What Are These Things Good for, Anyway
What Are These Things Good For, Anyway?
Computers in Elementary School
Technical Report #46
ATG/Learning Concepts Group
December 15, 1993
Computers are sometimes promoted so enthusiastically for education as to suggest that they might cure all the ills of American schools. The machines are marketed to parents in the same way encyclopedias once were: as the key to academic success. Prognosticators point hopefully to a radiant classroom of the future, in which technology has rescued American education.
The purpose of this paper is to seek a dose of reality by examining how computers are actually being used by real-life elementary school teachers and students. At a school that has been using computers for seven years, I interviewed teachers, administrators, and support personnel about how computers are used and how they have affected teaching and learning. Because the school has received intensive financial and technical assistance from Apple Computer, its teachers and students now seem quite comfortable with computers, so this school offers a glimpse of what others schools might be doing in a few years.
What Are These Things Good For, Anyway?
The Open School, an elementary school in Los Angeles, is stuffed with technology. They have a computer for every two kids, and for years they have received lots of special help learning how to use them. When I asked the teachers, "What are computers good for?" they had a lot to say, including things like this:
"The most exciting part for me is the ways the kids show me what they've learned. It's so unique for each kid."
"It gives us another way for kids to show us what they know."
"...the power of being able to create something personal. The key is the expressive part. Isn't that why we learn? So we can express ourselves better and better as we get older?"
"It changes their art. [Points to crayon drawings on the wall.] Most of them couldn't draw like this before."
"Why teach computers? Why do you teach watercolor? It's another great medium."
Wait a minute! Self-expression? Art? What does classroom computation have to do with self-expression?
We've all seen enough magazine articles and TV stories to know what computers do. Computers are for doing tasks that are too difficult, too huge, or too boring for human beings. Computers are for accessing information from anywhere in the world and turning it into something people can understand. In school, computers are for getting knowledge into kids' heads in a more fun way, like a movie or a video game.
What's all this about self-expression? What's going on here?
The Open School may be stuffed with technology, but from the outside it doesn't look like anybody's vision of a futuristic school. In fact, it's pretty dumpy-looking--just some old bungalows crammed together on one side of a paved-over playground. They share the schoolyard with another school.
Inside the bungalows, there's a lot of activity and noise. Kids of every color are working away in small groups. There are tables here and there, maybe a couch, rugs, aquariums, small animals, bins and boxes, lots of words and pictures on the walls. There are plenty of computers scattered around, but you might not see them at first because most of them are inside the tables, with the screen visible through a window in the top. Some kids are using the computers, but at other tables kids ignore the computer down below and work with pencil and paper. Along with the computers, each room has a file server, a laser printer, and big monitors for the teachers. Some rooms have laser disk players and scanners.
I asked the teachers in these classrooms, "What are computers good for?" One component of that question is "Why bother with computers at all?" There was a lot of agreement about the answers to that part, so I've boiled it down to a handful of reasons (although I'm not sure any of the teachers would agree with this particular arrangement.) All of the teachers talked, in one way or another, about the following benefits.
Why Bother with Computers?
1. Computers can encourage self-esteem, confidence and excitement about learning. The teachers are amazingly enthusiastic about how the computer contributes to their students' personal growth. Everybody has a story about a struggling student who became a star at something computer-related, or about children's self-confidence blossoming through a project executed on the computer. The kids like using computers.
2. Computers can foster self-expression and creativity. The teachers are convinced that computers help their students to express themselves with greater clarity, vividness, and originality. Every teacher talked about how computers have helped their students write better, and most talked about other modes of self-expression, including some that weren't available before.
3. Computers can accelerate the development of thinking skills. Because they offer new ways to represent and explore ideas, computers provide new learning pathways for students. As young minds grow from manipulation of objects to visual representation to abstractions, computers are particularly well-suited to help with the transition.
4. Computers can facilitate collaboration. Students enjoy working together at the computer. Computers make it easy to try out suggestions and make it harder for anybody to ruin the group's work. Teachers can work with students at the computer, making changes dynamically to the students' work. Students make discoveries and teach each other--and teach their teacher as well. There is a new spirit of cooperation in the classroom, because teachers have become learners, too.
5. Computers can help the teacher customize the curriculum. Teachers can print individualized homework sheets for every student, can modify lessons to suit each child's readiness, and can more easily design their own classroom materials. Computers can also help teachers make connections between different subject areas to integrate the curriculum.
I'm sure you've noticed that some of these claims sound distressingly similar to claims from snake-oil merchants and encyclopedia salesmen. But there is an important difference: these claims say, "Computers can," not "Computers will." As many of the teachers pointed out, computers by themselves aren't worth much. Everything depends on the agenda of the people using them.
When the Open School teachers answered the question, "What are computers good for?" they all talked about how computers had changed life at their school. When they talked about the changes, a weird kind of thing kept coming up. The changes they described didn't sound like changes at all. The "changes" were nothing new; they were already part of the school's approach.
For instance, many teachers said, "After using computers, I'm more in touch with process now." But the Open School has always emphasized process. Several teachers said, "The computer really encourages collaboration." The Open School has always emphasized collaboration. Teachers said, "The computer lets the students find their own solutions to a problem." The Open School has always emphasized students' independence.
It didn't seem like the computer had changed any of these things. Why were the teachers talking about change?
Apparently computers help the school do a better job of being itself. (This is why the answers to "Why Bother with Computers?" are similar to a description of the school's philosophy.) When people use computers thoughtfully, they use them for things they believe to be important. As teacher Denise Cole told me, "It's hard to separate out at this school what is due to the computers and what comes from the way we teach."
Another teacher, Mary Ann Schmidt, wrote:
I feel very strongly that the technology is no different from anything else that is in the classroom. The way technology is used is as important as the technology itself. Paper and pencil can be used to answer questions about a story OR they can be used to compare and contrast two characters or stories, to write a different ending to the story, to make a puppet to act out the story with other kids, and the list goes on. Computers can be used to help kids learn or memorize math facts or words, etc. OR they can be used to empower the user.
At another kind of school, the effects of computers might very well be different. The reasons for using computers might be different. Everything depends on the agenda of the people using them.
Before 1986, the Open School wasn't stuffed with technology. Otherwise, it looked pretty much the same: noisy activity, students working in groups, and so on. In 1986 the school's approach to education attracted computer pioneer Alan Kay of Apple Computer, who initiated a research collaboration between the computer company and the elementary school. Here's how the project is described by David Mintz, an Apple staff member working full-time at the school:
Apple Computer, Inc., through the Vivarium Program, has been involved in a long term collaborative research project with the Open School, a public, grade 1 - 6 magnet school in Los Angeles, California. We have introduced a variety of technologies to the school so that, by observing and learning from the teachers and students, we can develop richer, more functional media.
The Open School was chosen as a site to conduct our research due to the school's own history. The school was started in the mid `70's by teachers and parents who were looking for a school that would give their children the opportunity to learn in an experiential manner. Based on the teachings of Jerome Bruner and the British Infant Schools, the children learn in small and large groups, both heterogeneously and homogeneously, build projects, and develop a great sense of ownership over their own education.
The teachers and children at this school are from all geographical locations in the city, socially and economically diverse, and had little or no experience with computer use prior to Apple's joining them in this enterprise....
Currently the Open School has six double-sized classrooms. In each of these post World War II bungalows 2 teachers work with 64 students. Despite the small size of the classrooms, the work that students complete led us to settle on 30 Macintosh computers per classroom, giving the teachers approximately a 2 to 1 student to computer ratio.
Apple gave the teachers computers to use at home--everybody agrees that this is an essential step. The company hired the teachers as consultants, and paid them to learn. Their responsibilities were to attend learning sessions and workshops about learning and technology, to design classroom uses for the computers, and to document their work. Apple provided equipment, training, technical support (including one or more computer experts on campus full-time), time to learn, and financial support for curriculum enrichment.
While the teachers were learning to use the computers and integrating them into their classroom curricula, Apple observed the process, with the intention of learning from whatever happened. The teachers were allowed to use (or not use) the computers in whatever way they saw fit, but the school and Apple agreed on three guidelines:
1. Computers are used as a knowledge medium rather than an instructional delivery system.
2. Computers are used to create mental bridges between hands-on knowledge and symbolic knowledge.
3. Curriculum needs and classroom use drive the technology.
Apple also used the school as a laboratory for testing experimental software and hardware.
Obviously, the Open School is not a typical school. Although it is a public elementary school, its educational philosophy and methods differ from the norm. Theme-based curricula, students working in small groups on different projects, double-sized classrooms with two teachers, and other trappings of "open" classrooms make this an unusual, and very effective, learning environment. (Part of the school's effectiveness comes from being a magnet school: at the very least, parents have to go to some trouble to get their children enrolled in this school. Parental support is central to children's success in school, and most Open School parents are actively supportive of their children's education.)
The other big difference, the school's collaboration with Apple Computer, has given teachers extraordinary access to equipment, training, support, and time to learn.
Why write about computer use at such an unusual school? One reason is that the Open School is a good place to observe some things about computers that might go unnoticed in a more "typical" school. Because the school has an unusual educational philosophy, we can see more clearly how a school's philosophy and values affect computer use. The other reason is that the Open School's special help from Apple puts it in a position to show us what other schools, without such help, might be able to do in the near future, when computers will be (certainly) cheaper and (we hope) easier to use.
The Open School consists of six double-sized classrooms, each with two teachers and two grade levels. (The classrooms, called "clusters," are identified by a color rather than by a room number.) Here is who teaches what.
Teaching Team: Julia Nishijima
Teaching Team: Genal Weber, Pauline Griffith, Jan Ng
Grade Level: 1st/2nd
Teaching Team: Kelli Johnson, Mary Ann Schmidt
Teaching Team: Denise Cole, Dolores Patton
Grade Level: 3rd/4th
Teaching Team: B. J. Allen Conn, Donna DiBernardo
Teaching Team: Barbara Moreno, Mona Sheppard
Grade Level: 5th/6th
The other people whose brains I picked are:
Open School teaching specialists:
Rhoda Coleman, music, gifted program
Jane Craford, animation, telecommunications, garden
Leslie Barclay, consultant to Yellow, former Yellow cluster teacher
Open School Staff:
Bobby Blatt, Principal
Lillian Gephart, Magnet Coordinator
Apple staff members:
David Mintz, Coordinator of the Vivarium Project at the Open School
Karen Rodney, Engineer Associate
The question "What are computers good for?" has another component: "How do you use them?" The following sections show the diversity of answers to this question. (The answers are about what computers are used for, not about how to work a computer.)
Just as every teacher at the Open School embodies the school's philosophy in a different way, every classroom uses its computers differently. The natural developmental differences between children of different ages also require different approaches. There is a variety of opinion, and some controversy, about how students should use computers. For most generalizations about how the Open School uses computers, at least one teacher takes exception.
The Open School has not developed a school-wide curriculum for the computers. Each classroom teaching team has decided independently how to use them, although Apple-sponsored learning sessions have certainly influenced the teachers' thinking. Only recently have the teachers begun discussing with each other what computer skills are taught at each grade level, and what skills a student should be expected to have on graduation.
At some schools, Computer is a subject like Geography or Spelling. At the Open School, "computer" is more like "pencil" or "book." Students learn to use pencils and books and computers, and use them all the time to study all kinds of different things.
Genal Weber put it this way:
The computers are truly looked upon as another tool to be used just as easily as paper, pencil, crayons, scissors, glue, building blocks, or any other item found here in our classroom. Of course, the computer is not just one tool like a pencil or crayon but a compilation of all or many of these tools.
According to Leslie Barclay, "The computers are taken for granted by the children."
B. J. Allen Conn wrote:
I do not believe the children should use the computer just to become computer literate. I want them to interact with this tool in a way that they can not do with paper and pencil and other materials in the room.
...You will want to begin with a reason for using the computer in the first place....You identify the concept you need to teach, plan an activity and determine how best to use the computer. Some things DO NOT lend themselves to the computer. DON'T FORCE IT. The computer must offer opportunities to your students that are not present with paper and pencil.
An Apple staff member said simply, "Computer Labs are silly."
Although computers at the Open School are often used as tools for getting work done, the teachers seem most excited about the computer as a medium. The computer is a medium for exploration, discovery, representation, and expression. When I asked Mary Ann Schmidt, "Why do you teach children how to use computers?" she answered, "Why do you teach watercolor? It's another great medium."
In order to use any medium, students need to learn some skills. Open School teachers spend time teaching computer skills--from turning it on and pulling down a menu, to saving work on the file server, to writing a script for a HyperCard button--but the teaching of skills is usually embedded in curriculum-related projects.
Only three software programs are in widespread use across the Open School: MacWrite II (for writing), Canvas (for drawing), and HyperCard (for multimedia reports, animation, and simulations). These programs have no informational content--they are tools for creating content. Having only this software in a classroom is a little bit like having only a box of blank paper, a box of art materials, and a box of tools for building things.
Using the same software throughout the school means that children can build on what they have already learned as they move on to different classrooms from year to year, teachers can learn together about new features, and technicians don't have to worry about having too many different software packages to install, support, and upgrade.
Some classrooms use encyclopedias on CD-ROM, some use readymade HyperCard stacks, and most use HyperCard to control laser disks. Individual classrooms use other software from time to time. Teachers have modems at home, and use AppleLink for electronic mail.
In general, the Open School does not use "educational" software.
According to the popular media, computers promise "access to information." At the Open School, this seems to be a relatively minor function of the computer.
This is not to say that information gathering is unimportant at the school. Students of all ages work on projects that require independent research. They learn to tap a variety of information sources: maps, dictionaries, books, encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, their parents and other adults, government officials, and so on. The computer is sometimes one of these information sources. (Among the computer-based information sources available are laser disks, CD-ROM encyclopedias, and, in one classroom, databases of clip-art and history.)
Jan Ng and Pauline Griffith use "research stacks" with their 1st and 2nd graders, but this software is used to initiate research, not to collect information. In one version, the children go into a time machine (a little room within the classroom) where they use a computer to unearth the remains of a dinosaur. Then they use other classroom information sources to figure out what dinosaur they have discovered and write a report on it.
The school's philosophy places emphasis not on the collection of information, but on its synthe-sis and use. Children show what they have learned through projects such as reports, models, drawings, puppets, poems, stories, designs, and so on. The computer is much more important in the making of these projects than it is in collecting the information.
Leslie Barclay wrote, "If children remember and understand 10% of what they hear, and 30% of what they read, but about 85% of what they do, computers and other technology that supply the opportunity to do something with the ideas and information they are learning, serve an important function in a classroom."
Many of the teachers at the Open School make a point of saying that they don't use the computer for "drill and practice." Nevertheless, there is some software in use in different classrooms that fits this category.
Typing skills are taught in one classroom, at the 3rd/4th grade level; the other teachers seem content with the hunt-and-peck skills that their students have developed. Julia Nishijima says of her 1st and 2nd graders, "They all hunt and peck, and some are slow, but nobody seems to get frustrated." The 3rd and 4th graders use a commercial software package called Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.16 Denise Cole says, "It is a fun way to teach keyboarding skills that become more essential as they start typing longer things. At this grade level, they do get frustrated by their slowness. Also they see us typing fast and want to learn how to do that."
Julia Nishijima and her partner, Genal Weber, have some HyperCard games that their students enjoy playing. Some are computer versions of games that are first played away from the machine. Julia has been playing games like "What's My Number?" with her students for years, long before she had computers in her classroom. Now she has HyperCard versions of that game and others.In some cases, students can make changes to a game's formulas or inputs, making the experience more interactive than other kinds of "drill and practice" software. "I believe in 20% instruction and 80% practice," Nishijima has written. But she says, "It's important for students to play the games before going to the computer."
A piece of music software designed by Rhoda Coleman, a specialist who teaches music appreciation classes at the Open School, might also be called "drill and practice." With Apple's assistance, she created a HyperCard stack to improve children's ability to distinguish the sounds of different musical instruments. "Meet the Woodwinds" includes pictures of four woodwind instruments, buttons that play the sound of each instrument, and a game of recognizing the instruments by sound alone.
This stack has been wildly successful: students love using it, and in music appreciation class, students who have played the game can recognize the sounds of the instruments exceptionally well. Coleman wrote, "I am already able to see how the children's increased familiarity with instruments carries over to the music appreciation class....They are beginning to understand why a composer might choose a certain instrument to convey a particular image or emotion."
The software is installed in two classrooms, but at recess time other students have been coming in to use it. Other teachers have expressed interest in having the stack installed in their classrooms.
Rhoda Coleman stresses that her music stack is only successful because of strong teacher support. "The program doesn't stand by itself," she says. "It needs the teachers to commit time--they have to make the computer lesson a classroom priority. They have to be available to encourage the children and help them with problems, to help them read the words, and to follow up."
Coleman's point was echoed in various ways by other teachers, who agree that computers are not replacements for teachers. Coleman says, "In this way, computers are not so different from other classroom resources. You have to help some kids, you have to follow up and connect what they do on the computer to the other things going on in the classroom."
At the elementary school level, it is often very difficult to get students to re-do their work to improve it. Barbara Moreno remembers that,
As a teacher, the first word processing gift I noticed was the students' willingness to revise. It seemed as if the number of times they were willing to return to their computers was endless, even to correct small errors. I am still amazed by this phenomenon.
We know well that revision is one of the key steps in the writing process. Unfortunately, for years, teachers have often expected students to produce a near perfect document on their first pass. This was, in part, because beginning writers must painstakingly hand-produce each word, and a second or a third time was more than their patience or finger muscles could sometimes tolerate.
....Another computer revision plus is the ease with which sentences or whole paragraphs are shifted around. This spring I worked with an Armenian-speaking student still mastering English and American syntax. She had written a well-researched paper on the American rain forests. Her ideas were not, however, in logical order. Since her draft was written on the computer, we were able, together, to shift sentences and paragraphs to create a well written paper. Our work together involved, at least, two 90 minute "one on one" writing conferences. The results were definitely worth the effort....
Obviously, the solution to mastering the writing process cannot lie with the computer...The computer can only facilitate the student writing process. It cannot teach it. If a student comes to the computer as a reader, writer, and thinker, it can maximize her writing experience....
My first year at the Open School, I clung to my old romantic notions and insisted that students write their first draft with pencil and paper, then type their second draft on the computer. I have now advanced to asking that students compose directly on the computer. It makes their first draft easier to read and there is less work toward the final draft.
Moreno adds that the readability and ease of correcting this first draft means that, "In the actual writing, they are free to focus on content or process rather than product."
Julia Nishijima writes that, in her 1st and 2nd grade classroom,
All writing is done with paper and pencil first. Students at this age need to concentrate on their writing skills and develop composing skills. They have difficulty spelling conventionally, therefore much of their writing contains invented spelling. When the students finish their writing, they usually type out exactly what is on their papers. Sometimes editing of their work is done prior to putting it on the computer. Other times I have them type their stories just as they have written it. Then I or an aide will translate it into legible English and retype it below their story using a different font...Keyboarding skills and composing directly on the computer are not done at this level. Composing at the computer would break their chain of thought. Both of these skills will come at a later time.
Mary Ann Schmidt has her 2nd and 3rd graders write on paper first. Then sometimes the students read their stories aloud before typing them into the computer for further editing. Students print a copy and then edit again. Schmidt's partner Kelli Johnson says, "They have some pieces they've edited 3 or 4 times. That's a lot for a 2nd or 3rd grader."
Lillian Gephart, the Magnet Coordinator, assembles the school's literary magazine, and she believes that the computers on campus have improved students' work. "I've seen real improvements in literary creativity, both in terms of length and quality."
Dolores Patton says about 3rd and 4th graders, "They write so much more freely, and they edit so much more willingly. I give more writing assignments now than I did before we had computers."
Open School classrooms are equipped with laser printers, so when children print their writing, it looks professional, as though it came from a printed book. In some classrooms, students use a spell-checker to help them edit. Students can also design the pages they will print, selecting type styles and sizes, setting margins, and so on.
Genal Weber wrote about her 1st and 2nd graders,
The computer is also a great motivator because the finished product is so impressive to their young eyes. When they see how wonderful their work looks when printed up, they are eager to do more. Or if they have yet to complete a work, they are motivated to do so when they see their friend's work.
Printed output has advantages for the teacher as well. Julia Nishijima says that when the youngest students print out their writing, "It's a lot easier to read their stories; sometimes their handwriting is so hard to read."
The teachers insist that it is important to continue doing some work by hand. When I talked with Mary Ann Schmidt, her students had just finished making books that were handwritten, hand drawn, and hand cut. Denise Cole says, "We do a lot of drawing on paper. The computer is good at some things, but it's nothing like what a crayon can do."
The computer's ability to make things look good can cause trouble, too. Mona Sheppard and Barbara Moreno told me that, with "a certain kind of kid," there is sometimes confusion about the difference between good writing and good-looking writing. Sheppard says, "Sometimes upper grade students will be satisfied with a very shallow piece of work because, when printed out, it looks great."
According to Dolores Patton, after 3rd and 4th graders used Canvas (graphics software) for a lesson on three-dimensional shapes, the children's art improved. "They build 3-dimensional shapes out of paper first, they count the sides, they look at the edges, and then they draw them on the computer. The computer experience changes their art--just like that! The buildings that the kids draw become rectangular prisms instead of rectangles--that didn't happen before."
I asked her why she needs a computer for this. "Because you can draw it right," she answered. "Your lines are straight, and you can connect everything. You make two rectangles and connect the lines, and you've got a rectangular prism. When you're eight, and you want to make a rectangle with a ruler and get it really right, it isn't going to be really right. The computer teaches that alignment, sort of incidentally, and then you can get it on paper. The kids who are independent artists are doing it already, but [for the others] it just makes a jump in the art. More and more, the kids will say to each other, `You know your building still looks flat--you need to change that.'
"There are even some children who draw ever so much better on the computer than they do with paper and pencil, because they need the help that their fine motor skills can't give them: getting the line in the right place, or being able to erase it without making holes in the paper."
Mona Sheppard wrote about using the computer to draw tessellations, interlocking repeated designs (shades of M. C. Escher):
Creating tessellations is a wonderfully creative, and a highly motivating geometry activity for children. However, the patience, persistence, and skill needed to repeat a design multiple times, make this activity unpleasant and even impossible for some children. Using a computer can alleviate the tediousness of the task. One of the things that computers do best is to repeat whatever you tell it to do, as many times as you want and without complaint. This facility makes the computer an exciting tool that allows children to create magnificent tessellating designs quickly and easily.
Any graphics program that has a rectangle tool and a freehand drawing tool, and that allows you to cut and paste, can be used to create tessellations.
...Even though the computer will be used to create finished products, the concept of tessellating a design still needs to be introduced with concrete materials.... I like to start by tessellating regular polygons using pattern blocks.
The same 5th and 6th graders also make mandalas. One year the mandalas were made on the computer, but Sheppard says, "They were boring, ugly and stiff. When they made the mandalas by hand, they were beautiful, fluid, and had more detail."
The computer's ability to make changes to a drawing is a mixed blessing. When Kelli Johnson assigned a large-scale computer project, she "started putting time limits on the art part so they'd have to get it done."
Several teachers mentioned that they do not use clip art in class, but insist that children always draw their own pictures. Denise Cole says, "Drawing teaches them valuable skills, and we want it to be the student's own creation."
On the other hand, Donna DiBernardo has constructed a database of commercial clip art so that her 4th and 5th graders can easily locate appropriate clip art images. Her partner, B. J. Allen Conn, had students use clip art for a HyperCard project using student-written haiku, because,
After all, this assignment is not about drawing, it is about writing a poem and illustrating it. The children will focus on the poem if they are not concerned about drawing the picture. I found that my children became very interested in graphic design and page layout through this lesson. It was important to them that the design of the card or cards reflected exactly what they hoped that the words were conjuring up in their minds.
The question is not, "What's the right way to use the computer?" It is, "What do I want the children to learn?" To learn to draw, they will have to draw their own pictures. To learn to use drawings in a page layout, they might be able to use clip art. 2nd and 3rd graders making an animated animal scene used both kinds of art: they used clip-art animals to move in the foreground, but they drew their own backgrounds on the computer.
With computers, everything depends on the agenda of the people using them.
The Open School has always stressed collaboration and teamwork. (Collaboration may mean children working in small groups; it may mean children spontaneously helping each other; it may mean teacher-led sessions in which students jointly create something.) According to school principal Bobby Blatt, the computer encourages collaboration. "Children help each other on the computer. They ask each other probing questions in order to solve problems. They seem to want to work together on the technology.
"The ease of correcting mistakes means there's less arguing, and makes it harder for anybody to ruin the group's work. The computer allows you to explore and experiment, and then choose what you like. If you change your mind, you can go back to what you had before. The screen makes looking at something together and collaborating easier. It generates conversation. It generates thinking.
"Every child has a different way of learning and a different set of strengths. Collaborating at the computer allows kids to work from their strengths: each member of the group can contribute what he or she does best."
Pauline Griffith says, "The computer makes it easier for kids to read each other's work."
Mary Ann Schmidt talks about a kind of "folk culture around the computer--when one of the students learns to do something new, it immediately spreads around the class. There's a real willingness to help each other."
Kelli Johnson says, "I enjoy hearing the kids talk to each other. A lot of times they're asking the questions I always ask. `Do you have Repeat spelled right?' They get in these intense debates about how to do things. They think they've got the best way. Sometimes kids get talked out of what they know is right!"
In the classrooms, each teacher has a teaching computer with a large monitor. This allows a group of children to work together with the teacher. Using the big monitor, Jan Ng and Pauline Griffith gather all of their 1st and 2nd graders together at the end of every school day to report on what happened that day for the classroom "Daily News."
At "Daily News" time all 60 children sit on the rug in front of the large monitor. One teacher sits at the computer, recording the ideas that the students generate, while the other teacher orchestrates the flow of the ideas. With MacWrite II software set to font size 24, all the children can see the "Daily News" on the large screen as it is being written.
During this time the children are learning many skills. We demonstrate the use and meaning of skills such as punctuation, capitalization, grammar and use of language....By using the large screen, all the students have the opportunity to observe the writing process in action.
Computer lessons are incorporated during the writing of the "Daily News." Skills such as using the tab to indent, changing font styles and sizes, highlighting words and sentences to delete or cut and paste, using return at the end of a paragraph, etc. are demonstrated and reinforced.
Each day, at the completion of the writing of the "Daily News," a copy is printed up and illustrated by the child who is the calendar monitor. It is then posted on the calendar bulletin board for all to see and enjoy. At the end of the month, the illustrated "Daily News" sheets are compiled into a spiral-bound booklet. These monthly news books have proved to be very popular during free reading time.
At the end of the week, all the "Daily News" for the week is compiled into a one-sheet newsletter called the Red Cluster Weekly News, printed along with notes such as reminders of upcoming events, changes in schedules and other messages, and sent home for the students to share with their parents.
...One of the most rewarding results we have noticed about the use of the computer and large screen is the transfer of learning by the students in their daily writing and computer use. The students learn because they have daily demonstrations of language arts and computer/word processing skills. They learn because they take an active role in their own learning.
Donna DiBernardo uses the large monitor with her 4th and 5th grade reading groups.
My teaching station is a kidney-shaped table, and during reading group the students sit around it while I sit in the middle of the indented side. Behind me is a white board, my computer, and a very large screen monitor.
When a reading group meets, one child reads each question aloud and each child gets a turn reading his or her answer. When the answers are written with incorrect language or I notice that two sentences could be better written as one, I turn to the computer and type in the answer exactly as it was written by the child. Everyone in the group is then asked to look at the sentences and to respond by giving suggestions for improving the language, spelling or punctuation. As the suggestions are given, I use MacWrite II to modify the writing. The student sees that there are many ways to improve his/her writing skills, and it is a matter of choice to get to the best written product. Often the same student who has had his/her writing improved is the first one to give suggestions for the next student in the group.
...I have also observed that students seem to gain little and transfer even less when there are dozens of colored correction marks on their writing assignments. Students need to learn how to turn their thoughts and ideas into coherent written passages. They need a great deal of experience in making choices and in seeing their judgments work effectively. In reading group, the students' rethinking and revising is supported by positive feedback from the rest of the group and myself. This guided composition works better when done on the computer than when written on the white board or their papers.
...Peer acceptance is an important issue for 4/5th graders. When the students finally decide that a piece is revised to their liking, they know they are writing for an audience whose opinions matter to them. The student whose writing is being edited may or may not choose to use the suggestions from the group. It is interesting to see a comparison of a composition written in different ways. Often I will take the same sentences and, after eliciting suggestions from the group members, type it two or three ways. This allows the students to compare and think about exactly what that thought is meant to convey.
Barbara Moreno likes "utilizing the monitor, instead of the chalkboard, to teach a directed lesson. This has worked two ways. First, saving the directed lesson on the hard drive allows students to pull up the lesson onto the monitor and review a section which they may have missed. It also allows for peer tutoring; when a student misses an important presentation, another student can pull up that lesson and reteach their classmate."
Barbara Moreno says, "This is the only school I've ever been at where the kids don't want to go out to recess." To some extent, this was true before there were computers--many children wanted to stay to finish their projects, to do some independent reading, or to enjoy one of the other free-choice activities that Open School classrooms offer. Nowadays many children want to stay in the classroom to work at a computer.
Specialist teacher Jane Craford recalls a transfer student who came to the Open School in the 3rd grade. "She came from an inner city neighborhood school, and apparently hadn't been exposed to computers before. What I remember is her excitement when she finally mastered the simple matters of opening the document and typing in it and moving the mouse around and closing it, and when she knew that she had mastered that, she sat back in her chair, and she crowed, `I can drive this thing!' When it came together for her, the computer was one of her favorite things to do. She looked forward to the time of day when she had computer time."
Leslie Barclay writes that, "The enthusiasm with which children approach tasks involving the computers seems to exceed that which they bring to pencil and paper tasks."
What's so fun about a computer?
Dolores Patton thinks that part of the fun is that children get a little distance from their work. "Generally they don't feel that something is wrong with them if the computer isn't working." She adds, "You can yell at it. You would never yell at a crayon."
Here are some guesses, compiled from the interviews, about what makes the computer so much fun:
What's So Fun About Computers?
- Immediacy. I can try something out and see right away if I like it.
- Control. I can make the machine do things.
- Changeability. Things are changeable, so I don't get frustrated as
- Distance. My work on the computer screen is slightly removed from
me--it's not my handwriting--so I'm more willing to try different things with it.
- Safety. I'm not so scared of messing my work up, because I know I can
change it back.
- Newness. Computers don't have any history in the traditional
classroom, so there aren't too many negative associations.
Karen Rodney, a member of the Apple support staff, says, "I've only heard of a few children who don't like the computers. One got some special attention and is fine with them now. Some children are intimidated at first--especially the ones who enter the school at an older age. The little kids seem to love it. There are children who don't have any particular interest in the computers, but they can get their computer work done."
Jan Ng told me, "The kids who have computer trouble are immature kids who need a lot of assistance, or kids who are used to always being successful and give up easily when confronted with a difficulty."
Dolores Patton says, "Our biggest problem is with kids who have other social problems and come in late to the Open School. So if you have a 3rd grade kid who isn't very socially adept, who enters Open School at 3rd grade, it's tough, because the other kids depend on each other so much for help. A newcomer who has the social skills will pick up the computer skills by asking."
How many children have this problem? "We have at least one every other year, and sometimes more."
Mona Sheppard says, "A few kids--8 or a dozen--never go near a computer unless we require it."
The computer helps children stick with a project or a process longer, but children are also willing to spend huge amounts of computer time on projects of questionable value. Barbara Moreno talks about "the overwhelming sense of amazement at things that really aren't very good." She warns, "The computer provides lots of blind alleys. About an eighth of the kids have to get extracted."
They use different words, but all of the teachers say that one of the computer's most important effects is self-esteem, pride, empowerment, confidence, personal growth, or self-discovery.
Jane Craford has been working with small groups of children on telecommunications projects, collaborating via electronic mail with faraway schools. In one project, "a Canadian school had requested the children send their digitized voice sounds with a memo introducing themselves as the `witnesses' of the Canadian school's multi-media presentation on indigenous people." Craford told me, "Some kids really open up when they have a chance to present themselves to a new group of people. For some kids, it's a chance to start over, and act differently with their remote peers than they do here. If I didn't have computers, I'd miss these tools to help kids develop their potential."
Jane tells the story of an older student in a small group doing voice recordings. "She was having family troubles at the time, and that was expressed in her tone of voice, which was very tight and flat--no affect at all. Each student says `Hello' and then their full name, and after her turn, the spontaneous response of the group was, `Ooh! You sound so mean!' But it came out innocently and spontaneously, and she could accept it that way because she heard it, too. Her tone didn't change after that, but her self-awareness did, and her bonding within that particular group became tighter. She crossed modality in a way that she hadn't been able to do in pen and paper format or talking. She was able to hear her voice played back to her immediately, and she was able to see it frozen as a waveform, and she was able to pick out the parts of it that sounded meanest.
"Students who, for whatever reason, had begun to develop a negative self image--nobody-likes-me-I'm-too-fat, or nobody-likes-me-I can't-do-this, and so on--when those prejudices were removed by having to communicate with an unknown audience, they got to draw out in a safe context what they thought they did well.
"One boy, who had a lot of social ostracism in his classroom, discovered that he was a writer--that he could write, and that what he wrote about would be of interest. A school in Norway wrote about one of their students that had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, and he was very upset about it, and got to thinking about the next related experience that he'd had, which was his concern about his favorite ballplayer. He wrote about Magic Johnson. And he opened up to express his feelings about that. Before, he had been unwilling to talk about feelings. He had not put much of his own personality into his writing. His own self-review at the end of the eight-week period was that he had discovered that he was a writer, that writing didn't necessarily mean that you were fluid and a poet or flashy and eye-catching; writing meant that you could get your personality across, get your ideas across."
Julia Nishijima says her 1st and 2nd graders get "a sense of confidence from just being able to use a computer. Certain kids, maybe ten percent, become computer experts for the class."
B. J. Allen Conn says, "More kids get a chance to be a star at something." She says that one result of the increased confidence is that, "Their learning style changes. There's more risk-taking."
Pauline Griffith says that the computer has been a big help to 1st and 2nd graders who were smart, but might not be so good at reading or pencil and paper.
Using the computers, children can locate their work, make changes to it, print it, and store it on the file server. They can find work they did months earlier. Having this kind of control over their work gives them confidence.
Denise Cole says, "You have to tell the computer what to do. This builds confidence."
Jan Ng talks about "the excitement in kids' eyes when they get a HyperCard button to work."
Mary Ann Schmidt thinks that, "They're empowering for the kids because they can control something that they see all the time in entertainment and video games." She says the kids love "the power to do something, to create something personal. The key is the expressive part. Isn't that why we learn? So we can express ourselves better and better as we get older?"
Leslie Barclay wrote,
It is always a pleasure to ask for a volunteer to help a child who is stuck, and find ten or twelve willing assistants. Often they are not the children who would ordinarily help that particular child, but when help is needed, and freely given, personalities, gender, or ethnic background do not seem to be involved. As we encourage those needing help to ask for it, we also applaud the volunteers who give it. Group solidarity benefits from both: the child who teaches another learns as much as the child who gets the help."
Several teachers said that children had solved computer problems for them. What could be more satisfying than to solve a problem that stumped the teacher?
During their elementary school years, children become developmentally ready for abstract thinking. At the Open School this development is supported in many ways.
Julia Nishijima wrote about how children move from the concrete to the abstract:
Children need learning experiences using concrete materials...They love to use their hands, whether it is experimenting with fingerpaint, creating with playdough, or exploring with blocks.
Attribute blocks...are sorted and classified in various ways according to their attributes [color, shape, and size.] ...The computer affords a smooth transition from the concrete to the pictorial to the abstract. The icons can be programmed to be movable and then manipulated, whereas pictures on paper are static.
...the movable icons, in a two-dimensional form, have almost the same versatility as three-dimensional objects. A Venn diagram can be drawn in the background. Movable...buttons with different attributes can be created. These buttons can be dragged to any location on the screen.
Dolores Patton says, "I like to use the computer as a tool to demonstrate an experience they've had with their hands in a different way." Patton's students use the computer to draw maps of their classroom model city. From the large landsite, each child removes her "parcel," where she has built model buildings on a styrofoam base, and sets the parcel on the floor next to the computer, so that she can see an aerial view of her parcel while she draws a map of it on the computer. Looking down on the buildings makes it easier to draw a 2-dimensional map of a 3-dimensional model. "The teacher doesn't need any of that jive like `Maps don't show windows.' I'm not preaching; I stand by the child and we look down at the parcel. `What shape do you see?'
"I can teach the child to look, draw what she sees and then create an invented character to move through the land, telling a story and explaining the structures as she goes. As a student, I can't do that on paper, because I can't get the movement. But I can't do the computer animation unless I've done it with my hands first, because I don't get it. It's too abstract. So it's the combination for me that is explosive."
Mona Sheppard believes that, "Basic understandings are best achieved using solid pieces of stuff to hold in your hands and push around."
Some of the deepest and most basic understandings occur in this kind of free exploration: yes, even for fifth and sixth graders. This understanding, while it may be very deep and basic, often occurs in a part of our brain that works on a nonverbal level. We have all had experience with students who cannot "tell you" but can "show you."
The process of bringing this "body knowledge" into the verbal part of the mind is very difficult, and will probably not happen unless you specifically plan and guide activities that force children to explain with words what they are doing and what is happening because of what they are doing. I believe that failure to do this is the reason we sometimes fail to see a transfer of skills learned in free exploration to other types of activities.
In order to move children from the three dimensional world of stuff to touch and move around, to the abstract world of words to describe what happened and how it happened, I find that it is necessary to visit the two-dimensional world of pencil and paper along the way. The activity I use for this is basically the same as we will use later on the computer. The difference is that that pencil and paper allow time for the brain to see what should come next and anticipate what the result of our decisions will look like.
...Students will probably resist writing the paragraph [about what they did], but it is the thing that will cement the learning and allow the skills learned here to transfer to other activities. Not only will they have "body knowledge"...but they will be able to think about it and discuss it.
Denise Cole sees another way in which the computer encourages abstract thinking. "In making a drawing on paper, the hand goes directly to the paper. To make a drawing with the computer, the hand goes to the computer first, and then the computer puts the drawing on paper. Adding the computer to the process helps the kids to think more about what they're doing."
As evidence accumulates (from the work of Jerome Bruner, Howard Gardner, and others) that human beings have multiple intelligences and different learning styles, teachers strive to design learning environments that address multiple modalities. Not only is the computer able to represent the same thing in different ways, it also offers unique forms of representation.
B. J. Allen Conn wrote,
...HyperCard enables children to share information and knowledge about something that they have learned in a way that paper and pencil cannot even come close to doing. I have received more high-level research projects completed in HyperCard than I ever dreamed possible for 4th and 5th graders. They no longer mindlessly copy information out of an encyclopedia and spit it back at me. Instead, given a set of criteria for what their stacks must contain, the children edit the information found in the encyclopedia and include only what is important. They find and locate pictures that are important to the topic and scan them in. The children take the graphic design of their individual stacks very seriously because they know that they will be presenting the outcome of their labors to the entire class. There is a great deal of sharing and a great deal of pride being generated in a classroom when all of this is going on.
The 3rd and 4th graders in Dolores Patton's and Denise Cole's classroom spend the year designing and building a model city of the future. Dolores Patton has designed HyperCard stacks with several different ways of representing work done in class. Throughout the year, the students use a History Wall stack to write reports on classroom activities and print them for mounting on the classroom wall together with illustrations. The "I am Special" stack is used to compile autobiographical writing and a scanned photo of each student for the History Wall. Using another stack, students make HyperCard animations showing the steps of constructing their model buildings. In yet another stack, each student draws a map of his or her "parcel" of the model landsite. This map is then linked to a map of the entire model city. Students can zoom out from the landsite to a map of the entire city, or zoom in to view a single parcel, or zoom in further to view interiors of individual buildings on the parcel.
Mary Ann Schmidt had her 2nd and 3rd graders
write a piece about a time they were happy and a time they were sad. Simultaneously to this activity they learned about minor (sad) and major (happy) pentatonic scales with their Music teacher, Bobbie Orlando. Each child composed their own happy and sad melody on metalophones and wooden xylophones. We used MacRecorder 38 to record their motives into HyperCard.
The assignment was very popular with the kids. The integration of so many mediums is an excellent source of personal expression.
In some Open School classrooms, students create animations. Using HyperCard, students draw pictures and then write scripts that cause the computer to flip through the pictures. More advanced animations use a single picture with another picture moving across it.
To at least some degree, Open School animation projects involve programming: the children have to write HyperCard scripts to tell the computer what to do.
"The most exciting part for me is the ways the kids show me what they've learned," says Kelli Johnson of her 2nd and 3rd graders' animation projects. "It's so unique for each kid. Even the kids who may not draw well or want to draw, or the kids who may not write well or want to write, come up with surprises in their animations. We taught them how to animate a single object, and before we knew it some of them were animating two and three objects at once."
She showed me an animated report-in-progress that showed an animal moving in its habitat; then text appeared and disappeared, telling a story about what I'd just seen. This was followed by a "musical interlude," a sequence of sounds played by hidden buttons. In order to get all of this to work, the children have to use variables and repeat loops precisely to program the computer. Johnson says, "It's like a math exercise, but different and more interesting. I can teach animation, and teach a math concept through the scripting."
I asked her whether working with variables was advanced for 2nd and 3rd graders. "Oh, they can do anything," she said, "if they want to!" She explained, "The kids were already doing animations, and they were getting frustrated with repetitive tasks, so they were all ready to learn about repeat loops." She emphasizes the importance of connecting the programming and math with physical activities: "Being able to have a total physical response in teaching repeat loops made it very easy for the kids to understand the lines of code."
Dolores Patton says, "Animation tells a story over time. Children have a real difficulty making time clear in their writing. HyperCard enables them to illustrate a process, where written material misses the movement. As part of our garden creature research, the kids did animations: they really showed a day in the life of an earthworm.
"They can do the movement, and it also forces them to think three-dimensionally, because if you want to do a convincing animation, if you don't cause the creature to turn, or you don't have any rotation, you lose your story line. It only takes 2 or 3 really artistic children who know how to fool the eye, and all of a sudden you've got a different kind of story--it goes through the class like wildfire.
"When you ask a child to do something like `Make an animation that shows how you built your building,' a couple of things happen. First of all, they have to be very aware of the steps they followed to build it--they always leave things out. And then they have to edit the steps for clarity of presentation in another medium. You can't just do `then, then, then, then, then'--it won't be smooth. So they have to invent a way to tell that story without leaving things out--otherwise it's gonna look funny--and figure out how to smooth over the rough spots.
"If I had them list the steps, it wouldn't play the same as making the animation that shows the steps."
Patton adds, "We teach some programming skills, but always as part of the curriculum. I think the programming stuff is enlightening mathematically. I think it gives a good example of things they can't often see."
B. J. Allen Conn is passionate about computer simulations.
Whenever I taught my 4th and 5th graders problem solving skills as it related to math or any other subject, I found myself searching the textbooks looking for specific problems that I thought might really grab the children's attention and get them actively involved in the process of learning....The reality is, the books present the material in a very static, non-interactive way. ....Incorporating the computer into problem solving changed the learning process and the environment in my classroom dramatically.
The computer allowed for the problems to become animated. This instructional delivery method came in the form of teacher-created computer simulations. The children, accustomed to viewing animations via the television and video games, now had the opportunity to experiment with, alter, and control the outcome of the animated simulations. They did not have to be convinced that what they were about to engage in was going to be fun.
....Looking at patterns and determining functions became dynamic when they were incorporated into a simulation called "The Great Fish Race." Before watching the race the children were asked to guess which of the three fish in the race they thought might win the race. Then they ran the simulation and watched as the three fish swam across the screen to the finish line.
As it moves across the screen, each fish displays a number showing how far it has come from the starting line. (In other words, each fish displays its horizontal position, its x-coordinate.) To move a fish, the computer picks a random number and moves the fish by that amount.
After running the simulation 2 or 3 times, the children were asked to determine why the same fish always won the race. Looking at the numbers as they were displayed on the fish was the only clue they had.
The children watched the simulation in slow motion, asking the computer to move each fish once and then stop the simulation. With the simulation frozen, they could study the numbers and then have the computer move the three fish ahead another notch. By studying how the numbers changed, the children figured out that, although the computer was using random numbers, the winning fish got larger numbers.
They formed a hypothesis about their findings and went about proving it by changing the random number generated in the other fish, and therefore changing the outcome of the race.
The next step was to get them to run the race from right to left of the screen rather than from left to right. Pushing it a step or two further, could they run the race from the top of the screen to the bottom and from the bottom to the top? The challenge was to create what they believed was the fastest racing fish they could create and put it into competition with any other fish created by any other child in the class.
The dynamics of simulations do not stop when the students leave the computer but can be heard reverberating around the room. The children become active participants in the process. Working in partnerships, they discuss what they see, and share with one another the many possibilities for solving the problem. They learn the importance of cooperation as they strive to solve this common problem. They begin to pose questions to one another. Their relationship changes from learner to teacher and back to learner.
....Even the most restless children in the classroom were actively involved in the process and often come up with some of the most interesting ways to solve the problem.
The children begin to understand that there is not just one, but rather many ways to solve a given problem. When asked what they enjoyed most about working together on these simulations, two significant responses were: 1)they saved mistakes, because they perceived them as interesting, and 2)they appreciated each other's different solutions. Those two important statements, when uttered by a child unsolicited by the teacher, indicated that the depth of their understanding went beyond the simple solution to the problem.
....I believe that using simulations in the classroom is extremely powerful. I can feel the energy and excitement in the room when the children are interacting with each other to solve the problems posed by these simulations. With the use of the computer they can test their hypothesis and get immediate results. When the hypothesis does not work for them they discuss other possible ways to solve the problem. For me, it is listening to and watching problem solving at its best.
She told me, "It makes learning incredibly fun. I want them to be lifelong learners, to love learning so much that they never turn off to it."
The teachers talked about how computers help them nurture different kinds of thinking and problem solving.
B. J. Allen Conn, talking about simulations: "The organization, the thought process, and the problem solving that go into creating a simulation I don't think you can get anywhere else. Obviously they have to know the material, because they're putting it in. In order for the simulation to work, the kids have to work through anything a user might do that could blow the simulation."
Several teachers said that the computer helps their students understand sequence.
According to Barbara Moreno, "The planning needed to create an acceptable HyperCard stack is similar to what writers need to do when writing a well-crafted paper."
B.J. Allen Conn says, "You can't do your thinking on the computer. You have to plan first, then try out your idea."
Making and testing hypotheses
B. J. Allen Conn says, "They make a hypothesis like `This is what I want the machine to do, and this is how I think I can get it to do that.' They can try it, and they get instant results of a yes or no nature. And they can do that over and over again--they don't hit the same frustration level that I've seen them hit doing other things. They really love that machine."
Variables and other math concepts
B. J. Allen Conn finds that her 4th and 5th graders are having a much easier time with algebraic concepts, now that they can test them on the computer and can use the concepts in their HyperCard scripts. "Before the computer, I could tell them that a + b is the same as b + a, but now they can go to the machine and test it, and see the result instantly. They're getting these concepts much more easily. Part of the reason is that they really want to learn it, because they see how they can use these ideas to make something happen on the machine. Why do we have to know about x-y coordinates? Now [in animation projects] we have a practical use for it."
1st and 2nd graders in Julia Nishijima's class learn scaling by using the computer to change the size of a drawing they have made. They shrink the drawing to half-size, and blow it up double.
Particularly when they are trying to get a HyperCard script to work, students have to think critically. "Scripts require critical reading," says Mary Ann Schmidt.
Some teachers observed that students are more willing to take risks now. Perhaps the computer encourages this because it's so easy to get rid of a mistake and try something else.
Kelli Johnson says, "Regular paper and pencil doesn't stimulate so much questioning. When you get one of those pieces of paper with the lines on it, the margins are already there. But when they write something on the computer, the kids are always asking, `Why is the margin this size? Can I change it?'"
Point of view
Computers can make it easier to explore the same idea from different points of view. Donna DiBernardo used an experimental database, Guides, in her teaching of history.
As part of U.S. history, we study The Westward Expansion Movement. This theme is particularly suited towards point of view because the children can clearly see the distinctions between the Native Americans, the Pioneers, and the new government.
...Guides is a prototype multimedia database which uses the computer and a laserdisc player. The interface is based on 4 characters--each of which have their own points of view toward The Westward Expansion Movement during the 1800's. Three of the characters are historical guides: a Native American, a Frontiersman/Explorer, and a Pioneer Woman. They tell first person stories based on journals and diaries written from 1800 - 1850 [and] make suggestions and recommendations about things to look at in the database. The fourth character is called the System Guide, and she is portrayed by one of the designers of the system. She acts as a helper while the students use the system....
[For the assignment,] the students...could use Guides exactly as they would use an encyclopedia, a dictionary or any other reference material in the classroom...to explore any topic of interest or to focus on finding information about the routes that the immigrants took West, because they were doing a concurrent project building model wagon trains.
Here are comments about the database from two students:
"The three characters are the Indian, the Frontiersman and the Pioneer Woman. Their jobs are to talk about their points of view of the whole Westward movement thing. So they all seem to be against each other. The Indian says that the White man came into their territory. The Frontiersman said that the Indians were savages and stole their horses and things like that."
"You know, to the Indian, the white man is not good and to the settler, the Indian is not good. And so they try to make each other look bad. They blame things on everybody else--just like in real life."
Leslie Barclay wrote, "Learning on the computers for the children begins with the teacher's gaining computer comfort first. The pleasure of seeing a machine like the computer doing exactly what we want it to do never fails to delight us. The satisfaction we feel could not be transmitted to our students without our having been first allowed the time and assistance to grow into some level of capability."
To use computers as they do, the Open School teachers had to become learners again. Several of them said that becoming a learner made them better teachers.
B. J. Allen Conn says, "I don't do things in the same way that I did them before. I have had to become very inventive when looking for ways that I think the tool fits best for children. My goals changed, because I looked not necessarily at the outcome, but at the process by which they were getting there. When I was making lessons for the kids in a field in which there is no curriculum, I had to think of every step in a very methodical way in order to get it across to the kids. If I left one step out, I'd blown it for them.
"I can now look at something from lots of different angles. If there was a kid who still didn't get it after I presented several ways of doing things, I reached a frustration point. I hadn't stumbled across the key for that child. Now I'll keep trying until I find the key for that child.
"When I'm learning something on the computer, I'm more persistent, because of the ahas I get when it works. Now I want to make sure every kid gets the aha."
Donna DiBernardo says, "Becoming a learner gives you humility."
Several teachers say something like, "I'm more in tune with process now, more aware of how the learning process unfolds for each kid."
One teacher says, "It has gotten me more in tune with logic and other ways of thinking that are hard for me."
Mary Ann Schmidt says, "It has affected my ability to think about organizing things."
Rhoda Coleman says, "After struggling to learn programming [in HyperCard], now I'm more likely to suggest and provide alternatives instead of answers, so children can discover their own answers."
It's not just computer novices who become learners, and the learning is not just about how to work the machines. Specialist Jane Craford says, "As a person who was a `computer sophisticate' before I came to the school, I still had a lot to learn, too. I had to learn how to deconstruct everything I knew about computers so that I could communicate with the students and teachers at their level--not as easy as it might appear. I had to learn that creating desirable computer learning experiences didn't simply mean scaling down the skills I had learned from using computers.
"Some teachers knew their curriculum, their students and themselves really well, so they could help me target accurately the chunk of computer knowledge to embed in a learning activity that would be relevant to the curriculum and developmentally appropriate. Other teachers weren't able to give me detailed specifications, so I would make my best estimate of what was needed, the teachers would take what I had made and maybe a year later I would see how they hadn't used exactly what I'd made, but they'd adapted it more precisely to fit their teaching style, the developmental level of their students, and a specific curricular content area.
"Thus, from the indirect approach of providing support by offering samples of what is possible to the direct one-on-one consultative approach, to everything in between, I learned to become open to the diverse ways in which a teaching specialist can support teachers' and/or students' learning experiences on the computer."
Computers have given teachers more control over curriculum and materials for their classrooms. Many of them emphasized that this is one of the most important benefits of using computers.
Jan Ng says, "We use merge in MacWrite to customize things for students. When we give them a word problem, we can put their names into it. For their spelling homework, kids get to include two words of their choice. We can print a customized spelling list for each student. We can customize letters to parents." They made HyperCard stacks for their classroom. "After trying different software, we came to design our own."
Around their classroom, Donna DiBernardo and B.J. Allen Conn set up activities and projects for their students. The teachers use the computer to print up sheets explaining what each student should do at each station. They also print worksheets, and forms for keeping track of completed projects. They both told me, "I could never do this without the computer." (And, as David Mintz reminded me, "You also need a good photocopy machine, and lots of paper.")
Some of the teachers use a computer-controlled laser disk player to give customized video presentations to the children. They can preselect the film clips or images they want to show, and can stop the presentation at any point for discussion. "I love field trips, but this is almost like bringing them into the classroom," writes Genal Weber. B. J. Allen Conn told me, "I can talk to the kids and tell them about things--like the capability of sea stars to flip over--but now I can show them. I don't need to watch an entire film to get to the part I want to see. And the students can go back and watch it over and over. Without the computer, I could never have that in my classroom."
Dolores Patton writes, "We also develop homework, spelling assignments, math and research projects by merging curriculum concepts and themes with children's personalities and preferences. We consider individual, cooperative learning group and whole group interests when tailoring our curriculum."
Patton told me that, with computers, "I can follow the light the kids shine on the pathway a little more explicitly."
I don't want to give the impression that the Open School is some kind of utopian place where everything works perfectly and everybody is blissful all the time. Forget it: these are real flesh-and-blood adults and children, engaged in the messy work of growing up, teaching, and learning. They use real-life, overcomplicated, quirky computer networks. Equipment breaks down; people forget things. Students erase each other's work, change each other's passwords, alter system settings, and put their files in the wrong place. Dust gets into disk drives. Cables get pulled out.
And yet, despite everything, there's a lot of good learning going on, and a lot of excitement and enjoyment.
It may appear that classroom life is centered around the computers. Forget that, too. I just read a long newsletter about goings-on at the school that hardly mentions computers at all.
All of the teachers emphasized (some of them said, "Be sure to say") that they couldn't do what they do without Apple's help--specifically the hours and hours of learning support they have received and the ongoing technical support that keeps computers running and solves software and hardware emergencies. Apple staff members maintain and repair the equipment, replace defective parts, and help teachers and students through difficult problems. In order to teach the teachers, Apple staff members research and test new software and hardware, study manuals, and anticipate what kinds of problems might come up in a classroom.
Barbara Moreno says, "I would never have the courage to try anything innovative technologically if Dave weren't here to guide me through it. I feel the quality of the support is vital to the success of our program....It is not just the teachers who depend on Dave and Karen--it is also the children. They have established a solid relationship with them as well."
How often are there problems in the classrooms that require help from an Apple staff member? "At least once a week," said one teacher, "and sometimes several times in one day."
Barbara Moreno made a list of the technological problems that David Mintz solved in her classroom in two days:
- Diagnosed, removed, and replaced a defective CD-ROM drive while children
proceeded with a lesson that required it.
- Diagnosed failure of large monitor; showed teacher how to teach with only one
screen until cable could be replaced.
- Repaired three computers that went down for different reasons.
- Figured out why Canvas documents were not printing and fixed the
problem (Print Server Backup).
- Taught students how to screen dump a map from Compton's Encyclopedia
into HyperCard via Canvas, while teacher continued working with another group.
- Helped children with problems: relocating a file, connecting to the file
server, scripting in HyperCard.
- Helped children change passwords that had been tampered with.
All of that happened in two days, in just one of the six classrooms.
Each classroom has sixty children using thirty computers all day. "I wonder what the mathematical probability is that something might go wrong?" Moreno wonders. In order to concentrate on the work of teaching, the Open School teachers rely on Apple staff to keep the equipment working.
At the Open School, "technical support" also means helping teachers learn. During special learning times when school is not in session, at meetings after school, and in the classrooms while school is in session, the technical staff teaches the teachers. Sometimes the teachers are all in one room together, learning new skills; at other times teachers work on individual projects, coached by Apple staff. Sometimes the teaching is done by presenting a programming problem and leading a discussion of different people's solutions. Sometimes it is a step-by-step introduction to a new piece of software. Sometimes it is answering questions like "Why doesn't this work?" Sometimes it is helping a teacher fit the technology to her classroom and her way of teaching.
As new teachers have joined the Open School--and there have been many newcomers since 1986--the Apple support team has helped them learn the technological ropes. Denise Cole, the newest teacher, said, "Without Dave and Karen I would be much further behind than I am, not from lack of interest or lack of help from my partner, but more from my lack of time to find all of the answers myself. I do try a lot on my own, but they also teach me things much more quickly."
For several years, the Vivarium Program at the Open School has presented a new model for treatment of education professionals. Teachers have been expected to plan and think during pupil-free "vacation" times, and have been paid to learn new skills and incorporate those skills into the curriculum. They have had at their disposal one or two full-time on-campus technical support people.
David Mintz wrote, "Teachers must work 12 months a year, like other professionals, and must receive compensation and benefits accordingly."
We know that during the daily, weekly life of a classroom teacher there is little or no time to think, ponder or reflect.... Teachers all know that their job extends far beyond the minutes that they are with children in the classroom, but the Open School shows what happens when others understand and can provide support for the extra hours.
Recently in a classroom I counted, in a five minute period, 23 questions that children asked of a teacher. Multiply that by the number of minutes in the day and you get a shocking number of questions that the teacher must respond to and be prepared to answer. Then ask how she can possibly think about her own learning.
[At the Open School], each teacher has at least one 90-minute block of time each week to work with her partner, to plan activities, or to work with someone to learn....The school [is able] to provide weekly, scheduled, sacred time for learning and thinking by rearranging how the children and teachers spend their time each day...The prearranged special planning time and the professional attitude that infused the school did more to increase teachers' understanding and creativity than traditional in-service arrangements ever had.
Mintz draws a clear distinction between "learning" and "training."
By increasing the time span for teacher development, we emphasize learning rather than training, and long-term sustained changes rather than short term "fixes."
There is a strong movement in this country to restructure education....Every idea that is being suggested requires professional educators to learn more, read more, plan more, develop new strategies and work closer with colleagues. Our program offers a view of what educators will do towards these aims given the chance to work at their profession 12 months a year....Open School staff members have shown that when they are treated as professionals, given all the tools of professionals, and sufficient financial support, they will assume an attitude of professionalism. And this is how you make differences in the lives of the teachers as well as in the lives of their students.
As I write, Apple is cutting back its involvement with the Open School. Over the next year (1993-94) financial, technical, and educational support will be reduced. In the future, Open School teachers may have to maintain their own equipment, troubleshoot their own technical problems, learn on their own time, and learn without outside help. Whatever research is done on new software, new ideas, or new uses for the computer, teachers may have to do themselves. The teachers are discussing how to continue maintenance, troubleshooting, and learning; Apple has promised to help with the transition.
Certainly it is not Apple's responsibility to support an elementary school forever, but Apple's cutbacks raise difficult questions which should be carefully considered by anyone involved in integrating computers into schools. The main question is this: "How much should be expected of teachers?" At the Vivarium Program at the Open School, there is controversy about the answers.
As one teacher pointed out, "Businesspeople are not expected to maintain their own computer networks or repair their own equipment." Teachers are not normally expected to repair the desks or blackboards in their classrooms, or to fix an ailing VCR. On the other hand, Apple's position is that it is time for the teachers to become more autonomous and learn to solve their own technical problems.
At the current state of technology, technical support of a classroom computer network is a heavy responsibility. Whose job should it be? How much should teachers be expected to learn? How much should they be expected to accomplish on their own? What kind of help should they receive?
How will teachers' work with computers be monitored? How will it be compensated?
Should teachers be expected to study manuals? Should they invent new uses of the computer? Should they program their own computers?
Where will they find the time to do any of this? How will their classroom responsibilities be affected?
It remains to be seen how the Open School teachers will fare without the intensive help and moral support they have received from Apple.
After presenting information about how computers are used at the Open School, it is important to evaluate that information somehow. However, evaluating a school's use of technology is difficult--it's hard to know what standards to apply. Because standards are confusing or nonexistent, about all I can do is to offer a few grains of salt with which to digest the information, and point to some issues to consider.
The first grain of salt is that all the evidence I have presented comes from the teachers themselves. People who invest a lot of time and effort in something will be inclined to see that time as well-spent. The teachers' enthusiasm for the computer has got to be at least partly a result of this very human tendency. As far as I know, neither Apple nor the Open School has studied computerized learning enough to confirm or deny the teachers' assertions about improvements to students' learning.
The second grain of salt is that it is hard to tell when technology really deepens students' learning, and when it simply makes learning more fun. Both effects--more fun and more learning--are extremely valuable, and they are interconnected, but the two effects are not the same and should not be confused. Fun helps children to learn who might not otherwise learn. More learning means students are learning more or better (whatever that means) than they otherwise would. (For instance, HyperCard may encourage students to think about their writing and edit it to fit into the available space, but a paper index card could have the same effect at much less cost.) Again, there has been no study that I know of to assess the computer's effects on the students of the Open School. It is quite possible that the thousands of dollars spent on computers and support could be invested in other, equally valuable, ways to increase fun and improve learning.
The final grain of salt is that the teachers' achievements should be viewed from multiple perspectives. Any evaluation of the Open School's use of computers will come out differently depending on whose standards you apply. Compared to most people, the Open School teachers are computer wizards, but compared to the Apple technical staff, they are beginners who need lots of help. Compared to most elementary school teachers, these teachers are computer programmers, but compared to any young hacker, they are novices. Compared to most schools, the Open School is advanced and futuristic; compared to the future promised by people who have thought deeply about technology, the school is barely scratching the surface.
The Open School teachers use computers with ease and imagination, yet they ignore some features of their software. Some features they leave out by choice; other features they have not discovered. (I was astounded that one teacher, a few years into the project, still didn't know about "Cut and Paste," one of the most basic Macintosh tools.) Some capabilities of the computer are not being used: writing music, for instance, or connecting to sensors and motors. Again, some of this happened by choice (sometimes the technical barriers are deemed greater than the educational benefits), and some of it happened through ignorance. Only relatively simple simulations are created by the teachers and students at the Open School, but this is because the computer industry has not yet provided simulation-building tools that are properly designed for schools.
It was never expected that the Open School's use of computers would be exhaustive or comprehensive, nor were the teachers expected to become computer enthusiasts who stay up all night pawing through manuals. The Open School teachers are, to put it simply, teachers who use computers. Apple did not try to change the school's values or emphases, so the teachers use the computers to amplify and extend what they were already teaching.
Yet one of the most beguiling promises of technology prognosticators is that computers will somehow help reshape society's ideas about what is important to learn. The experiences of the Open School teachers suggest only that computers can help a school clarify its existing values. If computers are to change education, ways must be found to help schools embrace new values.
The computer presents more possibilities than can be used by any teacher or implemented at any one site. In fact, this is one of the biggest problems with the computer: which of its many possibilities should a school pursue? What is most worth doing? (And who gets to decide how computers will be used? Administrators? Teachers? Parents? Publishers? Computer companies?)
A school can't decide how to use computers until it answers some basic questions about itself. What is the purpose of our school? What do we believe is most worth learning? What do we think helps children learn?
If we err on the side of caution and, for a moment, set aside any claims of more, faster, deeper, or better learning, it is still clear that computers offer some very real opportunities for education. Through the computer, students that were otherwise hard to reach have made contact with their own capacity to learn. Through the computer, students who didn't know that learning could be fun have been able to experience the excitement and pleasure of learning. Through the computer, teachers who had forgotten what learning felt like have been reawakened to their own capacity to learn and to the fun of learning; becoming learners has made them more patient and better able to help children overcome difficulties.
Anything that reaches a hard-to-reach student, or makes learning more fun for somebody, or turns a teacher into a learner, deserves serious consideration. School need to offer a huge variety of experiences, because you never know what will help a student discover her own potential.
Beyond these direct effects of using computers, the Open School teachers' experience suggests that the technology offers new ways to help minds grow. Even taken with several grains of salt, the evidence remains strong that computers give people new ways to perceive, explore, understand, connect, and create. For a school whose purpose is to facilitate human growth, computers might just be valuable additions.
Just how valuable are computers? Are they worth the money? Are they worth the huge cost in time, learning, and ongoing support? So far, the only honest answer is, "It depends."
It depends on the agenda of the people considering them.
1 Mary Ann Schmidt, "HyperCard in the 2nd/3rd Grade Classroom," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
2 The names of both parties have recently changed. Apple's Vivarium Program has been renamed the Learning Concepts Group. The Open School has just been granted "charter school" status, which gives it greater financial and curricular autonomy; it is now officially named the Open Charter School.
3 David Mintz, "Computer Maintenance: How to Spend Your Summer Vacation," CUE Newsletter, Volume 15, Number 2, March/April 1993, pg. 1.
4 Bobby Blatt (Open School Principal), "Reflections after Using Computers for Five Years at the Open School," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
5 "Although the school's processes may be different than the norm, the children continue to take all state mandated tests and do very well on them." (David Mintz, "It Must Become a Profession," The Computing Teacher, Volume 20, Number 6, March 1993.)
6 Genal Weber, "How Computers Empower First and Second Graders," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
7 Leslie Barclay, "Technology and Cooperative Learning in the Classroom," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
8 B. J. Allen Conn, "Integrating Computers into the Curriculum," Apple Vivarium Program, 1991.
9 Mary Ann Schmidt designed a lesson specifically about the computer to help her 2nd and 3rd grade students understand the classroom computer network. Students had been confused about where their work went when they saved it. To gain a better understanding, they played the roles of various parts of the network, using lengths of yarn for cables; students ran back and forth with papers between the "computers" and the "file server." (Mary Ann Schmidt, "An Approach to Using a File Server," Apple Vivarium Program, 1991.)
10 MacWrite II and HyperCard, Claris Corp., 5201 Patrick Henry Dr., PO Box 58168, Santa Clara, CA 95052, 408-727-8227. Canvas, Deneba Software, 3305 NW 74th Ave., Miami, FL 33122, 305-594-6965.
11 A CD-ROM looks like a music CD, but it stores computer files instead of (or in addition to) music; a special player is required. One CD can hold an entire encyclopedia. The Open School has two such encyclopedias: Compton's Multimedia Encyclopedia (Compton's Learning Company, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., Network version by Josten's Learning Company) and Grolier's Electronic Encyclopedia (Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc., Sherman Turnpike, Danbury, CT 06816).
12 A "stack" is a HyperCard document. It is like a stack of cards; anything can be on the cards: pictures, text, or buttons to control actions like playing a sound, activating an animation, or going to another card.
13 AppleLink, Apple OnLine Services HelpLine at (408) 974-3309; Apple Computer, Inc., 20525 Mariani Avenue Cupertino, CA 95014 (408) 996-1010.
14 Leslie Barclay, "Technology and Cooperative Learning in the Classroom," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
15 At another school with computers, students "receive keyboarding instruction early on (at least by third grade).... Teachers claim that within a few months, their students can keyboard much faster than they can write by hand....In October, [3rd grade] students typed an average of 16 words per minute with 89% accuracy (compared to seven words per minute in cursive and nine words per minute in manuscript). In June, the keyboarding average was 26 words per minute with 92% accuracy." (Elfrieda H. Hiebert, Edys S. Quellmalz, and Phyllis Vogel, "Writing: A Research-Based Writing Program for Students with High Access to Computers," Report #2, 1989, Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT), Apple Computer, Inc. 20525 Mariani Ave., Cupertino, CA 95014.)
16 Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, The Software Toolworks, 60 Leveroni Ct., Novato, CA 94949, 415-883-3000 or 415-883-3303 (fax).
17 HyperCard versions of this game are "Guess My Number," by Julia Nishijima and Ted Kaehler, and "What's My Number?" by Lori Weiss. Another HyperCard stack based on one of Julia's math activities is the "Function Machine," by former Apple support team member Julaine Salem.
18 Julia Nishijima, "Fear and Loathing in the First Grade?" Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
19 Rhoda Coleman, unpublished report, 1993. Coleman also emphasizes that she sees this program, and a similar one about string instruments, as "just a beginning, both in terms of my experience and the types of thinking skills I would like to demand of the user."
20 Barbara Moreno, "The Teacher Bites the Bullet and...," CUE Newsletter, Volume 14, Number 5, September/October 1992, Pg. 23.
21 Barbara Moreno, "Powerful Processing," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
22 Julia Nishijima, "Fear and Loathing in the First Grade?" Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
23 Genal Weber, "How Computers Empower First and Second Graders," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
24 Mona Sheppard, "Let the Computer Tessellate Your Designs," Apple Vivarium Program, 1991.
25 A mandala is a circular design with concentric or rotationally symmetrical forms. In some cultures, mandalas are symbols of wholeness and balance.
26 B.J. Allen Conn, "Integrating HyperCard into the Curriculum," Apple Vivarium Program, 1991.
27 Pauline Griffith and Jan Ng, "A Recipe for Adding Spice to the Daily News, CUE Newsletter, Volume 14, Number 5, September/October 1992, Pg. 25.
28 Donna DiBernardo, "Using the Computer as a Teaching Tool," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
29 Barbara Moreno, "Powerful Processing," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
30 Leslie Barclay, "Technology and Cooperative Learning in the Classroom," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
31 Leslie Barclay, "Technology and Cooperative Learning in the Classroom," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
32 A Venn diagram uses overlapping circles to sort things. Suppose you have two overlapping circles, one containing people with red hair, the other containing people wearing blue shoes. In the overlapping area are redheads with blue shoes.
33 Julia Nishijima, "It's All Concrete...but not Fixed in Cement," Apple Vivarium Program, 1991.
34 Mona Sheppard, "A Powerful Use of Technology in My Classroom: Computer Quilting," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
35 B. J. Allen Conn, "Integrating Computers into the Curriculum," Apple Vivarium Program, 1991.
36 Their curriculum is based on Doreen Nelson, Transformations, Theory and Process, Center for City Building Education, (2210 Wilshire Bl., Suite 303, Santa Monica, CA 90403), 1985. As a consultant to Apple's research at the Open School, Nelson collaborated in the classroom with Patton and her recently-retired partner, Leslie Barclay, to implement and extend Nelson's City Building curriculum and to implement the History Wall.
37 See Dolores Patton, "Building a City Government Using Technology," CUE Newsletter, Volume 13, Number 10, March/April 1992, pg. 21; also Leslie Barclay, "The History Wall," Apple Vivarium Program, 1991.
38 Recent Macintosh computers include a microphone jack, but the older computers at the Open School do not. MacRecorder is a device for recording sound into the computer; it comes with software for recording and editing. (HyperCard can also record and edit sound.) Farallon Computing, 2150 Kittredge Street, Berkeley, CA 94704, (415)849-2331.
39 Mary Ann Schmidt, "HyperCard in the 2nd/3rd Grade Classroom," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
40 A repeat loop is a way of programming a computer to do a repetitive task with a minimum of verbiage. It's sort of like saying "Go to the refrigerator and take out eggs one at a time until you have ten," instead of, "Go to the refrigerator and take out an egg, take out another egg, take out another egg, take out another egg, take out another egg, take out another egg, take out another egg, take out another egg, take out another egg, take out another egg."
41 Kelli Johnson, "A Whole Body Approach to Teaching Repeat Loops," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
42Computers select random numbers within certain boundaries, like "a random number between 1 and 100", or "a random number between 3 and 6."
43 B. J. Allen Conn, "Simulations and Their Place in Today's Classroom," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
44 Barbara Moreno, "The Teacher Bites the Bullet and...," CUE Newsletter, Volume 14, Number 5, September/October 1992, Pg. 23.
45 Donna DiBernardo, "A Unique and Powerful Use of Technology in My Classroom--Using Guides Project Database," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992. Guides, an experiment of the Human Interface Group of Apple Computer, was developed by Tim Oren, Abbe Don, and Brenda Laurel.
46 Leslie Barclay, "Technology and Cooperative Learning in the Classroom," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
47 Genal Weber, "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words," CUE Newsletter, Volume 13, Number 10, March/April 1992, pg. 22.
48 Dolores Patton, "Technology in the Classroom: Transformations, The Missing Link," Apple Vivarium Program, 1992.
49 Barbara Moreno, unpublished memo, May, 1993.
50 David Mintz, "It Must Become a Profession," The Computing Teacher, Volume 20, Number 6, March 1993.
51 See Alan C. Kay, "Computers, Networks, and Education," Scientific American, September 1991, pg. 138.