Before leaving for Haiti, I met Jim Hamilton at Carmel River School for his demonstration in the third grade classroom of the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) laptops. He wanted to inspire the students to make positive things happen in the world by thinking big and not giving up. He asked them to identify Haiti on the classroom map, telling them that this country was the poorest in the Western world. Of course, the laptops were so intriguing to the students, it’s hard to know what part of that message they absorbed. In a classroom outfitted with the most modern educational technology—Smart Board, computer lab, and computer projection—the students wanted to know how they could have one of these very cool-looking laptops. Jim explained that they were designed only for the poorest children.
After his introduction, he challenged the students to figure out how to open the computer. Knowing that, several days previously, it took me at least 10 minutes to work this out, I knew this was no small feat. But when it comes to technology, kids are always 10 steps ahead of us. After some trial and error, first one pair of students had the laptop open, and then the word got out. Within about five minutes all the students had their laptop open and turned on. Jim then gave them another challenge. What activities can you find in two minutes? They were not fazed. Almost immediately they were playing with mazes and other games, taking their pictures, or shooting video.
I decided to take these same challenges to the students at St. Andre’s school in Hinche. The third-grade Carmel and St. Andre’s classrooms are universes apart in nearly every respect—high technology at St. Andre’s is a blackboard, and teachers can only acquire one piece of chalk at a time from the principal’s assistant. The corrugated roof is held up with rough-hewn timbers and the stench from the bathrooms wafts through the gaps in the joints and walls. The clamor from the adjoining 4th, 5th and 6th grade classes is deafening—even drowning out the chatter and noise emanating from the primary and secondary classes in session across the courtyard. The students also presumably have little or no technology at home, as computers and laptops are far beyond the means of families who struggle to feed and clothe their children, and to provide them with meager educational resources such as a paperback workbook.
Well, while the classrooms may be universes apart, the children are not. They met the challenge brilliantly, and in much the same fashion as the Carmel students…as the first group of students found the secret to opening the computer and others followed. Soon they had the laptops running, and they were into various activities that the laptops provide. I then took them through a structured activity, with the help of an interpreter. However, the beauty of the OLPCs is the use of visual icons, which I could draw on the board and lead them through. We went into the photo activity, and the children took their own pictures…before we knew it, they had racked up picture after picture, and ventured into video recording and some went rogue and got into many other activities—the most favorite seeming to be music making, not surprising in Haiti where music is nourishment where food is lacking. The children were excited, exploratory, collaborative, and respectful. No one asked if they could have one, or whether they could take it home. When it was time to stop the exploration, they dutifully shut down their laptops, closed them, and passed them to me without attachment. This was perhaps the most remarkable of all, given how little they have and how absorbing and enticing the laptops were.
Today we tried out the experiment again with the fifth graders with much the same results. Then we introduced them to the primary school teachers. And that is a story for another blog. For now, suffice it to say that, when it comes to technology, children everywhere are their teachers’ teachers.