It's not about the laptops

Our hard work from Mr. Chase's class
Our hard work from Mr. Chase's class

After a brutally cold walk through the streets of Philadelphia, we arrived rosy-cheeked and breathless at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA).  The first ever Senior class was fundraising for their Senior trip to Hershey Park, and I gladly gave to cause (have fun kids!). I was checked in and soon wandering the brightly colored halls of the SLA.

What struck me immediately was how the physical space suggested a co-ownership of the school.  Student work was not just prominently displayed but served purposes: the door of the room housing the servers was labeled with hand-drawn pictures of mitochondria, a metaphor for their function within the cell; brochures were displayed that clearly had been developed with real audiences in mind; a giant wall of formulas developed by the students helped to visualize Algebra II concepts.  The big windows, wide hallways, and bright colors combined to make a pleasing space.  It made me reflect on how so many of our school buildings lack pleasant physical spaces, let alone reflect student learning by taking the small step of posting it prominently on the walls.

Our tour guide, Brett, described with great emotion taking part in an exchange program to England.  He noted that the school had given him many, many opportunities “besides the laptops.”  This struck me.  When I asked about whether the students liked when teachers used the interactive whiteboards, he replied “It depends how they use them.”   What I took away from these small interactions, and from sitting in on classes where technology saturated the instruction, was that it was not, in fact, about the gadgets.  It was about the teaching.  It was about the personal interaction between student and teacher, and student and student.  It seemed to me that what was most exciting about the environment at SLA was that the students were positioned not as passive receptacles to whom knowledge is bestowed, but rather as co-constructors of knowledge.

I also watched with great fascination as kids IM’d each other so quickly that I couldn’t even read the response before the kid was replying back with rapid keystrokes.  I noted that with laptops in the room, the kids fought over smelly markers and which color paper they would use to report out what they had just typed on their fancy laptops.  Engagement is not about gadgets.

Laptop problems
Laptop problems

As I left, I felt an immense gratitude to the staff and students of SLA for so freely sharing what they are doing.  But what they were doing that was so remarkable was not the technology revolution so many people cite, rather it was the art in practice, a delicate art that is walking the path of inquiry together, of respecting students’ own knowledge, passions, and strengths.  That, to me, is way more important than the student-to-laptop ratio. There’s a lot more to the school, as Brett put it, besides the laptops.

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