By harnessing the power of data, Michelle Zimmerman (MEd ’07, PhD ’11) is helping set the standard for how educators can use technology as a tool to empower kids’ learning. The innovative approach to teaching and learning taken by Zimmerman, the nationally-recognized director of Renton Prep, was sparked by watching her mother, a special education teacher who enjoyed bringing new practices into her classroom. In addition to special education, her mother (a 1980 graduate of the University of Washington’s educational psychology program) taught typically developing and highly capable students across her career, giving Zimmerman an understanding of how to engage students at every level.

At Renton Prep, a Microsoft Showcase School that serves many first-generation and immigrant students, Zimmerman’s approach is focused on data collection through technology. Her students use laptops to record mentoring sessions they have with students in lower grades, providing instant feedback on their process which empowers them to ask questions and adjust their approaches.

Zimmerman recalled a mentoring pair of girls at the school—the younger a pre-kindergarten ELL student—both of whom rarely spoke in class. Yet the older girl, a 6th grader, was able to connect with her mentee at a deep level. “She could empathize with someone who did not want to speak in class,” Zimmerman said.

By the end of the year, the younger girl was speaking in full sentences. “The older student used technology to bring out these positive sides of her,” Zimmerman said.

And for the older student, who had been disengaged from school, the experience shifted her mindset, leading to a presentation to adults at an education conference. “It changed her whole perspective of what learning and education meant to her,” Zimmerman said.

Applying innovative teaching practices and seeking answers to questions were two values Zimmerman developed while studying at the UW College of Education. “The flexibility of the master’s and doctoral programs gave me a chance to ask my own questions,” she said. “I learned that it takes more cognitive energy to ask a question than to answer one. Now, I challenge my students to design their own questions and assessments.”

Zimmerman’s doctoral research question came from observations she made in her mother’s split-grade classrooms after seeing students of different ages teach one another. “Not only is this aligned with cultural studies, but it helps kids to have a voice, and to know that their learning impacts someone else in a form of legacy,” she said.

For Zimmerman, encouraging students to become invested in their own learning begins with teachers recognizing their abilities. By training students to use technology responsibly, educators can both empower and unlock their students’ potential. “There are so many students who will go through an education system and think that they are not good at school because they only see one type of data collected on them,” Zimmerman said. “When teachers realize that students have the power and voice to design assessment, it can change the way that kids perceive themselves in education.”

from UW Alumni news release April 3, 2017