February 9, 2009 By Andy Opsahl
Photo: Carol Broos, music teacher, Sunset Ridge School, Northfield, Ill.
Carol Broos offers no rubrics in the technology classes she teaches at Sunset Ridge School in Northfield, Ill. Her classroom's learning environment is a free-for-all -- students do whatever assignments they want. All her students receive A's at the end of the academic quarter, whether they complete one project or 10.
Broos doesn't even have professional training in technology. She's a music teacher, and frequently doesn't even know how to operate the software she provides students. Her technology class is connected to her music program - each student learns to use music composition software. However, projects go far beyond that realm, and into Web design and graphics programming.
Apparently her unorthodox methods are effective. Many of her students work above their grade level and win national technology awards. Broos recently won the 2008 Golden Apple, a teaching accolade viewed by many as the most prestigious in the Chicago area.
Broos insists a traditional classroom environment in which the teacher gives the same lesson to the entire class can cripple technology education. She begins each class with five minutes of instruction; then students work on whatever projects tickle their interest.
"I don't believe in rubrics because they're too confining for my gifted kids. If I had a rubric, my gifted kids would totally slack [off]," Broos said.
Her approach enables speedy learners to dart straight to projects that match their abilities. High-achieving students typically need little help, which gives Broos extra time to focus on other children. By students working at their own pace, they produce better work, Broos said. The focus on projects that students pick also propels that advancement, she noted.
Broos contends that her teaching approach does a better job of stimulating students' interest in technology careers than a traditional learning environment. This could have implications for the technology work force as a whole, as the Computing Research Association's 2008 Taulbee Survey of Ph.D.-granting computer science (CS) and computer engineering departments reported an 18 percent drop in newly enrolled CS students over the prior two years. This decline will likely hit state and local governments hardest because CS graduates tend to favor private-sector jobs. A larger pool of technology graduates would give state and local governments a better shot at meeting their IT work force needs.
Educators commonly struggle to increase the amount of one-on-one instruction in the classroom. For a teacher, like Broos, who monitors vastly different student projects all at once, overcoming that challenge is mandatory. Broos found a solution using headsets. All of her students wear them, and their computers face toward the classroom walls so she can see all activity from her central station. The students -- fourth- through eighth-graders -- work in pairs.
"Their heads are faced in the direction of the wall. Even the ADHD [attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder] kid tends to be very focused. The only thing they can really look at is their screen," Broos said. The students don't hear the clatter of the classroom, so they sit down and work.
Through her headset, she instructs students who need help by viewing their work from her monitor.
The students' freedom to achieve their academic interests has produced results in Broos' classroom. Seventh-graders Henry Bacon, 13, and Frank O'Meara, 12, won digital education awards at the Center for Digital Government's 2008 Best of the Web awards ceremony. The boys developed Lazertron.net, a Web site that offers games and tutorials to teach their classmates how to program using Adobe Flash.
"We just totally fell in love with Flash, and we wanted other people to have the same experience as