Technology in the Classroom, a 180

There are few trends in education that generate more focus and discussion than the use of technology.  This is with good reason.  Technology is fundamentally changing the way we live and learn and this trend is only going to continue, if not intensify.  There is no lack of thoughtful blog posts out there on the benefits and uses of technology in the classroom by people much more knowledgeable on the topic than I so I will not even attempt such a post here.  What I want to do here is take a step back and look at the idea of technology in a broader sense.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines technology as:

  1. The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.
  2.  Machinery and devices developed from scientific knowledge.
  3. The branch of knowledge dealing with engineering or applied sciences. 

Think back for a moment to when I mentioned technology in the first sentence of this post.  What did you think of?  It was computers and Skype and blogs and… right?  It is funny how the everyday use of the word technology has taken on an additional point of definition not found in the  dictionary definition here.  Technology in the everyday use is positioned with an orientation looking forward, viewed as new technologies.  Perhaps we are orientated this way by the threads of the Enlightenment narrative of perpetual progress.

Here I want to ask, what happens if we go back to the dictionary definition of technology when we ask, what are the benefits of technology in the classroom?  What happens if we make a 180 degree turn and view teaching and exploring technology in the classroom as also having an orientation to the past?  Not in a sense that is pejorative towards new technologies, just in a sense that opens up new, or maybe I should say old, possibilities.

I will look at two examples, both of which I carted halfway around the world in my suitcase when I returned to India last August.  First a record player and second my parents old rotary telephone that they kindly lend me.   The  ideas here bare  some influence from the responses given to me by my P4 (Grade 1) students when I asked the same question to them.


Record Player

  • Things can take more time.  The music doesn’t start with the quick click of a button.  You need to take the record out of the sleeve, place it on the turntable, start the record player, cue up the needle and lower it.  Then, and this always surprises the students, you can turn it over and repeat the whole process again.
  • You can see the science happen.  In computers and cell phones the science behind the technology happens behind a hard, shiny, tightly sealed case.  We essentially have to take it on faith that there is technology going on because we cannot observe any of the actions with our senses, other than the result of the music appearing.
  • Music/sound is vibration.  This is closely related to the previous point but deserves to stick out on its own. Grooves shake a needle, that shaking gets turned into sound.  Then you can crank the music up and put your hand over the speaker and, vibrations.  True, you can do this with computer speakers but it is just so much cooler with a record player.
  • Things are fragile.  Luckily, we have not learned this in a tangible way yet, no one has scratched a record – but we have come close.  Yes, an ipad that a six year old may play music from is fragile, but not in the same way a thin needle riding around in a thin groove is.  If a student is asked to flip the record, they need to slow down.  The fragility is also something for the teacher who has bought the record player and carted choice records around the word to remember.  How will I react if a student scratches my Nat King Cole album?
  • Music my Grandfather listened to is not so bad.  One of the highlights of the year so far was playing Benny Goodman in the background while the students grouped popsicle sticks into bundles of ten, as I walked by a six year old I heard her humming along, she new the song.  She said “my dad likes this.”  I envision a day when they are twenty and they hear  Louis Armstrong and pause, and have a momentary flashback to being six, then carry on.  I have to admit, one of the reasons I wanted a record player in my classroom was that so when the kids bound out for recess, I can pause, slow down, and listen to Fred Astaire.


Rotary Phone 

  • Again, things take time.  I have borrowed my parents old phone and it still has a sticker on it with emergency phone numbers.  A student asked “why is 911 the number for an emergency if the 9 takes so long to dial?  Why isn’t the number 111?”  The best answer I could come up with was “because we didn’t think it took a long time to dial 9.”
  • Sometimes you need to remember numbers.  No speed dial here.  We all remembered seven digit numbers.  Do kids practise memorising numbers that long today?
  • When you talk to your friend, you need to stop and maybe even sit down.  I talk on the go.  In the cereal aisle, going up an escalator…  Does this make the conversations more functional, what if I stopped, would I talk, would I listen more.

Paradigm Shifts in Education: Thomas Kuhn and Ken Robinson

“Nobody has a clue – despite all the expertise that’s been on parade for the past four days – what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.”

Sir Ken Robinson, TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity, 2006 0:56 (View the transcript here)

WARNING-page0001This quote comes from the most watched TED talk of all time with thirty million views at current count. (That is eight million views more than the next most watched TED Talk.)  There is one sense in which it is fair to say that this statement is self-evident or universally true. That is, we never know what the future is going to look like and one of the biggest mistakes we could make is to assume that we do. This normal accumulation and progression of knowledge is not what I believe Robinson is talking about. The key to understanding this statement could come in another quote from the same talk, “the whole world is engulfed in a revolution.” This revolution one could equate to a paradigms shift in Thomas Kuhn’s sense of the term.  In brief, prior to Kuhn’s narrative or theory of scientific progress the prevailing view of scientific progress was one where knowledge accumulated, mistakes would be identified and corrected and knowledge would continually grow. There will be changes and corrections in the future but things will continue to progress along rather predictable lines. In Kuhn’s model, as scientific knowledge accumulates eventually there comes a time when new knowledge cannot be fit in with the preceding body of knowledge. The preceding body of knowledge and the new knowledge become ‘incomprehensible’ to each other and a revolution of thought, understanding, narrative and practice happens.

Kuhn’s prime example is found in his book The Copernican Revolution where he argues, that the discovery that the Earth orbits the Sun fundamentally contradicted the Medieval narrative that the Earth was the centre of the universe and this fact was believed to reflect the fact that humans were the prime focus of God’s attention, having been made in his image and all. There was the whole Ptolemaic astronomy  to explain how this picture of the universe worked. When the discoveries of Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo and others accumulated, the picture of the universe drawn from their findings led to a view that was fundamental incomprehensible with the medieval view.  This triggered a revolution of the Enlightenment.

Accessed through The Creative Commons.  Photo Credit, Tim Wilson, 2010

Accessed through The Creative Commons. Photo Credit, Tim Wilson, 2010

That is, I would argue, the sense of “revolution” that Sir Ken Robinson refers to and is the reason why “nobody has a clue… what the world will look like in five years’ time.” The emerging narrative will be incomprehensible with the past. I think he is still overstating it when he uses the time frame five years, for effect I am sure, because we do have an idea – for one thing computers will get smaller and more easily integrated into daily classroom practice. (In fact, Robinson made this statement nine years ago in 2006, four years before the release of the I Pad.)


Flippin report cards

The Flipped Classroom The term flipped classroom has been in vogue in teaching circles over the last couple of years. In short, it means traditional school work becomes homework and homework becomes school work. For example, traditional school work such as listening to lectures and taking notes becomes homework where the students might watch lectures posted on a You Tube channel or read the lecture posted on a class blog. Then when they return to school the next day what would traditionally be homework such as answering comprehension questions become class work. The difference is that this process is not done in isolation, instead the students answer the questions together, collectively in a dialectic challenging and supporting each other. In this way they can be said to be enacting the sociocultural perspective on education where knowledge is not a product of the individual but is socially or jointly constructed – but that’s a whole blog post on its own. (Click here for an example of the flipped classroom in action by one of the teachers from Colorado who many credit with the idea) The Flipped Report Card report card graphic-page0001I got to thinking about this after I found myself sitting in Darjeeling last Christmas recovering from an acute case of report card fatigue.   I know I am not the only one who gets this.   As report card time approaches, teachers begin to write math comments, science comments, behavior skills comments… We all get better at it as time goes on, we get more organized and we get more systematic in our approach but we are still faced with report card season. As I sat there I had the crazy thought that there had to be a way to spread the work of report cards out equally over the semester and more importantly, there had to be a way to integrate the report cards much more effectively into the daily life of the class so they are an active part of the learning process and not some detached third person reflection. I thought, why not have the students write their own report card comments at the beginning of the semester, revisit them together with the student mid-semester and then finalize them together at the end. In this way, the report cards would become:

  1. part of goal setting.
  2. authentic writing opportunities that are published at the end of the semester.
  3. an opportunity for the students to take ownership over their learning.
  4. a way for the students to become involved with the contents of their report cards and a way to ensure that there are no surprises at the end of the semester.
  5. a way for the students to have a greater ability to explain the content of the report card to their parents and to engage in a meaningful discussion as to its contents.
  6. to take more ownership for the results of their reports.

When I returned to school after the holiday I gave the idea a try. I told my Grade Five class to write the learning skills comment that they wanted to go home in their report card at the end of the semester. I also gave each student a copy of the behavior skills rubric that I used to help generate their marks and told them they are welcome to copy statements off of the rubric. One caution is that you would need to ensure that the students are writing their comments based on the expectations taken from the curriculum that they will be assessed by. I conferenced with each student mid-semester and again at the end of the semester. I only had to make a few alterations to the comments the students wrote about themselves, on average they were pretty spot on. A few students were too easy on themselves and a few students were too hard on themselves.

This year, I have moved to a Grade One class. How to modify this to work with this age group, will be the topic of another post – mostly because I haven’t figured that one out yet.

Bloomin Questions


People riding on a commuter train in Yangon, Myanmar  2012

People riding on a commuter train in Yangon, Myanmar 2012

Bloom’s Taxonomy or those six different categories of questions that are usually displayed in a pyramid, has been around since the 50’s.  As a result it is at least as disputed as it is accepted.

One can be wary of Blooms, and other taxonomies, because they can box or compartmentalizing ideas.  As the sometimes philosopher, Joni Mitchel has said:

Every bristling shaft of pride
Church or nation
Team or tribe
Every notion we subscribe to
Is just a borderline
Good or bad we think we know
As if thinking makes things so!
All convictions grow along a borderline

page0002Joni, from Borderline

When defining or categorizing something, in this case questions, we run the risk of cementing our habits and locking our definitions in between borderlines. The irony is that these borderlines around questions may deter our questioning of questions.page0003

The popularity of Bloom’s Taxonomy and the borderlines it has created around the space of questions means that it has played a part in defining how we understand and how we use questions.  Taking a post-structuralist view, language or definitions around words and grammar, create our page0004understanding and that understanding becomes our identity.


Recently I was asked to give a talk for the PTA and decided to run with the Blooms.  The powerpoint along the side is the product of that and what got me thinking about Bloom’s recently.



Teaching about the Causes of Conflict

I have been holding onto this lesson all year because it works best when the students stumble upon it. Last week as we were talking about the distribution of resources and the causes of conflict, they stumbled upon it and I got to teach it.

I introduced the idea of 80 20. That is, 80% of the worlds population has 20% of the world’s resources and 20% of the world’s population has 80% of the world’s resources.  (A crude distinction if for no other reason as what counts as a resource can be debated.  None the less it is an often quoted statistic and one that can fuel thought.)

To demonstrate this I chose ten students and asked them to stand in a line in front of the class. I then divided them into a group of eight and IMG_2025a group of two. I then gave the group of eight two books, the group of two eight books and promptly told them it was time for silent reading. The two students with eight books happily sat down and started flipping through books, not exactly reading but browsing, trying to decide which book they felt like reading. The eight students with two books stood there almost dazed wondering if it was a joke. I just kept insisting it was time for silent reading and they should read.

It took about twenty seconds before students from the group of eight started making their way towards the two students with the eight books and eying the books and making subtle indications that they wanted some. This is the second time I have taught this lesson and both times I have been amazed at how quickly the two students assume an air of entitlement. They placed themselves between the books and the group of eight and continued to browse.

It only took about kids photo-page0001another thirty seconds until leaders began to emerge out of the eight and we started hearing calls of “this isn’t fair!”  One student in particular was becoming viscerally incensed by the injustice. He was calling out to the teachers for help and when this came to no avail he started rallying the other seven. Two girls among the seven quietly got hold of one of the two books that were given to the eight and slipped to the back and started reading while the others were getting worked up in their call for justice. The boy who was increasingly leading the charge began reaching for books.  Another boy among the eight began encouraging him on and then moved to position himself on the other side of the two students with the eight books and while they became increasingly distracted by the attempts to grab books, the other boy reached around, took a book at a time and passed them to other members of the eight.

There came the moment where I said “OK, lets stop… if you have ever wondered about how wars start, maybe this is part of your answer.”

This is a very rare moment in my class where I have created conflict.  Perhaps to teach, to really teach and not preach, about the causes of war we have to allow these rare exceptions where we allow conflict.

The Wandering Teacher

The Wandering teacher quote-page0001-1

I’m very much a wMountain Walkinganderer.  Teaching has brought me to the Canadian arctic, to Thailand, to India and now to Myanmar.  I am afflicted by that curiosity to always see the next mountain, next sea, next river and, when I can make it out of the cities, to see the motion of the stars.

As much as I love this quote and have carried it with me for years, I find the applied conclusion unsettling, that wondering and wandering are to separate endeavors.  It has been the act of heading out to see the next mountain, the next sea and the next river that has afforded me the wealth Beach Walkingof experiences to wonder about.  The wandering has been the greatest source for my wondering.  I will take Augustine’s quote not as a description of fact, that you wander without wondering, but as a warning or cautionary tale, to not allow oneself to become engrossed in the wandering and let the wondering be set aside.

My wandering comes with me into the classroom.  That desire to not use last year’s lesson plans, to aim for a different destination.   This blog, the Wandering Teacher is where I will do my wondering, born out of my wandering.  It is a place to collect my thoughts, it is an attempt to not pass myself without wondering.  It is a place a place to collect and connect my thought on teaching, on the art and the practice of it, into a body of ideas more layered and eventually more evolved.