The Pros and Cons of Tablet Computer Use by Children:

Technology in our world today is leaving many adults floundering. The myriad of devices with new applications arriving daily has those of us who are of the baby boom generation shaking our heads with frustration and confusion. Not so with children. I recently witnessed a two year old swiping the screen of an old flip phone repeatedly trying to “make it work” like an iPhone or tablet. They take to these new devices like ducks to water which leads to some important questions. Are these “tablets” a good thing for our children? And how much of a “good thing” is too much.

Today’s tablet computers are designed to be so easy to use that even a child of 2 or 3 can master its functions. Swiping has taken the place of typing and reading for many applications. Children can easily learn to stream movies and play simple games. And they seem endlessly fascinated. So naturally it is convenient for busy parents to rely on a tablet to amuse their child while traveling or busy in the home. And parents feel less guilty if they think there is educational value in using a tablet.

In the past, the television served a similar role. I recall many years ago sitting my preschool children down in front of the television on Saturday morning to watch Sesame Street with a box of saltines while we went about our chores. The program was promoted as educational which helped justify our casual parenting. No doubt there was some learning going on but research cautioned parents to limit the amount of viewing time. Tablets have us entering a new, rapidly changing world. The flexibility, power and compactness of the iPhones and tablets make them far more ubiquitous. And the variety of applications appears to be endless.

Some researchers believe that there is no educational or developmental value to toddlers. Far more important to brain development is one to one interaction with parents or the manipulation of non-electronic interactive toys. Dr. Rahill Briggs from Montefiore Medical Center in New York believes that tablet usage should be limited. He believes too much use can slow language development. For older children he believes excessive usage will slow social development.

Others contend that children need to be comfortable with modern devices before they enter school because this technology will be an essential part of the school day. Children unfamiliar with this technology will be left at an early disadvantage.

Because these devices are so new (the tablet and iPads were introduced only four years ago), research on their impact is sketchy. As well, technology is moving so quickly that any research conducted today will not be applicable in a few short years. We marvelled at the flip phone 10 years ago. We never could have imagined the iPad technology would be in our pockets so quickly.

So what do we do? It is probably best that we fall back on a few tried and true precepts that have stood the test of time. Use all things with moderation. Avoid excess. Keep a watchful eye on our children and actively supervise. Keep balance in their lives, providing intellectual stimulation with physical activity. Above all, use common sense. It is an exciting world opening for us all. We should use this new technology wisely.

Report Cards Will Become a Relic of the Past

Whether letter grades will become a thing of the past for B.C. students as schools throughout the province consider changes for report cards might well depend on responses from parents and the minister of education.

The discussion about the move by two B.C. school districts, Surrey and Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows, to upgrade student-progress reports to include new tools for reporting and “richer” information for parents reminded me of the card I received in the mail — a report on my annual medical checkup.

“Geoff achieved a B based on widely held expectations for males his age,” it said. No mention of what I needed to do to become an ‘A’.

“Geoff should pay more attention to exercise and his dietary habits,” it continued, so I filed the report card where my wife couldn’t find it and subsequently argue that “dietary habits” probably included the elimination of that pre-dinner martini.

Of course, that’s pure fiction, intended to illustrate that report cards, which imply more questions and generalities than they provide answers, are not and have never been of much educational use.

Instead of a report card, my doctor provides a face-to-face individualized and detailed analysis of test results, blood work, potential skin conditions (I grew up surfing under the Australian sun) and a clear explanation of any aches or pains, real or imagined, that I might be experiencing.

I’ve never been a big fan of the report-card system in public education. It frustrates teachers, provides only the most general information for parents and is not a clear plan for the kids about what to do next.

Bear in mind that high school teachers meet upward of 80 adolescent kids each day. What might be more productive would be one or two after-school meetings between a teacher and each parent for a fuller discussion about that parent’s child.

That might take half an hour, but parents most involved with their child’s education would be there, ready to exchange information with the teacher, all of which would, I hope, lead to a better understanding about each child’s progress.

Traditional teacher/parent nights do not work well, either.

Which raises another aspect of the whole “reporting to parents” issue.

When I go to my doctor for my checkup, it is I who takes the notes about his analysis of my health and his advice about what to do about improving it. I don’t expect him to keep notes about each patient and send me a vague formal letter of advice. My doctor keeps his own notes, but we agree that my health is my responsibility and it is my responsibility to keep track of his advice.

If I follow up on that advice, well and good. If I don’t, I cannot attribute my declining health to his lack of ability to solve my problems.

A child’s progress is just as complicated and difficult to explain. It takes years of experience to understand how and at what rate each child learns, much less measure it in any useful way. All we know for sure is that each child is an individual.

Think about a complex dance of some kind that moves in circles across the floor, sometimes moving forward, sometimes actually regressing or not making any apparent progress at all, but always in motion. Not a lot different from your personal health, which is sometimes vigorous, sometimes something you want to improve.

All the fuss about report cards and the importance of letter grades supported by vague generic comments is a fuss about the wrong thing. As public education moves toward 21st-century individualized learning, systems of reporting progress will need to move with it and the traditional report card will become a quaint relic of the previous century.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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Constructive Daydreaming Helps Learning

As a lifelong constructive daydreamer, I wonder now why my own high school results were not better than they were.

Researchers from Britain’s University of Stirling observed more than 230 children, aged from five to early adulthood, and found that apparent daydreamers did better than their full-attention classmates in tests and problem-solving tasks.

Problematically, for the kids at least, students who stare into space during class and are often dismissed as daydreamers might have a better understanding of the lesson, according to researchers.

If that were the case, I should have finished with a straight “A” graduation. As it was, I wish my own high school teachers had seen this study. Those wood rulers across the knuckles awakened me more than once.

While it seems unlikely that children actually do better at school if they stare out of the window instead of focusing constantly on the teacher, U of Stirling researchers claim that paying attention sometimes distracts children because their brains are too busy trying to interpret visual cues from the teacher.

Their findings held across a range of different tasks, the researchers said; “these results are important because they show that children avert their gaze when they are trying to carry out a task which is difficult or with which they are not yet familiar.”

There are numerous other studies that have investigated what kids, particularly teenage boys and girls, are actually thinking about during these long daydreaming times.

Some of their findings could be mentioned in this column, some of them best left out.
Another influential study, this one a national initiative by the Canadian Education Association, What Did You Do in School Today? is designed to capture, assess and inspire new ideas for enhancing the learning experiences of adolescents in classrooms and schools.

Since it was launched in 2007, more than 63,000 students have shared their experiences of learning with the CEA in an online survey.

Perhaps the CEA’s most striking finding, although not one that will surprise teachers with both elementary school and high school experience, is that levels of intellectual engagement fall dramatically as the grades progress.

The decline begins in Grade 5, where kids are apparently engaged about 82 per cent of the time, to Grade 12, when thinking about what the class is actually about apparently happens only 45 per cent of the time.

Being intellectually engaged means learning to use one’s mind well and includes risk-taking, experimentation, independence and confidence.

It is also about developing the competencies students need to be successful in learning and in life — skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration and innovation.

Improving low levels of intellectual engagement, the study suggests, might be a more challenging process in secondary schools because of increasing subject specialization, fixed course timetables and the “we’ve always done it this way” challenges of generating change in larger schools.

The CEA’s analysis concludes that there are at least three ways kids engage with school, which are predictors of student success.

First up for most kids is social engagement, meaning participation in the life of the school — participation in sports and clubs, along with positive friendships. No surprise there, because kids who are happy and active at school mostly do better than those who do not want to be there.
Then there is institutional engagement, meaning a voluntary participation in the requirements of attendance with at least a nod to homework. A “biggie” here is about the value students place on the outcomes of school. Kids do better if they believe that this could eventually lead to something good in adult life.

Then there is actual intellectual engagement. This is more about serious emotional and cognitive investment in learning — a mixture of interest and motivation, committed effort, effective learning time, relevance and instructional challenge.

High expectations for success and positive teacher-student relations combine to produce gains in intellectual engagement. Kids learn best from teachers they like or at least respect.
And let’s not forget a little constructive daydreaming.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

Teacher Support Key to Higher Student Scores

The latest results of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment are here, and Canadian educators face a winter of political discontent.

Pisa tests more than 500,000 15-year-old pupils in 66 countries in math, reading and science, and also looks at factors that might influence the scores, such as education spending and school and teacher autonomy.

The program tested 21,000 Canadian students from 900 schools from all the provinces for 2012.

Canada has dropped out of the top 10 in international math education standings, a decline raising alarms about the country’s future prosperity.

Given investments in our public-education system, Canadians should demand better results, said John Manley, Canadian lawyer, businessman and ex-politician who is now CEO and president of the Council of Canadian Chief Executives. “This is on the scale of a national emergency.” He spoke at the Canadian Club recently in Toronto.

The Canadian Club and the Council of Chief Executives inhabit a world far removed from a classroom with a teacher and 30 kids, inadequate support and buildings needing to be brought up to 2013 standards.

In fact, Canada placed 13th overall in mathematics, down three spots from 2009 and six spots from 2006, not good and not something that brings comfort and joy to provincial ministers of education, either.

The only people who really revel in where Canada sits in the world rankings are politicians, business leaders and university academics well positioned to take credit for successes in public education and blame those lazy overpaid teachers for any drop in the PISA rankings.

The whole event is a convenient opportunity to drive policy changes and make announcements about funding adjustments and the need for more testing while forgetting, as any dairy farmer will tell you, that just weighing the animal does not improve its productivity.

Improving its diet and circumstances might.

Nevertheless, the survey has become a key comparative measure of education achievement internationally. When scores drop, some governments pour billions into controversial and sweeping education reforms. When they rise — as with South Korea or Hong Kong — researchers check their grants and plan overseas junkets to learn from higher scoring systems and enjoy a change of scene.

The whole thing has a kind of Yuletide inevitability about it and teachers, the only group that can really make a difference, patiently hope that Rob Ford will do something else outrageous to bump PISA off the front page.

Rarely mentioned at those chief executive get-togethers or by other highly placed persons is the PISA finding that students themselves, when surveyed about results, consistently say that achievement by most high-performing education systems results directly not from interminable curriculum revisions and systemic reorganizations, but from the quality of teachers and excellence in teaching.

Finland, a consistent high performer, has the least selective, most comprehensive system in the world. It has no inspectors, no exams before 18 and a national curriculum that is confined to broad outlines interpreted by highly trained teachers at the master’s-degree level whose professional standing equates with doctors and lawyers.

This includes providing teachers with frequent high-quality professional development as a part of the job, and making available differentiated pathways that encourage teachers to grow in their careers.

Other higher scoring systems, while they may have quite large classes, are found in cultures where success is deemed a product of hard work rather than inherited intelligence or social and economic standing, cultures where education is neither politicized nor taken for granted.

This suggests that excellent teaching and the aspirations held by a culture for its children combine to produce what really make a difference in instilling values that foster success in education — and higher scores on PISA.

Countries that have opted for “top down” improvements — including Canada — have allocated significant resources into simply revising and reorganizing curriculum without attending to teacher training and genuine long-term teacher growth. That may be missing the mark.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

Teacher-Student Bond Vital to Learning

There is likely no more abused phrase than “it’s just common sense.” Politicians use the phrase to justify even the most unlikely proposition as, do activists of every stripe.
Economists who can tell you that what just happened is “common sense” can rarely describe what might happen next to our economy.

So it is with jaundiced eye and ear that we regard a “common sense” CNN opinion piece about education, followed by a TED talk about common-sense teaching from speaker and writer Rita F. Pierson, who taught in elementary schools, junior high schools and special-education classrooms for more than 40 years.

Pierson is refreshingly direct in her comments: “If a child is not present at school, he or she cannot possibly learn.” Schools that consistently report high student achievement consistently have students with great attendance, says Pierson, adding that parents are not exercising common sense when they claim it is not the school’s business to be critical of adults who fail to get their kids to school on time and ready to learn.

Pierson is critical of policies that fail to pursue anything less than excellence in teaching and the provision of learning
School administrators who tolerate, ignore or who do not know how to intervene with marginally competent teaching in
their schools don’t make sense to Pierson, either. “I am not aware of any corporate entity [other than schools] that passes incompetence around in a circle,” she says.

Teacher compensation? “I believe that if we paid for excellence and then insisted on it, the academic complexion of our schools would change dramatically.
“Championship schools and classrooms are deliberate, not accidental.”

Pierson’s brand of common sense is sometimes a tad abrasive, but well worth considering.
She writes that children who drop out of high school often read far below grade level, adding that it would make more sense to focus instead on teaching students to read effectively.

But it is in her eight-minute TED talk titled “Every Kid Needs A Champion” that Pierson speaks most genuinely and movingly about the true nature of teaching. Just a few minutes into the talk, most educators will set aside their cynicism about “common-sense teaching,” because
what Pierson says is uncommonly reasonable.

She speaks convincingly, not about ways in which the system can be improved, but about the importance of teacher-student relationships. The simple humanity of her brand of common sense will resonate with many teachers.

“Kids don’t learn from teachers they don’t like,” she says, and she is not talking about teacher popularity. She is talking about the unerring ability of kids of all ages to recognize good teaching — even from teachers who demand a great deal from them.

If we were lucky, we all had some teachers like that from early grades to postgraduate days.
I know I did, and I learned more about teaching from those influential teachers than I ever did from any number of “methods” courses during teacher training.
Those teachers did something very sensible, but not necessarily all that common — they raised my sense of myself as a learner. My best teachers did not do that by giving me a passing mark when I did not deserve it. They did it by knowing what I needed to do next and showing me how to do it. And they did it by recognizing my disappointment and frustration, and by exercising their own humanity and professional experience to lead me to success.

That kind of thing is not educational magic, just common sense.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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