and I'm all out of bubble gum…

Having just driven my sister to the Philadelphia airport, I am reminded of the value of education founded in general principles, rather than a rote memorization of steps to accomplish specific goals.

I grew up in Philadephia and I have no idea where I am or how to get there on most of my trips. This is doubly true when driving to the airport. I simply know a route (in the case of the airport, for many years all I knew was that if I got in a particular lane on the expressway, I would eventually end up at the airport). I don’t know the geography. If I had to leave my route for a detour (as I did a year or two ago), I would have no idea how to recover.

Compare this to my knowledge of Somerville, where I lived for nine months and drove far less than when I was in Philadelphia (and yes, the walking knowledge is part of my point). Somerville was the the third city in four years that I had lived in, and I had developed a different approach to learning the lay of the land than my approach to Philadelphia. I got lost. I got lost a lot. I printed out directions to every place I wanted to go, but when I thought I saw a shortcut or knew my way, I took it. Sometimes this went badly. But I rapidly developed a much better sense not just for routes, but for the entire geography of the city (I can’t speak to Boston, but this worked in Cambridge as well). I had taken enough wrong turns that I had a sense of how the streets were connected (even if I didn’t always know the names).

I started working in IT when I was in high school, supporting my school’s AppleTalk network and doing odd consulting gigs along the way. In the consulting, I had several regular clients who hired me to help them learn how to use their computers. These regular clients took copious notes as I explained to them how to perform various tasks on their computers (use a word processor, print, save a file). Those folks who noted down that the menubar was where actions (or, in one English teacher’s case, verbs) were stored, that each window represented a file on the hard drive, and so forth, were rarely heard from again: they had grasped the general principles of the situation. The ones who titled their notes “How to Save a MacWrite File” and then took step-by-step notes… those were job security. Not only did they tend to lose their notes (notes more akin to a treasure map than to knowledge), but they were unable to generalize from those notes to other related concepts like “How to Save a MacPaint File” or “How to Save an AppleWorks Spreadsheet” (and they weren’t entirely certain that a file and a spreadsheet were the same thing).

Why do I mention this? The takers of step-by-step notes, maps to the hidden treasure of the Save command were learning how to use their computers by rote memorization, with no real understanding of what they were doing or how discrete parts of the process they had learned could be applied to other, similar situations. They were driving to the Philadelphia airport.

When confronted with an alien technology (or landscape or process or culture), our natural inclination is to find out how to do the few specific things that we need to do (order food, print a paper, hail a taxi, etc.). If we learn those tasks in isolation, without learning the underlying and fundamental principles that define how that technology or landscape work, we continue to operate in alien terrain. It’s quicker and easier, initially, to have our cheat sheet than to probe the situation and figure out how the dang thing works.

The temptation when teaching students (or faculty) how to use technology is to provide the step-by-step directions, neatly illustrated with screenshots, describing how to perform X, Y or Z task that needs to be done for the assignment. I have certainly been guilty of this myself, even as recently as this fall (I tried to have the best of both worlds, describing the steps, but also what the steps were doing… but I have little confidence that anyone read those longer explanations under the time pressure of September and the start of classes). These cheat sheets prevent us and our students from learning how to use the system.

Earlier this fall, a fellow teacher described his approach to teaching his students how to use different web sites. He doesn’t. He gives them the URL of the main site, tells them what to look for, and gives them an evening to poke at it to figure out how to get the information they need out of it. They might collaborate and share their learning. They might intuit how the system works. They might not get it that first night and have to seek help from their peers. But they don’t have trouble with the second assignment: they have learned how the site works on that first evening.

This seems like an argument for teaching by not teaching. Rather, it is an argument for teaching by coaching, by presenting challenges to our students for which we have adequately prepared them and allowing our students to strive and succeed. The role of the teacher is not to be the master of all knowledge, but the sage adviser capable of guiding students to the knowledge. In practice, this is not easier but rather much harder than traditional teaching: it’s easy to tell someone else how to do something, to explain what you know so that they might understand it. It is much harder to create a situation in which genuine learning can take place, to not interfere while that learning is going on, and to help facilitate and process that learning during and afterwards.

This is the challenge for teachers of technology.

Rather than teaching our students how to use a specific technology to perform a specific task, we need to present our students with appropriate tools and background to learn to use those tools. Academic computing is often relegated to computer applications classes, where students learn skills devoid of context, or to specific projects where a student “learns PowerPoint.” Instead, we need to think more broadly: what are the academic computing skills that we wish for our students to have? How can we challenge our students to develop those skills? How will we know when they have attained this knowledge?

Do we want our students to learn to use Word and PowerPoint? Well, not really: I don’t care what programs they learn to use. Let’s rephrase the question: Do we want our students to learn how to develop and write about their ideas and present those ideas in a clear and compelling manner? Hell yes. We have several tools available to facilitate this, including Word and PowerPoint. But these are just tools. Offering a class in computer applications is like offering a class on pencils: everyone involved will want to gouge out their eyeballs by the second hour. These tools have to be learned as just that: tools, part of a process larger than themselves.

The great fear of teachers who are asked to use fancy pants technological tools in their classes is that they will need to know more about these tools than their students. I ask instead that teachers know more about the skills that they wish their students to acquire, and be willing to coach students towards honing those skills while using technology, rather than teach students to use specific tools.

Certainly a teacher can’t ask a student to use a tool with which they themselves have no familiarity. But if this is a tool that is supposed to help a student achieve and exhibit the desired skills, and the teacher is him or herself a master of those skills… shouldn’t it be incumbent upon the teacher to either a) be familiar with the tool or b) reevaluate whether or not the tool is itself useful to the skill? (I’m eating my own dog food on this one: I’m writing this blog!)

This fall I have worked with a number of teachers who want to learn specific tools to enhance their own teaching. This is how these tools will end up being taught, not because we have a mandate that all of our graduates should master the Microsoft Office suite. In much the same way that a history teacher who doesn’t use outlines for his or her own analyses is going to be less well-equiped to teach his or her students to use outlines, a teacher who doesn’t use technology is going to be ill-equiped to teach their students. (And, by corollary, leaders in schools should also be using technology to support their work with faculty — same reasoning: if it’s really a useful tool, we should be using it!)

All of this brings us back to the key point however: we don’t really learn until we have had to get ourselves unlost. And, as teachers, we need to be willing to let our students get lost. Not terribly, Robinson Crusoe, Moses-in-the-desert, talking-to-our-volleyball lost, but lost on the way from Someville to Cambridge. Define a bite-sized goal for our students and ask them to chew it on their own: ask them to learn to use a technology on their own. Give them a introduction, point them to the areas they will need to explore, and let them explore!

December 28th, 2007

Posted In: Educational Technology

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