Technology Facilitates Connections. . .

There’s an interesting conversation going on over at Will Richardson’s blog about “the larger lessons” that we expect students to master and the role that technology should play in well-designed learning experiences.

One comment that caught my attention was left by digital learning superstar Marc Prensky, who makes a distinction between nouns and verbs when making instructional choices.  He writes:

“Verbs” are the skills you, I, Ravich, and everyone else thinks people should know, and learn as students. They include the skills you mention above: to collaborate, to solve problems, to think critically, to be creative, plus many others: e.g. to persuade, to present logically…These verbs or skills, as Ravich points out, don’t change very much over time.

“Nouns,” on the other hand, are the tools (aka technologies) people use to practice and do these skills. Nouns have always changed over time, e.g. memorizing to writing, papyrus to paper, quills to fountain pens, handwriting to keyboarding.

Today nouns are changing extremely rapidly: Powerpoint to Flash, email to IM, Myspace to Facebook to Twitter, encyclopedias to Wikipedia, local disks to cloud, reading to watching short video, laptops to smartphones, etc…

In teaching, our focus needs to be on the verbs, which don’t change very much, and NOT on the nouns (i.e. the technologies) which change rapidly and which are only a means. For teachers to fixate on any particular noun as the “best” way (be it books or blogs, for example) is not good for our students, as new and better nouns will shortly emerge and will continue to emerge over the course of their lifetimes.

Our teaching should instead focus on the verbs (i.e. skills) students need to master, making it clear to the students (and to the teachers) that there are many tools learners can use to practice and apply them.

Prensky’s right when he argues that fixating on individual tools is a dangerous trap that schools fall into.

Look around any building in your community and you’re bound to see thousands of dollars of wasted resources:  Classrooms outfitted with interactive whiteboards that students never touch, sets of student responders used to ask low-level knowledge and understanding questions, one-to-one laptop initiatives arming children with high-tech typewriters.

Too many districts have gotten themselves wrapped up in a digital arms race, trying to convince parents and students that they’re delivering a 21st Century education using the latest and greatest gadgets.

It’s hard to blame them, though.  Gadgets CAN be pretty impressive.  They’re concrete and tangible.  Parents see them on Open House night and leave happy, confident that their sons and daughters are going to be prepared for a globally competitive tomorrow that revolves around the Internet.

Prensky’s also right that some of the most important behaviors for students to master are verbs—-skills like collaborating, problem solving, creating, persuading, questioning—and that those behaviors haven’t changed over time.  The only fixation that educators should have, he argues, is in finding ways to use new tools to give students experiences with each of these skills.

The only semantic weakness in his noun/verb schema to me rests in the reality that genuine learning depends on the simplest of nouns:  Connections.

Ask any constructivist and they’ll tell you that every person holds on to pre-existing notions about the world that may or may not be factually accurate.  Learning only occurs when those pre-existing notions are challenged with new and convincing evidence, forcing students—regardless of age—to question their original beliefs.

The result is a mental wrestling match, as learners find ways to justify their long-held beliefs or revise their understandings into new notions about the world.

Simple, right:  Mental wrestling equals learning in its purest form.

But mental wrestling is impossible without connections because connections provide the necessary challenge to a learner’s pre-existing notions.

A student who struggles to build connections—with other learners or interesting content—outside of their immediate experiences will never work through the mental tension that refines ideas or beliefs. Instead, they’ll walk around in a happy little intellectual bubble, convinced that they understand the world.

(See: George W. Bush)

Technology’s value to me lies in its ability to facilitate connections. Within moments, I can join conversations (another noun) about any topic that I’m interested in.  Edubloggers and the content rolling through my Twitter feed (more nouns) challenge my thinking dozens of times a day, forcing me to reconsider what I know about teaching and learning.

Essentially, our goal as teachers, then, should be to show students how to use digital tools to tap into the incredible information stream (noun) that surrounds them because information leads to more focused, frequent and appropriate challenges; focused, frequent and appropriate challenges lead to mental tension; and mental tension leads to new understandings (all nouns.)

Am I making any sense here?

Remember that I’m essentially polishing my own pre-existing notions on learning.  If I’m wrong, I’m going to need some kind of challenge or evidence in order to learn!

(And sorry for the cheap shot, President Bush.  I just couldn’t resist.)

8 comments

  1. jakob black

    I like this idea a lot, but some people might think differently. I read some of your comments and only about one lady named Dina did not like your idea. Also your baby Reese is very cute, you did the right thing for her.
    Jakob Black

  2. Angela Stockman

    I’m just catching up with my reader for the first time in weeks, and I’m compelled to comment on this because we were having a very similar conversation this week while mapping an ELA curricula. Prensky’s points are important ones to consider regardless of the lens, don’t you think? So many times, we become caught up in teaching the nouns (content) that supporting students in their acquisition of those verbs takes a back seat. I wonder if this has to do with the fact that we tend to teach what we are personally passionate about/interested in/knowledgeable about rather than teaching minds?
    “Essentially, our goal as teachers, then, should be to show students how to use digital tools to tap into the incredible information stream (noun) that surrounds them because information leads to more focused, frequent and appropriate challenges; focused, frequent and appropriate challenges lead to mental tension; and mental tension leads to new understandings (all nouns.)”
    This is a compelling point to consider. I would also argue that mental challenge leads to the acquisition of new verbs, and those verbs are necessary to a greater portion of what we seek to accomplish as learners than the nouns are, perhaps. We’re so caught up in “coverage” that it becomes hard to realize and accept that the nouns that stick with us longest are those that are relevant to what we are truly passionate about and working with day to day. Verbs are sustained….and I’m rambling. Great points to ponder. Thanks!

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks for stopping by, Marc—and we’ve got a heck of chicken and the egg debate going here, don’t we!
    I have to admit that there were a dozen places in my post where I could have changed nouns to verbs!
    And in the end, I think that your construct is a good one for pushing the thinking of people with tool fixations. It gives tech novices something to hold on to and forces them to think about why whiteboards and student responders really matter.
    Enjoying the thinking….
    Bill

  4. Marc Prensky

    Thanks, Bill, for reposting. Now I wonder: Should we be more interested in teaching students the connections themselves, or the ability to make connections? The ability to see the conversation stream, or to converse in it? The ability to have connections with people, or the ability to continually reconnect and dialog? I.e. again, is it the nouns or the verbs we are most interested in? (or is it, as usual, some of both?)- M

  5. Jen Morrison

    Hey Bill,
    I like Marc Prensky’s noun/verb distinction, and your assertion of connections as an important noun. As a lover of all the newest gadgets and avid user of Web 2.0 in the classroom, I’ve always held that the verbs are what counts.
    Your discussion makes me think back to a debate I sat in on at the November 2006 Leadership for Sustainable Innovation conference in Boston between Chris Dede from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Heather-Jane Robertson, VP of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and critic of technology in the classroom (see Phi Delta Kappan – “Black Magic” Sept 2005 and “Recycled Promises” Jan 2003). Heather-Jane made the point that technology is part of the problem in education today, that technology makes bad teachers worse and distracts good teachers, and that often technology is packaged as an all-purpose solution to the problems of education. I agree with her on many points, and sometimes it does feel like technology is being recast as the newest, latest teacher-proof textbook, for all the same bad reasons and education shortfalls that teacher-proof textbooks were invented for in the first place.
    As a classroom instructor, I see a great many students who know how to click, but not think or make those important connections you describe (so I disagree with Matt’s post that students do not necessarily need a connection with a teacher given the ubiquitous electronic communication tools they have access to). As a teacher leader, I see a great many teachers get hung up on the content and the method, and not actually teach those important skill verbs like analyze, infer, evaluate, and create which can be taught with or sans-technology. Of course, given the fact that most if not all future jobs will require the ability to process and use web-based information, it is irresponsible not to help students widen their toolboxes. In 2009, we seem to be at a point where verbs like classify, distinguish, categorize, and differentiate are inexorably linked the vast quantities of online information one processes as a 21st century thinker.
    Thanks for your post, Bill, and for your article in the Feb 2009 edition of Ed Leadership. It got me started on Pageflakes (noun).

  6. Bob Heiny

    Are you wrong? That’s a matter of opinion. You offer a provocative post, again.
    I think your ideas of connections are consistent with the philosophy of education you’ve been posting over the past couple of years. It’s an interesting take-off of Dewey’s writings.
    It also appears consistent with the uncited communitarian political philosophy shared by many in public education.
    I’d argue (sometimes) that the primary goal of schooling, including teaching, is to increase learning rates of individuals promptly and consistently. Today, with ubiquitous electronic communication tools, that does not necessarily require specific connections, such as with a teacher.
    With that learning, students and school alumni may form their own social connections for whatever ends they choose.
    I know of no legal authorization for public school teachers to substitute anything for the learning goal.

  7. Matt Townsley

    Makes sense to me, Bill. “The only fixation that educators should have, he argues, is in finding ways to use new tools to give students experiences with each of these skills.”
    Problem solving and so many other of the ‘verbs’ mentioned have been ideals of the educational system for a while. Today’s challenge for us, as educators, is to figure out how to facilitate learning in the midst of a constantly changing thesaurus of nouns.
    Thanks for posting this great illustration and adding your thoughts to solidify it all in my mind.