Seven Habits of Highly Effective computers: Strategies for Getting the Most out of the Computers in your Classroom
This article is an oldy but a goody. I originally published this on my website at NewLearner.com in November of 2002. What's possibly the most surprising thing about this article is how relevant most of these strategies remain twelve years later. Notwithstanding the fact that this article doesn't really speak to the use of personal devices (even laptops were extremely rare in classrooms twelve years ago), the issues of thinking, student engagement, and blended learning are even more topical today than they were when this article was originally written. Give these strategies for maximizing the benefit of computers in the classroom a quick perusal, and let me know your thoughts.
1. Physical Placement: If at all possible, computers should be placed around the perimeter of a classroom as opposed to the middle of the room. A computer that is situated so that it is between the student and the teacher will always present a potential distraction for the students. This configuration should be avoided in any room other than an actual computer studies classroom.
2. Thinking versus Grunt-work: The computer should never be assigned a task that would see it doing the thinking for the student. For example, a spreadsheet shouldn't be used to teach a grade four student basic mathematical functions. However, if it is used to calculate figures within a financial statement for a Grade Eleven student, then a spreadsheet is perfectly appropriate. In such a case, the spreadsheet isn't doing any thinking beyond what the student is capable of doing for him / herself. Rather, it is just serving to save the student time. (Especially if that student needs to correct a mistake!) In general, computers should be used to perform grunt work. Computers assigned the task of crunching numbers or searching the web for relevant resources will enable students to accomplish more sophisticated tasks than would be practical without the use of computers. Yet, such applications will not interfere with the student’s cognitive development.
3. Computers Don’t Teach: Although there are a variety of instructional programs on the market these days, a teacher shouldn't be tempted to pass the student off to such programs. Although these programs have their place within a course’s reference material or within a remediation program, they should not be used as the primary mode of instruction. The computer’s greatest shortcoming is its limited ability to answer questions. It is difficult enough for a teacher to interpret a student’s question so that he/she fully understands the student’s point of confusion. A program, at this point in time, cannot do this. We are still years away from computers that are capable of this level of fuzzy logic.
4. Make it Real: The computer, coupled with the effective use off the Internet, is a gateway to the real world, and it should be used as such. If the computer is not bringing information into the classroom that is current, relevant, and meaningful to the students, then it is a waste of resources.
5. Getting Acquainted: The teacher should be as familiar with the computer as the students are when it comes to the applications required for a given course. If we accept that teachers should be facilitating the effective use of computers in the classroom, then teachers must accept a duty of care that didn’t necessarily exist ten years ago. Just as we wouldn’t expect to see students required to complete calculator applications that are beyond the capability of the math teacher, computers shouldn't be used in a class where the teacher isn't capable of performing the required tasks. Yes, young people certainly seem to be immersed in computer culture, and yes, they seem to learn faster than adults, but that is no excuse for adults to play dead when it comes to learning computer applications. The teacher should have a pretty good idea of where the computer is going to take the students before they get there.
6. Don't Rely on Computers to Excite the Kids: Teachers should never assume that material, presented via a computer, will be any more exciting than the same material presented by a human being. Computers are new and exciting to children for about a week. After that, they are about as exciting as a nightlight. In the long run, students would much rather listen to a dynamic teacher than gawk at a computer screen. In general, a computer should not be used to replace the teaching portion of a class. Rather, they should be used to augment the active portion of a class wherein students perform research, complete labs, produce a product, or perform a task.
7. Demand Higher Levels of Thinking and Inquiry: In an era where facts and information are so readily available over the Internet, assignments should not be structured to emphasize the attainment of facts. It is probably safe to assume that most students know how to locate, copy, and paste information from the web. Teachers should therefore shy away from structuring assignments that would encourage this style of Internet abuse. Rather, students should be asked to collect and synthesize information, and then develop opinions or draw conclusions based on this information. As essays require the writer to formulate and prove an argument, teachers should be developing sound essay-writing skills in their students. It goes without saying that teachers these days are far more impressed with the student who is able to develop and articulate an argument than the student who is able to gather and present facts on a given topic.
If you've taught for long enough, you've heard all kinds of interesting and creative arguments for why a particular answer on a test question deserves a higher mark than the one you've awarded. Some of these arguments may indeed have merit, but most arguments will invariably speak to your testing philosophy. For this reason, I've found that it's a very good idea to clearly state my testing philosophy - and even post it in writing - long before my first test is ever given.
I remember attending an AP (Advanced Placement) workshop where we were shown a range of answers to a selection of AP exam questions. In one case, an answer was highlighted for the fact that it would receive a mark solely because it contained a particular buzzword that was included within a pre-determined list of buzzwords - regardless of the fact that the word was not presented in any meaningful context. Fair enough: that may be part of the College Board's testing philosophy, but it's not part of mine. While I'll never dismiss or downplay the importance of knowledge, I feel strongly that test questions should be developed to examine understanding of a topic - not just memorization of facts or vocabulary. For almost twenty years now, I've articulated my testing philosophy within a statement that I include on my course websites and even at the top of my tests. I must say, I've found this to be a very useful practice because it not only tends to reduce potential challenges to poorly marked answers, it, more importantly, tends to increase the quality of written answers.
I've shared my testing philosophy below. While the philosophy itself is of value, perhaps the thing that is of most value is simply the practice of reviewing such a philosophy with students ahead of tests. Think about your testing philosophy and how you might sum it up within a mission statement or manifesto, and then consider sharing it with your students ahead of your next test. I always enjoy hearing your feedback, so, if you decide to give this a try, let me know what kind of philosophy you develop.
Bear in mind that any test in this course will attempt to evaluate the student's understanding of the topics and issues within a given unit. Although memorization of any facts or details involved will often be essential for a correct answer, memorization is not all that is required. Questions are not often designed to allow the student to recite a class note in the appropriate place, but rather to apply the knowledge that may be contained within a note in a new and often abstract manner. A student's opinion on a topic or issue will be given due consideration, but will be considered of little value if it is not supported by fact. Opinions are expected to take the information learned within the course into consideration - not to replace this information.
In the early hours of May 29, 1914, the RMS Empress of Ireland sailed slowly and cautiously up the dark and foggy waters of the St. Lawrence River. At about 2:00 AM local time, the Norwegian collier SS Storstad collided with the Empress. Of the 1,477 persons on board the Empress, 1,012 died. 134 of the passengers were children, and of those small and helpless passengers, only four survived.
The sinking of the Empress of Ireland remains to this day the most tragic of any Canadian maritime accident. While there were plenty of lifeboats and life preservers on board, the severe damage to the Empress caused it to sink in a mere 14 minutes. Blame for the collision between the Empress and the Storstad remains an issue of controversy to this day. However, there is one issue that is beyond any questioning: every single person on board the Empress of Ireland wanted - with all their soul - to live. But all the wanting in the world could not allow those individuals to overcome the most formidable opponent that one could ever be called to battle: time. Time gives no quarter. Time is relentless, time... is merciless. Time is an immutable force of nature that is woven into the very fabric of the universe. We fool ourselves if we ever believe that we can outsmart, outrun, or overpower time. In a battle against time, time will always win.
The Implications for Teaching
Think about the last PD session you attended. I'll bet you saw some pretty good ideas. Right? Yet, I'm also willing to bet that you aren't pursuing those ideas in the classroom... not to any meaningful degree. Right again? As my final wager, I'll bet the reason why you're not pursuing the really great, innovative ideas that you saw in your last PD session is because of time... or the lack thereof. I'll bet that's three direct hits. I sunk your battleship.
If the sinking of the Empress of Ireland has anything to teach us, it is that we cannot bargain, negotiate, or plead with time. Time doesn't care about our problems, our ambitions, our ideals, or our dreams. Time will not be overcome. As such, we must set each and every one of our professional expectations firmly within the cold, harsh parameters of time. To do anything else is simply to pursue a flight of fancy... and to guarantee failure.
The world, and our students, are constantly changing. Thus, it will always be necessary for teachers to review practices, identify challenges, propose solutions, and pursue innovation. However, we must always begin any pedagogical planning with time as our foundation. We must ask ourselves what we and our students can genuinely accomplish, and benefit from, within the time that we have available. We must then plan from within that framework of reality.
Whatever you do, don't ignore the element of time when developing your plans or setting your expectations. Unless you like losing, never, never, never pick a fight with time.
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