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February 4, 2010


The Wisdom of Experience Meets the Enthusiasm of Novices – Educon Reflection

by Peter Skillen

Gary Stager’s session about Seymour Papert is an example of a necessary component of the education of those who are, as Doug Peterson says, ‘coming to the party late’.  I have recently felt somewhat of a disconnect that is rather disconcerting. Many of the ‘new’ web 2.0, social media educators are enthusiastic and extremely active in ICT in education.  For this I am thrilled.  I am so happy to learn with, and from, them.  But, I am also an extremely reflective person who has watched this ‘industry’ for close to forty years now.  Yikes!  And there are some interesting trends.

Surfing the Surface

When new technologies come along, there is a tendency to ‘surf the surface’ of them.  Before you know it, another tool, or set of tools, arrives on the scene and is adopted and we move on.  We apply it quickly and perhaps without the judgement that is necessary regarding exactly what it is we wish kids to achieve or to learn.  I fall into this trap on occasion. This is difficult to recognize without the benefit of time, experience and reflection. It is important that we learn from the past.
The Butterfly Defect

Gavriel Salomon, a brilliant cognitive scientist turned peace activist and researcher spoke of the ‘butterfly defect’* whereby students may learn to construct cognitive webs in terms of the casual links typical of the hypermedia they construct.  I would suggest that many novices to education and many novices to the use of ICT in education may also be subject to this phenomenon.  We may flit from tool to tool in a casual way. Wow, even those of us who are reflective and have a deep historical understanding of constructivism as it applies to ICT in education can get seduced by the charm and energy of the latest technologies.

I enjoyed all the sessions I attended at Educon – from the newbies to the weathered.  We have a lot to learn from one another. Let’s keep the conversations, and our minds and attitudes, open to all.

Thank you so much to Chris Lehmann (principal of the Science Leadership Academy), staff and students for these opportunities.

* Novel constructivist learning environments and novel technologies: some issues to be concerned with Learning and Instruction
Volume 8, Supplement 1, August 1998, Pages 3-12

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Barbara McLaughlin
    Feb 4 2010

    Hi Peter,

    Just as there is a continuum of adoption of technology in our teaching colleagues, there is a continuum with those of us who are more comfortable in the edusphere, from the “quick-twitch, wowsa, gotta have that”, to a measured and reflective “I’ll get back to you” approach.

    I think it’s about checks and balances, pushing the envelope, versus what will actually work right now in the schools. You are right, we need all these dialogues to effect change.

    Thanks for finally getting that out (haha).


    • pskillen
      Feb 5 2010

      Thx Barbara, for the feedback. Yes, we need lots of conversations about it all…and we need patience, acceptance and acknowledgment. And LOTS of sharing! 🙂

  2. Feb 4 2010

    You’ve got me thinking here, Peter. As you’ve noted, there are those of us who have been around the track for a couple of laps and have seen technologies come and go. I don’t use the word constructivist in any of my comments because I’m really not sure that my understanding of the word is the same as others and I see it, at times, as one of those terms that people use to buy favour in a discussion.

    There are leaders, as you note, who have long talked about what children need to be doing with the technology. Personally, I do think that all students need to take some form of computer programming in their career and I think that it needs to be coupled with the arts whether it be music or drama or communication arts. As I look at the structure of the curriculum and social priorities these days, I see the focus on language and mathematics and it’s really difficult to know where the fine line is. I am delighted with the renewed focus on Computer Studies in the new Ontario Curriculum documents but wish that it had more importance in the big scheme of things.

    The enthusiasm of novices or not so novices is exciting to see. I think of myself as a new teacher and how I was going to change the world with the technologies that I had available at the time. It’s so rewarding to see and meet up with them in their professional careers with the skills that they have developed and you see a small part of your influence in it.

    I am concerned that this enthusiasm sees and expouses great things in some of the trivial activities that some Web based applications offer. When I do my Web 2.0 presentations, I talk about the low hanging fruit. Let me give an example. Suppose you want to put your head on a turtle for whatever reason. I see real value in using a tool like Photoshop and its collection of tools as opposed to a website where you upload a picture and it sticks the head on for you. Where is the learning? What is the value?

    That’s where the wisdom of experience comes to play. We have a variety of tools available on the web for free. Can we cut through the sizzle and get to the bacon? The wisdom to connect activities to real, meaningful learning is something that all need to embrace.

    • pskillen
      Feb 5 2010

      I like your take on the word ‘constructivist’. You made two points about it. One is that some people use it to buy favour in a discussion. A problem – to be sure. Also, people’s understanding of the term ‘constructivism’ is often ‘off the mark’. I heard one person say, well, it simply means ‘hands-on’, doesn’t it? She was well-intentioned and we have used the term a great deal at the school, but, a deeper understanding has not yet been acquired. (I’ll be working on that! )

      I have also found that the term ‘constructivism’ also turns a lot of people off. You can see the eyes roll and the minds shut down when it reaches their ears. I am not sure what to do about this. Do we do what we so often do when a particular term becomes overused, misused, coloured, misunderstood? Do we find another term for the same construct? I’m not sure.

      You mention the desire to have computer programming learned by all kids at some point and to some degree. I do not disagree with you. There are many ways for this to occur – with all the relatively high level languages available. Would you be satisfied with ‘scripting’ or ‘building with programming blocks’ like in Scratch?

      Thanks Doug…for helping me (us) to think about all this.

  3. Feb 5 2010

    Hi All,
    Thanks to all three of you for continuing this….I value your opinions (and wisdom) a lot. I think it IS about balances and semantics and reflection about the real learning as you all have mentioned. I struggle with the time it takes to be patient and let people observe and ‘name it’ for themselves…one of the hardest things about teaching for deeper learning is resisting the “urge to tell” but this is what it’s all about for our students and ourselves as teacher learners. It’s another reason why I think Chris Lehmann (and other transformative principals) have such a huge, but empowering task ahead of them. I’m sure that you are giving this lots of thought in your courses as well Barbara. 🙂

    I’m going to keep on “looking for the bacon” Doug…love that expression! 🙂

  4. Feb 18 2010

    Ok, I read the Salomon article about the ‘Butterfly Defect’, and I’m really intrigued. I see myself as having been one of the people who flittered from one thing to another, and maybe I still am in a lot of ways. With so much ‘stuff’ out there, and so much focus on the superficial aspects of everything, it’s really easy to do. So my thoughts are now around what is the long term impact of this? Do we get less and less depth as we go on, or is there a way to deepen thinking and understanding while still staying on the edge of the technology understanding. Can we be users and modelers of the tools that best facilitate thinking, and focus on the thinking rather than the tools? We tend to bounce around trying to find the ‘best’ tool for a job, and not realize that it’s not the tools that solves problems, it’s the brain behind it.

    Where do teachers in schools working with students fall into this? That’s my worry that we are not modeling a sustainable environment in our PD sessions when we show them all of the possible ways of doing things. The avalanche of tools is not slowing down, and if we continue to focus on the wrong things, then I worry that the cognitive webs will have lots of connections that are tenuous and flimsy, and not robust enough to be efficient in the transfer of skills to a new situation. So interesting to consider the brain’s cognitive structure as a reflection of the manner in which we use the things at our disposal. Amazing, and a bit scary.

    • pskillen
      Feb 19 2010

      Hi Colin,

      Thanks for questioning “is there a way to deepen thinking and understanding while still staying on the edge of the technology understanding?”

      I think it’s a really important question. And, for me, it goes back to the issue of ‘expertise’. If you have a great deal of expertise with these tools, then you hold a lot of generalizable declarative and procedural knowledge. That is, you don’t require as much ‘mental effort’ to learn new tools. It is easier for us to ‘scan’ many tools faster and to apply them more easily and to see how they may be applied in the classroom.

      However, if you are a relatively new computer user, it takes much more effort to learn new tools. And more effort gets spent on the tool, rather than on thinking about its use in engaging kids in deeper thinking.

      As I have said elsewhere, when you are learning to drive a car, the early days are spent on managing the machine, less thought can be available for recognizing and understanding traffic patterns etc. As some of the mechanics become automatized, we are freed up for the higher level processes.

      So, to come back to your question, I think we need to differentiate our professional development by accommodating teachers according to their levels of expertise with the tools, with teaching, with learning, with their models of teaching, etc.



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