Saturday, April 28, 2012

Helping Parents Go 1:1; Lessons from PBL a decade ago

Back in my former school, we made a serious effort to embrace PBL (Project-Based Learning). Of course, we also included Problem-Based Learning (the "other" PBL) as a matter of course.  But the basic idea was that rather than spend our time skimming through the forest, we would stop to examine in depth the trees that represented vast swaths of the forest, so that students could then apply their deep understanding of a limited amount of issues to much larger numbers later in life.  I enjoyed teaching this way, but I encountered a problem then that is echoing in a problem I'm encountering now: what words represent to people changes depending on the audience.

I discovered that in talking to parents of freshmen (the grade I mostly taught at the time) about PBL, they arrived at the discussion with a mental definition of the word "project." Want to guess what it entailed? Too bad, I'll tell you anyway...

Construction paper, crayons, glue sticks, scissors, string, beads... Some dads had Scouts on the brain, so they thought sawing, nailing, sanding, painting, knot tying... Regardless, they all thought nothing associated with intellectual, academic, rigorous thought.  They thought: making hand turkeys. Or turtles. Or model cars.  So they were skeptics from the jump.  And as a result, they could not understand why their child wasn't getting an A in this, the process of making a hand turkey.  Of interest is the fact that none of the conversations were bathed in a nostalgia of, "Oh, I remember when she was little she made projects. How cute!" It was all frustration of the mess, the pointlessness, the crowded refrigerator, the failed pinewood derby, etc., etc.

So the parent perception of PBL was negative from the word go, and as a result, I spent the better part of a year's worth of parent-teacher conferences working against that association to help the parents understand exactly what we were doing. So was my administration. It worked, but it was a long haul to get there, and new parents needed to be brought along into the process each year, so I was constantly in a position of defensiveness, not partnership, with the parents.

Now, fast-forward 12 years, and I'm in the classroom talking with parents about technology in the classroom, in this case the 1:1 iPad initiative.  Want to guess what the parents' views are? Too bad, I'll tell you.

Games. Facebook. Frivolity. Sex. Wasting time. Surfing the web. "Twittering." Silly pictures. Sex.  Crashing. Losing files. These are not happy associations.  Parents associate the technology with frustration (they don't know how to do these things/their technology in their job sucks), disconnection (my children don't talk on the phone, they text, so I have no clue what's going on in their lives--I can't even eavesdrop!) and fear (the internet is full of pornographers, perverts and creeps waiting to snatch my child).  They do not associate technology with intellectual, academic, rigorous thought.  Sure, they get the idea of Google as a massive library of information, but they don't know how it works, so they see the crap they get when they search and assume this is what their children are experiencing too.

So I'm spending this year's worth of parent-teacher conferences and back to school nights and parent-teacher meetings and emails working against this association to help the parents understand exactly what we are doing.  So's my administration. It seems to be working, but it is a long haul, there are some deep skeptics out there, and at this point I'm not sure if there is actual buy-in or just resigned acceptance of the process. Either way, teachers are constantly having to defend their practice, not partner with the parents.

To be fair, there are large numbers of parents who also use technology in their workplace and in their lives, and so have some appreciation of it as a time/labor-saving device, a presentation tool, or for organizational purposes, so it is not all bad, it's just that the overwhelming impression is that of expensive entertainment.

In hindsight, if a school is considering bringing technology into the classroom, I'd strongly encourage them to spend some time pondering the technology from the other side, the popular culture side, the parent side.  Then take the time to explain, carefully and clearly how the device will enhance the culture of rigor and intellectual inquiry already in place in your classroom.  Show them, don't tell them.  Have the parents come to your open houses and conferences with the device, and guide them through an activity you do in class with your students.  Understand that you will have to demystify it for them, for though their children may or may not be digital natives, they are definitely not, and they deserve to be brought along too. Otherwise, the teachers are in a position of constant defensiveness, not partnership, with the parents, who are in a constant state of bewilderment, disenfranchisement and apprehension about what their children are doing not only up in their rooms, but also in school.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Ah, the end of vacation

There are many great things about being on vacation, not the least of which is catching up with reading.

I've been spending some time perusing what numerous sites have to offer and alternating between horrified laughter and lots of hmmm-ing...but through it all, I think there is a point that is being slightly missed by many people who are writing about the use of technology in the classrooms.

Not all of y'all are missing this point, but some are, and it is showing up in the slightest of ways.  It's a simple phrase, but it makes my hackles rise, so I'll put it out there to get it off my mind. (So I can turn to wondering exactly what a "hackle" is...)

The phrase as is generally put: "In order to interest students in learning, give them an iPad (or laptop, or tablet or whatever device)."


What interests human beings in learning is not the presence or absence of the latest technology!  Students didn't become more interested in learning because of the creation of erase-able ink, nor did the advent of the typewriter suddenly make learning sexy.  My students don't get pumped for class because they are going to get to use Noteability, Twitter or Evernote. To assume that in order for students to be engaged they must have a gizmo is to display a stunning lack of understanding about why we learn.

Students of all ages want to learn because learning is stimulation for the brain. Students of all ages are turned on to the act of discovery of something that feels new, different, and thought-provoking to them! While we adults may have settled on answers to life's big questions, our children have not!  Ask a group of 16 year-old young men and women to define and demonstrate the word "Truth" or even better, "Justice," through different scenarios and watch them go!  Have a group of 9 year old boys and girls discuss what makes a baseball pitcher (or any athlete) great and require that they use statistics to back themselves up, and step aside.  Ask a group of 12 year old students to write an opinion piece about the latest hot book/movie/song and then comment on each others' works, and they are off and running.

What's great about the iPad (or any piece of technology) is that it can help with students IN THE COMPLETION of all of the above.  It is a tool for expression, organization, and information gathering, but it, in and of itself, does very little to attract students to the task nor does it complete the task for them simply by existing.

Want to make students interested in learning? Ditch standardized tests that require only one right answer.  Shred scantron sheets in favor of actual writing, drawing and figuring.  Abolish practices that reward teachers and administrators for teaching monkeys to throw bananas in barrels.  Foster and reward risk-taking, innovation and creativity in every discipline of school life. Bring back recess, music, art and P.E. into all of our schools at all of our ages; balance matters!

Want to make students interested in learning? Hire a good teacher. Give that teacher access to the tools for students do articulate their understanding. Then get out of his or her way.

We need to stop throwing gizmos at the problems of education, and start dealing with the real gremlins that hold our schools back and keep our children from being excited about learning.