IMG_4803-1{Second in a 3-part series}

It wasn't that long ago that technology was seen as something that squashed, or at least hindered, creativity and imagination.

IMG_4793 copy-2As technology becomes ever more intertwined with our daily lives, educators are taking a different view. They see that in fact, technology can stimulate creativity and help students express themselves in previously unimagined ways.

GEMS World Academy Chicago, a premier private school and an Apple Distinguished School, has made "Technology As a Means for Self-Expression" one of the three general concepts that drive the school's tech & innovation program. The other two concepts are "Technology As Raw Material" and "Technology As a Vehicle for Social Impact."

In this post, we will explore how GEMS encourages students to use technology to express themselves. The concept of "Tech as Raw Material" was discussed in a previous post; technology's relationship with social impact will be explored in a future post.

GEMS World Academy Chicago has made a firm commitment to using technology in learning. Each student, starting in preschool, is assigned an iPad. In grades 4 and up, students are assigned laptops, as well. Each classroom is equipped with a wall-mounted touchscreen monitor that's connected to the Internet. The school's Design & Innovation Lab provides access to 3-D printers, laser cutters, robotics kits and other tools.

The use of all these resources is meaningful only because it serves a larger mission at the school, said Peg Keiner, director of innovation at GEMS.

"The tools by themselves aren't the point," Ms. Keiner said. "It's how students deploy them to interact with the world."

By design, that interaction often takes the form of self-expression. Here are some examples:

QRCode• The first-graders at GEMS recently completed their Public Art unit by sharing original poems with the world. They did so by recording themselves reading the poems, then loading the recordings (and related images they created) onto Flipgrid, a media-sharing platform for students. Finally, students created QR codes which link people to the poems on Flipgrid. They displayed the QR codes in the neighborhood around GEMS, allowing passers-by to enjoy the students' public art.

• Fourth-graders presented a series of creative, sophisticated and risk-taking projects to the school community as part of a unit that looked at how light and sound can be used to convey emotion. The students used music software, coding kits and tools like 3-D pens to complete the projects. Some students used personal experiences or stories, such as the illness of a parent, as the basis for the projects. Others tried to evoke sights or sounds that trigger strong feelings for them. One student, for example, used LED lights and xylophone music to suggest a fireworks display.

• Each year, Upper School students complete the Transdisciplinary Fashion Show, a highlight for the GEMS community. The students use our Design & Innovation Lab to create garments that reflect inquiries in other classes, such as humanities or science. They then model the garments at a school-wide fashion show. In past years, students have assembled garments that include LED lights, old compact discs, lampshades and assorted other materials.

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GEMS teachers report that encouraging students to use technological resources for self-expression makes them more engaged and committed learners, Ms. Keiner said. It also fosters a design-thinking mindset that can spark innovation and creative problem-solving in students' other projects. 

Approaching technology as a pathway to different kinds of discovery, rather than an end in itself, also helps schools like GEMS World Academy fulfill a vision stated by the U.S. Department of Education in its most recent education technology plan: "Technology can help affirm and advance relationships between educators and students, reinvent our approaches to learning and collaboration, shrink long-standing equity and accessibility gaps and adapt learning experiences to meet the needs of all learners."

Related reading: Technology as Raw Material


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