By Kavan Yee
“The need for laptops is decreasing and the use of smart phones is increasing.”– Janne Nissinen, 5th Grade Teacher@Innokas Koulumestari
As a middle school teacher and leader, the thought of allowing our students to use their cell phones at school is not only foreign, it causes me an enormous sense of anxiety. My mind only races to the worst possible scenarios of gaming, bullying, texting, cheating…the list can go on and on. But why exactly do I feel this way? Is it my own distrust of our students or is it the distrust in myself? Am I afraid to set up the expectations or have the conversation of how to use a device that is used daily in their lives? If we are to be promoting 21st century skills then shouldn’t we teach about the proper use of technology or proper “netiquette”? Shouldn’t we be integrating our student’s familiar forms technology natural tools for learning and engagement?
One school here in Finland has challenged me to lean into my discomfort. Innokas Koulumestari (translated as Mastery School of Engagement and Enthusiasm), is one of 60 schools in the country that promotes creativity and innovation through the full inclusion of technology. The Innokas staff believes that their creative and versatile use of technology encourages and models for students to apply of 21st century skills to problem solve and innovate. The lesson plans are designed to view the school building and it’s surroundings as “an entity as well as a network of learning environments.” Tiina Korhonen, Vice Headmaster, feels that in order to “truly promote inquiry-based learning, the learning must happen everywhere.” From Tiina, I learned that the learning can happen anywhere with the use of cell phones. 2nd graders were given the assignment to provide evidence of that spring is arriving. Groups were given a smart phone device (Nokia Lumia 800) to take pictures during a walk through the outside campus. Students then presented their findings to their peers by displaying their pictures under a document camera. Did I mention that the students were in groups of 6? Yes, 6. “We don’t have enough money to have enough cameras, so we try to figure out creative ways to support teachers” says Tiina. “You cannot let not having money stop you and the students from learning. We have the same goals for both our staff and students– turn challenges into creativity and innovation.” I’ve encountered these budget problems before when I taught in the inner city of Chicago, but with 6 in group? No way. To my surprise it worked for this class of 48 as I followed them on a portion of their hike. The students were so excited to use the phone to take pictures, they literally ran from object to object, shouting for each other to “come see!”
The use of phones was also shown to me in Janne Nissinen’s 5th grade classroom. The class was currently learning an integrated unit about “Exploring the Sky”. Two students showed me how they used their phones during an evening trip to observe the constellations by using a Skyview App. Students held their phones up to the array of stars and the App would identify the constellation or planetary body. “Some students liked to use the Lumia phones for the activity, but others liked to use their own devices. We want them to be able to use their own devices so they can be familiar on how to use them as an educational tool. ” says Janne. As a school leader, Tiina felt that phones are an excellent opportunity to make learning both authentic and organic– empowering students to be able to collaborate with their teachers, in a sense changes the roles as they become the teacher: “The key idea is for the student to teach the teacher what they can do with the phone. When students and teachers are developing together these ideas of how to use these mobile devices, we at the same time are collecting data and research to organize the training for teachers to help them develop the best practices towards engaging our students and how to use the phones.” Janne added that “we don’t use phones just because it’s technology. We use it because we find it handy, it’s motivating, and we don’t use it for everything. Students are taught to use it when they need it and students are free to use it when they want to. Some students need to use the phone for note taking or data collection. Others use pencil and paper. Some use it as a reorder or camera.” The Innokas staff and Tiina believe that in order to reach all their students’ needs, they need to create different ways for them to learn– “If we continue to teach in our traditional ways, we will lose our new learners.”
None of this can happen without trust of course. Janne explained that “students earn the trust of using these devices from their actions. We’ve built a system for each student to prove that they deserve our trust.” Students are initially introduced to the proper use of their devices inside the classroom with teacher supervision and instruction. As each activity in a unit progresses, students sign up for different areas around the school to work. Teachers move around the building make sure the students are on task. If a student is seen off task, they lose the teacher’s trust and must conduct the next activity back inside the supervised classroom. The ultimate trust is to be able to work anywhere in the school, with any device, independently– “Motivation to learn increases when students feel trusted to know where and how they learn best.”
As I sit here typing this blog on my iPad, listening and viewing the videos/pics/notes recorded on my iPhone, it’s really nonsensical to believe that my students should be learning in my classroom any differently.
My take away from this experience can be summed up in a simple equation:
student voice + student choice + establishing trust = the best practice of integrated-differentiated-experiential learning