A plan for learning with technology

By Andy James, Technology Integration Coordinator, Vashon Island School District • ajames@vashonsd.org

Executive summary: I am making a practical, detailed plan for technology across the grades. I want to find a sequence that ties into thinking skills and child development, and which brings abstract reasoning to life.

I decided to try mapping out the roles of technology in how students learn in our schools. You are reading my first steps.

I want to give everyone a crystal clear idea of what tech skills the teachers ought to show to students, and what skills the students ought to acquire by practice. I think of two areas: What a student should see teachers do; and what students should do themselves.

We may find that the greatest benefit comes just of putting these skills in order. The 9th grade teacher can build on skills the kids have been practicing for years, and which they first saw their teacher model when the students were young. The teaching builds. We may also hope that, at every turn, the teachers connected the skills to true learning in a true context — not tech trainings, but experiences using technology to learn.

I have aimed for a sequence that builds over the years, and that tethers tech skills to thinking skills. Lastly, I have tried to consider some of the changes students may be undergoing at different stages. No one will ever agree about how children develop into adults; I share my assumptions in this essay. For now, I say that young children learn by play and imagination, early adolescents seek to map the limits of reality, and in high school we should cultivate autonomy and the order underlying the world.

I think if a scheme such as mine builds on itself, stays connected to real learning, and draws on reasonable notions of childhood development, it has enough integrity to make a start with.

Why another plan?

A lot of this work has been done by consortiums and committees. I want to make something more practical than what committees typically produce. I want, for example, a 4th grade teacher to know exactly what skills we want to cultivate, and know what the first steps on cultivating those skills would be. My aim is that any teacher could see and rehearse the work I have in mind. I have yet to see a consortium or committee, even the fine people at ISTE, make such a concrete set of targets across the grades.

I need that specificity because my next job is to actually do these next steps, with teachers’ help, in classrooms throughout my district. I will see if they match up to ages, or engage students’ minds, or take the right amount of work to get started.

For these reasons, the authority, for now, is me. I work partly from theory, partly from direct experience, and partly from reflection and imagination. Over time, experience will take over as I get more results from the classroom.

My biases and assumptions

Technology should extend the user’s intelligence. Any other use is trivial or actively destructive. If you haven’t heard Steve Jobs’ thoughts on how computers are like a bicycle for the mind, please take that detour. There are countless practical uses for technology. Most who are fascinated by technology love the way it extends their thinking and makes them more capable. If this sounds utopian, think of how the world changed when the printing press suddenly made the world's knowledge widely available. I suspect we are in the midst of a similar transformation, and it plays out in individuals. We should lead students to those transformative moments.

Education is about acquiring understandings. The writer Kieran Egan uses the word "understanding" to describe any of the different ways we make sense of the world. We can bring a mathematical understanding to a problem, or a poetic understanding, or a philosophical understanding, or some combination of all of those and others. We teach to help children acquire these understandings, and so make sense of the world and make good decisions.

Abstract understandings are harder to acquire than concrete ones. Problems that are social in nature, visible and within our experience is easy. Abstract rules interacting with symbols rather than things are hard. (An experiment known as the Wason selection task is a classic example.) If we want to model change over time, or rules governing behaviors, or one factor influencing another, we need abstract reasoning. Students don’t tend to wander into abstract reasoning by accident; they have to be led through a narrow gate, which is hard work.

Technology at its best enables abstract reasoning. A well-built spreadsheet makes numbers playable. Collaborating on a wiki makes the structure of knowledge a choice rather than a given. Changing a map with a set of controls exposes our decisions about what we see. Building any store of information introduces the semantics of knowledge. Change over time is crystal clear once you have set up and captured your time lapse footage. Programming forces fine-grained thinking about functions and what they express. The best of technology is a playground of abstractions come to life — which is exactly why people tend to either love it or hate it.

Teachers need to be leaders in technology. I find that some teachers believe that their students are naturally adept with technology, more so that their teachers. Some of them are. This leads to the false conclusion that teachers can just provide the stuff and the students take it from there. In fact, many students are technophobic. Others are confident with practical skills, but not necessarily with the thinking skills the technology is meant to enable. If we think technology is a way to new understandings, the teacher must lead. The classroom teacher should feel confident with the technology, in order to focus on the ideas we are after.

Concerns about “screen time” are misguided. The screen is not bad by definition, any more than it is magical by definition. If students are engaged and their intelligence is expanding, and the technology is making this possible, don’t count the minutes. That said, this plan has precious little for student in grades K-2 to do directly with technology, and focuses instead on what the teacher can do.

Seek transformative events. Work from one "a-ha" to the next. If we have the right plan, the school years will be marked with moments when students can suddenly see and think and create in a new way. They should feel the shock and delight in it. We shy away from such an expectation because it seems unrealistic or superficial, but it is neither. The sense of a sudden new capacity is the fuel of education. The details can follow.

Projected job skills are an unattainable target. We simply do not know what people will be doing with technology 20 years from now. The best we can do is help students become adaptive and resilient in the face of new technology to learn, and to make intelligent judgements. The details of the future will take care of themselves.

The highest attainment in adopting a technology is in using it reflectively. This means that even with the guidelines I provide, even with the skill sets the Standards recommend, the individual user needs to see through the technology to its larger purpose. This may mean foregoing the technology altogether; it may mean adopting a different toolset. Either way, share this thinking with students. Challenge them, over time, to select tools wisely. This is a skill for the rest of their lives.

Major strands of technology

The bulleted list below is my to-do list. I want to develop each of these strands so they begin very young and become richer through the years. In each case, I will describe how students ought to see teachers use the technologies as instruments of understanding; then, as the years progress, how students ought to take up the technologies themselves; and then how to infuse their use with critical thinking and adaptations.

I have condensed the recommendations in each essay and charted them here. I expect they won’t make perfect sense in their abbreviated form, but you can see the all at once.

I can think of at least three areas to consider on my next cycle (give me a year, thanks). These might be:

  • Numbers in action
  • Connected thinking
  • The moving image

But I expect these first six subjects will have to do.