Technology has provided educators with tools that redefine the ways in which students learn and interact with their world. My fourth- and fifth-graders, for example, explore maps, historical documents, and first-hand accounts of workers from the Industrial Revolution. They can also digitally create their own manufacturing towns and share them with classes around the world.
Technology is everywhere and is the reality of our students’ lives. That reality brings about concerns. Teachers and parents may be worried that schools are getting students hooked on technology. We all worry about screen time, what kids are watching outside of class, and whether they’re losing the capacity to experience the real world around them. Teachers need to prepare children for their future, and technology is going to be a big part of it but we want to be make sure we strike the right balance.
Here are five essential elements of a technology program that I feel works for young learners.
1. Why teach technology?
While there are many desktop and mobile applications that can help students learn, not all of them inspire higher-order thinking or creative problem solving. I don’t believe that “technology for technology’s sake” should be the driving force in classrooms. In fact, we don’t have dedicated technology classes for our preschool through Grade 5 students. Instead, students learn new technology skills in the context of their classrooms and when needed to extend learning.
Technology can be used to personalize a student’s educational experience, to deepen and extend their understanding, and to empower them to share what they have learned. Students can do more than simply write the story of a recent immigrant or refugee, for example. My students use digital tools to post details of their interviews on the class blog for others to read and respond to and have developed prototypes of ideas to make transitions into the United States easier. In science, students capture images of neighborhood plants they are studying and share them with real scientists who are investigating the spread of invasive species in Maine.
2. How can technology help students become the creators—not just the consumers—of knowledge?
We don’t want students to rely on others to get them engaged in learning. We want them to be increasingly self-directed, to ask provocative questions, and to investigate things on their own. We use technology to help kids identify reliable online sources and share and debate their findings on podcasts and blogs. We use screen casts to help students share their understanding with a wider community. By using this technology, the students—not the teachers—are creating content.
3. Can technology be used to make sure that no one is left out?
Every student has different interests and a unique learning profile. Technology and class structure allows educators to better provide for their students by personalizing learning and differentiating instruction. As a result, students are empowered and motivated to learn. They have an opportunity to make choices and to share their voice within the classroom, the school, the community—and even the world.
Once a class has learned the essential elements of a concept, technology enables teachers to create mini-lessons that are directed at the individual needs of students (these needs are identified after reviewing student work). While educators work with small groups of students, individual learners can access these personalized mini-lessons, receiving video-based feedback and direct instruction that have been prepared in advance by their teachers. Students can pause and rewind as needed, providing the learner with control over their own learning. Once small-group instruction has ended, the teacher can meet with each student individually to follow up on the content of the video and the progress of the student. This “flipped approach” has worked well with our writing workshops.
4. Technology cannot replace time-honored essential skills.
We know that there are critical skills that can’t be taught through technology. Some skills require small classes that give teachers the opportunity to work with children in groups and or in a one-on-one setting to help students master reading, writing, math, and speaking skills.
Written language is a critical tool for teaching children how to think. That’s why I encourage students to write across the curriculum. It’s common to see our elementary students mapping out an argument on the wall or the floor using old-school sticky notes and index cards. Skills like critical thinking and learning how to listen to other points of view require, modeling, face-to-face discussion and conversations, and plenty of practice.
I believe that positive relationships are the foundation of a successful school environment. Students need to understand that they are known. They also need to know they are cared for and the their teachers have big hopes and dreams for them. Individualized instruction targeted to their specific needs provides a sense of belonging and makes learning easier. An emphasis on personal decision making, rigor, and playful exploration are central to our daily work.
5. How can we make digital technology safe for kids?
We all know that mobile devices can provide amazing learning opportunities and connections. But we also know that they have destructive potential, particularly for kids. That’s why technology must be part of a school’s social curriculum. Technology in the classroom provides teachable moments about everything from how to politely respond to an email to understanding how quickly a hurtful comment about a friend can go viral—even when you didn’t mean it.
We ask these essential questions: How do we want to be treated? How should we treat others? These questions are embedded in all our impact areas and since technology is integrated in purposeful ways students transfer these conversations to the digital realm. Specifically, we also take the time to inform students about safe passwords, digital footprints, and what to avoid on the internet.
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Carefully integrated technology has been proven to increase students’ academic performance. By providing a flexible approach to learning—and instilling a sense of balance on the use of technology—young learners will be prepared to skillfully harness the abundance of resources available to them.