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.

Feed the Hungry

grandmaYou didn’t go to Grandma’s house without eating. There were always baked goods: cookies, coffee cake, donuts. As soon as you sat down, she’d put on a fresh pot of coffee and start cooking. What can I make you? Want a sandwich? Macaroni and cheese? She would start going through the icebox and pull out everything. Have some braciole while I fry up some zucchini. If you called ahead, grandpa would make pizza (whether he wanted to or not).

What’s a matter? Don’t you like it? No. It’s not that. It’s just that, well, I’ve already eaten a couple times this month, and I just stopped by….

Hunger had nothing to do with it. Serving food was a way of showing hospitality. It was something she could do for you to make you feel welcome. And it worked. Everyone was welcome. Everyone felt loved.

But a lot of food went to waste. If she had two visitors, she’d make enough food to feed eight. Some of that would be recycled as appetizers for the next guest, but invariably a lot of things went uneaten.

For the first half of my career, the primary barrier to effective technology integration in the classroom was a lack of technology resources. If you asked teachers, principals, parents, or anyone else familiar with schools why educational practice was so firmly rooted in traditional instructional methods, even as technology radically transformed every other aspect of our lives, they would point to a lack of resources. I can’t effectively use technology in my teaching because I only have one two four computers in my classroom, and I have 21 27 32 kids. But we’ve shifted a lot of our resources over the last few years away from textbooks and legacy teaching materials in favor of better technology resources. We’ve made huge investments in networking infrastructure and mobile technologies and display tools to eliminate the gap between what we have and what we need. And while we haven’t jumped into the 1:1 computing pool yet, we are very close to the point where technology is available to all students when they need it. We have just about reached ubiquity.

The problem, though, is that we keep pulling computing devices out of the fridge and putting them on the table. Let me make a fresh pot of wifi. Try some of these iPads while I cook up a batch of laptops. It doesn’t really matter if you’re hungry. Someday, you will be hungry. And you’ll have the resources when you’re ready for them.

Over the last few years, our schools have been snacking a lot on negotiations and teacher evaluations and new testing requirements and SLOs. They’ve been choking down power standards to be polite, and they’ve been taking a helping of PLCs because they know they’re nutritious. They’d love to have some RTI, and people keep telling them they should try the nextgen learning and personal learning networks. But if they take another bite right now, we’re going to end up with half-digested formative assessments all over the carpet.

So this year, we’ve backed off. There’s a vision of learning where we employ best practices, facilitated by technology, to systematically work through the learning standards, assessing and adapting instruction along the way to ensure that students reach mastery at their own pace. Meanwhile, we’re using digital tools to develop students’ innovative thinking, creativity, and collaboration skills. They apply their learning to new, real problems. They generate new ideas and new solutions and share those ideas in a variety of formats. Students are self-directed. Learning occurs both inside and outside the classroom. Learners engage in curriculum systemically while also synthesizing and applying that knowledge in creative ways. Assessments inform instruction, and grades are a reflection of student mastery of learning targets, measuring what they have learned rather than what they have done. But most of our teachers and principals don’t have the appetite for that right now.

I’m sensing a need to back off on the hardware, too. We ordered the appetizers and went a bit overboard on the bread and salad. Now that the main course is here, it’s pretty clear we’re going to need a take out container. So before the waitress comes over with the dessert menu, I think we need to have a talk about whether we really need the calories. We should stop cooking and let our appetites catch up. Then, as people get hungry, let’s feed them with some nutritious offerings full of whole-grain instructional methodology, organic intervention strategies, and  vitamin-rich participatory learning. There’s still a place for deep-fried gadgets, high-sodium mobile tools, and those sweet, sweet apps. But let’s recognize that those are sometimes foods. Our schools need a healthier approach to our technology diet.


Places to People

One of the trends right now in educational technology is a move toward individual computing devices for each learner. Whether you go with a 1:1 program, a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) model, or a hybrid approach with several different solutions, it’s clear that we are moving to a world where computers are assigned to people, not places. This personalization of technology is a trend we could have predicted: the same thing happened with the telephone just a few years ago. But I didn’t expect this to come so quickly. There are no longer discussions about whether every student having a device is beneficial  There’s no debate about computers in classrooms versus computers in labs versus computers in students’ hands. The conversations now are about managing 1:1 programs, supporting BYOD initiatives, extending wireless infrastructure to support multiple devices per student, and the changing pedagogy that comes with ubiquitous access to technology.

From my perspective, the decision of whether to go with a 1:1 program or a BYOD approach is a difficult question. I remember the early days of graphing calculators, when we told the kids to go out and buy a graphing calculator and bring it to class. They brought their Casios and Sharps and TIs and HPs in to school to improve their learning of algebra and pre-calculus. It took the whole class period to figure out how to do the most basic things, because everyone had a different calculator with a different interface. It wasn’t until we standardized on TI hardware that they became really useful devices for learning math.

In a BYOD environment, the school has little control over the capabilities of the student device. Can it access Google Apps? Does it work with Flash? What about Java? Can we install apps on it? Can we print? What is the least common denominator, the basic set of things that every student’s device can handle? These challenges make the technology get in the way of instruction. They keep the technology from being invisible. Many schools with BYOD programs in place report that not much has changed in the classroom. Teachers may turn to the devices as an add-on, but they are not an integral part of teaching and learning, because the technology gets in the way.

At the same time, a BYOD approach can force a change in pedagogy because it changes the role of “teacher” and “student” like no 1:1 program can. Traditionally, the teacher was THE authority in the classroom. She was the keeper of all knowledge, and the knower of all things. She used the textbook as the final word on the subject she was teaching, and there was no need to go beyond that resource. We don’t live in that world anymore, but the argument can be made that a 1:1 program perpetuates the model of the school being in control. The school selects and provides the resource. The school supports the technology. The school tells the students what to do with the technology, and what can’t be done with it. It’s very clean. It’s very efficient. But it doesn’t really prepare the students for life in an information-rich society.

Ultimately, PARCC testing will probably make this decision for us. In an environment where computers are allocated to people rather than places, we don’t need computer labs and banks of computers in classrooms. If every student already has a device, we don’t have to have rooms full of devices, too. But in a practical sense, we are going to need a lot of computers to administer the PARCC tests. If we go with a 1:1 program, the school owns and manages the computers, and those computers can be used for testing. If we go BYOD, though, the school does not own the devices. We cannot install software on them. We cannot force the students to let us lock them out of basic functions on the device as required for the tests. So if we move to BYOD, we have to maintain the infrastructure of labs just to facilitate testing. It seems much more reasonable to just go with 1:1 and save the redundancy, and that’s probably the direction we will head.

Photo credit: Clemson University Libraries on Flickr.