Wednesday, January 4, 2017

What Are We Doing? Why Are We Doing It?

As a kid, I used to like making dioramas. "Mom, do we have any shoeboxes?" I'd swear that's why we kept them, the inevitable diorama project. Mine were never better than okay. I am not totally inept artistically, but I'm not great either. I remember a college art professor comparing my rather basic work with the more polished work of peers. He told me I had an "interesting aesthetic". Digression aside, I liked making dioramas because it didn't matter if I didn't finish the book! Usually the book jacket/ back cover was enough to make one.

I read tech blogs, articles and websites for at least ten hours a week. Many apps and tools are highlighted. Many are really impressive looking. Yet, I find myself asking, "Where's the beef?" about more than a few of them. What is the depth of knowledge (DOK)? What are high tech equivalents of diorama making? Look, if a kid wants to use a neat app to make a cool looking project, that's great. But before we insist that our students use iMotion or Telligami, please think very carefully about what learning we are asking for. Please.

Look, don't get me wrong. I am not a fan of "rigor". I maintain that less is often indeed more. I encourage teachers to slow down and cover less content in favor of deeper learning. There is also a  time component to consider. That's when I get a little bit leery of the Maker Movement of which I consider myself a fan. I love the design thinking that it promotes. Still, when students take weeks in the execution of a project or allow the 3-D printer and laser cutter to do most of the work, I wonder if we have milked the learning out of the assignment long before it is actually completed.

Here's another example of "all sizzle and no steak".  For many years I taught 8th grade social studies and I had my students make a Year in Review project. (I hadn't touched that document since 2012 until just now!)  I remember that a student used iMovie's trailer feature around 2008 or 2009 to make an amazing looking video that I now know required very little effort. As a relative tech neophyte at the time, I was bamboozled by the wow factor. (By the way, the best Year in Review project I ever received was a punk rock song about 1999. A student named Jon G. brought in his amp, guitar and played a brilliant, sad, funny and evocative song. I wish we had digital technology back then. He made me a cassette tape of it that I lost long ago.)

Sometimes what folks highlight as tech successes in the classroom don't do much to advance learning. I won't mention any names or websites here, but I am talking about some reputable and well received sites. Look, I am not dismissing these tech uses out of hand. There are some important"soft" skills such as attention to detail, and "stick-to-it-tiveness" that a well done stop- motion video requires. If well done, a student will also have had to use academic skills to make a story-board.  I also recognize that if tech use helps the kids become more excited about learning, that's a great thing, and that it is worth spending extra time.  But please always be mindful of the larger goal of learning. Don't make 21st century versions of my dioramas.

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