Integrating Technology: The Cart and the Horse

My Students, Learning
My Students, Learning

Some weeks back, I was looking at my site statistics. It’s not something I do a lot, but every once in a while, I like to see what people are searching for that led them to this site. It’s curiosity more than anything else. I noticed that someone Googled terms that were something like “technology to use with ________.” I’m being a little vague on purpose in the hopes that I don’t inadvertently embarrass anyone, especially because what I really want to do is help. Looking for “technology to use” with anything is putting the cart before the horse, but I think I understand why people do it.

Whenever you design a lesson or unit, it’s best to start with this question: What do I want students to know or be able to do at the end of this? Backward design really will resolve a host of planning problems because everything you plan will lead to the answer to that question. Backward design will help you figure out what to do during individual lessons. Backward design will help you figure out which texts to teach or what kinds of writing assignments students should do. Backward design will help you figure out which technology to use. Individual lessons, texts and writing, and technology are not the ends themselves—they are the means to the end. They are the materials you use to reach the learning goal you’ve set. As such, asking what kinds of technology you might use to teach X is putting the focus on the technology instead of on the learning, and it probably won’t take your students where you want them to go. The best analogy I can think of is the apple unit described in Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design. If you’ve read the book, you’ll remember the description of this unit—lots of fun activities about apples, but not much understanding or deeper learning taking place.

When you design a unit for students, you want to think about what activities you might use or create that will help students reach learning goals. If, for instance, one of your goals is that students will understand Shakespeare’s language, you might design a series of lessons that engage students in study of his language—lessons in denotation, connotation, stress, and inflection that lead to an understanding of subtext; lessons in Foley art and sound effects in creating a podcast or radio play that communicates the tone and mood of a scene; lessons in diction that teach close reading. Might you use technology for these lessons? Perhaps you might create an engaging lesson using technology to teach Foley art and sound effects because the technology will add relevance to that lesson. Without technology, in fact, students might not understand the point of the lesson at all. However, it might be wholly unnecessary to use technology for teaching subtext or diction. In fact, plain old books, pencils, and paper might be the best tools to use.

When should you use technology? When it will make learning easier for students or when it will make learning possible for students. Technology is meant to save us time. If it’s not saving us time, or if it’s actually impeding the learning, we should think about why we’re using it. On the other hand, technology enables us to do many wonderful things we couldn’t do without it. If we can extend learning in ways that we couldn’t without using technology, then of course we should use it. If using technology is going to help engage students, we should use it. I’m thinking here of my colleague Lisa, whose 8th grade students blog. If they just wrote for their teacher and their classmates, they wouldn’t have the larger, more authentic audience that blogging offers. I’m also thinking of my colleague Pete, whose math students used robots to learn integers. Could Lisa’s students have learned writing without blogging? Sure. But blogging provides an audience and adds engagement. Could Pete’s students have learned integers without robots? Again, sure, but the robots add engagement and help students visualize the number line in a new way.

Why search for technology to add to our lessons instead of thinking about the lessons first and whether or not technology will enhance the learning? My hunch is that the person who was looking for technology to use with X was probably told he or she was not using enough technology. Perhaps an evaluation indicated as much. It’s impossible to know for sure. The best way that administrators can support the use of technology is to provide opportunities for faculty to learn about it and give them the tools they need. I don’t think it’s wrong for faculty members to ask for help using technology. Too many schools want teachers to use technology without really giving them proper tools to do so. In both cases, what often happens, is the teachers are labeled “reluctant.” In some attempt to appease, they might just resort to Googling “technology to use with X.” They won’t find the answers they are looking for that way. They might find a one-off activity, but without some real thought about lesson and unit design, it’s not likely that any sort of technology will help teachers reach their goals.

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