Gavriel Salomon 1986
Gavriel Salomon 1986

Gavriel Salomon distinguishes first-order effects from second-order effects of technologies. First-order effects are a result of what the technologies have been designed to do. Second-order effects include the longer term impacts of any technology.

Cars were designed to move people from one place to the next – a first-order effect. One of their second order effects was the development of suburbs and city sprawl.

…a second order effect of cars was the development of suburbs and city sprawl

Trains were used to move people and goods across the Americas – a first-order effect. A second order effect was the pattern of city growth as you move from east to west. There were relatively equidistant stops for water to feed those steam engines.

Nobody necessarily intended these effects or thought them through. They happened more or less on their own. He has also called this the ‘drip effect’.

Salomon suggests that “it is quite likely that on the long run education will be affected by the unintended, drip-like effects of computing, particularly the Internet and computer mediated communication“.

And how does this relate to my classroom practice?

Logo - 1982

Ever had the notion that you are holding the kids back? Ever worried that you had inadvertently imposed a ceiling on their learning? I have. But, I learned a lesson many years ago in regards to this. It was actually in 1982 – shortly after the introduction of microcomputers.  However, as with so much else, this lesson is still extremely relevant.

I was fortunate enough to have between 5-8 computers every day with these 7 and 8 years olds.

I had heard about Logo* and started using it with these kids. As I have said elsewhere, I was amazed at what these kids were capable of doing.  They were able to do things mathematically and conceptually that was supposed to be ‘beyond their means’.  Prevalent Piagetian theory and other learning theory could not account for their behaviour.

With so many computers and so many kids working in open-ended software, I needed to spend a great deal of time with them – co-learning and struggling with concepts of math and programming in Logo.  It was wonderful – except… what about teaching the rest of the students!?

Well, I simply had to restructure my classroom organization.  I had always had what was perceived to be a laissez-faire classroom…. but it wasn’t laissez-faire at all!  In fact, it was quite the opposite.  It might have appeared ‘chaotic’ and ‘unstructured’ but if you had taken time to look ‘beneath the surface’, you would have seen even higher expectations and outcomes than most classes.  I expected kids not just to learn the content at hand, but indeed I expected them to manage the learning of that content as well.  This is, of course, what metacognition is all about.

I thank the Lord for the brain He put in my head.  Occasionally, I love to just stand to one side and watch how it works.” – Richard Bolles

Well, how did I restructure things?  Because I was so busy with the kids over there, at the computers, I had to turn more of the responsibility for learning over to the kids.  I was scared.

So here is an example of what I did for ‘math time’ – actually for ‘subtraction with regrouping’. I assumed various levels of understanding. I respected their ability to effectively determine their level of competence. I supported and encouraged them to be teachers and learners. In addition to ensuring that all the manipulatives were accessible to them, I put a range of examples right across the span of the board. I put extremely simple samples to extremely complex. I had about 6 categories with many ‘problems’ in each category – and a ‘make up your own’.  And, I set them loose. As with videogames, and most other ‘out of school’ activities, the students were adept at finding their level of competence and working at the edge of it. There are the standard generalizable exceptions of course. Kids who often had difficulties either chose ones that were too easy or ones that were too hard. These kids I could pay attention to. But the rest, they managed better than I expected. Many kids worked well beyond what I had anticipated.

Do you know what I discovered?  Even I had been holding the kids back!  I had been keeping the lid on too tight.

I had been keeping the lid on too tight.

This was an interesting effect of having computers in my class. I re-examined my existing methods and modified my approach dramatically.  Gavriel Salomon would call this a second-order effect of computers.

In a similar vein,  Seymour Papert has said, “If the role of the computer is so slight that the rest remains constant, then it is too slight for much to come of it.”

Seymour Papert, at the OLPC offices in Cambrid...
Seymour Papert, at the OLPC offices in Cambridge, Mass. in 2006. Crop of photo taken by ak_mardini; originally uploaded to Flickr under a cc-by-sa license. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the role of the computer is so slight that the rest remains constant, then it is too slight for much to come of it.” – Papert

So… Question IT!  What second order effects have you witnessed as a result of using computers with your kids?


*Yes, another reference to Logo! However, this scenario could be replayed with any open-ended software. Just sayin’.


Salomon, G. (2000). “It’s Not Just the Tool, But the Educational Rationale that Counts”, Paper delivered at the ED-Media Meeting, Montreal.