Technology in the Classroom: Defining its Purpose

Technology use in the classroom largely depends on how teachers choose to incorporate it, but that’s not all.  One of the biggest takeaways from my first two weeks of practicum was reflecting on the purpose behind integrating technology in the classroom. On thought, I came to ask myself, why is it possible that one could walk into two different classrooms using the same tech tools, but see different results in terms of student engagement?

Having the fortunate opportunity to be able to observe how an experienced teacher capitalizes on their benefits allowed me to highlight the difference and dig deeper into thought about what makes their success vary from one classroom to the other.

From my personal observation and reflection, the key factor that stood out for me was the reason behind choosing to integrate technology –the one beyond learning that “special” skill. It’s first and foremost about taking the time to define the purpose I want it to serve in my classroom. Asking myself as a designer/facilitator the most important question when lesson planning—why? Why is this important for my students? Is it just about being tech-savvy, or can I further define its purpose and allow it to help me create a more meaningful and enjoyable learning experience? If my goal is to improve student engagement in the learning process, then how will they be able to engage in conversations with their peers, showcase their thoughts, share different strategies, and collectively engage in group discussions as they use this technology?

Walking into my placement two weeks ago, I was already curious to learn how technology can be integrated into a Grade 10 Math class. From previous experiences, I still had the idea in my head that when it came to technology vs. group-based activities, student engagement wouldn’t be as high.

Having that expectation and the imbedded image of students sitting on separate devices totally disengaged from the environment around them (only talking to their peers or teacher when they have a question or answer) definitely paved the way for one of my favourite experiences so far. For the first time I had the chance to experience what it truly felt like to be a facilitator/designer in the classroom. Albeit I was just an observer and active participant, but having that opportunity to experience the deep meaning of the former mentioned terms was truly inspiring.

For the entire 75-minutes students were leaders of their own learning. From the design of different activities that triggered curiosity, to the use of Visibly Random Groups (VRGs) and Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces (VNPS), and the idea of showcasing and extending the learning with Pear Deck and Desmos, students were engaged and stimulated throughout the entire process. What struck me the most was that at no point was the technology isolated from the hands-on activities students were working on. They both served the purpose of complimenting each other. More specifically, the tools selected:

  • Created a safe space for students to communicate their individual thoughts, collectively;
  • Provided an extension to the hands-on learning with the added feature of personal/group reflection;
  • Provided students with a platform to analyze and present their own learning;
  • Offered room for feedback vs. direct teaching
    • Instead of highlighting key ideas by writing them on the board or reading them off a slide developed by the teacher, key concepts were conveyed through feedback on student work/thoughts projected through Pear Deck or displayed across the room (VNPS). The content of the “teaching” material was derived directly from student work.

Overall, more than just a tool to help students learn a new skill, technology served a much bigger purpose of creating an interactive community of thoughts.

It’s The Thought That Counts -Literally!

Imagine handing out a math test to your students with the following instructions:

Communicate in writing or in drawing:

  1. The process you will use to find the answer;
  2. Reason(s) to support your choice.

Please note: marks will be deducted if you write down the actual answer 🙂

This is the idea I got while scribing for a student during a standardized math test. Listening to him think aloud and watching him contemplate on ideas of how to go about in solving the questions was truly an exciting experience—one that would interest me, as a teacher, so much more than looking at the final answer.

The feeling of excitement was almost the same as that of reading a good book where you’re eager to flip through the pages to find out what happens next, but at the same time don’t want to skip over or miss any of the important details.

manipulativesI could tell that the student was enjoying the process of entertaining his thoughts and deciphering the puzzle (question) as well. Watching him jump from one thought to the other, as he experimented with his manipulatives, was like watching a detective trying to solve a crime scene. But suddenly the climax fell to an end. It was interrupted by his own voice as he shouted “The answer is …”

It fell to an end because instead of taking the time to follow through on his own thoughts that were heading in the right direction, he rushed himself to a different path as he was more interested in the final answer and whether it was right or wrong.

But it’s the journey in piecing together the puzzle that makes looking at the final piece all the more enjoyable—not just for a teacher interested in understanding the students’ thought process, but for the student as well.

By nature, the brain likes to play detective. It becomes bored when things get too predictable. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says that:

“Neurons really exist to process information. That’s what neurons do. If you want to anthropomorphize neurons, you can say that they are happiest when they are processing information.”

Figuring out the solution or reaching a goal in general is definitely rewarding, but from my perspective, not as rewarding as the journey, memories, and adventures created during that process. After all, your brain will always be left asking, “what’s next?”

Focusing on the thought-process and understanding how students think was not only an enjoyable experience overall, but I believe it can actually help me become a better teacher by allowing me to pinpoint where the focus needs to be. I definitely  look forward to implementing this experience in my future classroom.

 

Learning Connections

Research has proven over and over again that the brain works best when many different areas are simultaneously activated together. Without integrating subjects and allowing students to engage in the process of learning, we as teachers are simply transmitting information, and focusing only on developing few areas of the brain —mainly language processing and memorization. When we allow students to learn through storytelling, for example, instead of the mere act of lecturing, they can form an emotional connection to the material, and thus will be able to understand and retain the information much better. Vittorio Gallese, one of the key members who discovered mirror-neurons explains that:

“when we read fiction or see a movie or a play and even when we see a painting, we map these fictional humans’ actions, emotions, and sensations onto our own brains’ visceral, motor, and sensory representations. That accounts for our emotional experience, which comes before our cognitive experience.”

This Is Your Brain on Culture, 2011.

During the past couple of years, I came across many readings which support integrating arts into learning, especially math. At first, this idea seemed a bit unconvincing, mainly because I never had the opportunity to experience this during my studies. When I signed up for Math Camp at uOttawa before school started, I had the impression that it would be just like any typical math class I previously experienced, where we would remain seated for the entire class and work on problems individually. Attending this camp was truly an eye-opening experience as it changed my perspective on teaching. Hardly ever did we remain seated or even use a pencil during that week. The focus was on expressing our thoughts, engaging in discussions, integrating arts into the inquiry process, and developing visual representations for our solutions.

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As one of the professors placed it,

“we learn so much more about how students think by asking them to explain how they reached their solution instead of looking at the final answer.”

Focusing on how students express their thought process allows them to self-asses their own understanding, helps them build self-confidence, develop a sense of ownership to the material, and learn how to articulate their thoughts in general.

Personally, my goal is to introduce students to the art of knowledge, and hopefully get them to fall in love with the process of learning and discovering. I strongly believe that by integrating the arts and the idea of story-telling into other subject areas, will help my students develop a sense of emotional connection to the learning and provide them (and myself) with a more engaging and stimulating learning/teaching experience.