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Tools Do Not Determine Quality

A mallet and chisel in my hands will not a sculptor make. I could certainly do some damage to a piece of marble—or, more likely, to myself—with these tools. I could probably produce enough evidence for a television detective to conclude that I had been there, but no one would look at the results and call the Louvre’s acquisitions department. I could use the tools, but use alone would not convert my scratchings in stone to a sculpture with artistic merit.

Or would it?

Let’s leave the metaphor for a moment and examine something closer to the classroom. Technology in students’ hands will not a learner make.

Before you call the Luddite Patrol, let me return to the metaphor. If our world were growing increasingly dependent on sculpting as a means of processing and communicating ideas, I would want to see sculpting tools being used in classrooms. However, when we are looking for something other than the ability to handle the tools, a student’s use of the tools should not be sufficient evidence of learning.

Recently, I’ve seen teachers who were so wowed by students’ use of technology that they equated the use of the tool with the depth of the learning. So, if a student had two animated chinchillas repeating information from a textbook, the teacher considered the learning to be exemplary. In the same class, if a student generated an impressive graphic organizer and a written summary in his own words, the teacher considered the learning to be less.

See the problem? The teacher equated the tool with the quality of the work and, therefore, failed to assess learning.

What we look for as evidence depends on the depth of learning we’re targeting.

Knowledge requires activity and evidence that engages a student in recalling and organizing critical details. For example, if a student needed knowledge of the water cycle, she should not only recall the meaning of precipitation and evaporation, but also sequence the cycle’s steps and use the results to retell the water cycle’s “story.” Simply putting textbook paragraphs into the mouths of cartoon crickets should not suffice. In fact, it shouldn’t even be considered a worthwhile activity for constructing knowledge of the water cycle. Whether it is in verbal, graphic or a combined form, the student’s own recall and organization of the critical details is what matters. Reciting the textbook in a technological medium does not equal learning.

Understanding requires activity and evidence that engages a student in connecting new material with known experience. For example, if a student needed understanding of the water cycle, he should relate the cycle’s major elements and the cycle as a whole to something already familiar to him—he should think metaphorically. For example, as he considers the details of precipitation, the student may recognize that  the form that falls depends on what happens above. Even though moisture is always an “ingredient,” the process it goes through influences whether it rains, snows, sleets, or hails. This brings to mind the student’s experience with juice, a single “ingredient” that can take different forms depending on how it is “processed.” Juice kept in the refrigerator keeps its drinkable form, while juice put in the freezer becomes “juice-pops” with more of a popsicle consistency. Same ingredient, different “processing,” different forms. As the student overlays these ideas—the new concept (precipitation) and the known experience (juice), he constructs deeper understanding of the new concept. While the thinking that constructs the understanding must be done by the student, a teacher can contribute by guiding and prompting such cognition.

While it seems unusual, it is possible to possess knowledge without an associated understanding. For example, I have tutored students who had knowledge of the “times tables” but no understanding of multiplication. As a result, these students could pass timed tests of multiplication problems but fail in scenarios where recognizing the need to multiply (and not add, subtract, or divide) was a prerequisite. Knowledge alone limits usefulness; understanding increases the likelihood of transfer.

Utilization requires activity and evidence that engages a student in utilizing a series of steps to achieve a desired outcome. For example, if a student needs to become proficient at revising writing for prepositional phrases, she needs practice in 1) identifying prepositional phrases, 2) recognizing sentences that could be better structured with fewer prepositional phrases, and 3) restructuring sentences to eliminate prepositional phrases and improve clarity and effect. Failing to teach and provide practice in the complete series of steps limits usefulness of the learning. For example, a student who can only identify prepositional phrases has mastered a skill with little (or no!) value. It is only completion of the full series of steps that produces the valuable result—improved writing.

So, when selecting educational technology, we need to keep learning in mind:

  1. What is the thinking and depth of learning this educational technology fosters? Does it engage students in gathering, labeling, and sorting data (knowledge), blending new knowledge with known experience (understanding), or applying new understandings to achieve a product or result (utilization)?
  2. Based on the type(s) of thinking this educational technology fosters, where does it fit in the sequence of learning? (For example, a tool that engages students in organizing data—knowledge—needs to precede the blending of the new and known—understanding.)
  3. Is my use of this tool for the purpose of deepening learning of new concepts or skills? or is it to teach students to use the tool? (This matters because how the tool is used and what is produced should be assessed differently depending on the goal.)
  4. Will using this tool truly foster deeper learning? or will it only entertain students? or only produce a “cute” result? or only make me feel good about using educational technology? (Only the first question has a justifiable “yes.”)

I love seeing teachers use new instructional methods and tools, whether they have batteries or not, as long as they truly foster learning. Chatting chinchillas may be cute, entertaining, and battery-powered, but in how I generally see them being used, they fail to foster learning of the concepts often held out as the focus of the lesson.

Guess my bottom line message is this: Beware the temptation of cool tools that fail to advance learning. It’s not the tool we’re after. It’s the tool’s use in the pursuit of authentic learning. Used any other way or for any other reason, the cool tool is a questionable turn from the route we claim to travel.

“My Tool Box 2006”

2 comments to Tools Do Not Determine Quality

  • Much of educational technology is just a new way to do an old thing. For example, blog posts take the place of paper and pencil (of course the possibility for a larger audience is the real draw), drawing programs like Microsoft Paint (which I just had my students use) takes the place of real paint, and PowerPoint (or any presentation software) takes the place of hand created posters.

    The things that make the new technology valuable are the same things that made the old technology valuable. You are right that we have some teachers caught up in the “cool” tools, but if the assignments aren’t much different than they would have before the tools are not the problem.

    You referenced some talking toy that was reciting words out of a textbook. Is this any different than the time honored tradition of writing vocabulary definitions? I would imagine that you will find students following this practice in every school in the United States, yet you and I both know this is a useless practice.

    Whether we use old school tools or new, shiny tech tools to have students learn it is the role of the teacher to make sure the practices we have our students use are educationally sound.

    I guess to sum up I would say that it really is no surprise that teachers are using tech inappropriately when they have been been using bad practices with old school tools.

    • Great insights, and I completely agree. I see technology adding another obstacle for some educators to distinguish effective from less effective instruction. With some, there is a perspective held that ANY lesson that utilizes technology is, by default, effective. In other words, use or non-use of the tool rather than depth of student learning becomes the yard stick by which quality is assessed. We cannot forget that learning is still what we are seeking to foster. I believe technology should be playing an increasing role in learning, but use of it in/of itself does not equal learning. It is the thinking the technology enables that we should be pursuing, not just cute projects that feature “borrowed” photos or video clips or rudimentary animation.

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