This letter to the editor appeared in last week’s Sunday Mail (17 April 2011) and was chosen as the ‘Good Point’ article for the week. The author – a secondary school teacher – argued against the use of digital technology in classrooms. This blog details my response.
Points of agreement:
“before we all rush out for the latest technological gadgets for our darlings, consider what is actually learned”
Good planning is essential when purchasing the ‘latest technological gadgets’, including building a vision for learning, a long-term strategic plan for ICT, consideration for your students and school community, understanding total cost of ownership, establishing professional development plans to build staff capabilities etc. and the list goes on.
Points of disagreement:
“It’s great these children will be able to multi-task and work with technology, but what’s the point if they don’t know the content to begin with?”
It is clear by this sentence that the author sees ICT as an extra and as a ‘bolt-on’. I am concerned that she doesn’t see ICT as a means to explore, learn and demonstrate knowledge of new content, but as something you ‘do’ after you have developed a thorough understanding… assuming through traditional modes of teaching and learning.
“A teacher myself, I had a group of high school students six years back do a research project with the goal of presenting their findings on a poster board and I had fabulous, informative results. Three years later, I had a same-age group of students perform the same task, only on PowerPoint. It would not be exaggerating to say the actual information learned was about 75 per cent less.”
Firstly, making direct comparisions between two cohorts of students three years apart isn’t good practice, or necessarily productive or useful. The P-12 Curriculum Framework [PDF, new window] explicitly states that you start with your students in planning and differentiate from there. Why were two cohorts of students three years apart still doing the same task?
Secondly, I’m concerned by the fact that this teacher is judging ‘learning’ by how well students can present someone else’s information. Where is the rigour? Where is the higher-order thinking? Where are students gathering their own first-hand data and making comparisions, judgements and arguing (as opposed to ‘presenting’) their findings? Was this actually an authentic task or just something students were doing for the teacher so she could assess and then report on their ‘learning’?
Thirdly, I’d question how this teacher is using PowerPoint. True, it is not a great tool for presenting information (and maybe this was the problem) – but, if used effectively, it can be a great tool to support a persuasive oral presentation. Were students just doing an information-dump? Copying and pasting? If this was my task, I probably wouldn’t learn much either. But this comes down to poor pedagogical choice rather than ineffective technology.
Fourthly and again, the fact that this teacher took the same ‘poster board’ task and ‘integrated’ ICT suggests she needs support in the transformative potential of digital technology with effective digital pedagogy and doing new things in new ways.
More deeply, I would like more information about the subject and content area, as it may very well be that the ‘informative results’ students were demonstrating 6 years ago are no longer relevant today. I would like to have a conversation with this teacher about connectivism and the value of content knowledge today compared to ‘process’ knowledge. Was the information students were presenting something that they could just jump on a computer and search for and find in 5 minutes any time they needed to? True, twenty years ago, content knowledge was important as students has access to less information which was accessible quickly and efficiently. Now, however, while content knowledge is important, so are the skills to be able to find and leverage the information.
Lastly, the fact that this teacher experienced these seeming poor results three years ago suggests she hasn’t engaged in new ways of working with digital technologies with any of her students since. For me, her students are at a disadvantage when it comes to the development of contemporary skill sets necessary to today’s workforce, particularly when you compare to other secondary schools in Queensland who have been operating rich, 1-to-1 programs for years.
“Students spend more time fluffing around with fonts, graphics and colours than actually researching and providing the content”
What the author here describes as ‘fluffing around with fonts, graphics and colours’ others would describe as the development of visual, media and digital fluencies.
PowerPoint is meant to be used to develop digital artefacts for an audience. Were students actually presenting their information to anyone, or just the teacher? Did the teacher actually provide explicit teaching in the use of fonts, graphics and colours to students to help them clarify their message and persuade their audience in alignment with the Student ICT Expectations? Or is this ‘someone else’s job’?
The use of the word ‘providing’ here also is concerning and further suggests students weren’t asked to critically evaluate, synthesise and engage higher-order thinking with the content. This again suggests the cross-hairs are targeting the teacher’s poor pedagogy as opposed to ineffective technology as the reason for low student achievement.
“It these children are squeezing seven hours of entertainment media into five hours every day then I don’t think we have to find a way to squeeze even more technology into every lesson; most are obviously getting enough at home”
Yes… except for the fact that most don’t have access to explicit teaching at home to learn how to use digital technology effectively, meaningfully, safely, legally and ethically. This is the role of all teachers and is part of your professional obligations, not something to opt-in or opt-out of. This is clearly stated in the draft National Professional Standards for Teachers [PDF, new window].
This is of course beside the fact that if this teacher is looking to ‘squeeze’ technology into her lessons then she’s got the wrong idea to begin with. As this teacher has demonstrated, and as my colleague Adrian Greig says, bad teaching with ICT is still bad teaching – it’s just a lot more expensive. If teachers think they can dust their hands and give themselves a pat on the back because they ‘used’ technology in a lesson then they really need to do some deep reflection. As the author rightly pointed out in the beginning of her piece, we need to consider what is actually learned when we engage in new ways of working.