Saturday, 26 May 2012

Rats in the Computer Lab

I had a real “AHA” moment in the computer lab this week with my students.  I had spent the week reading about Radical Behaviorism based on the work of Thorndike and Skinner and was struggling to understand how these theories translated to learning in a classroom.  As I watched my grade one and two students complete a task in the computer lab that some people may think is too challenging for students at that level, I saw how I had employed behavior management principles without even realizing it.
First, I am not made to be a teacher of young children, and I am more suited and accustomed to upper elementary children who are more independent.  But this year I teach a combined 2\1 class, so I have had to adapt.  I, like many elementary teachers, am quite particular, like order and structure, and I like for things to go as planned.  If you have ever been in a computer lab with 7 year olds of varying ability, you know that order and structure are quickly replaced with chaos and noise.  It’s enough to turn your hair grey. 
 But this week, as my students sat down to complete as task of typing 10 sentences in their second language in a word processing program, including special characters (accents in French) correct marked errors, include and cite a picture from the internet, and print the work on the correct printer in a 60 minute period, I reveled in the order and structure of it all.  It did not start out that way.  I include this post to encourage teachers to overcome their fear of the computer room with young students, by simply employing behavior management strategies in the dreaded computer room.  
Referring to Chapter 2 Psychology of Learning for Instruction by Marcy Driscoll
, here is how I have compared my teaching in the computer lab to Behaviorist theory.  
Strengthening and Weakening Operant behavior in the elementary computer lab

Proper login
Praise and moving to the next step quickly
Troubleshooting login
Removal of the error screen
Opening the correct program
Praise and success
Focusing on task at hand
Positively  and with the Premack Principle
Completing a low frequency behavior(completing task)  so I can play a game online (high frequency behavior)
Seeking help from peers
Positively and negatively
Praise and not encountering a grumpy teacher
Seeking teacher’s help inappropriately
Adverse stimulus of the annoyed teacher
Overcoming learned helplessness in any procedure
Praise and success
Navigating different drives (c drive, personal drive, shared drive) on the network
Accessing fun activities stored on various drives
Ability to complete complex tasks
Positively and through punishment
Praise and success comes with accomplishment, 
Punishment of using recess or home time to complete tasks.

While some of this might seem a bit silly, I cannot stress enough the value of using a simple behavior-reward (stimulus) system with students.  Like rats in a Skinner box, students can confidently push a lever (ex. complete a successful login) and expect their satisfying conditioned stimulus of praise, feeling success and free time. Things work so much more smoothly now than they did seven months ago and I hope that the learning they have will stay with them.  When I think about Behaviorism vs. Cognitive theories, I always think of behaviorism as cut and dry, no thinking about how the learner gets there.  My behavior and training of my students in the context of the computer room is just that, simple.  You do this, you get this.  And it has worked beautifully.  I have taken a big step back, and allowed the behavior training and learning guide the students to great success.  And I have less grey hairs.  

1 Driscoll, M.P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed). Toronto: Allyn and Bacon. p.36-44


Why SMARTboards?

Recently, I discussed with some classmates and colleagues situations where people have been resistant to technology.  Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, the most  prominent answer was the introduction of the interactive white board, specifically the  SMARTboard.  Obviously, we were discussing the resistance of the teachers, and not the students. 
 One person raised the question of how and why, if many teachers are resistant to SMARTboards in their teaching and learning practice, did this tool become so ubiquitous in our schools.  This questions has been nagging me for over a week now.  I have been considering what made the SMARTboard so attractive to governments funding projects, and to schools divisions and administrations buying the hardware to put into schools. There was also something else rattling around in my mind about this question of how interactive whiteboards became so popular despite many teachers wishes.  I finally realized what was bothering me-- I thought who cares what the teachers want!  Our vision of elementary education has moved and continues to move towards a student centered approach.  What happens in our classroom should be best practices for our students’ education, even if that means that we teachers are uncomfortable sometimes.  
Interactive whiteboards have exploded onto the educational scene in the last 5 years. The Alberta government began a three year initiative in 2008 called Innovative Classrooms to support technology in grade 1-12 classrooms.  According to Alberta Education, “innovative and engaging learning environments enable students to develop the skills they need for global citizenship, lifelong learning, and participation in the world of work.”1  These kinds of environments are what students want, and what they thrive on.   This initiative required that every classroom in Alberta have an instructional computer, and a data projection device and/ or an electronic whiteboard.  With this funding from the government, many school divisions bought SMARTboards for classroom use.  
Why did the powers that be choose these devices over other available technologies?  I have been reading around online and I have not found a definitive answer.  Part of the reason I think is because the SMARTboard has a good bang for the buck.  The SMARTboard hardware and Notebook software are reasonably priced and therefore are attractive to organizations.  It is also a multiuser, multi purpose tool that can be used in whole class instruction, small group work, and one on one instruction.  A SMARTboard can simultaneously cater to visual and kinesthetic learners, as well as auditory, interpersonal and logical learners. It is a highly motivational tool that student want to interact with that provides teachable moments about digital citizenship and cooperation.  I cannot think of another tool that encompasses what a SMARTboard can be in a classroom. I think the versatility of the SMART interactive whiteboard is a major reason that they have become so pervasive in classrooms. 
I watced this video on the SMART website(which I think is a great resource, especially  and it brought me back to my other thought on how much does it matter how the teacher sees the use of interactive whiteboards in the classroom, when clearly it has an impact on students.  

A colleague commented to me the other day on how young children today just “get” how to use different devices. Students have already learned a great deal about technology before they enter school and we often ask them to abandon the tools they have been using  for literacy and numeracy to work more traditionally.  Why are Smartboards so popular?  Because they are a meaningful and engaging technological tool that students thrive on in their education.   One of the best strategies I used when teaching teachers about SMARTboards was to do the lesson with the students,  The students picked up the concepts much faster, and were able to help the teacher troubleshoot.  Learning with SMARTboards makes concepts interesting, concrete, engaging for students.
I could go on and on about the benefits of the use of SMARTboards in teaching and learning.  I have drank the kool aid! With training and support, I believe that more and more teachers would embrace this tool in their practice.   

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Technology in the elementary classroom

Technology in the elementary classroom

Our world moves and changes so quickly.  Our devices are with us everywhere, we are always connected.  We receive news reports in real time, access information anytime we need to, look a family pictures from long lost friends and connect with the people we need to at the drop of the hat.  We expect this instantaneous access.  The older students in our schools expect this too.  Our elementary students are moving quickly towards the same need for instant information and technology assisted education.  
The elementary teacher, especially in the primary level classrooms, is the captain of the ship.  While an elementary classroom can be very student centered, it is still strongly guided by the teacher.  Generally, the elementary teacher chooses the learning paths that her students will take, and has a strong influence of the experiences that a students has in the school environment.  
When looking at the question of technology in the elementary classroom, it is important to consider both the hardwares and softwares that are available and suitable for grade 1-6 learning, but also at the elementary teacher as the gate keeper of what her students are encouraged to employ in their learning.  
This blog will look at both of these factors to explore how much students experience a more 21st century approach to teaching and learning.  In my view, there is a a wide spectrum out there of what teachers are doing in their classroom behind closed door from 9-3 everyday.  Some classrooms are infused with rich, meaningful and varied experiences with technology, and some teachers are still afraid of their email, a fear and resistance that transfers to his students.  I think I fall somewhere in the middle, where my heart is in the right place to facilitate awesome experiences for the learners around me, but lack of time and energy sometimes stall my creativity and drive.  Through exploring in this blog, I want to find a “secret recipe” of the most fitting technologies for the k-6 classroom, the proper support system and a vision of the possibilities.  I would like to also develop a short list  of great things that I can pass on to colleagues eager to use technology but nervous to take the plunge.  Just yesterday, I showed a fellow teacher our district D2L site , which is full of resources for teachers, that has been available for a couple years.  She was surprised and thrilled by all the resources available in one neat little place, and told me she wished she had known more about it sooner.  I believe that elementary teachers want to do well by their students and want to offer them the best of the best.  This blog will explore best practices in technology in the elementary classroom.