Using Computers in the Classroom: Shifting from Consumption to Creation

In the last few months, I have read several articles about increasing pushback against the use of technology in schools. The Atlantic published a piece called “The Backlash Against Screen Time at School,” The Guardian published an article titled “Children are Tech Addicts – and Schools are the Pushers,” and The New York Times published “Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good.” As a technology and blended learning enthusiast, I’ve thought a lot about why there is growing concern about the use of technology in schools. In part, I can understand the fears articulated in each of these articles because I see some serious problems with the way technology is being used in schools.

#1 Technology is often used to isolate learners.

I want educators to use technology to foster collaboration and encourage exploration. Just because a school is 1:1 and every child has a device does not mean they need to work on that device alone. I realize computer programs and adaptive software are extremely easy to use and allow teachers to personalize practice for students, but we cannot neglect the importance of human interaction in the learning process. I wish I saw more scenes in classrooms like the image below.

#2 There is a lack of balance between online and offline work.

Quite frankly, too many kids spend too much time staring at screens and not enough time engaging in social learning with their peers. I have been an observer in classrooms where the computers are always open. All of the information students need to complete tasks is posted online. All of their work is submitted digitally. In the rare moments when students are working offline, computers remain on desks and are obstacles to interaction.

#3 Too often computers relegate students to a passive, consumptive role instead of encouraging playful learning and creation.

In a piece titled “Computer as Paint Brush: Technology, Play, and the Creative Society,” Mitchel Resnick talks about the need to reimagine the ways in which we use computers. People view computers primarily as information machines, but Resnick makes the point that computers should be used “less like televisions and more like paint brushes.” I could not agree more. Computers can be powerful tools for play, exploration, experimentation, design, invention, and creation. Students should be encouraged to learn playfully using computers as creative tools.

If technology was used to encourage social learning, foster collaboration, and nurture creativity in the classroom, I believe more people would be excited about and supportive of technology in education.

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3 Ways to Build Student Agency into Your Lessons

Although many teachers recognize the importance of making students active agents in the classroom, it is easy to overlook student agency when we plan our lessons. However, the ability to make key decisions about their learning is a powerful motivator for students. If they are invited to tailor the learning to their interests, decide how to approach a problem, or determine what they will create, it makes them feel valued as individual learners. It also has the advantage of getting more students to lean into the learning happening in the classroom.

When I work with teachers designing lessons using blended learning models, I encourage them to think about where in the lesson they can hand over decision making power to the students. A simple approach is to think about the what, how, and why of a lesson, assignment, or project and give students the opportunity to answer one of those questions.

What?

Can you allow students to decide what aspect of a subject or topic they want to focus on for a lesson, assignment, or project? For example, if we are researching Elizabethan England to complement our reading of Romeo and Juliet, I invite students to decide what aspect of that period most interests them–the plague, entertainment, fashion, gender roles, musical instruments, the monarchy–and research that topic. Even though they are focused on different topics, they are still developing research skills, designing a presentation, and presenting for the class. This agency to choose what students will focus on creates a level of personal investment in the task and invites students to focus on an aspect of the subject that interests them.

How?

Can students decide how they will accomplish a task? Teachers are always tight on time, so it is easier to tell students how to approach a task. However, this one-size-fits-all approach does not encourage students to think critically about what they are being asked to do or how they would approach solving a particular problem. There is value in challenging students to think through a task, assignment, or project and articulate their own path for completing that work. For example, if students are asked to create a digital story or test a hypothesis, allowing them to decide how they will tackle that task, what steps they will take, and which tools or technology they will need can make that task more engaging for students.

Why?

Can you challenge students to articulate why a task, assignment, or project is valuable? Asking students to define the purpose of the work they do and then decide how they want to demonstrate learning can be an incredibly powerful exercise. Too often, students label the work they are asked to do as “busy work,” which is an indication that they do not understand the value of that work. If they can define why they are doing a task, they can also make informed decisions about what they want to produce to show they have learned.

When students work on a project, I will often allow them to decide on the topic, articulate the path for how they want to complete it and ask them to think about the purpose of the project and propose a product. At the end of a project, some students have built physical models others have designed multimedia presentations and others have created digital artifacts. Allowing students agency about what they produce or create is another way to get even our most reluctant learners to lean into the learning.

Many teachers worry about a loss of control when it comes to student agency. When I work with teachers, I am quick to point out that student agency does not mean students make all of the decisions, but it does mean they get to make some of them. I also share that in my experience the more I release control of the learning to the actual learners, the more rewarding the learning is for everyone.

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Station Rotation Model: Avoid Falling into a Rut

As a blended learning coach, I spend a lot of time in classrooms where teachers are experimenting with blended learning models. The Station Rotation Model is one I see used frequently. Its popularity stems from the fact that it allows teachers to maximize limited technology and it creates a nice balance between online and offline work.

The basic design of a station rotation lesson includes three types of stations: teacher-led, online, and offline. The exact number of stations will vary based on factors like the length of the class period, the total number of students in a class, and furniture constraints.

As with any approach to lesson design, it is easy for teachers to slip into a rut when it comes to designing their stations. Too often, when I enter classrooms using the Station Rotation Model, I see the same types of activities happening at each station. Here are the classic pitfalls I see when observing teachers using this model:

Problem #1: The teacher spends the majority of the teacher-led station talking at students, and often, the teacher provides the same instruction to every group that cycles through his/her station. Teachers can use their stations for a variety of tasks beyond direct instruction. (For more ideas on how to design your teacher-led station, check out this blog.)

Problem #2: The online station is used exclusively for personalized practice using adaptive software or an online program. Although personalized online practice that meets the learner exactly where he/she is at in terms of skill is incredibly useful, students quickly become bored and disillusioned with online programs if that is the only work they do online. I also worry about the fact that using technology in this way isolates learners. I want to see more teachers use technology to encourage conversation, collaboration, and creation online.

Problem #3: The offline stations are often used for classic pen and paper practice. Essentially, students are asked to sit quietly at their desks and work on handouts or practice problems in a workbook. Instead of designing collaborative tasks that allow students social learning opportunities, they are required to practice without support or peer interaction. This isolation often results in students who are not engaged in the task and distract the work happening at the other stations.

When I work with teachers, my goal is to get them to think bigger when they design their stations. I encourage teachers to mix it up because variety is key to keeping students excited about the Station Rotation Model.

As teachers head off for summer break, I would suggest thinking about how you can mix up your stations. Begin making a list of possible station activities using the template below. If there are activities that have worked well this year, add them to the template. If you see another teacher using a great strategy, game, or activity, think about what station that might work well at and add it to your template.

Hopefully, you will find that as you populate this template with ideas it becomes easier to plan your station rotation lessons next year because you have an idea bank to draw from.

bit.ly/SRMideabank

Teachers who are interested in the Station Rotation Model should check out my laminated On Your Feet Guide (published by Corwin). It’s available on Amazon!

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