When students complain that school is boring, Jennifer Brill understands. As a student, she used to feel the same way.
“I always did well in school, but I never liked it much,” Brill says. “I found it uninspiring and extremely constraining. I always hoped there was another way to learn for all kids and teachers.”
That understanding helped Brill, assistant professor in the College of Education’s
educational technology program and technology-based teacher education program, earn the association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) Young Researcher Award, one of the nation’s top awards for young researchers.
As part of her original research, Brill explored dimensions that foster and sustain teachers as innovators and that make schools innovative places by researching an elementary school in Georgia pseudonymed “Brownlee.”
She conducted a 14-week ethnographic case study, immersing herself in the culture of the school. By engaging with staff and students for an extended period of time, she got a chance to experience who they were and what they were about.
“This is not something you can get from reading a book,” she says.
A contract for success
Brownlee for Brill was an example of a school with an exemplary teaching process that was highly successful helping all
students succeed. The school is particularly successful in helping underachieving students, who performed consistently below grade level at their previous schools, advance to on- or above-grade level performance.
“It amazed me, the success this school was demonstrating with kids,” she says.
She describes “Brownlee” as a professional development school with a learner-centered approach to teaching. One of the defining factors of this approach is a contract between all teachers, staff, and administrators stating their goals for teaching and learning.
The contract is constantly changing to accommodate new ideas about teaching. Students as young as the first grade draft their own contracts, explaining their definition of teaching and learning.
This model of learning is based on teachers relating to one another as colleagues, not in a hierarchical pattern. Among the teachers, there is an understanding that no one person holds all the answers.
“They looked to each other to understand,” Brill says.
She hopes her research provides insight that will enable other schools to consider approaching teaching and learning in alternative ways.
“We always hear about what schools are doing wrong,” she says. “‘Brownlee provides an example of a school ‘doing it right.’ We can learn from them.”
The AECT award recognizes a scholar for “the best paper reporting on a quantitative or qualitative study addressing a question related to educational technology.” Brill’s paper will receive special consideration for publication in Educational Technology Research and Development (ETR&D), the refereed scholarly research journal published by AECT.