Overlapping arguments —Why we love to hate technology

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Semantics is about committing to a shared understanding of the truth, and the way our thoughts are anchored to things and situations in the world.

Steven Pinker

One of the most common novice misconceptions about learning foreign languages is that words can be translated literally. Beginner students will commonly seek to translate idioms such as it’s raining cats and dogs word by word, causing native speakers of the target language to look up to the sky in horror before realising it’s just a peculiar figure of speech.

Even more advanced students struggle with the different semantic ranges of words across languages. For example, the dictionary tells us that the meaning of to have in Spanish is tener. Which is correct. I should know. However, the semantic ranges of these two verbs do not overlap exactly: the meaning of tener in Spanish is more restricted to possessing or owning, so in Spanish you cannot say I have a cup of tea literally. If you did and said tengo una taza de té, it wouln’t mean that you’re having a cup of tea to drink, it would mean that you have one in your possession. You would need the verb tomar in this context: tomo una taza de té – I take a cup of tea. And the whole thing starts again as we realise that the semantic ranges of to take and tomar do not overlap exactly.

This kind of partial semantic overlap happens commonly across different languages. As fluency increases, language learners realise that meanings can stretch in some cases and compress in others and that simply knowing the first dictionary definition of a word is just not good enough for proficient usage — you also need to be aware of the overlaps, adding a layer of complexity that is quite simply invisible to the novice.

The world of science is perceived to be much more clearly demarcated. There are fewer overlaps and so research findings are often presented in binary form – something worked or didn’t, something was effective or wasn’t; something had an effect, by this much. Science is precise, which is one of the great things about it.

However, delve deeper to contextualise and interpret these findings and overlaps begin to appear. It is not uncommon for folks to appear to be disagreeing about something until they realise they are comparing apples with pears. The argument usually begins because there is an overlap in meaning – e.g. apples and pears are both fruit – but otherwise they are two entirely different kettles of fish (not to be translated literally).

Want better grades? Avoid technology

Last week a report was published that appeared to show – yes, you guessed it – that technology was, not only of very little use to students, but also that it could cause students to receive worse grades. Crikey. The study was a randomised controlled trial (RCT) run by West Point, the famous US military academy. Since RCTs are the research gold standard in science, these findings were immediately given a great deal of importance and quickly started making headlines in the press here in the UK.

As far as I can tell, the West Point study was well conducted and it presented its findings with remarkable accuracy. There it was, in black and white and numbers with decimals: technology was no use in the classroom.

Yet, despite the findings of this study I sustain that technology can be helpful in the classroom. Am I a science denialist? A technology zealot? I’d like to think I’m neither. As a teacher, my only interests are great teaching and learning – with or without technology. Yet because I’m not so quick to jump on to the give-technology-a-slap bandwagon (note to translators: this is a figure of speech) folks often assume I have vested interests beyond providing my students with an outstanding education. They’re wrong, of course.

But is the study West point study wrong also? No, it isn’t wrong. The study looked into the effect of allowing students to use technology without teacher guidance, allowing them to do as they pleased with their devices when they were allowed to use them. Most unsurprisingly, the study found that when this was allowed to happen, technology was a distraction and more of a hindrance than a help, which in itself is a useful finding. I say finding – probably every teacher who has ever used technology in a classroom had already found this. This wasn’t lost to begin with. But now there is an RCT to refer to, which is great evidence, isn’t it.

To be fair to the authors, in the final paragraph of the study’s conclusion, they are at pains to highlight this:

We want to be clear that we cannot relate our results to a class where the laptop or tablet is used deliberately in classroom instruction, as these exercises may boost a student’s ability to retain the material.

And there is the semantic overlap. The apples and the pears. The study did not look at the impact of technology when it was being used deliberately by teachers to support strategies that have been found to support teaching and learning, such as retrieval practice, improving the frequency and quality of feedback, collaborative practices… which leads leads me to…

Why do teachers hate technology?

The answer of course is, of course, that they don’t. Teachers are busy pragmatists, they will adopt and embrace anything that makes their life easier. Technology makes their life easier, this is why they use it. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t, as proven by the fact that when it doesn’t, they don’t. Perhaps we need an RCT to get to the bottom of this.

Daniel Willingham’s book Why do students’ hate school? is a great read, full of the sort of practical advice and guidance that is most useful to teachers. But I have often wondered why he felt compelled to use that title. It baffles me because, in my experience, students generally love school: the learning, the friends… But never mind that, earlier this week, Willingham weighed in to the technology in schools debate with an opinion piece titled The false promise of tech in schools: Let’s make chagrined admission 2.0.

I immediately found myself in agreement with Willingham’s conclusion:

A solution might be to adopt new technologies alongside traditional methods; in time, researchers can evaluate whether both are needed. That’s how calculators were integrated into math classrooms.

This is indeed what we are doing at the school in which I work and what happens wherever else technology is being used effectively to support the processes involved in teaching and learning. But I did think it was a shame that Willingham used tired old arguments to reach that conclusion, e.g. Google means you don’t need to learn stuff; using technology means no more hand-writing; and, of course, technology is changing our brains.

Which is all rubbish. Of course kids still need to learn stuff, despite Google. Of course hand-writing is important: all students use a tablet in my school – hand-writing is, if anything, thriving. And the brain-changing digital natives myth died and was buried many years ago. Yet here is Willingham repeating the moribund mantra that supporters of tech think Google means learning is obsolete. Here he is using ten year old myths to pass judgement on the use of technology today, even though today it is much more likely that the use of technology in schools be much more clearly governed by a solid understanding of sound pedagogical principles and not so much by happy-clappy evangelists of the new.

Is Willingham wrong then? Nope. All the things he refers to have happened. There’s the overlap. But he ain’t right either, because there’s also where his thoughts are anchored, to echo Pinker’s words. To be right, he would need to stop looking at how technology was being used ten years ago and take a good look at how it is being used today. Our doors are open. And that’s not just a figure of speech.

So there you have it. Those who say technology doesn’t work are right. And so are those who say it does.

Your thoughts, as always, are most welcome.

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  1. Great reflection on the complexity of education and the limitations of educational research. I’d suggest that the world of science looks more clearly demarcated only until you become fluent in science… Which is what I think you are saying, but not quite so explicitly! Applies to education too…

    1. Thanks for your comment, Charlotte. One of the tenets of traditional education is that you can only think critically about that which you are knowledgeable about. Most critics (not all) of edtech have little or no practical knowledge of technology use in schools or its integration. This doesn’t stop them from opining, quite rightly. But I think it is important for those who do have knowledge in this area to have the confidence and the courage to put said opinions in perspective. Regardless of who is opining.

  2. A very clear explanation of the dangers of jumping to conclusions Jose. As has been argued now for some time, it’s all about the context. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Fantástica entrada y reflexión José! Toda dicotomia en educación suele ser errónea, comparto tu visión. Gracia¡

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