Jonathan Martin is the principal of a 1:1 laptop school school in Arizona. In a recent issue of Connected Principals he reports on his experience with observing students at work by Standing in the Back, Watching the Screens.
This article raises all sorts of issues – including what (if any) internet filtering schools should implement. But what really interested me was his observation that students changed what they were doing on their laptops depending on what else was happening in the classroom:
When the topics appeared relevant to students, the note-taking pages appeared; when the topics veered to the arcane and irrelevant, the screens veered to facebook, gaming sites, and other distractions…
When [the] teacher moved towards more discussion, though, asking questions to facilitate conversation… Nearly half of the screens veered away from both note-taking pages and distractions; appearing instead were google, wikipedia, and other information source sites.
This seems very positive – students appeared to be responding to classroom discussion activities to maximise their own ability to contribute. However, the report does raise a few issues:
- In my experience, students don’t always know what is relevant information and what is ‘arcane and irrelevant’. So there is a risk that a student with little prior knowledge will assume something is irrelevant when it is not.
- Discussion is not always about ‘finding the right answer’, so searching the web is not always a good strategy. For example, a teacher may want to explore learners’ prior knowledge in order to help them acquire new learning – a sound constructivist learning strategy. If learners immediately turn to an external information source rather than reflect on their own understanding and experience this would tend to undermine the effectiveness of the activity.
I’m not arguing here that students should not be in charge of their own learning. But teachers do need to take a proactive role in guiding the learning process. Both issues suggest that making the learning process explicit is important:
- If something is likely to seem irrelevant to students, point out why it is in fact important. And if it really isn’t important and relevant, drop it!
- Make it clear that not all learning is about ‘finding the right answers’ from an external source. Discuss why making prior knowledge explicit is an important stage in the learning process.