Access to Learning

I’ve had a couple of experiences in the last two weeks that have made me think about learning for all.

The first experience was using Chromebooks with grade 4 students.  A few weeks ago, I taught a group of students in Grade 4 how to use the voice to text feature.  This week, I was working with the teacher and took the same group into the hall so they could spread out and use the Chromebooks to finish up their slides.  I can tell you first hand the difference that speech to text technology made.  One student went from three words per slide to complete sentences.  He’s a mover and a shaker… but in the hall he was engaged, concentrated and focused. In thirty minutes he had it done.  He walked back into class and started to add pictures.  And then I caught a moment that made me smile.  He proudly showed off his work to his neighbour. His teacher shared with me that he is not often done on time, much less ahead of others. And there he was showing off his work, proud posture and all. The feeling he had there is powerful. He was able to do his work to the best of his ability.  He didn’t have to wait years for equipment, assessments… he simply had what he needed to get it done.

The second experience was a conversation with an administrator about mastering math skills.  I was trying to convince him of the value of “Number Talks”. My most convincing argument was giving him an example that I wrote about in my previous post.  Take for example a teacher only teaches long division to his/her students. It involves many steps and some of our students have difficulty remembering them. My recent number talk included 4 different ways to divide. Two of which were new to me.  One involved multiplication actually.  Only one was similar to long division, but made way more sense number-wise. My argument is that if our students know ways other than long division, all division questions are open to them. They have access to division. They won’t shut down. They can solve it their way, not one way. One way of doing things is a barrier for some. Accepting multiple approaches gives all students access to the math, instead of shutting down each time there is a problem involving division.

When researching and thinking about this some more, I came across a great quote by Mohamed Jemni who did a Ted Talk about “An Avatar capable of sign language”.  His Ted Talk by the same name is worth a view.

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And all of this reminded me of two different keynote speakers from the Google for Education Summit in Kitchener a few weeks ago.  One of the presenters, named Rachel Wente-Chaney, spoke about how technology is not revolutionary.  It’s the decisions of people behind it that really makes the difference. It’s really about teaching students how to use it purposefully and meaningfully. It’s not the tech itself that makes the difference but the choice the teachers and students make when using tech that are revolutionary. For example, allowing a student to use speech to text technology. The second keynote speaker, Kevin Brookhouser mentioned a web based game he was playing called “Limbo” in his address.  In this game, a little guy overcomes different obstacles in order to move forward (avoiding a boulder while climbing a hill for instance). It quickly become apparent that he can’t swim.  There is a crate in the water that he can climb on though.  Kevin showed how no matter how hard he tried, he could not cross the water on that crate.

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Brookhouser then described that he kept trying to climb on the crate to pass through the water but kept falling off. It was really frustrating. He could not figure it out until he learned to pull the crate towards the trees, use the crate to reach a branch and climb over the pond in the trees. He spoke about “tool fixedness”. Essentially, that we as humans get so fixated on a tool being used for one sole purpose that we can’t see any other way of using it. It is really hard for us to see any other solutions. He spoke of algorithmic problems (where there is only one solution) vs. wicked problems (famine, environmental concerns, education for all) and how we have to get really good at solving algorithmic ones. The wicked ones are important too… but that is a blog for another day!  Is there really only one way of dividing, writing, reading, etc.?  Yes, we need to get good at finding the correct answer, but I would argue that we need to be open to multiple ways of getting there. If you’re not good with the crate … climb through the trees.

Is this what we mean by transforming learning?  It’s looking past traditional ways of doing things?

Is “tool fixedness” present in our classrooms? Are there tools, strategies out there that we are too fixated on?  So much so that we might not see a solution right in front of us?

What are some other ways we can making learning more accessible to all of our students?  What obstacles are standing in our way?

As always, I welcome your comments below.

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