The following post is written by EdTechTeacher’s Shawn McCusker and Beth Holland. They will also be leading EdTechTeacher Summer Workshops in Atlanta, Chicago, and Boston.
When we work with schools embarking on 1:1 programs, losing classroom culture often tops the list of concerns. Teachers worry about too much screen time and lack of face-to-face interaction. Between the two of us, we have taught in 1:1 environments with students in grades 2-12. Despite the wonderful learning opportunities afforded by these devices, sometimes, the technology is best when turned off.
“1-2-3 look at me!” I (Beth) exploded to my students. And then, as if I had been a teacher at Hogwarts rather than a PS-8 school in Newport, RI, the room magically went silent. All eyes turned away from their screens and focused on me standing in the middle of the room waving my hand in the air. Suddenly, I had ripped control back from the gleaming iMacs that lined the lab. We had returned to a state of control and learning could re-commence.
We’d had enough technology, and now it was time to re-engage as a class. Clearly, the iMacs had become a deterrent to learning rather than a catalyst, so it was time to re-group. Would I recommend the above strategy to middle or high school students? Absolutely not. However, with my elementary students, it worked – for a while.
Over the years, I established different routines with different groups of students. Some came straight into the lab, sat down at the computers, and got to work. Others gathered in a circle at the front of the room to discuss the goals of the day, answer questions, or collaborate on a project. With my youngest students, we often sat in a circle, on the floor, in an area devoid of all technology at the start and finish of each class. That allowed us to see and listen to each other without the distraction of the screen.
In an elementary classroom, children bouncing out of their chairs, loud screeching noises, and then occasional slew of waving hands amongst shouts of “it isn’t working” make it obvious to put away the technology. Even while teaching in a computer lab, times existed where we needed to sit in a circle and talk about learning objectives. We also needed to sing “C is for Copy” and play the “Server Game” to apply physical attributes to virtual concepts. However, as students get older, the signs may not be as obvious.
Though failing to include any technology in the modern classroom is wrong, including too much, or employing it ineffectively, can be equally problematic. Having a list of specific instances where choosing to put away classroom technology is the right choice would certainly be nice, but like most pedagogical challenges it is also unrealistic. Oftentimes, it simply isn’t that easy to know whether to put it away or not., and the skill of making that choice develops over time – a bit like a callous.
At its best, technology enhances, extends or deepens the learning taking place. At its worst, it detracts, distracts, and otherwise frustrates you and your students. When these situations cannot quickly and effectively be remedied – without sacrificing your lesson’s learning objective – put the technology down and embrace the lesson.
The trick is to never let technology erode the relationships in your classroom. It takes awhile understand to how to effectively create the same relationships that existed in a traditional classroom. When the teacher is talking less and the students are interacting more, the process for building community looks and feels very different.
When I (Shawn) lectured more, it was very easy to end the class knowing that the students had shared a very similar experience together. When devices were added to my classroom, I had no guarantee that would happen. As we worked more individually and in small groups, I realized that I had eroded some of the community that I had prized so highly. This created tension in the class and left me shaken. I learned that I had to focus and find ways to build a better community and create shared values in smaller increments of time.
Until you find that balance, take time – outside of instruction if necessary – to build your classroom community. You can come back to blazing a new trail, as it will be more successful and rewarding to everyone if they are doing so in a trusting and supportive classroom. It is an investment with a return and certainly not wasted time.
The first weeks and months of any 1:1 pilot are difficult. Facing each new learning obstacle with a new device seems awkward, ungainly, and not part of the normal planning process. There WILL be a moment when using technology to solve a problem actually becomes the problem itself. For example, the first time that I used dropitto.me, I failed to realize the importance of a standard naming convention. As a result, ⅓ of the students assignments were lost. Oops!
Even the best lesson plans – complete with clearly defined learning objectives, tested tools, and the most creative intentions – can fail miserably, and technology can certainly expedite the process. When the class activity or project begins to unravel, there is nothing wrong with shifting gears or changing directions. My (Beth’s) virtual archaeology project looked beautiful on paper, but the web sites were above my students’ reading level, and the collaborative tools crashed. After three class periods of scaffolding, re-directing, and suffering, we just moved on.
Technology is a lot like sharing a good story with your class. When it connects to the lesson and provides a solid memorable story that students can wrap their minds around, go with it. When the story fizzles, the connection is lost – or it becomes a self-inflicted class distraction – set it aside, regroup and try to be wiser the next time.
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