Apple VP discusses technology, innovation

Couch: Use resources to personalize education

MIFFLINTOWN — Knowledge is gained through the process of solving problems that don’t have answers.

John Couch, vice president of education at Apple Inc., presented this message to Juniata County School District educators during a professional development day Wednesday at Juniata High School.

Couch spoke about the shift away from content-based instruction toward challenge-based learning.

He illustrated this need with a simple example — cooking spaghetti. Traditionally, lesson content is divided into parts that are presented one by one. In the first week, he explained, students might learn about spoons. By week four, instruction might focus on knives. In week eight, the topic is pots and pans; week 14 covers the stove. Putting this knowledge into practice by actually cooking spaghetti is saved for the next year, or after graduation.

Couch said this standardized process limits students, binding everyone to expectations based on a determined “average.” The ability of high achievers is restricted, and students who have not reached specified benchmarks fall further behind.

Knowledge comes from a student’s own curiosity-fueled exploration, he said.

Challenge-based learning puts a personal twist on traditional instruction.

As an example, Couch said, children in California learn about their state’s history in fourth grade. In the past, this meant reading about and memorizing parts of California’s history deemed important by the textbook’s publisher. To turn this method of delivery into student-led learning, a teacher instead would select one key historical figure. He or she would tell students, “Pretend you’re X. Tell me which important historical people you would invite to dinner, and develop a seating chart.”

The learning environment goes from simulated to real, Couch explained, shifting the overall paradigm from delivery to discovery. Learners are tasked with finding and collecting information on their own, then developing an answer based on research. Students are exposed to more information and gain greater knowledge through the process, he said.

Technology makes discovery possible. In recent years, Juniata County has implemented a one-to-one iPad initiative, which puts an iPad in the hands of every student in the county. Couch said this creates conditions for invention rather than the digestion of ready-made knowledge.

But just buying iPads and putting them in the classroom does not improve teaching.

“All too often, we take technology and tie it to the past,” Couch said, explaining that it becomes a substitute.

Using technology as a new way to complete the same tasks — like taking notes on a screen rather than paper — doesn’t change the future.

Teachers and students should be using devices to do things they couldn’t do without the technology.

That, combined with equal access, enables every learner to be a creator, regardless of age, ability or socioeconomic status, he said. Personalizing education in this way levels the playing field, giving students the ability to learn at their own pace.

The skills students gain throughout the process are more important than the information they retain, he said, because the careers today’s students will have after graduation may not exist yet — a situation for which it is difficult to prepare. Having the ability to problem-solve and innovate will help students succeed in a workforce that is constantly changing.