Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Teachers, Technology, Skillz, and Bieberfever: Reflections from #edchat

After participating in #edchat tonight I felt I needed to get a few things out. The topic for tonight's episode was "What amount of tech should be a requirement for every teacher to know? Are there any specific core applications for teachers?".

My first concern stems from the topic itself; its wording tacitly implies that technology is necessary to be a good teacher and therefore teachers that do not use technology cannot be good teachers. It also implies as a corollary that we must be utilizing technology in teaching. I don't think I have ever heard a solid argument as to why that must be the case. The most common arguments I hear are that "Students use technology so we must use it as well", "It makes education relevant to the student", and "It is required for a 21st century education".
Justin Bieber, technology, and pointing: it doesn't get any more relevant than that
The first argument is fallacious and is known as the argument from popularity (Argumentum ad populum). The basic idea is that many students use technology therefore technology should be used in education. It is a false premise because mere belief in something does not indicate it is true. Many students like listening to Justin Bieber*, it does not mean his music is worth listening to.

The second argument is also fallacious as it assumes that the combination of technology and education will maintain the relevancy that the technology provides alone:

A. Technology is relevant to students.
B. Students like things that are relevant.
C. Therefore teachers should use technology so students like education.

By accepting this argument you tacitly accept that anything that is relevant to students should improve education. Many students find Justin Bieber relevant, but it doesn't mean I am going to get Bieberfever in my science classroom*. Many students find exploring the outdoors and nature to be relevant until you require they learn about it in class. Obviously the way the lesson is taught has a great bearing on how the students will react, but that is an issue of pedagogy not technology.

The final argument implies that in the 21st century we use technology so therefore to exist in the 21st century you must know how to use technology. Once again it implies a causal relationship where there may not actually be one (and employs the logically fallacy known as affirming the consequent). The additional aspect to this argument I hear is that we must prepare students for jobs in the 21st century; jobs that do not exist yet that arise from problems we haven't stated yet. They then argue that teaching knowledge is ineffective because it will have changed by the time the students obtain these future jobs. However, the same can be said regarding the technology: it will be entirely different when the student leaves school and begins working/seeks higher education. The argument can be made that learning how to use today's technology provides a base for learning tomorrows; which I would agree with. However, that implies that learning today's knowledge provides a base for learning tomorrow's knowledge as well, which puts us back at square one. The argument also implies a teaching of technology for the sake of technology which leads me into my next concern: the lack of a clearly stated goal for teaching with technology.

It appears to me that we are integrating technology because it is there. Many mention the importance of ensuring the technology is used in accordance with proper pedagogy, a statement I couldn't agree more with. But there is so much more talk regarding how to use tech and very little regarding pedagogy that I worry that last statement is lip service to a degree. So to rectify this I will attempt to take the arguments I have listed and synthesize a goal for the integration of technology.

The main argument is preparing students for the future, so we will start there. The question that must be answered is what will the future look like. The only assumption I can start with, is that there will be people (because if there are no people, this argument is moot). So, what can we deduce if we assume that there will be people (in brackets I list the skills I believe are needed to accomplish the task/goal):
  1. People will wish to communicate with each other (communication skills)
  2. The communication will cause ideas to be generated and problems to be discovered (creativity and problem solving skills)
  3. The problems will require solutions (creativity)
  4. The solutions will require the application of new/unknown knowledge (research methodologies)
  5. The solutions will require analysis (skepticism and rationality)
To me this is what needs to be taught to be ready for the future. I group these fives items (communication skills, creativity, problem solving skills, research methodologies, and skepticism and rationality) and entitle them critical thinking skills (although you could as easily call them learning skills).

Now no where in my listing I have noted technology. This implies to me (and I am biased as I created the excellent listing above) that technology is not a skill per se but a tool to be used to facilitate the execution of the skills. For example, if you needed to nail two pieces of wood together you could use a hammer or a nail gun. However, to use the tool properly I need to know why I am nailing the wood together and what the final product should look like; the technology will not show me that.

To bring the analogy to education, we can't know what tech to use until we understand the problem we are attempting to solve with our teaching. By assuming the solution will require technology we limit the number of possible solutions and stifle our creativity. The solution we arrive at may not be the most optimal or even a valid solution. Instead we need to add technology to our toolbox and utilize when the problem indicates it is required.

* Shameless SEO plug
* I promise to stop now, that should be enough to get this post on page one of Google.