Saturday, January 23, 2010

Teaching technology

Posed in class: Should technology (computer skills, typing, software instruction, etc.) be taught as separate skills or as part of an integrated lesson?

What do we really mean by technology? Certainly computers are technology, as well as the different software that run on the computers. But technologies can be read in a much larger sense, a la Marshal McLuhan, as the tools we use to interact with the world, the artifacts that mediate our relationship with the world -- media. In this sense, the phonetic alphabet is technology, so is writing, the printed word, the arts in general, number systems and so on.

Given a broad definition of technology, one could argue that teaching has always involved both the teaching of technology as well as concepts, understandings, cultures mediated by the technology (and hence shaped if not determined by the technology). So much of early schooling is devoted to mastering the phonetic alphabet and the written word and numeration. When teachers teach phonemes and the alphabet and addition, they are teaching technology. Running with that idea, what is the best way to teach those skills? Isn't it a mix of direct instruction of basic skills, supported by guided and independent practice which can eventually lead to inquiry-based learning to extend and deepen the skills and cement their real-world relevancy? I think so.

So the short answer to the question above is: both. Skills taught without practical application are quickly lost. Trying to incorporate skills into a project without some prior introduction to those skills is inefficient and probably counter-productive. [I am thinking here of an article by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, "Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching", from Educational Psychologist, 2006. In a teeny nutshell, the authors argue that constructivist etc. learning place a heavy load on the cognitive functions, and if basic knowledge isn't there to support the constructivist learning, it is inefficient and ineffective. Guided learning is critical to create the structures that experiential learning can build on: "The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide 'internal' guidance." (p. 75)]

One immediate question that arises when talking about new (i.e. unfamiliar) technologies is who will do the technology instruction? The NETS for Teachers standards expect the classroom teacher to be able to do the instruction ("design and develop digital-age learning experiences and assessments" and "model digital age work and learning"). This expectation is also implicit in the Chicago Public Schools Technology Academy Program (TAP, aka Technology Magnet Cluster Program; see for example the CPS Tech Academy wiki) which is investing heavily in teacher training programs. However, in practice (and following from the distinction in instructional modes described by Kirschner et al above), depending on the mix of teacher skills and infrastructure, it may make more sense to separate technology direct-skill instruction, and do it in a separate lab setting; but coordinate it with traditional subject lesson units (albeit technology-enhanced) in the classroom. That is, let the technology teacher introduce technologies and basic skills (e.g., in the lab during a prep period). Students then deepen their skills working on technology-rich (and inquiry-rich) projects, supported in constructivist style by their more tech-savvy peers, the regular classroom teacher (as able), or a technology coach. The teacher's priority would be encouraging quality content and higher order thinking.

Over time ideally the regular classroom teacher has the time and support to deepen technology skills to better support students in their new media work. But the complexity and mix of new technologies, as well as good pedagogical practice, calls for a division of teaching labor.


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