Oct 31 2006

Compelling Stories

When paired with supporting data, student success stories can be important tool in demonstrating the effectiveness of classroom technology.

AN OLD SPANISH ADAGE OBSERVES, “It’s a long way from saying to doing.” For schools using technology, however, it may well be the other way around: It can be a long way from the doing to the telling.

It seems that educators rarely share their technology success stories. This is regrettable because anecdotes of effective technology-based learning possess an inherent marketing advantage that can be used to increase the utilization of technology in the classroom.

“The effectiveness of student success stories is proof that powerful data can come in different forms,” argues Michael Matassa, math specialist for the Boulder Valley School District in Boulder, Colo. Matassa included anecdotal evidence — such as noticeable student enthusiasm, teacher comments about improved classroom participation and the observations of supervising administrators — to help win a grant to introduce classroom response systems in his seventh- and eighth-grade classes.

Although anecdotal evidence is not as convincing or powerful an indicator of technology effectiveness as test scores, student success stories, when well presented, can build greater support for school technology efforts. There are five steps for employing anecdotal evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of technology as a teaching and learning tool. Teachers must learn to mine, frame, translate, communicate and, most important, leverage compelling student success stories.


The first step is to begin mining usable anecdotal evidence. Although some stories can be acquired by soliciting written submissions, there is no better way to collect them than by visiting classrooms and talking with teachers about their most effective technology-based lessons.

“It’s important for technology directors and coordinators to get out of their offices and see what’s going on in the classroom,” advises Jennifer Uhl, assistant director for schools technology for the Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. “My plan is to post the anecdotes I get from faculty on our technology Web site because that way, the faculty can learn from and be inspired and motivated by each other.”

Classroom visits often disclose that some teachers have great student success stories to tell, while others will present ones that are not very convincing. For this reason, mining is a more meaningful metaphor. Mining implies that you are looking for the quality ore, not just the low-grade, easy-to-unearth ore. Gathering, collecting or listing alone won’t get the job done. The first step is to mine the great stories, the demonstrative ones, the ones that will compel the attention of others.


Anecdotal evidence is bolstered when it is framed in a way that easily conveys meaning and context. The research on technology effectiveness during the last few decades indicates that technology has benefited education in several key ways. When used well, technology has shown the potential to improve learning achievement and efficiency, motivate learning, provide new ways for students to learn and make teaching better.

As classroom and student success stories are compiled, it will be useful to fit them under one or more of these umbrella concepts. Doing so lends the story context, greater validity and a conceptual shoulder to lean on. Mining compelling stories and framing them for all five concept categories is a particularly effective strategy.

“Schools shouldn’t look for isolated stories, but string successes together to make a series of powerful stories,” suggests Kent Tamsen, director of the education technology center for the Colorado Department of Education. He adds, “Our technology success stories should not focus on the technology, but on the improvement of teaching and learning.”

Tamsen and other grant evaluators point out that combining data with narratives and other types of information is the best approach for evaluating the effectiveness of technology implementations. Anecdotal evidence, Tamsen emphasizes, “helps put a human face to the data-based evidence. What often is missing is the pairing of those two pieces: data-based evidence and anecdotal evidence.”

As you mine narratives, make sure that you also combine those stories with solid data-based evidence that underscores specific milestones in the project’s original goals, Tamsen warns. (See “Case Study: Data-Based Success Story” below.)

“Very often, we see anecdotal stories that are not supported by data, and we see data but not specific anecdotal evidence,” says Tamsen. “The pairing of hard evidence and anecdotal evidence provides the best picture and is preferred by evaluators.”


Believe it or not, the next step in effectively using anecdotal evidence involves turning it into simple English. Often, attempts to communicate about technology’s effectiveness get lost in technical or educational jargon. It is important to review selected stories or classroom anecdotes and ensure that they can be clearly understood by the technologically uninitiated and the noneducator alike.

Tamsen urges that the stories be “very specific, and not about a generic classroom or school, but about a specific classroom, teacher and set of standards or topics within that classroom.” He believes that this type of structure makes the evidence more tangible.

Care must also be taken to translate any classroom anecdotes into results-oriented language. Each student success story should provide evidence of the learning results of employing the technology, not just the fact that technology was used by students. The following two anecdotes can serve as clarifying examples:

1. “Over the last month Ms. Rodriguez’s students eagerly used the new math software to practice their multiplication skills.”

2. “A month after using the new software, Ms. Rodriguez’s lowest-performing students showed significant gains in their speed, accuracy and overall performance on timed multiplication tests (a 10 percent gain). Ms. Rodriquez has seen the motivation and confidence unleashed by their personal success now start to carry over to other subject areas.”

The second example is more newsworthy and demonstrates specific learning and motivational benefits. You may have to dig a bit deeper to translate the simple use of technology into showing the results of a technology intervention, but it is well worth the effort.


Once some compelling success stories have been gathered, framed and translated, it’s time to communicate those stories to various audiences. The simplest communications can begin with just text or can include digital photos and would typically reach more informal audiences. Common means of informal communication include a note to the principal, an article in the classroom newsletter, or a presentation on back-to-school night or to the local Parent Teacher Organization (PTO).

Consider raising the ante by featuring the story on your school’s Web site or a business partnership’s Web site, or by producing short videos or podcasts. Nathan Balasubramanian, technology and pre-engineering teacher at Angevine Middle School in Lafayette, Colo., is quite adept at these strategies.

“I use students’ think-writes, exemplars, classroom conversations and movies in my Web sites, not only to inform professional practice through meaningful authentic assessments, but also to motivate other middle school students and disseminate their outstanding performances to parents, colleagues and the larger community,” says Balasubramanian. (See “Put Student Stories Online ” on page 36.)

To obtain publicity at a more political level, consider sharing your classroom anecdotes in district publications, arranging a presentation or a written report for the school board, or sending a press release to local politicians. You might want to submit a story to your local newspaper or other publication. If the story seems to have broader appeal, you might call a local radio or television station. And why not build on the story and write a short article for a journal?


Once communication begins and the stories are being told, it’s time to connect the stories with an urgent need for action. The underlying premise is to use past success to leverage future success. (See the chart below.) The basic approach is to demonstrate that technology-based instruction resulted in clear benefits and request the resources to expand the capabilities of that intervention.

The audiences for leveraging success stories are much the same as the ones discussed earlier, except that it now makes sense to increase the stakes. So consider submitting a funding proposal to your superintendent, the school board, the PTO or a grant source.

Yet, in the end, does all this work? Lon Thornburg, an assistive technology specialist with the Umatilla-Morrow Education Service District in Pendleton, Ore., thinks so.

While describing a project that involves taking wireless notebook labs into rural schools for cooperative lessons with teachers, he notes, “We have had teachers who used the program share their stories in board meetings. Their work is validated in a unique way when we take the laptops in and allow the board to view student projects on the laptops.

“We have accompanied this with stats to show numbers of students involved and how the projects have affected learning. We have experienced great success in continual funding, maintenance and expansion of the program.”

“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted,” Albert Einstein said. Stories of classroom success using technology may not add up like test scores do, but they certainly count. And they count even more when combined with data-based evidence.

Len Scrogan is director of instructional technology at Boulder Valley School District in Boulder, Colo.


Web-based videos can be an exceptional tool for demonstrating student success stories. Nathan Balasubramanian, technology and pre-engineering teacher at Angevine Middle School in Lafayette, Colo., which is one of Boulder Valley School District’s high-needs public schools, has built a large online repository of movies that are available at www.innathansworld.com/technology/macromedia_flash_movies.html.

With the aid of these resources, Balasubramanian hopes to make “a compelling case about the cognitive sophistication of middle school students as they engage in fun, hands-on and challenging activities.”


It’s important to combine anecdotal stories with solid data-based evidence. Here is an example of how to successfully include both:

Assessing the usefulness of real-time response tools, also known as “clickers,” at Eldorado K-8 School in Superior, Colo., eighth-grade math teacher Megan Fisk reported that homework submission increased 50 percent and test scores improved 30 percent in one semester. Fisk believes the anonymity of using clickers encouraged more students to admit that they did not understand the lesson.

One eighth-grade student told Fisk, “The clickers help me learn by not having to be wrong in front of the whole class. It gives me confidence, which can make me concentrate more. I don’t have to worry about embarrassing myself by getting the answer wrong.”


Leverage your anecdotal evidence — paired with data — to take your pilots to the next level.

Application: Project
Since…: A technology-based project led to student success in the classroom.
Therefore…: We can improve even further if we add resources to this successful project.

Application: Classroom
Since…: A technology-based project is producing notable results in one third-grade classroom.
Therefore…: Let’s do better by extending the tech project to all third-grade classrooms.

Application: School District
Since…: A technology-based initiative is producing notable results in pilot schools.
Therefore…: Let’s grow this successful effort to more schools, so more students can benefit.