What do electric carving knives and just about every piece of technology lying around in your classroom have in common?
Electric carving knives were invented in the 1960s to facilitate the process of carving large joints of meat for families gathering around the dinner table. At a time when wives stayed at home cooking for larger families, it made sense to facilitate a housewife’s job by providing her with useful tools such as this.
Millions were sold and soon fell into disuse because the makers of electric carving knives failed to foresee the big shift in demographics that was about to take housewives out of their houses and into the workforce by the hundreds of thousands. Suddenly there was no time for cooking. Or carving. And the knives were really difficult to clean in any case, which soon put anyone off from using one more often than just once a year… at Christmas.
The way we use much of the technology in our classroom reflects what we perceive to be our current needs. Many of us happily embrace computers, interactive whiteboards and the internet as tools that enhance teaching and learning. When used effectively they do that very well. Just like a carving knife.
So what is the problem with that? The problem is that using technology to simply enhance education is a bit like carving a joint with an electric knife: great fun but ultimately pointless, as the job could have easily been done just as well without troublesome gadgets.
The true potential of technology in the classroom is in its transformational capability. We need to stop using technology simply to enhance existing practice and conceive instead of new ways of teaching and learning that are shaped by the all possibilities available to us and our students.
What do you think?
What early adopters see as tools that can help refine and develop teaching and learning can sometimes be perceived as undermining by teachers who remain sceptical about the adoption of emerging technologies because of the demands placed upon them of learning and understanding the new pedagogies involved and because they often feel constrained by the contexts and pressures in which they work (Conlon and Simpson 2003). As a result, teachers often view these new technologies as superfluous or simply not conducive to better learning outcomes.
Loss of control is also an important factor for many teachers who might see the adoption of social media, not only as extremely disruptive, but also as a further erosion of academic rigour and, ultimately, of their traditional role and relevance. This may be because the tools that are familiar to our students are not so to teachers who might therefore feel unable to control their students online. King, Duke-Williams and Mottershead (2009) suggest that teacher resistance to the adoption of Web 2.0 is present because of “the little place it plays in their lives, personal or professional, and their poor perceptions of social networking”. In this context, the challenge for teachers would be to develop new teaching and learning strategies that incorporate the use of social media and that allow them to focus on learner-centred strategies, rather than the more traditional teacher-centred use, which is still widely preferred by teachers in general (Scrimshaw 2004).
Anderson (2009) defines the term social networking as referring to “the networked tools that allow people to meet, interact and share ideas, artefacts and interests with each other”. Boyd and Ellison (2007) define social networking sites as “web-based services that allow individuals to construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.” Shirky (2008) captures the essence of social networking more succinctly: social networks facilitate the creation of groups and the exploration of “new ways of gathering together and getting things done”.
Is the network a substitute for community? Would the use of social media in a networked manner be detrimental to the wider school community? The answer to both questions is no. As Bickford and Wright (2006) point out “were community not important for learning, colleges and universities would have little reason to exist”. The critical role of interaction in learning is reinforced by the addition of social networking to the school community, not undermined. Therefore, the addition of the learning network augments the learning community rather than provides an alternative to it, resulting in the overall enhancement of the learning environment.
Are dialogue and collaboration hampered by the addition of social networking to the learning environment? These two concepts are critical to the one-to-one and one-to-many models. However, in the many-to-many model afforded by social networking the focus shifts from collaborative to cooperative learning, from the group to the individual. Whereas collaboration demands that the group “sinks or swim together”, cooperation “focuses on opportunities to encourage both individual flexibility and affinity to a learning community” (Paulsen 2008).
Transparent information and cooperation among individuals foster the creation of personal learning environments in which participants wish to engage due to the potential benefits each can acquire. Schools and other learning outlets have thus far shied away from encouraging the development of such personal learning environments using the host of Web 2.0 and social media tools available, preferring instead to impose learning management systems, sometimes euphemistically called virtual learning environments. These systems do foster dialogue and collaboration, however, as Anderson (2009) indicates, a virtual learning environment which consists solely of students and teachers cannot profit from the benefits derived by a network because it lacks transparency of information and deep engagement between students and teachers (Bickford and Wright 2006).
Let’s face it: we’re not very good at shifting paradigms. History is full of examples of ordinary and extraordinary people simply failing to grasp the potential of game-changing innovations and technological advances when first faced with them. What is commonly known as thinking outside the box is, actually, harder than you think.
“…so many centuries after the Creation it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.”
1486, committee advising King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain regarding a proposal by Christopher Columbus
The proverbial box is more of a cage where familiar habits of reasoning forbid us to venture beyond what is challenging or disruptive, where conceptual frameworks are kept prisoner by bars of our own making.
As a Spanish national living in the UK, it has always struck me as curious how the British often speak about Europe and the Europeans as if they themselves weren’t in Europe or, indeed, Europeans.
But Brits are not alone in this – when you think about it, everyone does it: we all seem to be hardwired to find that which is different and other, even in the face of overwhelming similarity. It seems to be the natural thing to do.
It would appear we have evolved to reason by juxtaposing concepts and establishing dichotomies. And it makes sense too. From an evolutionary point of view, dichotomies and juxtapositions help us to quickly and effectively differentiate between danger and safety, friend and foe, right and wrong, thus ensuring our survival and, along with it, this adversarial approach to problem solving and reasoning.
Such dichotomies and juxtapositions can clearly sometimes be helpful when it comes to explaining and understanding the world in which we live, but they often lock us into pointless debates and arguments that do nothing to widen our understanding of teaching and learning and improve the nature of the education we provide our children.
Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.
Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf ‘s insightful quote about language and thought has always struck me as one of the most accurate descriptions of the limitations of human thinking. Anyone who has learnt a language other than their own understands that speaking another language allows you to understand, not only what foreigners are saying, but also the way they think and the reasons for their actions. Continue reading