Critical of ALL Technology

I know I come off harsh on technology.  I consider myself to be an early experimenter with technology in education. I had my students use twitter in class before they knew what twitter was (that was in 2007). While I am extremely skeptical of technology, I know that to be critical (rather than negative) of technology, you have to have some working knowledge of the technology. So, I’ll try lots of stuff, but as I’m trying it, I’m actively looking for the trade-offs, constraints, and limits.  Sometimes it takes me a while before I can identify them, but they are always there.  The decision is whether to deal with them or not.

Importantly, I apply this critical stance to all technologies in my teaching. For example, I did not like the way the whiteboard in my 8th grade science classroom kept me stuck at the front of the room. So, I cut out some smaller (2 feet by 3 feet) sections of whiteboard and hung them up on the sides and back of my classroom. Then I could make notes or draw on the boards in many different locations around the room.

Being critical of technology is important. We don’t want to get distra…


…cted by the newest thing. We want to be aware, we want to try, but we must think.

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If I’m being honest…

Sometimes, I wish my research articles were more highly read and cited, that my blog had more subscribers, and that I had more opportunities to do keynotes.

Then I remember why I went into this field, and I return my focus on teaching my students well and developing long-term relationships.

I’ll keep doing the other things because I enjoy them, but I have to keep reminding myself that those things don’t matter.  People do.

Yet, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a constant struggle. I hate the attention culture.


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Teaching is Design: Material Constraints

Before beginning their official designs, engineers and designers have to further understand the context in which they are designing. Part of this context are the material constraints. That is, how do the properties and cost of available materials create barriers or inherent parameters for the design. I can’t design a 100-story building if my primary building material is wood.

When we, as teachers, are designing a learning experience we know that using concrete representations will help our students think about the content. For example, if I want elementary students to solve a division problem, but don’t provide the materials (e.g. counting blocks) they might not be able to engage in the problem. However, the counting blocks may also create constraints for students. That is, students might limit their strategies to using the counting blocks, or some teachers might force students to use the counting blocks whether they need them or not. To help inform our use of the counting blocks, we have to know something about our students. Once we know where our students are developmentally and conceptually, we can make a better decision about whether a particular set of materials is appropriate.

We also have to consider the constraints of other instructional materials.

  • How do desks constrain student and teacher movement in the class?
  • How does the smart/chalk/white board constrain student-teacher interaction?
  • How do laptops constrain collaboration?
  • How does a video constrain student creativity?

The list could go on.  We have to be more honest with ourselves about how materials (digital and otherwise) constrain learning. To what extent are we really promoting the outcomes we hope to achieve. When we notice the material constraints, we can make better decisions about how and when to use instructional materials.


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Teaching is Design: End User

Once we know the outcomes of our design, we need to consider for whom we design?

The best designed products clearly considered the end user in the design process. When a product is designed for the end user, the user experience is seamless and intuitive. Whether you love or hate Apple products, the end user was considered. I remember having to have my old PC’s power cord in just the right spot so that charging would occur. What did Apple do? Magnet!

Good design for the user (I fully expect rebuttal on this point from Russ).

Unfortunately, some teachers do not consider their end users (e.g. students). Take lecture-based teaching for example. If your teaching would look the same whether students were there or not, you might not be considering your end user.

If students are our end users, what do we need to know about them as we begin designing learning experiences? Any good designer knows that if a product is too far removed from the user’s experience or, the product won’t sell. Remember the Apple Newton? So, if our lesson is too far removed from student experience and/or knowledge, the lesson is likely to miss our target audience. This is where focus group testing (e.g. formative assessment) becomes important. We need to know what our end users know and are able to do so we can use their assets in our design. Even students’ misconceptions become a foothold into their thinking we can use to help them navigate the conceptual terrain.

To fully account for the end users of our learning designs, we must understand how people learn. Despite common belief, learning styles has little to with it.

If they know their end users and understand the intended outcomes, designers have to deal with constraints. Educators tend to focus on superficial constraints related to cost and time. While these are important, there are other constraints to consider that we’ll explore in the coming posts. Subscribe to the right to ensure you receive the rest of the posts in this series.



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Teaching is Designing: Outcomes

Designing and engineering is sometimes referred to as outcome oriented. That is, designers are working to solve a particular problem or create products with particular abilities. Given the proliferation of standards documents and value-added measures, clearly education is working to become outcome oriented. Yet, something is deeply flawed. Unfortunately, many of us feel as though we are designers-for-hire required to meet someone else’s goals and objectives (e.g. the common core, state standards, the textbook, etc). While designers do have to meet external standards, particularly when their design is part of a larger system, they often have loads of autonomy in their designs for added features and functions. Indeed, innovation often happens when designers add new outcomes or features to existing products.

While the state/curricular standards might be a non-negotiable (I’d argue even they are negotiable), what additional outcomes and features would we want as we design an education for our students? For me, beyond the external content standards, I want my students to demonstrate:

  • creativity
  • curiosity
  • compassion
  • critical thinking
  • autonomy
  • collaboration
  • respect
  • awareness
  • goal setting
  • reflection

If we take these outcomes seriously, the education we’re designing is going to look different than the one designed for us. Readings, lectures, worksheets, and multiple choice tests will not achieve these outcomes. Step-by-step labs and overly descriptive rubrics are designed, but lead to very different outcomes.

What are the outcomes (features?) you want to include in the education you’re designing for your students? Once we’ve figure out where we want to go, we can start applying other principles of design to achieve the outcomes.

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Teaching is Designing

Teaching is designing. If we take John Spencer’s design cycle as a starting point, consider how teachers demonstrate awareness, inquiry, research, ideation, planning, prototyping, testing and revising, and launching/marketing. For example, when a teacher is working on creating a new problem-based lesson/unit, they might first do some research on possible problems to pose (awareness/inquiry/research), start planning how to implement the problem-based lesson/unit (ideation/planning), run some ideas past a colleague (prototyping), give the problem to students in first period and make revisions before second period (testing and revising). Finally, when teachers feel they hit on something unique and/or useful they might seek to publish the activity in a journal or blog (launching and marketing).  Of course, we could argue about which aspects of teaching align to which parts of John’s design cycle, but I think we’d be missing the point.

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If teaching is designing, then we ought to be able to gain insight about how to improve our teaching by understanding how engineers and designers work. Yet, we should move forward with caution. Designers and engineers are often after efficiency. Because learning is inherently inefficient, we may want to resist the designer bias of efficiency in certain circumstances.  Furthermore, designers are often trying to make their products intuitive. That is, they want very little thought to be required to use their products. However, if we remove the thinking from learning we end up with thoughtless doing. I dangerous place indeed.

So, based on the learning I did when creating and refining a new course called “Methods of Engineering and Technological Design”, I’m going to take the next few posts to explore how design principles might inform our teaching. I hope you’ll join me.

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Abstract knowledge transfers, experiences don’t.

Below is a paragraph I am working on for an upcoming article. I’m not yet sure I like it. I feel there might be a logic issue. Any comments appreciated. 

Bell et al. (2016) call for, “The potential associations between certain NOS rationales and instructional implementation need to be tested” (p. 515). While this study did not assess NOS implementation, informed nature of science pedagogy (NOSP) views are likely necessary for NOS implementation. If teachers do not have robust NOSP views, but do teach NOS, the implementation may reflect unconscious competence and teachers may struggle to teach NOS other than to repeat activities they have seen in their teacher preparation. Wahbeh and Abd-El-Khalick (2014) explain this inability to transfer NOSP because teachers’ NOSP views are situated within the context they learned NOS. That is, teachers can implement NOS activities they’ve experienced, but not create new activities or experiences to teach NOS. Therefore, understanding associations between participants’ NOS rationales and NOSP views may, in some ways, be more useful than investigating associations between NOS rationales and NOS implementation. That is, NOSP views may indicate a deeper understanding of NOSP than whether teachers can repeat or modify a NOS activity they experienced as learners. Yet, future research ought to investigate the association between NOS rationales and classroom implementation as well as associations between NOSP views and classroom implementation. 

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