When one mentions technology in education, our minds frequently turn to the latest content-driven app, or perhaps even a data management system.  We see an educator, standing in front of a group of children, utilizing her SMARTBoard to show electronic manipulatives, or we see a team of educators collaborating around assessment data.  In the most optimistic of cases, we think of innovative, student-driven technologies such as Seesaw, Popplet, or iCardSort–great tools that aid children in analysis or multimodal reflection.

But let’s step back for a second and challenge this initial assumption we generally seem to make about technology.  Let’s abandon our present biases and examine technology in a context that abandons spatial and temporal constraints.

What Is Technology?

Technology is no more than a tool–a tool that makes work easier for humans.  Fire, the wheel, and clothing–even shelter–are some of the earliest examples of tangible human technologies, making our primitive ancestors’ lives easier and helping them survive.

Today, we have even more of these technologies, some of them as tangible as the tools our ancestors used thousands of years ago, but even more that are less tangible and even entirely intangible today.  Technology has evolved to the point where it is now an extension of us. Even the further-evolved version of humanity that you and I embody can be considered technology.  Our brains are now better adapted to an information-rich world, our emotional intelligence much higher than it once was.

And what all of these technologies have in common–the old, the new, and the innate humanistic technologies that have created our evolved selves– is that they continue to help make humans’ lives more productive and enable our ability to proliferate our collective legacy.

The Purpose of Technology

Technology has and will continue to achieve this in several ways.  First of all, technology acts as a force multiplier, allowing humans to do more with less energy.  It also minimizes complexity, taking large systems and making them more manageable, thus continuing to multiply individual human force across space and time.  Technology, finally, acts as a means for communication and empathic extension.  It help us get to know individuals and ourselves better, making space and time more and more obsolete with further advances in technology (Rifkin 2010). This definition for technology, however, does not require the digital context in which we often find ourselves.  Instead, our present bias, determined mainly by where we are chronologically situated in human history, causes us to immediately jump to digital conclusions and contexts when referring to technology in the classroom.

In doing so, we neglect the analog technologies that aid our classrooms already, causing the digital bias to do more harm than good.  In many ways, the digital bias assumes that, in order to multiply the force of individual educators, it’s necessary to have adaptive technologies like Khan Academy take the place of educators.  This method for force multiplication takes on a modified factory model, one that is also digitally driven instead of only human driven.

It also assumes that the complexity of pedagogy can be minimized by digital tools.  And in some cases, the complexity of pedagogy can be managed, at least in our perception, by giving children adaptive digital tools that guide them through content.  But what we neglect with this assumption is the power of thoughtful and responsive feedback, which cannot be provided through adaptive technology.  Sure, if a child selects an incorrect response or inputs the wrong alphanumeric combination, he or she will receive superficial feedback–feedback that is binary and labeled as correct or incorrect.

But this feedback is insufficient in the learning process.  This feedback, again, assumes an industrial, content-driven model for pedagogy, when in reality, this method of minimizing complexity is really more effective for guided practice or review–not actually as a replacement for effective pedagogy.  And while this industrial mindset isn’t always desirable in a holistic classroom–this rote skill-and-drill methodology–perhaps it is necessary, but only rationalized, if the binary, correct-incorrect feedback is suitable to the task and purpose.  Notice, however, that this use of technology to minimize the complexity of guided practice is not being utilized to actually minimize the complexity of pedagogy; it is instead being used to minimize the complexity of personalized skill practice.  This distinction is critical to understand as we continue to develop digital technologies for the classroom.

Three Technologies You May Be Leaving Out

However, what we forget most of all is that there are certain places where we do not want digital technologies in the classroom.  Many analog technologies, ones that are still being developed as we speak, can achieve some of the same objectives that digital technologies can, without losing the interpersonal, socio-emotional, and sensory integrative skills that are necessary for child development.

These analog technologies can both multiply the force of individual contributors to the learning environment and meanwhile minimize the complexity of personalized learning.  These technologies are, by definition, tools that make an educator’s work easier, but are more so pedagogical–and less digital–in nature:

1) Quality curriculum design.

Too often in the classroom preparation process, teachers are guilty of jumping right to the instructional resources. They think of the grade, some of the things that children need to learn, and begin to think of ideas for lessons or topics to cover.

The DuFours, as well as Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, have tried to combat this with a more thoughtful approach to curriculum construction, prompting teachers to first think of the goals and objectives, followed by assessment protocols, tools, and resources, and finally moving to instructional resources, routines, and pedagogical strategies.  Doing so creates an intentional curriculum, one focused on student-driven knowledge construction that can happen through any medium.

2) An engineered classroom culture.

But even this approach is incomplete.  Too often, we forget the power that comes in engineering our classroom culture, and this is a technology in and of itself.  This is, in fact, what makes it so surprising to educators, especially those of us in the technological sector, when we are compensated at such a lower rate than engineers.

The rationale?  An engineer’s code is replicable, immediately able to be copied and pasted to benefit the masses.  But what the technological sector and the American public at large fail to see is that a teacher’s code is the culture he or she engineers within the classroom.  This code is also replicable: it can be replicated through students’ actions and interactions, multiplying the force of individuals within the classroom ecosystem and minimizing the complexity of interpersonal conflict and personalized learning.

3) Reflective pedagogy.

The industrial model for education prompts us to follow plug-and-play curricula.  It engenders within us a perspective of co-dependence instead of self-efficacy.  We think we need a textbook or a basal reader in order to serve our children, but the reality is, we need a flexible knowledge of the content, developmental psychology, and interactional and instructional routines that will help children learn how to decode the world around them.

This flexible knowledge–along with the processes for developing reflective and critical pedagogy–is what will empower educators and help them minimize the complexity of constantly developing their craft.  Whether this is achieved through collaborative assessment protocols, professional learning communities, other collaboration structures, these processes are easily scalable. Instead of mimicking the industrial era’s approach to prescriptive pedagogy, these protocols manage to create structure while preserving autonomy. This allows educators to construct their own knowledge of pedagogy, in an effort to continuously refine their practices and document them for posterity.

This not only helps individual educators multiply their individual force within the classroom, but also within the educational space at large, as their contributions will serve the collective wisdom that we, as educators, are constantly building.

 

Looking to the Future

It’s funny, because these technologies seem much less “technological,” if you will, than the typical technology.  What I’ve learned, however, is that these ideas are still very innovative for many schools around the world.  And what many don’t realize is that these technologies–the ones that focus on maximizing human resources and building relational capital–are just as valuable as the digital ones we so badly strive to incorporate into our classrooms.

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2 thoughts

  1. Paul,

    Thought provoking as always!

    I feel that the focus on the digital vs. analog dichotomy masked some of the more salient arguments you made in this post.

    Digital vs. analog is a solution-space issue, when the arguments that resonated with me the most were around the problem-space: too much focus on “the perfect curriculum problem”; and approach: industrialization/standardization rather than networked/relational, “replace the teacher” rather than “empower the teacher”.

    Consider standardized tests as a good example. A wrong (industrialistic) approach to the “assessment problem”, regardless of whether they’re administered orally, using pen and paper, or a computer.

    Where the analog vs. digital distinction plays a pivotal role is around matters of scope and leverage. Why did you choose to publish these thoughts using a (digital) blog post? You could just as easily used a conversation with a friend, or put pen-to-paper and then make physical copies… Using a digital medium enabled you to reach and impact a lot more people compared to the analog alternatives.

    I believe the same applies for the fundamental problems in education. If we focus on solving the right problems (like the ones you outlined), using the right approach, then a digital medium will just enable us to have more leverage and a bigger impact.

    Itamar

    1. Sorry for the late reply, Itamar. These are good points, and I agree that digital technology does enable us to have more leverage. I suppose the point I’m trying to make, which it looks like I can do a better job of, is that we tend to value digital solutions and hold them at higher value.

      Thanks for commenting and reading!

      P

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