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March Issue

Vol 25|No 4|March 2016

Image © iStock.com

Smart Technology

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

You've got to know when to hold 'em.
Know when to fold 'em.
Know when to walk away.
And know when to run.

Kenny Rodgers

Discerning teachers and students use new technologies when they enhance learning, but they will turn to classical tools when they better serve learning goals. Unfortunately, in some schools, there is pressure from above to make frequent use of new tools whether they advance learning or dilute it. "Doing technology" becomes a goal apart from learning itself.

In this article, because discernment is paramount, criteria are suggested to help guide decision-making.

1. Has the innovation led to a qualitative improvement in the production and learning of students?
2. Has the innovation led to efficiencies?
3. Has the innovation led to a richer palette?
4. Has the innovation led to a broader perspective?
5. Has the innovation led to deeper understandings?
6. Has the innovation created convincing data to validate the above accomplishments?


1. Qualitative improvement in the production and learning of students

If you are teaching Macbeth, will the class learn more holding printed copies in their hands than they would with the same pages appearing on their laptop screens?

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

There is no correct answer to this question, of course, but many teachers will opt for the concentration that comes with closed laptops and open books. Challenging students to ponder the meaning of difficult passages like the one above without checking Cliff-Notes and other sources is well served by text in hand. At the same time, after struggling to understand, the teacher might then set the class free to check other interpretations online.

While there are many pages on the Net trying to explain what Shakespeare meant by this passage, few of them show much understanding. It would be a shame to set students free to copy and paste the efforts of others before they have tried to wring meaning from Macbeth's words independently.

In general, the choice of learning tools and modes should follow clarity about goals and strategies. Classical tools will often be a wise choice, and those who jump to use the new technologies may be placing the cart before the horse.

Effective teaching involves complex planning as shown in the diagram below:


The above diagram first appeared in September of 2003 in "Pedagogy does matter!"

The choice of tools is just one of many decisions teachers must make.

While many students and adults think that they can find whatever information they need by asking Google, there are many topics better handled by books or sources on the "Hidden Internet." The books treating the topic in depth will often cost money if found online. And it is here where the school or public library may be a better source than a laptop.

If students are studying writers or people from history, for example, the biographical information available online (free) is usually quite superficial.

Two students studying Alfred Hitchcock and asking if allegations of sexual harassment were justified might both be working on laptops, but one relies on the free articles and the other buys access to serious books. They are both using "technology" but the quality of their research and their learning will differ greatly.

A third student finds three print biographies of Hitchcock in the public library for free. This student is using an older technology that supports understanding better than the superficial articles read by one of the laptop students. But the student reading the same books online will have some advantages in terms of note-taking and comprehension as is explained in "eReading: How is reading changing with the advent of eBooks?"

The point, of course, is that the laptop is not the main issue here. Technology is not the issue. Learning is the issue.

For an in depth exploration of this research challenge and Alfred Hitchcock, consider "Unmasking Iconic Figures."

2. Efficiencies

Some tasks like crunching numbers, collecting quotations and looking for synonyms are dramatically improved by software and Web sites compared to the tedium suffered by students just two decades back. The same is true for mind-mapping, idea processing and outlining. Note-taking? Much more efficient now than the old index cards typical of classrooms in the 1980s.

The challenge is taking advantage of efficiencies without surrendering to the glib and the superficial.


photo © J. McKenzie

Need images of Joan of Arc to accompany a paper exploring her character? Hop on over to Google Images and be greeted with thousands. Copy, paste and move on to the next task! But it turns out there are no images of Joan in existence created by someone who ever saw her, so the quick copy and paste may seize upon a movie actress whose features have little resemblance to the woman described by her friends in her second trial. To find reasonably accurate images one must read the trial transcripts.


Just because a task is easier to complete does not guarantee quality. Facile is not the same as skilled.

Facile = easily achieved; effortless: a facile victory. Acting or done in a quick, fluent, and easy manner: he was revealed to be a facile liar. (Mac dictionary)

In 1998 I warned that new technologies might augur in an Age of Glib. http://www.fno.org/jun98/kafe.html. We should welcome efficiencies while helping our students to recognize and avoid superficialities.

3. A richer palette?



photos © Sarah McKenzie

When the Internet first came to schools, it was evident that the information available would be vastly richer. Instead of relying upon textbooks and encyclopedias, students would be able to range far and wide, building insights with many more hues than was previously possible. Instead of relying upon primary colors like blue, green and red, they would be able to add thousands more. Olive, chartreuse, sage, juniper, pear, lime, pine, pickle, basil, crocodile, etc.

To fully appreciate these color choices, visit the Color Thesaurus created by Ingrid Sundberg.


photo © istock.com

The palette serves as a metaphor, of course, for shades of meaning. When studying political issues, for example, we would hope that students would actually range far and wide, considering the many different points of view that come to bear on such questions. It is not a matter of studying "both sides" because most issues have many more than two sides.


image © CG Cookie used here with permission

While the Internet can provide students with this richness, search engines can work to narrow their field of vision as is explained in "Escaping the Filter Bubble." As the search engine makes suggestions, it points students (and adults) toward the conventional.

If you type "Donald Trump" into Google, it will suggest (on the day this was written) - Donald Trump Twitter, Donald Trump News and Donald Trump Wife.

If you type "Donald Trump f" into Google, it will suggest - Donald Trump for President, Donald Trump Facebook, Donald Trump Florida and Donald Trump Family.

Looking for Donald Trump and fraud? You have to keep typing, since if you type "Donald Trump fr" into Google, it will suggest freedom, front runner, fraternity and from.

Add an "a" and you get fraternity, fragrance, fracking and Frank Reynolds.

Google hesitates to make any suggestions for "Donald Trump fraud" until you type out the entire search. Only then will it point you to articles such as "Donald Trump Threatens Trump University Fraud Victims In New Video" Huffington Post‎

If teachers make them aware of this phenomenon, they enhance the likelihood that students will appreciate the value of exploring far and wide.


photo © Sarah McKenzie

Another way of helping students to appreciate the idea of "palette" is to ask them to see the many choices available on a thesaurus for various words. If they go to http://visualthesaurus.com and type in "fresh" they may be surprised by the related words.


This image is used with permission from ThinkMap.Com

The leap from richer vocabulary to richer ideas is not a big one. But if we develop an appetite for one, there is hope for the other.

4. A broader perspective


photo © istock.com

School information was quite limited back in the 1960s and 1970s. It was hard to find and read more than one newspaper or one textbook account of an event. Studying foreign countries, the books were often 20-30 years out of date. Students might mail requests to embassies and wait 4-5 weeks before getting pamphlets back. Studying paintings? The vertical file in the school library might only have 100 or 150 prints.

With the current information landscape, the possibilities are vastly improved. Instead of relying upon one newspaper, students can go to onlinenewspapers.com and find thousands of newspapers from around the world. Instead of being limited to local and narrow perspectives, students can now read dozens of points of view from nations overseas and from other towns and cities in the USA.

That does not mean students will take the trouble. Unfortunately, narrow-mindedness is an attitude as well as a habit of mind. There is no guarantee that students will take advantage of the rich information resources now available if they are in a rush to judgment. "Cut to the chase!"

Teachers can help students see the value of multiple points of view by leading them through discovery exercises, but those with a thirst for simple answers will have little patience for this kind of confusion.

5. Deeper understandings


Theoretically, the rich information available today should help students to develop a deeper and more complex understanding of events, people and issues. Instead of studying Van Gogh's personality through the lens of a single self portrait, there are more than thirty readily available online. In addition, his letters are available for free online at http://www.vggallery.com/letters/main.htm - 874 Van Gogh letters (more than 850,000 words in total.)

If a student has a thirst for depth, the view of Van Gogh, Thomas Jefferson, Captain Matthew Flinders, Emily Dickinson or any other important figure from history will be quite different using such resources than would result from reading an entry in an encyclopedia or Wikipedia.

The question is whether or not we have encouraged that thirst or expressed clear expectations that students will scrape below surface understandings to get at a deeper truth.

6. Data to validate accomplishment


In my most recent book, The Great Report, I devoted a good deal of attention to assessment, providing rubrics and a survey so that teachers can get some sense of how well their students are progressing.

Schools and teachers should use such instruments and such data to determine what is working, what is failing and what needs changing.

In determining the degree of difficulty for a research question or issue selected by a student, for example, rubrics might serve well. The table below defines four degrees of difficulty with 4 being the toughest level and 1 being the least challenging.

Rating the Question’s Degree of Difficulty


No one else has ever asked this question before and building an answer will require imaginative thinking and much synthesis of information gathered. Because it is unique there will be no previous work to guide you.


While others have explored this question previously, it has perplexed people for so long it has never been answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Building an answer will require imaginative thinking and much synthesis of information gathered as well as a review of previous attempts.


This question or issue has been explored many times before and already answered but there is disagreement over those answers. All that is required is a review of that past work in order to select the most reasonable and defensible answer.


This question or issue has been explored many times before and already answered to satisfaction. It will require nothing more than paraphrasing and summarizing.

What are the key elements that determine the degree of difficulty of a research question?

  • Is this a mystery within human understanding but somewhat elusive?
  • Will this question demand original thought, synthesis and perseverance
  • Will this question require much detective work, gathering and considering evidence, clues and data in order to develop a position?
  • Has anyone else already asked (and answered) this same question?
  • Have previous attempts to address this question eliminated the mystery?
  • Is it possible to create an answer within just a few minutes by doing a Google search or will it take weeks of digging and thinking?

The book also includes the following survey:

Appendix C — Checking for Understanding

Name _______________________ Date _________

This survey is designed to help your teacher understand how you are doing with your research, your thinking and your presenting. It is also meant to inspire personal reflection about your experience and growth. When confused or frustrated, it will alert your teacher and make assistance easier. Honest responses are essential to make this happen.

1. How would you rate the progress you have made on your question during the past week?

Excellent __ Good __ Satisfactory __ Poor __

2. List the 2-3 events or accomplishments that gave you the most satisfaction during the past week.

1. _________________________________________________

2. _________________________________________________

3. _________________________________________________

3. List the 2-3 events or obstacles that gave you the most frustration during the past week.

1. _________________________________________________

2. _________________________________________________

3. _________________________________________________

4. How would you rate yourself with regard to the following Habits of Mind your teacher has been stressing?1

5 = very strong 4 = strong 3 = ok 2 = weak 1 = very weak

__ Persisting
__ Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision
__ Managing impulsivity
__ Gathering data through all senses
__ Listening with understanding and empathy
__ Creating, imagining, innovating
__ Thinking flexibly
__ Responding with wonderment and awe
__ Thinking about thinking (metacognition)
__ Taking responsible risks
__ Striving for accuracy
__ Finding humor
__ Questioning and posing problems
__ Thinking interdependently
__ Applying past knowledge to new situations
__ Remaining open to continuous learning

5. Circle above the 2-3 Habits you intend to work on during the next week.

6. What could your teacher do to increase your success?



The Great Report

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