Two Little Letters

It’s amazing how much of a difference two letters can make…

I love technology in my personal life and I’m open to it in the classroom too. It’s part of my principled eclecticism approach to teaching, my own personal grab bag of techniques and concepts that inform what I do in the classroom. Forgive the simplistic examples, but while I love to unplug, at the moment I use a coursebook, I love to be as communicative as possible but I’m not averse to drilling, I love to treat language lexically but sometimes will go into the grammar, and I love technology but spend most of my time getting students to use their notebooks while I use the only the whiteboard. It’s messy but then so is language learning, so its suits me, at least until I decide that I was wrong about something and try a different way, which does happen fairly regularly.

So before you read on let me emphasise something for you:

And just in case you’re still in any doubt, click here and here

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…and here and here.

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Which might make you think that this infographic would be right up my street.

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The infographic is based on a blog post by Carl Hooker, a US educator who describes himself as “a part of a strong educational shift with technology integration since becoming an educator”. I think it’s interesting example of how a well-intentioned teacher (and please don’t think this critique is in any way a criticism of his intentions) needs to be careful about how they promote the use of technology.

I’m writing this because there was something about the infographic, and the blog post to a lesser extent, which really got on my nerves. There are a few reasons why it set me off.

Firstly, it’s that some of them are shallow and pointless. What does it actually mean to “integrate selfies in your classroom” or “perform a lipdub video”? Are we supposed to just use whatever trendy thing our teenage students are into at the moment because memes? Did teachers in the 1980’s build a curriculum around Cabbage Patch dolls and Rubik’s Cubes? Of course they didn’t. Just because everything is now technology based and that trends exist doesn’t mean that we should use them. 

lipdub

I understand that the writer is trying to get his students to engage with their learning, but I don’t believe that our students are so shallow that they require gimmicks. They can also see right through it and they know what’s going on. The medium might be different, but this is still work, and the students who don’t like to work aren’t suddenly going to become swots overnight because of augmented reality.

Perhaps the most shallow example of this is number 15, “Perform in a LipDub Video”. The description below, taken from the original blog post, has nothing to do with education and everything to do with messing about on camera and ‘going viral’. If at any point in your life your objective is to ‘go viral’, you need to have a serious talk with yourself.

This can be either a solo project or for even greater effect, tie in your parody song (#3) and have your students act out their learning throughout the video.  Don’t forget to hashtag it. Bonus points if said video goes viral.

As Cristina Milos says in response to the infographic…

And I’d like to add…

what's the point

Seriously, I think it’s great that these kids raised money for charity, but how much time went into this?:

If they did it in their free time, that’s fine, but if they didn’t, I can see no educational value in this whatsoever. But at least it went viral, right?

But I have to say that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use these tools and ideas if we think there is a sound pedagogical reason behind them. The tools are the point of this infographic rather than the outcomes, and anytime we find ourselves thinking “how can I use Pinterest with my class?”, we are in trouble. In the accompanying blog post, the writer describes using Pinterest like this:

Pinterest is a great visible way to curate resources but why not create a class account that has a different board based on projects throughout the year. Add students as collaborators and let them post their projects to the board. You could also have a board on gathering resources and information for a topic which would be a good time to mention what is and what isn’t a valid resource?

Which isn’t a bad idea at all. If the thinking behind this is “I want to create a means by which my students can collect and share information and resources. Pinterest is a quick and easy way to do this” then I’m all in favour of it. Unfortunately, what the infographic seems to be saying to me is “Are using Pinterest? What do you mean you’re not? What’s wrong with you? I guess that means you’re not a 21st century teacher…”, which is a shame, because I don’t think that’s what he really wants to say.

I also take issue with the notion that all students are the same, which I think this infographic simplistically suggests with its “these things are guaranteed to work!” zeal. If you’d asked me to leap around my school while miming to some dreadful pop nonsense when I was teenager (which would have been the opinion of this oh so indie kid), I would have opted for the ‘drop out of school and live in a cave’ option. Not all students have the same interests and the desire to sing, dance and share everything with everyone else, and not a single one of these ‘things’ has any obvious connection to studying. You know, the kind of studying where you have to sit down and read a book in order to learn things, or is that old hat now? I think that suggesting that we need to adopt all of these gimmicks in order to connect with our students is patronising to them and to their potential.

We also have the matter of the time. The idea that a teacher has a schedule which allows for the amount of learning, training and management involved to implement these tools has got to be ridiculous. If you have the time, then I encourage you to never quit your job because you’ll never find a better one.

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There’s also the amount of digital literacy required. You can argue that teenagers already know how to use these tools, we don’t need to teach them how. But there’s so much more to digital literacy than knowing how to utilise the settings. Our students need to know what is happening to their data, who has access to it and how it can be used by the corporations that own these services. They need to know about appropriate ways of conducting themselves, something their parents might not be able to teach them. And crucially, they need to be able to know which sources of information can be trusted and which can’t, and how we find this out. All this time adds up.

And if our students are adults, it may take even longer.

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But then you might agree with Carl Hooker:

Sure, this might take more time than it’s worth academically, but the collaborative sharing and engaging aspect of producing such a thing can be a positive.

I’m sure you can work out where I stand on that.

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And then there’s the assumption that all classrooms have all these resources to hand. Imagine the vast majority of other countries in the world and how remote and disconnected from reality this infographic would appear to them. Those teachers could quite fairly ask “Is this what you think it means to be a teacher?” 

But I think more than anything, it’s the use of the word ‘should’ in the title that bothers me. It suggests that if we don’t use these tools we’re negligent and/or out of touch with modern teaching. I teach in a school with no interactive whiteboards, limited opportunities to show videos or images on a larger scale, and a flakey Internet connection. However, my students all have smart phones and reliable 3G connections. This means that there are some things I can’t do, and some things I can. I’m aware that I have access to more resources than most teachers in the world, but reading this infographic makes me feel like I live on another planet.

But wherever I teach (and I have also taught in countries and schools with considerably greater resources), I find that what I really need, more than anything, is a board and for my students to have notebooks. I don’t feel in any way disadvantaged, for me it’s always a case of adapting to the environment and the possibilities it allows. I don’t need any more than the basics to be an effective teacher, but if I’ve got it, sure I’ll try it, but only after I’ve considered its value as a pedagogic tool in helping the students to advance in their learning.

I don’t think I’m the only teacher in this situation. Globally there are many of us, but there are even more of us who have access to nothing more than a board, and maybe not even that. Try telling them that they ‘should’ be using these tools. Perhaps it would have more tactful and appropriate to suggest that teachers ‘could’ try them, and the tiny proportion who can try them all can have fun having “a “no tech day”, just for nostalgia’s sake” (number 6 on the list). 

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The trouble with infographics is that they tend to be a shallow representation of what can be a deeper issue. This can lead to the nuance and suggestion being removed, as it has to a degree in this case, where information aimed at teachers seems to have little to do with teaching and learning, and everything with trying to be the hip and trendy teacher that the students love (and seriously, is there anything more embarrassing than that?).

cool teacher

To be fair to @mrhooker, he has written his blog post with all the right intentions and he deserves praise for what is clearly a genuine attempt to engage students. Unfortunately he has fallen into the trap that many proponents of technology, and not just in education, have ended up in. I have no doubt that technology offers teachers many wonderful new opportunities to do their job, but as the best advocates know, you’ve got to back it up with a sound pedagogy. If you don’t, you risk gimmickry. 

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As I said on Facebook when I posted the infographic, I love technology and would encourage teachers to use it with their students where appropriate, but 95% of my lesson time involves pens, paper, talking and a whiteboard. I feel no need to apologise for this and start making lipdub videos.‬

If only he’d changed those two little letters, and written ‘could’ instead of ‘should’…

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7 thoughts on “Two Little Letters

  1. Great thoughts and I agree with most of what you said. The post was made mainly to motivate thinking differently. I agree with the shallow nature of selfies and the HUGE amount of work a LipDub could generate. I wouldn’t condone dumping “real studies” for this and judging by your meme, that’s what I’m suggesting.

    I’m actually hoping for teachers to start thinking less about the tools and much more student-centric. These are just examples to spur that kind of thinking and discussion (which I’m glad it’s done, if for nothing else, then to raise awareness and thought). If you are going to make an actual LipDub it should enhance the learning taking place, not just for fun.

    As for the infographic, that was actually created by @sjunkins in response to my original post. I thought it was a great way to show how quickly collaborating via social media can take place so I posted it on my blog (he made it 24 hours after my post).

    I think you and I share a lot of common beliefs. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and critique of my post. While no one likes to be criticized, I think it’s actually a good thing in terms of heightening the conversation around what the “modern” classroom looks like.

    • Thanks for your comment Mr Hooker, I’m really pleased that you took the post in the spirit in which it was intended and I’m glad to hear that you and I share similar feelings on the subject. If only more people online could accept criticism with the grace and class which you have, well the Internet would be a much better place.

      Here’s to more “thinking and discussion”!

      • Agreed. It takes a lot of thought and courage to post a blog post and even more so to post a thoughtful critique. Just to show you I’m not all about the “bells & whistles” of technology, take a look at some of my other posts, including a recent one that’s come about because of some of the negatives of social media. (specifically the app YikYak).
        Cheers,
        Carl

  2. Thanks for the post, very thought provoking.
    I have one small question, do you ever do an activity which is ostensibly for fun but actually has a reason behind it e.g building a better classroom dynamic or celebrating what´s been achieved?
    The idea of dong a lipdub or similar leaves me lukewarm at best but I do think as long as it uses an appropriate amount of time then sometimes doing things ostensibly for the crack works as a concept. Any thoughts?

    • Thanks for your comment and question. At the moment, I don’t do any ‘fun’ activities like the ones you describe, but that’s got as much to do with my teaching context as it has to do with my beliefs about what is appropriate in the classroom. I teach predominately adults, and I only see them for a few hours a week, so I really have to make the most of my time. But in theory, I’m not opposed to the idea in certain situations, for example if you have a group for a long period of time and for some reason they haven’t gelled, it could be good for them in the long run to participate in a team building activity. But I’d be very careful about how I organised it.

  3. Hi James,
    Thanks for the reply. Teaching context pretty much sums it up for me as well. I think there aren´t really any hard and fast rules when it comes to using tech in the classroom. I love to use it but my first question is always something along the lines of is this helping people learn…

    Just for the record, I saw the infographic in question and had thoughts pretty much echoing yours and just as importantly Chapeau Mr Hooker! I think James said it all when he talked about grace and class.

    One final question for you both (hopefully!)

    How can using technology in the classroom(and outside) help learning?

    For me it is the visual/audio/contextual support that can be easily made available and I don´t think enough is made of this. Any thoughts?

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