Social/emotional skills, the feedback loop, and SuperBetter

What does it mean to be a friend? How do I manage strong emotions so I can meet my personal goals? Who am I? These are the questions my students explore at the therapeutic school where I teach. Developing social and emotional skills is hard work, and traditional talk therapy or skills work face-to-face does not reach every student. When maladaptive skills “work,” students may be less motivated to change. Finding a supportive community to explore these changes is hard, too, especially when a student’s family context is challenging. We need more creative ways to approach this therapeutic work.

We often hear hear about how online communities such as Facebook and Twitter are ruining our ability to communicate with one another. Teens get into texting fights, parents struggle to keep up with the latest form of communication, teachers try to balance technology integration. But what if we looked at online communities from a strengths-based perspective? How can online communities actually help people develop social and emotional skills? What are the ways in which we can use technology to our advantage in building our ability to have positive, meaningful relationships with others? There is not a large field of work on this topic, but I can offer some related thoughts and insights from the research and my own experience.

What can technology offer that face-to-face conversations or supports cannot? One of the most powerful uses of technology for social and emotional learning is the feedback loop. Thomas Goetz in a 2011 Wired Magazine article described the feedback loop this way:

The basic premise is simple. Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it), then give them an opportunity to change those actions, pushing them toward better behaviors. Action, information, reaction. It’s the operating principle behind a home thermostat, which fires the furnace to maintain a specific temperature, or the consumption display in a Toyota Prius, which tends to turn drivers into so-called hypermilers trying to wring every last mile from the gas tank. But the simplicity of feedback loops is deceptive. They are in fact powerful tools that can help people change bad behavior patterns, even those that seem intractable. Just as important, they can be used to encourage good habits, turning progress itself into a reward. In other words, feedback loops change human behavior. And thanks to an explosion of new technology, the opportunity to put them into action in nearly every part of our lives is quickly becoming a reality. (Goetz 2011)

The basic cycle of a feedback loop is data collection, meaningful feedback, consequences, and action. Say you want to impact your weight. You  might collect data about how many calories you eat each day. After collecting for a week, you turn this data into a chart of calories consumed – a chart that takes on emotional relevance through your ability to understand and relate to the data. The consequence of your actions become clear: maybe you need to eat fewer calories to lose weight, or you need to eat more to support your workout routine. Finally, you take action and adjust your behavior based on this new information. The feedback loop starts all over again.

Feedback loops are possible without the use of technology, but collecting, displaying, and interpreting data are much easier with the use of the supercomputers we carry around in our backpacks and pockets. Sites that use the feedback loop to positively impact social and emotional behavior could become powerful communities for change, especially with teenagers who often lament, “but how does this apply to me?” Inherent in the feedback loop is relevance, and relevance breeds motivation.

One such website I believe uses the feedback loop to its advantage is SuperBetter was developed by Jane McGonigal, a game designer who created the game when dealing with suicidal thoughts after a traumatic brain injury. The game originated as “Jane the Concussion Slayer,” which she invited her sister and partner to play with her. When McGonigal asked her sister to play a game with her, it was “an easier way to ask for help” (McGonigal 2012). I think about my students and how difficult it is sometimes for them to ask for others to help them work on social and emotional goals, but how easy it might be for them to text or message a friend an invitation to a game.

“Jane the Concussion Slayer” grew into SuperBetter, a free online game (with a paid iOS app) that uses quests, power-ups, bad guys, and allies to help anyone get “superbetter” from anything. The game is customizable to a specific challenge, such as quitting smoking, or can be broad: you can set your objective in the game to “I’m just getting SuperBetter!” Once you create a “secret identity” for an avatar, you then specify your “Epic Win” – or why you want to improve. Behind each of these elements of the game is scientific research supporting how playing the game truly improves your health and wellness. Players can find this research distilled into easy-to-digest articles in the “Secret Lab” section of the website interface.

The game itself focuses on developing players’ resilience in four different research-based areas: emotional, social, mental and physical. Players use “power-ups” for small coping strategies, “quests” to learn new skills, and “battle bad guys” for reflecting on larger, overarching challenges. These categories are exactly the ways that we support students at my therapeutic school, but we do not use the feedback loop as effectively as SuperBetter. In SuperBetter, you gain points as you complete quests and power-ups in each area of resilience. You can go into your Secret Lab and view how your resilience has changed over time and the progress you are making in your well-being. SuperBetter collects the data from your actions in the game, presents it to you in meaningful ways through the gamification/”points” approach, and then you can make your decision on further actions based on how you see the activities supporting or not supporting you. The player then takes actions and the feedback loop starts over again.

However, the true power of SuperBetter is in the community it creates. You can do SuperBetter on your own – but the game encourages and rewards for you for enlisting “allies.” Through the design of the site, you essentially create a social network that is focused on you and your wellness. The set-up of the site allows for only people you have specifically invited to support you to access your activity. Your allies can comment and “like” your progress, award you achievements, and recommend tasks for you. The process brings your allies in and transforms them into part of your feedback loop, adding extra data to the set, making feedback more meaningful, and helping you to consider your consequences.

In SuperBetter’s “secret lab” section about allies, the research about social relationships is synthesized: “having at least two strong social relationships dramatically increases positive health outcomes and helps us succeed in our goals” (SuperBetter Labs 2012). Furthermore, SuperBetter defines what makes a positive social relationship: one that includes positivity, honesty, support and closeness. For students like mine, saying “strong social relationship” would not be sufficient to understand what types of allies one needs in the journey to bettering oneself. The research synthesis on SuperBetter (developed from peer-reviewed papers also linked to in the secret lab) describes those characteristics as well as the benefits of developing a strong relationship with an ally. In this way, SuperBetter not only supports the social and emotional growth between people, but actually teaches how to do this.

There is currently wide support in the field of education for “gamification.” In an article for Edutopia, Matthew Farber describes how gaming elements such as leveling up, achievements, badges, and Easter eggs are used in the classroom. Farber concludes that gaming is “the very definition of constructivism” (2013). The Mozilla Foundation further supports elements of gamification in a paper collaborating with Peer 2 Peer University and the MacArthur Foundation. Learning today takes place across multiple settings, not just a classroom, and in multiple means, not just rote memorization and testing. Yet, “institutions still decide what types of learning ‘count’, with little room or innovation, as well as who gets to have access to that learning” (2012). Badges are a “bridge between contexts” and support motivation, flexibility, and community-building. In SuperBetter, badges are called “achievements” and can be awarded from an ally to their “hero,” further supporting the social and emotional connections in the community.

In addition to the impacts of classroom integration, the act of playing games in itself can have positive emotional impacts. In one study, after playing “casual” video games such as Bejeweled, subjects experienced less physical and emotional stress.  (Russoniello et al 2009). However, these casual games are not social – and do not teach a regulation skill, they are in themselves a coping mechanism. Different research suggests that social online games can impact “real-world” relationship. In a study from Michigan State University, researchers found that people playing games on social networks could practice relationship skills such as initiating, maintaining, and enhancing relationship. They also found loose evidence that certain behaviors reinforced by Facebook games in particular – such as reciprocity – had a positive impact on relationship. (Wohn et al, 2011).

Can SuperBetter and gamification replace traditional means of building social/emotional skills? I doubt it, but I do have faith that using elements of gamification in therapeutic work can engage students. Gamification is another way of making learning visible, tangible, and putting it in the hands of the learner – and in my experience those traits lead to successful learning outcomes, both in content areas and in social/emotional skills. I plan to try SuperBetter with some of my students in the upcoming semester, and to encourage my teachers to use visible markers of learning to support our students’ growth.

Farber, Matthew. “Gamifying Student Engagement.” Edutopia. N.p., 2 May 2013. Web. 2 Dec.
2013. <>.
Goetz, Thomas. “Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops.” Wired Magazine 19 June 2011: n.
pag. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.
McGonigal, Jane. (2012 June). Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 years of extra life
. Retrieved from
Mozilla Foundation, People 2 People University and MacArthur Foundation. 2012. Open badges
for lifelong learning. Mozilla Foundation.
Russoniello, C. V., O’Brien, K., & Parks, J. M. (2009). The effectiveness of casual video games
in improving mood and decreasing stress. Journal of Cyber Therapy and Rehabilitation, 2(1), 53-66.
“Secret Lab: Allies.” SuperBetter. SuperBetter Labs, n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.
Wohn, Donghee Yvette , Cliff Lampe , Rick Wash, Nicole Ellison, and Jessica Vitak. “The ‘S’ in
Social Network Games: Initiating, Maintaining, and Enhancing Relationships.” Proceedings of the 44th Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences (2011): n. pag.Michigan State University. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Reflections on the case against technology integration

Over the past several months I’ve been investigating the case against technology integration in classrooms – or more broadly, the case against internet and smartphones. Because I’m earning my master’s degree in education with a technology focus, I thought it was important to be able to address concerns and opposition to what I believe to be the great benefits of technology.

Throughout my study, I read Alone TogetherThe Shallows, and Last Child in the Woods. I also kept an eye open to articles and conversations in the education world either supporting or countering technology integration. At core, these readings did not change my beliefs about educational technology, but they did expose me to some fascinating research and trends that those in the field are currently exploring. My core belief is that there is no silver bullet or single answer in education. Every student learns differently and every teacher is most effective in a different way. The tool should fit the task, whether that tool is an iPad or a riverbed.

I’m worried to learn about the ways that the internet may impact our ability to do deep, sustained reading, as I learned in The Shallows. I’m concerned that the internet may push people apart rather than draw them together, as Shelly Turkel argues in Alone Together. I don’t want my children to be more connected to their tablets than to nature, as in the future painted by Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods. However, these worries don’t outweigh my faith that the internet can help connect disenfranchised youth, that online access can spark interest and availability of higher education, or that real-audience tasks can invigorate reading and writing skill-building. I don’t think it has to be a case of one or the other, of unplugged versus plugged in, of online versus off. We can support our students in ways that make sense for each of them, and blanket acceptance or refusal of any tool doesn’t make sense for all students.

I appreciate the increased awareness I’ve gained over the course of my study, and I hope it will serve me well going forward. I can be more mindful of turning to the internet thoughtlessly, or how Im’ incorporating play in nature into my classes. I can be sure to balance the connections my students build online with the connections they’re making face to face. Throughout it all, I stand steady in my belief that we need to get to know our students well as individuals and then work from there. Relying on my core beliefs and balancing what I know about the drawbacks of screen dependence, I think I will serve my students well.

Tools for small schools: Microsoft Security Essentials

Anti-virus – it’s a given that you need it, but the market is swamped with options. So  many computers come pre-installed with heavy versions that take up a lot of space and need to be renewed for lots of money in a few months or a year. Then there’s a variety of open-source versions like Avast or AVG. But it’s the newest kid to the playground that I’ve started using on all my school’s computers: Microsoft Security Essentials


It’s lightweight. It’s free. It’s a trustworthy name. It updates and scans automatically. Most importantly – it works. I use a combination of MSE and Malwarebytes for the occasional stubborn infection. 

What makes this particularly good for small schools? It works on most versions of Windows, from XP on up  – nice when you have a wide range of operating systems on various ages of machines, like we do. It also doesn’t require registration. That means I can install it on every computer and don’t need to worry about registering or updating licenses the way I did when I used Avast! on all our machines. 

Try it out! And remember, you never need more than one real-time anti-virus program running at the same time – it doesn’t give you extra protection and it slows down your machine. Click here to go download MSE.

Essential Conditions: How do I get there?

There wasn’t a technology plan or department at my school before I started working there. I don’t want to discount the work that many teachers have done there over the years and the expertise of my coworkers in the area of tech. We have hard jobs, and we have a lot on our plates without taking on tertiary responsibilities. I just mention the lack of structure as context for talking about the Essential Conditions.

This Essential Conditions list comes from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in relation to their NETS standards, which outline essential skills for students and teachers, much like state standards or Common Core standards do for subject areas. Here’s the list (or view it at the source):


Shared Vision

Proactive leadership in developing a shared vision for educational technology among all education stakeholders, including teachers and support staff, school and district administrators, teacher educators, students, parents, and the community

Empowered Leaders

Stakeholders at every level empowered to be leaders in effecting change

Implementation Planning

A systematic plan aligned with a shared vision for school effectiveness and student learning through the infusion of information and communication technologies (ICT) and digital learning resources

Consistent and Adequate Funding

Ongoing funding to support technology infrastructure, personnel, digital resources, and staff development

Equitable Access

Robust and reliable access to current and emerging technologies and digital resources, with connectivity for all students, teachers, staff, and school leaders

Skilled Personnel

Educators, support staff, and other leaders skilled in the selection and effective use of  appropriate ICT resources

Ongoing Professional Learning

Technology-related professional learning plans and opportunities with dedicated time to practice and share ideas

Technical Support

Consistent and reliable assistance for maintaining, renewing, and using ICT and digital learning resources

Curriculum Framework

Content standards and related digital curriculum resources that are aligned with and support digital age learning and work

Student-Centered Learning

Planning, teaching, and assessment centered around the needs and abilities of students

Assessment and Evaluation

Continuous assessment of teaching, learning, and leadership, and evaluation of the use of ICT and digital resources

Engaged Communities

Partnerships and collaboration within communities to support and fund the use of ICT and digital resources

Support Policies

Policies, financial plans, accountability measures, and incentive structures to support the use of ICT and digital learning resources for learning and in district school operations

Supportive External Context

Policies and initiatives at the national, regional, and local levels to support schools and teacher preparation programs in effective implementation of technology for achieving curriculum and learning technology (ICT) standards

This resource makes sense to me. Before I can start holding teachers and students accountable for digital literacy, I need these conditions to be met. I need all these things to support the best learning, so that technology makes life easier and more fulfilling, rather than technology being a source of frustration or anxiety.

Without going into detail, I’ll say that these conditions are not being met right now in my school.  I would assume that’s common among most schools; you can imagine the added challenges in a small non-profit independent school. Last summer I collaborated with a couple of other teachers to look at the NETS for students and the Vermont tech standards to create a pared-down list of essential skills for our particular students. This Essential Conditions list was an afterthought in our group –  brought up with the “Oh, we should probably talk about this more” comment that rarely leads to it actually being talked about more.

I think I went about that process backwards. This summer, as I get more time for professional development and long-term planning, I think it’s time to really take apart these conditions and start advocating for what we’d need to get them met. While some of those items seem big – like the “External Context” – I need to remember that as an empowered educator, they are all within my scope of influence. I can advocate to my legislators. I can raise awareness in my community. I can network with other professionals to fill in the gaps in my own program. I just need to start.

Anyone have experience with really digging into the Essential Conditions? I’d love to hear your thoughts and perspectives.

Reflections on Edcamp Boston from an independent school teacher

My main takeaway from Edcamp Boston was the brilliance of the overall structure and feel of the day. I am now totally a convert to unconferences. The model just makes sense. I appreciated the collaborative we’re-all-in-it-together feel. I appreciated that sessions were sometimes just questions or calls for help. I appreciated that everyone was treated like an expert, and everyone’s opinion held equal esteem. One of the sessions I went to was about how one school transformed their inservice through an Edcamp model, and that was pretty inspiring to me. We have lots of professional development at my school, and while there is some amount of agency among the teachers to propose and lead sessions, I think we could take it one step further. That’s something I’ll definitely bring up to my school leadership as we start planning for summer inservice.

The spectacular view from Edcamp Boston at the Microsoft NERD.
The spectacular view from Edcamp Boston at the Microsoft NERD.

My other takeaway from Edcamp was how glad I am to not work in public school. Throughout the day, I heard so much from other teachers about feeling isolated at their schools, feeling unsupported by administration, feeling distanced from their peers. In one session on urban education, I talked about my school’s framework of “unconditional positive regard” toward students. One teacher asked me how that was implemented – how do you get teachers to start living that? I was lucky enough to be able to answer that that’s the way it’s been since before I started working at my school – that’s just part of our culture. I am so lucky that I have peers who support me, administration who really care about and believe in our students, and the autonomy to implement changes or experiment with pedagogy in my classroom.

I was also reminded all day of how grateful I am to not have to deal with standardized testing. My kids have the option to take the Vermont state tests, but it may not surprise you that most of them opt out. I don’t have any pressure from my administration to get higher test scores. I take that for granted most of the time, and Edcamp gave me a new appreciation that the pressures at my school are about how to best serve each individual student. That’s the way it should be.

Don’t get me wrong – I respect so much those who work in public schools. It just hurts my heart that some of my peers at public schools are struggling so much, and I wish there was a way for the positive culture at places like my school to influence culture at the public schools around us. On the flip side of the coin, I definitely developed some envy over the day of the institutional support received by some of my fellow tech integrators. I recognize that at my school, the idea of structured technology integration is new, and these things take time. It was inspiring to hear about established programs at other schools and dream about where my program can be in the future.

Networking and collaboration at Edcamp Boston
Networking and collaboration at Edcamp Boston

I guess that brings me back around to the importance of something like Edcamp. A free conference allows a wider cross-section of teachers from schools that may not be able to fund attendance at other conferences. I got to meet a great range of teachers from different settings, and as much as I took from them, I hope they’ll take a little from me as well. Maybe then we can close the gap of isolation that so many people talked about, and become more of a community that can come together to support our students with care.

Tools for small schools:

If you’re working at a larger school, chances are your computers are networked and it’s a little easier for you to install and update your machines. At my small school, anything I want to install has to be done manually, sitting in front of each computer. is a huge time saver and makes my life so much easier.

Ninite gives you a great list of programs to choose from.

Head on over to ninite and get started. You just choose the programs you want (including many open-source options) and then download an installer. The installer skips all those annoying toolbar downloads and saves you a ton of time. I’ve been using ninite for about a year to set up school and personal computers, and I’ve been happy with every experience.

If you’re curious, the blend of programs I usually download from ninite for school machines:

  • Chrome
  • GIMP
  • LibreOffice
  • Foxit Reader
  • Microsoft Security Essentials
  • Google Earth
  • 7-Zip
  • MalwareBytes

Anyone else have good tools they like to use when setting up a new computer?

Why open source is great for schools

  • It’s free (usually). Here I’m referring to the open source movement as a subset of the free software movement (see here).  When you’re teaching kids from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, free is better. You shouldn’t train kids to use programs that they can’t actually acquire at home. That’s part of why I love teaching with Google Apps – it’s free for them to get at home. Same goes for GIMP, OpenOffice, Avast, etc. If they can get it for free, they can use technology to improve their lives at home, not just at school.
  • It’s just as good. Yes, proprietary versions of products can look prettier, but nine times out of ten there’s an open-source alternative that might be rough around the edges with the same functionality. Prime example: Word vs. OpenOffice or Libre Office. I don’t have Word on my school or home machine and I don’t miss it at all. Same goes for open-source virus protection, which in most cases I actually prefer to Norton.
  • It’s a great philosophy. Open-source is all about freedom of information and relies on members of the community helping each other. Those are great values for any student, and I like that the story is also a concrete example of what it means to be in an intellectual community in the real world.

To me, those are the big three, but this is a nice article that highlights some of the more technical reasons to appreciate open source. Check it out.

How can we teach smartphone skills in class?

The traditional response to cell phones in school is “hand that over.” That doesn’t work for me. A student is never going to learn to manage the phone on her own if I’m constantly providing an external structure for her. She needs to internally figure out a way to manage having a phone and not using it. That aspect of having a phone in class makes sense to me, and I know how to work with it.

More importantly, I don’t want students to get the message that phones and learning can’t coexist. Smartphones are business tools and education aids. I don’t use a smartphone for work, but I think that makes me among the minority.  I do use my smartphone for pretty much everything else – getting around, managing my money, and keeping track of my responsibilities and calendar, just to name a few.

I support students to use email and online apps to do their schoolwork because I think those skills are essential to post-secondary education and employment. Lately, though, it seems that successfully navigating a smartphone is an essential skill as well. I want to help my students with that as well: how do you find out how much data an app is using? How do you tell if an app is probably carrying malware? How do you dig into the files on your Android? What’s the best way to sync your Google calendar to your iPhone?  What happens if you click “factory reset?”

Small problem, though.  You see, any student who walks into my classroom has access to the internet, because my computer is sitting on my desk with the blue LED-lit fan whirring away. Smartphones, though? A little more complicated. Any school has a mix of students from varying socioeconomic situations. Let’s say a student does have a smartphone – they still can’t get on our school WiFi, because that’s password protected, and I’m not about to start handing that password out to students (while I may want students to be learning tech skills in my class, I don’t want to make it any easier for them to be on Twitter in someone else’s). I wouldn’t ask a student to use their 3G or 4G, because that’s not my dime and I don’t have information on their provider’s plans and costs. And while I’m happy to have students use my computer, I’d never let a student use my phone, nor would I want to use theirs. I’ll always err on the side of respecting someone’s boundaries and privacy.

So that leaves me with this question: how can I teach students the skills they need to master their cell phones?  iPod Touches or non-cellular Android devices would be great, but it’s unlikely my school will ever budget those in. I’d love to find a way to work with what I already have at my disposal. But how?

Updates to come if I have a flash of brilliance.

3 Reasons Google Apps is Great for Therapeutic Schools

First of all, you might be asking “what the heck is a therapeutic school?” I’m not an expert beyond what we do at my own school, but basically I understand therapeutic schools to be schools that teach academic subjects side by side with skills for living a healthy life, including emotional regulation, relationship skills and strategies for functioning successfully in a community. At my school, our students are all working on different goals related to these skills, and as such, we serve them in a variety of groups and in 1-to-1 classes.

We’ve had a Google Apps for Education account for a little less than a year so far, and already there are so many great applications to our work. Here are some of the reasons I think Google Apps is great for therapeutic schools.

  1. Students get peer interaction without being face-to-face. Many of our students are learning the best way to be in relationship with each other, and sometimes sitting in a room with a peer can be stressful, confusing and hard. Google Apps allows students to interact with one another in a low-stakes way. I can edit this paper with my classmate, but I don’t have to think about my body language and my facial expression and constantly talking to them while I’m also trying to remember how to edit a paper. Real-time collaboration on Google Docs gives a sense of working together while also giving space to each student to think and breathe.
  2. Students can practice real-world skills in a closed environment. While some of Google Apps for Education’s monitoring settings leave something to be desired, Google does make it easy to close your Google Apps environment so that students and teachers are interacting with each other only, and not the outside world. You can email peers and teachers you’ve already met in the real world or share your website with only a handful of teachers you know will provide supportive feedback. One of the scariest things when you’re learning how to navigate the world is the unexpectedness of interactions with people you don’t know. Learning how to be online in a community of people whose faces you’ve seen makes all of that much less scary.
  3. Google Apps and constructivist learning go hand in hand. One of the tenets of constructivist learning is to allow students to develop their own knowledge with a hands-on tasks rather than being instructed from above by the teacher. Because Google Apps is generally very user-friendly with intuitive controls, students with even a little bit of prior web experience take to it easily. I typically only need to prompt once or twice that the red button is create, the blue button is share. Since Google’s been making efforts recently to unify design across Apps, the kids can pick up the visual language and apply it throughout. This way, students are developing their own understanding of how to navigate the web. I can be a guide rather than an instructor.
This is a topic I spend lots of time thinking about, so you’re sure to see more posts about it here. How about you? Any experiences with Google Apps helping students with their therapeutic goals?

photo credit: missha via photopin cc