A proposed road map for educational technology

It is my job, because I said so, to map out how students ought to learn with, about, maybe even in spite of technology.

I want to give everyone a clear idea of what tech skills the teachers ought to show to students, and what skills the students ought to acquire by practice. Along the way, the way students learn and the way teachers teach will change, sometimes all at once. Other areas of schooling will stay the same (school is good at staying the same).

We may find that the greatest benefit comes just of putting these skills in order. The 9th grade teacher can build on skills the kids have been practicing for years, and which they first saw their teacher model when the students were young. The teaching builds. We may also hope that, at every turn, the teachers connected the skills to true learning in a true context — not tech trainings, but experiences using technology to learn.

I have aimed for a sequence that builds over the years, and that tethers tech skills to thinking skills. Lastly, I have tried to consider some of the changes students may be undergoing at different stages. No one will ever agree about how children develop into adults; I share my assumptions in this essay. For now, I say that young children learn by play and imagination, early adolescents seek to map the limits of reality, and in high school we should cultivate autonomy and the order underlying the world.

I think if a scheme such as mine builds on itself, stays connected to real learning, and draws on reasonable notions of childhood development, it has enough integrity to make a start with.

By what authority?

In the trade we have a name for what I’m after: a scope and sequence. A lot of this scope-and-sequence work has been done already by actual consortiums. They have the aura of authority, and no school district ever got in trouble by listening to authority. Even better, the thinking goes, is to give the consortiums’ work to a committee and let the committee make sense of it. By the time we’re done the painful decisions have been so effectively buffered no one is even aware they are there.

I want to make something more practical than what committees typically produce. By the time this work is done, I want, for example, a 4th grade teacher to know exactly what skills we hope to cultivate, and know what the first steps on cultivating those skills would be. My aim is that any teacher could see and rehearse the work I have in mind. I have yet to see a consortium or committee, even the fine people at ISTE, make such a concrete set of targets across the grades.

I need that specificity because my next job is to actually do these next steps, with teachers’ help, in classrooms throughout my district. I will see if they match up to ages, or engage students’ minds, or take the right amount of work to get started.

For these reasons, the authority, for now, is me. I work partly from theory, partly from direct experience, and partly from reflection and imagination. Over time, experience will take over as I get more results from the classroom.

My biases and assumptions

Technology should extend the user’s intelligence. Any other use is trivial or actively destructive. If you haven’t heard Steve Jobs’ thoughts on how computers are like a bicycle for the mind, please take that detour. I have had a few crucial moments in my life when I first met a technology that presented a new, extended way of thinking. The first five lines of BASIC programming I ever saw and understood; HyperCard and hypertext in general; searching across the web (let’s remember AltaVista, before Google); the relational database model; the wiki — every one of these earthquake turned over the landscape for me. If you’ve never experienced this sensation, technology will seem intrusive and tedious. So there is no shortcut: Everyone should experience the sensation of their intelligence being extended by the machine. After that experience can come the honest mix of thrill and distrust that I think most tech-minded people feel. Prior to that experience, though, thinking about technology will be larded with superstitious fear and magical thinking.

Education is about acquiring understandings. I defer to Kieran Egan on this issue. Think of traveling to a city that fascinates you. You taste its food, you walk its streets, you learn the language. You study maps. You learn some history. You master some numbers (population; square miles of the park; typical cost of a meal or a house). If you really make a study of it, you go deep on human geography, or you catalog the local birds and, through them, the habitats. What you’re really doing is compounding all these separate understandings (geographic, linguistic, mathematical) into a single meaningful understanding. This is the high achievement of a learner. Except…

Abstract understandings are harder to acquire than concrete ones. Problems that are social in nature, visible and within our experience is easy. Abstract rules interacting with symbols rather than things are hard. (An experiment known as the Wason selection task is a classic example.) Yet we cannot model change over time, or rules governing behaviors, or one factor influencing another, or any other bases for science (including social sciences) without abstract reasoning. Students don’t tend to wander into abstract reasoning of their own accord; they have to be led through a narrow gate, which makes learning burdensome sometimes.

Technology at its best enables abstract reasoning. A well-built spreadsheet makes numbers playable. Collaborating on a wiki makes the structure of knowledge a choice rather than a given. Changing a map with a set of controls exposes our decisions about what we see. Building any store of information introduces the semantics of knowledge. Change over time is crystal clear once you have set up and captured your time lapse footage. Programming forces fine-grained thinking about functions and what they express. The best of technology is a playground of abstractions come to life — which is exactly why people tend to either love it or hate it.

Teachers need to be ahead of students. I hear a false comfort from teachers that their students are naturally adept with technology (no) and more forward-thinking than their teachers. The conclusion: Teachers can just provide the stuff and let students make the discoveries. Young students, especially, drift among pointless specifics (looking up funny pictures, changing the color of their text) without guidance. And guess whose job it is to introduce students to the abstract thinking that technology exposes? The teacher. Not the technology teacher; the teacher, period. So teachers need to take a deep breath, explore the terrain and map it in their heads. This is too vital a job to make optional anymore.

Concerns about “screen time” are misguided. The people who think the screen is bad by definition are functionally identical with those who think the tech must have some sort of inborn magic that makes the user smarter. There are levers and controls in the technology that we must find and use intelligently. If we are doing so and our intelligence is expanding, don’t count the minutes.

Seek transformative events. Focus our energy, tech-wise, on what leads to a sudden new capacity, a brilliant “a-ha” in how something works. When we do this right, suddenly students can see and think and create in a new way. They are aware of the shock and delight in it. We shy away from such an expectation because it seems unrealistic or superficial, but it is neither. The sense of a sudden new capacity is something students should experience. The details can follow.

Projected job skills are an unattainable target. What kind of skills should a 9-year-old learn to be ready for the workplace 13 years from now? Do you know? If you had made this guess in 1994 you might have said something about CD-ROMs and missed the entire internet. Would that have been better than nothing? If so, I do not agree. Learn to think with the computer, learn to think about the computer, and accept that the specifics will change. Then teach your students to do the same.

The highest attainment in adopting a technology is in using it reflectively. This means that even with the guidelines I provide, even with the skill sets the Standards recommend, the individual user needs to see through the technology to its larger purpose. This may mean foregoing the technology altogether; it may mean adopting a different toolset. Either way, share this thinking with students. Challenge them, over time, to select tools wisely. This is a skill for the rest of their lives.

Major strands of technology

The bulleted list below is my to-do list. I want to develop each of these strands so they begin very young and become richer through the years. In each case, I will describe how students ought to see teachers use the technologies as instruments of understanding; then, as the years progress, how students ought to take up the technologies themselves; and then how to infuse their use with critical thinking and adaptations.

I have condensed the recommendations in each essay and charted them here. I expect they won’t make perfect sense in their abbreviated form, but you can see the all at once.

I can think of at least three areas to consider on my next cycle (give me a year, thanks). These might be:

  • Numbers in action
  • Connected thinking
  • The moving image

But I expect these first six subjects will have to do.