favorite childhood memory: Philadelphia Phillies winning the Baseball World
Series in 1980.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Just returned from San Diego. Heading on college scouting trip with my daughter to Western Pennsylvania and New York.
When was the last time you laughed? Why? Last family dinner. We always have a great time when the four of us sit down.
Favorite book: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
Favorite music: Jimmy Buffett, U2, Maroon 5
Your favorite quote or motto: If you do what you have always done, you will get what you always got.