…and obviously the other stuff too!
Click on this picture to make it larger and more readable!
I continue to hear that we need ‘pedagogy before technology‘ and that it ‘isn’t about the tools, it’s about the learning‘! Well, I am somewhat frustrated by these relatively simplistic statements. But, before you shoot me, understand that a strong emphasis on both pedagogy and learning are foremost in my mind. Also, let me clarify that this is somewhat a new educational battlecry—one that didn’t exist when many of us started with kids and these technologies back in the late 70s. We just took it for granted that we were implementing these tools in deep and significant ways! (After all, you either took a constructionist/constructivist approach or you adopted the beliefs of CAI (Computer Assisted Instruction—aka Institutionalization! LOL)
It is only since decision-making was taken out of the hands of classroom educators that computers (and other technologies) have landed unceremoniously in classrooms, along with expectations that they will be used effectively. This has gained momentum since the onslaught of cheaper tools such as tablets, Chromebooks and BYOD and even more decision-makers and policy-makers have arrived on board (finally)—because they have a ‘device’!
So, trust me. I get why we are hearing this battlecry. People didn’t necessarily come to it themselves and now we have a plethora of devices and not enough forethought and preparation.
Having said that, it is dangerous to claim that it is not about the tools. It is also about the tools. Read on, and click on the links, to find out why I think so.
I have decided to make this graphic representing these ideas that I have written about in the previous posts:
If you would like to see an interactive version, please click on the link below.
It is very much about the tools:
and their impact—both intended and unintended.
Once again, as a result of the ISTE conference, the issue represented by statements such as, “It’s not about the tools, it’s about the pedagogy” has come to the fore. (See Stop It Already by @dougpete and Not Everyone is You by @gcouros.)
I have spoken about this before in “It’s Not About the Tool”—A Naïve Myth.” In that post I share some thoughts related to computers as cognitive partners, ‘effects of’ vs ‘effects with,’ drip effects of technology, blue dye plus water or blue water and other McLuhanist-type thoughts.
As I mentioned there, I understand the intent of these kinds of statements. I believe they arise from the focusing on the skills required to use the tool rather than on the learning at hand. So, yes, that would be an issue. I totally understand that problem. That’s why, in 2002, I presented a session at a CUE conference titled Mindstrokes—Not Keystrokes.
However, it is very much about the tools.
As described in that post, tools shape behaviours. Tools shape cognition. Tools shape societal structures in both intended, and unintended, ways.
Let’s face it, eras of humankind have historically been defined by tool creation and use (the Three Age System)! We have the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. Then came the Industrial Age, and, now, the Digital Era. In fairness, these descriptors vary regionally and are constantly under revision as many cultures use reference to other types of technologies.
So to simplistically say that it isn’t about the tools, is in my opinion, digital age doodoo.
“If the role of the computer is so slight that the rest can be kept constant, it will also be too slight for much to come of it.”
Seymour Papert in Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking, 1987
Teaching for Durable Mental Models
Many years ago, I devised ways to have my students make their thinking explicit for all to see and to discuss! One technique I created was Watch Me Think! We dreamed up as many ways as we could to make this possible.
We tried public journal writing and collaborative idea mapping (as we called it then). I have written much about the former, and wish to address the latter here.
Idea mapping, in my view, comes in two varieties:
- traditional outliners that are hierarchical & linear in nature (as you would find in any wordprocessor like MS Word or Pages—but not Google), and
- graphic organizers which may be used hierarchically or in a web-based manner and are graphical in nature. Many graphic organizers also allow for the creation of mind-maps and concept-maps (which can show a relationship among the nodes of of the map).
- In fact, may of these graphic organizers will also export to an outliner—often a handy feature!
Both categories of these tools are extremely useful—perhaps in different ways. Many excellent resources are available to support you in using them with your students.
Effects With versus Effects Of
However, I wish for deeper and more transferable understandings that students can learn when they are creating mind-maps, concept-maps or outlines. I want both effects with and effects of. It is wonderful that graphic organizers and outliners can improve the quality of students’ work as they use these tools (effects with), but it is as important for these tools to have a more robust impact on student thinking. If students develop mental models as a result of having used graphic organizers or outliners, they are able to apply these in other situations (effects of)—even when computers are not on hand. The model resides in the head.
…place thinking at the centre of the educational enterprise…
Placing thinking at the centre of the educational enterprise in classrooms is very much at the heart of the knowledge-building and visible thinking movement, and so, it makes a lot of sense to make these graphic organizers and outlines as visible as possible within your classroom. Sometimes this might be in your physical space. Other times, they may be, in fact, collaborative documents that are shared and discussable online.
Does wordprocessing make students better writers?
Research has indicated that students write better whenever they use word processors. Their work is longer, better revised and edited, and so forth. This would constitute effects with.
But can they subsequently write better after having used word processors?
Can they write better without the use of a word processor?
The answer to these questions is likely dependent on both the connections teachers explicitly make in class as well as the types of activities in which students are engaged while using word processors.
For example, if they use an outlining tool within a word processor or presentation software, they would then have a functional mental structure to carry with them to other tasks.
…helps students develop portable mental models they can carry to other tasks…
How does using the outliner tool differ from just using indents and hard returns? The ability to expand and collapse the headings and subheadings provides, in my opinion, a significant mental model—a model that is durable and independent of the computer. It is what Gavriel Salomon would call a residual effect. How might this be implemented in a classroom? Look at two examples here.
Similarly, graphic organizers may provide students with the capacity to think differently even when they are not using a computer. They may have the capability to see webs of ideas, and relationships among ideas, as a graphical representation in their mind. This is a tool with which to think—an alternate way of representing knowledge that they may not have at their disposal if they hadn’t used graphic organizers.
In fact, if they move their knowledge from a graphic organizer to an outline for a different view and then back again, they will start to develop a schema of how information can be structured. This is a valuable mental model—a wonderful effect of having used the tools.
Caution: Be careful these activities don’t become yet another worksheet! 🙂
My own experience shows that if outlining and mapping become routinized—like yet another ‘worksheet’—they become ‘something to get done’ and they, therefore, are not done mindfully or intentionally and the intended benefits are lost. Once again we need to understand that learning is strongly affected by the predominant culture of the classroom. So, be sure to value the efforts through conversation and the public discussions related to the thinking involved.
Thinking needs to be a highly valued activity and that should be explicitly and implicitly understood by all in the classroom. John Seely Brown has eloquently stated that learning is often a product of the ambient culture rather than of explicit teaching.
NOTE for Ontario Teachers:
“It’s not about the tool – it’s about the learning.” – a naïve myth.
I understand the intent of these kinds of statements. I believe they arise from the focusing on the skills required to use the tool rather than on the ‘subject-matter’ at hand.
However, it is dangerous, in my opinion, to say that it is not about the tools. It is more about the tools than many of us might regularly think.
I appreciate that Dean Shareski, @shareski , has written about this issue as well.
Sometimes, one feels very alone having these thoughts – and it is a risk putting them out there whenever the predominant culture – especially, forgive me, Twitter culture is cascading and retweeting these one-line ‘wisdoms’ such as the one that starts this post. (In fact, it is bizarre that Dean used almost the same language as I did in his post. “I understand…” and “It is dangerous”. I started this post without any previous conversation with Dean about this issue.)
There are two main points to be made here.
Media with which to think
Firstly, Salomon suggested that computers can be ‘cognitive partners’ – that they can be leveraged like ‘power tools for the mind’ in the same way that traditional power tools extend our physical capabilities.
The modification of this stance which fascinates me is not just the quantitative amplification of the ‘tool’, but the ‘qualitative’.
Computers are not mere tools but are media with which to think.
For many years I have suggested that computers are not mere tools but are media with which to think. They can provide mental models that are transferable within, and across, domains. In, Deep Understanding – the Issue of Transfer, I outline some practical suggestions of this. Again, Gavriel Salomon’s work on the ‘effects with’ versus the ‘effects of’ technology influenced me greatly.
‘Effects with’ are the changes that take place while one is engaged in intellectual partnership with peers or with a computer tool, as, for example, is the case with the changed quality of problem solving that takes place when individuals work together in a team. On the other hand, ‘effects of’ are those more lasting changes that take place as a consequence of the intellectual partnership, as when computer-enhanced collaboration teaches students to ask more exact and explicit questions even when not using that system.
See also Scaffolding for Deep Understanding.
Tools shape behaviours, cognition & societal structures
Secondly, tools shape behaviours. Tools shape cognition. Tools shape societal structures in both intended, and unintended, ways.
This is evidenced in many domains of life and is showing up in a lot of the literature in recent years – in fact, for centuries.
In The Drip Effects of Technology I described what Gavriel Salomon said regarding the first- and second-order effects of technologies – “it is quite likely that in the long run education will be affected by the unintended, drip-like effects of computing, particularly the Internet and computer mediated communication“. (Montreal, June 28, 2000)
Anthony Aguirre, in The Enemy of Insight, suggests that “information input from the Internet is simply too fast, leaving little mental space or time to process that information, fit it into existing schema, and think through the implications”. (From Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? Edited by John Brockman)
Max Tegmark says in The Cat is out of the Bag, “Important issues fade from focus fast, and while many of humanity’s challenges get more complicated, society’s ability to pay attention to complex arguments dwindles. Sound bites and attack ads work well when the world has attention deficit disorder.” (From Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? Edited by John Brockman)
In Blue dye plus water? Or blue water?, I briefly recounted Derrick de Kerckhove’s analysis of what happens to society when new media are invented. (I repeat here.) In The Skin of Culture he says, “The addition of a drop of blue dye to a glass of water results not in blue dye plus water, but in blue water: a new reality.” De Kerckhove indicates that McLuhan (his mentor) and others pointed out that “the inculcation of the habit of literacy results not in a pre-literate world plus readers, but in a literate world: a new world in which everything is seen through the eyes of literacy”.
When will we see that we have successfully integrated Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) into the lives of students? It seems to me that this will be achieved when we see them not simply using ICT as ‘tools’, but rather when we see students thinking differently as a result of their ubiquitous presence and facility. The invention of words, and subsequently the printing press, resulted in a new literacy because people now had words with which to think and to communicate. ‘Blue water’ with respect to ICT means that people must sufficiently appropriate these technologies in order that they become ‘media with which to think and to communicate’.
‘Gutenberg Parenthesis’ is history, but history repeats itself
So although we are outside of the “Gutenberg Parenthesis”, we are perhaps into another era where there are many parallels. Technologies are not simply tools.
- Rethinking Learning (downes.ca)
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. Read more