We began with hopes, inspiration, and a very vague idea of what we intended to accomplish in the next six weeks. Help the teachers! What a thought - but what does it mean? As with any open-ended project, our team's ideas were wildly divergent. Ed, with a background in neuroscience, emphasized the importance of physical movement to stimulate the generation of dopamine, which in turn increases mental focus and observation. On the other hand, Teammate Mario - an experienced middle-school art teacher - half-jokingly threw out the idea of a cell-phone signal scrambler to increase student attention spans. The team's computer scientists agreed that logic blocks - a bag full of small plastic electronic modules, which create and break current connections based on a series of logic gates - would be a great project, though quite limited to a certain age group and subject material. The more we talked, the more we saw how our backgrounds dictated the ideas we brought to the table.
A diverse set of skills and viewpoints makes our project team strong, able to build and deliver a multi-faceted project. However, our narrow fields of specialty worked against us in the form of experience "blinders." What *is* a meaningful, global problem to solve in education today? What, really, do teachers want or need any help with? What solution could we provide without presumptuously offering a solution in search of a problem? Especially with Mario's insight, it became clear to us how much we did not know. We did not have the collective experience of actual teachers in the field. So, we decided to do our homework. To synthesize a project that soles a real problem, we had to fill a void in our experience: what is it like to be a teacher right now?
Our plan emerged from this premise - learn about what it means to be a teacher today, and from there, a solution that involves electronics will present itself.
We broke this plan into four steps:
- Learn. Talk to teachers with various real world backgrounds in education. Leave electronics and the GGHC completely out of the picture. Ask teachers how they communicate with students, what their success strategies are as teachers, and the pain points they struggle with in reaching students.
- Brainstorm. Based on our learnings, come up with a huge basket of ideas. In this step, no ideas are bad; put everything on the table. Let loose the creative floodgates.
- Filter. Ruthlessly cut the field of ideas down to a narrow set of candidates. Consider feasibility, price, and worst case scenarios. Look for the weakness in each idea and leave the strongest standing.
- Take-off! Settle on one idea. Begin the process of pricing, tire-kicking, and organizing around the building of our newborn brain child.
We could not operate with experience blinders. To take them off, we met with three groups of teachers - those at Mario's school, two from a local magnet school for gifted children, and a group in another nearby school district. With their ideas and input, we would have the data we needed to spot a meaningful problem and synthesize a solution to answer it.
Mario met with his peers at a teacher meeting after school. He ran them through our questionnaire and picked their brains. He came back and gave us the highlights.
- Students struggle with focus. In public schools, many students detach completely from the classroom material. They are non-participants in a system they want nothing to do with. The abundance of cell phones only worsens the situation.
- Excitability and contagious enthusiasm are powerful assets. Quiz games with buzzers and other contests in the classroom prove out very well.
- Anything we build has to be tough enough to be hit by a bus and walk away. School kids will make quick work of any object not built to withstand them.
- Physical movement of any kind is a welcome change of pace. Kids are planted in desks, do near work, and frequently have indoor recess or detention. A solution that addresses physical motion would be seized on!
Ed,, Nate B, Rocco, and I (Ross) met with two teachers from Roeper, Linda and Emery. They possess more than three decades of professional experience at Roeper, a school for gifted children - the kids who exhibit early on a proclivity for science, math, and the arts. Linda and Emery filled in a very different portrait of educational experience and challenges. Our fascinating conversation left us with plenty of food for thought.
- Electronics tools - smart boards, for instance - come off as faddish, and pass as quickly as buzzwords. Too often these are overbuilt solutions in search of problems (or at least dollars) and not genuine responses to an educational need. As such, Linda and Emery use virtually no technological teaching aids in the classroom, apart from a laptop to manage their notes. Electronics for hands-on labs are different, as the electronics become the object of the lesson.
- Their best teaching strategies are rooted in the scientific method. You feed a student's curiosity with questions - "What are you trying to learn? What are you observing that seems curious? How did you, when did you see it? What causes that?" The questions progress toward a hypothesis, which requires a test or experiment to validate. From there, students examine conclusions and ask more questions. In different subjects and settings, the nature of gathering data and doing experiments varies, but this philosophy is always at work in the classroom.
- Students must be active agents in the learning process - partly being their own teacher at all times. It's not enough for a student to carry out an experiment to test a hypothesis. They have to design the experiment as well. Students as passive question-answering vessels do not learn as well as those who actively participate, and participants don't learn as well as those who are required to direct themselves with critical thinking.
- Gifted children face awful hurdles in social settings. They often feel to be without peers and have tunnel vision - thinking exactly one way solves their problems 95% of the time, so why listen to other people? Other students feel it is actually unethical to look at another person's ideas or plans - if the student can't work out a solution from first principles, they haven't "earned" the answer. For these and other reasons, interacting with peers is difficult for gifted children, and as adults they suffer from a systematic failure to socialize. Getting the advanced students to teach and interact with the less apt students is incredibly valuable. The less learned students can improve and the more advanced ones learn vital social skills. It is a disservice to both parties to think that the top performing kids are "held down" by spending time with less advanced peers.
- Students learn successfully when the lesson rotates from theoretical learning to hands-on learning and back again. When explaining a concept like heat transfer, the lesson begins with theory and principles - radiant, convective, and conductive transfer of heat, for instance. The students are then asked to apply the principles in a hands-on experiment that would validate or challenge the principles of heat transfer. As the students design and carry out experiments, they observe unexpected situations and sometimes odd results. These bring them back to the theory and principles in the abstract to explain the phenomena... and so on. This teaches students to learn in both abstract and hands-on modes, but always to think critically and from the vantage point of testing and validation. Knowledge is quantifiable, testable, and observable.
- Brilliant students rapidly excel their teachers; as a result, teachers don't know how to feed the student's fire. When a student learns everything the electronics lab has to offer, what is the tech teacher to do? Knowing where to point advanced kids, to help them prosper even further, is highly sought and frustrating to lack.
- Teaching content does not matter as much as teaching skill and worldview. The science lessons and art history learned in the classroom will either be forgotten or will evolve over the student's life. No matter what, though, the outlook the student is taught to apply - about life, and about learning - is what they will keep and seldom question. Thus, being an active, self-directed agent in your own learning is the most important lesson. By the same token, it is tragic when a student gains the outlook that school is a system to be gamed by barely skirting failure, that curious exploration is a distraction from a cell phone social life.
Lastly, we met with several teachers from the Royal Oak school system. They had these insights to contribute to our teacher brain download.
- Their problems with technology in the classroom come down to training and usability. A smart board is a faddish piece of equipment, asked for by some teachers out of fashion. But learning to use it - and consistently training new teachers in the school system to use them - was cumbersome. The technology contributed little compared to the overhead of time and training it required. As such, technology in the classroom necessarily implies an infrastructure - training, maintenance, best practices, documentation, replacement parts - that are much bigger than just the electronic block that sits in the classroom. Compare this to the beautiful simplicity of the overhead projector, and you can understand the trepidation around new classroom tech.
- Besides operating a machine, managing data going into or out of a machine can be onerous. For teachers who are good educators but not great technologists, the learning curve of a smart board is daunting. As such, the adoption rate of technology is very personnel-specific (and thus perhaps difficult for a school system to justify from a budgetary standpoint).
- Software solutions are more reliable, generally. Moodle has done great things and while adoption rate is spotty, based on teacher comfort levels, the results and usability are better than before. Software solutions for turning in assignments or doing entire assignments online exist. These allow the classroom time to be more hands-on and dedicated to group activity. Students can take silent, focused work home and finish it according to their own pace and needs.
- On the flip side, software is easy to acquire and distribute without any follow-on training. Dreamweaver suddenly appears on every computer in the tech lab but no staff know how to use it, and thus no staff can teach students to use the resource. Was that a good use of funds?
- "There's not enough time in the day." Time spent grading is a huge hurdle. Takes away from lesson planning. Time in the classroom is brief, time preparing for the next class is brief. Time is precious. (Thus the training and maintenance time costs of technologies are made much worse!)
- Advanced kids eventually outstrip their teachers in knowledge. Where do you send these kids to keep them advancing on their rapid pace? Especially true of technology.
- "The best technolgies are the ones that enable us to do what we've been trained to, well."
- When kids have cell phones, classroom student response clickers are a transitional technology. They will be useful only as long as students don't have their own super-clickers that tie into a web service they can link / text into.
Rocco, Ed, Ryan, Nate, Mario and I each grabbed a seat from among i3's assortment of odd, mismatched office chairs. Pulling up to the common area tables, we started cutting up quarter sheets of paper and distributing sharpies. Time to brainstorm. At this phase, no ideas are bad; let the energy of the conversation take over and spin out of control. Go off-the-wall, use your imagination, and throw practicality to the wind. That's for a different meeting. With that mindset and our new-found understanding of the life of an educator, we set to work. Here are several of the candidates we came up with, in brief form.
- Mistake counter! As kids work on a project they count how many mistakes they made. Perhaps kids get half a point for a mistake and a point for a right answer. Encourage them to try things that they don't think will work; alter their thinking about reward systems as all-or-nothing affairs.
- Color-coded voice recorder. Different brightly colored buttons on a hand-held device that lets students record voice notes. Tactile, engages the senses.
- "Shake to Answer" clicker. Like other student response systems, except it powers itself by being shaken. Kids have to shake it a certain amount to get it to work. Cures the fidgets and induces dopamine to focus the brain.
- "Scientific Method" monitor. ? Not sure how to make this physical! Includes digital notes journal to support texting with *proper* grammar to encourage digital and verbal literacy.
- Have kids come up with a functioning electronics project and have them teach it to other students. Or, make a device whose design evolves to a "perfected" state using group technology (you search for a part and its design before you try building a part from scratch).
- Student response system or mistake counter with a noise maker. Kids love noise - encourages them to try and get engaged.
- Student response system with buttons at far or dispersed locations. Gets kids to move around more physically to respond to answers, a la DDR.
- "Rocky's Boots" - modular, child-proof logic gate system. Sends beams of light piping around individual modules that do logic operations, returning to a terminal of some kind.
- A student response system where students have to use their whole body, run from place to place, etc, to submit answers.
- Collaborative response system. Makes students sit around one response system, they all enter their answer, and the system indicates if one of them got it right. They then have to talk to each other to figure out which answer is the right one and submit it. Perhaps the machine occasionally gives you misleading or incorrect responses, and forces the students to think for themselves about which answer must be the right one. They can then press a button to "call its bluff."
- Logic gates plus sensors to solve challenges. "Build something to identify an orange / a loud sound" etc. Open-ended, objective-driven.
- Pedal-powered projector. Pedal-powered anything! These are children we're dealing with, let's harness that energy somehow.
- Dial-a-mentor. Have someone available to answer a kid's questions when they dive deeper in a subject than a teacher can speak to.
- "Scientific method" recorder and publish system. Get kids to record the things they see and do and push the content out for others to consume through a digital journal. Teach kids to observe, relay conclusions, and communicate.
- Simple lego logic system that builds a graphic that appears on a screen - one that correlates with the blocks the kids put together. Just get them to the point that they see they can do something that makes an image appear on a screen - make the idea of programming accessible to them, even if the work itself is very simple and not totally programming. (Also include noise or sound generation.) Or have words chained together based on the blocks - perhaps for younger kids.
- Super stripped-down clicker - uses color/shape combos with a numeric read-out by each color. Language-independent. No fine resolution of data, just a rugged, cheap, easy-to-distribute clicker system.
- Mechanical clicker system - each clicker has a different sound frequency. Single audio base station would pick up different signals.
Having come up with a roster of potential solutions, we met again to cull them down to a short list of candidates. The project hit a pretty rough spot here. When the rubber hits the road, many of these ideas turn out to be impracticlal, infeasible, or altogether too vague to implement. Many project members were turned off by the student response system-oriented solutions. They seemed, by and large, to be unimaginative or gimmicky alterations of the basic idea behind a student response system. At heart, the argument for such a response system is that it's a facilitatory technology that can be adapted to many teaching styles and subject areas, and has a reputation for actually being useful to teachers in the classroom. If the student response system felt gimmicky, some of the other solutions felt moreso. The end result was a short list that the group itself admitted did not feel compelling.
- Logic bricks, a la Rocky's Boots. Individual IC-like blocks that chain together to create a physical logic circuit, teaching kids about logical combinations in math, chemistry, etc.
- Group response. A student response system where the students discussed quiz subject areas in small groups before having to answer individually.
- Roger's microcontroller
- Laser/IR shaker
- Hot potato
- Timebomb hallpass. Teacher giving a hallpass to a student sets a timer on it with a docking station. Teacher can read the timer on the hall pass as the student returns to ensure they weren't out for more than the allotted time.
- RFID attendance. Student attendance is registered automatically by RFID chips in small ID cards and door sensors.
After discussion, the team settled on the Group Response solution. As a student response system, its electronics are not especially complex or remarkable. But as a solution in the classroom - electronics that meshes into a curriculum and quiz plan - it has the potential to serve a host of educational concerns.
This, then, is the workflow of the final idea - IQ (Interactive Quiz), the multiple student response system. Think especially about the flexibility of this technology - it is simple in function, highly adaptable to other formats, and adjustable to teacher style.
- Teacher directs students to review a list of subject areas for a quiz. Let's say the class is history and the quiz will cover Europe's involvement in World War II. The students have many historical figures, dates, key events, and concepts to cover as they study for this quiz.
- On the day of the quiz, the teacher has the students form a line and pass by the teacher's desk, each accepting a clicker. The clickers have an on-board display and set of 4 buttons. The display indicates which team the student is part of - team 1, 2 , 3, etc.
- Students get together in their teams and sit down at tables facing each other.
- The teacher announces a question area - "The question will be about Winston Churchill. You have two minutes!" The students discuss among their peers at the table everything they know about Winston Churchill from their notes.
- At the end of that time, the students go quiet, and the teacher asks the question. "When did Winston Churchill become the UK's Prime Minister?" On an overhead projector, four answers are given beside the letters A, B, C, and D.
- Students individually use their clickers to submit an answer, pressing answer A, B, C, or D.
- On the student's unit, once all answers are collected, an LED lights up. A green LED indicates that all students on the team got the right answer, and will receive extra points. A yellow light indicates some students in the group got the right answer while others got it wrong; they will receive 1 extra point each. A red light indicates all the students got the answer wrong, and they receive no extra points.
- The teacher, at their discretion, randomizes the groups from time to time - perhaps to blend a very high-performing group with other lower-performing ones, so that the high-achievers interact more with the detached or struggling students. After the "shuffling," another question is asked - the students discuss - and then answer. This continues until the end of the quiz.
Without getting into the proposed construction, we intend for the student units and the controlling teacher unit to be extremely simple. A limited number of buttons, switches, and moving parts will make the devices easy to operate and inexpensive to repair or replace.
We feel this solution addresses many of the concerns we heard voiced by our teachers, namely:
- The strength of the solution is not in the electronics, but in the teaching method it espouses. Causing students to focus intently on quiz material, in a team-competitive format addresses a number of voiced concerns. Students get excited and focused by the contest nature of the quiz, the anticipation of seeing if their whole group will answer a question correctly, and of course the active recall of lesson material.
- It forces students to blend and interact with each other in ways they otherwise may not in a classroom. This forces the application of social skills in order to perform well on the quiz, as the group is largely (or entirely) scored based on the team's overall performance.
- Shuffling the deck and moving students around among teams gets the body moving and blood flowing every few minutes and enriches the variety of social interactions.
- The design of the device will allow a simple stand-alone operation mode for teachers without access to laptops. It will also have a laptop "pass-through" mode where the teacher unit acts as a peripheral device communicating to the student units.
There you have it! We seek to apply the lessons our teachers have taught us, and the biggie is this - successful learning happens with mental focus, communication,taking active roles, and making the best use of time. By starting with an educational strategy that happens to use electronics, we've found a way to address focus issues with an approachable, simple to use piece of technology for students and teachers alike.
Over the next week we will refine the idea and arrive at a much tighter specification. Until then!