I'm teaching an Introduction to Education course at MIT this semester, as part of their small Teacher Education Program to prepare MIT students to serve as K-12 educators. For the last few weeks of class, the students in class are teaching lessons to one another.
It is an incredible treat to sit and learn from MIT undergraduates. In the last few weeks, I've listened to lectures explaining special relativity (did you know GPS satellites fall behind Earth time by 40ms a day?!?), learned recursion in CS programs by sorting class members into physical lines by height, and used a forensic investigation of a car crash as a vehicle (ha!) to study acceleration. They are doing a fabulous job, and it's been a delight to see the world through their eyes: filled with passion for exploring the world around them.
One of the things that has most struck me throughout the class is that my students never bring computers to class. MIT classes almost all involve math and derivation, and computers are lousy for communicating mathematically, so my students never have laptops. They also almost never pull out computers, ipads, or phones during class as distractions. Sometimes kids send a quick text or something, but they seem tremendously in control of their use of technology.
In these mini-lessons over the past few weeks, many haven't featured much technology. The computer science class about recursion taught the concept without using any electrons except the overhead lights. The instructors wrote psuedo-code (conceptual instructions that could be operationalized in computer language) on the blackboard in chalk, and then students wandered around the class executing their instructions. A computer science class, at MIT, taught without computers.
Today's class included a terrific lesson about light and wavelengths, where technology did play a few selective and very important roles. First, the lesson was motivated by a fascinating video, where a laser is passed through a prism which is leaking a stream of water. And the light follows the water! Wow! These are students discovering the power of video to motivate compelling questions about math and science, a power that Dan Meyer has been discussing for sometime. Here's the video:
The two instructors then gave a very well done mini-lecture/chalk-talk about reflection and refraction to give students some mathematical tools to make sense of this problem. Finally, students tested their understanding of these ideas by using a PhET simulation about Bending Light, looking very closely at how light behaves at the boundary of air and water in order to make sense of how light might travel through a stream of water.
It's exciting to watch these students make careful decisions about where technology and new media add value to a learning experience, and where they can accomplish more with traditional tools. One of my strong messages to teachers over the years has always been about making good choices: about preserving the best of our educational traditions and employing new technologies only where they add real value. I'm excited to see that my students this semester seem to be developing a knack for making those choices.