There is a commonly held view that teaching Thinking Skills and Technology go hand in hand. Somehow the use of digital media will transform educational practice and the critical thinking skills we so desperately need in the twenty-first century will fall into place. I would like to believe this is so, and indeed I do believe that digital technologies do offer key affordances for developing critical thinking, but I fear there is nothing automatic in this process. The argument advanced by the Apple Classrooms Of Tomorrow programme was that the introduction of computers would lead to greater student-centered learning practices and hence gains in encouraging thinking skills, but this has not really panned out as planned.
Very often the use of technology has simply reinforced the ways teachers were teaching, and left little changed. Interactive Whiteboards have replaced chalk-boards, but the way they are deployed in the classroom left pretty much the same. The ready availability of information in the form of the Internet was going to change education from a process of learning facts, to learning skills. Again, this is clearly true, but how far have we come in implementing this approach? Not very far!
I think that teachers who encourage thinking generally do so independently of any move to introduce technology. And yet technology is clearly here to stay. Despite what I said previously, the ubiquitous presence of information available more or less anytime, more or less anywhere has made a difference to education. Technological innovations such as Interactive Whiteboards are nothing like the old chalkboard even where the pedagogy is largely the same. Even the case of an Instructivist teacher, putting up a YouTube video instead of text represents a difference of some order. The fact that a teacher can ask a question to which nobody knows the answer and can have students use their mobile phones to Google the answer is significant. It is not trivial.
The moment you introduce a computer into the classroom, the teacher, even if a dyed-in-the-wool instructivist, will be sidelined to some extent, no matter what the nature of the task set. I get the sense, not of a full-blown revolution in progress, but of one of those evolutionary changes that ends up changing everything once some perspective has been gained by the virtue of hindsight! What teachers are doing is quietly getting on with the business of experimenting with technology, finding out what works and what doesn’t work, and slowly but surely altering their practice to incorporate those elements of new technologies they find useful.
The same is true for the explicit teaching of thinking skills. Whether using De Bono’s Thinking Hats, David Heyrle’s Thinking Maps, Thinker’s Keys, Visible Thinking, CoRT, Habits Of Mind, and many other programmes, teachers all over the world are making concerted efforts to shift from content-based teaching to Thinking-based teaching. Again, trial & error and slow incorporation into existing teaching practices is the order of the day! As a teacher who has been grappling with both these movements, I have often puzzled over the connections. Can digital technologies really enhance Thinking? Or put another way, can we teach kids to think better by using technology?
I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question, or a one-size-fits-all solution: it’s not about the technology, it’s not even about the pedagogy. It’s really about individual teaching moments in different contexts, and what it means to the participants. I think the question teachers need to ask when evaluating any piece of technology or application is whether it will help their students think more like a mathematician, scientist, historian, or writer, or whatever subject you are teaching. There are undoubtedly so many instances where the answer is yes that we can begin to discern some common features around why it is that technology can indeed address the urgent imperative to foster better thinking skills.
One key feature is that of Authenticity. Technology offers opportunities for real world collaboration, publication and engagement which makes tasks authentic, or rather, more authentic. Thinking is context based, and the more real, the more relevant a problem is perceived to be, the better the thinking is likely to be. As an English teacher I know that many students do well on discrete, grammar type questions, but can’t use that language knowledge when composing their own writing. Many students can solve discrete Mathematical problems, but can’t use these Maths skills to solve real world problems. Students need to learn how to think like a writer, for example, in real-world contexts. Authentic publication offers an exciting route.
I have just managed to get a class signed up on WordPress, and given them an opportunity to publish their Flash fiction online on the class magazine. They get real views, and real comments from the general public. Suddenly spelling seems to matter to them, and they began to agonise over writing decisions! Not something you see in a for-the-teacher’s-eyes-only exercises!
The Internet also offers opportunities for students to grapple with real world problems and engage directly in their community. For example, when teaching IT skills I like to get my students to design an eSafety campaign for the junior school, producing posters and a video. I believe that by producing a product which will actually be used within the wider community of the school, students are more focused in their thinking.
The second key feature is Metacognition. Making thinking visible, and making students aware of their thinking helps them to self-monitor. I believe that technology has key affordances for metacognition in a number of ways. Technology stands at a remove from reality. It is quite clearly not the real world, and yet it can be used to mediate or model the real world. In doing so it encourages one to think about the real world and how one is interacting with it. An interactive Flash animation which allows a student to play with electrical circuits and see the results of decisions, for example, enables students to do things easily which would be hard to set up in the real world, and also encourages students to form and test hypotheses very rapidly. One of the best examples of this sort of thing is the bridge-building software which allows students to design bridges, and then test them with various loads. Games are good at this sort of thing.
A third feature is Engagement, although this is often over-stated. Students will spend hours of concentrated effort on a game, for example, but quickly tire of class-based pen and paper exercises. You can create neat, professional looking results using technology, which pen and paper tasks just cannot compete with. Getting students to offer feedback on their discussions by creating a vine, or recording their feedback on a webcam to embed on a PowerPoint is simply so much more fun than standing up and repeating what other groups are saying! An essay typed, or delivered using a Prezi or VoiceThread is much more engaging to create than a hand-written paper. Drill-and-kill practice is sometimes unavoidable, but can be less painful on computer.
How does engagement stimulate thinking? I asked a question in class an hour ago and saw two different responses in a range of my students. Some eyes were dead! It was half-term, the last period of the day and I was probing students about validity and truth in logic! I could see a lack of engagement in many eyes. Some eyes, however, were shining bright. This was new stuff – unlike anything normally studied in school, and it was clearly engaging a percentage of the class. When the lights are on thinking is going on! When they’re off, they’re well and truly off! Engagement is a sine qua non for thinking.
Digital media also engage by allowing for Inclusivity, another key feature. Face to face a teacher can often only hear from a fraction of the class at any one time. Even in a no hands up classroom, many students park off and wait for the bright ones to answer the question. Digital technologies, such as polling, twitter feeds and back-channels can help involve more students more of the time.
And finally, Precision. Thinking is nothing if not rigorous, and yet humans are extremely tolerant of imprecision. We get tired and accept second best for the sake of moving on. Yeah, that’s close enough! Computers, on the other hand, take some drudgery away, produce slick-looking results and therefore make space for transferring the attention to the content and to accuracy. The ability to edit a second draft, and move towards a final draft with minimum effort enhances this striving for perfection, and I think this is very good for developing thinking skills.
The devil, however, is always in the detail. I believe that teachers need to ask themselves how they intend to use technology to teach students to think better in the subject discipline they are teaching.
I have altered the popular TPACK model to integrate Thinking Skills in a previous blog, Since writing that piece, I have become increasingly convinced that we need to consistently ask ourselves not only what we are teaching (Content Knowledge), and how we are teaching it (Pedagogical Knowledge), but also how we will do that using technology (Technological Knowledge) to enhance thinking skills (Thinking Skills Knowledge).
For example, as an English teacher I might design a lesson which aims at teaching students to use Thinking maps in order to analyse a character in a novel in order to produce a blog post which describes the plot of that novel from the point of view of that character. In this case the thinking skills and digital skills operate in parallel with each other rather than work in tandem. I could equally well design a lesson in which students use Skype to collaborate with other students at another school in another country to produce a fictitious TV panel discussion between characters in a novel. This uses the digital media directly to facilitate and enable collaborative thinking.
Just as we need to think about how we teach particular content using technology, we need to think about how we teach thinking skills in that subject using technology.