Reflective educators seldom accept received wisdom as something beyond questioning. When it comes to iPads in the classroom received wisdom has less than four years’ provenance and it is, therefore, only right that we reassess what we think we know about these amazing tools and their place in the school room and the school day.
I was thinking about this earlier this month when I was observing a class of fourth graders working on scripts for a play set in Roman times. The students had chosen a character from the Roman era, and their plays were to tell the story of their character’s move from their hometown to Rome, but other than that basic outline the students were free to interpret the task freely. Most of the students in the class I was observing were using a combination of paper and pencil and their iPads to do the preparation. Later, the scripts would be polished and published and then incorporated into a Readers’ Theatre presentation.
The iPad is obviously an excellent tool for all manner of tasks associated with such projects. Students can use it to research aspects of the Roman era (see above), and to draft writing or multimedia work for later editing or publication. But I knew that one of the skills the teacher had been focussing on was collaboration, and this interested me from the perspective of classroom management. The received wisdom on collaboration from researchers such as Sugata Mitra has been that the ideal ratio of devices to student is around 1:4 with upper primary/middle school students (Mitra conducted his research with Year 7 students. During his work with Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLES) Mitra found that students worked in an insular fashion if each had permanent access to their own screen. Collaboration was facilitated by groups of four students sharing the device. Our own research at ACS Cobham in 2011, which I discussed with Mitra the following year, found that although this was true with older students the conversations younger students shared in this ratio were overwhelmingly concerned with whose turn it was to use the iPad. These conversations disappeared when the iPad-to-student ratio reached 1:2, and that observation shaped our development of our iPads programme in grades one and two for the next three years.
The observations I made in the first few minutes following the teacher’s initial presentation certainly supported the Sugata Mitra position that students worked insularly when each had their own iPad (see above). But as the minutes ticked by more collaborative behaviours were observed (see below)
The difference the teacher had made was simply to teach the students collaborative skills. We tend to talk a lot about the need for students to acquire skills such as collaboration, systems thinking, creativity, critical thinking and analytical problem solving, and we even joke about how we still find this battery referred to in the literature as “twenty-first century skills”, but we tend to talk less about the mechanics of teaching such skills. It’s perhaps the digital equivalent of that point in the 1980’s when we realised we were requiring students to learn how to take notes but nobody had bothered to do any research on how to teach it.
It turns out collaboration is admirably supported in the Responsive Classroom approach used in ACS Lower School (Responsive Classroom is a philosophy of teaching and learning that extends from research-based practice and training promoted through the Northeast Foundation for Children – NEFC). The students were quite comfortable putting their own iPad down for a few moments to work with a colleague on their Roman project or to concoct something together that was greater than the sum of the parts either could have created on their own. I am sure that other approaches would have worked too (although Responsive Classroom is certainly an extremely effective way to embed collaboration skills). The key was that the teacher had set aside some time to teach an interdisciplinary skill before the Roman project had ever been introduced.
I’ll be watching this development with some interest as it clearly has ramifications beyond technology-linked classes. The key practices of Responsive Classroom such as interactive modelling, and the three domains of engaging academics, positive community and effective management on which it is founded may contribute towards how teachers develop other twenty-first century skills too. but this was by far the most collaborative lesson I have ever seen in a 1:1 iPads classroom and I would love to think that it came from a sustainable model of classroom practice.