Friday, December 31, 2010

Teachers Must Let the Kids Lead with Computers

When the Sioux Central school board committed and voted in March 2010 to implement a one-to-one student laptop initiative in grades 4-12, the board turned to me as superintendent and said, "This has got to work! We cannot invest this much in tax dollars in this economy and tax climate for this to fail!"

I replied that it would work--that I had never seen such universal commitment on the part of an entire teaching faculty in my career. I said it cannot fail with this level of teacher commitment.

But for teachers to embrace this new methodology meant that all would have to change significantly in how they were delivering curriculum and directing students. One of the hardest aspects, we predicted, would be that the students would become competent with this new learning and these new machines at a much faster rate than the teachers. That's the nature of this generation. Teachers are used to being the experts--the sage on the stage. They have to be all right with the kids knowing more than them now.

I am happy to report this new instruction with a laptop for every single kid in our school, grades 4-12, is changing the way kids are learning. I am equally happy to report that our teachers are embracing this new instruction. Of course our teachers are on a continuum from the most comfortable and competent with new technology to those who face a challenge. However, some of our teachers least-skilled with computers are making some of the best uses of the laptops. I am delighted to say we have teachers who pose their essential questions and then turn the kids loose to find the answers on their own. The kids are sometimes finding answers and solving problems differently than teachers would have taught students in the past, but the work is getting done and the learning is taking place.

Key to this, we have to support our teachers taking risks and trying new things. We have to accept that teachers will make mistakes. They have to know the administration will trust them and support them, rather than second-guess them or chastise them. For one-to-one laptops to be effective, the teachers need to change the way they teach, and the administrators also need to change their oversight of the classrooms.

Monday, December 20, 2010

1 to 1 Laptops Close the Cell Phone Gap

Does not every school have an achievement gap somewhere among its demographics? I know we do. One of those gaps is between the middle class students and those socio-economically disadvantaged--of low socio-economic status (SES).

But there are different gaps between students that are generated by their family's earning potential. There may be a gap in student achievement, sure. There is also a gap in how students dress. And there's a distinct gap between students as shown by their competence and confidence using the latest technology. Nowhere is that gap more evident than students with their cellular telephones.

Although maybe not entirely determined by SES, on top there are the students with the smart phones. They have access to all the data plus really cool apps all day, all the time. Next come the multi-media phones, followed by the standard cell phones and track (pay-as-you-go) phones. Finally comes the huge gap between the haves and the have-nots with no cell phones at all.

When we became a one-to-one laptop school 4-12 this year, our initiative narrowed the technology gap and also the cell phone gap. Suddenly cell phones just are not quite as cool when every student has a much more powerful laptop always beside him/her. Students report far less use of cell phones at school, whether being used openly in the hallways or secretly in class.

Working to close the technology gap between the whole student body and the low SES students has been one of the more rewarding high points of my career.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Importance of 1:1 Laptop Teacher Development

We will know our one-to-one student laptop learning initiative is effective if we see a high degree of time on task on the computers in the classroom. Student utilization in the classroom is dependent on the extent to which teachers have accepted this new methodology of teaching. And teacher acceptance is primarily dependent upon the professional training we provide for our faculty. The research and the experience of predecessor schools strongly suggest this linear relationship.

At Sioux Central, our laptops arrived for teachers around May 1 of last spring (2010). We immediately issued them to teachers and then began in-house training on how to use the new devices--the operating system, word processing, spreadsheets, etc. Fortunately, we had a handful of teachers who already owned Macintosh computers and were familiar with the operating system. We held weekly training meetings through the end of the year.

When the school year ended, we contracted with Apple Computers to provide two full days of training for our teachers. It was expensive, but it was a high-quality learning experience. Evaluations completed by our teachers after the training showed me some of the highest teacher marks I have seen in my career.

Our teachers kept their new laptops over the summer, learning more about the machines and developing their lesson plans for the fall. The week before the August teacher workshop began, we brought back Apple trainers for an encore of two more days of training. We took our teachers’ skills to an even high level as we focused on how to integrate technology into daily instruction.

When August workshop began, we emphasized technology in our training and provided our teachers with further skills on how to use our district web site for classroom instruction. So our teachers received a good, solid foundation of computer training before the students received their laptops and before the first day of class. I am happy to report that our faculty started working immediately, and we have been moving in greased grooves since.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Technology and Teacher as Leaders

At Sioux Central, our teachers were key to implementing our one-to-one laptop initiative. They were the leaders who got our program going and who are responsible for the success of this initiative to date.

Last winter, we used our professional development time for teachers to travel to other schools and observe laptop instruction in action. We had teachers observing in the classrooms of the leading laptop schools in Iowa such as Newell-Fonda, BCLUW, Sidney, South Hamilton, and Van Meter. When our teachers reached consensus that laptops were needed at Sioux Central in order to further our instructional aims, it was a delegation of teachers who presented to the school board and made the sales pitch as to why we needed these teaching tools.

The research on laptop instruction indicates that schools need to fully utilize the devices for a laptop initiative to be successful. Central to utilization, is teacher acceptance of the new methodology and the willingness to change.

This is a big change in instruction. Laptops should not be just a new way to take notes during a lecture or fill out forms on-line instead of blanks on a paper worksheet. The laptops need to be research tools that allow students to find the information, break it down into terms they can use, and then re-assemble the information in a new form of their own. This is known among educators as the learning process of synthesis, and it is among the highest orders of thinking and learning skills.

It is the teachers who must challenge the status quo for traditional instruction, so they need to be central to any discuss and decisions for any school implementing a laptop program among its students.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Technology to Facilitate Inquiry Learning

Educational fads seem to come and go, and then they sometimes come back around again. However, at Sioux Central we do not view our one-to-one laptop initiative as an educational fad. For us it grew organically from the work we have been doing the past four years.

Sioux Central had the first charter school in the state of Iowa earlier in this decade. It was an innovative elementary, separate, but within our same elementary building. The students had no textbooks. Instead, the students all had laptops and explored subjects using inquiry learning.

When the charter school funding dried up, we dropped the charter concept, not because it did not work, but rather because we did not need charter status to do what we were doing. We recognized the power of the inquiry learning the students were doing, and we decided to integrate the instructional concept throughout all grade levels. When the Iowa Core Curriculum came into being with its emphasis on inquiry learning, we at Sioux Central felt we were already ahead of the curve.

The most important part of inquiry learning is putting the questions to the students and letting the students find the answers. As of last winter, we believed we had reached a point in our development of inquiry-based learning that we needed more powerful resources and research tools to take our instruction to a high level.

So for us, laptop instruction is not a fad. It is a natural extension of what we have been doing the last four years. There may be some schools that are going one-to-one in response to other schools that are already doing it. But for Sioux Central, it was a necessary and logical progression in our curricular development.

Monday, December 13, 2010

21st Century Learning

There are toilets in Japan connected to the Internet. The toilet when used will do an instant urinalysis for the user. If there is a problem or infection, a doctor is notified immediately. So for a man using the toilet, his doctor knows he is sick before the man does.

Industry wants to see someday computers priced at only a dollar—disposable computers. Then the computers could go into disposable diapers (among other things) and could monitor the health of infants so we could know they were sick even before they begin to show symptoms.

Is this possible, one-dollar computers? Well, have you ever received one of those musical greeting cards? Just one of these musical greeting cards contains as much computer power as existed in the world in the 1950’s. The Game Boy hand-held video games kids play today contain as much computer power as was used to send men to the moon in the 1960’s.

So our kids of today will graduate from school into a world of the future where computers are everywhere. It will be essential that students not just learn to use a computer, but HOW to use it most effectively. We at Sioux Central believe this is best accomplished by providing laptop computers one-to-one to every student. So they can start learning today for the world they will live in tomorrow.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Tech Leadership Needed from our Next Ed Director

In the 21st Century (and obviously we're already a decade into it), the school year needs to change to fit the changing nature of education and the changing needs of society.

Iowa law defines a day of school as a day when students are under the supervision and instruction of teachers. And the state of Iowa requires 180 such days. The traditional assumption has always been that to be under "the supervision and instruction" of teachers, the students must be in the immediate presence of the teachers.

This has been a silly hoop to jump through on snow days when the buses are already in motion but the oncoming storm has forced school to close. Some schools have actually pulled a single kid off a bus and brought him into the building near a teacher so the school could claim students (at least one) were working with teachers.

I contacted some legislators this fall and asked them to consider revising the law. But what Iowa schools really need is a new interpretation by the Iowa Department of Education, and more specifically the new Director of the D.E., who as of this writing has yet to be named. Does our workforce now employ people who never leave home, i.e., telecommuters? Has not this trend been predicted to increase? Should not our schools be adapted to this change in our work force?

Americas colleges are increasing their on-line offerings. On-line universities are exploding with cyber-matriculants. It is a new type of teaching and learning that our schools would be wise to offer to our students. A couple of states have now with foresight begun requiring students complete at least one on-line class in four years to graduate from high school.

For Iowa to keep pace, we need to reconsider what the school day truly needs to be. I would suggest that the "supervision and instruction" of students can take place in an on-line classroom anywhere, anytime via computers and internet.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Our School Has No Interactive White Boards

A common trend in schools is to install in the classroom interactive whiteboards. These are essentially high-tech, 21st Century chalkboards. The person at the board can access computer programs that run on the boards. The boards use no ink, dry-erase markers, or chalk. Instead the person at the board uses a stylus, and the board recognizes when the stylus is suppose to be marking on the board.

At Sioux Central, we do not suggest that schools should not purchase these, but we decided these boards were not right for our classrooms. For the past four years, our primary instructional initiative is to bring increasing use of inquiry learning into the classrooms. Inquiry learning puts the questions and the research into the hands of the kids and makes them do the heavy lifting in terms of teaching and learning. Our one-to-one laptop initiative grew as an extension out of our inquiry learning work. We decided we needed to give our students the high-tech tools to take their research, writing, and presentation skills to the next level, and the tools were the one-to-one laptops.

As high-tech as the interactive boards may be, they generally only allow one teacher or one student to use the board at any one time. We did not want to shift the center of gravity in our classrooms back to the teachers at the front of the rooms. Instead, we wanted the workload to remain in the hands of the students.

Should the students be carrying this weight? Well, see my last blog entry: “Who Should Carry the Workload in Class?” (12/01/10).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Who Should Carry the Workload in Class?

I spoke with a group of high school students today and asked them, "Are your classes better when the teacher does most of the work, or are they better when students do mos of the work?" The ten students were unanimous. They all agreed that they want to be the ones working harder in class.

Sure, it might be easier to sit back and let the teacher do the talking, but students know they are not doing their best learning under those conditions. They also know Sit 'N Git is not a fun way for them to spend their time in class.

Today's students want to be engaged in the learning. (Just today's students? Wasn't this always true?) Students are used to going to their homes and picking up high-tech tools and toys. Classes that look as they did in the middle of the 20th Century are not engaging for this breed. It is time for all schools to give their students the technology to enable them to find class time as fascinating as they find their time outside of class. This is why I support the concept of one-to-one laptop computing in all Iowa schools, and in all of our nation's schools.