Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why Pink Matters

I went to the CoSN Conference in Washington DC this week. In the course of two hours, I had the opportunity to see two diametrically opposed speakers, Gary Stager and Daniel Pink. At least they would have you believe they are diametrically opposed. I don’t really get it.

Gary Stager blogged this week about how Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, is the worst book ever. Harsh words. He must have very good reason for attacking a man who in many ways embraces the same principles that Stager embraces. In his book, Pink talks about the need for more creative thinking, synthesis level thinking, and play in our lives if we are going to be successful in the future. Stager spoke about Why Papert Matters (referring to the great educator, Seymour Papert). He spoke about constructionism, the theory that students will be more deeply involved in their learning if they are constructing something that others will see, critique, and perhaps use. Through that construction, students will face complex issues, and they will make the effort to problem solve and learn because they are motivated by the construction. Sounds like they are barking up the same tree. If we are going to engage our students in tackling more complex issues, doesn’t it make sense that we should engage both sides of their brain so they can think both algorithmically and heuristically? Don’t we need to provide opportunities for students in the area of gaming if we are going to maximize their potential to think creatively, problem solve, and feel engaged? Stager might argue that it is the creating of the game that is more powerful than the playing of the game. I won’t argue that point, but there is room for both I think.

My point in all of this is that both men are arguing for change. Let’s stop teaching rote memorization and lower level thinking skills, and let’s start challenging our students to think deeply about important topics. Let’s help them solve complex problems that matter to the world outside the classroom. Let’s help them think, try new ideas, fail, rethink, and come up with new solutions. The message to get us there can take on many perspectives, but the message is still clear: We need to teach differently, with an emphasis on problem solving, constructing meaning, and effective communication.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

It Is Not About the Technology… Sort of.

In my job as a technology integration specialist, I spend a lot of time teaching people how to use technology, convincing people of the power of technology, and demonstrating how technology can be embedded into our curricula. However, the more I do these activities, the more I realize that it is not about the technology. But before you start rejoicing that I will suddenly stop evangelizing about educational technology, I’d better explain.

When I say it is not about the technology, I mean that I am spending a lot of time thinking about the outcome. What do I want kids who graduate from school to be able to do? Do I want them to multiply, memorize capitals or dates, or write beautiful five paragraph essays? No, I want them to be successful in this new society, controlled by ubiquitous access to massive amounts of information, instant and cheap communication with the whole world, and access to tools that do many of the tasks that have traditionally been taught in schools. So how do I do this?

First, we need to look really hard at what we teach and how we teach. We need to engage in a conversation with our students about what the world looks like that awaits them when they graduate. What are the opportunities, what are the challenges? There are many of both. We don’t address them in school. As a teacher, how often do we discuss the importance of issues like global competition, a job market that is moving away from routine tasks and more and more towards creative problem solving, collaboration, and flexibility? How often do we discuss or, better yet, use digital tools in ways that solve complex problems, access and organize massive amounts of information of varying quality, communicate persuasively, and collaborate across time and distance? How often do we discuss the dangers of Internet safety, including cyberbullying, copyright laws, privacy, and content that is increasingly subjective?

How often do we neglect these issues in order to teach math facts, spelling, historical dates, or other low level thinking skills? I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a time or place for these skills, but if they are the bulk of our curriculum and they come at the expense of the other important skills, what are we really doing for our kids?

So, it isn’t about the technology. It is about teaching 21st century skills and putting student learning in the correct context. However, I’m not sure how we do all that without the use of technology. Are you?

Internet as a Democratic Tool as Compared to Radio and TV

For those who insist that we are in a downward spiral in which our youth read and write less and less, I would like to offer this up. Since the early 1900’s, the way in which information has been transferred has shifted from a largely written text to radio and then television. This transformation has lead to a society of consumers. We passively accept information from multiple sources. We have no avenue to question its authority. There are no letters to the editor. Only recently has radio begun a discourse in which listeners call in to speak about their viewpoints. Unfortunately, many of these radio stations are highly biased programs that solicit one-sided debates. They are capable of sifting out callers, allowing only those who they choose to get through. They can also cut off callers at any point. Not very democratic. Television is even less democratic. Channel after channel of information (I use this term loosely) is streamed into our homes in a solely one-sided fashion. We accept the information, but no public debate is formed, no discourse is furthered.

But the Internet is changing that. For the first time in a century, the primary source of information for our citizens is democratic in nature. Blogs, wikis, and other Web 2.0 tools invite a discourse. Our citizenry is encouraged to read and write in order to discuss a whole range of topics.

Therefore, it is the responsibility of us, the educators, to further this opportunity. If this vehicle for social discourse is to be powerful, we must teach our youth how to use it responsibly and effectively. We must promote this public conversation and empower our students with knowledge, thinking skills, communication skills, respect for different opinions, and technical skills and access to be able to participate.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Techno Paralysis

hs_us_technology_pda_clinical_assistant_doctor_pda_sp5.jpgNow I'm not a doctor so I don't know if this is a real medical condition, but it has been my observation that many people suffer from "techno paralysis." This is the condition when people, often teachers, get so overwhelmed by the degree of change in the area of technology, that they seem unable to decide where to get started with trying out new tools. In other words, there is too much to learn, so they end up not learning any of it.

I don't have a cure for this disease, but one thing that seems to be helpful is starting small. Pick one thing to focus on and get started with that. For example, just focus on blogging. Don't worry about the myriad of other tools. You will never learn them all anyway, so why not just choose one to learn? What tends to happen is this removes the paralysis to some degree and builds some excitement. I hear things like, "Wow, I'm not as dumb as I thought!" or "Hey, I can do this!"

The other great part about this is that once you learn one tool, the second is often easier to learn because many of the processes are the same. For example, once you can upload a photo from a folder on your hard drive, you can repeat that process on other applications.

The key for me is to not get too carried away with all the bells and whistles right away. There will be time for all that later. First I need to start with one thing and build on it. So if you know anyone that suffers from techno paralysis, put on your white coat and prescribe them a healthy dose of "Start Small."