The 21st Century Classroom: Why iPads are The Right Tool For Our Middle School

Reflections on our impending move to a 1:1 iPad program in grades 6-8.

Two years ago, I sat with the middle school faculty, and we imagined what the world would look like in 20 years and what skills students would need in order to be successful in that world of the future.  I firmly believe that the iPad will be a powerful tool to help students acquire those skills.

When the first iPad was unveiled less than four years ago, much of the excitement revolved around its size.  Behold, a device that allowed you to read the newspaper in bed, read your books in the park, or watch a movie on an airplane. But these activities are largely solitary ones, focused on the consumption of information. The promise of iPads in education is that they assist teachers in guiding students beyond their role as consumers of media to active participants who document, manipulate, and create dynamic content.

How are iPads different from the computers available in many of our classrooms?  Certainly, some schools use them primarily for word processing, watching videos, or searching the web.  However schools that employ tablets strictly for these purposes, fail to capitalize on their greatest potential.   

The power of iPads lies in their capacity to strengthen key 21st-Century skills. Think of them as the 4C’s: communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. Or better yet, think of the iPad as a tool for connection. For example, reading has become a social activity. How many articles have you read recently because someone shared a link with you on Facebook, Twitter, or by e-mail? Now imagine a group of eighth graders reading a novel or news article on the iPad. As they read, they highlight text and look up words with the tap of a finger.  But they also respond to questions the teacher has posed within the text itself, sharing their thoughts and engaging with their classmates’ responses in real time.  They are not just reading the same text; they are developing shared understandings and learning from each other in dynamic ways.

Research has long told us that the students who excel at reading comprehension are those who are able to make connections between what they read and their own lives, other texts, and the world around them. Similarly, a key competency of the 21st-century is associative thinking — making connections across disciplines and combining ideas in creative ways. The iPad provides access to apps and programs that bridge disciplines and help students develop these types of thinking skills.

The iPad also helps students become curators of their own learning.  Because of its portability and photo/video features, this device allows us to create and record information in a way a laptop can’t. Imagine math students sending teachers screen-shots of their work as a way to ask a question or get feedback. Imagine blogging equations and solutions.  Imagine a group of middle school scientists taking pictures of each stage of an experiment, charting daily change and compiling the final results into a dynamic presentation of pictures and graphs.  Imagine history students using the Google Field Trip app to take virtual journeys anywhere in the world – and then creating their own video of local sites.  Imagine students using tools such as Evernote to create on-line portfolios in multiple classes. Students’ work won’t be lost to the recycling bin or bottom of a backpack; it will be available for metacognitive reflection as they chart their progress month-to-month, year-to-year. As we teach students to become curators, we are also teaching systems thinking: how do individual items fit within the “whole” and why does an item fit within a collection. In essence, students will create multiple, dynamic galleries based on their own designs.

Even with our current limited access to iPads, these types of creative and connected learning activities are already happening. For example, seventh grade humanities teacher Tina Harper recently published a must-read article about how her students used iPads to write collaborative stories. The program they employed – Quip — debuted this summer, and our teachers quickly found ways to use it for faculty collaboration as well as student instruction.

Who knows what iPad tool will come out this spring which will augment learning next fall? It is a process of discovery framed within concrete goals.

Let me add one more key reason we have chosen to adopt the iPad for all students in grades six through eight:

Middle school is the age to teach kids the habits of mind and practical skills necessary to navigate the sea of information they encounter every time they turn on a mobile device.  A common platform allows us to develop a common language.  First and foremost, a common platform helps us in our efforts to keep kids safe.  If all parents, teachers, and students are fluent in the privacy and security settings available on this tablet, we can set up common expectations for use.  Allowing different brands of mobile devices – at this age – would present a level of complexity that would hinder our efforts to build a shared understanding of responsible use. As we help students become digital citizens, we need to help them build good habits. When they turn on the device, we want them to know why they are using it and how they can use it effectively. We need to give them tools for managing the distraction inherent to our digital world.

So here it is in a nutshell: iPads are not simply portable computers to help individual students engage in private work; they are connective tools that allow groups to share common experiences and collaborate together in creative ways. They empower students to become curators of their own learning, and they provide a common platform as teachers help students develop strong habits.

We live in a world that needs creative problem-solvers who can work to solve our most intractable problems. iPads are not the solution, but they are a tool to strengthen the skills students will need to flourish in our interconnected, digital world. We are so excited to see what our teachers and students create together!

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