Across my desk today came two relevant commentaries on instructional technology that couldn’t have been more different. A passionate article in Independent School Management's e-newsletter Monthly Update for Heads enticingly titled “How Do We Operate Five Years into the Future,” could only make one yearn to see played out in one’s own classrooms its promise of intense student engagement coupled with student freedom and joyful collaboration. So it was with eager anticipation that I watched the YouTube video that had so inspired the writer of the ISM commentary. You can see it for yourself at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYLirypK_Yo&feature=player_embedded#! . (Wish I knew how to embed the actual video right here the way ISM did in their newsletter—but that’s beyond me right now).
Indeed, students were engaged, and the potential for the iPad as a learning tool in the hands of students couldn’t be made clearer. The ease of manipulating data must make it a joy for students when they need to move from one thing to another, make corrections, edit, or just have fun with their learning. As the teacher says toward the end of the video, there is something about the tablet that is akin to finger painting: everyone knows exactly what to do, and it’s enjoyable.
Yet as I watched, the words of this week’s reading assignment for the tech integration course kept clouding my vision. Yes, the students were engaged, at ease and enjoying their activities, and I’m all for that. But was there evidence of the creative thinking that the text so clearly emphasized as a goal for the use of technology? I saw but scant critical, divergent. inductive or deductive reasoning. While there was a good amount of learner autonomy in evidence, both in the pace and choice of activities (students often found their own apps to learn a skill!), one could not say that these students were involved in experiential learning, with holistic activities and authentic intellectual work. Quite the contrary, students often were seen doing typical workbook-like activities—and yes, enjoying it more than they would in a traditional hard-copy workbook—but let’s face it, workbook activities they were. I couldn’t help but wonder if the activities were any more nourishing than the big macs cum fries, cookies, popsicles and sodas so much in evidence in the classroom. Other than for his strange English construction, I thought it fine for the teacher to say “my real goal is when they don’t need me,” but I couldn’t help wondering if that was an educational goal or a reflection of the personality of a teacher whose students were more neatly dressed than he and whose English was studded with street-level usage such as “it’s real simple.” So is buying big macs and putting kids in front of worksheets. Real simple.
Our text does briefly address the legitimate use of technology in directed instruction, and it appropriately cites Madeline Hunter’s seven-step lesson design as a model. Yet even Madeline Hunter, who was maligned for allegedly promoting only skills and knowledge but not critical thinking (I know that this was an unjust allegation, because I got my basic training in classroom instruction and supervision directly from Madeline, and her thinking and her school were far more educationally sophisticated than her recipe books for teachers would suggest) would have wanted to know how the students were being guided to build up concepts and generalizations and how instruction promoted transfer of training.
Which brings me to the commentary on the back page of this week’s Education Week (available at http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/10/05/06schneider_ep.h31.html?tkn=XUYFEzCNt7y4%2BtgW7w5nwpk%2BuwE4Oft0kzqR&cmp=clp-edweek ). Perhaps the best way for me to make the point is simply to quote a few paragraphs that pick up from where I’ve left off above:
"At worst, kids like new gadgets, and it doesn’t hurt to give them what they like once in a while.
"This, however, is a zero-sum game in which money that goes to technology could just as easily have been spent on other approaches that, though perhaps not scalable, are directly connected to the processes of teaching and learning. Funding projects to improve teacher training, development, and retention, for instance, is less sexy than cutting the ribbon on a lab full of lightning-fast computers. But it’s also more likely to help kids learn.
“'If we know something works,' Kyrene’s director of technology asked, 'why wait?' His point underscores the urgency of working toward school improvement. We can’t wait. But simple-minded thinking about what works and the obsession with scale have turned our penchant for educational technology into a national mania. We can’t wait. But we also can’t afford to get it wrong."
I am taking the technology integration course in the hope of finding a path to the use of technology that will promote learning as thinking. The orientation of our textbook is great, because it casts deep learning and real thinking as the goals, with technology as a potentially helpful tool.
How can the tool help us reach our goal and not become an obsession for its own sake, or even worse, a costly gewgaw for the dwindling numbers of kids whose families can still afford Jewish day school education? And just as important, is it possible for technology to actually lower the cost curve while promoting the kind of rich and authentic learning the textbook aims for? If someone has a YouTube video for that, I can’t wait to watch it.