Moving beyond the high tech pencil

When we imagine technology, we would often think of computers. But technology does not only refer to digital computers. Whilst how we understand the word does normally refer to computers, that’s only because most new technology in the home is some sort of computer. In the 1800s a new type of technology was introduced into the classroom. Chalk and Slate. This was great. Except for the fact that you couldn’t do long equations on it, or keep notes, it worked really well for short problems. Take a modern maths class where you want your students to practice five questions to demonstrate their mastery, you might normally have two options available to you:

  1. Pencil and paper. Students write their answers on the paper. This is often surrounded by notes, or in a special book just for calculating problems.
  2. Laptop computer. Students make a new document, and do the problems in there (or simply write the answers if they cant be bothered to write out the equations… I guess the same goes for paper here).

These problems are not useful to the student in the long run, nor are the answers going to solve any major world problems. The chances of students going back over them in minimal, as they would more likely try new problems if they wanted additional practice. So why write it down in a book for posterity? This is potentially just a wasteful way of putting our answers somewhere. With the chalk and slate however you can attempt a problem, show your teacher, get help, then erase it. This leads to less confusing file systems, the ability to forget your failures (thus improving your morale?) and a clean set of notes in your workbook. As this article suggests, sometimes the right tool is not the new tool.

There are several models for how we can categorize the use of technology in the classroom for educational purposes. A popular model is the Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition (SAMR) model. The scale gives four fairly distinct regions of technological use in the classroom.

The SAMR model is a way of envisioning technology use on a scale from simple substitution, to using it to redefine the learning in our classrooms.

  • Substitution is the bottom rung of the model, where we simply swap one old tech tool for a new tech tool. An example might be using online textbook as opposed to physical textbooks. There is no functional change, and on the online textbook you might not be able to write on the book, and you might even lose access after a year (if its subscription based).
  • Augmentation is the next rung up, and still might not be considered an essential switch (although unlike substitution there might be useful changes). An example might be writing notes on the computer as opposed to in the notebook, where your teacher or classmates can more easily comment on them, or you can make things bold, red or rewrite notes. Redefinition is an improvement, but not always a big one.
  • Modification is starting to get into the area of technology having a significant impact upon student learning. Technology is substituted in to tasks to make it notably better than before. An example in science might be in labs, where students all put their data on the same spreadsheet to pool results and quickly build a big data set. Whilst this was possible before, it would have been long and tedious to share that data onto our own data tables (now we can copy and paste) and do our own analysis.
  • Redefinition is the holy grail. If we are redefining then we are doing things we just couldn’t do before. Using computer simulations in the sciences to see how subatomic physics works, or have the class Skype the author of the book you are reading. These are learning opportunities that did not exist to students before we had computers in our classrooms.

Redefinition is what we as teachers should be more interested in to boost the learning in the classroom. Not because everything to do with computers is better (it is not), but because before we had computers the tools and information we had readily available was limited to our school, and perhaps our local community. Suddenly the world is our local community. Does David Blaine have to be in Vietnam to teach my students some illusions? No, he can Skype in. If my students decide to have an Earth week, they can collect data from all around the world, they can call in experts to chat online or help via email, they can read scientific papers online. they dont need to wait for textbooks and things to be delivered. Its on their digital doorstep.

But I do not feel from my experience that redefinition is happening on a large scale, to quote Edutopia:

Willingness to embrace change is also a major requirement for successful technology integration. Technology is continuously, and rapidly, evolving. It is an ongoing process and demands continual learning.

Apple Distinguished schools have now started appearing, but does not yet guarantee the depth of knowledge of staff.

Lots of teachers appreciate that technology can help their instruction, but either do not have the skills or time to properly implement it. I know there are teachers in our 1-1 laptop, Apple Distinguished school that can barely send an email. Talking to those teachers about redefinition is like trying to discuss Einsteins theories before learning about Energy. Here we also need to think about those teachers who might be trying to embrace change but have little resources to help them. These people grew up in a world where there were not computers, and they were 35 by the time the internet was in main stream use. Now we dont even teach IT to students anymore its so ubiquitous. Its in every lesson (except that teachers). So we offer no PD, staff have little time to help themselves and thus the teacher has little inclination to change. These aren’t hard skills. Moving from writing on paper to redefinition can be as easy as just writing on a blog instead, and eliciting student replies to other students posts- we aren’t talking about teachers being programmers, just knowing how to be happy and confident researching and learning new tools on their own.

Lets even consider digital storytelling. What is the difference between telling a story on a screen and by reading it out? If we simply put a story on a power point as opposed to on a sheet of paper or script, this is substitution (or at best augmentation). If we are going to tell a story worth telling – lets use Google Maps to track the story, have students collaborate on a power point to build the story themselves, or use Scratch to actually make the story interactive like a game. If its just a small part of the lesson then lets act it out and make it a bit of fun! Redefinition doesn’t have to happen everywhere, but it does need to happen if we are going to use technology in our courses, and particularly if we intend to use technology to improve the learning experience of our students.

On the SAMR model, the move from chalk to pencil is little more than substitution, and for some making the change from pencil to computer is little more than substitution. What we need is a philosophy of improvement for all teachers, and moving the level or expertise in technology from whatever level it is at, to the point where teachers are confident redefining what it means to learn in their classrooms.

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5 Responses

  1. Alex, I agree with your evaluation. There is not quite the level of comfort or confidence from most teachers to take on Redefinition or to imagine Transcendence. Even though I spend quite a bit of effort integrating technology I find it difficult to get students to the upper levels too. I am willing to take the risk to push for those levels even if I can not get all my students there though I am not sure other teachers are willing or able. Reading your post makes me wonder if it is more about teachers being willing to simply try new things. How willing are teachers to think outside the box and ask really interesting questions, encourage real inquiry, and get unexpected answers? I notice that younger teachers are better at technology use but not necessarily teaching in new ways with it. Plenty of substitution and augmentation. What do you think? Is it better questions? Is it a better imagination of what at 21st century learning environment can be? You say philosophy of improvement. I wonder if it is more like philosophy of re-imagination, redefinition of school. I appreciate your thoughts.

  2. Cary Hart says:

    Your paragraph about teachers and tech reminds me of Sarah Woods’s Ted Talk. link to In it she mentions that we can’t just throw technology at teachers and expect them to know what to do with it because they didn’t have it in their school experience. So for them, it is a much harder step than “throwing” it at younger students.

    That being said, I hate when people go but these students are digital natives they know how to do everything with technology. Not in my experience. In my experience, most of them take crappy pictures and don’t know how to do anything other than play games. The difference between them and their teachers is that they aren’t afraid that they are going to break it. They have grown up with technology that is in general so reliable the idea of breaking it doesn’t occur to them. Whereas we adults remember when you could accidentally activate or deactivate something on your computer that took a programmer to fix!

    This is where teachers need to become more flexible so that they can help students learn to use technology to learn. When people ask me what I do the conversation always goes something like this, “I am a tech integrationist.” “A what?” “I teach little people how to use technology properly.” “OH, great that is a good thing!”

  3. Alex Bunting says:

    Both of your comments are interesting, Andy makes the point that young teachers are more confident with tech but less good at using it, and Cary makes the point that our students are actually only confident enough to try things as they know they wont break it (unlike the older generation). Maybe our current younger generation of teachers are the same as our students, aware they wont break it but not actually that good at using it. I agree with Cary that students do not generally know how to use computers – they can use websites, social media and games but thats about it.

    The difference with digital natives is they are willing to try things on computers. To click buttons and see what happens. But this is irrelevant in the long term if they don’t know what to use in order to get the job done correctly. Older generations will do things too if they know how, then everyone is on an equal footing. That video Cary posted describes this well.

    Perhaps my Final project could be a PD course for teachers? 🙂

  4. PD course for teachers is a great idea! I could use it!

    I really like the historical perspective in this post, too. I learned something new.

    Also, Reading this post was helpful. You analyse the use of tech by the majority of us (at least, what I see), and I think your analysis is spot on. Particularly, when you say, “Lots of teachers appreciate that technology can help their instruction, but either do not have the skills or time to properly implement it.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

    Excuse the soap box here: Everything today is so rushed, rigorous, and demanding. Nobody seems to have enough time for balance – let alone creativity and learning. It reminds me of the students in this video

    Also, I’m reminded, if we’re after student engagement and student learning, and we know technology has great potential for that – why are we so hell bent on adhering to curriculums at all? If teachers and students had more time to creatively problem solve maybe we’d see better use of tech for learning? Not sure – just wrestling…

  5. Ryan Harwood says:

    Lots of great thoughts rolling around in this thread. @mwleyland I’ve been wrestling with those same ideas lately. Are our curriculums helping students learn or telling them what to learn? There’s definitely a difference in the two.

    Appropriate integration of technology and helping students understand and use it appropriately and wisely could certainly play a part in the improvement of our systems. In fact, I think it is essential.

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