Deep Understanding

I had an interesting read and reflection on Peter Skillen’s blog yesterday.  A recent post “Deep Understanding & the Issue of Transfer” really resonates with me and I’ve been mulling over his words ever since I read the entry.

In one posting, Peter has been able to convey to me the essence of successful use of technology.  Now, I don’t use terms like constructivism or connectivism for a couple of reasons.  First, just the terms seem to polarize people and their thinking.  Secondly, I see people using them in all kinds of scenarios that just don’t make sense to me.  “In my constructivist classroom, we skyped with so and so”.  And, the point to this exercise is… “Well, my students are connected to other…”  And, the point to this exercise is…  I keep waiting for the answer.  Did we learn something new?  Did we compare cultures?  Did we exchange anything other than a couple of minutes for the sake of doing something?  Seriously, is the fruit hanging that low?

Later on, there was a response by Colin Jagoe to Peter’s original post  “When will I use this again?”. I answered, “Never, but that’s not the point, you’re working your brain to make it better able to solve problems that you WILL encounter later on.” I love it and says so much.

For me, I fear the effects that the point and click world can have.  I shiver when I hear some of the tripe that passes as wisdom.  “It’s not about the technology; it’s about the teaching”.  Who are we kidding?  It’s about the understanding.  It’s about applying concepts in new contexts without having to learn something new.  It’s about connecting the dots.  If you’re bringing technology into the learning, then it needs to be a dot that is just as critical as any other component.

Case in point — yesterday morning was a particularly high moment for me.  @kellypower was over for a visit and we were discussing how we were about to change the world, or at least our little part of it.  Into the middle of our conversation, I get a “house on fire” interruption.  It seems that we have some vendor guests who are having computer problems.  Using my best management skills, I ask a couple of questions to determine the importance of this interruption and promise to help out in 15-20 minutes.

Well, it turns out that they have “a Powerpoint” (is that even a noun?) that they want to use but Microsoft Powerpoint isn’t on the computer connected to the SMART Board that they’ll be using in our computer lab.  I see the fear and the deer in the headlights look when I try to explain that OpenOffice will do the trick and decide to avoid the inevitable argument and quickly download and install Microsoft’s Powerpoint viewer.  But, that was the beginning of the problem.  There was also a Quicktime move that wouldn’t play because we didn’t have the latest version of Quicktime installed and Quicktime downloads are blocked on our network.  So, I emailed the file to myself and went back to my room to convert it to FLV and then post it on my website so that they could view it in a browser.  “Oh, that sounds like a good idea – we should get our developers to do that.”

Now, it’s not like I’m a genius or anything.  Ask anyone; I just continue to press keys like a Skinnerian rat until something good happens.  Seriously, though, as a student and teacher of computer science, I’m able to see the dots and connect them.  For me, this is the understanding that helps me get through a day of problem solving.  I hark back to Colin’s original quote and he’s nailed the concept.  By staying aware of where the world and technology is headed, I can transfer the old learning to the new contexts.  Shouldn’t we all?

Peter continues in his blog to talk about the research and opportunities to help students with these concepts.  Inevitably, with Peter, we end up with a discussion of Logo and the benefits of learning how to program.  It should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan and believer in his words.  I like his thoughts about transference.  Even with the Skype example above, there are opportunities to see beyond the phone call.  Are they taken?

It’s a sad state of affairs when I take a look at programming as a discipline.  Over the years, we’ve seen the importance of programming decline in the eyes of the decision makers.  I think that many buy into the point and click and good things happen without understanding why notion.  How often do you hear “Kids today are so insightful; they can do anything”.  Really?  I think that, if you truly peel back what you see with technology use, you’ll see an apple just hit them right in the forehead.  I think, more than ever, that we need to incorporate programming and complex systems into our educational environment.  The world isn’t getting simpler.  It’s more technological and complex than ever.  These skills, and even more importantly, these deep understandings are crucial.

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3 thoughts on “Deep Understanding

  1. Great reflection, Doug!
    I also like “you’re working your brain to make it better able to solve problems that you WILL encounter later on” because what we do and ask of our students to do IS to make connections. Having an understanding requires remembering, inferencing, cross examining, contrasting, all of it. As a relatively new-to-the-tech-scene music teacher, I am challenged when I see the complexity of our technological world. I’m glad to have colleagues here and world-wide with whom I can ask questions converse with. So thanks for being a part of an important “dot” for me, Doug.


  2. Hi Doug,
    A thoughtful and enlightening response. I appreciate your insights. You say, “Now, I don’t use terms like constructivism or connectivism for a couple of reasons. First, just the terms seem to polarize people and their thinking. Secondly, I see people using them in all kinds of scenarios that just don’t make sense to me.”
    I so very much agree with you on this. Yet, I am so guilty still of clinging to the term ‘constructivism’ and, yes, promoting it. I believe it does polarize us in many ways…and, that is not a good thing. It thrilled me to see the Atkinson Series in the Toronto Star some months back describe recent brain science research. In that series they advocated much that one could describe as ‘constructivist’ but refrained from using the term. I liked that – but am unsure how to encapsulate so many ideas in one construct without using the term. (But, maybe we don’t have to.)
    Your other point regarding the misuse of the term is a common phenomenon as you know. Once a term has been around for a while, the meaning ‘drifts’ to something else and is appropriated by many to the point where it loses its original intent. People often equate ‘constructivism’ with ‘hands-on’ activities.
    This ‘lexical drift’ can be seen with many deep constructs and forces us to invent new words. Perhaps that is necessary in this case? Doug, do you think it is necessary to do so? Or?

    You also say, “I fear the effects that the point and click world can have.”
    Me too. I am so troubled by the aggregation of trite one-liners I see tweeted out from conferences where well-intentioned speakers are making much deeper points. These free-range ‘factoids’ do not serve us well and are in contradiction with those who espouse ‘carrying on the conversation.

    You continue, “How often do you hear ‘Kids today are so insightful; they can do anything’. ” I am in the midst of a blog post expanding on this issue. Kids are not great with computers. It is a myth. Yes, many may be great with gaming or social networks (Facebook) and texting – but the extremely high motivation for the ‘social’ is what leads to the successful use of computers for those purposes.
    Not all kids like computer use. Many are not very good at programming, PhotoShop, advanced wordprocessing, publishing, video production, or other complex systems as you mention.
    Deep understanding indeed is hard work.


  3. Pingback: A Simple Song, Skype, & Warm Sunshine « Sing Imagination

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