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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.

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