Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Ten Powerful Things To With A Laptop

The first keynote at Ulearn09 this morning was Gary Stager. He had some messages that very much tied in with my thinking.
Gary mentioned the internet being about primary resources. This was one of the findings from my e-fellows research where students were able to go directly to the source of the information they required rather than relying on often inaccurate or biased second-hand accounts.

He talked about when the dominant metaphor for computing is looking stuff up – that this will result in kids looking up inappropriate stuff. Something to think about, although I believe there is a place for using computers in this way to inform their inquiry. Obviously though, in that case it is not the dominant metaphor.

Of his ten powerful things to do with a laptop the ones that resonated the most for me were:
  • Share your knowledge
  • Answer tough questions
  • Make sense of data
  • Change the world
  • Become a mathematician, a scientist, a poet, a playwright etc.
These fit very well with the inquiry-based approach to learning I am so passionate about. Sharing knowledge is an important use of technology. Computers, and increasingly other technologies such as cellphones, are providing means for students to share their knowledge with an audience far outside their own school. Blogs, websites, wikis, podcasts, Twitter and social networking sites are just a few of the ways students are reaching people outside their school walls.

Students do need to be answering the tough questions. This fits in well with the characteristics of fertile questions developed by Yoram Harpaz and Adam Lefstein in their 'Communities of Thinking' article. These have the following characteristics:
  • Open - there are several different or competing answers.
  • Undermining - makes the learner question their basic assumptions.
  • Rich - Cannot be answered without careful and lengthy research. Usually able to be broken into subsidiary questions.
  • Connected - relevant to the learners.
  • Charged - has an ethical dimension
  • Practical - Is able to be researched given the available resources.
Making sense of data is something that is an essential skill but one that is often overlooked. There is a need for active teaching of the skills that students need to be able to take data, critically analyse it and apply it to tasks.

The last two points made by Gary speak very much to having our students complete real world tasks rather than tasks whose only purpose is to pass a test or tick a box. There is a tendency by some to underestimate what students are capable of. Students can make a real difference, create real knowledge. We need to make sure they have the opportunities to do so and not just regurgitate existing knowledge.

The role of the teacher was emphasised with Gary saying "A prompt is worth a thousand words" when you have:
  • Appropriate materials
  • Sufficient time
  • A supportive culture
This is seems very consistent with an inquiry approach. I have talked before about the need for teachers to provide those prompts for our students.
In Jacqueline Brooks’ book ‘In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms’ she summed this up very nicely:
Critics contend that the constructivist approach stimulates learning only around concepts in which the students have a pre-kindled interest. Such criticisms miss the mark. Posing problems of emerging relevance is a guiding principle of constructivist pedagogy. However, relevance does not have to be pre-existing for the student. Not all students arrive at the classroom door interested in learning about verb constructs, motion and mechanics, biological cycles, or historical timelines, but most students can be helped to construct understandings of the importance of these topics. Relevance can emerge through teacher mediation. " (Brooks, 1999, p.35)

Gary's website.