Calgary high school math teacher says using technology lets students play to their strengths

jasonthumbnailsAs a Grade 11 and 12 math teacher, I have the opportunity to interact with about 80 students each day. In a world where people often judge a book by its cover, it has become almost habit for me to pigeonhole each new student into my "learning style" hierarchy. I am constantly in danger of extinguishing the only creative ember that may be still glowing inside them by the time their once-polygonal selves have reached my circles-only high school classroom. I don't like that I — and many teachers — do this.

With technology becoming more common in classroom settings, I think of it as a tool that can help my students and I rediscover what it means to own our own learning — and to also regain an appreciation for unique learning styles.

techJadan Barthel is a Grade 11 and 12 math teacher at Calgary Christian High School. His students use iPads in the classroom.
Photo by Justin Wilson
To continue, I need to define what I mean by the phrase "students need to own their learning." To put it simply, students need to accept the fact that their learning and development is up to them, and no one else. While this statement may seem intended to reduce the duties of teachers, I would argue that the opposite is true. The teacher is now required to provide opportunities that engage students to take responsibility for their learning and to create appropriate expectations that hold them accountable to their goals. Here are three ways I think technology can contribute to the growth of confident and resilient students who take ownership of their learning:

First, personal ownership is fed by the integration of personal interests. Technology offers students the ability to encounter real-time data, information, and relevant applications that are interesting to them. This allows them to experience things they are interested in while still working within the framework of a challenge that has been presented. If students are given the opportunity to investigate the connections that exist between a curricular objective and a passion of theirs, confidence grows and ownership increases. To be honest, I believe the integration of technology into the classroom makes it more about the students and less about me, the teacher.

Next, technology offers a diverse approach to the finished product, as well as the road each student takes to get there. A tablet can house multiple creation apps that will not only allow the student to take alternate approaches to demonstrating what they know, it will also allow them to execute a task at a high level of quality. Technology offers the opportunity to take unique approaches to a common problem — an exciting circumstance that celebrates diversity and builds confidence.

Finally, technology offers the opportunity for students to practice everyone's favourite virtual task — sharing. Never before has it been so easy to view the work of others and to share our own. Teachers — a group notorious for treating their lesson plans like Sméagol does his ring, like prized secrets — are slowly realizing how great this whole sharing thing can be.

Sharing knowledge with technology

Yes, it can be hard to be flexible and just let go of a lesson plan stained with your blood, sweat, and tears, but it is this very shift towards sharing via technology that is undeniably the best practice. The opportunity to share is available to students through the use of technology. There are multiple strategies and workflows available that allow students to share their work with each other, their teachers, and the world. If students are given the chance to express their passion through a medium that reveals their skills, they will also gain the confidence necessary to share one's work with others. Let the sharing commence.

In his 1916 book Democracy and Education, John Dewey said, "Give pupils something to do, not something to learn; and when the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results." Technology can enrich what we as teachers give our students to do. It offers real-life application, diverse approaches to a finished product, and the ability to show it off. Most importantly, it marks the start to getting back to a place where we can confidently celebrate our diverse, polygonal selves.

Jadan Barthel is a math teacher at Calgary Christian High School, and a contributor for the Calgary Journal.