When you say “technology,” what do you mean?

Not long ago, I wrote about the OECD study which suggested that massive investment in technology doesn’t seem to result in significant “learning gains.”  There are a lot of assumptions to examine in such studies, of course, but one that’s on my mind today is what we mean by “technology.”

Larry Cuban’s latest blog post is by a physics teacher, Alice Flared, who writes about how important it is to think of technology as a tool for learning and teaching, not as “the whole toolbox, table, chairs and school rather than a tool itself.”

Her post includes links to several recent studies of the effectiveness (or not) of technology in K-12 learning, as she reflects from her own perspective as a 20-year veteran. She describes how, as she made her class more and more inquiry-oriented, her students still did not seem to be gaining the kind of understanding she’d hoped for.  As she started finding ways for students to reflect upon their experience —  in writing and in conversation — she saw their understanding grow:

What was I doing wrong? I found the missing piece at the beginning of my doctoral program in science education when I completed classes on learning theory. I was using lots of tools but without a sufficient plan. I was not explicitly using their prior knowledge so my students looked at this new information wearing the lenses of their old ideas. I was not giving my students opportunities to talk and to write deeply about the science. My students were doing without thinking.

With her fresh insight about the importance of thinking and communication in the building of science understanding, Flared was led to think more about what technology can and can’t substitute for in the science classroom.    Sometimes, the tools facilitate learning, sometimes they get in the way:

Without even trying, meaningful conversations occur in face-to-face classrooms. They must be “allowed” in digital settings.Online discussion boards may seem a substitute for these conversations, but there is not the give and take needed for successful construction. Missing is the intonation, the emotions, the smiles and frowns, which are all a part of effective human communication. Google Docs can help kids co-construct knowledge but there must be a rich, teacher-constructed prompt requiring the knowledge of the entire group. If it can be answered or created by a single person, there is no need of a sharing tool.

The teacher must be sure to design a lesson around the content and practices, rather than the digital resources she deploys for the purpose:

I do hope that technology will help students learn. But, there will be no game-changing tech revolution. Let’s instead use it as a tool in rich lessons that help our students construct deep understandings


One thing I noticed, though, in reading her post, was which technologies she mentions:  GoogleDocs, multimedia presentations, online textbooks, simulations.  Although she most values student knowledge-building and inquiry, she does not mention data analysis tools and probeware.  Of course, she may well use these, and just didn’t happen to mention them, but the omission itself is worth reflecting on.

It is my belief (or maybe it’s a prejudice)  that science classrooms should be about the world, and ways of making sense of the world, rather than “knowledge construction” that is so constrained by curricular guidelines that inquiry has to take you down the road someone has laid out for you, and there is no time to explore in the off-road terrain with the tools you’re learning.  Probeware probes some phenomenon, and if placed in a question-asking context can both engage the student with the hoped-for experiences — and others.  After all, temperature, force-and-magnetism, or DO probes are general purpose tools and therefore represent pathways and doorways out as well as forward.

In a study that Joni Falk and I led a few years ago, we examined high school science teachers’ technology uses — and I was surprised at how rarely teachers (bio, chem, and physics) used probeware — and that two of our 6 case schools didn’t have any.   (In one of these, the teachers later found some in a closet, still in their packaging, and started to make use of them.  Gleefully.)

“Inquiry” shares a root with “question,” and “invention” is a metaphor— a “coming upon.”   Sometimes I think that the two most important “Practices” we can convey (and they are not only “Science Practices”!!!) is observation of the world around us, and asking questions (large and small).


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