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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 10|No 9|June|2001

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Mixing Metaphors and Media:

a Digital and Analog Elixir

By Jamie McKenzie
About the Author

© 2001, JMcKenzie, all rights reserved.

Note: This article is based upon a keynote delivered in February, 2001 in the United Kingdom at a national computing conference for NAACE — a national educational leadership group. It then appeared as an article in Classroom Connect.


It recent times, it has become fashionable in some quarters to divide the educational world into camps. We sit through speeches and watch slides that compare the old classroom with the new classroom, the digital school with the analog school, and the Net generation with the TV generation.

This tendency to speak or think in simple, black and white terms (false dichotomies) can actually slow down and impede the change process. This article explores the trend toward false dichotomies and the dangers created when we separate complex issues, possibilities and strategies into two simple and contrasting sides or choices. The article concludes by offering an alternative — the conscious, skillful blending of metaphors, media and strategies to take advantage of the best of all worlds.

Dividing the World Falsely

You’re either with us or against us!
  • Digital vs. Analog
  • Digital vs. Print
  • Constructivist vs. Traditional
  • The New Economy vs. The Old Economy
  • The Digital Generation vs. The Elders

At times it seems as if worth is being defined as what is new and fashionable, as if most time-honored values, strategies and media are suddenly out of date and worthless.

"Get with the program!"

We are bombarded by marketing messages promoting a new digital world, messages that create "The New New Thing Imperative."

We face a new test of time.

  • Is it hip?
  • Is it trendy?
  • Is it fashionable?
  • Is it the latest thing?
  • Is it in Vogue?
  • Is it digital?
  • Or is it old?
  • Outdated?
  • Last year’s model?
  • Obsolete?
  • Uncool?

If we are not doing the new new thing, the argument goes, then we are falling behind and like dinosaurs, we face virtual or digital extinction.

The workshop presenter makes the choice clear . . .

The New Classroom

Constructivist strategies

Wireless notebooks

Online learning and exploring

Digital resources

The Old Classroom

Traditional strategies

Chalk board

Textbooks and print materials


But this slide presents a false choice and a false dichotomy. Teachers should actually be blending the best elements of classically sound learning with the best elements of the new world. They should also be looking quite critically at some of the new offerings so as to avoid the fate of so many dot bombs. Wise selection of new tools helps to protect schools from becoming one more victim of dot-compost.

The collapse of many dot-coms in recent months points out the danger of laying aside good judgment. ESchool News offers two reports of educationally related failures in its February, 2001 issue. The headlines . . .

Schools zapped by ZapMe! Mull legal recourse
Wwwrrr’s online business folds

When we fall prey to false dichotomies, we allow outside pressures to harden the lines between various groups within our schools. Some teachers may be technology cheerleaders who see nothing but promise and value in the new digital offerings. Other teachers might have legitimate reasons to feel skeptical. As the research of Hank Becker has illustrated, teachers are spread out across a continuum of preferred teaching styles. His study shows that willingness to employ the new tools is related to such teaching style differences.

When we divide faculties into good guys and bad guys (defined by willingness to do the new new thing), we may unwittingly amplify the resistance and skepticism of those who feel judged and pressured by those equating progress with the daily, intensive use of new technologies. Some teachers might consider some technology activities powerpointless.

Mixing, Blending and Balancing

Schools may have the most success by honoring reasonable skepticism and questioning while conscientiously exploring the possibilities of new tools and products. The secret to progress is the thoughtful and judicious combining of the best elements of all tools and strategies.

We may be wise to mix our metaphors as well as our media as we explore new terrain. We learn from gardening about cultivating soil, weeding, pruning and fertilizing. We learn from chemistry what happens when we mix certain elements. We might even consider the possibilities of alchemy as we seek magical new outcomes from schooling.

This combining of elements is the magical elixir mentioned in the title of this article — a potion that blends and synthesizes.

What is the most productive blend of print materials and digital materials?

When is a felt tip pen the best way to start a drawing? How can a scanned image of this drawing lead to enhancements? (see "Beyond Clip Art" by Peter Minshull in the June, 1999 issue of From Now On -

Schools will achieve the best results by avoiding pure forms and by resisting orthodoxies and fashions. Any "new classroom" should be soundly rooted in the classical traditions of education rather than sprouting as a hybrid with little chance of surviving under real school conditions.

Fundamental to this blending and synthesizing process is clarity about purpose. Unless a school and its faculty have come to agreement about the primacy of certain learning goals and values, it is difficult to focus the efforts constructively.

If a school has made information literacy and standards-based learning a clear goal (see "First Things First" in the November/December, 2000 issue of From Now On -, then the adoption, trial and adaptation process will be guided by clear values and priorities.

Skepticism is channeled by clear values into a productive search for value.

The best way to encourage broad-based enthusiasm for new tools and strategies is to mix things up a bit — to honor the best of the past while considering the best of the new world. Just as business people are beginning to shed the false dichotomy of the new economy vs. the old economy by speaking of a "value economy," schools can move past talk of old classrooms and new classrooms. Schools can focus their efforts on launching effective classrooms.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.
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