Rethinking My Pedagogy: Envisioning (and Overcoming) Challenges to Putting the Learner First #K4STEMLAB

"Kids are born curious. They are always exploring. We spend the first year of their lives teaching them how to walk and talk, and the rest of their lives telling them to shut up and sit down." - Neil deGrasse Tyson

Sitting in Jackie Gerstein's webinar last night for Week 3 of her PLP Network e-Course, The Complete Guide for Implementing The Flipped Classroom: The Full Picture, I realized our school tagline, "Children First," will take on special significance in my classroom this year. If all goes as planned, students will, for the first time, truly be responsible for their own learning. They will truly be "first." To be totally honest, I find that concept simultaneously invigorating and terrifying. It is invigorating because, for the first time in ten years, my students will truly get instruction that is tailored to them personally, allowing them to work at their own pace, literally rewinding & fast-forwarding until they "get it." It is terrifying because, all this fancy talk aside, my students need to learn real skills, in both traditional ICT (information and computing technology [what 'computer lab' has always been]) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math). This has to work. So, let's look at some of the challenges ahead. Literacy is going to be a HUGE factor in the effectiveness of our new instructional model. This is elementary school, after all, and 40% of my students are in Kindergarten or First Grade. They are just learning to read. And yet, my experience and intuition tell me that even at these young ages, students already know and are able to:

  • Power on a computer
  • Identify and access icons
  • Use a web browser to visit websites
  • Use headphones
  • Watch, pause and restart a web-based video
  • Close a program when finished

How do I know? Because many (most?) of them are already doing it. At home. On their family's computers, laptops, tablet devices like iPads, iPods, or Kindle Fire's, or even a parent's smartphone. And, it's important to note, not ALL the instruction in my class will be technology based. We are building a blended model, with some instruction being delivered in small groups, and some being supported with printed materials - depending on the needs of the learner. Lack of Access is often cited as a concern when requiring students to use technology outside of school. Several factors mitigate the impact here. First, since I only see students once a week, students will have opportunities during the school day (recess/free time) to use school computers to review the material I will have for them. Second, the videos will be short, chunked in reasonable sizes for maximum efficiency. Third, students will always have the opportunity, as a last resort, to review the material at the start of my class each week. Classroom Management. This one is particularly vexing for a few reasons. First, it's not a personal strength. Period. It's probably the single greatest teaching skill I have yet to master. Second, my old lab, a room full of desktop computers, was a natural classroom management tool in itself; students sat down in an assigned seats, logged in, and got to work. While distractions did occur, for the most part, the device usually garnered their full attention. We will have computers in my new room but they will be laptops. There won't be assigned seats (but there may be assigned tables). Kids will be free to walk around the room and work where they want. So, the physical nature of the room (not to mention its size) will make managing classes more difficult. Awesome. Finally, I don't expect the kids to be sitting in front of a screen all the time. They may be working collaboratively in groups, writing on our IdeaPaint-covered walls, or reading something from the magazine rack (which we'll have loaded with kid-friendly titles). Yep. Classroom management is going to be absolutely crucial this year. Sometimes, though, I sometimes wonder ... what am I doing here? Walking away from a completely functional computer lab, into a brand-new space, with laptops, and injecting a new focus - STEM - into the curriculum? Honestly, why take this on? Because:

  • I believe in my students.
  • I know they are capable of more than any of us can imagine.
  • I believe that with my guidance, they can teach themselves better than I can teach them en masse.

Check out this video. I first saw it in 2009. Sugata Mitra is Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, UK. In this TED talk, he describes his "Hole in the Wall" project, an incredible illustration of how children - among the world's poorest - teach themselves and each other. (Fast forward to 7m30s for his discussion of the actual experiment.)

My goal is, in effect, to build the world's most advanced "Hole in the Wall" for my students. I intend to create an environment with a collection of resources, both human and digital, that is so rich, so compelling, so engaging, that students will learn in ways no one ever dreamed possible. And, because it will all be web-based, they'll be able to do it on any internet-connected devices, anywhere, at any time. I have one month, one week, and six days left to prepare for the first day of school. Gotta run!

This post is part of a series about our plans to "reinvent" my K-4 Computer Lab class as a STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology & Math) course starting in September 2012. By "thinking out loud" here I hope to keep stakeholders apprised of our ideas, activities & progress while I gain wisdom and perspective from anyone who cares to join the conversation.