Passing the Laura Ingalls Test

Writing for Slate.com, Linda Perlstein recently proposed the Laura Ingalls test. Imagine if this prairie girl were to time travel to the present day and consider how she would respond to modern-day technology. If you brought her to an Apple Store or handed her a cell phone, she wouldn’t know what to make of it. Yet, if you brought her to the nearest 5th grade classroom, she would immediately recognize it as a school, something nearly unchanged from her time. Perlstein then asks her readers to describe the ideal modern-day classroom. Their ideas are recorded as comments to her post.

I learned about this article by reading Slashdot, a blog that provides “news for nerds”. Slashdot’s articles tend to focus on the latest scientific discoveries, math proofs, silicon valley rumors and gadget releases and draws a well-educated readership who are known for not holding back their snarky comments. Given this community’s inclination toward technology, I was rather surprised by many of their comments.

There were a number of comments that suggested elementary schools should be low tech. One commenter suggested, “The most important piece of technology for a mathematics educator is a blackboard. The most importance piece of high-tech equipment is a sliding blackboard.” There were many other comments along the line that young students shouldn’t even have calculators, that they should develop basic skills before ever coming into contact with technology.

Another line of discussion suggested that technology is just a distraction. One commenter quipped, “Computers, iPads, iPhones, cell phones, iPods, you name it. Anything that gets in the way of learning stuff. We want to make this the most distracted, empty-headed generation ever, don’t we?” A thoughtful follow-up comment from a self-described “technology person” in a school district suggested under some circumstances computers and iPads could replace textbooks, but definitely not iPods.

I certainly can’t and won’t argue against the basic premise of these comments, that students need to develop the fundamentals and schools help focus students, not distract them. How then, can I rationalize my use of iPods in the classroom?

First, we have to consider what are the basic skills I want to teach. In a social studies class, I want students to be able to think critically, discuss issues with classmates, research credible sources and synthesize information into their own writing. All of these tasks require using external sources. The iPod is a tool that can deliver these external sources and provide a forum for students to share their ideas. Students can examine up to date maps, read current research, post to discussion boards and draft a written response through a variety of writing apps.

Second, another way to fight distraction is to hold attention. I got the feeling that the commenters mentioned above were defining good teaching as a really good lecture, with notes written on a blackboard. Research for decades has proven that even the best lectures are only effective with a small percentage of students. Many students are not able to retain information this way. Most become bored to distraction. The iPod puts a learning environment within the students’ hands, creating the possibility of active engagement. Used poorly, an iPod becomes just another way for students to “watch” content. However, along with a well designed lesson that requires the students to produce content such as a blog post, podcast, or short movie, students learn lessons that could never be written on a chalkboard.

This is the aspect of the classroom that I think passes the Laura Ingalls test. While she might recognize the teacher, the students and the desks, the very nature of 21st century education might be unrecognizable to her. Some of the greatest discoveries during the 150 years since the prairie classroom are not just how to make an exciting tech gadget, but how the human brain learns and retains information. For example, John Medina’s book, Brain Rules, explains how the average human brain will only focus on a lecture for ten minutes. Based on this and other research, one of the major trends in teaching the past several years has been the 10-minute “mini-lecture”. In a writing workshop class, for example, the teacher will do a short skill demonstration then the students will spend the remainder of the period practicing that skill.

It is during this final 50 minutes of class that I believe technology can have the biggest impact. The iPod can become an immersive environment for students to engage directly with the curriculum as opposed to watching a teacher scribble on a dusty chalkboard.