By Erin Cristales
Before Rhonda Christensen entered the classroom as a first-year teacher, she thought she was well-prepared for the rigors of the role. As an education major, she had taken all the required courses and completed her pre-service hours, assisting seasoned instructors with curriculum and classroom management. From an academic perspective, she’d ticked all the boxes.
But once captain of her own classroom ship, Christensen realized there were challenges she had never been forced to confront: students with Individualized Education Programs and 504 plans. Language and learning barriers. A mix of socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds that required a deft — and equitable — approach to instruction and interaction.
“I know how hard it is to get support when you’re a classroom teacher,” says Christensen, now a research professor of learning technologies and director of UNT’s Institute for the Integration of Technology into Teaching and Learning. “My heart has always been with pre-service and classroom teachers and how to use technology to improve teaching and learning.”
Inspired by those early experiences in the classroom, Christensen and Gerald Knezek, Regents Professor of learning technologies, recently applied for and received an $840,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to use artificial intelligence to increase teacher efficacy and equity and diversity in K-12 classrooms.
In the research project, Christensen and Knezek will use simSchool — a simulation program focused on enhancing the K-12 professional development classroom experiences — to analyze teachers’ interactions with students. The simSchool modules are designed to help teachers become more effective instructors by preparing them for challenges inherent in the classroom environment that they may not encounter during pre-service teaching or internships, as well as identify implicit biases they may have. A huge benefit of the project, Christensen says, is that by allowing teachers to explore and prepare for such challenges, they are less likely to leave the field within the first five years.
“A lot of times in the classroom, when something you’re doing isn’t working, you just think, ‘I’m a terrible teacher,’” Christensen says. “In a simulation, when you teach a class and the lesson isn’t working, you are able to receive feedback and try something different. That allows teachers to build confidence and see that no, they’re not failures.”
The project will roll out over the next three years with teachers in California-based Aspire Public Schools, starting with 20 participants and building to 90. Teachers will engage with each module a minimum of five times and receive feedback on their strengths and areas for growth, as well as opportunities to reflect on their performance and implicit biases. The modules provide an equity index at the end of each lesson that illuminate whether an instructor is calling on more males than females or one race more than another — or effectively engaging students with accommodations for hearing impairments or autism. Once participants complete the modules, Christensen and Knezek will analyze trends within the data.
“The more practice you can have with kids who you may not interact with in real-life teacher preparation programs, the better,” Christensen says. “It really helps remind you that kids are very different, and you need different strategies for different kids.”