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We Shouldn’t Let the Technological Tail Wag the Pedagogical Dog!

26 May

Over the last hundred years or so the world has changed utterly. Advances in transport and telecommunications in particular have shrunk the globe and revolutionised the global economic system. As we can see in this slide, however, the classroom of 1888 shown here is barely changed today: the same desks, textbooks, exercise books and pencil cases. Even the same bored faces!

With the rise of the Information Age, the ways in which we access knowledge has also changed. Back in 1900, knowledge, following an industrial model, was largely warehoused in books, stored in libraries. Much knowledge also had to be committed to memory because it was hard to access when you really needed it. The business of education then was largely about mediating knowledge, breaking it down into digestible chunks which could be memorised so that it would be available when needed. There was a realistic expectation that in school you could learn everything you would need to know to follow your chosen job, for life. Best practice also taught you how to get at the knowledge stored in books, and how to evaluate what it all meant.

These days, however, with the advent of the Internet, knowledge can be accessed almost instantaneously. You can find out what you need to know on the fly. The importance of committing to memory has all but disappeared. It is no longer a case of what you know, it’s all about what you can leverage.

On top of this, the pace of change is so great that knowledge learned in school is frequently out of date by the time you leave university. We live in an age where life-long learning is not only desirable, it is critical. Because of this, Stephen Heppell suggests we should not talk of the information age, we should talk of the learning age.

And yet our classrooms still look pretty much the same, and our assessment still stresses memorisation of content rather than skills. We need a new pedagogy to meet the new world we live in.

Don’t get me wrong! I believe that teachers are right to be conservative in this matter. We are in the business of shaping minds, and we cannot be too cavalier with this responsibility! The need for book knowledge – the knowledge that comes from a closely argued train of thought has not suddenly evaporated just because Google is in town! We still need to read books and articles. Knowledge is not just something that can be Googled! And yet what I said before about accessing information on the fly is important.

Perhaps we need to conceive of two types of knowledge: fast knowledge, the ability to rapidly evaluate and synthesise vast amounts of information quickly, and slow knowledge, knowledge that derives from a close reading of a well-structured argument.Any education system needs to take both these types of knowledge into account. The one not only complements the other, they are both vital.

Over the last hundred years learning theory has changed as well. Back in 1900 innatist and empiricist theories of learning, such as the Socratic method or the theories of Maria Montessori dominated. Knowledge was largely seen as something innate or acquired from our senses, that had to be drawn out of a child. Knowledge, derived from our sense of sight, sound or touch, had to be shaped by teachers into meaningful insights.

In the 1920s and 1950s, however, two waves of behaviourist psychology sought to elevate learning to a science of inputs and outputs and sweep aside the unscientific theories of Freud and Jung!

Our own Output Based Education system was a late, and extreme version of this movement. The mind was a black box, inscrutable, and unknowable, but if the right instruction was given, the right outputs could be delivered efficiently. Teaching machines, and early computers were seen as important tools in delivering reliable instructional input, free of the idiosyncrasies of teachers. BF Skinner, for example built a machine which would take care of his infant daughter’s needs.

And in a similar way teaching machines could deliver inputs at just the right moment for each individual learner. Programmed instruction became a buzzword for efficiency in education, and the computer lab was introduced in education.

While teachers might tire, the logic circuits of computers could tailor-make instruction for each individual learner, sequencing instruction scientifically and efficiently. The vision for the future was clear!

I’m not saying that drill and practice routines have no place in the classroom – clearly there are occasions and topics when it can be helpful, but all too often these drill-and-kill routines were dehumanizing and the kiss of death in the classroom.

This first wave of computers in education largely failed – ultimately a machine, no matter how patient could not match the flexibility of mind possessed by even the most flawed teacher.

By the 1960s and 1970s psychologists rediscovered the human mind, and the first cognitive revolution was heralded in by Noam Chomsky’s devastating savaging of BF Skinner’s argument. You could know something about the human mind, and dash it, mind was important in education! Piaget’s theories of human development, and Vygotsky’s key ideas around the impact of society on learning started to coalesce around Constructivist ideas, which stood in stark contrast to the empiricism of the behaviourists. Knowledge is not something which can be simply acquired from instruction – knowledge is constructed inside a person’s brain, and everyone’s knowledge is slightly different.

The next wave of educational technology largely revolved around how to assimilate Constructivist theories of learning into instructional design. Computers came to be seen as powerful enablers of personal expression and creativity. The focus shifted from drill and practice towards digital authoring, and social communication. In South Africa, the learner-centered approach is a direct result of this turn. Teachers became facilitators of learning rather than instructors. ICTs, in this view are powerful mediating tools which can facilitate learning. This wave of computer use saw itself as closely aligned to Constructivist and learner-centred pedagogies. The computer was a way, perhaps, of loosening the grip of the teacher on the classroom.

This wave of computers in education, exemplified by Apple’s Classrooms of Tomorrow, however, has not seen widespread transformation in education. The Sage on the stage has not been automatically replaced by the guide on the side. Generally speaking teachers have introduced computers into their classrooms without changing much of their pedagogical practice. I would argue this is for very good reason.

Just because learning is conceived of as being constructivist does not mean that teachers should desert their duties to mediate knowledge, and, when necessary – teach! We are not just facilitators, we do actually have the responsibility and duty to teach!

Learning Theory, however, has not stood still, and new theories of distributed knowledge, dubbed the second cognitive revolution, have come to stress the powerful ways in which what we know is not restricted to our brains, but is distributed across our bodies, and our social networks. This cognitive revolution has yet to be adequately assimilated into schooling practice. Within educational technology, however, networked learning, online learning, and the use of the powerful communicative affordances of the web has fitted well with this turn, as has the rise of web 2.0 and social media. We learn through other people, and the Internet is an enabler of that!

The connections, however, are under-theorised.

Largely the idea is that learning needs to be seen as an apprenticeship, that students learn, through participation how to think and talk like a full member of the community of practice they are seeking to join. In this view teachers are more like mentors, and online learning communities, where more experienced peers shepherd and steer newbies is seen as a model of what effective teaching and learning could and should be.

While ICTs can be used to support both Behaviourist and Constructivist notions of learning, for Connectivist learning theories ICTs become indispensable. As our world becomes more and more connected, so does the pressure to connect the classroom. How much more powerfully could we learn if we are not restricted by the classroom walls, or by the knowledge of the teacher alone? If students can access the wealth of knowledge available 24/7, surely it is criminal not to do so?

At the end of the twentieth century then we had developed two powerful metaphors for understanding learning: learning as acquisition vs learning as participation.

To my mind, the most crucial insight comes from Ana Sfard, Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Haifa, who stresses that these two metaphors have equal weight, and we ignore either at our peril. They are two sides of the same coin, whether you conceive of them as polarities of formal or informal education, theory or practice, episteme or techne!

What’s the takeaway from all of this? Some have argued that the conservatism of the teaching profession has been a good thing, because it has isolated education from faddism. We have seen laptop and iPad programmes introduced, and a few years later seen the devices withdrawn. Simply throwing devices at the problem of education is certainly no solution. Perhaps the classroom should be a haven away from the turbulence wrought by the changes in the world around us. Disruptive technologies may be vital in the business world, but maybe we don’t want or need to disrupt education?

To a degree I agree with this – it would be wrong to jump on every bandwagon. However, the failures of previous programmes can largely be explained by their focus on the device, rather than the pedagogy. The question we need to answer is not what devices to use in the classroom, but how we teach our subjects using technology. The question of ICT integration in the classroom needs to be driven by the pedagogy rather than the technology.

The question every teacher needs to be asking is how can I teach my subject content better using available technology.

For example, in Science, a simulation may well explain Boyle’s Law a whole lot better than a written or verbal explanation. If students can experiment with varying temperatures and pressures on a simulation on their iPad, they will learn a whole lot better than simply listening to an explanation.

Meanwhile, In an English class, old-fashioned face to face discussion may work better than a YouTube video! On the other hand creating a blog entry from the perspective of Shylock may help a student understand Shakespeare’s play better than an old-fashioned pen and paper essay. The modern teacher needs not just to understand their subject (Content Knowledge) or how to teach (Pedagogical Knowledge) – they crucially need to understand how to teach their subject using available technologies (Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge)

The current state of play is that teachers the world over are only just coming to grips with how best to use technology in the classroom, and every teacher, every classroom, every student is different. There is no one-size-fits-all solution and no silver bullet to fix all education’s problems. But one thing is clear. ICTs offer a power tool to add to the armoury of any classroom, and whether a teacher decides to use it on any given day or not, is a decision which is best made inside the classroom, often on the fly as opportunities present themselves.

BYOD strategies gives teachers the wherewithal to be able to make those pedagogical decisions on the spot. And crucially we need to understand that the addition of digital devices does not invalidate yesterday’s technology either. Pen and paper technologies will not disappear, and may be better for a particular situation than an iPad, but likewise an iPad may immeasurably extend what is possible currently.

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