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© 2004, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.
Stuffing Technology into the Curriculum
by Jamie McKenzie
It's fine to stuff a turkey or a pheasant, but when it comes to learning, we should pick the best tool for the job.
Sound instructional design puts learning in focus first.
What do we hope our students will learn?
What strategies and tools are most likely to produce the results we seek?
Pedagogy at its best.
The Australians often use the term "stuffed" to refer to something that is, well, sort of messed up.
In recent years, the governments of many states and provinces have pushed technology integration onto classroom teachers without first gathering evidence that this was a worthwhile endeavor. The pressure was often accompanied by simplistic but fervent rhetoric about preparing the young for jobs in the knowledge economy, even though few of the activities promoted would actually accomplish that goal.
In effect, we have seen nearly global stuffing of technology into the curriculum in ways that bear little resemblance to sound instructional design.
To the contrary, it seems that the effort to force new technologies into classrooms may have had more to do with the (now) burst technology bubble, its inflated expectations and the profit motives associated with extraordinary sales and the once lavish political contributions from vendors to legislators.
Effectively we were forced by politicians to put carts before horses - equipment and streaming nonsense ahead of sound pedagogy and learning.
Instead of asking educators to find worthy uses of new technologies, schools were pressured to comply with the vendor-dominated agenda of the Star Report (authored by the CEO Forum) and other marketing efforts translated into state policy.
Schools were asked to swallow two unsubstantiated premises - that new technologies will almost always improve the learning in a classroom and that mere possession of certain tools will transform practice.
Technology for the Sake of Technology
William Pflaum's book, The Technology Fix, paints a disheartening picture of hodge podge and trivial pursuits. When he reports that he found 85% of the computers off or unused in most schools he visited, we are left wondering which is worse - the questionable practices he reports or the cold machines. His book is reviewed in the March 2004 issue of FNO at http://fno.org/apr04/technologyfix.html.
Technology for the sake of technology is a peculiarly modern phenomenon related to various presumptions that new things are almost always better. The companion article this month describing the death of email raises the possibility that voicemail may regain its former footing as a messaging system as e-mail declines in predictability and reliability.
Successful teachers with a long career of achieving good results with classical tools and methods have good reason to ask why they should stuff new technology into their programs when there is so little evidence of value and so little time for fashions and fads.
Schools are currently preoccupied with showing students how to perform well on tests that require inferential reasoning. And some teachers are struggling with huge lists of content that students must memorize in order to score well on exams. These twin foci permit little distraction or diversion. If new tools add little value, they deserve little place in the classroom.
First Things First
The choice of tools to support student learning should come after the designer has clarified learning goals and considered which strategies are most likely to produce results. We should not start with a particular tool and make room for it unless it belongs. If we start with a hammer, we'll look for nails. If we start with a saw, we'll look for something to cut.
Purpose first. Strategy and tools next.
With many reformers pushing hard for accountability and imposing high stakes testing, these are hardly ripe times for educational speculation or reckless experimentation. Many teachers find themselves hard pressed to welcome technology demands while shouldering pressures from reformers intent on lifting outcome measures..
Sample Lessons That Fall Short
Well meaning educators are sometimes commissioned by educational departments to create sample lessons to make the integration of technologies more user friendly.
Unfortunately, many of these sample lessons can be quite mundane and unworthy of teachers' time. It is not the purpose of this article to point fingers at any particular states, departments or ministries, so we will not critique actual lessons and lists of lessons, but it is possible to give the reader an idea of unworthy lessons by providing examples in which the names, places and identities have been changed to conceal the identities of the authors.
These sample lessons often suffer from several important weaknesses:
- The learning activity offered does not address the ambitious thinking skills listed in the state or provincial curriculum standards.
- The activity asks students to use specific tools such as spreadsheets in ways that seem forced, awkward and artificial as if the mere use of the technology were an end in itself.
- The activity shows little awareness of quality teaching research or sound pedagogy, as the strategies suggested are either archaic, unduly pedantic or lacking in appeal, amounting to little more than "one more brick in the wall."
- The lesson plans show little sign of pilot testing and are speculative early drafts that should not have been published and distributed until tested, adapted and refined in real classrooms with real students.
- Example One - The Bad Trip
- One lesson suggests that students take a virtual tour of a region and collect a whole bunch of "stuff" about the towns and people they might encounter along the way.
- Sadly, the sources they suggest students use will provide them with a tourist office view of life in those towns, a disneyfied image of those regions and a distorted collection of facts that focus on entertainment, recreation, shopping and attractions. The lesson is pushing "virtual social studies" - an approach to learning that falls far short of learning the truth of the communities being studies. For a more comprehensive explanation of this trap, read "Other Worldly Research" in the December 2002 issue of FNO.
- This lesson perpetuates a very bad school practice that has been going on for decades - the mindless collection of facts of little import - trivial pursuit. The activity requires little thought while subtly endorsing false images and marketing as a reliable source of information about cities, states, provinces and nations.
- Example Two - The Razzle Dazzle PowerPointless Show
- One lesson encourages students to compress complex issues into slide presentations that contain little more than sound bites, mind bites, eye candy and mind candy. Flying images collide with irritating sound effects as students demonstrate a complete ignorance of artful communication. Rigorous thought is replaced by "slabbing1" - the cutting and pasting of "stuff" found during brief tours of Internet duty. Ideas and content are secondary as the show becomes the focus of effort.
- This kind of lesson breeds mentalsoftness2 and glib thinking. To learn an approach to presenting that stresses thought and effective communication, read "Scoring PowerPoints" in the September 2000 issue of FNO.
Unstuffing the Curriculum
The point of this article is quite simple. We should emphasize learning goals and strategies when planning lessons. We should then select tools that match purpose.
Those who impose technology integration from above should stop doing so.
Those who create empires around ICT should desist and should instead expect that curriculum planners within the areas of social studies, math, science, language arts and the fine arts will make smart choices of technologies as they might blend naturally and comfortably into the content areas.
Policy makers should back off the pressure to integrate tools that are often imperfect and disappointing,. They should consider rewarding the discerning use of new tools in concert with classical tools.
We might do our best to avoid folly lest we end up like Shakespeare warned with a "tale told by an idot signifying nothing."
1. Slabbing - An Australian term for the careless and thoughtless collection of heaps of information - a cutting and pasting of chunks of material without much attention to value or pertinence. A students finds some "stuff" and copies (or slabs) it to paste into a big collection of more stuff.
2. Mentalsoftness - A term for weak and careless thinking. http://may2000/beyondinfo.html
Prime Indicators of MentalSoftness
- Fondness for clichés and clichéd thinking - simple statements that are time worn, familiar and likely to carry surface appeal.
- Reliance upon maxims - truisms, platitudes, banalities and hackneyed sayings - to handle demanding, complex situations requiring deep thought and careful consideration.
- Appetite for bromides - the quick fix, the easy answer, the sugar coated pill, the great escape, the short cut, the template, the cheat sheet.
- Preference for platitudes, near truths, slogans, jingles, catch phrases and buzzwords.
- Vulnerability to propaganda, demagoguery and mass movements based on appeals to emotions, fears and prejudice.
- Impatience with thorough and dispassionate analysis.
- Eagerness to join some crowd or other - wear, do and think what is fashionable, cool, hip, fab, or the opposite or whatever . . .
- Hunger for vivid and dramatic packaging.
- Fascination with the story, the play, the drama, the show, the episode and the epic rather than the idea, the question, the argument, the premise, the logic or the substance. We're not talking good stories or story lines here. We're talking pulp fiction.
- Fascination with cults, personalities, celebrities, chat, gossip, hype, speculation, buzz and blather.