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Students today are living in a world of rapid technological changes and innovations. Private schools are helping them navigate this new landscape.IMAGE COURTESY OF KINGSWAY COLLEGE SCHOOL

Today’s youth are true digital natives. But innovation is evolving at a rapid pace and with the emergence of technologies such as generative artificial intelligence, many private schools aren’t just focusing on the latest and greatest tools – but on the implications of this technology and how students can use it wisely.

At Toronto French School (TFS), for example, students explore concepts in computational thinking as early as Grade 1 and engage in co-curricular clubs including 3-D printing and robotics. Starting in Grade 6, dedicated design and technology classes are offered to all students, who can then continue studying computer science all the way up to a bilingual International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma course.

Students can even apply design thinking to develop digital and physical products, adding the ‘arts’ to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to make STEAM.

TFS is offering a new Grade 9 unit this year in which students program a Raspberry Pi mini-computer to access a natural language processing AI library. Students will essentially build their own ‘Siri’ and explore the predictive algorithm involved in speech recognition.

“We know the importance of developing critical thinking in our students when it comes to technology. Along with learning how AI works, TFS students are also reflecting on the ethical and social impact of this technological innovation,” says Bob Tarle, executive director of innovation and technology at TFS.

“For example, in our Grade 8 mentorship program, we are looking at AI-powered ‘deepfakes’ where someone’s voice recording can be manipulated to say something they did not in fact say. It’s a very engaging activity that leads to students thinking critically about global concepts such as digital identity and trust.”

Students also participate in computational thinking competitions as well as robotics challenges, such as First Lego League and First Tech Challenge. The senior school robotics team has qualified for the First Tech Challenge provincial championships two years in a row.

The York School in Toronto rolled out its first laptop program in 1999, and has been working with technology as part of its classroom toolkit ever since. Students start as early as junior kindergarten with iPads, moving to Chromebooks in Grade 2 to Grade 8, and then MacBooks in Grade 9 to Grade 12.

“We think about learning, innovation and technology, and the intersection of those three things,” says Justin Medved, associate head of academics at The York School.

When it comes to AI, “we’ve been playing with it and looking to partner with it rather than block it,” he says. “We see AI playing a few key roles in the learning experience. It can provide additional support for language learning, it can generate personalized study materials, it can assist with research projects, it can improve accessibility and it can provide immediate feedback on assignments.”

It’s a space that’s constantly changing, “but rather than squash it we’re definitely looking to partner with it and figure out all the ways in which it can both help the student learning experience but also the teacher planning experience.”

In junior school, cloud-based tools are woven into the academic curriculum through the lens of literacy, creativity, math, science and collaboration. In senior school, the school offers a learning ecosystem that students use every day, including Google’s suite of applications and other cloud-based tools that support it. This portfolio of tools across subject areas helps “amplify the learning experience and bring it to life,” Medved says.

At Toronto’s The Bishop Strachan School (BSS), technology is also woven into the curriculum. For example, junior school students are allotted dedicated time in the Design Technology Lab, where they build foundational skills while exploring and designing; projects are student-led and supported by faculty.

But learning starts at an even younger age. In junior kindergarten, students explore tactile differences in materials by designing and building birdhouses with a laser cutter. Students in Grade 1 are introduced to the language of code through various tools such as Scratch Jr., Blockly with Dash and Dot, and Lego mazes.

“Students then build on these foundational skills as they move through the grades, advancing to prototyping, building 3-D environments and basic circuitry,” says Kristen Clarke, dean of teaching and learning with BSS.

“We believe that exploring these tools in an educational setting, understanding how they can be used in productive and helpful ways, and critiquing them with equity and ethics in mind, will better serve our learners and staff to be leaders in this area.”

Teachers also invite students to use generative AI in very specific ways to critique its suggestions, review its recommendations and build off of basic suggestions. Specifically, in computer science classes, students have uploaded code for ChatGPT to debug (or not); in English, students have critiqued suggested essays.

At The Rosedale Day School, teachers discuss the evolution of AI, from the rise of self-driving cars to the grey areas surrounding plagiarism with tools like ChatGPT. Technology classes also consider issues related to digital citizenship and effective uses of technology.

Students at The Rosedale Day School in Toronto recently won at Future Prize, a competition co-hosted by Future Design School (FDS) and CIS Ontario in which middle school students design solutions to a real-world challenge and pitch their ideas in a fun and friendly competition.

“Our work with our partner FDS focuses on constructive doubt and within that there are ideas surrounding source review, so it can be woven into many parts of the curriculum,” says Scott Ramkissoon, STEAM program co-ordinator at The Rosedale Day School.

For example, constructive doubt can help students determine if the source in an online article is reputable, helping them become more savvy online.

“For a small school, we offer a lot of different tools to scaffold learning at various levels,” Ramkissoon says, “and provide students opportunities to follow their passions and demonstrate their learning.”

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