Media Focus on Tech in the Classroom

Two media articles about technology in the classroom yesterday.

Does More Tech in the Classroom Help Kids Learn?” from Mashable lays out simple, but poignant arguments about how technology in the classroom can add to student achievement. Simple things like letting kids learn at their own pace, promoting active rather than passive learning, and real world learning are things that should happen anyway – it’s just that technology finally allows them to happen easily. It’s a good quick article, and I’ll be keeping it in my list of articles I send administrators and teachers to.

An article, “Schools See a Tech Revolution but will Students See Results?” in the St. Paul Pioneer Press is, of course, more skeptical. The newspapers always are. The article starts out with the premise that tech is expensive, and only focuses on that. It treats is as a fad, and of course, measures all results based on standardized test scores. Getting that to change as the only measure of success is a whole different ballgame, but it certainly obscures the other positive outcomes.

I do find it interesting that St. Paul schools have been working on this for over a year. I have a coworker whose son attends a St. Paul school. She’s been asking for a couple of years about St. Paul’s plan, and has heard nothing. Which is St. Paul’s loss, as she could be a huge asset to them in this planning.

The article does have some strong arguments for positives, such as a quote from Peter Beck, a high school history teacher: “More and more, we’re facilitating learning rather than being the ultimate keepers of information and knowledge.” The tech director for Edina is also strongly stating that we can’t stop while we wait for evidence through tests.

It’s obvious the paper and the general public hasn’t embraced this paradigm shift yet. Just the tone of this article makes it clear that they don’t approve.


The Head Geek Speaks on Education

Robert Stephens, the founder of the Geek Squad, gave the keynote address at Minnesota’s e-Learning Summit in July. I was happy to know that they posted the keynote. If you are involved with technology in education, this is worth a watch.

Not only is the keynote amusing, it’s a trip through history and a fascinating story about how he built the Geek Squad. The majority of attendees were involved in post-secondary education – which is important to remember as he talks about the importance of a college education.


Learning without Tests

Can kids learn without having to take a test to prove it? In spite of what No Child Left Behind has us believe, yes, yes they can.

I recently had the pleasure of being a little involved with a theater project for high school students.  It was ambitious: pull together two very different groups of kids and have them produce a play. The two groups included recent arrivals to the U.S. and American-born teens. 

The refugee kids have been in the U.S. for a year or less, and many speak very little English. They have some horrific stories to tell. The American-born kids have their own stories to tell. Can these two groups possibly work together to not only make a production, but to also learn something?

The production ended up being quite good. Was it polished and professional? Of course not. Was it still an amazing show? You bet. But more important than the fact that they did end up with a great final product, the process was an incredible learning experience, with learning that could never ever be measured with a standardized test.

What did they learn? You name it: communication, creativity, cooperation, critical thinking, empathy. The kids had to communicate without having common oral language. They had to cooperate to create scenes, lines and a coherent story. They had to be creative to do all this without props or sets. They had to tell a story without using their own language.

There were some poignant scenes: how many languages do the refugee kids speak? How about the American-born kids?  What foods do these kids like? How can anyone not like pizza? How would you survive if you were stranded on an island? 

Think about this — if you asked these kids in 5 or 10 or 15 years, which experience do you think they’ll remember and think had an impact? This theater experience, or a class filled with tests?

I know which one I’d rather have my for my kids. Participating in the arts is an amazing learning opportunity that teaches skills kids need throughout their life, not things they learn and forget the day after the test.

How Much Math do we Really Need?

Intriguing article in the New York Times, “Is Algebra Necessary?”

Andrew Hacker argues that requiring all students to study algebra and higher mathematics is unnecessary and causes many students to fail. In this world of STEM focus and U.S. math scores way behind, this is a dangerous thing to say!

I happen to agree. I’m not the only one. In yesterday’s State of Now #140edu conference, Chris Lehmann made the same claim. He asked the audience how many people had done a derivative in the last year. Only 2 or 3 raised their hands. How many people had read something in the paper that involved statistics? Almost eveyone. Yet high school math requirements do not include even basic statistics.

Dan Meyer, a math teacher, thoughtfully makes the same claim in a TEDx talk. Watch it.

Hacker says, ” Mathematics is used as a hoop, a badge, a totem to impress outsiders and elevate a profession’s status.” Many colleges require three years of math to enter, graduate programs require calculus, even if that subject is never ever needed in grad school.

What does that do to students whose strength might be in the arts? or literature? writing? music? history? Do students who may not excel at mathematics get discouraged? Hacker thinks they do, “Demanding algebra across the board actually skews a student body, not necessarily for the better.”

I see this at my house. My daughter is a visual learner. She’s creative. She’s musical. She is not a linear sequential learner. Math is a huge struggle for her. She spends a hugely disproportional amount of time on math homework. She fails tests. She spends hours before and after school getting help. She gets very discouraged. The non-contextual way math is taught has absolutely no relevance to her. Her math grades will bring her GPA way down – and it’s not for lack of hard work. The way math is taught just doesn’t make sense to her.

Does she need math beyond this point? It took me a long time, but I’d argue no, she doesn’t. I can guarantee she’s not going to be an engineer, a math professor. She won’t need calculus, or even the pre-calculus she’ll have to take in order to graduate. Yet, she won’t get a single lesson about balancing a check book, reading statistics, or other basic consumer math.

I love Hacker’s idea of a “citizen statistics.” This stuff would be really useful – -to everyone.

Visual Literacy

I just had the opportunity to review a presentation a colleague will show at a meeting tomorrow. He’s a visual artist, and it shows. He took a concept (a simplified content development process) and presented it using words and charts. It is powerful in its simplicity.

Why? Because of the visual impact of the simple, clean design. The choice of font and spacing makes a difference. The simple lines of the chart are more powerful than 1000 words.

This is exactly why the current educational system must move to teaching visual literacy as well as traditional literacy. Writing a five-paragraph has merit – to a point. But it must go further. The essay teaches how to format an argument. But now, just delivering an argument or content in words isn’t enough. Society has changed to rely on visuals more than just words. Our kids deserve to learn how to deliver content visually as well as with words.

Think about it. The content from this presentation will be delivered very effectively  in perhaps 5 minutes. What would happen if it was presented in a written form? Would you read it???