One of the driving notions behind changing learning spaces for today’s kids is that teachers need to be using technology to give students the chance to do “new things in new ways.”
This language has been around for a long time — I stumbled across it first in this Marc Prensky bit, written for Edutopia in December of 2005 — and has been reinforced more recently by the SAMR model of tech integration developed by Ruben Puentedura. Both Prensky and Puentedura argue that using technology as a substitute for more traditional practices is failed innovation in action.
My beef with the notion that substitution is failed practice and that effective #edtech integration begins only when kids are doing new things in new ways is the suggestion that traditional instructional priorities are automatically flawed and that teachers who embrace traditional instructional practices are automatically failures.
Now don’t get me wrong: If we define traditional instructional priorities and practices as giving lectures, filling out worksheets, or having kids deliver scripted presentations in front of their peers on the beauty of poodles or the history of Peru, then I’m all for doing new things in new ways.
But the simple truth is that highly effective teachers have been integrating the kinds of higher order thinking skills that define successful people — the ability to engage in collaborative dialogue, the ability to solve complex problems with implications that cross boundaries and domains, the ability to manage and evaluate multiple streams of information, the ability to persuade and influence — into their instruction for decades.
Heck, Mrs. Morosini — my fifth grade teacher — CONSTANTLY had us building knowledge with one another and working to think through solutions to complex problems together even if it WAS 1979, three years after Apple was founded and three years before IBM introduced their first personal computer.
The difference is that technology makes interacting with the skills that define successful people easier for everyone.
Solving complex problems in Mrs. Morosini’s class meant relying on the information that we could gather — both about the source of the problem and potential solutions worth pursuing — from the print sources in our school library. Today, students can tap into online resources — including experts with first-hand experiences or people who are negatively affected by the problem — using nothing more than the internet connected computer in the back of the room.
Engaging in collaborative dialogue in Mrs. Morosini’s class meant talking in small groups with classmates during the 50 minutes that we spent working together each morning. If I wanted to experience the mental tension that leads to real learning, I had to hope that one of my face-t0-face peers could push against my preexisting notions. Today, engaging in collaborative dialogue can happen anytime, anywhere and with anyone. Access to digital tools and spaces means that opportunities to have your thinking challenged are a blog post, a discussion forum message, or a Tweet away for anyone.
Technology lowers barriers, making the kinds of higher order learning experiences that matter infinitely more doable than they were in previous decades. That doesn’t mean the learning experiences are new. It just means they should be happening with regularity.
And the difference is that the skills that define successful people are required of MORE people today.
While the peers in my fifth grade classroom who struggled with the higher order skills Mrs. Morosini introduced often went on to find well-paying positions on the assembly lines at the local Chevy plant, students who fail to master those same skills today are likely to struggle through a series of low wage jobs in the service industry. Collaborative dialogue, solving complex problems, changing minds and managing multiple streams of information have become entry level skills for positions in the knowledge economy.
Digital fluency has also enabled knowledge workers to be more efficient and effective learners than ever before. Students who use new tools to their advantage will see their earning power and professional status multiplied many times over simply because they’ve learned to tap into the power and potential of networks. Students who make it through our schools without any experience living and learning with technology will always struggle to compete for the best jobs because they will always be one intellectual step behind digitally connected peers.
That should bring a renewed sense of commitment to our efforts to embrace digitally-driven opportunities for students to master the kinds of skills that we’ve always known are important. Failing to create learning spaces where all children can use today’s tools to learn together, to solve problems, to change minds or to manage and evaluate information is failing kids.
Does any of this make sense?
What I am arguing is that there’s nothing new about the skills that matter to today’s students. What’s new is both the opportunity and urgency that technology has introduced to the work that we do with students. Not only is it easier to integrate higher order learning experiences into our instruction using digital tools, it is essential.
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