Changing environments

Working with students has taught me to pay attention to our social conditions much more than I would have otherwise. Most educators believe that an excellent education is one that enables children to adapt to their surroundings and flourish in it. Coincidentally, a widely accepted definition of intelligence is by David Wechsler which states “Intelligence is the aggregate or global capacity of the individual to act purposefully, to think rationally and to deal effectively with his environment”

What does this definition mean for a teacher? If one view of intelligence means that children are able to think and act in their environment in a way that is beneficial to themselves and others around them, how does a teacher ensure that she prepares her students for the future?

I have been in touch with recent developments in our society especially with those that have a direct impact on my students. Media has been growing much more than ever before. The penetration of mobile phones and internet has changed what our students talk about and bring to the classroom. I began with a blanket ban on mobile phone usage in the classroom and asked my 12 year old students not to sign up on social media sites. I reacted with complete horror when I saw they had flouted the minimum age requirement rule to set up an email account but things have begun to change as now, they are 13! Although I am comfortable with my students bringing their phones to the classroom I pay close attention to their attention to it. They are not allowed to text, play games or ‘use’ their phones in any way while in class. If they do, it is feedback that the students are disengaged and I need to involve them better.

Professor Higgins and colleagues in their 2012 study on the effective use of technology in education conclude that it is more important to focus on how technology is used as opposed to what is used. They recommend that students working collaboratively, in pairs, using technology are more likely to have positive effects on student learning. Hence, allowing students to use technology in group work seems like a strategy that will work as students will monitor each member’s progress towards the group’s goal. Similarly, allowing students to use technology in the classroom for short structured periods of time is more likely to positively affect student learning outcomes. Moreover, teachers who know how to integrate technology in the classroom are more likely to drive student learning as compared to their counterparts who do not clearly understand the role of digital technology thus pointing to the role of professional development of teachers in the effective use of technology for students.

My recent visit to a well established school made me see that while my practices might have evolved over these years, some traditional schools are still fighting these developments. School authorities mourn the deterioration of language and spelling skills while some just term them as distractions affecting attention spans. Teachers complain that students find learning boring. Research studies are inconclusive on the use of technology in classrooms and especially on how it affects our ability to pay attention. I remember a conversation with a fellow teacher a year ago who remarked saying “children nowadays are born with a cell phone in their brains” when I exclaimed that I would strictly disallow mobile phones in my class. His remark made me reconsider my stand. However, researchers state that the brain has not evolved much in the last 50 years and to assume that students’ brains function differently because of the exposure to technology can be erroneous.

Here are some ways that technology can be used in the classroom:

  1. Set up a class blog: Ask students to write an essay on a particular topic and post these on a blog. Encourage students to draw diagrams or click pictures which could all be uploaded on the blog site. Ask students to popularise the blog and set them a goal for page views. Reward students when the page views reach or exceed the goal. Similarly, reward students whose posts have the maximum number of meaningful comments!
  2. Set up a Facebook page for students as part of a project where they have to make a model. Post pictures of the models on the page. Encourage students to share these pictures widely- those with the most number of ‘likes’ and the highest number of ‘shares’ are rewarded.
  3. Allow students to use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about a fundraiser that students have to organize.
  4. Encourage students to get in touch with subject matter experts online to receive more information on a topic that they are researching.
  5. Teach children to use file sharing systems like Dropbox to create a bank of research papers or information that the class might use as a group.
  6. Encourage students to prepare power point presentations while they are orally presenting some of their work.
  7. Setting up students from different continents as friends and providing them a structure or an assignment that they could do together could help students build global awareness. For example, a student in Germany could share their history with a student in India. This exchange will make historical facts memorable for students. Encourage students to use Google Earth to take a tour of such countries.
  8. Encourage students to use applications like ‘Leafsnap’ to learn about biodiversity, ‘Google Sky’ to predict sunrise and sunset timings, and watch out for meteor showers. Ask students to conduct a star gazing night in the school premises with the help of such applications.
  9. Students could bring an interesting piece of news they read online to class and all students could read and discuss the article.
  10. The teacher could help students set up a Skype chat or a Google Hangout with a renowned expert!

It can be difficult for a teacher to facilitate the use of devices and gadgets hence the teacher could give students freedom to use their own gadgets albeit responsibly. In order to make technology work in the classroom, a teacher must introduce structure through clear goals and assessment criteria. Sharing the assessment criteria with students beforehand would help to keep them on task. The teacher must also not shy away from addressing controversial behaviours with students while they use technology. Addressing issues of breaking rules, getting distracted by the internet clearly and firmly will help students understand what is expected of them. Teachers should take the opportunity to educate children about how to be responsible ‘netizens’.

Getting back to the definition of intelligence by Wechsler and keeping in mind the changing world and the battles of traditional schools I wonder what our approach should be. Is a school capable of fighting every new development in the world in their struggle to preserve what has been effective since olden times for olden times? Or is it wiser to embrace recent developments and use them to enhance student learning to make them effective and well prepared for the future?

If engaging meaningfully in the environment is intelligence should not a school engage meaningfully in its own changing environment?