Rumors of our Locking Kindergarteners in Closets with iPads are Greatly Exaggerated

Well, we’ve created quite a furor…

Ever since we (Auburn School District, Auburn ME) announced that we planned on giving iPads to kindergarteners, we’ve been pummeled by folks who think we’re wasting our money, and damaging our students.

Diane Ravach has tweeted that “Kindergarten kids should be playing with blocks, sand, water, butterflies, musical instruments, not doing it all virtually.”

Tech director friends (friends!) have used innuendo to imply that what we are doing is developmentally inappropriate and that there are reasons that other folks haven’t done it first (as if the fact that the technology is new and growing isn’t sufficient explanation…). They have asked over and over, “are you working with any early childhood specialists?” Well, who do you think tested the idea?
I have wanted in the worst way to find an old motorcycle helmet, duck tape an iPad to it, put it on a 5-year-old’s head and take a picture, then post it with the caption: our new iPad cases have arrived!

What’s wrong with people!? (At least the gal who cuts my hair had the decency to ask, “Is that a good idea?” before making up her mind. Imagine that! Asking questions before pronouncing judgement!)

Let me set the record straight.

#1 – This is an early learning initiative, not an iPad initiative. Given our primary grades literacy rates, and the number of students who receive remedial services, we need to do something, and something big, if we want to impact kids. This initiative includes multiple components:

  • The best possible educator
  • Personalized and targeted instruction
  • Powerful instructional materials including those both on and off the iPad
  • Frequent assessment
  • Maine Literacy Partnership (University of Maine)
  • Special Ed Partnership (University of Maine at Farmington)
  • A restructuring of the K-3 classroom to encourage the individual student along their learning path while increasing their exposure to activities that build strong social skills and foster motor skill development

#2 – iPads will only be used when it is the best possible instructional approach. No duct taping kids hands to iPads until they learn the kindergarten curriculum, no automating instruction so we don’t need teachers, no locking kids in closets so the only way they can learn and the only thing they experience is the iPad. We have great teachers. They are identifying when students should be doing conventional kindergarten activities, like playing in the sand box, chasing each other around the playground, being read to, or playing pretend and dress up, and when there are electronic instructional materials that are better at helping kindergarteners learn. J. M. Holland acknowledges in his blog, the Emergent Learner, that there are aspects of the iPad interface that would make it superior for SOME early learner activities: “For example, learning to recognize letters, produce and recognize letter sounds, memorize and produce simple patterns, comparing sets of images, iPads would be very good at this.” I hope you noticed from #1 above, that the TEACHER is and always will be our number 1 intervention!

#3 – We’re doing this because the apps work! Folks have suggested that we’re doing this initiative because we can or just because of the iPads. First, I’m surprised at how little people think of our professional abilities. Second, they have clearly never worked a large-scale school initiative before (and we have) if they think that any gadget-based initiative or “just because we can” initiative lasts any longer than a few headline cycles. There’s only one reason to do an initiative: we have reason to believe it will improve student learning. And we do. One of our literacy interventionists had struggled with reaching a handful of reluctant kindergarten learners. She finally thought she’d try out some apps on her personal iPad, and quickly students made gains, moving from “Below Basic” in their assessments, to “Beyond the Standard.” Even when she returned them them to the regular classroom (discontinued services), they maintained their gains. That seems a pretty strong argument to give iPads a try.

#4 – This strategy is cost effective. Know the definition of “insanity”? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. One of Auburn’s city councilors is insisting that students learn with pencil and paper, not iPads. But that’s insanity. For over a decade, we have been spending heavily on literacy and numeracy interventions and our results have flatlined. In fact, we need to try bold measures, such as iPads, because pencil and paper isn’t working for too many of our kids. Numerous kids enter kindergarten without the skills we often assume students should have (knowing their letters and numbers, for example). The gap just starts getting larger. Special education costs and costs for other remedial interventions just get larger through the grades and through the years, the ultimate cost being those society has to pay when a student drops out of high school… A new report points out, “Studies have shown that every dollar spent on high-quality early education programs for at-risk children can save as much as $16 in future costs to society, such as remedial education and crime.” Besides, Auburn is a frugal district. At just over $7800, Auburn’s per pupil expenditure is at least 10% less than any of it’s peer districts. The annual cost of this initiative (which will be funded through grants and donations), spread over 4 years, is less than 2% of our per pupil expenditure. Sounds like a smart investment to me.

So, instead of freaking out about this initiative, let’s ask good questions about what Auburn is actually planning on doing and have good conversations about early childhood education…

About Mike Muir

I'm an educator, teacher trainer, and educational developer interested in creating multiple pathways to learning and helping people figure out how they are smart.
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2 Responses to Rumors of our Locking Kindergarteners in Closets with iPads are Greatly Exaggerated

  1. Barbara Greenstone says:

    This reminds me of the old phonics vs. whole language controversy. As a reading teacher, I never understood what the fuss was about. It was obvious to me that good teachers do not tie themselves to one method or one practice for teaching young children to read. They keep trying things and assessing and then trying something else if the first thing doesn’t work. Good kindergarten teachers will use iPads where they work well but they will not abandon all the other effective practices like imaginative play and reading aloud. Kids will still be enjoying books and playing in the sandbox and finger painting. And sometimes they will enjoy books, engage in imaginative play, and use virtual paint on an iPad.

  2. Gary Stager says:

    Please don’t make me weigh-in on the question of iPads in kindergarten. PLEASE! I’m likely to offend all sides of the debate :-)

    Barbara, (good to see you albeit virtually) – The problem with your whole language/phonics analogy is the notion that they represented polar opposites on a pedagogical continuum and the middle is best.

    That’s simply not so. Whole language never proscribed word attack or sounding-out skills. In fact, whole language is rooted in the idea that people learn to read naturally and in a host of different ways. Phonics instruction (and the lunatic proponents who still send me hatemail for articles I published years ago) is based on certainty – every child learns to read by mastering a specific sequence of sound/ letter combinations – except when the bazillion of exceptions need to be waved away as “sight words.”

    Need evidence that systemic phonics is bunk? Explain how Chinese people learn to read? How about deaf people?

    Whole language is about meaning-making and literacy. Phonics instruction is about reading mechanics. It’s magical thinking that fuels ideology. In fact, after banning abortion, religious fundamentalists often list phonics instruction as their number one priority since they believe in the literal interpretation of text – thinking not required.

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