Thursday, May 27, 2010

What to teach... and when. A puzzlement.

Just the other day I was being given the once over by a young nurse in a doctor's office.  She had a lap-top in which she was putting down my vital signs and other information that might assist in seeing how I was doing.  She was a very competent nurse and inputed the data with her touch typing skills.  She typed well and I asked her, "Where did you learn how to key-board?"  "In first grade."  "First grade?"  I was somewhat amazed.  She continued, "yes in first grade and second grade.  We had this program that we would do every other day.  Then we had to bring in a piece of cloth to cover the keys and we had to keep typing."  Then she broke into a big smile and said, "But in the third grade we got to use a mouse!"  Obviously, that had been a big deal in her life.  Getting to use a mouse.

So I continued my inquiry.  "Did you ever get instruction on how to write cursively  or print?"  "Oh yes, we had that for a number of grades on how to write.  My printing isn't that great but we were taught that too."  I was impressed.  So I asked what school district did all this and her answer was the name of our local school district.  As they say in one television show, "Verrrry Interesting."  

Still, I have been pondering when it would be good to teach key boarding to children.  Many have their own computers at home so when is it optimal to teach keyboarding?  Some years ago I talked to a colleague who was more into keyboard then I was and I asked him how soon can we teach keyboards to children.  His answer, "Prenatal."  I thought him teasing me but he reported that there was much research that appears to show that whatever the mother does during the third trimester of carrying her child will have an influence on that child.  If the mother to be likes to sing, her child will have a need to sing.  If she listens to German, her child will have an interest in that language as well.  If mom to be types, then we can suppose that the child will want to type as well.  

The research is there overall in this theory but no one has tried it with typing.  I wonder.  My keyboard is very quiet.  Would an un-born hear that?  Or is it something in the blood that conveys that talent?  Interesting question.

So we teach key boarding at the primary level.  Now I will suppose that there are computers in the classroom.   I've heard some people say that computers are beyond the scope of pre-schoolers but I have watched a fairly lengthy video of a two year old playing at great length with a Mac Plus.  She stands at a coffee table in her diapers, can turn on the computer and then moves the mouse around and makes drawings the same as a two year old would do with crayons and paper.  The only thing she didn't know how to do was to erase pages  on her computers.  Both parents worked at home on Windows type machines and she had early on wanted to play with their computers.  They bought this Apple machine so she could "do her work", while they did theirs.  No, she didn't know how to type but rather just randomly hit keys.  She preferred the mouse to scribble lines on the screen.

The reason I report all this to you is that it raises some fascinating questions.  If first graders are learning to touch type what are they typing?  I would think words.  Is this a new way to teach reading?  What about spelling?  As they type words does the spelling checker underline misspelled words like it does for me?  We know that immediate reinforcement is the best teaching device, i.e., to tell a student a word is misspelled as soon as he writes it.  Does this work on the computer.  

I once had a very excellent graduate student do a research project in a grade school where a fourth grade class was taught exceptional writing skills by the regular classroom teacher.  He would give instruction to the class and they would write a story about something.  What my graduate student did was to provide a number of computers out in the hall outside the room and randomly selected six of the class to "write their story" on the computer.  I'm jumping ahead here but those selected kids turned in longer stories, longer paragraphs and longer sentences then they did when writing.  But a bigger measure of good writing is how much someone revises their original effort.  On this point, the kids on the computer far exceeded the rest of the class.  Indeed, in one case we had problems getting one of the computer kids to turn in his story--he kept reading it and going back to make revisions.  

This is fascinating stuff.  If we teach key-boarding in first grade how is that going to effect the teaching of reading?  How about spelling?  And will they be far ahead in writing?  Some years ago I was a visitor in a Canadian elementary school where they had a large number of small calculators called "the Little Professor."  Hand held devices, you could select the level of difficulty and give it to a child.  It would then present the child with an arithmetic problem--for an example, 6 + 8 and the student would have to enter 14 in a given time.  Or you could have multiplications problems--9 X 5.  You get my drift here.  However what I noticed in the school that most of the kids were at the extreme top of the problems.  They were using the Little Professor in small groups and shouting out the answers to be the first one.  And now they were not doing easy problems.  I saw one group of kids doing multiplication of several places---128 X 53 and they were giving the correct answers from their head in seconds.  I was outclassed. I couldn't do it as well as them.  They were having fun with numbers.

How can we use technology in the classroom to help further the learning skills of our children?  What an adventure this has to be in teaching and learning.  There has to be a whole new way of comprehending how to use twitter and facebook in the classroom.  And that means we also have to teach the children the dangers of those learning tools.  

Over the past weekend I read several accounts of what the state of Texas is doing with regards to textbooks, especially social studies and history by way of a textbook committee.  Because Texas buys so many textbooks, publishers go out of their way to see what Texas wants and what Texas wants is what a number of other states get.  This textbook overview resulted in a more conservative look at history and a number of educators are already upset with the results.  Me too....except after I thought about it, the textbook is just one pile of information to the student.   They will also have the advantage of the internet to check and collaborate information.  If an elementary teacher tells a fifth grade class to do a presentation on Power Point about Abraham Lincoln, some subjects will emerge that have been discarded in the Texas textbooks.  I have calmed down.  Our kids will do spite of us.  They always have.

My thanks to a nurse who learned how to key board in first grade and to that teacher who taught her how to type.