Saturday, 4 October 2014

How my Theoretical Perspective and Practice Align, OR Why I Do What I Do

One of the most disheartening things a teacher can hear from her students is “This is so boring!” Most of us take this as a personal affront: a cutting criticism of our abilities, our charisma and our effectiveness. There may be some nugget of truth here, sometimes, but not always. Students, when they lament like this, might actually be saying, “I am not wowed; I am not connected to what you are saying; I am not engaged!” These complaints don’t ring nearly so harshly because the speaker owns the discontent. And, fortunately, as a teacher, I can fix THIS situation!

In my twenty-three years of teaching, I have always strived for, and loved, seeing my students interested, interacting, collaborating, talking, inquiring, exploring, thinking and rethinking – in short, being engaged. I find it particularly exciting when these actions are centered around the topic of the day’s lesson, rather than last weekend’s party, and I consider it to be a key requirement for success in school. I’m talking about ENGAGEMENT!

Engagement theory is characterized by three basic principles. Learning activities which, 1) occur in a group context (collaboration); 2) are project-based and 3) have an outside, or authentic focus. (Kearsley & Shneiderman, 1998). Engagement theory is connected to many other theoretical frameworks. Its emphasis on meaningful learning and collaboration align it with constructivist and situated-learning theories, while the self-directed and experiential aspects are associated with andragogy. (Kearsley & Shneiderman, 1998). Although technology is not a requirement for effectively implementing the engagement theory in the classroom, it certainly lends itself to doing so.

For me, the absolute MUST HAVE, MUST USE technology in my context of a high school, is any mobile device, for example, the iPad. (For this reflection, I am going to use the term iPad because it is what I use, but I’m not discounting or excluding Android tablets, iPods, SmartPhones, etc.). Whether the situation is a one-to-one environment or a single iPad for the class, or per group of students, using mobile device technology fosters collaboration, facilitates project-based learning and has the capability of extending the learning and the lesson, beyond the classroom. There is significant evidence to support this claim. Chou, Block & Jessness (2012) cite several authors in their literature review done as part of a case study of mobile learning devices. They found that “…integrating iPads with sound curriculum can contribute to increased student engagement, collaboration, productivity, technology competency, innovation, and critical thinking.” (pg 12).

I have had the opportunity to be involved in a TLLP project (Teachers Learning and Leading Partnership) in 2012-2013, funded by the Ontario Ministry of Education, where we had a class set of iPads for grade nine math, specifically targeting the applied and locally developed classes. Teachers in the project also received an iPad and training and some professional development. Because this was new – in so many ways – new technology, new devices, new thinking – it seemed to me very exciting, all the time! There was a learning curve for everyone involved, from students to teachers to techs, and as such, there were some frustrating moments (isn’t there always with technology?). Some of our struggles mirror what Chou et al.  (2012)found in their case study. Namely, finding suitable apps to enhance the math lessons or to offer students other opportunities to practice the math skills; sufficient training time for teachers both in using the iPad and in troubleshooting when things didn’t go smoothly. That said, we were able to be very collaborative with the students because often, their intuitiveness with the devices allowed them to switch seats and be the instructors. This was such a satisfying situation for everyone, and not something that happens when technology isn’t present. This is another reason why I am a huge fan of mobile device integration! Shuler (2009) found that in classrooms where students were using iPads, they were totally engaged in tasks and discussions. We also found this. When students were working on math problems with the iPads, they were talking with one another about what they were doing, where their problems were and possible solutions, to a greater extent than when they were working from the textbook or worksheets.

What about student achievement? Although many of us insist that learning and achievement are not all about the data, our school policy makers (Ministry of Education and school boards) certainly talk about it a lot. “In a K-12 school district report, … a higher percentage of students [achieved] Math and Reading proficiency at the appropriate grade levels after the teachers started integrating iPod Touch in the classroom for one year. Student test scores also evidently improved based on teachers’ data.” (Morelock, (2012), as cited in Chou et al., 2012). In our TLLP project, our students’ achievement scores went from 53% (2011-2012) to 71% (2012-2013) of students in the Applied stream who scored at Level 3 (Provincial standard) or Level 4 (above Provincial standard). To add to this, we had no failures. More astonishing was the students’ perceptual data which often doubled the provincial average. I presented these findings at the OERS, 2014 and CSSE 2014, if you would like to see the specific questions and response averages. Granted, perhaps this enormous achievement growth wasn’t about the iPads – but the engagement and math talk that went on was exciting for teachers and students and that doesn’t need to be evaluated with numbers.

Another reason I absolutely tout iPads and mobile devices is for their accessibility factor for students that have special learning needs. I am a special education teacher and am responsible for the roll out and maintenance of all assistive technology in the school. All of my students except for one have a SEA (Special Education Amount) funded laptop to help them access the curriculum. The one student is a grade ten boy who is participating in an iPad Pilot project. It is a constant battle for me to get most of the students to use the laptops. They all assure me that if they had an iPad they would use it all the time. I believe them. The iPad is cool, versatile, accessible, adaptable, exciting and dynamic. Students can be both consumptive and creative with the apps and capabilities afforded by the iPad. Geographical inquiry moves from the one-dimensional textbook to any of a number ‘atlas’ apps; presentations can be created using voice, photos, video clips etc. The iPad reads to students who have a reading disorder and can record auditorily and visually for those with anxiety issues, and all can be done with peers who do not have these barriers, fostering collaboration and engagement, diversity and tolerance. Just writing about the attributes of the iPad gets me all excited!

A fairly extensive and, in my opinion, valid report on iPads in the classroom, was produced by Wilma Clark and Rosemary Luckin (2013). It covers a three year period of iPad and tablet use primarily in the UK, with reference to other, global projects. I highly recommend this document if you are wondering about the efficacy and benefits of iPad technology.


Chou, C.C., Block, L., & Jesness, R. (2012). A case study of mobile learning pilot project in K-12 schools. Journal of Educational Technology Development and Exchange, 5(2), 11-26

Clark, W., & Luckin, R. (2013). iPads in the Classroom. What The Research Says

Kearsley, G., & Shneiderman, B. (1998). Engagement theory: A framework for technology-based teaching and learning. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 38(5), 20 – 23

 Below, is a photo of our grade nine math students ENGAGING! with their iPads.

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