How Technology is Transforming My Students' Learning Experience (Guest Post)

The following post is by science teacher Sue Houston from Proctor Academy. She was a participant in one of our first iPad workshops and I've been following her journey with the iPad for several years. Recently she was showing me some of the really impressive things she was doing in her science classes. I asked her to write this guest post and she was gracious enough to agree. If you have questions, comments or ideas let us know in the comments! -Hans

A couple of years ago the Head of School where I work posed this question "If you had the opportunity, how would you use Technology in the Classroom?"  My reaction was immediate, visceral and negative and something like "I don't want any screens between me and my students!"  I felt strongly that the classroom was a sacred space for human-to-human interaction and that technology posed a threat to this.

That next summer our school sent a dozen of us to what we dubbed "I-pad camp with Hans."  It was an intensive 4 day conference about how to use I-pads as teaching tools. Dubious, but not knowing what I did not know, I went to the conference determined to soak up everything possible. It was a great experience and that fall I started to integrate I-pads into my curriculum.  I was surprised and delighted to find students' experiences to be enriched.

Now two years later I am finding that much of what I once thought I knew as an educator I am now questioning.

In this age of instant access to information, I have come to believe our job as educators is no longer to stand at the front of the room and deliver the facts.  Students can obtain facts in an instant anywhere there is wifi.  What do they need from us?  Do we still have a role? The answer to me is a resounding "Yes!" We are still very much needed, and in this age of hyper stimulation and information over load, perhaps we are needed more than ever!

We know from behavioral science that organisms are motivated to perform behaviors more by
positive reinforcement than by fear of punishment.  We know from neuroscience that when we light up the "seeking circuits" of the brain there are rewarding neurochemicals secreted.  We also know that the emotional state of the learner is fundamental to successful learning.  Humans are social primates.  We learn by interacting and by doing.  We learn best when we are happy and our seeking circuits are in full swing.

So what is the role of the modern day educator?  I believe it is to orchestrate our classrooms to create the key conditions in our students' brains for learning: happy, seeking circuit activated, socially interacting, positive neurochemical releasing brains! We also need to do all this within a framework for students to learn the material we are teaching.  When you look at it all this way you can begin to see how challenging teaching can be!

So how can technology play a role in all this?  It is simply a tool for students that allows them to experience learning in a much more interesting and engaging way. For example, rather than having my chemistry students simply fill out a piece of paper listing their observations during a lab, and answering a set of questions, now they are working in small groups, documenting their experiments with photographs, inserting these photos, along with observations and inferences, into their own creative lab reports using the app "Notability." Students are using these tools, which they intrinsically enjoy, to create their own piece of unique work.  In the end they own the knowledge at a much deeper level.

In my Climate Science course, students are again working in small groups to explore pieces of the climate puzzle.  My goal is for them to gain a deep and intuitive understanding of all the moving parts that create the Earth's climate.  In the old days I told them "Carbon dioxide is a colorless, odorless gas..."  Last week, I gave them the ingredients to make CO2 gas and asked them to experiment until they figured out how to demonstrate several of Carbon dioxide's properties.
They loved this activity, and happily recorded their experiments using I-pads.

The metaphor I like to use right now for education is this. The teacher has scouted the route up the rock face.  Students are climbers, each one finding excitement in the challenge of the climb while peers are on the rock face too, being part of the team. Students know the teacher is on the other end of the belay rope, ready to catch any climber who falls.  Technology like I-pads and computers provide the ropes and carabiners to help the climbers succeed. The learning experience is intrinsically motivating because it is enjoyable and based on relationships of trust.