Will Technology Enable New Thinking and Learning?

by Mr. Sheehy

People are people, and I would argue (and most theorists seem to argue) not that our ways of thinking are changing, but that new media is better able to capitalize on and accommodate the way we have always thought and learned. The researchers and theorists do not say, “21st Century people structure knowledge in ways people from the 19th Century did not.” Instead, they consider themselves to be discovering how people think – past and present.

It seems like a nit-picky thing to declare, but it is a key concept when discussing how technology can enable new ways of thinking and learning. What it means is that the technology is not changing people; rather, the technology better matches the learning and thinking that people have always done. For example, people often think in pictures – this is not a surprise no matter what kind of accolades we pile upon learning style theorists. William Shakespeare knew we think in pictures: he spoke with imagery that connected so deeply with people that his work never died. With modern technology (Internet, digital photography, photoblogs, web-storage), more images are available to us on demand, which accommodates that manner of thought.

Of course, that does not mean that the technology will not change the world of education. Tech-Heads are the most eager to envision these changes, as seen by the innovations of a Catholic School in Sydney, Australia, where organizers have built “a 24-hour school with no traditional classrooms and where students use mobile phones and laptops to learn” (Edwards 2006). They enthusiastically anticipate that

students will come online and enter into a dialogue with their tutors. The traditional classroom concept will disappear, replaced by “learning spaces.” The school will be referred to as a “learning community” and teachers will be known as “learning advisers. (Edwards 2006)

(Thanks to Will Richardson for pointing out the article.) Who can knock such unbridled enthusiasm? It makes it seem like technology could be the wrecking ball for the industrialized classroom that mass-produces consumers for capitalist societies. So I will not seek to dampen such ideas, but I will temper my anticipation – a well-suited habit for one who teaches in the state with the lowest average teacher salaries in the US – and seek a practical idealism about the possibilities of technology’s influence on education.

One of the things I like the most about modern media is the immediacy that is possible. It seems that we can cut through the clutter in a person’s head and insert content quicker when we have media that speaks more directly to a person’s brain. For example, a student could read a long description of Gettysburg, or she could watch a five minute slide show or video showing her what Gettysburg looks like. When the content is the priority, what does it matter how it is conveyed? That’s why practically every American history teacher in the country showed Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary – what better way to make so much content come alive? You can explain the theory of gravity to me, but it parked itself when I watched the video of a feather and a bowling ball dropping at the same rate.

Many of the “hot” theorists in education today emphasize cooperative, non-competitive communities, and while I have questions about the efficacy of this when our national motivation for the existence of education is competitive and the bedrock of our economy is capitalism, they could certainly be augmented with present communication technology. Four years ago I assigned my students to book-club groups, where they had to meet and discuss a book they were reading. I had to remind them that IM sessions did not count as meetings; maybe I should have been more boldly experimental and allowed them to use the chatting experience to academic ends. An online community existed in that context. Maybe I could build or exploit one for my classes’ ends.

Also interesting about the web today is the glimpse we get into students’ lives. I am a writer, and I am convinced that through writing we can glimpse people’s hearts. I see it happen often in school, and I see it online with blogs and places like My Space. I feel like peeking at a My Space site is equivalent to peeking in a child’s bedroom. You see the posters on the wall, the music that blasts from the stereo, and the writing that is in those notes that have been passed back and forth in school all day. This often means that students already have an existence as creators – writers, designers, photographers, and critics. In addition, economically, these students live in the world of the long tail, where they can pick more particularly what they will consume. Surely what this means is it will become even more important with the growth of new media to give students opportunities to put their hands-on the learning experience as active builders and to make that material relevant, since students are already accustomed to a vast freedom of expression and variety of choice.

The practical side of my idealism is obvious – I am assuming that education will follow the cultural trends and respond to the ways people like to express their thinking and build their learning, not lead the way. That may be a good thing, because it may be easier to adjust students’ and teachers’ thinking than to change it. Just try to teach some of the “old guard” teachers how to integrate technology into their classrooms – they don’t want to do it, because that is not the way they have trained themselves. It’s not that they do not think the same, but their habits are not the same. But if they want to help students and be more effective, they should meet students where they are and help the students learn in whatever way students are most efficient at learning. And with the new media explosion, students will likely be most efficient using these types of technology.