How can you encourage students to actively engage in using technology as a tool rather than passively receiving information from the technology?

In a sense, this is a trick question. I would teach my students to never “passively receiv(e) information.” Whether reading a book, watching a movie, or looking things up in cyberspace, critical think in essential.The internet is a wonderful tool. It’s range, simplicity, convenience, and ease of use are magical. It is also the least credible source of information available with no checks whatsoever on what is published. The first lesson for any social scientist is to be a wise, informed, and critical consumer of any information source. To the extent that lesson is internalized, the students simply need to be reminded to apply those same skills consistently in their internet use.

In a second sense too, this is a trick question. Technology is rarely conveying information to passive users. Technology is a tool that needs to be directed and those directions need to be continually refined. In important ways, the user is far more a passive recipient of information from more traditional sources of information, be they the New York Times or Fox News. Most traditional information sources are like a hose: you stand at one end and get what comes out. You can choose which hose, but that’s it for chioice. The internet is more like a vast university. It is full of tools, fellow seekers of information, and many, many libraries full of resources and information. it’s use is rarely passive.

In a more philosophical sense, education will have to make some major decisions in the near future about how much about how things work needs to be taught. We are rapidly reaching or passing the point where we need to know many basic skills. Whether it’s math calculation, spelling, grammer, APA formatting, or many other things, technological tools exist which make low level knowledge obsolete. There’s a truly brilliant TED Talk which addresses this is a powerful way. In this sense, we may increase the amount of passive information we receive (23 * 46 = 1058, for example) while using that saved effort and efficiency to be much more productive at active higher level (critical thinking) tasks.

In short, I think it is unlikely that technology will do anything other than increase the passive processing of low level information to free energy and time for higher level, critical thinking tasks. To the extent that it truly generates passive information, it is most likely due to the automation of traditional processes.

Quo Vadimus?

When you begin to burn out on your research topic, where do you think you will move on to?

My focus is on gender and education. I am specifically focused on advocacy for boys in education because it seems to me that is where the biggest damage is being done now. However, of course, I work on gender-based issues and strategies for both sexes. I don’t think I’ll burn out on this until more attention gets focused on this subject or until it becomes clear that I’ve done all I can do. There are some very committed and capable leaders in this area and I do hope we can effect some change.

My second area of interest is expanding the acceptance of John Ratey’s research (see Spark) on exercise and learning. He has some fascinating things to say about the influence of exercise on brain functioning and some very specific suggestions and practical examples on how it can strongly influence educational outcomes. That might be my next focus.

Another subject that hovers in my peripheral vision is SES and education. This is such a very big topic. SES itself is a huge topic and one where open discussion is not very common or safe. However, it seems probable from the reading I have done that much of educational failure is actually and unavoidably caused by SES-related factors beyond the power of any educational system to fix. There is so much to this topic and it is so important because by not addressing it we are condemning millions of people to an unnecessarily difficult life. This would be a sad, dangerous, and challenging subject to pursue. However, honestly, until we stop think of poverty as something to be “prevented,” I think our society will continue to “create” poverty in the name of preventing it.

A safer subject but closer to the “darkside” is the pursuit of computer-driven learning strategies/tools. In a standards-based, standardized testing-based world, it is probably possible to largely replace teachers with very well programmed computers that drill the “essential” information in a fraction of the time. There are interesting questions about whether computers can even create the open-ended learning promoted by art and research and general inquiry. They probably can. Anyway, I am certain there are dark forces moving out there to automate our classrooms. I would be tempted to follow that fascinating train of inquiry, if only to bring “light” to the process.

To conclude, I am always drawn to areas that have big problems that have relatively simple solutions. These “80/20 Rule” situations are among the very few where, I believe, major improvement can be made in the human condition. Until very recently, I wasn’t too concerned about the human condition. Now, however, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what I can do if I put my full effort into making the world just a little bit better in areas where I have some wherewithal.

Technology in the Classroom, Part I

I have a very elaborate vision of how a technology centered classroom might work. This is one of part of the vision.

Imagine that the students have individual wireless buzzers like on a game show. These buzzers would be linked to special software running on a SMARTboard. To answer a question, students buzz. The software randomly selects a student to answer from those who buzzed in. This eliminates unconscious gender bias and favoritism (two oft proven pitfalls of calling on students). The software would keep track of who’s buzzed in to speak in a day and who’s actually spoken. Every child needs their chance to speak so the teacher has a choice of options to address this. The software could select children to answer some questions (or all questions) randomly. Or each student might be required to buzz in a specified number of times (perhaps linked to the total opportunities in a given day). As the day goes on, pressure to speak mounts and the students learn to make wise choices in how they choose to buzz in.

Other aspects of the Q&A could be tracked. Possibly the teacher could set it to track whether students’ answers were correct. Essentialists would love that, though I would reserve that option for special situations. If the buzzer had several buttons, it could be used for impromptu quizzes. There are many possibilities.

I’m kind of a geek. It’d be fascinating for me to have this as a tool to see where it’d lead. Unfortunately, I don’t see any simply way to jury rig one and I haven’t heard of anything like it on the market. But I’m sure it’ll be available one day as technology grinds it’s way inexorably forward.

PowerPoint in the Classroom

Being a child of a different generation, I have no experience with PowerPoint in the classroom. High tech for us was blackboard and chalk. However, I recently read a book called Beyond Bullet Points which gave me some vision of how interesting and powerful PowerPoint can be. The author’s argument was that a presentation should be structured from the elements of story: heroes, desires, and obstacles. Each slide, according to this book, should have just one sentence with one idea and a simple graphic related to all the other graphics to locate the idea in the arc of the story. That kind of PowerPoint might well be amazing in the classroom! I can imagine each lesson having a ‘story’ with the students eager to overcome obstacles to resolve the tension. They might be asked to put themselves in John Adam’s shoes or Charles Darwin’s or Odysseus’ or to solve a complex math-based real world problem working in groups. There is a fascinating story behind every lesson and PowerPoint might well be a fantastic tool to not only tell the story but to do so in a memorable, multi-media, multi-learning-style format.

Atkinson, C. (2008). Beyond Bullet Points. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Press.