Friday, March 7, 2008

Mandating Participation - What Exactly Are We Trying To Achieve

I overheard a conversation the other day that I just can't get out of my head. The conversation revolved around how we might get more students to participate in extra curricular activities at school. One solution that was tossed around was to extend the lunch hour and require students to participate in something at that time. This really bothered me at first but I did not know why at the time. It took some reflection for me to come to this conclusion. The problem is not that this would get more students participating in extra curricular activities or that there would be some benefit in their participation but rather that this solution would negate the fundamental positive benefits extra curricular activities provide. This issue gets at the heart of motivation and encompasses a whole host of other external factors that schools don't have control over.

The argument is that studies have shown a positive correlation between participation in extra curricular activities and academic performance. Therefore, if we require all students to participate in at least one activity we will see increases in their academic performance. To me this is logic follows the same lines as is described in this clip from South Park:

What we need to ask is WHY is there a positive correlation? I suspect the active variable here is not participation but rather what leads a student to become involved in extra curricular activities. I see two main factors involved here:
  1. Intrinsic Motivation
  2. Involved Parental Structure
Many students participate in these activities because they want to. These students do so out of enjoyment of the activities the extra curricular clubs and teams provide. Mandating their participation will turn the motivation extrinsic because there will be consequences for non participation. Of course, many students will still find these activities intrinsically motivating but the presence of those who are there for purely extrinsic reasons will diminish the quality of the experience for everyone and for them their participation will not likely lead to further academic success.

There are a fair number of students who participate in extra curricular activities for extrinsic reasons already. Usually these reasons involve pressure from others. In this case this pressure is positive. Often parents will require students to participate in something. My parents made me take band, participate in at least one school sport, and participate in at least one school club. I dreaded some of these activities as a high school student but I willfully participated in others for pure intrinsic reasons. The benefit here for the student motivated extrinsically is the strong parental structure and the involvement of parents in a student's life. If it is not a parent providing this extrinsic motivation it might be peer pressure that when applied in this way has a positive effect. The resultant academic success tied to extra curricular involvement for these students is not the result of involvement in the activity but rather the support structure that student has.

If we want to increase student achievement by looking at how those students who participate in extra curricular activities have excelled we need to dig deeper. We need to find ways to support students who find intrinsic reasons to be involved in positive activities. We also need to find ways of strengthening a student's support structure. I believe the key here is community building, not mandating participation. Just because one person got profits after collecting underpants doesn't mean that collecting underpants led to profits.

I think this same analogy applies to 1:1 laptop initiatives. This one has been even more difficult for me to conclude given my obvious bias for technology enhanced learning environments. I love my laptop, I love the internet, and I love what I can do with technology. When I was a classroom art teacher I loved seeing what my students could do with technology and I loved the positive results I saw because of it.

Many school districts are jumping into the 1:1 initiative. There have been studies done that show the positive result of implementing a program like this. However, I suspect this is similar to the debate about extra curricular activities and similar to the underpants analogy. I believe it would be foolhardy for any teacher, school, or district to say, "That school went to 1:1 and saw gains so we need laptops too." Is it the technology that produces these gains? I suspect the technology enables or rather encourages other changes to occur in the classroom that are the direct correlatives to academic gains.

When each student has a laptop or access to a computer in a 1:1 setting the teacher can plan instruction or rather learning activities that involve more independently tailored tasks and assessments. Having more tools to work with promotes a constructivist approach to learning. Effective 1:1 teachers are having students solve real world problems using digital tools to create, manipulate, solve, and innovate. They are approaching curriculum from a project-based inquiry model and sharing their time with students as co-learner, not "sage on the stage."

However, just plopping laptops in each classroom does not a constructivist teacher make. I believe for this to truly be effective the pedagogical shift has to occur first. Technology clearly enhances PBL in a way that academic gains can be measured. Technology enhances a behaviorist classroom by making presentations more pretty and entertaining but not really engaging. I feel engage is often equated to entertain by educators. The truth is that true engagement, the type that leads to knowledge construction and true understanding, is not entertainment. True engagement often is not fun. We need to take a close look at our practice and decide for ourselves how we will best engage our students in authentic learning and then decide what the tools are that will make this happen. It may vary well be that we will need a 1:1 laptop environment to achieve these goals but the machine is just a tool to assist in the process. The real actor in this is pedagogy. If the teachers in a school are not ready to adopt a constructivist pedagogy the money spent on 1:1 will be wasted and I fear will actually show a negative correlation with academic achievement. For those schools it might be best to start small. Place 5-10 computers in each classroom before jumping in and doing a 1:1. Otherwise we are just collecting underpants and hoping to get profits.

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