During 2014, I conducted research at my school to see if the introduction of iPads as a learning technology had any educational merit.
I assessed four key skills over eight months as follows:
1) Critical thinking
Students were asked to analyze arguments and their web research capabilities were carefully measured.
I employed the ‘Multiple Uses’ test as well as a number of divergent thinking puzzles and riddles.
These were simple survey questions which asked student to reflect on their own engagement in lessons where iPads where used in learning activities.
4) Administrative tasks
Again, these were survey based and questions centered around how well students managed their own learning (from the use of shared calendars to creating and sharing tasks online).
These key learning indicators were defined as follows:
Definition: The process of independently analyzing / assessing / evaluating / interrogating information in order to reach a valid decision regarding the truth and reliability of this information.
Characteristics: Critical thinkers are able to think clearly, rationally and without bias. They question assumptions and are able to detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning. They are able to identify relevant and important ideas and to reflect on the justification for beliefs and values.
Definition: Creativity is the ability to generate new ideas, alternatives, solutions and possibilities which have value.
Characteristics: Creative people are innovators, combining ideas and information from disparate fields in novel and useful ways. They question traditional knowledge, they are imaginative and lateral thinkers, and yet they are disciplined in striving to make their creative alternatives useful.
Definition: The level to which students are involved in the learning process.
Characteristics: Engaged students are motivated to work and perform well in the classroom, and have the drive to persist in overcoming any academic challenges and problems they may face. They are interested in learning, attentive and devote their full attention to the learning activities taking place both inside and outside the classroom.
Definition: ‘Nitty-gritties’ of learning.
Characteristics: Students who have high learning administrative competencies accept the responsibility of remembering due dates, have strong time management skills, are able to plan ahead, always complete homework and projects, set study schedules, and negotiate unreasonable deadlines. They are also able to reflect on their own learning and to diagnose and take measures to remediate problem areas.
Student engagement consistently yielded the highest scores. Administrative learning competencies showed the biggest improvement. But critical and creative thinking abilities declined significantly from the start of the study to its conclusion.
Specifically as regards critical thinking, I noticed that students’ ability to identify reliable resources fell markedly, and their ability to analyse / critique arguments suffered severely from students giving what they thought was the expected answer, rather than independently analyzing an argument to arrive at a valid conclusion. Depth of thinking and independent analytical skills showed a worrying decline.
In terms of creativity, the most significant trend was how many students answered that a particular lateral thinking task or problem was ‘impossible’. Additionally, most students seemed hamstrung by overly literal conceptions of the problems for which creative solutions were required. They seemed reluctant to offer divergent / alternative solutions. Scores for originality, flexibility and elaboration all declined from the first benchmarking period to the second. Where ‘creativity’ was shown, it was in the form of nonsense – showing that for some students, ‘creativity’ amounts to ‘anything goes’.
Are iPads to blame for the decline in critical thinking and creativity? Although there is a negative correlation between iPads and critical and creative thinking, my feeling is that the actual cause lies elsewhere, and that this decline happens with or without these devices.
The students surveyed were all in Grade Eight. In South Africa, this phase of a child’s education marks the transition from primary school to high school. They were thus surveyed first about two months into their high school career, and then again in about month eight.
What changed to cause such a worrying decline in creative and critical thinking? My feeling (for which I rely solely on anecdotal evidence) is this: teaching happened. Good old-fashioned rigorous teaching. And therein lurks the problem.
I am not Mr Superteacher. I try to incorporate as much twenty-first century learning techniques as I can. I acknowledge that modern teaching needs to be student-centered, discovery- and mastery based and, ultimately, as personalized and progressive as I can make it. Even if I don’t always do these things 100% effectively, I do try. I try very hard. But what about a teacher who has always taught to get good results in a test or an exam? These are successful teachers, these are good teachers – and people whose hearts are invariably and undoubtedly in the right place. The problem, though, is that their teaching styles clash with the demands of a twenty-first century approach. Teaching to the test, and teaching to the child simply don’t blend.
It must be noted that no serious researcher anywhere believes that the use of iPads in education amounts to some kind of magical technology which transforms education overnight. What they have found is that these devices act as catalysts for transforming education. The results of this study are no different. In using the iPad to teach and learn, a more student-centered, critical approach becomes necessitous as old ‘chalk and talk’ style teaching does not dovetail with these devices. In a sense, the iPad merely provides the impetus for this to happen, and it is for this reason that it is considered a transformative educational apparatus.
The key findings of my iPad in education study show that students’ thinking becomes ever narrower and more focused on the right, or typical or even politically correct answer. It also shows that they are less and less able to think divergently and to generate novel answers to problems. This comes about solely because we discourage these tendencies in favor of ‘what matters’ – viz: standardized tests.
I say this categorically: iPads are not magic. On their own, they do not transform stale and outdated pedagogies. They do, however, vastly improve engagement. Unfortunately, if this enthusiasm for learning is not channeled towards a more student-centered, twenty-first century approach to pedagogy, the adoption of key skills in the learning is seriously jeopardized.
The challenge, then, is to plan teaching as carefully as we do infrastructure and to invest as much in fostering twenty-first century teaching methodologies as we do in hardware. If we do not do these things, we simply end up with devices which are fun to have but not worth very much in the classroom.