Here’s my vision for using tech in the service of learning.
‘Leading Change’ column, January 2014 edition of eSchool News—A few years ago, my high-school-age stepdaughter arrived home from school one afternoon and started watching a video. Nothing too unusual. But Olivia was walking around the kitchen and pulling out cookware from the cupboards. All this while watching the video. “What is going on?” I thought.
Olivia was watching a cooking show created by two students in her advanced Japanese class. She was preparing to cook the meal herself. The assignment was to learn new vocabulary. On other occasions, students might have had to write out vocabulary definitions on a worksheet, or choose a correct definition on a multiple-choice quiz. But today, the teacher had provided an unstructured problem for the students to solve: How would you prove that you really understand this information? No test. No quiz. No worksheet.
Their task was to create a product that communicated a persuasive understanding of the vocabulary. Because much of it involved things found in the kitchen, the students decided to create “Iron Chef” parodies and developed humorous skits using the vocabulary to teach viewers how to cook various meals.
Olivia’s Japanese teacher had served up a challenging assignment for her students that inspired them to engage in real, meaningful work (and to cook a real, tasty meal). One of our fundamental commitments as educators is to prepare students for the world in which they live: to be active citizens, reflective individuals, and productive members of the working world. Yet, the 21st century provides different challenges than the 20th century. Olivia’s teacher was addressing those challenges.
(Next page: How not to prepare students to be outsourced)
In economists’ terms, humans have a comparative advantage over computers in conducting tasks that require performing abstract, unstructured cognitive work not easily replaced by automation. Computers excel at logical tasks and following rules and statistical models. Humans excel at solving new problems and communicating a particular understanding of information. Computers need prior knowledge and structure; they are not innovators in entirely new environments. Throughout our history, the human race has adapted in the face of unforeseen and unpredictable circumstances. We innovate when faced with new challenges. We create and communicate solutions.
Yet, in many ways, our schools are still educating students to become automated or outsourced. We assign homework questions whose answers can be Googled. Students look up answers to our math problems, our grammar exercises, our map activities, and our lab questions—often without having to think critically. In short, our homework activities too often ask students to do rudimentary tasks that computers can be programmed to do.
We also have a standards-based assessment system that places emphasis on core-knowledge acquisition and not on creative problem solving. Certainly content knowledge is important—to do history, one needs to know history—but teaching today’s essential skills requires an increased emphasis on deep, conceptual understanding and problem solving. Our role as educators should be to help students identify and address new opportunities and challenges that cannot be solved by applying rules. Helping students acquire and making sense of new information in problem-solving contexts, or to influence the decisions of others, should be our primary focus.
In EdTechTeacher’s view, schools should be leveraging tablets and tech devices as “hubs of innovation” that teachers can use to nurture the types of learning skills, competencies, and habits of mind that give students skills for work that computers cannot do.
With tech devices, students can research any topic that can be explored through the internet, and they can demonstrate their understanding in a wide variety of media. Students have a powerful and flexible device to solve problems and communicate their approaches to these problems. Like Olivia’s Japanese class, they might create a cooking show—or a public service announcement, a documentary, a video tutorial, a virtual tour, or an app. Students with tablets have the world at their fingertips to research new problems and create solutions, and they can do so anytime and any place.
Putting tech in the service of learning, in our view, means using ed tech for preparing students to solve unstructured problems and communicate persuasively and with deep understanding. That’s our vision of what great schools do. Our goal should not be to click buttons on apps; it should be to transform schools and kids’ lives.
Tom Daccord is the director of EdTechTeacher, a professional learning organization.