The Problem of Either-Or

I wrote this on Coronado – June 23, 2012

I waited almost a week to write my ISTE takeaway post, because I really wanted to process the discussions, the sessions, and the entire experience. I love attending the conference – seeing old friends, meeting new friends, and talking education into the late hours of the night.

The ISTE conference is so enormous, it is a wonder to me that any two people could have similar experiences (unless they stay glued to each other’s sides the entire time). Also, this may have been the first year that I have enjoyed all three keynotes (although I watched Dr. Yong Zhao on video instead of live), and I have so many ideas swirling around in my head from them. I can’t wait to talk to my colleagues and students about them and see what ideas they have!

I didn’t even once make it to the Exhibitors hall this year. I’m not a huge fan of the “in-your-face” marketing style from many of the vendors (orange morphsuits – really?), but there were a few I really wanted to find and say hello.

There were a lot of really great things I learned at ISTE… and more importantly, there were a lot of new connections made. I think, though, that those are always the benefits I take away from ISTE. For now, I want to write about a “takeaway” that has me thinking the most, and that’s the “Either OR” mentality.

At every conference, as well as in many blog posts and tweets, we often read about this great tool or that great company and how these are the saviors of education. Whether it’s the debate of iPad vs Chromebook vs laptop, Dropbox vs Google Drive, Flipped vs Non-Flipped Classrooms vs Khan Academy… I’m constantly wondering why we have to debate them in an “either this or that” fashion.

Yes, if you are in a large school district, and you want money to purchase tools, it is more cost efficient to buy, for example, 10,000 laptops or 10,000 iPads. But I rarely hear that as justification for the debates. I’m not going to even attempt to post links to all the arguments for or against iPads or any other specific tool, because there are simply too many. Do a quick search for “flipping the classroom” and you’ll find hundreds of resources, as well as pro and con arguments. These discussions  and  (most of the time) civil arguments continued face to face in sessions, the Bloggers’ Cafe, the Social Butterfly Lounge, and in hallways at ISTE: “The Flipped Classroom is the best way to teach.” “I’m a Chromebook user and would never use an iPad with students!” These are statements, among several others, that I actually heard from people during the conference.

Please pardon my slow-ish processing, but… what if we weren’t forced into “Either OR” thinking about any of this? What if, in addition to differentiating what and how our students are learning, we also differentiated the tools they used to learn? What if, in any given day, my classroom contained students working on Chromebooks, iPads, smart phones, and paper? What if they had the freedom to choose using an app or a web tool of their choice? What if some chose to watch a video at home and do “homework” during class time, and others chose the opposite? (I know this isn’t the exact definition and practice of “flipping” a classroom, but bear with me.)

Obviously, there are some web tools/apps that are not free, so this option doesn’t work if students choose to work in premium tools to which the school isn’t subscribed. There are, however, several web services and apps that ARE free, and I want my students to be able to make choices (albeit guided choices in many cases) about which tools work best for them.

There was a lot of discussion about personalizing education for kids at this conference… much more than I’ve ever heard before. If we truly want to provide personalized learning for our students, how can we live in an “Either OR” environment when it comes to how they learn and what they use to help them learn?

My takeaway is this: we shouldn’t force our students into “Either OR” learning of concepts and skills. We shouldn’t force them to use a specific tool because it’s preferred by one of the adults in the room. We shouldn’t force them into an instructional/learning style because it’s what works best for the adults or most of the students in the classroom. We need to personalize learning… and understand what that really means.

To me, personalized learning means our classrooms cannot resemble the classrooms of the 1900s or the 2012s. There cannot be 25, 30, or more students shoved into a room with one adult who tries to meet all of their needs. Students can no longer be grouped by possibly the only thing they have in common – their ages. And we can no longer give them the “Either OR” option.

There must be fluidity in learning… in the tools they use, with whom they are learning on a daily basis, how they learn and communicate what they are learning. They need school to look and feel different. They need their school days to be free of bells and strict, unchanging class schedules. Our kids need the freedom of “AND.”

“In our school, we use laptops, and Chromebooks, and iPads. We use Google Docs and Tapose, and… ”

I’d like to approach the freedom of “AND” the same way I do a smörgåsbord. You can’t eat everything on the table and not regret it later (well, at least I can’t). Go up to the table, find the things with which you are familiar and know you like. Next time, try something new. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it. Go back and get something else. Maybe it’s another new food. Maybe it’s an old stand by. Eat the foods that work for you.

That’s a discussion I’d like to have before the next ISTE.