Please feel free to e-mail this article to a friend, a principal, a parent, a colleague, a teacher librarian, a college professor, a poet, a magician, a vendor, an artist, a juggler, a student, a news reporter or to anyone else you think might enjoy it.

 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 9|No 3|November|1999




Teaching to the Standards

(Life's Standards)


by Jamie McKenzie
about the author


One way to broaden the appeal of information literacy and the new technologies is to build a more direct linkage between the proposed learning activities and the increasingly demanding new state curriculum standards and tests. Students in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States are all being asked to show more inferential reasoning and interpretive skills.

It stands to reason that we might do better enlisting the support and full participation of all teachers when we can show that networked technologies might enhance the reading, writing and thinking performance of students.

The idea is to emphasize frequent research on questions much like those on the new state tests, engaging students in daily challenges likely to pay off in higher scores. While some skeptics and critics might complain that this is "teaching to the test," the tests have changed so that many items demand higher level thinking that would actually benefit students throughout their lives.

"What is Sam's biggest character flaw? Support your answer with evidence from the story."

These kinds of open ended questions allow us to prepare students for life as well as the tests.

State Standards

We are seeing tougher standards across the country. Note list at

Many of the new state standards and their accompanying tests require students to answer very demanding questions about passages and datasets, challenges that are easily replicated by creating online activities such as the ones offered in this article.

In California, for example, the Golden State Exam requires students to write an essay after reading a complex passage in which a girl describes her mother's unusual brand of excellence . . .

1. Throughout the essay, the author offers differing views of excellence. How do these differing views contribute to the overall meaning of the selection? Use specific evidence from the text to support your interpretations. (Golden State Examinations in Language Arts, p. 9)

Recognizing that many teachers are reporting a lack of readiness and inclination to employ these new technologies (see "Reaching the Reluctants"), it is evident that we must offer activities that are very attractive, easy to use and dramatically effective. By tying them to state standards, we address one of the primary concerns facing teachers of all types. State standards help us to win the active and enthusiastic participation of late adopting, reluctant teachers along with the perennially adventuresome, early adopting teachers.

Toe in the Water

Recognizing the significant risks and difficulties associated by some teachers with online learning activities, we might offer lessons that are highly reliable and user-friendly. "Teflon lessons" are carefully tested to minimize surprise, disappointment and difficulty. They provide optimal learning with no stick, no burn , no bother.

Level A
The first experiences take no more than 30-40 minutes. They last no more than a single class period.

Tough question drawn from the standards.

Quick visit to information site.

Students read, reflect and write.

They are in and out in no time at all, yet they must stretch their minds to wrestle with a demanding question.

Go to to try one.

  • Foul Water takes students to the EPA to compare and contrast the impact of acid rain on four aspects of life.
  • What Childhood? takes students to the Kids Count Web site to decide which states are hardest on young people.

Once teachers have tried a half dozen of these Level A learning activities with their students, we would expect to see a move toward more demanding units extending over 2-3 class periods.

"Don't you have something a bit more challenging?" the once reluctant and skeptical teacher asks.

Level B
These challenges require 2-3 visits to a lab or 2-3 periods of hands-on access to computers in a classroom.

As with the Level A examples, the Level B activity poses one or more tough question parallel with the skills outlined by the standards.

Students visit one or more information site. They must navigate about, locate pertinent information and make reasoned judgments.

Students read, reflect and write.

They spend a substantial amount of time, yet the time is spent productively. They do no wandering or surfing. They are clearly focused.

Once again, they stretch their minds to wrestle with a demanding question.

Go to to try one.

  • What Digital Revolution? Students select from a series of provocative essays about the future in order to compare and contrast key elements and writing styles.

Presumably, the once reluctant and skeptical teacher is gradually won over to online research as a powerful way to give students a chance to develop their thinking skills.

"Don't you have something a bit more challenging?" the increasingly enthusiastic teacher asks.

Now we offer a full blown research experience that might take a week or more.

Level C
These challenges require 4-10 visits to a lab or 4-10 periods of hands-on access to computers in a classroom. They are carefully structured research projects with plenty of scaffolding. They are efficient, demanding and highly motivating. They are engaging and productive.

Two different models already exist for this type of project. They are quite similar in their demand for decision-making, problem-solving and novel thought. While few of them make explicit mention of state standards, that strategy is being added in some states like Maryland, where the Baltimore County Schools have built a direct link from research modules to standards.

Try one . . .

Research Modules - Projects from schools around the world built upon the Research Cycle.

WebQuests - Another model for extended research on demanding questions.

Strategy for Professional Development

Previous articles ("Invention for Learning") have stressed the value of combining teams of teachers to build classroom units and lessons. When late adopting, skeptics are combined with early adopters on invention teams, we often see convergence between the groups as they share their talents to construct lessons with a great payoff.

In the coming months, I hope to see many schools developing high quality online research activities for their students aimed at the state standards. As they complete their units, I will list the most effective submissions at so that others may profit from their inventions.


Back to November Contents

Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie. Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated in hard copy format if unchanged in format and content for educational, nonprofit school district and university use only and may also be sent from person to person by e-mail. This copyright statement must be included. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.
FNO is applying for formal copyright registration for articles.

From Now On Index Page