There’s an interesting conversation going on over at Will Richardson’s blog about “the larger lessons” that we expect students to master and the role that technology should play in well-designed learning experiences.

One comment that caught my attention was left by digital learning superstar Marc Prensky, who makes a distinction between nouns and verbs when making instructional choices.  He writes:

“Verbs” are the skills you, I, Ravich, and everyone else thinks people should know, and learn as students. They include the skills you mention above: to collaborate, to solve problems, to think critically, to be creative, plus many others: e.g. to persuade, to present logically…These verbs or skills, as Ravich points out, don’t change very much over time.

“Nouns,” on the other hand, are the tools (aka technologies) people use to practice and do these skills. Nouns have always changed over time, e.g. memorizing to writing, papyrus to paper, quills to fountain pens, handwriting to keyboarding.

Today nouns are changing extremely rapidly: Powerpoint to Flash, email to IM, Myspace to Facebook to Twitter, encyclopedias to Wikipedia, local disks to cloud, reading to watching short video, laptops to smartphones, etc…

In teaching, our focus needs to be on the verbs, which don’t change very much, and NOT on the nouns (i.e. the technologies) which change rapidly and which are only a means. For teachers to fixate on any particular noun as the “best” way (be it books or blogs, for example) is not good for our students, as new and better nouns will shortly emerge and will continue to emerge over the course of their lifetimes.

Our teaching should instead focus on the verbs (i.e. skills) students need to master, making it clear to the students (and to the teachers) that there are many tools learners can use to practice and apply them.

Prensky’s right when he argues that fixating on individual tools is a dangerous trap that schools fall into.

Look around any building in your community and you’re bound to see thousands of dollars of wasted resources:  Classrooms outfitted with interactive whiteboards that students never touch, sets of student responders used to ask low-level knowledge and understanding questions, one-to-one laptop initiatives arming children with high-tech typewriters.

Too many districts have gotten themselves wrapped up in a digital arms race, trying to convince parents and students that they’re delivering a 21st Century education using the latest and greatest gadgets.

It’s hard to blame them, though.  Gadgets CAN be pretty impressive.  They’re concrete and tangible.  Parents see them on Open House night and leave happy, confident that their sons and daughters are going to be prepared for a globally competitive tomorrow that revolves around the Internet.

Prensky’s also right that some of the most important behaviors for students to master are verbs—-skills like collaborating, problem solving, creating, persuading, questioning—and that those behaviors haven’t changed over time.  The only fixation that educators should have, he argues, is in finding ways to use new tools to give students experiences with each of these skills.

The only semantic weakness in his noun/verb schema to me rests in the reality that genuine learning depends on the simplest of nouns:  Connections.

Ask any constructivist and they’ll tell you that every person holds on to pre-existing notions about the world that may or may not be factually accurate.  Learning only occurs when those pre-existing notions are challenged with new and convincing evidence, forcing students—regardless of age—to question their original beliefs.

The result is a mental wrestling match, as learners find ways to justify their long-held beliefs or revise their understandings into new notions about the world.

Simple, right:  Mental wrestling equals learning in its purest form.

But mental wrestling is impossible without connections because connections provide the necessary challenge to a learner’s pre-existing notions.

A student who struggles to build connections—with other learners or interesting content—outside of their immediate experiences will never work through the mental tension that refines ideas or beliefs. Instead, they’ll walk around in a happy little intellectual bubble, convinced that they understand the world.

(See: George W. Bush)

Technology’s value to me lies in its ability to facilitate connections. Within moments, I can join conversations (another noun) about any topic that I’m interested in.  Edubloggers and the content rolling through my Twitter feed (more nouns) challenge my thinking dozens of times a day, forcing me to reconsider what I know about teaching and learning.

Essentially, our goal as teachers, then, should be to show students how to use digital tools to tap into the incredible information stream (noun) that surrounds them because information leads to more focused, frequent and appropriate challenges; focused, frequent and appropriate challenges lead to mental tension; and mental tension leads to new understandings (all nouns.)

Am I making any sense here?

Remember that I’m essentially polishing my own pre-existing notions on learning.  If I’m wrong, I’m going to need some kind of challenge or evidence in order to learn!

(And sorry for the cheap shot, President Bush.  I just couldn’t resist.)

Share this post: