Freedom to Learn :: Part 1—Hale to the Program :: 3/16/2006

T.H.E. Focus: March 16, 2006
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March 16, 2006

Freedom to Learn
Part 1—Hale to the Program

By Neal Starkman

For the past several years, something quite extraordinary has been happening in Michigan’s middle schools: Almost 21,000 students have participated in the state’s Freedom to Learn (FTL) program, in which each student has access to educational technology such as Hewlett-Packard laptops and software such as Encarta Encyclopedia and Discourse. And 1,193 teachers in 188 buildings across 95 school districts have facilitated this program by doing something many teachers find extremely difficult: They’ve given up some control to their students.

The idea was to focus on districts in need: those qualifying for federal funds and those not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress goals for academic achievement. The idea was to introduce wireless technology to the classroom and engage students in their learning. The idea was to change the structure of education so that students would not only be learning how to use the technology but also, in a sense, be creating their own curriculum.

And now in the spring of 2006, what are the results? How effective has Freedom to Learn been? Three articles will provide a picture of how school communities have reacted to this innovative program. Future articles feature perspectives from a variety of Michigan middle schools, including Cherryland, Whittier, and Bear Lake Schools. This first article focuses on Hale Area Middle School, a grades 5-8 school of 230 students in a rural area of Michigan, about 200 miles northwest of Detroit. Seventy percent of Hale’s students qualify for the free- and reduced-lunch program.

Picture this: an “All-Star Presidents Presidential Race.” As a way to get “firsthand” knowledge of American political history, students have joined political parties and have taken on the personae of famous officials. They’ve conducted their research using computers awarded by the FTL program. And they’ve approached their assignments with gusto. One student discovers that Abraham Lincoln carried speeches in his hat, so that’s what he does when it comes time for him to make a speech. Another student learns that Franklin Roosevelt’s son, John, helped him stand at the podium, so that’s what he does, too, gently lifting the classmate who’s playing “FDR” from the wooden wheelchair found in a local store.

Principal Denis Fitzgerald is standing beside “Eleanor Roosevelt,” played by an eighth-grade girl named Darion, who’s wearing a dress from another era. She’s very mannered, very poised, and she politely thanks Principal Fitzgerald for visiting her. Fitzgerald makes pleasant chitchat with the First Lady and then dares to ask something that tests the depths of the student’s research: “Tell me, Mrs. Roosevelt. How would you describe your relationship with your husband?”

The First Lady pauses, still in character, then looks to her teacher, Kelli Unke, who nods. “Actually,” says the middle-school Eleanor Roosevelt, turning back to her principal while maintaining her ladylike dignity, “it’s more of a business partnership than a romantic relationship.”

Fitzgerald recounts that story as a way of emphasizing how engaged Hale’s students are as a result of FTL. In fact, it’s a way of emphasizing how the entire school has changed. First, there are the test scores: Last year, on the Michigan Education Assessment Program, Hale beat the state average in two areas. This year, it was five areas. Then, there’s the matter of discipline. Disciplinary action was down 21% last year and a whopping 58% this year. But the real change has been in the intangibles—the newly found excitement of students for their schoolwork, the satisfaction of their teachers, the pride of their principal.

“FTL fit our school so perfectly,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s all about students controlling their learning. It’s student-directed, not teachers dispensing information.”

That’s the point, of course: to create “an environment where every child can have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), where learning occurs anytime and anywhere, where students are motivated by their own medium of expression. FTL accomplishes this new educational vision through a one-to-one learning environment, in which every student and teacher has access to his or her own wireless laptop in a wireless environment” (Freedom to Learn Web site, at

Fitzgerald claims that “it’s not about laptops; it’s about teaching and learning.” But, really, it’s about laptops and teaching and learning. The laptops are a tool to engage students in their learning. Every seventh-grader has a laptop, and the eighth-graders use them when they can. At first, the computers were a cool novelty. Now, they’re just cool.

Kelli Unke teaches seventh and eighth grade at Hale; she was a primary facilitator of the All-Star Presidents Presidential Race. At first, she says, it was a chore to determine which programs were appropriate for students to use and which Web sites were appropriate for students to research. And she also hadn’t realized how few computer skills students had. But once students got trained in how to use the hardware as well as the software, “the enthusiasm spread.” It’s now the norm at Hale for students to look forward to coming to school.

Bonnie Rau, Unke’s colleague, marvels at how students “take off on their own. There’s so much more they can do.” Rau notes that lessons now take longer to complete, but that may be for a good reason: Students are more involved. They’re gathering information, they’re watching simulations, they’re visiting faraway places, and they’re enjoying what they’re learning.

Katy is an eighth-grader at Hale this year. In the “presidential race,” she was a speechwriter for FDR, creating prose that the president might have used in a fireside chat. Katy likes working with the Excel program and learning about mechanics from a LEGO robotics program. Sean, another eighth-grader, portrayed Thomas Hendricks, the vice president in Grover Cleveland’s first term. Sean simply likes typing more than writing. It’s easier to type, so he ends up producing longer and more detailed reports. And both Katy and Sean take pleasure in learning computer skills—regardless of the content.

The Michigan Department of Education and Ferris State University coordinate the Freedom to Learn program, part of which is a rigorous evaluation. The results of the Michigan 2004-2005 Evaluation Report bear out Hale’s experiences. Some of the report’s observations:

“Data from 16 targeted visits to 6 th-grade FTL classrooms revealed highly significant advantages (ES = +1.15) for FTL students as compared to the . . . national norms with regard to student use of technology as a learning tool. Even greater differences were revealed when examining student engagement in independent research and inquiry (ES = +1.36).”

“FTL students used word processing (ES = +0.79) and Internet browsers (ES = +0.85) significantly more than students in classes represented by the national norms. But even more importantly, as compared to national norms, FTL students were more frequently engaged in meaningful (ES = +0.75) and very meaningful (ES = +0.57) computer activities.”

The report also cited the results of a survey of 4,245 students, mostly sixth-graders. Obviously, the FTL program is popular: 85.3% of the students were “glad” they had the laptops and 87.9% wanted them again the following year. Students also believed that using the laptops had increased their interest in learning (61.1%) and made schoolwork easier to do (59.9%). Other findings:

Students reported that using the laptops better prepared them with the technological knowledge and skills needed for careers after graduation.

Students reported that using laptop computers made them more interested in learning.

Teachers reported that having laptops increased their use of student-centered practices, increased student motivation and learning, and improved student computer skills as well as their personal technology skills.

All these findings are significant, and not just statistically. First is the practical effect of the program. We’ve always lived in a technological world, but never has it been more necessary to be technologically adept in order to be gainfully employed. Students who might have been expected to take up the rear in the race for socioeconomic status are now in a position to challenge for the lead.

Second is the effect of engagement. Is there a stronger determinant of a student’s gaining knowledge than that student’s desire to gain the knowledge? Participants in FTL are doing much more than securing information for reports and presentations. They’re gaining proficiency in the process of learning. In the future, they may not need to know that Grover Cleveland was elected to two nonconsecutive terms. But they may need to know how to compare colleges along multiple dimensions. They may need to know how to make a reservation for a trip abroad. They may need to know how to recognize the symptoms of drug dependency. What’s happening now—in Hale and throughout Michigan—is that students are becoming part of their own education.

And third is the effect on teachers. The philosophy of FTL is consistent with the philosophy of other approaches—the Developmental Assets™ framework and constructivism, to name just two—that take students into account as active participants in learning. Teachers invariably report that the investment in time and energy at the beginning of the process pays off soon enough: Students become teachers as well as students. Teachers don’t have to be mama birds chewing the food and depositing it into the mouths of their babies. The babies can forage for their own food now.

Principal Denis Fitzgerald refers to a girl whose mother died when she was four. The family was poor to begin with, and the father was not always accessible as a parent. In sixth grade, this girl had all E’s—barely passing. But since the advent of FTL in Hale, the girl has taken a lot of initiative—for example, showing up for math tutoring to get ready for algebra class. She’s now an advanced placement student. She’s thriving. She’s learned how to learn.

FTL isn’t magic. The laptops don’t miraculously cause young people to metamorphose into straight-A students. And in the next two articles, you’ll see how some of the schools have addressed real obstacles in the program. But so far, the program seems to have met with astounding success. Students are achieving more, and their attitudes are different.

Fitzgerald puts it very succinctly: “The culture changed for our students. It’s now cool to be academically involved.”

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Copyright 2006 101communications LLC., 9121 Oakdale Ave., Suite 101, Chatsworth, CA 91311. THE Focus may only be redistributed in its unedited form. Written permission from the editor must be obtained to reprint the information contained within this newsletter. Contact Wendy LaDuke at [email protected]