« negative campaigning is a mistake in '04 | Main | undermining stereotypes in Hong Kong »

April 6, 2004

kids, computers, and research

I haven't posted lately about our work with high school kids, because I've missed the class for several weeks in a row due to scheduling conflicts. With help from my colleagues and grad students, the kids have explored the issue of obesity, learned some geography skills, and deliberated about what maps they should make that will help explain (or even reduce) the obesity problem in their community. They have decided to select one small area that contains both food sources and exercise opportunities. They will collect data about food quality and price, the exercise options, and the "walkability" of the streets in that area, and then they will make GIS maps for PrinceGeorges.org This will be a pilot study that should lead to the comprehensive mapping of the whole community.

One thing I have learned from this work is that students are not automatically facile with computers just because they were born after the release of Windows 1.0. Many students with whom we have worked have spent little time in front of computers; they have only been taught “keyboarding” in school (this means typing, but with a word processor); and they have fairly low confidence in their own abilities.

The same problems show up on national samples. Analysis of the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) by Jianxia Du and James Anderson reveals that consistent use of computers in schools is correlated with higher test scores for White and Asian students and for those who take advanced courses. Presumably, they are using computers to enrich their studies and to do creative, challenging work. But there is no positive correlation for young people in other racial and ethnic groups or for those of any background who take less challenging courses. “Disadvantaged children tend to utilize computers for routine learning activities rather than for intellectually demanding applications.” In fact, students who take computer courses perform worse on standardized tests than other students, ceteris paribus.

Mark Warschauer has compared two schools in Hawaii that intelligently integrate computers into their science courses. In both schools, teams of students use computers to conduct scientific research, guided by teachers from several disciplines. But one school serves an affluent and selected student body, 97% of whom go straight to four-year colleges, while the other serves a neighborhood with a per capita income under $10,000. At the selective private school, teachers have personal experience in graduate-level scientific research. They teach students to collect field data using held-held devices, download the data to computers, and then intensively analyze them (with help from the calculus teacher). Meanwhile, the students at the Title One public school take boats to outdoor locations, learn to grow seaweed, and then use computers to publish a team newsletter.

Both activities are worthwhile; both teach skills and knowledge and engage students in creative teamwork. But there is a fundamental difference in the kinds of skills taught and the overall purpose of the exercise. As Warschauer notes, “One school was producing scholars and the other school was producing workers. And the introduction of computers did absolutely nothing to change the dynamic; in fact, it reinforced it.” Teachers at the public school were very conscious that they needed to give their students the skills demanded by current employers—collaboration, responsibility, and teamwork—whereas the private school tried to place its graduates in demanding college programs where they would be expected to show independence, originality, and sheer intellectual excellence.

It is not easy for teachers to overcome this gap. Many of the students in our project write English at an elementary school level (although they may be bi- or even trilingual) and they have limited skills for searching the Web or reading text. It is hard to move them a long distance in a single course, and hard to set high expectations when their academic self-confidence seems fragile and they are far from achieving pre-college work. There are good reasons simply to teach responsibility and teamwork--attributes that really will help high school graduates in the workplace.

No wonder African American and Hispanic students are most likely to use computers in school for games, for drill and practice, or at best to create simple Websites with text and pictures; whereas White and Asian students are most likely to use them for “simulations and applications" (Wenglinksy, 1998). The "soft bigotry of low expectations" is a real problem, although individual teachers are hard pressed to solve it.

April 6, 2004 3:12 PM | category: a high school civics class | Comments


Site Meter