Hillbrook School, an independent, coeducational JK-8 day school in the heart of Silicon Valley, is leaping straight into the fray of mobile learning.

Learning can look like THIS

Posted on April 17, 2013 by Don Orth under General
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Last week, a small team of teachers and I traveled to Atlanta to participate in Ed Tech Teachers’ iPad Summit (their second national conference on iPads–the first was in Boston, Fall 2012). It’s one of the best tech conferences I’ve been to because 1) it has a clear focus–iPads in education, 2) attendees come with specific questions and actively seek answers and 3) its goal is “transforming education.” The questions keynote speakers and many presenters revisited were: “What does transformative education look like? Why is important? What are we trying to do? How do we meet our students in their world and leverage THAT?” Education, as John Dewey wrote in “My Pedagogical Creed” must be relevant and important now, not simply a preparation for the future. And, I think we all understand, that the future is increasingly unpredictable. It would be irresponsible to think we could possibly set our children up with the exact skills they will need for their future lives. How can we prepare students for a future when we have no idea what it (or any “jobs” in the future) will look like?  That said, we must ask the question: how can school best serve our students?  What is important?


Technology plays an important role in this, but not in the typical ways one may think. One concept that came up during the summit was this idea of the iPad as a trojan mouse. Co-founder of Ed Tech Teacher Justin Reich writes:

“Those of us interested in meaningful change in teaching and learning need to make sure that the shiny exterior of the Trojan Mouse is stuffed inside with serious questions about practice, student relationships, assessment, a shared language about pedagogy, and a shared vision for our students.”  Read more.

The iPad has allowed us to look into the classroom differently, with different focus. It reveals both brilliant and obsolete pedagogy, transformative and mind-numbing curricula, inspiring and discouraging projects and work. An example–try to redefine with an iPad (Rubin Puentadura’s SAMR model) a curriculum that follows to the T a workbook of worksheets. You could convert pages into PDFs, allow students to drop in pictures with the coolest annotation apps, and have them type neatly, with a rainbow of colors in the boxes–but you still have the same old mind-numbing march through a workbook. Sometimes the best thing to do is to start over. It’s not enough to adopt new technology. Teachers need to continue what they do well–adopt new tools, evolve their curriculum, embrace new techniques, and base their practice on sound pedagogy.

No less significant to the student experience is the physical classroom.

Put a classroom of students and a teacher in a room with iPads. They have access to the near-infinity of resources available on the web and a wide range of tools for content creation and collaboration; not to mention the “extreme” mobility of such a little, power-packed device. Ask everyone to get to work and notice how they move around the classroom trying to get together around the friction, gravity, and sheer bulk of traditional classroom space and furniture. Watch how students migrate to the halls and out of doors to do their work together and alone. It’s no coincidence that the hallway has become a new classroom space. I’ve seen hundreds of photos of students lined up comfortably in the hallways of their schools or on outdoor stairs, doing their work. The mobility is fabulous–students do work EVERYWHERE, but we also need to consider that this migration to any other place than the classroom is perhaps a failure of the classroom itself. Ask students to create their own space for learning and it looks NOTHING like the classroom. Ask adults where they enjoy doing their most creative and inspired work and–you guessed it–it also looks NOTHING LIKE THE CLASSROOM.

Hillbrook’s Idea Lab (iLab) was inspired by our 1:1 iPad program and the mobility it injected into the classroom. How do we create an environment (maybe we should stop calling it a classroom)—learning space (it can be physical virtual or both) that leverages mobility and inspires students? In the same way that our teaching and curricula need to consider mobile technology and learning, so do our spaces.

At the conference, I talked to many educators who asked me variations of these questions: “I’m taking our computer lab offline” or “We have a new space we’d like to redesign…” then: “What kind of furniture should we put in there?” or “What should it look like?” These are reasonable questions at some point, BUT they are not the first questions. Perhaps they are not even the right questions. In the same way, when a school has the opportunity as well as the resources to buy new technology, the first question should not be: “What kind of tech should we get?” The questions need to be: “What are you trying to do? What do you want students to learn? What do you want teaching and learning to look like? What is important?”

One small detail should be part of this equation as well: “What do students need to learn?” (See 21 century skills outlined in The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators by Wagner.)

It’s also not a small thing to ask your VIPs–the students–how they learn. When you ask, be prepared for a wide range of answers. Are you ready to deal with that or do you throw up your hands and create a space with the lowest common denominator (be it cost, furniture, etc.)? Everyone learns differently–even adults. Should the “classroom” look the same for everyone? Do students really know what’s best for them? But who does know what’s best for them? Guidance is important; exposure and expansion of possibilities is important–but most people have difficulty imagining something beyond what they’ve experienced. Children are better with imagination, given the license to exercise it–but if we leave it to adults alone, it may be the same old same old.

The Hillbrook iLab allows students to build their space for learning, every single time. It allows different students to create different learning environments in the same space. Still some students need the outdoors and hallways, their own rooms or a fixed desk, but more students are taking ownership of the iLab and loving it.

There are many ways to talk about the iLab and it’s role in teaching and learning, but I see it like this: If you ask a student to create their own learning space for a particular work, they begin to engage before the work even starts, building the space in a way that will help them do that work. They commit to the work before they are even doing the work. And by enabling them to take ownership and interact with the space – they continue to test, take risks and explore as they do their work. They own the space and so the work. The sense of student-ownership is significant.

The iLab is a student-owned space. It it mostly not prearranged by teachers. Students enter the iLab and “feel differently” than they do in other classrooms. The relationship between teacher and student also changes when a room does not “belong” to any one adult or group.  It becomes more collaborative, with the teacher acting as facilitator, rather than recreating the sage on the stage format they may use more often in their traditional classrooms.

So when you have the opportunity to redesign a space, ask yourself about the work you’d like students to do, about the work they might do, about the work (and don’t limit your imagination here) that might be possible. Then ask your students the same thing. Ask about the kind of teaching and learning you’d like to see, and the relationships between students, teachers, and the work at hand. Be ready to completely redesign the way teaching happens, the format you give students to work, and most importantly, the trust you have in your students to make good decisions about how they learn.

You might have to re-teach students how to take ownership of their learning–traditional education often discourages entrepreneurialism, but after a quick reintroduction to how to own and use space, you’ll find that it comes naturally to students and they will rise to that responsibility. Give them a space that will allow for all the creativity and imaginative power that’s always bubbling right below the surface. And then, step back, and let them learn.


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