Just four years ago there was a “no screens” rule in my classroom. Open laptops were forbidden, I-pads frowned upon, and cell phones a target. I wanted my students’ full attention at all times and it seemed obvious to me that technology would be a destructive distraction. All I could imagine was adding technology to the classroom as it was, that is tech as an addition, rather than reconsidering my entire approach to teaching.
Over the last few years things have been turned upside down. Kids are using I-pads, laptops, even cell phones, fluidly during class. Students are on task, collaborating and learning. We use hardly any paper at all. Students do practice sheets and write labs on their I-pads, and send them to me by e-mail. I write feedback and do the grading on my own I-pad and send their work back to them electronically as well.
Work flows between student and teacher smoothly, at any time of the day or evening. We have “electronic extra help” from miles away in the dead of winter. Students are getting more feedback, in a more timely way, and they are feeling even more supported in their learning.
There are three themes that have emerged in this transformation.
1) The curriculum is now more student centered. Instead of the teacher always up front delivering knowledge, there is a new rhythm to the class. A few minutes of teacher instruction is followed by students working on problems or collaborating together. Students are therefore free to go at their own pace more of the time.
Having given up a lot of the limelight, I no longer have to take it personally, as a sign of disrespect, if a student is not giving me his rapt attention for 50 minutes. (Could we adults be as attentive and obedient as we ask students to be ?)
I have come to understand that technology is the sea in which today’s students swim. They grew up in this water. It is how they communicate and how they learn about the world. This new perspective makes it obvious to me that taking kids totally out of their ocean in order to learn, does not really make much sense.
Having given up my spot at the front, I’m also freer to circulate around the room and help students as they work. Our relationship as learner and coach is thus reinforced. It is a much more joyful and empowering relationship than child and autocrat.
Our books are I-books which have interactive features in addition to regular text. This creates a richer experience of learning.
In chemistry class students use I-pads to create their own unique lab reports, complete with photographs of the experiments. It is immensely helpful to their understanding to have images to work with, rather than just fading and confused memories of what they saw the day before in class.
In Climate Science some assignments ask students to search google images to find examples, graphs, and diagrams. Students then use the electronic tools to insert these into their work or notes and annotate them with their own hand. Climate Science being such a current field with research and breakthroughs happening all the time, it is absolutely necessary students are on the web, learning to find out what is happening, and becoming skilled at sorting the good science from the propaganda.
3) There is a culture of trust developing in the room around technology and in fact the whole process of learning. Students know it is a privilege to have these tools available to them. We have an understanding that they need to stay on task in class and not get led off course by the tempting distractions of e-mail or chat. I have been pleased and amazed at how infrequently there is a need for a gentle reminder to get back on track.
Perhaps because they realize this about their education, rather than about “doing it the teacher’s way” they are responding so well. They know I am here to support them in learning, not here to admonish or scold them for momentary lapses. That is not a game either of us wants to play.
Maybe another reason students are able to stay on task is because they can learn at their own pace. I suspect much of the time when students succumb to the technology distraction in school it is either because they are bored when the traditional class is going too slowly, or the class has gone too fast and they are hopelessly lost. Both those situations will result in a student looking for that dopamine release one gets from checking facebook.
So what are my conclusions here? I believe there are pleasant surprises to be found if one is willing to try new things. Having started out a few years ago as a total naysayer to technology, I’m quite happy so far with the results of change. It has been somewhat of a challenging and even scary process to re-evaluate how I teach, to step back… and to let go.
In the end, empowering the students is far, far more rewarding than what ever it was I was doing before. What was that anyway? Was that needing to be in control of their behavior, their attention, even their minds all the time? Maybe that is over simplifying, and being a bit too hard on myself, but in any case, I’m glad to have left that approach behind. 😉