Saturday, February 1, 2014

Breaking Cycles

We still teach computers as if we have this one...
My son who is a senior is taking a few computer applications classes right now. He came back one day and said: "You're big on technology. Why am I learning to make tables in Word? I use Google docs anyway? Who's going to use Word in five years?" He likes to tease me about what I often preach (I switched him over to Google Docs) and what he sees at school. And he is right, why are we teaching the ins and outs of any application when we know that it is going to be replaced soon?

The answer, I said, is that no matter what word processor you will use it will likely have similar functions and affordances ( my new favorite word) to Word. So knowing words well will help you figure out whatever you might be using in five years or even ten. Yes, he answers, "I get that. But if the goal is really to let us think flexibly why are we doing it step by step? Why can't the teacher say: Make a table for this data and let us figure it out?" I had to agree with him here. He continued describing a class in which students are asked to follow with precision a set of production steps, never are they given a problem to solve and the freedom to experiment or *gasp* find a solution online. How is this leading to independent use of technology?

He continued describing the reason his teacher might be pursuing this approach. Some of the students in the class seem to have really hard time following the steps and finding their way around the application. So it seems that the teacher has crafted a "fool proof" method of teaching in which students follow a set of instructions. As a result students can reach a narrow outcome but completely miss on the generalized skill that both requires and fosters cognitive flexibility. Where is peer scaffolding, problem based learning or higher order thinking? It may very well be that the class and its content is a remnant of a bygone era when we knew Microsoft was forever...

To a degree we at UNL sometimes follow the same path. We still provide computer labs all over campus despite the fact that all of our students have their own (2 or more) devices. It used to be an issue of equity and access, but no more. In effect we are requiring our students to buy computers twice. Once for their personal use (laptops usually) and then labs (through student technology fees). Why can't we stop? I believe that at this point we do not actually have the vision of what we want so we plod along doing what we've always done...

In a meeting of the EdTech special interest group on campus this friday I we were discussing flipping classrooms. I ventured- if we are to ask teachers to flip, shouldn't we do it first? Shouldn't we live the dream before we ask others to follow?

In teacher education we need a bold vision, showing our students what it means to teach in this new era. We can show them what it means to fail and reboot (as Laurie and I did two semesters ago). Just like the artist in her studio we try and retry until it is successful, learning that a creative product is never perfect but always a work in progress. Part of it is technology- creating spaces that foster participation, creativity, and learning. The other part is true interaction and learning, make our own reflexive practice visible to our students- who soon will be teachers themselves.

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