Category Archives: Learning Theories

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.



School Management Systems – Looking For Nessie

The other day I blogged about School Management Systems, and why we love to hate them. Today I would like to look at the change management side of transferring from one system to another. Any change is threatening to staff: there is a double threat of increased workload, or of redundancy! This can lead to resistance. A new SMS can therefore loom large in the imagination as a shadowy threat that might or might not exist, a Loch Ness Monster of a thing! On the one hand it is seductive, but a vague sense of menace is never far from the mind.

But of course Nessie does not exist, and like a bad dream disappears as your gaze dispels the shadows! From the ra-ra-ra of the sales pitch, eventually comes the training. I must say that I have really enjoyed the training with Engage. I don’t usually plug proprietary products, but I will make this exception because it is germane to the discussion that follows. What sold me on the platform was its combination of ease of use and sense of enormous potential. This is an unusual combination. If you’ve read my thoughts on Moodle, a powerful Learning Management System often lambasted for being hard for teachers to learn, you will know that I believe that ultimately it is the power under the hood that gives a platform its traction. My hope for Moodle is that once teachers have got used to the idea of an LMS like Google Classroom, which is easy to use, but lacks functionality, they will slowly graduate to Moodle! With Engage I don’t believe this is a problem as it combines a very user-friendly interface with huge functionality.

Educational Technology and change are hot topics,but the relationship is often assumed to be unproblematic. Nothing could be further from the truth. By educational technology I mean hardware such as computers, tablets, paper, books and school buildings as well as software such as Moodle, PowerPoint or Excel. But I also mean processes. Crop Rotation is a technology, and pedagogy itself can be seen as educational technology.

A useful way of looking at how educational technology impacts upon process and decision-making, is to see them as either relatively hard or soft. Hard here means that it strongly determines the form processes take, while Soft indicates that processes are relatively weakly determined. For example the size of a school building strongly determines what kinds of activities can be conducted inside it. If a school hall can seat a hundred, but there are five hundred children in the school, full school assemblies are not able to be held in the Hall, but would have to be held on the Field, which can accommodate many more. Things like school buildings are not easy to change. Sometimes people try to do so by adding temporary partitions and the like, but generally speaking buildings, once erected tend to make other activities conform to them rather than the other way round.

Human beings, on the other hand, are far more adaptable. We probably owe the existence of our species to this. We are able to make changes quickly and effectively. When there is a time-table clash, for example, teachers are even able to be in two places at the same time, as anyone who has ever taught one class, and looked after a colleague’s next door, can attest. Pedagogy is thus a soft technology. Teachers will often change teaching method in mid sentence if they see that an approach is not working.

School Management Systems are relatively hard technologies in that they often determine a work-flow process or what decisions are possible. For example on a web-based form a required field might block an online application if the applicant cannot supply a value. The more flexible, therefore, the better. It is not ideal that decisions are driven by factors other than ensuring optimum efficiency. The core business of any school is education, and all activities should be subservient to that. Since logically pedagogy is the technology with the greatest effect on learning, all technologies within a school should be softer than pedagogy,

This is seldom the case. A Constructivist teacher timetabled to teach in a lecture theatre will find it hard to conduct student-centred lessons, and is much more likely to revert to Instructivist methodologies in response. This is one of the great contradictions of schooling over which even administrators have little control. Making sure that you are using the softest, ie. the most flexible School Management System is therefore crucial.

The quest for a soft SMS may well be chimerical, but should be undertaken nonetheless.

What sold me on Engage was thus a sense that it was far more flexible in its features than other SMSs, certainly than the one we are currently using, and that it has the power to conform to best educational practices rather than determine them. Much like Nessie this is a mythical beast many hope to find, and is well worth the quest!


Thinking Digitally – The Essential Dialogic

Teaching has been defined as “casting false pearls before real swine” (Irwin Edman). Facetious as this comment may be it sums up what transpires day in and day out. Two things happen in any classroom, anywhere you go in the world. Firstly you will find teachers teaching. Some kind of knowledge transmission will be happening at some point in any lesson. Teachers know something, and they will attempt to impart it. If this is not happening one would have to seriously doubt why the students are there! This transmission model of knowledge is useful because it captures the essential reality of the world. There are things we don’t know, and one of the most efficient ways of finding things out is to have other people tell us.

But secondly you find students voicing what they know, and trying to figure things out. Until you put things in your own words you don’t really understand anything. Knowledge, in other words is constructed, and is essentially idiosyncratic. My understanding of quantum physics is probably not as sophisticated as yours, but it is the only understanding I’ve got. This divide between what has been called Instructivism, the transmission of knowledge from a knower to a knowee, and Constructivism, or how we construct knowledge in our own heads forms a common thread in many educational approaches. But essentially they are two sides of the same coin. We need to be told things, and we need to figure them out in our own minds for it to stick.

I’m not going to rehearse any heavy learning theories, because that’s not what this post is about, but it forms a necessary backdrop to everything else I want to explore. My favourite formulation of this self-evident truth, that learning involves both transmission and participation is that of Mikhail Bakhtin, who spoke about monologic and dialogic discourses: the monologic being socially agreed handed-down meanings, and the dialogic being the numerous idiosyncratic voices of individuals. In any classroom the teacher normally represents the monologic voice, teaching the received wisdom of how the world works, while students bring their numerous voices to the conversation. The monologic normally represents the voices of power, the knowledge students will need to acquire to succeed in life, while the dialogic represents the authentic power of voice, often submerged or repressed understandings of the world, which nevertheless have a validity not least because they critique the established world view.

It is my belief that teachers fail if they fall short both when it comes to giving students access to voices of power, and when they do not sufficiently value the power of voice. As an English teacher I need to be able to help my students shape and express what it is that they have to say, but I also need to teach them standard dialects, grammar and how to construct logical arguments so that they can speak the language of academia and of power.

blogDigital technologies offer some key affordances here. Not so much in terms of the monologic voice, but the ready ability to publish thoughts, just to your classmates, or the wider world is one which allows the dialogic voice to be heard in ways which the essay written on a piece of paper can never emulate. Every year I have my students write in a class blog. They join the blog site as authors and post under their handles. Their peers can read and comment on their posts almost as soon as they are published. It is best to have themed blogs with a clear focus, or student blogging quickly devolves into trivial status updates. If you are studying a Shakespeare play, for example, it is a great idea to have students blog about themes or characters in the play. Their ideas are thus immediately exposed to the view of their peers, and can be debated and revised through comment. I require each student to end off with a significant blog post, which forms their current understanding of the topic under discussion. This is the assessed portion of the activity, and motivates all students to contribute. As teacher I also contribute my ideas as one voice amongst many. I believe this is important because it conveys a message about online learning and how mentorship works in any online community. But I limit my posts to interventions rather than outright corrections. If someone claims that Shylock is not in favour of usury, for example, I step in, but grammar and logical errors I leave alone because I don’t want to be seen as too censorious.

I appoint student moderators. Anyone who contributes more than five posts is made into a moderator. This helps establish a sense of community and helps stamp out any flaming should it occur. It never does! Nevertheless I usually use a moderated blog site where access to the blog can be controlled and kept private.

Some students, in my experience, do not participate, and resist using technology. Some of these do lurk, however, and that is a benefit. I insist that anyone not posting on the blog submits their post in electronic form directly to me. I don’t understand why a small minority appear unwilling or unable to access or use a blog. It is a small minority, but is always present in any year group. They may fear exposure, may find their cultural or personal sensibilities at odds with receiving peer comment … I’m not sure. It is an issue I always have to deal with. Overwhelmingly, however, I find that students seem to enjoy the cut and thrust of online discussion.

In terms of encouraging good habits of Thinking Digitally it is vital that all students be exposed to how to use communities of practice to express their opinions and learn from others.


Digital Vygotsky: Using ICTs to bridge the proximal zone of development

jsroa45d7i971imncps4srh8q3984448.jpg-final.jpg-finalOn of the most influential ideas about learning to emerge in the last century was Lev Vygotsky’s observation that all learning is first social, and then individual. Unfortunately he used the rather cumbersome term proximal zone of development to describe this gap between what someone knows or can do with the help of others, and what they can do on their own. ICTs offer a number of affordances for helping to bridge the proximal zone of development, and as such are formidable learning tools in their own right, but they also point to how ICTs can be used as cognitive tools to enhance social thinking.

ICTs are communication devices par excellence. They allow people who have never met to share ideas and passions, whether via email listervs, forums or Google hangouts, for example. They enable communities with shared interests to share ideas and collaborate on projects. These communities of practice are often very nurturing places where beginners are mentored and helped, and in turn, as they gain experience, can assist others. When I was learning to program in php, for example, I sought out an online forum where I could post problems I was having with the code I was writing. Perfect strangers took the time to make suggestions, to point out errors in my code, and to help me learn. In return I tried to answer queries from those with less experience than I had. The Internet gave me access to mentorship that would not have been available otherwise. I note that my son, who composes music, uses Sound Cloud in a similar way. While he was preparing for his matric exams he also used Google docs to create and share study notes with his class mates.

I would like to look at two ways in which these ideas could be harnessed for the classroom.

Personalisation By Pieces is a programme developed by Dan Buckley, which uses peer assessment to encourage mentorship and assessment. In essence the system works on a student being assisted and assessed by a more experienced peer – one who has already been credited with a skill. Once they themselves have been accredited, they too can help those below them on the skills ladder. Some Learning Management Systems, such as Moodle, have peer assessment modules which might be used to facilitate this process, but Google docs could probably be used just as effectively. The teacher would be required to create a skills ladder, a list of sequential skills leading to mastery. Students would need to submit documentary proof that they have mastered a level. Peers who are a level or two above would be responsible for accrediting this proof, and for creating criteria for this assessment.

classnotesSocial Media also offers fertile grounds for social learning strategies by creating forums for communities of practice to flourish within the school. Students tend to use Whatsapp for this kind of thing, but teachers could encourage a more formal collaboration by sharing a Google doc or wiki on a particular topic and requiring students to contribute to its maintenance. All these measures help students move from social collaboration towards personal mastery. I suspect that it works best though when it is informal and student directed, but if carefully scaffolded you can bring a majority of students on board. They make a pleasant change from individual worksheets, and I find students appreciate the idea that by collaborating on a set of notes on a Shakespeare play, for example, they are saving themselves effort, and benefiting from the combined effort.

I believe that once we start to explore the idea of using social learning in the classroom through ICTs we will begin to unleash much of the hidden power of learning that often lies dormant in our schools.


Why should I Remember it, if I can Google it?

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I remembered the quote, of course, but had to Google who said it. It was Alphonse Karr, the nineteenth century French critic, journalist and novelist. That just about sums up my relationship with Google. As one who was born before the Internet, I tend to rely on my memory, but I use Google to double-check, and find out the bits I don’t know, or have forgotten. My sons, digital natives, born in the Internet Age, seem to have a different approach entirely. When my eldest came home and announced that he had to learn a list of a thousand words for his Latin exam, I was horrified that his teacher could have given them such a list just before the exams and expected them to learn it virtually overnight! Then I found out he’d been given the list eighteen months previously!

latinWhy hadn’t he bothered to learn the words when they were given to him? Well, it appears that you can use Google translate to meet all your Latin vocabulary needs, so there’s no pressure  to memorize long lists to do your homework! His marks had always been good so he never felt the need to commit the words to memory

And then I found out that in his Physics exam they are given the formulae, given the periodic table, given everything that back in my day we had to learn off by heart!

With 24/7 access to Google, it seems that memory is dead!

Except that it isn’t! To use Google at all you need something inside your own head, something to guide your searches, and to assess the validity of what comes out at the other end! To evaluate any search engine query implies a scaffold of knowledge upon which you can hang the new knowledge. While the Internet presents an enormous potential for expanding, and holding our knowledge, it cannot replace knowledge itself. It cannot replace the thought processes and thinking that went into creating it, or the thinking that goes into recreating it in our own heads.

This puts me in mind of Daniel Kahneman’s notion of Fast and Slow Thinking. He characterises two types of thought – System 1 thought, which is fast, subconscious, stereotypical thought. We reach conclusions based on recognised patterns and deeply ingrained metaphorical categories. System 2 thought, on the other hand is slow, effortful, consciously arrived at: logically thought out thought. It is far less frequent than system 1! With the same inputs, the conclusions reached by these two types of thought may be entirely different.

Both these types of thought are necessary, or at least unavoidable. Sometimes we need to act quickly, and reach conclusions rapidly. We cannot always retire to a barrel like Diogenes to think things out thoroughly. The main purpose of a sound education, framed this way, is to create deeply ingrained habits of thought which will render our fast thinking more efficacious and sound. If we are used to thinking issues through, our initial intuitions should be more thoughtful. Hopefully. If we have spent time learning how to think things through logically and thoroughly, our basic instincts should be more sound.

I have a suspicion that our relationship to memory needs a similar division into what we have committed to memory,and what we have available to us stored in our network! We cannot possibly remember everything! We have at our fingertips an almost instantly available resource allowing us to find out just about anything, anywhere, any time. This may include facts and information that we have not previously processed in our minds. We need this type of information often to make quick decisions about whether to sell our shares in South American zinc, or to determine what snake has just bitten us, and what action to take. A quick Google search revealed that indeed researchers talk about two types of memory. Memory which is external, stored on paper, in group knowledge or, increasingly on computers or networks is called transactive memory.

We also need, however, a wide range of information committed to memory which allows us to assess and evaluate other information. I have a feeling that anyone who tries to use Google translate, for example, to read Cicero in Latin will come completely awry unless they already have a large number of Latin words in their memory already. According to research (Sparrow, et al, 2011), we apparently remember far less when we know we will be able to Google the answer when we need to. We are growing more dependent upon remembering where we can find the information that we need, than in actually remembering the information. We are in short, becoming symbiotic with our machines.

This is a somewhat disturbing thought, but the growing importance of transactive memory indicates the increasing degree to which our cognition is social. It is easy, though, to draw the conclusion from this that we do not need to memorize anything anymore. I suspect it simply means we will have to remember more, so that all that extra information we can access, makes sense!


Betsy Sparrow, et al. Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips, Science 333, 776 (2011); DOI: 10.1126/science.1207745


Dragging the Classroom Kicking and Screaming into the 21st Century

The SAMR model for the integration of ICTs into the classroom is a typical example of the way in which the introduction of ICTs is seen as transformative. It shares with models such as the Apple Classrooms Of Tomorrow (Entry, Adoption, Adaptation, Appropriation, Invention) and the various models adopted by the United Nations, the notion that ICTs are a force for dragging the classroom kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

The model suggests that teachers will move from merely substituting traditional technology with ICTs, for example replacing a chalkboard with an Interactive White Board, to redefining what they do in the classroom, using the affordances of new technologies to re-conceive of their pedagogy. In other words technology will “disrupt” educational practice. This vision is often presented as one which will champion a movement away from Instructivist (teacher-centred) towards Constructivist (learner-centred) pedagogies.

While I am in agreement that ICTs can be a force for more learner-centred approaches, there are several problems with the way the debate has been framed.

Firstly, the relationship between teaching and learning is not a simple one-to-one mapping. While the balance of power between different learning theories has shifted over the last fifty years from the dominance of Behaviourism in the mid 1900s towards the triumph of Constructivism, and the emerging ideas around Connectivism. While, obviously, hopefully, there is a connection between what a teacher does, and how a student learns, this connection is not necessarily a direct or simple one. If a teacher delivers a lecture it does not invalidate the Constructivist notion that students construct knowledge in their own minds, and do not simply receive it into their heads from the mouth of the teacher: ie knowledge is constructed, not transferred. While Constructivism clearly favours notions of active learning, just because I am passively listening, does not mean that I am not actively constructing ideas within my brain! As any teacher knows, sometimes you need to tell. Instruction is often the most efficient way of getting an idea across, especially with older kids and adults! Discovery learning suffers from a central contradiction, the Scholars Dilemma, how do you discover something you don’t know exists! Sometimes, often actually, one does need to be told things!

A common way of framing the ICT debate is to argue that ICTs will shift the balance from the lecture towards problem-based, inquiry-based learning. While this is broadly valid, what it overlooks is that this is largely an argument for what learners ought to be doing. It doesn’t necessarily speak to what teachers ought to be doing. I totally agree that classrooms should become places for inquiry and active learning. However, I disagree that this means that the lecture is dead! The Guide on the Side is an argument for dereliction of duty, the teacher becomes a mere facilitator who stands back and watches from the sidelines. The teacher should be the meddler in the middle, intimately and closely involved in the learning of her students, sometimes being the sage, sometimes being the guide, but always involved. I find that most of my lessons involve short bursts of instruction followed by discovery and guided practice, or, of course the other way round.

One argument for ICTs that accords well with this conception is the Flipped Classroom Approach, which sees the teacher’s time as being maximised by actively assisting and engaging with students rather than in delivering content, something ICTs can do quite adequately.

Secondly, the model assumes that Education needs disrupting! I do not necessarily disagree with this point, but the model, with its insistence that ICTs will, at its most advanced levels, transform education, frames itself as a challenge to teachers to do things differently: not just in terms of using ICTs, but also in terms of pedagogy. This assumes that teachers are not doing things properly at the moment, and this alone may explain why teachers feel threatened, and reluctant to adopt ICTs. My reading of teachers is that most teachers adopt different strategies and deploy their pedagogical understandings on a more or less opportunistic and ad hoc basis. There are times when I need to mediate content or concepts for students, and times when I want them to use their knowledge and skills to explore problems or learn how to research issues and frame their new understandings in ways which increasingly resemble the academic language and ways of thinking demanded by the discipline they are studying. The core business of education is the same today as it was, well, thousands of years ago!

When Socrates guided his students towards understanding through dialogue, the pedagogy he pursued was no less valid than problem-based learning for example. One of the great strengths that teachers deploy is their ability to select strategies and activities that will best support learning in their own contexts from the multiple approaches and theories on display. Models such as ACOT and SAMR tend to assume a linear movement in which, over time, a teacher will come to appreciate that one method, or technology is best! This idea is deeply flawed, and downright dangerous!

The SAMR model uses the metaphor of a swimming pool. One implication is that some uses of technology are shallow, and others deep. This is somewhat misleading. What if I am substituting collaborative writing in groups to Google Docs? My pedagogical purposes are not shallow or trite even though I am merely substituting one technology (paper-based editing) for another. On the other hand I could be using a new technology (skype) for an entirely trivial task. My task would be seen as being in the deep end because it would be impossible to achieve without the new technology, and yet my pedagogical purpose might be negligible


Clearly what is meant is that teachers should be challenged to map the affordances of technology to meaningful pedagogical practices, and encourage Higher Order Thinking, not that we should be trying to get so creative with technology that we lose sight of what we are trying to do in the classroom. If technology does provide new and exciting ways of achieving what could not be achieved without it, then well and good, but clearly teachers should be encouraged to seek out good educational practice first and foremost, rather than innovating for the sake of innovating.

My third reservation with the model is a related point that the process of integration is not linear. One does not start at one end of the swimming pool and as one gets better at it, end up in the deep end. Perhaps the metaphor still holds if one visualizes teachers swimming laps, going up and down, being at different stages at different times. And yet even this formulation is less than helpful because it does not help to explain why a teacher would choose one solution above another. Teachers choices of technology surely cannot be determined crudely by a linear progression based on whatever criteria are used?

Surely teachers make the choices they do because they can see a benefit to how they teach a particular unit of work.

imagesA better metaphor would then be that of a craftsman reaching for a particular tool depending on what it is that they are doing at the time. Experience will have shown the craftsman what tool works best in what context. The model shown on the right was developed by Angeli and Valanides to describe how teachers map the affordances of technologies to content they wish to deliver using pedagogical approaches which will work with particular students in particular contexts.

The diagram may not be as pretty or as catchy as the others out there, but it describes far better what happens with real teachers in real classrooms. In the interplay of Knowledge, Pedagogy and Technology, somehow teachers are muddling through!




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

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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Posted by on May 26, 2015 in Learning Theories, Pedagogy, Teaching

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