In the last 50 years advances in technology have brought about social shifts that change the way we interact, communicate, share information, and learn. The changes in technology have had far-reaching effects on every aspect of society, changing what we know, how we know it, how we make a living, and how we see the world and each other.
Yet, in all this change the impact technology has had within schools is limited.
Even if classrooms are well-equipped with interactive whiteboards and the latest short throw projectors or document cameras, schooling in a general sense remains the same. Our school systems remain quite traditional.
Teachers at the front of the class and students expected to listen and behave as information is transmitted. This traditional school structure works for some but is very unforgiving to students who do not fit the required mold of the passive learner ready to come and obediently listen and regurgitate.
With the advance of technology and the availability of a variety of new tools there is the potential to shift the educational paradigm and turn the balance of power over to the learners. In some classrooms, flexible teachers understand that one way of doing things will not meet the needs of all learners. These teachers reach for new ideas to try and find ways that will address the challenges some of their students face. Louise and Michael are two such students. Labeled by their teachers as at-risk or problem students, both are examples of how the use of new technologies can open doors that had remained locked and how shifting the paradigm can also shift teacher expectations.
Louise is 4 years old. She has already been identified as an at-risk student due to a lag in the development of fine motor skills. It is true that she has difficulty holding a pen correctly and her use of scissors is hesitant and sloppy. Louise understands everything the teachers ask of her. She plays with words and always incorporates a touch of humor in her questions, which at the age of 4 is no small feat.
Unfortunately, the traditional classroom setting forces Louise into an environment in which she must engage in activities that call upon mastering fine motor skills to demonstrate her understanding of a concept. Louise balks and starts to rebel. She questions her teachers about why she must complete the work that is being asked of her. The “why” becomes omnipresent and the ultimate result is that Louise’s time on task is limited and actual manipulation of objects remains subpar.
Louise’s teachers seek out a tool that can better support Louise’s individual needs. They understand that something must be done to alleviate the amount of manipulation in each exercise to reduce the burden placed on her so that she can focus on the task at hand thereby limiting the chances of cognitive overload. They turn to the virtual world of the tablet computer. The process is relatively simple; teachers decide to supplement the traditional classroom manipulatives with virtual ones. For many of the classroom activities that depend on fine motor skills, Louise is given a tablet computer. Louise is still asked to do the same type of work as her fellow classmates: she must move objects, identify patterns, and place numbers or words in groups. The difference resides fundamentally in the fact that Louise no longer has to battle with awkwardly grasping fine pieces of paper or small objects scattered right and left; she is focused on a limited field and merely has to slide the virtual representation to complete the task.
The team of teachers initially thought that the new tool would merely give Louise the added support to help with the lag in fine motor skills and thus allow her to complete a given task. Ultimately, the benefits were far greater than expected. Not only was Louise able to complete a task, her productivity improved exponentially. She is not only able to complete one task, she completes many and her ability to focus on what is being asked increases.
The greatest shift is on teacher expectations. Their whole outlook on what Louise can accomplish becomes more positive and, as a result, Louise’s self-confidence and motivation improves. Louise is no longer the one who resists every new activity, and her success with the tablet allows her to also transfer these skills and tackle the real life manipulatives she had resisted before.
Michael is 8. He has already been labeled a problem student that teachers must “keep an eye on”. Teachers claim that he disrupts the class and goes to extremes to avoid getting to work. Learning does not come easily for him and every new concept is a source of frustration, especially when he is asked to do anything in writing. He has not mastered some basic skills and this is glaring whenever an assignment requires him to document something or produce any type of written text.
After identifying writing as a challenge for a number of students in the class, the teachers turn to the world of technology. Their desire is to have writing come to life by finding a more visual connection between the written word and the concept the students must convey. The project at hand is to have students identify the elements of a scientific approach using a comic book format via a program called “Comic Life”. The highly graphic nature of the tool should highlight the different elements of a given experiment and allow students to verbalize the concepts with the aid of this strong visual scaffold. The manipulability of the program further allows students to identify key concepts and have them stand out in a dynamic fashion. An added benefit is the very nature of any software program strips students of the linear constraint that white paper brings. They can amend, change the order of, or add to their comic strips as needed to best explain their experiment.
Very quickly teachers are taken by surprise by some of the initial reactions of their class. Bringing in a new and less traditional approach seems to have switched the tables on them and they find themselves spending the first hours of class having to support the “strong” students who are hesitant to take chances. These students are out of their comfort zone and need constant reassurance from the adults before every mouse click. Despite the teachers’ best intentions, they find themselves “abandoning” the weaker students (including Michael) who are thus left to their own devices and must discover the new tool on their own. They fear that the result of the completely self-regulated time for weak students will have amounted to nothing. Quite the opposite turns out to be true: the freedom to explore without the watchful eye of the teacher seeking the “right” answer turns out to be liberating. The students are free to explore and investigate this new way of doing things and this freedom puts an end to some of the problem behavior teachers expected.
When teachers finally get a moment to review the student productions they realize, to their amazement, that the quality of Michael’s work goes far beyond the class average. He was able to find and appropriately use many of the software’s options to highlight key words or concepts. Some of the tools Michael used had not been presented to the group. Very quickly Michael is emboldened by this new way of writing and vocally requested the right to use Comic Life to help him create summaries or re-write lessons for both language arts and history class. He even asks if he is allowed to work from scratch as the scaffold of the software’s templates are no longer needed. Teachers see that Michael is beginning to transfer the skills he is gaining with the program to independent writing and a new sense of ownership in his work is emerging. Michael is progressing and the teachers’ ideas about him start to shift as well. They now see him as “capable of success.” It is no small coincidence that Michael’s constant classroom antics are less and less present.
There are lessons to be learned from Michael and Louise’s experiences. What stands out in both of these examples is that the restrictive model that our traditional schooling systems impose are crippling for some: one type of setting in which all students are doing the same thing and must use the same methods leaves too many students out in the cold. In addition, the often archaic methods and tools that today’s students are being asked to use cannot meet the needs of all learners. It is further apparent that the preconceived ideas a teacher has about what a child can accomplish heavily influenced outcomes for both Michael and Louise.
The use of technology as a response to dealing with student difficulties and frustrations can help provide keys that open doors to further research on how to incorporate new technologies into our schools in more broad reaching ways. Allowing all students to be active participants in their learning will necessarily happen via the virtual tools and environments that they naturally gravitate towards. We must open the doors to those that live, perceive, project themselves and THINK in different ways and with different limitations than those offered by mere pen and paper. We can no longer ask our students to “power down” when they walk into their classrooms.