The iPad 2 for Learning: A Student Experiments

Recently, a student in my Digital Journalism class decided to do a feature article on the experience of closing his school-supplied Lenovo tablet laptop for the week and only using an iPad. His article is spectacular student writing in our nascent culture of journalism at ZIS, and I found the scope of his successes and challenges enlightening in one particular respect: We are not asking students to use their computers in new ways. Students like this are creative with their computers like I was creative with a darkroom and a typewriter in 1989, and the creativity is still great. Students also use their computers as textbooks, as notebooks, as Trapper Keepers, as easels, as paper, as media studios (this bit gets me excited), as telephones, as shopping malls, as billboards, as video game consoles, as televisions and movie theaters, as the conference social (think networking), and as printing presses. But, none of this is new, really. Almost everything our students do digitally has an analog in the real world. If this young journalist had to program, had to build new opportunities for other computer users, he would have had many more problems with only an iPad for the week.

Only. I realize, as one who taught in a very resource deprived American public school, how ridiculous that sounds. I know every teacher and student on Earth would take an iPad if offered, but they’d use it to keep doing the same things they are already doing. While he concludes forcefully that it would be a “huge mistake” to replace the laptop with an iPad, which I agree with, if the infrastructure at school supported Mac, much of what happens on a daily basis would still be possible for students. I don’t know exactly how to change that – maybe offer programming, as a start, and give lots of time and freedom for students to choose such courses – but I recognize that it is a problem. At any rate, if you’ve read this far, be sure to read the piece linked above.

Learning Outside of the Classroom

In the midst of our first day of a “Classroom Without Walls” trip, one of my English students who is on the trip looked at me as we surveyed the landscape of canton Schwyz in Switzerland and said “It’s really amazing how fast we learn. I mean, this morning we had no idea about any of this.”

Amen.

Not the inside of a school building

We began the morning slowly after a night fitful sleeping, as it turned out, by everyone. We ran and bounced our way through a cow pasture to begin with, practicing the run, brake, lean-and-run-quickly technique for launching. I learned run, brake, left, and right in German. Slowly, each paragliding student, myself included, worked her or his way up the hill, getting longer and longer flights. Eventually, we launched from the highest point and practiced turning. I learned that I am the Greatest American Hero of Swiss paragliding, landing much like Mickey Mantle coming into third base. This is my goal for tomorrow. The kids flourished, learning at different rates and succeeding or struggling with different parts of the technique, but all completing the day with successful flights and a high level of stoke for tomorrow, and for each successive day. The stoke is for flying, for doing something new, for succeeding, for learning easily, quickly, and authentically. When a boy’s glider collapsed and spun him around, no teacher needed to tell him that he hadn’t lifted off from the ground. When a girl launched five meters off the ground on her first try, she didn’t need a grade to prove that she had nailed it. It’s learning to do something personally valued, even if not valuable on the open market, that brings on the stoke.

I’m lucky to be teaching at a school with amazing resources through which kids are granted these kinds of opportunities. I wish all kids got them. At the end of the week, I’m not at all sure what quantifiable metrics we’ll have fulfilled, but that should clear up much of what we need to know about quantifiable metrics and learning. Sometimes, oftentimes, teachers and students alike need opportunities to soar and opportunities to make hard landings in environments that don’t look like school, but are.

Why Consider a Gap Year?

When I ask students about the idea of a gap year prior to entering university, I almost always hear the same thing – I can’t fall behind, I don’t want to miss out, I don’t want to lose a shot at the best school, or, worst of all, what would I do? Only once – this year – have I ever met a college bound secondary student interested in a gap year, which may be defined as a year of minimal structure and maximum exploration prior to entering university. Well, for any student concerned about what the bigwigs are thinking about gap years: here’s Harvard College, a medium sized institution of higher learning in New England of some repute, weighing in on the topic.

Among the many rather non-startling revelations in this piece from Harvard are that high stress, high pressure environments aren’t successful for everyone, or enjoyable for many. Under the subtitle of “Fallout,” the good folks in Cambridge, Mass, hauntingly point out that

It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the “prizes,” stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it. Professionals in their thirties and forties – physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others – sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work. Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined future goal.

Yikes.

And yet, again, not surprising. Now, while it’s tempting to blame Harvard for its own success, I won’t. Harvard doesn’t make people crazy to get into Harvard, people make themselves and other people crazy to get into Harvard. Or Brown. Or, or, or.

I went to a good university, but not an epic top-tenner. Still, I would have benefited from a year of travel or directed service because I would have matured. I wonder what the result of that might have been – probably not too dramatic, but I might have made better use of some of my course selections and would have surely saved myself an extra semester, which would have saved thousands of dollars. Not a stunning hypothetical, I know, but what of the unmeasurable? My Peace Corps experience changed and improved my life, for sure, and so I think an opportunity like that before college would have been a net positive. A new gap year program called Global Citizen Year offers something that looks very much like a Peace Corps-esque opportunity for young people. It looks like a winner, and Harvard seems to agree.