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Too Much Technology and Not Enough Learning?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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I was reading the book The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley and couldn't help wondering what our schools would be like today if we were forced to teach without the technology (including copy machines). She describes three school settings in South Korea, Finland and Poland as being devoid of the technology U.S. teachers take for granted, and how, especially in math and science, their best students outperform our best students by a wide margin. I agree with the premise of her book: good teaching and high expectations make the difference, and technology is icing on the cake. My concern is that we are at a point where our students spend more time using technology and less time actually learning.

Maybe There Isn't an App for That

Yes, I know, there are other factors that contribute to their better score on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) -- longer school days, advanced science and math starting earlier in elementary school rather than high school, extra tutoring in Korean hagwons, less to learn with a more focused curriculum, no non-essential learning activities such as sports, home ec or computer applications courses. Even controlling for those things, their best and brightest outperform ours. Yes, I know, some might ask, "At what cost?" But that is another point we can discuss later. What I am getting at is that our student learning is so diluted by bountiful resources and access to all types of knowledge and learning activities that our students are underwhelmed with learning. The only students challenged in the U.S. are the AP and International Baccalaureate, and even then we have a hard time getting to the most important things.

For example, we have all experienced the "app" mania and are sick of hearing, "Is there an app for that?" Here is a new distraction: why don't we encourage students to use valuable time for "learning" through social media? After all, they already spend hours of their time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and myriads of other social media sites.

To answer that question, I feel similar to Harrison Ford who played Colonel Graff in Ender's Game when Ender asked why the email was not being sent. Graff stated that the cadets had freedom as far as their personal thoughts were concerned, but he would not allow "unfiltered communications" which the family (and others) might not understand and would distract the cadets from their original mission.

Just Plain Learning

I have to tell you that I have a hard enough time filtering the communication that comes out of students' mouths in the classroom, let alone what they text or write to their buddies out of the classroom. While Facebook has a really cool knack for helping people stay in touch with each other and their lives, it takes a considerable amount of time, not only to participate, but to review what all the other people are doing. Filtering out what is useful from all the pointless blather takes more time. Now, if the communication is attached to a project, as in collaboration via Evernote, Assemblee or FieldNotes, then I can see a purpose and a reason to share thoughts with each other, but that could be done just as easily face-to-face -- which is more powerful still. Of course, if geographically disparate groups of students need to collaborate, technology certainly can help, but even still it can never fully replace face-to-face interaction.

If we want our students to do better, I think we can take a lesson from the countries that are cleaning our clocks on the fairly easy PISA, which is designed to test thinking. Sometimes I wish I could go back to the days of chalk boards and overhead transparencies, not just to simplify teaching and learning but to minimize distractions and focus on what is really important -- just plain learning. Any ideas on how to do that? I would love to hear your successes in getting back to the basics.

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Mike Raven's picture
Mike Raven
Former Head of Department (Science), Teacher, Brisbane, Qld., Aust

Your "Just Plain Learning" comments brings back memories of my use of the good old chalkboard (blackboard) days Ben. How I missed them when they were replaced by whiteboards, data- projectors and PowerPoint slides. I have seen classes where students just make notes from bullet-point text only slides. Ask a question outside the slide content and hear the usual "do we need to know that?". Yes, I believe this type of presentation dulled the mind - interest and curiosity almost non-existent. I know that this may not be typical of all classes but I am of the firm belief that lazy, tired or burnt-out teachers relied heavily upon the old PowerPoints they used year after year (along with those who lack the knowledge that they are meant to be teaching). But blackboards, however, can provide so much more flexibility in the lesson and student engagement. Use of colors, a quick brush with back of the hand to erase an error, heavy underlining, draw little cartoons, tell a story and connect ideas as you go. You as the teacher worked the magic, set the pace, monitored understanding and shot out the quick questions - full engagement ! Now let's refer to a little brain science and it's findings. Better learning and understanding takes place when students are actually watching the teacher's blackboard performance, the hand moving and writing, the use of voice and the visual linking of ideas (all involving mirror neurons, visualization, more active listening, greater emotional involvement and so on - all working together to help memory and understanding). Students learn better when they write their notes and not type them (hand and eye co-ordination, concentration, associations, mental images - more active involvement). I could say much more but I did a quick Google and found this article that states the case far better than I. "That Old Chalkboard Mojo" written by Christopher Conway found on the Inside Higher Ed site; http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/04/01/essay-teaching-value-chal... (his comments are well worth the read)

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Sam Patterson's picture
Sam Patterson
K-5 Technology integration Specialist

Ben,
I am glad to know you are pro learning, me to. I love it when education works and students get connected to the content. As we work together to promote learning I am concerned we might get distracted by false dichotomies. When you say " our students spend more time using technology and less time actually learning" it sounds like you want me to choose between learning and tech.
We both know that good teaching is a daily job that requires commitment and a willingness to be reflective. I was going to say that technology is one of the tools in a teacher's belt but technology is just part of the context. A good teacher maximizes their resources to promote student learning, period.

M.Isinvar's picture
M.Isinvar
First Year English Teacher in Belgium

"Rather, teachers, administrators and school leaders should look at the learning goals, and then find the technology that will best meet those goals."

I think sometimes it's also important to remember that a lot of technology is new. Some of it has never been used in a classroom before and sometimes it takes time and experimentation with such technology to really figure out if it's an effective educational tool or in what manner can it be effective tool. So while I am in complete agreement that teachers should find technology that best meets learning goals rather than just to use it, I think it's important to allow some leeway for experimentation with technology in the classroom. Without such experimentation, there can be no progression.

JJ Ayers's picture
JJ Ayers
Campus Technology Integrator for McKinney Boyd High School, McKinney, Texas

I think this is one of those times when we should instigate a change in our perceptions by changing our terminology. For example, While we all think of technology as a tool, if we were to step back, say to the 1870's and think of the wide distribution of pencils here in the U.S. as they are used in today's education, we might see the pencil as a tool by itself, but a form of pedagogy in education. Not many teachers give a second thought to whether a student uses pen or pencil, but when it comes to technology we still seem to struggle not to think of it as a separate unit of instruction from our day-to-day paradigm. I think that is the approach we as technology leaders should be taking with today's educational technology. It is a tool when viewed as a standalone item, but when it is used in education, it is a form of pedagogy.

Joy Arnold's picture

I agree with you and have had this conversation with many educators over the years. The majority of the time I see technology being used for technology sake and little to do with what we want students to know and be able to do. The Internet has been one of the greatest and worst inventions to effect education in my opinion. Students no longer develop work ethic and stamina because they are used to instant gratification. They no longer have to read, infer and deduce because Google can find the exact answer for them. We have failed to teach students responsibility when using the Internet any many other technology tools. We started using the Internet for research and found everything we needed, so now we send our students there. It takes less time, its easier; never mind authority, accuracy, etc.Today's student does not understand vetting sources.They take their answers from any source blindly. They don't evaluate sources or wonder if the answer is correct, they write it down and hand it in and for the most part, we let them. Students do not cite, they can't even get back to the information a day later in many cases because they don't know how they got to it in the first place, but it doesn't matter because they don't have to. We have let them down by putting the cart before the horse in education. Technology, specifically the Internet is a great "tool", but without the proper education first it does nothing but make our students lazy and less smart.

Mike Brooks's picture
Mike Brooks
Instructor Pilot and avid reader on learning theory and presentation skills

In flying, we love to say that pilots love pictures, yet I see instructional presentations becoming more bulleted, more sequential and less interesting. Let's face it; if it's not interesting, no one will remember it. Motivation is one of the keys to learning, and I agree that instruction is probably better without technology. After all, that's how babies learn...through simple and curious observation. If we are going to use technology, we need to start engaging the whole mind, and that means using techniques that stimulate both sides of the brain. We need words. Yes, but we need images as well. We need to understand the parts, but we need to see the whole. We need to connect to the material emotionally as well as logically. We've lost our balance, I'm afraid. Our teachers are experts in their content areas, but I don't know if we've given them the tools to leverage to technology we've forced on them. I think authors like Dan Pink, Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds and John Ratey (to name a few) have some interesting ideas that can help us change the way we teach.

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Ghibli Kang's picture
Ghibli Kang
im interested in Education setion.Because the education is the future

yes I agree about ur post.But u did a wrong generalization about South Koreans. Most of Koreans do sports, outside activities and so on.Scholars who work at the education area are always use the South Koreans student when inform the bad education.Actually, That's just overstatement.

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Teri's picture

I have a World Language teacher who says, "give me a stick and a patch of dirt, and I can teach" She's right. I believe in the use of technology in the classroom, but not technology for it's own sake, but rather the right technology to enhance whats being done in the classroom. Too many of our schools have an unspoken mandate to use technology often, even if it's not the best resource for the lesson. Hopefully we will learn, and suit our technology use to the lesson, not the other way around.

alingham's picture

Would love to join you in your quest to "get back to the basics" of teaching.
It's been a 'new' revelation for me as a tech savvy teacher...

Kristine Mae Vencio's picture

The great progress of technology has been too know for everybody. Ever since computers or other machines existed, too much student even forgot to study their lessons at home, or read books at the library. These things are rarely to be seen in the 21st century. Consider a five-year old kid who wakes up in the morning and looks for his dad's tablet and play there like what he have seen in his father. See? Even little kids knew how to use these things. If they aren't learning, how much more when they grew older? parent's help is important in the cognitive development. Books must be there, dictionaries or expose them in pantomime or dramatization. Let them study their lessons and guide them well.

Ghibli Kang's picture
Ghibli Kang
im interested in Education setion.Because the education is the future

yes I agree about ur post.But u did a wrong generalization about South Koreans. Most of Koreans do sports, outside activities and so on.Scholars who work at the education area are always use the South Koreans student when inform the bad education.Actually, That's just overstatement.

(1)
Mike Brooks's picture
Mike Brooks
Instructor Pilot and avid reader on learning theory and presentation skills

In flying, we love to say that pilots love pictures, yet I see instructional presentations becoming more bulleted, more sequential and less interesting. Let's face it; if it's not interesting, no one will remember it. Motivation is one of the keys to learning, and I agree that instruction is probably better without technology. After all, that's how babies learn...through simple and curious observation. If we are going to use technology, we need to start engaging the whole mind, and that means using techniques that stimulate both sides of the brain. We need words. Yes, but we need images as well. We need to understand the parts, but we need to see the whole. We need to connect to the material emotionally as well as logically. We've lost our balance, I'm afraid. Our teachers are experts in their content areas, but I don't know if we've given them the tools to leverage to technology we've forced on them. I think authors like Dan Pink, Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds and John Ratey (to name a few) have some interesting ideas that can help us change the way we teach.

(1)
Mike Raven's picture
Mike Raven
Former Head of Department (Science), Teacher, Brisbane, Qld., Aust

Your "Just Plain Learning" comments brings back memories of my use of the good old chalkboard (blackboard) days Ben. How I missed them when they were replaced by whiteboards, data- projectors and PowerPoint slides. I have seen classes where students just make notes from bullet-point text only slides. Ask a question outside the slide content and hear the usual "do we need to know that?". Yes, I believe this type of presentation dulled the mind - interest and curiosity almost non-existent. I know that this may not be typical of all classes but I am of the firm belief that lazy, tired or burnt-out teachers relied heavily upon the old PowerPoints they used year after year (along with those who lack the knowledge that they are meant to be teaching). But blackboards, however, can provide so much more flexibility in the lesson and student engagement. Use of colors, a quick brush with back of the hand to erase an error, heavy underlining, draw little cartoons, tell a story and connect ideas as you go. You as the teacher worked the magic, set the pace, monitored understanding and shot out the quick questions - full engagement ! Now let's refer to a little brain science and it's findings. Better learning and understanding takes place when students are actually watching the teacher's blackboard performance, the hand moving and writing, the use of voice and the visual linking of ideas (all involving mirror neurons, visualization, more active listening, greater emotional involvement and so on - all working together to help memory and understanding). Students learn better when they write their notes and not type them (hand and eye co-ordination, concentration, associations, mental images - more active involvement). I could say much more but I did a quick Google and found this article that states the case far better than I. "That Old Chalkboard Mojo" written by Christopher Conway found on the Inside Higher Ed site; http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/04/01/essay-teaching-value-chal... (his comments are well worth the read)

(1)
JJ Ayers's picture
JJ Ayers
Campus Technology Integrator for McKinney Boyd High School, McKinney, Texas

I'll start with your Col. Graff quote as it seems appropriate. The distraction that our students suffer from is not in the classroom so much as in their lives. The wildfire that is social media has created an onslaught of publicly introverted individuals that suffer in some fashion from social anxiety. That being said, if you look at a student-centric approach to educational technology such as Puentendura's SAMR model, we see that technology should never be used for technologies sake. Instead it should be used as a tool to increase student engagement in the classroom. This means that while, yes, it might be faster for every student to raise their hand in response to a question, the use of technology and anonymity baits those introverted students into becoming engaged and by default learning. As we know, no significant amount of learning occurs without student engagement in peer-peer, student-teacher, or student-content. While some of our older generation teachers might disagree with me about the technology side, studies show that technology integration into a viable curriculum only amplifies the teachers traits. If a master teacher is already engaging in their classrooms, then technology will amplify that. However, if a teacher is not engaging (think worksheets, classroom reading time for non-foundation level English classes, test corrections, etc), the technology only enables them to be less engaging (watching full-length videos, turning homework in online, or even using an online format in the classroom where everything is listed and posted in a CMS).

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