Shane and the T. Rex

Last year one of our second grade students, let’s call him Shane, was writing on his favourite subject – dinosaurs.  Shane was knowledgeable about dinosaurs and had no problem filling pages of his journal with notes, descriptions, drawings and diagrams of Tyrannosauruses and their contemporaries.  Despite this level of industry and intelligence, Shane was nonetheless having some confidence issues.  The teacher wondered whether it would be possible to harness Shane’s enthusiasm for dinosaurs and writing to take advantage of the iPads initiative to create an opportunity for him.  This involved calling on the time and skills of ACS Cobham’s IT coordinator, Peter Tilghman.    The teacher commented

“Peter was learning how to use iBooks and asked to use a child’s work sample. I chose Shane because he was the first to publish his writing and was very enthusiastic to share it. The extra attention from Peter made Shane feel special and went a long way to bolster his confidence. (Shane often worried about what others thought of him.) This became a very positive experience for him because all the children were excited by the prospect of getting their own writing published in iBooks. He relished the opportunity to be the first and they saw him as a pioneer”.

Peter adds

I worked with Shane on an ePub document using Pages which became an iBook.  The procedure was for Shane to write a nonfiction piece about T-Rexes (a passion of his).  Next, his teacher typed up the words, and together Shane and I worked on producing an ePub.  Since we are a Macintosh school, we used the iMac for editing, and used the iPad for looking at how the story came out.

Shane demonstrates his iBook

The major benefit his teacher and I found was that Shane was so pleased to be the first second grade student to publish an iBook.  It transformed his motivation and completely changed his attitude towards writing.  Shane worked on the story, drew pictures, which we both scanned, created videos for his author page, “All About Shane”, using PhotoBooth, and used the sound recording feature to produce a definition of what a scavenger was.  This went into a glossary that formed part of the iBook and which was activated as a link from the text.  Other words Shane decided to explain in sound files or video files included cretaceous and predator.

The second benefit of using this technology with Shane was revealed in how he looked at his work.  After the first draft was complete Shane was critical about how the writing looked.  He made suggestions for changes, and learned how to place images and text on a Pages document, making sure that both text and images were fixed, not floating.  If something was not up to his standards, he changed it.  He was not fazed at all to re-record, or rewrite, or choose another photo to place in the ePub.  He even rewrote the author page to delete the reference about what a pain his younger brother could be!    As I too have a younger brother, I could sympathize, but since this media is available to many readers outside the classroom, Shane’s decision to remove the comments was a wise one.

What I learned from all of this is how personal this process is.  Shane was able to take ownership of this piece of work, and was justifiably proud of his accomplishment.  And the point of the entire project is that he defined and took the steps to create the book.  The technology and I took a back seat.  In no other medium is an author able to write, speak, be seen, and be heard talking through what s/he has created.  Sounds, images, video, and a well thought-out text all came together.

Prior to this kind of technology, I was in charge of the learning of students.  With a mobile device, the learner is in control, it is his work, his pace, and his satisfaction.  All I did was manage the environment in which Shane worked.  And to be honest, I think I learned more about the teaching process in this project, and the changes this technology will allow, than Shane did.  And for that I am grateful.

Observatory

We’re into the third day of formal observations now.  A team of teachers and administrators are moving through the first and second grade pods observing the students using iPads in the classroom to do various tasks.  It’s noticeable how little notice the students take of the observers – which is probably a good thing as that is a variable that might have proved statistically significant.

We’re rating the students on a Likert scale of 1 to 5 on observed behaviours in three domains – fifteen behaviours in all.  I assumed we might see three or four of these manifested in any given half-hour period but it’s proving to be the case that most, and occasionally all, are being observed.  One precaution we took was to establish a common understanding among the observers of what observed behaviour corresponded to which indicator on the instrument.  Some of these are easier to rate than others.  For example, it’s usually pretty easy to identify “Student persists when first attempt at task is unsuccessful” and it’s rather more difficult to identify “Student acts on group decisions rather than own plans”, but since each student will be rated by more than one observer and since the ratings will be aggregated across the entire population of more than sixty students, I am confident we’ll emerge with a t-value we can defend.

It’s proving difficult to get the IB students into the observatory as research assistants.  Their timetables simply don’t allow them to leave the classroom when the observation lessons are taking place.  Possibly, I’ll be able to get them in in January when we plan to conduct a phase two qualitative stage involving interviews with randomly selected students.  Time will tell.  In the meantime, we have the makings of a sound mixed methods study that follows a sequential explanatory design and which will allow us either to support or reject a null hypothesis that states iPads make no difference to student development in the three domains we are studying.  I would have settled for that at the start of the year!

Return of the Natives!

Starting the term with a book study of Marc Prensky’s Teaching Digital Natives was a sound move as it allayed teachers’ fears about being left behind by their students in terms of digital competency.  With Project i already into its fifth month as the students returned in August, the term was bound to mark the point where some teachers, especially in middle and high school, were finding it challenging to keep up with the “natives” who invariably have more time to engage with the latest technological innovations, and who prioritise doing so.

Prensky assures us that this matters little.  In fact, harnessing students’ interest in this aspect of learning is what our school’s Project i is all about.  The observation project that will inform future expansion of the programme seeks to measure whether introducing iPads into lower school classrooms affects engagement and other affective domain areas.  It is dependent to a significant degree on the students finding the whole idea stimulating and continuing their exploration outside the classroom.

Teachers (and administrators come to that) continue to fulfil an important rôle.  They provide the guidance, the guarantee of academic rigour and, dare I say, the maturity and ability to reflect that encourages students to adopt mature learning stances that take them beyond the immediate task to considerations of learning styles and metacognition.  Once a teacher has got the student to think about his or her own preferred (or most effective) ways of learning, that teacher is on the road to success.  Competency in using the tool (whether that be an iPad or any other piece of technology) is a secondary consideration, and has been since the days when the “sage on the stage” idea was consigned to the bin.

Our own digital natives returned to school this August (yes, we’re a Surrey school but we have American term dates!) to find that every single lower school teacher had their own iPad and that the first and second grade (equivalent to years 2 and 3 in the National Curriculum – or six-year-olds to eight-year-olds if you’re used to another system) had been granted a class set each of iPad 2s.  These replaced the first generation iPads we had started the programme with in February 2011, and this collection was added to early in the second quarter so that any of the nine teachers could guarantee at least a one-between-two model for classroom work.

It’s probably worth saying a word or two about our natives.  I’m going to borrow an analogy from the excellent teacher, mentor and friend, Fraser Speirs, whose school in Greenock, Scotland Apple acknowledges as the first in the world to roll out a one-to-one iPads scheme and whose blog may be read here.  Fraser used the example of his daughter, so I’m going to follow his example and use my own daughter’s example for this series of thoughts.  Beth Speirs and Risa Harrold happen to be the same age so this works quite well:

     So here’s Risa.  Like all her classmates she is a digital native.  She has never known a world without the Internet, mobile phones or iPods.  To her a camera means a digital camera.  The thought of loading film into an SLR is as alien as a penny farthing is to her father.  She takes for granted things like being able to Skype her grandfather in Venezuela on a phone the size of an audio cassette.

Or she would, if she knew what an audio cassette was!

When I really need reminding how old I am I consider that so far she has lived through just one Olympic Games!

OK, let’s take Fraser’s lead and plot some of the most likely milestones on her life story.  All being well, Risa will graduate from high school in the year 2023.  If we can still afford things like higher education, she will graduate from university and enter the work force around the year 2027, retiring in the year 2070.

And on the first day of the 22nd century she will still be just 95 years old.  In other words, we are already teaching the first generation of great grandparents of the 22nd century!

Let’s roll the years back to Risa entering the workforce again.  That was the year 2027, or thereabouts.  Fraser Speirs asks us to consider if there is any non-apocalyptic scenario in which technology is less prevalent in our culture in the year 2027 than it is now.

Obviously, it’s a rhetorical question.

It removes the last vestiges of any excuse for not teaching technological skills in schools.  We simply don’t get to say “I don’t do tech” anymore.  Not teaching children the skills they will need to excel in the digital age is a dereliction of duty.

The world of work that Risa will inhabit will be more different than alike to our world in many respects.  It is likely that she will have more than one career and that at least some of the jobs she is paid to do do not yet exist.  However, educators have addressed situations like this for millennia and the more thoughtful among our number are well practised in finding solutions.  One, supported by Horizon Report contributors and OECD Schooling for Tomorrow authors, is the recognition that we need to identify and explore ways of teaching effectively a range of skills that have never been part of traditional school curricula.  These include problem solving in teams, innovation, systems thinking and perseverance.  They call for creative methodology and an expansion of the repertoire of instructional strategies that teachers can draw upon.

Thoughtful and thought-provoking educators such as Sir Ken Robinson and Bambi Betts have helped teachers explore this terrain.  I believe mobile digital technologies (not just iPads) can play an important part in expanding teachers’ horizons and engaging students – both cognitively and emotionally.  As our digital natives returned this year I found myself hoping that the programme of formal observations we have planned for Project i will identify for us some of the areas where we are succeeding and some of the areas where work remains to be done in defining a skills curriculum for the digital age.

Project i Update

Project i will soon be augmented by the purchase of more iPads in first and second grade. these extra devices will allow teachers to run whole-class activities on at least a one-device-to-two-students basis.  We’ll see how that works before exporting the model to other grades.

Of course, we’ve done the reading, and we’re aware of what Professor Mitra has to say about self-organised learning environments. But we have also found that the content of the discourse changes when first and second graders move from a one-to-four to a one-to-two ratio of iPads to students.  They start to talk more about the task and less about the iPad – or more specifically whose turn it is to use it!

The example of Cedars School of Excellence is also worth looking at.  When a school adopts a true ownership model where every student has an iPad and regards it as simply an addition to the school supplies list, teaching methodology changes subtly but with significant effects.  Schools also reap the benefits associated with not having to buy vast numbers of apps and sync them to multiple machines.

For now, we’re excited about what buying forty more iPads will do for our ability to deliver a better curriculum.  We are well aware that e are a long way from finding the evasive answer to the question what is the best implementation model for iPads in schools.  But we think we have taken the first steps down that road, and this blog is one of the ways we will be reporting what we see and what we learn.