“There’s nothing like” thinking. . .

I’ve stumbled into a conversation with Joe Henderson and Nancy Flanagan that I’m really enjoying.  Both—along with Dina Strasser—are critical friends when it comes to teaching with technology—and they’re forcing me to refine and revise my own thinking about digital tools.

You see, neither completely buys the idea that technology is having a positive impact on teaching and learning, instead wondering whether or not technology is reducing the number of “real-world” experiences that our students have or decreasing our commitment to human relationships and the natural world.

And I’m not sure that I agree!

Recently, we’ve been talking around a post that Joe recently wrote for his blog titled Bill and Joe’s Excellent Adventure.  Here are some of my reactions/responses to their ideas:

Joe wrote:

In my experience, I have found that many educators are seduced by the flashiness of technology and use it sans, you know, any sense of pedagogical research or any sort of acknowledgment of hierarchies of need. It just becomes another way of doing the whole “sage on the stage” style of teaching. Funny that there isn’t much evidence that it increases achievement or learning when used that way. Wonder why that is. If that research is out there, I’d love to see it. I think Bill and I agree here.

I do agree, Joe, that teachers need to back up their instructional decisions with evidence that those decisions are increasing student achievement and learning.  That’s just plain responsible practice—and something that far too many teachers avoid, whether they’re using technology or not!

I’m certain we can all point to a teacher in our careers who taught a massive unit on pirates or dinosaurs or space or holidays around the world in the best “Ms. Frizzle” fashion (consider this teacher, for example) that went on for months and had no direct connection to the curriculum—but as long as the kids were having fun, no one thought twice about condeming that teacher for irresponsibility!

I also agree that teachers using technology bear an even greater responsibility for documenting the impact of their instructional practices and decisions primarily because there is so little practical research in the “field” right now.

Unlike more traditional instructional practices (which have been studied to no end—primarily by “experts” who are trying to sell their systems as silver bullets to districts under threat of closure by accountability demands. Does Reading First ring a bell?), few practitioners have worked to systematically document the results that instruction with technology has had on achievement.

But it is happening—-I know that I’ve recently started writing about the impact that blogging and podcasting has had on student involvement in my classroom.  I’ve also got mini-bits of “teacher research” on the impact of digital discussion forums and wikis on student learning results in my classroom that I’ll polish and post soon.

While my research isn’t “formal” by any means (remember, I’m a full-time practitioner), they’re impressive nonetheless (consider the 260 ungraded comments added in the past two weeks by students in this digital conversation about hatred.)

My greatest fear, however, is that attempts to document the impact that instructional technology has on student achievement in my classroom will fail miserably—-not because I’m beholden to tech and would be unwilling to change an ineffective practice, but instead because our definition of “student achievement” is pretty narrow today, don’t you think?

Anyone who poked around the digital conversations that these students are having about genocide in Darfur would recognize elements of critical thinking, characteristics of collaborative dialogue, and levels of verbal articulation that are impressive times ten.

Would it shock you, then, to know that the teacher responsible for promoting this kind of work had the worst test scores on the entire hallway?

True story—-those kids are mine.

So what do I do?  Should I move away from digital opportunities for kids to interact because those efforts aren’t producing results on the multiple choice end of grade exams we’ve seemed to embrace as measures of “achievement?”  Or should I continue to use technology to engage my kids in higher level conversations, knowing that those outcomes are probably more important than testing results?

My mental wrestling continued in the comment section of Joe’s post, where Nancy wrote:

Tech tools have injected a healthy dose of real creativity into music education–it’s amazing that kids can play a tune, add harmony and timbre variety, print it up and play it, all at a single screen. But will they stop learning to appreciate the reedy beauty of a bassoon, the majesty of a symphony orchestra, the discipline of practicing for excellence, the incredibly rich body of literature for ensemble playing…

There is nothing like playing in a large musical group, one person contributing to a glorious massed chord. You can hear it digitally, day or night (and buy it for 99 cents)–but that does not compare to the satisfaction of being a cog in a human music-making group. I hate to see music reduced to a combination of individual indulgence and a spectator activity.

So I’m about to say something that may rustle a few feathers.  I hope that Joe and Nancy and Dina will take them as another contribution to this ongoing conversation:

I’m beginning to wonder whether or not our aversion to instructional technology is really more a result of  the pleasure that we take from our own approaches to learning. Is it possible that we see “the best” learning as the way that we learn best?

Do we inherently (unintentionally?) discredit new forms of learning because they don’t remind us of what we value the most in the teaching and learning process—or because the final products aren’t the kinds of final products that “look right” to us?

Think about Nancy’s language to open her second paragraph:  “There’s nothing like playing in a large musical group.”  This sounds like a strongly held opinion, doesn’t it? ”There is nothing like” seems pretty exclusive to me.  A strongly held faith in “the way things were” as opposed to “the way things could be?”

Even if Nancy does feel strongly about “the way things were,” she’s clearly not alone!  Don’t most teachers think this way about their favorite instructional practices?    Don’t we all feel passionately about what we do with students each day, convinced that our approach is best?

(I know that I do.  It’s a constant battle for me to be open to new ideas—primarily because I don’t have the time to change what it is that I’m doing!)

And if so, what consequences does that hold for our ability as a profession to adapt to the changing interests and needs of our learners? Do you think that “pure-ism” (for lack of a better word) is one of the reasons that teaching practices seldom change?

Here’s a specific, music-related example:

I’ve got a kid who completely loves Apple’s Garage Band. He sits behind his computer day and night churning out musical tracks than he then shares with our kids and with digital music forums for commentary.  He anxiously awaits critique from peers, who suggest different tempos, beat patterns and arrangements—-which are easily added to his piece.  Revision and reflection—combined with articulation of his “musical vision” are a part of his everyday activities.

Oh yeah—and he can’t play an instrument to save his life. Here’s a kid that would never have been engaged in music creation in any way—let alone “practicing” his skills at music creation for hours and hours a day had it not been for technology.

Does that have any value at all?

How would he respond to Nancy’s “There’s nothing like playing in a large musical group” comment?

What “There’s nothing like” statements do you make—-and is it possible that they might become a barrier to your ability to change what it is that you do with your students?