Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

January 1, 2009

Transforming Education Through Technology: One Milken Educator's Trajectory by Sonny Magaña, M.Ed.

Transformina Education Through Technology: One Milken Eductor's Trajectory by Sonny Magaña, M.Ed.

Since the mid-1980s, I've been exploring ways to harness the power of technology to unlock student learning potential. The essential question I've always asked is, "How can technology help students learn new things in new ways?" Using technology as merely an "add on" to current teaching practices was in my mind insufficient. I was more interested in the transformative power of technology to prepare students for life and work in the third millennium.

The increases in student engagement and achievement I observed in my classroom were nothing short of remarkable. My kids were empowered and engaged and it showed in almost every type of data I collected — increases in student grades, course completion rates and attendance as well as a dramatic reduction in behavioral issues.

Students use the ActivClassroom system
Education was perhaps the only profession in which the bulk of research … was conducted by non-practitioners who were removed from the everyday realities of the K12 classroom.

In 1997 the Milken Family Foundation honored me not only for my work integrating technology into teaching and learning, but also for designing, implementing and publishing innovative research studies measuring technology's impact on learning. I felt this tremendous accolade came with an equally tremendous responsibility to share my work with the expressed goal of transforming education.

With the generous support and inspiration gained from the Milken Educator Award, I pursued graduate studies, focusing and refining my efforts to evaluate the impact of new and emerging technologies. While still a classroom teacher, I began writing and speaking about educational transformation with technology to a wide variety of audiences around the globe.

It was while earning my master's degree in education technology that I was introduced to Action Research—research conducted by real teachers in real classrooms with real students—to measure the impact of interventions on learning. It struck me that education was perhaps the only profession in which the bulk of research driving the profession forward was conducted by ¬non-practitioners¬ who were removed from the everyday realities of the K12 classroom. Without a balance of realism in research, I reasoned, teachers would lack practical strategies to use in their own classrooms and little would change. I was determined to try and bridge this gap to help move the teaching profession into the 21st century by focusing on integrating technology to transform curriculum, instructional and assessment design.

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Today I serve as the head of global research for Promethean, and am able to pose and implement interesting research questions on a vastly greater scale. I was deeply humbled and honored to be able to work with one of my educational heroes, renowned researcher Dr. Robert Marzano, on a breakthrough Action Research effort to study the impact of an interactive teaching and learning environment –what we call the "ActivClassroom"—on student engagement and academic achievement.

The multi-year study is one of the largest research projects of its kind. Nearly 5,000 students and 123 teachers from a broad range of schools and districts spread across rural, urban and suburban districts contributed to the study.

Dr. Marzano employed a research design known as "quasi experimental" which is considered to be rigorous social science research methodology and commonly used in educational settings. Teachers who volunteered for the study taught a lesson within a given unit of study to one group of students using the ActivClassroom, and then taught a different group of students the same lesson without using the technology. The teachers evaluated the change in learning outcomes for students by administering the same pre/post lesson assessment — of their own design — to both groups of students. In October, 2010 results from his newly published report, "Continuation Study of the Effect of Promethean's ActivClassroom on Student Achievement," confirmed that student achievement increases, on average, by 16 percentile points when teachers use this technology regardless of grade band, subject area or teacher experience level.

"A reasonable inference is that the overall effect of a 16 percentile point gain is probably not a function of random factors that are specific to the independent treatment/control studies; rather, the 16 percentile point increase represents a real change in student learning," (Marzano, 2010). Legendary researcher and current senior researcher for Colorado's National Education Policy Center, Dr. Gene V. Glass independently summarized the study this way: "One way of phrasing their findings is that a class employing the technology would gain 12 months' achievement in a 9-month school year."

Dr. Marzano's research has, for the first time, drawn a direct and positive line between interactive learning technologies, improved instructional practices and substantive increases in student achievement.

Students use the ActivClassroom system
The implications of these findings are... a harbinger of a global educational transformation.

The implications of these findings are something of a revolution in modern teaching and learning. But, in fact, they are more than that: they are a harbinger of a global educational transformation that increases learning productivity by supporting students learning new things in profoundly new ways.

The Milken Family Foundation gave me an extraordinary opportunity to expand my work to transform teaching and learning. But I know I'm not alone. Thanks to the generosity of the Milken Family and their commitment to improving teacher quality, thousands of other educators like me are making similar transformations in classrooms, schools and districts all over this great country. I am deeply grateful for the honor bestowed upon me and will continue this important work for the rest of my career. So I thank you, Lowell, Michael, Joni, Jane, and the rest of the Milken Family Foundation for your inspiration and support of this Washington State Milken Educator.

For questions, email Sonny Magaña at

Read Sonny Magaña’s Milken Educator biography.

To download a copy of Dr. Marzano's research report, please go to:

Haystead, M. W., & Marzano, R. J. (2010). Preliminary report: A second year evaluation study of Promethean ActivClassroom. Englewood, CO: Marzano Research Laboratory.

Ian Quillan. (2010, November 4). Study links learning gains to whiteboard use [Web log message].

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