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Reflections on 20 years of 1-to-1 at Methodist Ladies' College
Author: Adam Smith | March 23rd, 2010

By Adam Smith
Former Teacher at Methodist Ladies' College

Twenty years on, is there really anything left to learn from our experiences in the first laptop classrooms? With so much written and said, even to one who was there, the narrative is starting to sound like myth. With that in mind, I’m inclined to ask what we missed. With two decades of hindsight, are there dots we didn’t connect that might have informed our work at the time and the conclusions we were so ready to share?

Don’t get me wrong, stories endure for good reason. Even allowing for memory’s romantic revisions, I still believe a perfect storm-like confluence led us all – teachers and students alike – to new relationships with learning that last to this day. That the technology, market, theories of cognition, and personalities came together as they did was, to say the least, fortuitous. Picture a couple of hundred girls with laptops; project-, problem-, and design-based learning; and teachers meeting before school to reflect and dialogue about constructivist pedagogy. And keep in mind that this was happening well before the first graphical Web browser was invented.

Students appeared to tap into a desire to create and were hungry for knowledge and skills to fuel their progress. With that appetite came self-managed learning, metacognition, and assessment-as-learning that personalized instruction beyond the prescriptive capacity of any teacher. Intrinsically motivated students losing track of time? It wasn’t like that every minute of every day, but often enough that we realized something special was happening. Students had engaged for their own reasons, and everything seemed changed. Organizationally, it was a top-down, bottom-up meeting of purpose that, with elaboration and a catchy title, might make for a best-selling business book.

It is the distance twenty years provides and the subsequent observation of other initiatives, however, that enable a fresh perspective on the conditions that led to our early outcomes. For context, I will touch on three vectors that were well articulated at the time, and then extend on that foundation with three more seasoned reflections.

The first vector was the evolving computer, an information machine that lends itself to pattern recognition and productivity. It was, for our situation, the right catalytic mechanism.

The second was the transformation of curriculum. The learning environment was extended with laptops to open a fertile place for constructivist ways of thinking, learning, and teaching. Software was chosen and curriculum was planned to favor concept modeling in micro-worlds and the amplification of talent.

The third vector was the transformation from school to learning organization. Handing teachers and students laptops broke things sufficiently that a new dynamic had to be forged with the locus of control closer to the learner. Learners became teachers; teachers became lead learners; and collective and institutional intelligence was valued.

Now to what wasn’t so clear at the time.

During the program, students displayed new and increasing levels of initiative. Like any teacher I knew this was good and to be fostered, but I didn’t appreciate just what a rare and valuable quality it is. Einstein did. He said “It’s a wonder curiosity survives formal education.” At conferences, I spoke about our students’ perseverance when problem solving, and convinced participants that these attitudes were transferred across other endeavors. I suggested that we were nurturing our students’ imaginations towards innovation rather than imitation. Without quantitative evidence, however, I was tentative. Now, I have seen first-hand that collaborating knowledge workers must have initiative and social skills to leverage their academic knowledge, and I value the different talents and habits required in an effective organization. If I were starting today, I would be better prepared to recognize and develop those talents.

In a similar vein, students appeared to own their learning. We supposed this was largely due to the aforementioned shift of control and roles, but within the affective domain we glossed over equally consequential factors. For example, in 1990, how did it affect an 11 year-old girl to see her forty-plus year-old female teacher eagerly teaching herself new technology skills, innovating in her craft, and reveling in ambiguity as an opportunity to learn? Might that student’s attitudes towards learning then, and even today as an adult, be partially the result of this hidden curriculum? And if so, what is the message sent by, and what is the cost of teachers who act antithetically? Today, I ask teachers to see their own attitudes towards change, new learning, and coping skills as part of the curriculum.

My final observation is one of perspective. We considered how our students were reacting to our innovative educational program without properly accounting for the fact that they were co-innovators. These kids believed that they were doing something that had never been done before. The program had detractors. There was uncertainty and risk. Visitors asked probing questions. Parents and siblings held the computers gingerly. Through all of this, the students were authentically shaping the future with their own learning being the central experiment. And so I suggest that we now be careful to not let the innovation overshadow the innovating. ‘What works’ is figuring out what works, together. Had we had a map we would not have been explorers, and the pursuit would not have evoked the same sense of significance and effort.

I hope that these ideas are encouraging to any educator who is part of a new laptop initiative. Without doubt, your students need for you to have basic computer skills and an understanding of how technology can aid their development of the essential understandings and intellectual qualities of your discipline. Just as importantly, students need us educators to be open about learning; ours and theirs. Their journey is worthwhile because we don’t have all the answers. So if you feel like you are heading into the unknown – as we did twenty years ago – that’s a good thing.

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