“I’m petrified that we’ll apply new technology to old pedagogy,” Professor Elliot Soloway at the University of Michigan said…. “We are not exploiting the affordances of the new technology to give kids new kinds of learn-by-doing activities….What a waste!”
Soloway expresses in vivid language a fixed belief among many high-tech advocates that new technologies such as tablets, smart phones, and similar devices can be used to transform traditional teacher-centered instruction into progressive, student-centered learning-by-doing lessons . When these devices, however, are used to maintain existing pedagogies, it is a “waste.” Perhaps. Here is a math lesson I saw a few weeks ago. Would you agree with Professor Soloway?
In the charter school I visited, the Geometry class of 29 students, mostly Latino with a sprinkling of other minorities and whites, had already begun the lesson when I arrived. Students sat sitting in seven rows of four desks each facing white-boards and a screen. Inspirational quotes, student work, and math-related posters dotted the walls.
The objective for the day’s lesson was written on the white-board: “I can calculate surface area and volume of spheres.” On the other side of the white-board were listed school rules and a staircase of escalating consequences. Below the lists was the agenda for this lesson:
5. Exit Ticket
Each student has a four-page worksheet with “launch,” “presentation,” “practice,” and “conclusion” on it. At the top of each page was typed: “I CAN calculate the surface area and volume of a sphere.” On the “launch” page there were multiple questions on a basketball such as “The amount of leather used to make the outside of the ball represents________________ because ______________.”[i]
I arrived during the “practice” part of the lesson.
The teacher was leading students through questions on the worksheet: “Find the approximate SA (surface area) and volume of the following sphere.” A picture of a sphere is on the worksheet with a dotted line across the diameter marked with “18 m.”
The teacher walked up and down the rows with a constant patter about the problems students are working on: “I like that idea,” he said to one student, “show Christian your solution; I think it will show that it is efficient.” At one point, he says to a student: “I challenge your calculation. Show me how you did it.”
The teacher claps his hands in quick rhythm and brings the activity to a close. Students stop. He then says: “Let’s see if you guys know what you are talking about?”
The teacher now goes to the Exit Ticket part of lesson, a software app that teachers had designed for classroom use with recycled iPods. Students get their mobile device and login. The teacher gives them a new problem to solve and students go to work on their devices. “Definitely use your notes for the formula you put down,” he tells the class.[ii]
Holding an iPad with software that monitors students’ work on their recycled iPods, the teacher walks around answering student questions and making comments: “You’re annotating makes me happy. I love the evidence I’m seeing.”
He stops and answers a student’s question. He then asks class, as they are working, “How many of you did I have last year?” About half of students raise their hands. “Wasn’t I a royal pain in having you line up items as you write up a problem and its solution? When you get to college, you leave out a symbol, a semicolon, you torpedo the entire solution.”
As he scans the classroom and looks at his iPad to see what students are doing, he turns to a student and says, “Alex, we’re talking math; that’s your warning.”
Teacher claps again. “Let’s move to ‘Conclusion.’” He tells class: “Read the problem silently and after 3 minutes, talk to your neighbor on how you did it.” Another quick handclap. “Let’s do another poll on answer. Students use their iPods. “OK,” teacher says. “Ten voted for this answer and two voted for the other. The two are correct. Why are these two right? Check with your neighbor. Talk it out”
There is a noticeable surge of energy in the class after the teacher pointed out the error. Pairs of students talk to one another. Teacher waits and then says: “Alex, explain the answer.” After Alex talked through the explanation, teacher claps hands and says, “Eyes up here.” He goes over the homework and reminds students of test in two days. Bell rings but teacher holds class until all of the iPods are returned to the tray in front of the room. He lets class go when last one is returned.
[i] Leadership Public School (LPS) teachers had designed readers for various courses including this Geometry class; these readers contain lessons and accompanying worksheets with problems and questions. Full disclosure: I am a member of the LPS Board of Trustees and have visited classrooms in all four LPS schools.
[ii] Exit Ticket was designed by teachers at LPS. Using recycled iPods and cell phones, students could point and click on answers on a screen. Because they were iPods, students used other functions beyond the “clicker” one. Teachers wrote the apps for the devices to use for instantaneous feedback from students.