This article was originally published May 30, 2014 in The Loop Magazine, reprinted here with permission.

What questions come to mind when you look at this picture? Likely, you want to know the value of the coins. How long did you spend on the question? Did you make a guess first, or start counting the coins instinctively? How did the final answer compare with your expectations?

One simple picture, a dozen questions. As a point of comparison, consider if the picture were replaced with a block of text.

Jerry has 5 quarters and 2 nickels. Steve has 11 dimes, 15 pennies, and 2 quarters. They would like to buy candy bars that cost 75 cents each. How many candy bars can they afford?

Are you as interested in the second scenario?

What was different, though? Both have the same requirement of the student: determine the total amount of money available. The picture lets the student ask the question. There’s no prompt. It’s just a picture of some coins. With the textbook problem, the question is spelled out. All the necessary information is stated and an answer is expected. The student isn’t given the opportunity to wonder, to determine the necessary information, to generate the affordability discussion organically.

My education career started by prompting students with blocks of text. I was taught that way and the students had come to expect that and did not protest. Three years ago, I tried it the non-traditional way. I opened up the picture of coins. I asked no questions. I just waited. Thirty-seconds. A minute. The classroom exploded with discussion as thirty individuals suddenly had cause to ask “why?” Loud protests erupted when I would not reveal the answer. Thirty individuals, hooked on a math problem, dying for the answer.

Education is a tough issue. Everyone has an opinion because everyone had to go through the system. Everyone falls back on the way they were taught. Most of the time, everyone has no problem with the way they were taught and expects the same or better for their children. If the SAT score checks out in the end, the parent is satisfied.

Generating quality education engages an entire new set of opinions. Everyone knows how to crack it. More homework, less homework, more spending, less spending, and of course, technology. Lots of technology. Technology will disrupt education, they say. Students can learn what they want, when they want with the right technology. There’s a video for everything, and according to vague research, it works.

Well the jury may still be out, but the statistics are in, the statistics are showing in all aspects of education, computers are helping dramatically in terms of comprehension of information, in terms of the ability to develop analytical thinking, basic skills like math functions, etc. In just about all the ways of measuring these things, all the kinds of things you want out of education are in fact increased when you do use computers.

Sounds like something you could read today about Sal Khan or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Or a speech from a school board member that just approved a one laptop per child program. Or pulled from a press release announcing a lucrative iPad contract. Yet, it’s a quote from Computer Chronicles in 1991.

It seems easy to fix things with the right technology investment. Technology can be bought. It can be shown to concerned parents and city officials. It makes your school look forward thinking. Students are getting necessary 21st century skills thanks to the computers. Higher test scores are around the corner thanks to the computers. Students love every minute of their modern education experience thanks to the computers. Buying technology is great. Students using the technology is great. But how are they using it? How are the learning experiences different? What are they doing that’s not a derivative of outmoded instruction? Students reading blocks of text on a screen is no improvement over reading blocks of text in a book.

Last fall Apple revamped its Education page. It features testimonials from teachers using iPads in the classroom and has a few videos from schools that have deployed the devices at a large scale. All of the material is designed to show you what’s possible with iPads and Macs in the classroom. Students will be filled with awe, wonder, and be ready for the 21st century if someone just buys them an iPad. Seriously, look how they love using iMovie.

Study the videos closely though. Specifically, the tale of Burlington High School in Burlington, MA. Students do revolutionary things like sit silently at their desk (1:03), take notes about a paper textbook (1:25), take a picture of a transparency on an overhead projector (2:10), add notes to a digital version of a textbook (3:51), and sing from PDF sheet music (4:29)

Nothing is disruptive about these tasks. Students still experience school the way they always have. A teacher will speak for a while, students write down what they say whether or not they’re interested, and I will be quiet while I do it. No discussion with the teacher and very limited discussion with peers. Taking notes on an iPad does not change taking notes into a more engaging activity.

How do you break this cycle? How do you turn a classroom into an actual engaging place? How can you take something like an iPad and let it support new and interesting projects without just replicating the blocks of text, note-taking, and worksheets?

It starts with a picture of coins. In broader terms, tasks with a low barrier to entry. Tasks that engage some fundamental need in the student to find out more. Tasks that generate questions which may or may not have simple answers.

In my classroom, it starts everyday with the work of Andrew Stadel. Mr. Stadel teaches middle school teacher in California who noticed a deficiency in student number sense. Feeling the lack of number sense undermined the other objectives of his curriculum, he started posing questions to the students with pictures, similar to the coins. One day it’s a small tape measure. How long is it? The next a larger one. Now, how long is that? Next week it might be the number of lollipops in a bag. Each day a new question. Each day a simple demand of the student: give me your best guess. Sometimes it kicks off a discussion. Sometimes the room doesn’t accept the answer. Middle school students, fighting with one another about math. Imagine.

The experiment was so successful, Mr. Stadel organized the challenges into estimation180.com, a site that allows you to play along at home. Or in my case, start every day with a way to get the room talking.

Guessing the length of a tape measure usually has nothing to do with our lesson for the day, but after three months, my students wouldn’t start class any other way. In ten years, encouraging their ability to estimate will prove its usefulness more often than the day’s logarithm problem set.

Last November, some seventy days of estimating later, I turned the table. It was now the students’ turn to design a math task worthy of Mr. Stadel and his estimation project. Our Estimation Wall would be our love letter to how much we enjoy starting class. This simple activity, producing a picture worthy of someone’s attention, was going to shine thanks our classroom technology infrastructure.

Technology in my classroom starts in February 2011. My school district migrated to a gradebook and lesson plan system that lived on the web, removing dependence on the standard issue computer. The MacBook Pro that came next was just the start. iPads came to the room in August 2012 through a district initiative to put four in every classroom. Four iPads for thirty students is no way to reach the products’ potential, so I went looking for more. As of January 2013 I have twenty-two iPads: eight district issued, seven donated—a combination of family and DonorsChoose.org, a Kickstarter for teachers—and the remaining seven were purchased personally by me. The best and worst feature of the Apple Store is how casually one can buy four iPad minis at once.

As if that’s not enough, the MacBook Pro at the center of the room broadcasts its message through an eight port HDMI splitter to one 60-inch television, one 40-inch televsion, three 32-inch televisions, one 22-inch Wacom Cintiq, and one 22-inch desktop monitor. Did you know teenagers don’t like wearing their glasses? Since 2011 around $15,000 has been invested in this room. Amazon Warehouse Deals doesn’t have a better customer.

After three years of buying iPads, televisions, and cables, the Estimation Wall is the project designed for this infrastructure. You might be confused. Why aren’t we making instructional videos in iMovie? Where’s the Keynote presentations? A giant guessing game? This is the ultimate 21st century project?

Technology in the classroom should serve to enhance great ideas. It should not BE the great idea. Progressing through a worksheet on an iPad is still progressing through a worksheet. Making a tutorial with iMovie is no better than talking to the student next to you with a pencil. Designing a task with a low barrier to entry, that leaves someone begging for the answer, that is the challenge to face. An iPad serves to enhance the result.

The technology skills that built the Estimation Wall were forged during the course of our normal curriculum. It is necessary at times for math students to solve math problems. In the marketing material, iPads in math class involve watching tutorials, making tutorials, or completing digitized problem sets. That’s not a complementary use case. My students solve problems with pencil and paper, cutting and taping problem sets into a notebook, a textbook they build themselves. To enhance our ability to do algebra, the iPad and its high resolution screen gives us the ultimate graphing calculator interface. Through the use of the app Desmos—also available on the web at desmos.com/calculator — my students make connections between the manipulation of terms, and the intersecting graphs they represent. After some tutorials with AirPrint, we no longer rely on 1-bit calculators or poorly done hand graphs.

The requirements of the Estimation Wall were simple: design two connected tasks that require someone to make a guess. The items in the picture should not be easily counted, and any hints should be obscured as best as possible. The answer should be provided in a separate picture.

Two days of class time were set aside to complete the activity, roughly two and a half hours. My students brought any necessary objects to class on these days. All the iPads were available to take pictures. Students spent their time framing the picture properly, adjusting their objects just so, and double checking they didn’t give away the answer. When ready, they snapped a picture with the iPad. Without my intervention, students sent their pictures via AirPrint to my Brother color laser printer and grabbed them. A few chose to type their questions and answers in Pages. The rest was a sea of colored paper, scissors, and glue.

Technology was the complement that simplified our task. Students didn’t need a printer at home. I didn’t need to take them to the library. We didn’t have to settle for black and white. Nobody ran an impressive app. Some touched an iPad for as little as five minutes. After two and a half hours, we had the coolest addition to the school.

Technology in the classroom has a place. iPads and Macs are a great way to add modern experiences to learning. But the modes we use to provide learning are not any better in digital form. I cannot imagine a better time to be teaching, to have the internet at your disposal at all moments of the day, to not be limited to the feature set of a dry erase board. Technology and paper can co-exist. Let each shine in their own way. Real education disruption starts when a teacher isn’t afraid to throw out the traditional, regardless of how many iPads are in their classroom. I solved math problems on an Apple //e in 1992, the students of 2014 deserve something better.

Posted
AuthorJonathan Claydon