I wrote the following as an initial attempt on my part to conceptualize the benefits and challenges of using iPads in the elementary classroom. Although I'm reflecting specifically on iPads in this case, you could insert almost any piece of hardware or software (SmartBoard, netbook, Facebook, etc.) in the place of the iPad. As I work with more teachers and have the opportunity to observe classroom success, I hope that I can share some of my observations here and develop some good ideas about how to implement iPads in the classroom - particularly when they are not implemented on a 1:1 basis.
In my new role as a Computer Resource Teacher, I'm getting approached by teachers and administrators who are asking questions about how to use iPads to teach students to engage in critical thinking. As I ponder the question, and how to respond, I'm beginning to clarify my own position with regard to these devices.
First, iPads (or any other technology) can't magically turn students into critical thinkers. There are a lot of features built in to the iPad which make it fantastic for consuming content, but not necessarily being too critical about it. It's not too hard to spend a couple of hours clicking through YouTube videos or slingshotting tiny birds at greedy pigs. I haven't yet seen a "Brain Gym" kind of app, that will teach critical thinking, because it is such an all-encompassing method of thinking. Teachers, parents, guardians, and other role models remain at the core of developing critical thinking skills.
If the iPad can't teach critical thinking, then how are they connected (or perhaps a better question is how can iPads and critical thinking be connected?)? Getting students started in critical thinking means engaging them about a topic enough to increase their intrinsic motivation to spend time and energy wanting to find out more about it. I think that the iPad may have a role to play here. Certainly, the way that the iPad can deliver media and text to students can help engage them and promote curiousity. New stories, videos, Wikipedia entries, blogs, etc., can all offer diverse starting points for any kind of investigation by students.
Once students have begun to become engaged, they need to use a different set of tools. When I'm beginning to work on something, I find it very effective to mind map out the background knowledge I have about a topic, evidence for and against, and questions that I think might need to be answered as I work. Then I need a set of skills to allow me to search out answers, resources, and information to allow me to make some kind of decision. These skills, teaching students the kind of questions to ask, helping them work effectively to find information, etc. can't be taught by a tool like an iPad, but it may have a role in helping students reflect on their thinking, or giving them oranizers or other tools to guide and record their thinking.
If students really want to think deeply about something, they need to share their thinking to be challenged by others with various levels of expertise on the subject. Talking with peers and teachers has been a traditional approach, but the iPad does offer a lot in terms of opportunities to connect with others and get feedback. This is where worries about privacy and security come into play for most teachers. Teachers who plan to use these devices need to become informed about how they encourage their students to connect with others and what the implications of each tool, app or site that they plan to use. This is one of the most authentic ways to stimulate critical thinking, but also one of the scariest, for who among us wants to be accused of putting a student at risk of something "inappropriate" online - especially if we don't understand all of the technology ourselves.
Students need opportunities to record their thinking and learning, model it, modify it, get feedback on it, and change it again. The iPad can be a great tool here with a variety of tools that truly can be individualized to meet the needs of students (I think because they are meant to be used as an individual device, they excel at differentiation, because there are many apps that meet the same set of needs in different ways). The iPad can be used in a variety of ways to make thinking visibile which is generally the goal of teachers, because we need a way to assess what students have learned. Here again, we run into some limitations of of hardware/software and our own understanding of how the technology works. It would be great if everything that a student created, in no matter what application on the iPad could be wirelessly downloaded and synced to a teacher's account. Unfortunately, this isn't the case. Moreover, in schools were the iPads are used among various students and classes, there is a need to have evidence produced and recorded, all within a short period of time, before the content on the iPad is erased by the next class using them. This is a major challenge for schools as they work with these devices and a personal challenge as I try to find tools that allow students to safely and securely save their work to somewhere other than the iPad or share it with a teacher account somehow so that they can get feedback on it, or return to it the next day their class is using the iPads.