Educational Skill Building

It’s been a while since my last post — I’ve been wiki’ing a lot for work, but I feel this pull to post things on my blog as well. It’s so hard to juggle all of these balls. Reading, writing, reading blogs, writing for my blog — Hey, what about my family? They give me a wonderful break from all of this secondary work and allow me to really focus on what is important. Making the world a better place for my three kids, 5, 2, and 3 months. Not to mention my wife. They give me the quiet time (at bed time as they are falling asleep and I’m singing them songs or just holding their hands) to think and reflect on what I’m doing or catching some z’s:->So here are some of the things that have been thinking about/working on in the past couple of weeks.

You can listen to the podcast of my conversation with Jeff Mao and hear about his amazing recommendations for schools looking at 1:1. Based on that discussion, I’ve had many interesting discussions with my department and colleagues on 1:1 over the past few weeks. At the end of our conversation, Jeff recommended three things:

  • To make sure that the purpose of a laptop program is solving a curricular problem at your school
  • The principle in the building is in full support of the program
  • A master teacher who is well respected by the faculty supports the program and is part of the implementation team

So as I spoke with our Middle School principal, my department and faculty, a few key questions came up:

*How do laptops or tablets improve learning?
*How do they fit into the culture of learning and teaching at our school?

These are tough questions. There are tons of resources on using computers applications as tools — yet do the computers make teaching better? No, it’s the teacher who understands instructional strategies, the curriculum, and knows the student who improves learning. The teacher who designs the educational experience of their students so that hopefully, their students learn the correct skills that they will need to be productive citizens. The computer as a tool can make these experiences more effective because it can introduce higher order thinking skills more quickly. It’s the same as when the calculator was introduced into the classroom. The calculator allowed students (who had already studied graphing and learned how to draw the graph of a quadratic equation) to graph it in seconds and spend time thinking about how to solve another more complex question. A computer allows students to write 40% more in 1:1 environments. A computer with Internet access allows students to communicate across the globe at the click of a mouse. These techniques can not be replicated in a chalk based environment.

Research and learning skills that are needed in a digital world can not be learned on paper. So students need to be exposed and taught how to use the Internet for research and learning.

So do laptops improve learning? I don’t know. I think they improve thinking and knowledge generation of students if used properly. There’s just the simple reality that they are here to stay, just as the book was 500 years ago.

Do they change the culture of learning and teaching at our school? Yes, but the Internet is changing it anyway, so we don’t have a choice.

Yet change is scary, and letting go of control and trusting students is much of the issue. At what age can we trust students? One of our young faculty members graduated from a top 10 college last year. When I asked him about his experience at college, he said that between sophomore and junior year something funny happened… the faculty seemed to trust him with his learning more. Instead of feeding him information, they parsed it out and allowed him to make of it as he wished.

Do we have to wait to trust students until we are 20? Is this developmentally inappropriate until that point?

I think we need to let our kids know we trust them early on. It is so important that they have relationships with their teachers who can help scaffold their knowledge in appropriate ways. Learning is about relationships. Trust and respect are at the core. Teachers need to help students build core skills: reading, writing, speaking, listening, critical thinking. The content and tools, be they textbooks, primary sources, or wikis can be interchanged as long as those skills are present. But you can’t do this skill building with out trust and respect.

I keep finding myself going back to skills. I’m focusing on skills because if students have the skills to find the information and can create knowledge then we have succeeded. They need to consume and remix information into knowledge. They need to do this within an ethical context. If we define needed skills, the content used to create those skills does not necessarily matter.

It’s been five hundred years since Gutenberg. The World Wide Web is a little over 10 years old. Boy are moving really fast.

5 thoughts on “Educational Skill Building

  1. Alex,

    The answer to “why laptops” is a simple syllogism. Everything else is commentary.

    1. Students face a huge information management task in school. (Just list the required curriculum at your school to get a sense of the size of the task.)

    2. The computer is the most powerful tool yet invented for helping with information management tasks.

    3. Therefore, we should supply students with computers. (Or to put it another way. It is almost criminal not to supply a worker with the best available tools for helping them do their work most productively.)


  2. Fred, You’re totally right — the discussion about whether to have the most powerful information tool ever in the classroom is a mute one.

    So how do I convince our faculty and administration that that is the case? I’m doing lots of professional development, always say yes when the technology can help learning be more productive and trying to put us in a situation where the faculty are asking for it. But that might be a bit unrealistic. Need some strong administrators as well. What do you think?

  3. Alex,

    The way we did it was an all school committee that looked at where we would go next with computers. This committee made the recommendation for laptops. That’s the way I’d go but you need an administrator- a top administrator- to buy into the idea. We had such a person and it made a world of difference.


  4. Fred,

    Thanks for your wise words — I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing now and hopefully, our new top administrator (who starts in July) will be that person. Fingers crossed!

    Have a great weekend.

    – Alex

  5. Hi Alex,

    Do computers improve student achievement? I think the answer is yes and no. Consider the question, “Does a textbook improve student acheivement?” Most teachers will probably say “No”. At least giving a textbook to a student won’t improve student achievement all by itself. The same can be said of any resource, tool, etc,…so, the simpler question is, “What improves student achievement? What affects student learning?” Here the answers are perhaps just as hard to prove, but far more commonly accepted,…good teaching practices, good resources, student engagement, attendance, etc. So, take that another step,…what conditions affect this list?

    If you ask teachers about what they consider good teaching practices, you’ll get a host of thoughts and strategies. Eliminate for now the barriers or challenges of technical skill, infrastructure, etc, and most will agree that many of these practices can be improved or enhanced with technology — particularly when the technology is at the point of learning as defined by the student (ie a laptop). As for the barriers,…I would much prefer a school where the challenge was providing more teacher training because the faculty was pushing for innovation rather than a school where the focus was on grade creep, attendance policies, dress code, discipline, etc.

    If you ask teachers what kinds of content resources they want, they’ll probably answer that they want current information. They want varied information and opinions from a variety of sources. Primary source materials are always good. Textbooks, journals, newspapers, physical stuff on hand,…all that is great, but limited in that sooner or later, the information becomes “old” and out of date (anyone have a textbook that says there are 9 planets? Worse, says that there are 2 super powers, and one is the USSR?), they take up space that is typically at a premium, and they are not easily accessed by students when they need them. The encylopdia is searchable,…meaning, you can search and search (and search…) through it to try and find what you need,…but you have to know what you are looking for,…no keywords,…and you probably only have one set,…The Internet provides more information than you want. But a teacher can help guide students in age appropriate ways to good information.

    Student enegagement and attendance,…many schools and teachers report that laptop programs capture their students’ attention. Sometimes they are distracted keeping up with the latest March Madness Scores,…but when I was a kid, we used small portable radios,…this is nothing new,…attendance is also up in many of these programs,…but,…these things do not occur because of the laptops,…they occur because good teachers provide good teaching in the classroom. I believe that the access to the information and teaching practices that would not be feasible without the technology create the environment where students are engaged and in school. No more “Bueller,..Bueller,…anyone,…voodoo economics,…”


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