The Change is Here

The change that is happening in the middle grades right now continues to astound me.

Eighteen months ago, our sixth grade teachers asked that we get rid of the carts of computers in their classrooms and just assign devices to the kids. It’s a small shift, really. Instead of having a set of computers in every classroom, we now have a computer in each student’s hands. But what a difference it makes.

DSC_0854-aWhen we say that we want technology to be ubiquitous, this is what we’re talking about. When it’s needed, it’s there. It starts up quickly, it has a great battery life, and technology problems are minimal. The students have them in study hall and at home and on the bus. When it’s not needed, it’s turned off and moved out of the way.

So, yes, students use their devices to access online resources. Some of those are the curated materials selected for them by their teachers and textbook publishers. Some are the results of Google searches and Wikipedia browsing. They’re learning how to evaluate the credibility of those sources. In most cases, they’re much better at it than their grandparents are.

But they’re also using the technology to take ownership of their learning. Teachers are giving more choice, but they’re also tailoring instruction to the needs of each learner. Quick formative assessments are used to assess the needs of the class, and plans are dynamically adjusted to best meet those needs. That’s the big challenge in the middle grades, and the biggest reason why middle school has traditionally been so awful for so many people.

Next, students are collaborating  on creative projects to show evidence of their learning. They’re not just writing essays and putting together PowerPoint presentations. They’re making videos and infographics and simulations using tools that I don’t understand. They’re discovering how to write for different audiences and how to use multimedia to best convey their message. They’re combining knowledge from different domains and applying it to real problems.

And while they’re doing all of this in their science social studies classes, they’re also improving their technology skills, working harder on schoolwork, and having fun in the process.

So when I asked 12-year-old students why they like the 1:1 program, they responded with things like this:

  • I can personalize my work they way I want it and it helps us become independent learners.
  • When I need assistance, my fellow students and teachers are there to assist me; whether it consists technology help, or homework help. The 1:1 program helped me with achieving my school goals.
  • It helps us learn about the digital world and helps us become independent learners.
  • It gives you a chance to learn more, and do what you can’t on paper at school, while with the 1:1 program, you can do both electronic learning and non-electronic learning
  • The learning is fit for me and I feel that I can learn more things in a shorter span of time than I could before.
  • I’m able to chat or video chat my friends to talk about homework problems that I’m confused on.

If you want to see all of the results, including responses from parents and many colorful and encouraging graphs, they’re here.

So this week, we’ll collect the Chromebooks for the summer. When the students come back in August, we’ll give them back. We’ve been working with the seventh grade teachers for most of the school year to get them ready for this. For the most part, I think they’re ready. Then, we’re going to start working with the eighth grade teachers.

But the high school has no idea what’s coming.

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.

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.