Fostering Independence

“The purpose of teaching a child is to enable the child to get along without the teacher.”

In elementary school, we have a lot of structure. We line up a lot. We go to the restroom and to art and to the cafeteria as a group. Academically, we do a lot of things together. Even in centers, most students move through the whole rotation, so everyone does the same thing more-or-less within the same time period.

A big part of this approach is practical. We need to keep track of the students and make sure everyone is safe. We have to make sure all students have a basic foundation of literacy and general knowledge. Schools can be cultures of anxiety for young students who may have never been away from home for so long, so often. So routine and predictability are key components of school that put them at ease.

8722487167_94ac5118b6_zAs students get older, they gain autonomy. They may have different teachers for reading and math. They use hall passes to independently use the restroom when necessary. They do more work at home. In middle school, they start to have choices about the classes they take, adding instrumental music or a world language. Once they get to high school, they’re largely on their own. We still have bell schedules and keep students accountable, but it’s a far cry from the “line up to visit the drinking fountain” days.

As a school district, we’ve had a lot of conversations over the last few years about what our student technology model should look like. As technology has become more powerful, less expensive, and more mobile, the conventional wisdom about school technology has become less conventional. For more than a decade, our model was to have a computer in every classroom, and (roughly) a computer lab for every 200-300 students. A few years ago, this changed as we started adding classroom sets of laptops to support new curriculum adoptions. The computers were suddenly in the classroom, where the learning was happening. They were more flexible and more mobile. Since 2012, we’ve nearly tripled the number of computers in the district, and moved from a model that was 20% mobile to one that’s 80% mobile.

We knew when we started that we would eventually reach the point where the number of computers exceeded the number of students, and have long debated about what to do at that point. Do we embrace a 1:1 model and issue a device to each student? Do we move to a BYOD approach, where each student is responsible for bringing his or her own technology? Do we keep classroom sets of devices in every classroom? It wasn’t until this year that we finally figured it out.

At the elementary level, school is very structured. The technology should reflect that. Computers are maintained in every classroom. Everyone has the same device, configured the same way. The standardized, predictable approach reduces the teachers’ and students’ anxiety about using the technology. It helps them move on quickly to the learning without spending so much time focusing on the tech.

As students get older, they gain greater autonomy. Now, instead of having a set of computers in every classroom, the computer is issued to the student. As they enter middle school, they take responsibility for the device. It’s still a computer purchased and supported by the school. There’s still a consistency in the hardware and software platform that allows us to reasonably support it. Teachers know what their students’ devices can and cannot do. But now the student can take the device home. They can work on school projects and pursue personal interests with it. They have some control over their computing environment, but the much of the structure is still in place.

As the students move into high school, they gain even more independence. They’re more aware of their learning and technology needs. They have a better idea of which technologies work for them, and they’ve developed their own preferences and tastes. This is the point at which they bring their technology to their learning. They take responsibility for the tech, and the school simply provides the necessary infrastructure to help them use it for learning. At this point, their technology use has become fully independent.

So that’s the plan. We’re doing classroom sets of computers at the elementary level. The computers stay in the classroom. Media specialists address information literacy and technology skills with the students, and they work with the teachers on technology integration and professional development. As the students move into middle school, they’re issued a device through our 1:1 program, which they keep as long as they’re in middle school. The technology integration coach works with the teachers, and technology skills are embedded in classroom instruction. Classes increasingly use blended methodologies that extend learning and foster collaboration. When students move to high school, they bring their own technology to their learning. Their technology use is independent, and they’re comfortable moving between online and face to face environments. They’ve become independent learners and independent technology users.

And they don’t need their teachers anymore.

Photo credit: Lucélia Ribeiro on Flickr.

Slide3

Why Middle School Sucks

This is a FRED Talk I’m giving at OETCx this week. OETCx is the unconference component of the Ohio Educational Technology Conference. The idea with this presentation is that it’s a five minute presentation with 20 slides, automatically advancing every 15 seconds.

Slide1

My name is John Schinker. I’m the Director of Technology for Brecksville-Broadview Heights Schools in Cuyahoga County. The school district I work in is not the same as the one I live in. That’ll be important in a minute.

Slide2

This is my daughter, Emily, on her first day of first grade. Like most first graders, Emily was excited about school, and would do anything to please her teacher. She brought home her language arts book the first week, read the whole thing in one night, and took it back and asked for the next one the next day.

Slide3

Emily’s enthusiasm for school persisted throughout elementary school. She wasn’t a genius (she does have some of her mom’s genes, after all), but she truly enjoyed learning. But that changed when she got to fifth grade.

Slide4

In fifth grade she went to Intermediate School. Her classroom was not unlike this one, and her teachers’ pedagogy was very similar as well. The teacher was the source of all information, and the students’ job was to absorb knowledge.

Slide5

The school’s focus was on preparing students to take the Ohio Achievement Assessments. They systematically covered the curriculum, mostly by completing worksheets. The school wanted to make sure that every kid passed the test.

Slide6

In sixth grade, the OAA became the “super bowl.” That metaphor was used all year, and they counted down the days until the test. Nothing was going to get in the way. The students were going to be ready to excel on the test.

Slide7

Emily saw that this was a game, and she lost interest in playing. She was reading at a 10th grade level, and her math scores were off the chart. She could easily have passed the OAA on the first day of school, and yet spent the entire year preparing for the test.

Slide8

The school identified her as gifted, but in her school, “gifted” kids participated in a pull out program that gave them MORE worksheets and projects to do in addition to the classroom work that had to be made up during the pullout period. We opted out of the program.

Slide9

As she finished sixth grade, we realized that middle school was going to be more of the same. There was little differentiation for students above the mean, and all of the passion for learning was being systematically expunged from the students. We looked for alternatives, finally settling on an online charter.

Slide10

The online charter wasn’t any better academically. It was still totally focused on getting kids to pass the tests. But at least she could do school at her own pace. In two years, she completed three years of English and three years of math. She also had time for six hours of art per week in addition to music classes and world language. In her spare time, she wrote a novel.

Slide11

Before we go on, we need to do a really quick review of standard deviation. I know you’ve all seen this before. Just humor me for half a minute. Standard deviation tells us how closely data is clustered.

Slide12

With a small standard deviation, all of the data is pretty close together. With a larger standard deviation, the data is more spread out. If these are students, the ones on the left all performed similarly on the test, while the ones on the right were all over the place.

Slide13

I looked at the 2014 data for the OAA math test, and this is the standard deviation of the scaled scores. See what happens? As students move from 3rd to 6th grades, they get further apart from one another. Then, after sixth grade, they get closer together. That’s because schools focus intense intervention on the students who are doing poorly, while virtually ignoring those who have already passed the test.

Slide15

I thought this might be an anomaly, so I looked at some other years. They all follow the same trend. The kids get further and further apart in math until they hit middle school. Then, we work really hard to get them all back together.

Slide16

What about reading? In language arts, the same thing happens, but it happens earlier. This makes sense. Schools focus on reading FIRST. Then, when the kids are all passing the reading test (6th grade), they focus on math scores.

Slide17

The problem with this is that teaching to the middle doesn’t work in middle school. Essentially, this data is showing that there is no middle. The kids are all over the place. So most of the kids are either bored out of their minds or totally lost most of the time.

Slide18

We need a better model for differentiating in the middle school. Academic rigor is one way to do that. Don’t give MORE work to those who understand the basics. Give them better things to do with that knowledge. Similarly, struggling students may move DOWN Bloom’s taxonomy, not to focus on LESS content, but to engage in it in a different way.

Slide19

There are lots of other models as well. Blended learning and adaptive learning offer different tools for extending and differentiating that allow the teacher to spend more individual and small-group time with the students who need it. Response to Intervention is a way to apply proven intervention strategies in a consistent way. But regardless of the strategy we use, we have to do something.

Slide20

This is Emily on the first day of 10th grade. She’s in Junior honors English, advanced math, and honors Chemistry. She still takes every art class she can. High School can differentiate a lot better than middle school, and she’s back to loving school again. But it was a rough few years. Middle school sucked.

Why?

I was in the superintendent’s office last week refining a plan for technology and media in our schools. We had a complicated diagram with circles and arrows and boxes all over it. It started with the district’s strategic vision, and specifically the goals of promoting next generation skills, integrating state of the art technology, and offering quality program options that include STEM. It included the technology plan, which is focused on technology infrastructure, ubiquitous access to technology for students and teachers, and appropriate levels of support for both the operational and instructional needs of the district. It addressed student technology needs (both resources and instruction) at various levels, and the plans for meeting those needs. It tied in our teacher leaders, media specialists, and other professional staff who are responsible for various aspects of the plan.

4603106405_0d83269a23_zAfter working through the diagram for about half an hour, the superintendent took the paper. At the bottom of the diagram, in large block letters, he wrote this:

WHY?

We need technology to do more than test kids. Sure, testing is important. For all of the resources that we devote to public education, for the millions upon millions of dollars spent in schools all across the country, year after year, we should be able to prove that we’re not wasting everyone’s time and money. We should be able to articulate what the learning outcomes should be in each subject at each grade level, and we should be able to demonstrate our effectiveness at getting students to reach those outcomes. Technology plays an important role in the management, instruction, intervention, and assessment of that system.

But it has to go beyond that. Students need to know much more about the technology landscape than their parents do. They have to understand what information literacy looks like in an age of information abundance. It’s not about finding the information anymore. It’s about filtering and evaluating and selecting from multiple sources. It’s about evaluating credibility and giving credit to those whose work you’re building on. Not only are those complicated skills, they’re skills that our students need to be learning in elementary school.

As they learn to navigate in a connected world, our students must embrace the powerful resources of communication and collaboration that have permeated all aspects of their culture. Publication — the sharing of ideas and work with a global audience — is as easy now as consumption. Our students can share their ideas with the world just as easily as they find the ideas of others. They can work together on documents and projects, participate in conversations with full audio and video, and publish their work online in less time than it takes to draw a timeline on poster board.

America’s history is one of innovation. It was our rejection of the rules of war (along with some dumb luck and help from the French) that won our independence. In the 20th century, we innovated our way to victory through the use of air power in the first world war, and the use of nuclear weapons in the second war. The industrial revolution made the American dream a reality for millions of our families. Post-war advances in chemistry, medicine, and technology ensured our status as the last standing superpower for the remainder of the century. As other countries caught up in manufacturing and industry, we innovated by moving to service and technology sectors.

We are facing huge challenges in the decades to come. In many respects, we have been over-spending our resources to maintain our standard of living for quite a while now, and the short-sighted economic decisions of our parents are coming back to haunt us. At the same time, the aging boomers’ need for health care and the rising costs of that care are unprecedented. In the last years of her life, my grandmother paid more per month for her assisted living than she paid for her house. Climate change is very real, and the shortcuts we’ve taken in the name of progress are starting to have disastrous and irreversible impacts on the global environment. Job prospects for today’s youth are unclear, as many of the jobs of my parents’ generation have been eliminated by automation and cheaper labor forces overseas.

Our kids have a lot of work to do. They need to leave school prepared to meet these challenges. And the challenges are much more complicated than answering multiple choice questions that measure their ability to recall information. Education isn’t just about knowing anymore. It’s about applying the “know” to challenges in the “now.”

 

Photo credit: Veerle Pieters, photo by Marc Thiele on Flickr.