Thursday, May 1, 2014

Teachable Moments: The Computer Lab Trap

My school district has no formal digital literacy curriculum so time in the computer lab is often spent on STAR Reading and Math assessments, reading and playing games on Starfall, on CoolMath4Kids, etc. While I do not discount these activities and recognize their potential in providing valuable reinforcement of essential skills (there is never enough instructional time), I believe we are doing a disservice to our students by using websites in isolation. Our approach to computer lab time should be a comprehensive one.

One of the current key themes in early childhood education is project-based learning and real world application of concepts. Personally, I see this theme spread throughout the curriculum. In math we are inundated with word problems in second grade, in reading stories all have text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world connections, social studies revolves around our community, and science explains balance, motion, air, and water. Yet, when teachers walk into the computer lab they engage their students in an activity isolated to one website and arrived at by one linear navigation path.

The simplicity of providing students with a structured linear pathway to follow to get to the day's activity may be appealing, but it eliminates all critical thinking and problem-solving skills out of what could be a rich experience. I know many of you are reading this and thinking, "Is she really telling me that my Kindergartners should be navigating to a website multiple ways? Does she know we only have thirty minutes in the lab - and that ten of those minutes on each end are wasted getting situated and logged in?.

Yes! I do know! I've been there! I even get excited over the fact that it's an extra half an hour of my day that I know my students will be completely engrossed in their task and there will be true silence for a short while! So, let's compromise...

Obviously, a kindergartner is not developmentally ready to consider multiple paths to reaching one website but they are capable of watching you model the process. They are able to listen closely as you take the time to describe (maybe in your classroom before going to the lab) the name of the box at the top of the screen that you are typing an address in, or what that Star in the upper right-hand corner you are clicking on is and why there are so many things that pop up when you click. They will absorb your explanation of how this list is organized by letters in the alphabet or by when it was added to the list. They are able to hear you think out loud as you choose not to click on the flashing picture of a new Disney movie on the side of the screen you are visiting. The importance of modeling is it's ability to train students own thinking through repetitions over time. We employ this teaching strategy too many times a day to count in regards to other instructional times, so why are we not doing it in the computer lab?!

Not to mention, just asking a few simple questions if time is running short can get young minds thinking critically about the tools they are using and the decisions they are making. Check out my screencast below to check out some examples in relation to some common sites for young learners!

We take for granted the young ages at which many of our students are exposed to technology and overlook the lack of understanding there is about the tool they are using, how it operates, what dangers exist, and the reasons why they follow certain steps. When you are in the computer lab, even if it is for a one-stop skill reinforcing task be sure to open that dialogue with your students about the choices you and they are making! Just a few quick questions can go a long way in engaging their critical thinking skills and problem-solving when interacting with old and new technologies, alike. Not to mention, the upper grades teachers and IT department will be sending you a big thank you when they work with those students and when those computers live long, healthy lives!