Category Archives: Habits Of Mind

Five Apps that Support Group Work in the Classroom

Constructivist Learning Theory emphasises the value of Group Work in the Classroom. As Vygotsky has highlighted, learning is first social before it becomes internalised. In other words the more opportunities students have to discuss and work through any content, the greater the opportunity to internalise that content. And yet many students have a hatred of group work. Learning to work with other people is not easy. Those with a healthy work ethic often do not know how to handle interactions with those who have less of a motivation to finish a task. Those who are used to achieving high marks for their individual assignments often feel resentful towards those who who turn in work they consider drags them down. Should they just take over and do all the work themselves, or do they accept peer contributions which they consider sub-standard? Others in the group may be resentful of those who try to take over, or who come across as bossy or exacting. And yet, more than ever, learning to work together and think interdependently is considered a crucial and employable skill.

Are there any digital applications which can help quieten the choppy Group Work waters? Here are five suggestions.

1. Google Docs

Google Docs provide unparalleled functionality for facilitating collaborative text authoring. A document can be shared with all members of the group, and the teacher, and then all who have been given editing rights can simultaneously work on the document. All changes are saved automatically. There is an online chat facility, and authors can leave comments and suggest edits. One of the greatest limitations on collaboration has always been the difficulties around sharing a document and writing one up. One member of the group often had to volunteer to do the “write up”. Google docs allows for this workload to be shared.

Teachers can carefully scaffold tasks within a Google doc and then share the document with a group so that the steps to be taken are highlighted, and strategies which might be deployed to afford collaborative thinking are suggested. In the graphic, the teacher is suggesting that de Bono Thinking Hats might help the group explore explore the topic though parallel thinking. Teachers can comment at any stage during the authoring process much as teachers circulating in a classroom can eavesdrop and intervene where necessary to get a group back on track. This allows teachers to  continue scaffolding learning in class, and outside class while students are authoring their write up.

These affordances for collaborative authoring and scaffolding make Google docs one of the most valuable educational tools to emerge in recent years. Students are able to use Google docs both while in group discussion, and for after-school homework.

2. is a web-based tool, with limited free and paid options. It allows users to set up a mind-map board which groups discussing a topic can use to create mind maps and save these as a jpeg, png or even html, which can be downloaded and shared. Upgrading to paid versions allows users to share a mind-map which can then be used for follow-up tasks.

One of the limitations of any paper based mind-map is how to share it, if the ideas are needed for follow-up action. To my mind, mind mapping tools offer the key affordance of guiding discussion around how ideas fit together. It forces students to address issues such as where does this idea fit? This helps sharpen an argument. allows grid, tree and bubble layouts. You can insert files only with an upgraded paid version, but the free version does allow links, so students can use the mind map to record useful links.

Some way of recording a discussion in a form which can later be shared is invaluable, but mind maps are especially valuable because they force students to simultaneously organise their thoughts.

3. Padlet

Padlet is a web-based tool which has free and paid options. The free version allows up to four walls. On a wall you can add files, voice and video recordings, links searched from within Google, text and doodles. You can share the wall with other users, each with authoring rights, or share a link, or wall saved as pdf or image.

The chief affordance to my mind is the facility for co-authors to add voice or video messages to the wall. This provides a superb tool for a group to collect resources and leave commentary both while planning a project, and when leaving a report back, with group members recording commentary on different aspects of a topic.

A teacher can set up a topic and invite students to co-author a document, thus setting up a group, and providing impetus sources if required, or groups can set up their own walls and share with each other informally, or with the teacher, formally. Walls have different themes and templates which can be applied. A wall can be deleted when it is no longer needed.

4. Kahoot!

Kahoot! is a tool which allows students to create quizzes or games or discussion boards which they can then share with the rest of the class. This is a great end product which encourages a group to research a topic, master the content and share with the class in the form of a quiz. Students find Kahoots engaging to create and to consume. This provides one means a teacher can use to ensure that the end product is itself engaging and encourages the group to take care in its creation.

Thinking of suitable questions to ask the rest of the class is a great way to get students to dig down deeper into a topic than they might otherwise have done so. The competitive nature of the quizzes also seems to encourage students to put in greater effort.

5. Lino

Lino is a sticky note web-based application which allows multiple users to post sticky notes on a topic. Users can post files, links to videos or images on an electronic cork-board. This allows for group-based brainstorming. It is a very versatile tool in that it can be used by a group or whole class and used for multiple purposes from group discussion through to presentation and feedback or reflection.

I like to use it as a reflection tool for students to post final comments on a topic after group-based feedback presentations have been made. It is quick and visual  and allows for a rapid round-up of reflections or comments and makes for a good way to sign off on a topic.

For a teacher it is a good way to spot any comments which reveal need for further action. Maybe some aspect of the topic needs to be picked up on at a later stage, or could do with further exploration.

This list of tools is by no means exhaustive. There may be better examples of applications with improved functionality. All of these tools, however, represent different ways in which collaborative group-based work can be usefully supported and enhanced. Please use the comments to suggest other tools, or share how you are using these tools.








Critical Thinking & ICTs – Part 1

critical-thinking-cartoonThere is a narrative which says that ICTs offer unique affordances for critical thinking in the classroom. This argument sees the introduction of new technologies in the classroom as a prerequisite for a new emphasis on critical thinking. The 21st Century Skills Movement sees change itself as a rationale for the need for critical thinking, and technology as a central skill set for success in a changing world.

Now, this blog is dedicated to exploring how ICTs and Critical Thinking intersect, so I have rehearsed elements of this narrative many times. I do believe that ICTs have affordances which can be leveraged to achieve greater critical thinking, but the relationship is not simple or direct, and I have been around long enough to remember when teachers sought to foster critical thinking quite independently of digital technologies. As one who considers himself a champion of ICTs and Critical Thinking I believe it is important to have a theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between critical thinking and technology adoption which helps us to understand better how we can use technology to build better critical thinking.

Thinking around what critical thinking means is often somewhat woolly. For some students it appears to come naturally. Their arguments are well structured, well supported, with greater nuance and generative power. Other students struggle to present or analyze ideas effectively, and teachers are often unsure exactly what to do to help improve thinking. What exactly does effective thinking look like anyway?

Many teachers are using particular thinking strategies to foster critical thinking. Tools such as De Bono’s Thinking Hats, David Hyerle’s Thinking Maps, Harvard’s Visible Thinking or Tony Ryan’s Thinker’s Keys are designed to provide particular pathways to better thinking. These strategies represent pedagogies claiming to offer affordances for critical thinking in much the same way as claims are made that ICTs afford critical thinking. The claims for these strategies rest on the affordances of specific thought processes. For example the Thinking Maps offer scaffolding for promoting defining, describing, comparing and contrasting, classifying, sequencing, analyzing cause and effect, identifying part/whole relationships and seeing analogies. The Thinking Hats are said to maximise and organize thoughts and ideas by deploying parallel thinking techniques. The Visible Thinking routines represent attempts to increase metacognitive awareness, for example to draw on previous knowledge, explore diverse perspectives or deploy active reasoning or explanation. These cognitive strategies represent something of a toolbox. Much as a DIY handyman reaches for a specific tool to tighten a bolt or screw, remove a nail or fill a hole, particular cognitive tools can be used for different cognitive purposes. The teacher’s job becomes that of modelling and scaffolding student’s thinking, helping students recognise which tools are appropriate for what purpose and how to use them effectively to improve their thinking so that increasingly students are able to use these tools appropriately without prompting.

This way of looking at critical thinking is not the only way to conceive of it, but it is a useful metaphor for teachers and offers a focused approach which teachers can apply in their classrooms. The question is, is there a similar way we can think about how ICTs may be used as tools for cognitive education?

blooms_digital_taxonomySimilar approaches have been tried. For example Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy represents an attempt to map digital tools to Lower Order and Higher Order Thinking Skills. So, for example podcasting is seen as a Higher Order Thinking Skill of Creating, while Social Bookmarking is seen as a Lower Order Thinking Skill of Remembering. What this model lacks, however, is a nuanced understanding that tools in themselves do not mean much, it is how they are used, and for what purpose, that is important. One can use twitter, for example, at every level of Bloom’s taxonomy. One-to-one mapping of tools to a taxonomy of thinking regardless of purpose and use does not make much sense. Digital tools are not, therefore, the same as the cognitive tools described above. Any framework for digital cognitive tools needs to include their use and purpose.

For example, Google docs carry massive affordances for collaborative thinking. Students can collaborate on writing or problem solving tasks, using comment and joint editing to develop ideas collaboratively. But twitter can also be used in this way, and so can Skype, and many other tools. Google docs can also be used in ways which do not display collaborative thinking at all! Over the course of the last few decades teachers have identified uses of technology which can be used to aid cognitive processes such as collaborative thinking. It seems to me that any framework of cognitive digital tools needs to focus on the cognitive purpose rather than the technology. A useful approach would be to look at teaching practice and try to map cognitive digital tools to thinking processes. In order to do this, however, we need a much less woolly framework for understanding cognitive processes.

There are many different frameworks for critical thinking. I would like to detail just a few below, and then suggest a way forward.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

revised_taxonomyBloom’s (1956) taxonomy of the cognitive domain remains the standard framework for thinking about thinking in the classroom. It establishes six levels of cognitive processes which are seen as moving from simpler to more complex skills. The model has been revised by Anderson, Krathwohl, et al (2001), and both models are widely taught in pre-service teacher education and represent something of a lingua franca in the educational world. This is a considerable strength in that it is already the most commonly used framework by teachers concerned with cognitive education. However, I have to say that it is not a particularly generative model, and in my estimation is often used simply, and mechanistically to rationalise what is done in the classroom rather than to drive critical thinking. Because categories of cognition are not in reality discrete, the exercise of identifying levels is somewhat meaningless, and the pedagogical purpose of doing so unclear.

The model does not drill down to thinking routines themselves. Analysis, for example implies an ability to differentiate between premise and conclusion, what constitutes evidence, how to expose logical flaws, and so on. But the model tends to obscure this rather than highlight it. To my mind Bloom’s model ends up being a limiting factor in promoting critical thinking in the classroom. The taxonomy emerged as part of a movement to clearly define educational objectives and remove woolly thinking, but is in fact far more obscurational than the liberal tradition it replaced.

As we have seen with Bloom’s digital taxonomy, this woolliness both in the cognitive domain and how they map to digital tools renders the framework somewhat vague. What does it really mean when a teacher says, for example, that they are using blogs to enhance student capacity for creating?

The Paul – Elder Approach

pe-critical-thinking-modelThe Paul-Elder framework attempts to draw up a three-tiered model for Critical Thinking, defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” (Scriven & Paul, 2003). The model is based on the structures of thought, universal intellectual standards and intellectual traits exhibited by critical thinkers.

The strength of the model is that it does not focus on discrete thinking routines alone, but integrates the habits and dispositions of successful thinkers into the framework, and that it does manage to drill down to the elements of reasoning directly. Its major downside is its very complexity. For all its faults, Bloom’s taxonomy can be summarized in six words. the Paul-Elder model is more difficult for teachers to navigate. This limits its ability to be adopted more widely. Nevertheless, this complexity does hold out the promise for a more meaningful mapping of digital tools to thinking routines in the classroom. If a teacher were to say that they were using blogs to explore Fairness applied to Points of View to develop Intellectual Empathy, one can appreciate that the model is leading to a clearer notion of how digital tools can be used to sharpen critical thinking in the classroom.

Semantic Waves
10Another way of looking at the problem is to try to drill down to how meaning is constructed and deconstructed in the classroom. A new framework (Semantic Waves) for thinking about knowledge practices in the classroom, derived from the work of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu allows us to bring powerful concepts to bear on semantic practices in the classroom. Maton (2014) has described how the concepts of semantic gravity and semantic density can be used to describe pedagogical practice in ways which allow us to think about the critical thinking implicated in classroom talk.

Semantic waves are descriptions over time of the relative semantic gravity or density of the ideas contained in classroom talk or student essays. Semantic Gravity refers to how concrete or how abstract an idea is, and is represented as SG+ a very concrete, grounded, contextualized idea, or SG- a very abstract, rarified concept, and of course all points in between. The word Revolution in History, for example, is an abstract idea, relatively free of particular contexts. A particular incident from the Russian Revolution, however, is more contextualized and concrete. One thing that teachers tend to do is to take abstract ideas (SG-) and help explain and contextualize those ideas by giving examples and instances (SG+), they help unpack concepts so that students can understand them better. They then help students take more concrete instances and everyday knowledge, and package in terms of the more academic language and understandings of the discipline they are studying, as shown in the diagram.

Semantic Density refers to how condensed an idea is. A symbol or metaphor conveys far denser meaning (SD+) than the everyday meanings of words (SD-). Poetry, for example is generally more dense than prose.

waving-not-drowning-7-638From the idea of the semantic wave, or how semantic gravity and density changes over time, Maton has described semantic profiles, or typical scenarios. Often discussion, or a student essay will remain generalised and abstract, never exploring examples, supporting evidence or anecdote to develop an idea or argument. This represents a high semantic flatline, as shown in the illustration. Often the discussion will remain at a concrete level, without any conclusions being drawn. This is a low semantic flatline. More usual in any kind of constructive meaning making is a much wider range and flow between abstraction and the concrete as arguments are made and supported by evidence. Seeing critical thinking in terms of creating semantic profiles opens up new ways of looking at both ICT usage in the classroom, something which I explored in my own research (Love, 2016), and how Thinking Strategies offer pedagogical affordances for meaning making – see the video below, which is an idea which needs to be explored.

I believe that the Semantic Wave framework offers a way of understanding how pedagogical approaches and technologies afford the construction and deconstruction of meaning in the classroom in detailed and powerful ways. It is, however, under-researched and must remain somewhat tentative at this stage. It represents both a pedagogy in its own right and a research framework. The ideas are somewhat abstract and may be off-putting to many teachers. To me as a teacher, the framework instantly made sense, but it is an idea that needs some explaining!


Putting it together

The three frameworks discussed all represent somewhat different ways of approaching critical thinking in the classroom, all with strengths and weaknesses. In many ways there needs to be synthesis of all three types of approaches to create a model which both explains and informs practice; allows for critical thinking learning objectives to be realised, and for tools and pedagogies to be integrated within any particular lesson.

In the next blog post I will try to unpack how I believe this might be achieved and to begin to suggest a tentative framework which meets these requirements.



Anderson, L.W., Krathwohl, D.R., Airasian, P.W., Cruikshank, K.A., Mayer, R.E., Pintrich, P.R., Raths, J., Wittrock, M.C. (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon.

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Love, D. A. S. (2016). Any Tool Works If You Are Using The Language: The Role of Knowledge in ICT integration in a Johannesburg private school (Masters dissertation, School of Education, Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg).

Maton, K. (2014). Building powerful knowledge: The significance of semantic waves. In Knowledge and the Future of the Curriculum (pp. 181-197). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Scriven, M & Paul, R, (2003), Defining Critical Thinking,, accessed 12/12/2016.



Hack Your Life!

tdLearning to Code is all the rage right now, but how to implement a coding for all programme is not as easy as it sounds. There are a number of decisions which need to be taken. The first decision is around whether it will be merely open to all, or compulsory for all. At my school we expose all the students to a little bit of coding in their computer skills classes, in the form of some Scratch and some JavaScript. I also do a Game Design unit using Flash, with a little bit of Action Script. It works in that everyone can meet the requirements, but not all students embrace coding enthusiastically, so there might be a great deal to say for going the extra-curricular route, or maybe both.

I suspect that both is the right answer for most contexts. Everyone needs to be exposed to some coding, but I’m not convinced everyone can handle a full-on programme. the second decision is what programming language to use.

I started teaching some coding back in the late 1990s, with some Logo, and then quickly moved to JavaScript. The big advantage of JavaScript is that you do not need a compiler. All you need is a browser and a web editor. Currently I get my grade 9s to use JavaScript to create a quiz which will tell the user if they are right or wrong, and tally a score. When they create Flash games, I teach them to use AS3 to create drag and drops, and how to use tutorials to learn more skills. However, with many new interfaces for creating mobile apps appearing, my gut feeling is that this is the way to go, and I am probably going this route this year. MIT has a platform for creating apps, but there are so many popping up, I haven’t been able to research them all.

Here’s the introductory video for the MIT App platform to give you an idea of how it works.

The third decision is around how to build enthusiasm. Some students will enter into it with gusto and there is so much available online that they will be able to teach themselves. But getting the social aspect to work is vital to any programme having staying power. If you can meet face to face that is the best option, but in many schools the normal sporting and extra-curricular programme is so full, finding a mutually agreeable time is well-nigh impossible. I have tried running a virtual club, but the buy-in is limited. Special programmes which run for a limited period of time, such as a Hackathon or Hack Off may work better if you can find a niche in the calendar. I have been trying to shoe-horn some coding time into whole school programmes such as Cross-curricular tasks, or end of year programmes when teachers are marking exams and willing to sacrifice curriculum time, but for some reason staff meetings tend to resist the idea as soon as you mention coding, or even worse, hacking. For students the word hacking has a much more positive valency, however.

I honestly don’t know what the answer is, to all three questions, but I do sense that this year the zeitgeist is different. The idea that everyone should code is so out there, I think it may just take hold!




Thinking Digitally – Approaches to Digital Distraction

Digital Distraction is one of the most pressing issues in the classroom these days. With 1:1 programmes becoming ubiquitous, almost every child has a device of one kind or another on their person at any given moment. This is a fabulous opportunity for teachers to use. A student asked me the other day if she needed to bring her dictionary to school every day. She said it was rather heavy. She was sitting with her iPad open in front of her, so I just kind of looked at her in a funny way! It is all very well to have policies in place where devices are switched off when they are not needed, but students need to learn good habits which will help them focus on any given task and avoid digital distraction.

Thinking Digitally LogoEasier said than done! We all know how easy it is to be seduced off-task by that SMS or whatsapp that pops up on your phone just as you are opening up the spreadsheet that needs to be finished by lunch time at the latest. An email pops up in the corner of your screen – of course you are going to attend to that instead of the urgent report! Children face exactly the same pressures at school, and at home when doing homework.

We are introducing a new Habit Of Mind at my school – Thinking Digitally. What are the digital habits of successful thinkers? In thinking through the strategies that one can adopt to teach good habits, perhaps the most crucial is around the issue of digital distraction. So I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to achieve this. And it’s not at all straight forward. A good thinking strategy is usually a simple idea or approach, which is easy to remember, and easy to apply. For example, the de Bono Thinking Hats represent six modes of thought which can be used to guide parallel thinking and stimulate collaborative work. The modes of thought are colour-coded to help memorization and, once understood, are easy to apply.

An effective strategy needs to be framed in the positive. To get good, you must do this! A good graphic organizer, for example, shapes how you approach a task, rather than steering you away from something. So the challenge was to frame a digital distraction strategy that was positive rather than a list of Thou Shalt Nots! It also seemed to me that to be memorable the strategy needed to be short! A list of 10 pointers was just too long!

I looked on the Internet and found lots of lists about switching off, and focusing on one task at a time, and so on, but to me it seemed to boil down to one simple sequence. If you follow these steps you will be focusing on a single task at a time, and cultivating healthier habits.





Do the hard or urgent thing first! Get it out of the way!
Finish one thing before you start another!
When you’ve done some work, reward yourself by doing something more pleasurable! If you’ve finished one piece of homework, reward yourself by checking your whatsapp for five minutes.

Combining Cornell Note-taking with de Bono’s Thinking Hats

revised cornellI really enjoy using the Cornell Note Taking Strategy with my classes. The method involves using keywords and more expanded notes, with space for a summary at the bottom of the page. It works really well for general note-taking. I often model it on the whiteboard during class. I recently decided to combine this with the de Bono Thinking Hats to focus on particular aspects in my teaching.

I started exploring The Pearl, Steinbeck’s classic novella in class today, and wanted to find a way of helping students zero in on understanding and engaging in a character analysis of the protagonist, Kino. It struck me that de Bono’s Thinking Hats might well work as a scaffold for guiding this voyage of discovery. Students often struggle with the very notion of a character sketch, and yet no study of literature can even commence without developing this skill of reading a character. Most students, presented with the task of writing a character sketch, will either simply relate a series of facts about the protagonist, or will present a one-sided analysis, ignoring all the shades of grey!

It seems to me that the Thinking Hats are perfect cognitive tools for ensuring that students at least consider strengths and flaws in any protagonist’s make-up before commencing their sketch. I decided to use four of the hats, to include an immediate emotional response as well as a section for listing facts about the character so that I could have a conversation with students about which of these responses was relevant to the character sketch.

If you create a document as a template, as shown above, and share it on Google Docs so each student gets a copy, they can complete it, and submit it online, via Google Classroom, say. Or collaborate in groups to compile character sketches for a range of characters, which they then share with the rest of the class. This can result in a great set of class notes on any set work.


Digital Literacy and Thinking Digitally

DSC00599I blogged recently about a possible framework for thinking about the new Habit Of Mind that we are developing at my school: Thinking Digitally. One element of that framework was Digital Literacy, and by that I mean the cognitive habits around the use of digital devices, rather than the skills required to use them in and of themselves. The concept is somewhat woolly, and needs to be fleshed out.

Gunther Kress, who has studied different semiotic modes, has argued that combing modes results in qualitatively different forms of meaning (synaesthesia). While text and language are largely governed by sequence and time, images are governed by space, display and simultaneity. The combination of modes transcends what is possible in single modes of expression. Multi-modality, in short, presents us with cognitively different challenges. Studies by Hull and Nelson, looking at digital storytelling suggest that different semiotic modes allow students to re-purpose language and images and helps them craft new identities and agency. The range of new literacy practices thrown up by online games play, fan sites and other online platforms all emphasizes how cognition, identity and agency are being transformed by the new digital technologies.

Mark Warschauer has argued that the ways in which  devices are used in our schools is, however, skewed by class and power. There is an urgent need to explore how students from diverse backgrounds can benefit from using digital technologies in transformative rather than routine ways, which is what tends to happen at the moment. The key to this is the cognition behind the use. Too often I think the issue has been that in schools which serve poorer communities, the emphasis has been on computer literacy rather than on Thinking Digitally. In better off schools digital technologies have often been used more creatively, more critically, and this has exacerbated rather than closed the digital divide.

For this reason I believe it is vital to develop a framework for focusing on the critical thinking behind the computer/digital literacy. As a teacher of computer skills I am faced with a central dilemma. One would like to focus on using the tools to question, collaborate, problem solve. And yet you cannot use the tool if you do not know what the tool can do. My lessons need to strike some kind of balance between simply showing students how to use a spreadsheet, and asking them to use a spreadsheet in a way which will help them solve problems and think better. Teenagers do not simply know how to use the autosum, or create a chart. The notion of the digital native is deeply flawed. The Computational Thinking paradigm offers some powerful tools for understanding the thinking processes behind many computer applications which involve processing of data, but I think it does less well when looking at the more creative packages: Photoshop, Flash, Dreamweaver or video editing.

I believe there are essentially four cognitive pillars behind all digital literacy practices:

  • Framing The Task: Any task needs to be contextualized. What function does it serve? What problem must it solve? What result must it show? What is its purpose?
  • Assessing Available Resources: What resources are available in the environment which can be used or re-purposed to perform the task? What conventions or applications can be used to perform the task.
  • Designing The Task: The task needs to be broken down into smaller steps, and each step needs to be thought through, and sequenced. The order in which sub-tasks are performed is important. When you are using Photoshop to create an image, you need to think about layering the image, and then what masks or effects must be applied to each layer.
  • Re-Designing The Task: Each step must be tested to make sure it is doing what it is supposed to be doing. Elements are redesigned on the fly so to speak. This re-design and tweaking is an essential part of the process, which is, to an extent, iterative. Once you have tested the application you need to assess whether it meets the brief or not, and re-design if necessary. Often a solution will widen the framing of the task to include new applications which were not initially apparent. The solution may well allow you to re-frame the question!

This framework represents a re-working of the New London Group Pedagogy Of Multiliteracies framework.


Thinking Digitally

Thinking Digitally HOM logoIt seems to me that when thinking about what habits and dispositions are deployed by people who successfully use digital technologies to extend their thinking, we need to have a clear framework for visualizing the process. Without this, there is a tendency to collapse cognition into mere computer literacy, whereas I believe that there are new cognitive skills which we all need to cultivate in the digital era. To help set about creating such a framework I would like to look at a number of key concepts.

The first concept is that of cognitive load. Without going into a great deal of detail, cognitive load is used in cognitive psychology to explain the ways in which the limitations of our short term memory inhibits learning. Our short term memory holds information which we are busy processing. It is distinct from long term memory, information which has been committed to memory and can be recalled, hopefully at need. It is the information that we are currently working with. Short term memory is very small, unlike our long term memory, which is very large indeed. If you read to me a number, as long as the number is quite short, I can hold it in my short term memory and process it. If the number is too large, I simply cannot hold it in my short term memory, and it becomes mere gibberish! We often use cognitive strategies to increase the amount of information we can process at one time. If you read me a telephone number, for example, I could recognize the area code and set that sequence of numbers aside. I don’t have to try and remember them all, because I have that stored in my long term memory as an area code, and I can recall it later. This technique is called chunking, and it allows us to group information together so that we can hold more in our short-term memories for processing.

The second idea is that of cognitive offloading. Given the limitations on our thinking imposed by cognitive load, we need to off-load some of this onto our environment in order to function effectively. For example we do not have to remember a shopping list if we write it down. We could do mental arithmetic to add up a series of numbers, or we could offload that task onto a calculator. Cognitive offloading through writing helps us to think more clearly. Once on paper we can reflect back on an idea and work at it. If we try to hold an idea in our minds, it often slips off into the ether and gets forgotten – in my head at any rate! Once on paper, I can use that to make sure I don’t forget what I was thinking a few seconds ago. Writing, indeed language itself is the foremost form of cognitive offloading, allowing our raw thoughts to be stored in a retrievable form.

This leads us to the third concept, that of cognitive technologies. We use a range of technologies to help augment, extend or assist our thinking. these technologies crucially include the range of new digital technologies which are of particular importance because of their ability to create networked systems and give nearly instantaneous access to information and to other people. It is clear that digital devices, connected through the Internet offer vastly powerful cognitive tools. These tools may spark, as Stevan Harnad has argued a cognitive revolution or may merely offer vastly enhanced ways of doing things. Either way the sheer scale of the ability to access and share information nearly instantaneously has huge ramifications for how we think. With the advent of wearable, and embedded technologies we need to start to think of ourselves as cyborgs, if not in the literal sense, then certainly metaphorically. We may not all have chips implanted in us, but we are surgically attached to our smart-phones, and we use these for cognitive offloading at every turn.

And finally this cognitive offloading onto new cognitive technologies on a scale as never before, amounts to a distributed cognition, in which the human mind can meaningfully be said to reside not in the brain alone, but distributed across the network. Edwin Hutchins, for example, showed how navigation on board ship is not the product of an individual mind, but is distributed across the crew. This idea is somewhat spooky, much like the spooky effects of quantum physics somewhat boggle our minds! But anyone who has used a Community Of Practice on the Internet to solve a problem, used Google docs to collaborate on a project, or played a MMORPG will understand at a visceral level how cognition appeared to happen somewhere out there in cyberspace, rather than in any single location or head.

Given what we have said above, it becomes clear that whenever someone accesses information off the Internet, or uses digital devices as collaborative communicative devices they are, in some way using a network of devices and other human minds to think, to problem solve, to learn or to create. These things can be done well, or they can be done poorly, and successful thinkers develop good habits and ways of working. Thinking Digitally is about these good habits. They fall into five areas of concern and forms a suggestion for a framework for thinking about the habit of Thinking Digitally.

  • Computational Thinking is about the thought processes involved in formulating problems in such a way that they can be processed using computational devices.
  • Information Literacy is about how to access and evaluate information online.
  • Hacking The Environment refers to coding devices to allow one to control one’s environment.
  • Digital Literacy refers to the dispositions and approaches required to use digital devices to create/learn/problem solve. Not the functions themselves, the thinking processes behind using the technology. In other words it’s not about being able to use F7 to spell check, it’s about the habit of using a spell check in the first place.
  • Digital Citizenship or the dispositions necessary for living in the 21st Century. This encompasses all spheres of life, but focuses on the cognitive dispositions that underlie our active and responsible participation in the world.

I am using this framework to help develop strategies and frameworks for promoting digital thinking in my school. You will note that I have borrowed categories already currently in use. This brings many strategies and approaches fully-formed to the table, and should allow teachers to borrow from successful existing practice.

This does mean, however, that there are overlapping concerns. This is a working heuristic, which may sharpen in focus as it gets worked through.




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