Do We REALLY Need to Do New Things in New Ways?

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.

Blogger’s Note:  This post was inspired by some shared thinking at #edcampelon last weekend AND a recent post by Aaron Davis.  


 Related Radical Reads:

Digital Immigrants Unite!

Doubting Bauerlein’s Dumbest Generation

#edtech Reflections for Preservice Teachers

  • Aaron Davis

    Same Same but Different

    Great piece Bill. Thank you for your response to my piece. I really like how it is the odd point that sticks and for every reader it is a different point.

    I really like your point that some things have changed, but also that some things have stayed the same. We collaborated in the past in house, amoungst staff, but today we are able to collaborate around the world, a point Tom Whitby elaborated on in his recent post Relationships, Who Needs Them.

    In addition to the argument that “highly effective teachers have been integrating the kinds of higher order thinking skills for decades”, I think that we should also make our decisions based on the situation at hand. If technology does not suit the situation at hand then use something else. Although we can now use applications like Answergarden or Socrative to gather ideas, sometimes there are benefits to shutting down the technology and getting out the sticky notes, butchers paper and coloured textas. I discussed this in my post So Which Pedagogical Cocktail Are You Drinking Today?

    • billferriter

      Your bit was a good one,

      Your bit was a good one, Aaron. 

      For me, the key question always has to be, “What is it that we really want kids to know and be able to do?” 

      Oftentimes, the answer to that question isn’t, “Something completely different than we wanted kids to know fifty years ago.” 

      What we forget in this age of rapid change is that some of the most important skills that define successful learners haven’t changed at all. 

      Rock on,


  • John Wink

    The Nouveau New

    Timely post, Bill. 

    I do agree that doing new things in new ways is a bit cliche. We hear it in leadership all the time. I would prefer to do “effective things in more productive ways”. I agree that collaboration is one key to learning, but the idea of tech integration seems to be sometimes more emphasized than the learning that should occur as a result of tech integration. 

    I think as educators we must model our own learning through tech integration, so digital immigrants, like myself, can show the digital natives that tech is more than a social hangout. That means schools and leaders must embrace blogs, Twitter, G+, Hangouts and other learning tools during the learning day. Lots of schools are still scared. 

    Getting there won’t take as much as people think. It will leadership that will guide teachers to define what “new” looks like.  As long as new means effective in more productive ways, we should be ok.  Ok, I’m done rambling for now. 

    thanks for stretching me,


    • billferriter

      John wrote:

      John wrote:

      I would prefer to do “effective things in more productive ways”.


      This is a brilliant statement, Pal.  Summarizes my core beliefs about what we should be looking to do with technology.  “Effective” doesn’t automatically mean “radically different from what we’ve done in the past.” 

      Thanks for the share,




  • Sarah Allred

    Doing the Same Old Thing New Ways
    Such a timely discussion! So often what I see happening in classrooms is “Doing the Same Old Thing New Ways.” When educators are stuck in the cycle of drill and practice rather than pushing students to collaborate, inquire, and problem solve, then the tech tools become little more than expensive workbooks and overhead projectors.

    The pedagogy of coaching students to inquire, duscuss, and solve is the key which for some educators is new and for others us just standard procedure. This can be perfectly effective without technology. But what technology adds is the ability give students access to the global community as they work through problems rather than just being confined within their school.