Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Response to "Careful Now: 21st Century Edition" by dy/dan

This post is actually a comment that I left on dy/dan's blog entitled "Careful Now: 21st Century Edition". The comment ran on so long that I decided to post it here as well. (I also noticed a few typos that I wanted to clean up)

It was funny to see your post about 21st Century Classrooms and particularly making the transitions in Math classrooms. My own blogging for the past two days has traveled similar paths.

I’d like to first comment about Dan’s statement that the post reflects “the 21st-century-learning crowd’s total misapprehension of how students learn mathematics, particularly of how students who don’t understand mathematics at all learn mathematics.”

I think the 21st-century-learning crowd sometimes comes across this way because they’ve become accustomed to defending their positions against those who simply resist change. I’m sure there are some tech-nazis out there who insist that everything done without technology is a disservice to our students. But, most are level headed folks that encourage us to explore ways to enhance what we do using technology.

Judging from the staff development I’ve attended over the past few years, Math teachers must be the bain of the guest speaker’s existence. 95% of the sessions I’ve attended finds at least one Math teacher stating, “That’s great! But, how do I use that in Math?” There really isn’t a viable substitute for paper in Math. Not only is it difficult to write equations with fractions and exponents, there are the process steps of carrying the one and simplifying the fraction that require you to move around the problem to annotate steps you’ve taken. Interactive whiteboards, school pads, and notepads permit you to write with a “pen” just like on paper. But if its just like on paper, how is it “better”? At first, students might be more engaged because they’re playing with the new toy. When the new toy loses its new, we’re left where we started. All these items are wonderful tools and contribute to classrooms in amazing ways. As the “21st-century-learning crowd” we should never imply that teachers shouldn’t use handouts any more. And, as teachers we can’t assume that integrating technology into our classrooms means we have to use it for everything.

Jenny made an excellent point that there are aspects of other subjects, including English, that don’t lend themselves well to the use of technology. Math generally gets the most attention because it has fewer areas that can be completely taught using technology alone.

The similar Blog postings mentioned in the first paragraph are:

Does the School of the Future Buy Textbooks?
Interesting Discussion Regarding “21st Century Classrooms”.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Does the school of the future buy textbooks?

Part two of commuter conversations revolved around the concept of textbook free schools. We all found the idea rather intriguing. Like children at Christmas time, we began calculating the amount of funding that could be redirected toward enhancing the technology offerings in classrooms. It's certainly worth considering. Take for example a grade level of 225 students. Estimate textbooks at approximately $100 each. Textbook adoptions are revised about every five years. If a school purchases textbooks in the four core curriculum subjects (Math, Science, Social Studies, and English) they spend about $90,000 in a five year cycle for textbooks on one grade level. This is obviously an overly simplified scenario. Actual implementation of such a plan would require significant logistical planning, but it's certainly food for thought.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Interesting Discussion Regarding "21st Century Classrooms".

This morning I had a very interesting conversation on the way to work. I need to preface by saying that I'm very fortunate to work at the same school with my wife, Gina. She is an excellent Media Coordinator and wonderful teacher. She has been teaching for over 15 years and has been my mentor (unofficially of course) since I started teaching 5 years ago. Today, she and our Technology Facilitator traveled across the state with our principal to attend a meeting. Consequently, we carpooled to work this morning with Julia (the Technology Facilitator).

I'm not sure how the conversation started, but Julia told us about another district that was currently in the process of making every classroom a "21st Century Classroom". She defined "21st Century Classroom" as containing at least a data projector, a Smartboard, and a laptop. She related a conversation with one of their district instructional technologists in which he commented that they were finding it difficult to engage high school students using the Smartboards. This sparked an impromptu mini-brainstorming session within the van. Each of us speculated about possible reasons that high school students might not be engaged by Smartboard technology. Gina pointed out that turning your back to high school students to write on the Smartboard (As with the traditional white board) is generally a bad idea. Julia shared that she beleived that the teachers were not putting the technology in the hands of the students. I must say that I beleive both are correct.

Speaking from the perspective of a Math teacher who has taught using a Smartboard, these are two pitfalls inherent in the Smartboard that are not easily overcome. As Gina said, it's generally bad practice to turn you back on students (particularly high school students). If you don't write at the Smartboard, it becomes a $1000+ pull-down screen. The alternative puts students at the Smartboard. This is an improvement to turning your back on students, but I've found that having a student at the board does not engage the rest of the class. Even when my eighth graders are excited about the prospect of using the technology, the technology doesn't inspire them to focus on the content presented by their peers. I suspect this effect is considerably different at the elementary levels. Gina related a visit she had with a second grade class where a Smartboard was used very effectively with hands on activities for students who were highly engaged. The students were playing some type of educational game that they had obviously played before. The teacher's role in the activity was observation only.

The most effective lesson I've taught in eighth grade was rotational symmetry. I opened a powerpoint slide and inserted an image of objects that were rotationally symmetrical. I copied the image and pasted the copy beside the original. Using the rotate tool, I was able to specify the angle of rotation. Students could visually see that the original image and the rotated image were identical. This lesson was the exception rather than the rule. Most of the lessons I attempted using the Smartboard could have been accomplished equally effectively with an overhead projector. I acknowledge that some of this might be due to my own inexperience or lack of creativity. I welcome any advice on using Smartboards for engaging instruction.

There were more interesting comments during our commute, but I'll save that discussion for another post. This one has become far more longwinded than I had originally intended.