A defining moment which helped me really understand my beliefs about the role that computing technology can play in learning began with a short walk to the store. The morning was young and my daughter and I passed a neighbour’s house with a large hand painted sign out front stating “Garage Sale.” In a driveway loaded with stuff was a plastic farm. Complete with cows, pigs, a cute tractor and the obligatory red barn, at a bargain price of $1.50 my daughter’s strong and constant begging quickly resulted in me heading back home with the farm under my arm and a small bag of attachments at my side. Beaming all the way home, she held the little pig tight and couldn’t wait to begin her play.
I set up the farm which covered much of her bed knowing that a friend of hers would soon be arriving and their play would be a nice time for me to work on my prep for the teaching week ahead. I set up my own machine, and by the time I was working, my daughter and her friend were immersed in their play surrounding the farm and its characters. They were busy negotiating various aspects of life including things like whether the pigs should be with the chickens and who should drive the tractor.
Meanwhile, I was exploring what I felt was an amazing tool. Arthurs Teacher Trouble – an interactive book for computers. I had never seen anything like it. It was a world alive with fun and learning. Each mouse click unveiled a new surprise and I could see my students having great fun exploring and learning these new worlds. I was very excited about what I saw and the possibilities. I ran to the next room and told my daughter and her friend that they just HAD to see this. They took a look, grabbed the mouse and away they went laughing and clicking.
I boiled the kettle while they played and with fresh tea in hand, I turned back down the hall. As I walked, two images stood before me in stark contrast. On the left, on the bed was the plastic farm. The pig, cow and farmer lay on their side, the farm alone and silent still with its price tag carefully attached to the top with masking tape curled up at its edges. On the right were two young girls. Staring with amazement and clicking away, they were transfixed by this new opportunity that the interactive book presented.
As a teacher, and as a parent, I realized that in the blink of an eye, I had taken these two youngsters from what was an incredibly rich, rewarding social interactive process that was the farm and had replaced it with a mesmerizing technological adventure that had them each interacting deeply with the screen, but not actually with each other. Which one was more rewarding? Which was the richer learning experience? In my eagerness to embrace the slick cool tool, had I overlooked the complexity and simplicity of the farm and all that it offered.
I have spent most of my teaching and administrative career exploring what role technology plays in the learning process. My masters looked at system change and the effective implementation of information technologies on learning and my doctorate explored the impact of spending extraordinary amounts of time online on the notion of “self” for at risk young boys. It has been a lifelong pursuit mostly to address the many curious questions I have about what impact do technologies have in their shaping of society, learning, ourselves and our communications.
Through my own personal pursuits, I also fell in love with the work of Ursula Franklin. Her Massey Lecture series on The Real World of Technology introduced me to the concept of technology as social practice not simply as a set of tools or instruments. It is from Ursula that I have echoed many times the belief that our schools are organisms, they are not mechanisms.
In my current role, we are looking to put in context the role that technology places in learning. As I speak with teachers and listen to them, we have moved to a place where we are distancing ourselves from talking about “technology” and lately have talked about providing teachers and students simply with “tools for a digital age.” We are also very explicit to say that these tools extend beyond computing technology. A trumpet is a tool, so is a saw, a Bunsen burner, and a graphing calculator. To restrict the notion of “technologies” to information and computing technologies is limiting in so many ways.
We recognize and accept that our students live in a digital age. It is a given that they will need to be responsible digital citizens and will both consume and produce with digital technologies but to insist that the creation of powerful learning environments requires a computer is to do a disservice to the complexities of teaching and learning.
There is no doubt that the information age is revolutionizing all aspects of our lives. Learning environments are transforming in ways that we never even considered ten years ago however the core beliefs of fostering creative and critical thinkers, creating effective problem solvers, powerful communicators and nurturing people who care not only for themselves and others have been timeless. When could we imagine a time that we would not want students who are creative, critical and caring?
In our eagerness to adopt learning technologies I feel like many teachers have been alienated because we’ve implied that if you don’t have a cart of computers in your classroom then you’re not a 21st Century teacher. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that someone armed each of my students with a mobile device does not make my classroom a revolutionary place. There are many powerful learning environments where the simple passionate connection between a teacher, her students, and the expert instructional practices create a lifetime of memories for students.
I am absolutely not saying to close the door to computing technologies. That would be both crazy and impossible. What I am saying is that they simply ARE part of the learning environment. Our students’ backpacks and pockets are full of them and while issues of equity and access are huge, their daily lives are frequently fueled by their personal work with devices and their work life will undoubtedly require considerable expertise as well. Someone sometime long ago taught me cursive writing. Despite the fact that I probably write now more than I ever have in my life, I cannot recall when I have ever hand written a letter and I can’t imagine it will ever happen again. Some skills that used to exist simply don’t exist anymore.
We do need to plan. We do need to always talk about what skills, attributes and qualities we want our students to have in a digital age. However, we need to be very cautious about focusing the discussion on technology and not on what we know and are learning about engaging learning environments both historically and in today’s age.
I stood in the hallway and watched the girls play. They laughed and they continued to click and giggle. My prep would have to wait but the tea was warm and soothing. They clearly loved what they were doing, they were gaining skills and new ideas were presented. However I can never forget the little farm with the animals laying on their side. The powerful social navigation and collaboration that was occurring on the farm had been replaced by an engaging and enjoyable new experience but it largely was parallel play and not cooperative.
Those were the days before social media, networks and the power of today’s collaborative tools which are again presenting unique and rich possibilities and challenges. I simply hope that as we continue to talk about the power of teaching and learning environments, we do so focusing on learning and not on the tools themselves. We need to always keep in perspective that computing technology and its powers and abilities are only one part of a much deeper, complex and rich process that is engagement and learning.
If you ask 100 teachers what is the single most important thing they need, in my experience the overwhelming answer will be time. When you ask them to tell you more about that, they say time to collaborate with their colleagues. It has always been to me a call that they want to connect, they want to learn from and with each other. I look forward to our continued journey ahead as we take the time to talk more about what learning looks like in a world of growing possibilities. A place where we take the time to consider both the powerful forces that are changing the nature of our learning environments in an information age and the timeless importance of connections and relationships in service of learning.