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KPBS Midday Edition

High Tech Hook To Keep Kids In School

High Tech Help for High-Risk Learners
Software developed to help kids stay in school.
GUEST:Dr. Robert Briggs, Professor, SDSU College of Business Administration

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The new school year is fast-approaching. For some student, there's excitement about entering a new grade, meeting new kids. But for other, school is just a waste of time. That's those so called high-risk learners my next guest is determined to damage with a collaborative way of teaching and learning. He's developed new software to get teachers and students involved in projects together. Doctor Robert Briggs teaches at the college of business at San Diego state university. Welcome to the program. BRIGGS: Thank you. Nice to be here. CAVANAUGH: For a student who does feel that school is a waste of time, how do you get and keep them engaged in school? BRIGGS: The key turns out to be getting them engaged in a learning activity in which they perceive a vested interest. When you don't have an interest in the outcome, learning feels like putting your face on sandpaper. When you do, it feels like scratching an itch. So we learn how to put them to work on problems that they have right now, and we choose the problems carefully so they learn what they we want. CAVANAUGH: You got the first lessons of that in 1992. You worked with the District of Columbia public schools. They had a 64% dropout rate at that time which is really sad and amazing. You interviewed students to find out why they didn't want to continue in school, why school wasn't challenging to them, or why it wasn't relevant to them. What did they tell you? BRIGGS: In a word, it was just what you said. They were telling me school isn't relevant. But of course as an educator, I couldn't hear that at first. The breakthrough came with a boy who said to me let me explain. I got on the wrong side of a gang, and I may not get home alive tonight. And if I do, I don't know if my mom is going to be strung out on heroin. And if she's strung out on heroin, I don't know if I'm going to have anything to eat until I get back to school next Monday. What do I care when Columbus sailed? What do I care what 7 times 5 is? That has nothing to do with me. And that's when I realized we were preparing them for a future they didn't believe in. So what we had to do was stop preparing them for the future and put them to work on things they had a stake in right now. CAVANAUGH: What does that come, coming from academia, sitting down and hearing a kid opening up like that? That must have set you back on your heels. BRIGGS: It did. It didn't reflect my life. But over the course of the project, we were in DC schools for one year working with students and another year working with the teachers. And I ran into a lot of kids who didn't think they were going to live to be 30. So for me to be preparing them for a career didn't make sense to them. If I could make a difference, reengage them in the learning process, they wouldn't necessarily be stuck in entry level positions their whole live, and the children of educated people tend to be educated themselves. So I might be able to make a difference now and for the future. CAVANAUGH: You'll forgive me. When I first heard about your efforts to find relevance for high risk students what came to mind was the old movie to serve with love. With Sidney Poitier? BRIGGS: Yes. CAVANAUGH: That teacher threw out the curriculum and found out what the students needed to know to survive. Does that have any relevance to what you're doing? BRIGGS: Absolutely. That movie was very important to me. I was a sixth grader when I saw it. And I didn't understand what he was doing, and I thought I wish I knew that. And once my research took that direction, then I was able to explain what he was doing, understand it, and even appropriate it. CAVANAUGH: Do you have the ability to throw out the standard curriculum the way they did in the movie? Or do you take a different approach? BRIGGS: No, we don't throw out the curriculum if the curriculum is the material the children need to learn. There are laws about the kinds of things children need to learn. But we turn the classroom on its head. Instead of teaching the children content during most of class and then sending them away to work on problems, and then bring it back. We put them to work on problems in the classroom, and sometimes we send them away to get the content. And your eyebrows go up. Yes, it turns out it really can work. CAVANAUGH: Yeah, walk us through it. And if you could, use that same analogy or that example, that that child spoke to you about back in Washington DC. How can you make what Columbus did relevant to a kid who doesn't care and doesn't have much stake in the future? How do you take that lesson and turn it around and make it relevant? BRIGGS: That's a very incisive question. Let me tell you some background to set the stage, then I'll answer it. Our approach was based on our theory of what motivates people to learn, we said we got to put them to work on stuff they have a stake in, real problems. But there isn't enough time in a regular classroom to work on real problems. I had been doing research on not only learning and motivation to learn, but also group productivity and other contexts. So I had been part of a research team that was developing software, using an industry, IBM, and so on. And we were able to with those businesses get very often 90% reductions in project cycle times, 50% reductions in labor hours. And our reasoning was, if we took that same kind of software into the classroom and get those gains for the student, that might give us just enough of an edge, that we could work on real problems in the classroom. That's why we took the collaboration software, the theory of motivation, etc. So we got funding to put computers in every classroom in a school. Then we got one classroom that was set aside for a project with a class of fifth and sixth graders. And then of the first things I did was I spent three days with those kids working online. And this was back in 92 when this was really cutting edge. There was no Internet in the school and no social software. But we had a brain storming tool where they could all type and see each other's work and so on. So I asked them questions that would let me figure out what they valued. Who's your favorite hero? What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you? If you could learn anything you wanted, what would it be? And out of that, I was able to triangulate on things they cared about, and that let me I could use that against them, see? [ LAUGHTER ] BRIGGS: And then the day I was going to begin the education part of the project, the night before, I said to myself, I'm going to say to them tomorrow morning that this year we're not going to study anything that's boring, we're not going to study anything that's irrelevant, all you have to do -- we're not going to study it. And if I accidentally get into something like that, all you have to do is tell me, and we will stop and study something more important. Because I'm not going to waste your time. And as I was lying there the night before saying to myself what are they going to answer when I say that? I said it's got to be history. They're going to say history. What am I going to do about that because they have to study history. So the next morning, I stood up in front of the class, I said my piece. We're not going to study anything boring. And a child put a hand up and said history! History is boring! And I said, well, if history is not worth studying, we're not going to study it. But let's go online together and brain storm and have an argument about whether we ought to study history. And those kids who could barely type a complete sentence spent an hour debating whether they should study history. And they were putting in some wonderful things like we should be making history, not studying it. And what should we learn from dead guys who wear white wigs and silk stockings? And there were some other kids who were arguing the other side of it, well, you have to know your roots. And I was on a computer with them, we were all working unanimously. They could see they was typing too. And I was playing both sides of the street. I was saying you're so stupid. You're going to make all the mistakes your ancestors made. And those people can't help us! They're dead. And keeping the pot stirred. And at the end of an hour, I suggested to them that history was a shortcut for achieving greatness. And what I had learned in those three days before was that they all still believed they could be great at something. So I used that against them. I said history is a shortcut for achieving greatness. Why don't we dig into history and write a book called achieving greatness in Anacostia? And we will write about how your favorite heroes from history achieved greatness, and then we'll write about what you're going to do to achieve greatness, and we'll put it in the library so other children can learn from you. And they said, well, I don't know. That's okay. Then I said, well, then we will also send it to all of your living heroes and see if you can get a response from them. Then they said, can we start now? [ LAUGHTER ] BRIGGS: So all of that is background. Now, what did we actually do? The first thing, we took their list of heroes from history that they had generated, a couple days before, and we took a vote. Which of these would be most interesting to look at right now? And Martin Luther King came out on top the first time we did this. I said brain storm, what are his attributes of greatness? And they generated a whole bunch of ideas, which we then converged to a clean list. They would read an idea out to me, and I would put it on a public list. And there were things like bravery and perseverance, and a number of other properties. And so I said wonderful. Now everybody team up two people to a computer now, we're going to have a race. Speed poetry. It's going to be the first contribution for your book. So I gave each of the teams one of the attributes of greatness they had identified for Martin Luther King, and I said now each team is going to write a verse for our poem, are and the first in wins. This is not about quality, this is about speed. So we clapped out a rhythm, one and two and three and four. I said that's your verse. Go? And five minutes later, we had an absolutely horrendously bad poem up on the public screen where all of them had contributed -- and we read it together out loud, and they laughed their heads off, and it was awful. But they had really nailed what it was about Martin Luther King that made him great, which was the point. CAVANAUGH: Right. BRIGGS: Then I said, okay, this was all funny. Is this thing ready to hang up on the wall with your names on it? They said no! Okay, volunteers to fix it? A couple girls took it and cleaned up the grammar and the rhythms, and we put it in the book. CAVANAUGH: We're talking about a software program that doctor Briggs has developed to get high-risk learners get more involved in achieving in school. This therefore was a very intensive and really rather difficult software program to transfer to the ordinary classroom. Is that what you found out? BRIGGS: It was. It was very easy for the students to use. Very simple, very easy to use. But it turned out it was very difficult to figure out what to do with it to make the effects that we were getting. And at the time, this was all so new that the researchers didn't even know why we were doing the things we did. They just seemed obvious, and they worked. But then the time came for us, by the way, to give you the punch line on the two-year study. At the end of the study, are the children who participated were two years ahead of their peers, they were at grade level where their peers were two years below grade levels. And they were off the charts in terms of creative problem-solving. We sit up a creative problem-solving challenge that had 17 elements, and the students in that class got all 17. And the students in the other classes that had computers but hadn't participated in the program got 0. Nobody got any of the elements of the problem solved. So we made this huge impact. Big success. And yet we spent the next year in abject failure because we never figured out a way to transfer it to the teachers. So the software, very simple. The collaboration, very hard. And that finished up in 1994. Of by 1995, we realized we just didn't know how to transfer this. And we had to discontinue the project. And that led to a 20-year research string where we tried to figure out how do people who are nonexperts get the benefit out of collaboration technology without having to be trained? And that meant we had to first figure out what it was we were doing and why and get that articulated and distilled, we had to develop theories to explain some of the outcomes we were trying to achieve. CAVANAUGH: Now it's in a pilot program, right? BRIGGS: Well, yeah. CAVANAUGH: After all of that time and research, you've got it to the point where it's just ready be introduced to a regular classroom, right? BRIGGS: Yes, we have taken it in now to a university classroom. And we have had good success there. It's very exciting. Of we just finished our first formal study where we demonstrated that in fact we now know how to design a collaboration process and hand it to somebody as a little software application, and they can just move through that application as if they were being led by a professional facilitator and they don't even notice. They don't even know what's happening. It's just kind of like, oh, well, this is easy. What's so hard about this? [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: What do you envision for this software? Do you see this -- well, I'm going to ask a selfish question, coming here to San Diego, but also influencing schools across the country? BRIGGS: We certainly hope so. We are now planning our first pilot studies for the classroom in Chicago with some colleagues at DePaul university. And this is going to be some informal pilot where is we just take the software out there, are and the teachers who are interested are going to work with us will try it out with the students, we'll see what we got right, what we got wrong, we're going to go after some grant funding to add some capabilities to the system that we'd like to have. As soon as we get our first pilot study done in Chicago, we already have a teacher in Tucson Arizona and a teacher here in San Diego who have said come on in and try it in my classroom too. Upon when we gather enough evidence that we're far enough along this approach could be scalable, then we will go after some research funding and look for a larger very formal rollout where we test it in a number of classrooms and have formal control studies and so on to see where we go. CAVANAUGH: I am so glad that you came in to explain this whole thing because it is complicated. But it's very exciting. Thank you so much, and good luck. BRIGGS: You're most welcome. Thank you.

The new school year is fast approaching. For some students, there's excitement about entering a new grade, meeting new kids, learning new things. But for others, school is just a waste of time. It's those so-called "high-risk learners" one SDSU professor is determined to engage with a collaborative way of teaching and learning. He's developed new software to get both teachers and students involved in projects together.