The tipping point or missing the point?

Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be!

Arthur C. Clarke (1980)

If we don't TEACH, we might as well be doing the same thing...

Why is it that there’s still such heated berate concerning the use of computers, tablets, smartphones and other gadgets in schools? Those who know how to use such gadgets point out dozens of advantages and benefits for enabling learning. On the other hand, those who are resistant to adopting them in the classroom seem to fear the total chaos that these gadgets may instill in our classrooms. Yet, there seems to be a trend that favors the use of technology more and more in our classes. I like to think that the only reason why we debate so much about the use or lack of use of modern technology in classes is the fact that we’re living a time of change. The way we relate to others is changing, which makes it much harder to adapt. The thing is, in the near future, what is today called modern technology will be so omnipresent in our lives that there’ll be no point in arguing anymore whether we should use it or not.

Take tablets, for example. When the day comes that owning a tablet is so common as owning a (paper) notebook, it’ll be absolutely pointless to question whether or not they should be allowed in classes. If it ever gets to the point in which it is what students use to take notes, how are we going to prohibit their use in classrooms? There was a time when teachers debated the use of calculators in math tests. Even though I’m not a math teacher, I really don’t think that this has made students less capable of thinking on their own. If the questions are right, students will use the calculator simply to do the math. The calculator cannot think and solve problems for students. Nowadays, as far as I know, students are given a calculator together with their university entrance examination. Whether or not students are as capable of adding or subtracting as their grandparents is a whole different ballgame, and something that has to be addressed from a different perspective. As long as calculators allow for questions that require a higher order of thinking, I’m in favor of them. If teachers just want to ask what 2 + 2 equals to, that’s a problem with the question, not with the tool.

Debates regarding the use of new gadgets in education will come and go. Nevertheless, talking about it these days is likely to be a lot more appealing for we have been debating about gadgets that are a lot more prevalent in our lives than gadgets in the past. Another reason might be the amount of advertisement and money that is invested by the industry behind these gadgets. It’s a lot easier for us to have access to success cases, and if we’re not willing to do the research on our own, failures may as well be hidden or attributed to any other reason than the use of the gadget in itself. Regardless of the reason, technology in education has certainly gained momentum. Have we reached the tipping point? Are we risking missing the point?

How can we gauge the effective use of computers in our classes? How do we, as teachers, make sure that the tail is not wagging the dog? How do we make sure we ourselves are not being blown away by the wowing effect that new advances have in our lives? At the risk of sounding trite, I don’t think it should be that hard. I’ve had a computer in my hands ever since I was 6 (or maybe even younger than that) and I am keen on keeping abreast with new technology. Perhaps if I weren’t a teacher, I’d be a computer analyst. Yet, I’ve passed the stage in which I let the “WOW” moments beat the “OH” moments in my lessons. I do prefer “Oh” moments to “Wow” moments. I see teaching as helping others learn. A “wow” moment is the moment in which kids are amazed by what you’ve shown them. An “Oh” moment is the moment when something finally hits you – it’s the time in which you’ve finally understood a point. Teaching is far more than transference of knowledge, and any teacher who fails to see that will end up replaced by computers. Computers wow us all the time; teachers should help students “get it”.

For anything that you use in class, there’s a simple question you may ask yourself to help you see whether you’re missing the point or not: Does my teaching highlight the tools I’m using, or do the tools I’m using highlight my teaching? Always aim for the latter. Anything you choose to use in your lessons should be used to highlight your teaching, not the other way around. If the comment you hear is that your lessons are good because you always show students cool and funny videos, or if they like your lessons because you get them to use Facebook, Twitter, blogs and what have you in class, it’s time you asked them WHAT they’ve actually learned. Technology can help teaching for learning, but if it’s misused it’ll do way more harm than good. If there are too many “wows” in your classes, make sure they are not getting in the way of the “oh, now I see” that teachers should be aiming for.

10 thoughts on “The tipping point or missing the point?

  1. “Does my teaching highlight the tools I’m using, or do the tools I’m using highlight my teaching?” Well-said, Rick.
    I read something nice similar to your “wow” moments. It’s great to go “wow”, but if you, the teacher can make them go “huh?” first. by making them realise there’s a gap in their knowledge, they’ll learn from the “wow” moment.

    1. Hi David,

      Even though I agree with you that it’s possible to learn from the “wow” moments and that they’re not worthless in the class, my concern is relying to much on wowing students as a means for learning. I guess nowadays the industry is bombarding society with the information that learning has to be fun, amazing, and that it should dazzle the eyes be then it will all be very easy. It’s the teacher’s role to have students go “huh?”, but I’m not sure we’re being prepared for that. What about the gap in the knowledge of teachers, especially those who are just embarking on the ship? I don’t know that much about what’s going on in the rest of the world, but here it seems to be too much talk for very little action. Teachers are leaving universities less and less prepared to face the classroom. Wowing has become the trend…

  2. Superb post, Rick! And I totally agree.

    I suspect tho’ that it is the enthusiastic wow that comes first, in order for folks to realize the potentiality of the devices available – to break the techphobe ice – but now that it seems that the wows are finally dying down – the real teachers are beginning to get their hands (and minds) dirty, seeing the flaws, seeing the paths ahead and ignoring the “machine” (as in using it to teach not teaching to use it) and from this stage, in our edtech development, we’ll be seeing a lot more of the ohs.

    Well, I hope so.

    I actually don’t have an ipad or a tablet, despite being ahead of the “tech curve” for years and years, because for me it really is a bit too much wow wow wow and “be seen to be ahead” and not enough efficient and effective functionality.

    After my experience of moving from one of the very first smartphones, the practical HTC on to its later more beautiful copycats, I’ve finally learned to choose practicality over design – to choose usefulness and unintrusiveness over the wow effect.

    Mobile devices are the future, unquestionably, however it is still impossible to type/read/work quickly on one of those instruments and any instrument that requires the purchase of another instrument to make it work is rendered inadequate… but I suspect that by tech-change-round 65, there will be a-coming a mash-up spectacular screen resolutions with sense, aesthetically pleasing design and functionality – and once those are in the majority of students’ hands, then we’ll see the real changes and forget that we ever lived without these devices.

    1. Hi K,

      Novelty fades quickly if not put to good use. The wowing effect of new technology tends to fade faster and faster as the years go by. Do you remember how long people were impressed by the special effects in movies like Star Wars? As this has become mainstream, people actually expected to see that. What was once mind-blowing became ordinary, and the same thing is happening these days. When we were first introduced to IWBs, for instance, we were all dazzled by them. It took a lot less time for such an effect to disappear as we see them being used everywhere. What was seen as a technological advance is now yet another resource that, if not put to good use, will do more harm than good. I guess we can say the same thing about tablets and all other mobile devices – I can tell you for sure that those I’ve had a chance to talk to were a lot more impressed by what the first iPhone could do than by what was shown last week (iPhone 4S). It was really new, awesome, and people had never seen that before. Now we see an iPhone everywhere we go – the novelty has faded and there’s nothing so amazing about it. That why it’s important for the real teachers to learn how to judiciously use any new gadget they’re presented with – getting their hands and minds dirty, as you said.

      Speaking of a mobile device that allows you to work on, have you had the chance to see the Asus Transformer tablet? The physical keyboard integrated with it might bridge this gap… as I still haven’t got my own tablet, I can’t really say how effective it’d be to work on one for long hours.

      As for the last bit, that’s my prediction for real change in the classroom. When most students are actually holding such gadgets in their hands and have control over when and why to use them, that’s the when the true revolution in education will take place – it’ll happen much sooner if those in charge embrace change and welcome learning opportunities to take place.

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  3. Hey Rick,
    There seems to be a single-minded idea about the benefits of the use of technology for educational purposes. However, there’s also a tendency for making an effort in wowing our students with whatever piece of technology we may have. I have listened from a talk given by Ben Goldestein that we should never be seduced by technology. What I see from that is that there’s a very thin line between the limits and the excitments of technology which is put into service of learning and that one which is used for entertainment purposes.

    It’s quintessential that teachers meticulously evaluate the use of technology in class. For this I often refere to the TechUse Check lits created by Sue Lyon-Jones in which she claims that in order to be effective, technology must:
    – be used to enhance and support learning;
    – do sth that couldn’t otherwise be achieved;
    – be led by students;
    – be the best option.

    Is a good start point for those who feel unsure about using technology and a nice reflection for those who think that teaching means amazing your students.

    Congrats on your post.
    Bruno Andrade

    1. Hi Bruno,

      I think the bit that concerns me is exactly this, “we should never be seduced by technology”. I’m just worried that on many different occasions we try as hard as we can to bring innovation into the classroom for the wrong reasons – because I like it and because it helps ME. As far as Sue’s list goes, I’m just unsure about the part where it says that it must be led by students. Even though I advocate for student-centered instruction, I don’t think we should go from one extreme to the other.

      Many thanks for the comment! 🙂

      Grande abraço!

  4. Márcia and I had a very healthy and reassuring discussion on your text this afternoon. The sentence that struck me as the most meaningful and which is totally in tune with what I think is ” Does my teaching highlight the tools I’m using, or do the tools I’m using highlight my teaching?” You couldn’t have put it better!

    Awesome post!

    Edmilson Chagas

    1. Hi Edmilson,

      I glad to hear the post was used in something meaningful. I hope one day I’ll be able to join you so that we can spend an afternoon discussing teaching and learning face-to-face. Many thanks for the comment! 🙂

  5. Does my teaching highlight the tools I’m using, or do the tools I’m using highlight my teaching? Very well said, a mandatory question to all educators since technological tools have become the every day norm there should be no debate about implementing it to lesson planning as long as the focus remains on the ‘oh’ effect.

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