20 April 2009 03:29 PM

Old Learning Technology and New

by Dr. Rick

The other day a curious reporter asked me to comment on new technologies and techniques students and teachers are using.  How are they working?  Are kids learning more skills, acquiring more knowledge?  Are the new technologies and teaching techniques motivating them to learn more?  Do teachers embrace the new technologies?  Do they employ the new techniques?  How has teaching changed?


It seems trite to point out (it’s been done so often) that new technologies – even the “cool” ones that tempt and seduce us, capture our imaginations and promise to save us time – are, after all, tools designed to make tasks easier.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.


New teaching techniques, especially the ones that have come about because of our increasing knowledge of how the brain works and how students learn, can, indeed, increase teachers’ effectiveness and children’s learning.  Teachers need regular and systematic training, of course.  Just like anyone learning new professional skills.


The tasks are less changed.  We still want to teach our kids the skills they’ll need to be successful adults, lifelong learners.  We still want them to have the core of knowledge necessary to navigate an increasingly complex world.  If the goals and the tasks have stayed relatively stable, the technologies have definitely evolved.


New technologies and techniques must be rooted in research.  We’ve spent enough time and money chasing after “new” approaches that never quite worked out.  (See my blog of December 22, 2008, on open-space classrooms, for one example I’ve survived to tell about.)  They must be rooted in best practices, too, updated for 21st century students and their needs.  (I’m reminded of a rabbinical teaching I once heard: “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.”)


Here are a few examples that show teachers’ same goals (competence, knowledge, skills) with different methods and technologies:

  1. Math manipulatives.  The work of Howard Gardner and others has shown that all kids can learn.  They just learn in different ways and at different speeds.  Some kids, for instance, are “visual” learners, others are “auditory.”  Still others are “tactile” learners, needing to touch, feel, move whenever they can.  That’s why early elementary teachers have students “write” their names in the sandbox or with finger paints.  The kids “feel” the lesson.  In math, teachers always knew real-life illustrations made lessons come alive.  They brought in apple pies, sliced them into halves, quarters, and eighths to teach fractions.  (Then, everyone ate the lesson!)  Today’s math lessons come with objects students can touch, feel, and manipulate to learn addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  These objects are called (unimaginatively) “manipulatives.”  They work.  Same concepts, different techniques.

  2. Calculators and graphing calculators.  These tools do not take the place of students learning their math facts (or at least they shouldn’t).  Instead, they make the learning faster, motivate students to learn more, and can even stimulate them to try even more advanced studies.  

  3. Audio books.  For language arts and other humanities subjects, audio books are highly popular – and even downloaded to many Ipods.  (Not all earbuds are connected to alleged music!)  Students can “read” books as they commute to school, work out, ride the subway.  Again, same goals, different technologies to reach them.

  4. Chat in Spanish.  Students of world languages can easily and daily do what past generations could do only with expensive travel or slow pen-palling.  There are dozens of web-based chat sites where foreign-language learners can speak with each other, motivate each other, help each other with those pesky idioms, and talk about up-to-the-minute events and interests.  Adults must monitor, of course.

  5. Read original documents.  For English or history, say, students can now do what previous generations could never do: use “original” documents for their research.  Today, students look at these documents virtually, and they can “see” and “touch” the Magna Carta, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the legal documents pertaining to the local law they’re researching.  And all from the classroom, no field trip necessary.

  6. See the Mona Lisa.  Students take “virtual” museum field trips for art classes easily now.  Some of the finest and most interesting web sites I know of are from the world’s museums, complete with interactive, 3-D presentations and lesson suggestions for teachers.  Go to the Louvre today, the British Museum next week, the Art Institute of Chicago or the Smithsonian the following week.  Motivate real travel tomorrow by planting dreams in students’ minds today.

  7. Dissection made easy.  “Virtual” biology dissections eliminate the costs and the “yuck” factor of science classes.  Students can see clearly, and there’s no formaldehyde spilling on the floor.

You get the point.  There are many similar advancements in physical education (scientific monitors that measure heart rate and blood flow), music (composing software that encourages and instructs), and library studies (latest research that becomes more focused and fast each day).  The goals are the same – more skills, more knowledge, more motivation for future learning – even if the paths to those goals look different from days past.


La plus ca change!


How does learning look different from when you were in school?  We’d love to hear your stories.  Click the “comment” button and share your ideas, opinions, comments, and anecdotes!




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