Sunday, April 22, 2007

Changing How Students Learn

Karl's post about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program has got me thinking a bit. Karl's post includes video of a speaker for OLPC presenting at Google. You should definitely read the post and watch at least the first 10 minutes of the video.

If you decide not to do either, here's the basic gist I got out of it, and what's been troubling me. The goal of OLPC is "change how kids learn." There's nothing there about laptops. The speaker points out that from age 0 to 5, the majority of learning we do as children is discovery driven. No one tells us what a dog is - typically, we see a dog and ask "what dat?" And then someone tells us. All the learning is informal and "student" driven.

Then, all of a sudden, at age 5 or 6, we're sent off to school and everything changes. Learning is (most often) authoritatively driven; the government determines standards, teachers write units and lesson plans, and students (at least, the "good" ones) listen to the teacher and learn what they're supposed to.

To be fair, standards are needed to make sure there's some level of accountability in education. As much as I would like the government to trust me to teach what students need to learn, it's nice to know all students are learning the same basic skills. And then those skills are tested annually here in Colorado with the CSAP - also a necessary piece of education. There need to be some forms of accountability, though many of us may feel there are better options out there than our current one.

Thus in kindergarten and first grade, we learn the alphabet and how to read; in second and third grade, we learn multiplication tables and fractions; in fourth and fifth we learn some basic US History and more advanced reading. All these things are definitely important.

But then, they get to junior high or high school, and we ask them to write an essay with their own original thoughts, or put together a project that showcases their learning - we ask them to start driving their own education again, and most of them look at us like we're crazy. I know my eighth graders during student teaching had the hardest time when I told them they could write three pieces and that they could be about anything they want. Mass chaos. I was part of the problem - I've posted about it before here, here, and here. But really, to draft, revise, edit, and publish three pieces of writing about absolutely anything you want, all English teachers want our students to be able to do that.

The goal of OLPC is to change that. Students are given laptops that connect with other laptops in their community and eventually, through those other laptops, to the school server and the internet. The idea is to create a grassroots movement of children who are learning by discovery once again.

I was thinking about this concept as I taught a first grade class last week. A few of the students were unmotivated and uninterested (for the most part) in their lessons on counting money and making popsicle stick bridges for their Billy Goat Gruff finger puppets. Instead, every chance they got, whether during a lesson or during free reading time, the students would hop up to grab a copy of the Children's Illustrated Dictionary.

Imagine. Students who want to read the dictionary. That's student-motivated learning by discovery. I felt bad redirecting them to the tasks at hand.

Some of the first grade students did need a lot of help with their math. One student conceptualized counting in a way I've never seen before (which isn't saying much, since I've taught first grade for three days now). From what I could figure out, he had to draw whatever it was he was counting before he could count it. And he expressed the numbers in the ones place in a different way. If he was writing 53, he would write it like this: "5o." But if I write 53 on the board, he understands it as the same number.

This student is discovering math in his own way. Yet with an authoritarian method of teaching, this particular student's way of seeing numbers is not supported. If the teacher takes on the role of a "master craftsman," one who is knowledgeable and practiced in the subject, they can act as a resource for the inquisitive student. The student takes on the role of "apprentice," slowing developing their skills in their own way, taking on harder and harder projects.

Maybe this doesn't work for a logic based subject like math. But this is how I intend for writing workshop to work with my students. The question is, how much of a base do we have to teach using the authoritative model. Is discovery, while a more desirable (at least, I think) way to learn, too time consuming? Do students need to reach a critical mass of prior knowledge before they can reach this creative, trial stage that I want them to achieve? Because even if I give a discovery oriented assignment, like, "look at the different kinds of persuasive essays in this WebQuest and get an idea for what kind of format you need to follow in your essays," I'm still the one assigning it.

In high school I read a book titled The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education. The idea was that you could quit school and learn what you needed through discovery based learning, pass your GED and move on to college. Unfortunately, I was not able to convince my parents to let me "get a real life and education" (or quit school, for that matter). But maybe the school teacher who wrote that book is onto something.

Today I'm teaching Pre-AP Literature at a high school. For part of the class period, they're taking the time to research and write their persuasive essays. Some of the students chose to spend that time in other ways. On same days, I might be tempted to argue that they were "wasting their time" or "straying off-task." For some this was probably the case, like the young woman looking at Spiderman 3 ticket prices, or the woman watching dog show performances on Google Video. But others were actually learning something. One young man was looking at various architecture around the world on Google Earth. Another was investigating the city of Fort Collins debate on Round-a-bouts (not the topic of his paper, by the way). Another young woman was looking at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science website (our local version of a Natural History Museum - for some reason they decided to dumb down the title), while another was researching various mental health disorders.

So I guess my thoughts haven't really reached any sort of tangible conclusion. I suppose the downside to total learning by discovery is that students go looking for something when they are interested in or see the relevancy to - the topics they don't see as relevant will be overlooked.

It's an interesting concept OLPC is promoting. I think it's great that they're increasing the use of technology in the third world. Technology is a powerful tool for development. When 75% of the third world is populated by farmers, think how helpful it would be to know the price one could get for corn before transporting it to a major city for market. You might weight for a better price and go another day.

However, OLPC seems to be doing little to promote safe learning of technology. Teachers apparently also receive a laptop, but (like the children) receive no training on how to use it, or the uses of technology in education. Who will teach these students safe use of the internet? How will the teachers learn to integrate technology in their lessons? If they're going for discovery based learning, are the teachers going to make them put their laptops away during class? I was totaly psyched about OLPC when it first started out, but now, I have my concerns. The idea is great, but they've got to follow through.

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