It’s a Poor Man Who Blames His Tools

I wrestled with a number of ways to title this post but decided on this.  I wanted to take some time to reflect on the lunch keynote address at the Western Regional Computer Advisory Committee’s Symposium 2013 delivered by Gary Stager.  I’ve seen Dr. Stager speak on a number of occasions and he always gets me thinking.  Friday was no different.

I didn’t know what to expect.  We’d already had an altercation online over the topic of donuts…

and, if you read yesterday’s blog post, I had gone out to Tim Horton’s to buy some to prove that they can be had.

The presentation that was delivered on this date not only had me thinking, but I’ll qualify it as being the very best presentations that I’d see him deliver.  There have been some online messages from Gary that I’d seen (and totally agreed with) that I knew would challenge some in the audience.  Most recently, he took issue with the classifying of iPad applications identified with levels on the SAMR model.  It was that which lent me the idea for this post.  How can you take an application and assign it to a level in any model (SAMR, TPACK, Maslow’s Hierarchy)?  Is it the application or is it the teaching and how the application is used?

Instead, he built upon the notion I’ve heard from him many times.  “We stand on the shoulders of giants”.  Many who have laid the groundwork for our current thinking didn’t have our benefits of modern technology and yet their tenants are so applicable; they just knew what good teaching looks like.  Good, Bad, Indifferent; Significant differences aren’t based upon the actually technology – “we’re going to get better by replacing our e-devices with i-devices and in the long run o-devices”.  No, we’re going to get better by focusing on the task at hand – good teaching.  I really liked Gary’s comment that I’m afraid I’ll have to paraphrase because I didn’t write it down at the time “How can we pretend to teach the 21st Century Learner when we’re not modeling learning ourselves?”

Buying the next glitzy thing won’t cut it.  Online, Vicky Loras had introduced me to Sophia Mavridi from Athens.  Recently, Sophia wrote a fabulous post “We need pedagogy, not just cool tools” that could just as easily have served as a springboard to the whole topic.  If you’re concerned about this, you need to read Sophia’s post.  If you’re in Greece this month, she’s presenting on a similar topic.  I’d love to hear it.  I wonder if it’s streamed?

In education, most grades and subject areas are always targets for educational improvement.  When it comes to technology, those who would push the change are quick to roll out the “current model” and use it to clobber people’s attempts at technology use in the classroom.  There’s a great post and chart located here “What’s the Difference Between “Using Technology” and “Technology Integration”?”  I would think those who read this blog get it and like Sophia’s post, it’s worth a read and contemplation.  Despite all this, there are a couple of areas that aren’t constantly beat up.  These would be Kindergarten Teachers and Computer Science teachers.  Wha…?

Stick with me.

Take your favourite model.  I’ll take SAMR.  Take a look at the top rung.  It’s the “Creation of new tasks previously inconceivable”.  Now think of Kindergarten and Computer Science classes.  In both cases, every task is generally inconceivable when they get started.  The Kindergarten student has no baggage that says “you’ve done this before.”  The Computer Science student takes on the task with only a general notion of where they’re headed.  With a sufficiently rich project, there’s always the digging into the unknown.  When you observe both classes in action, they’re generally there on time, enter their learning space, and are motivated to get on with the task.  There also isn’t a sense that the task is ever “done”.  There’s always one more block to add or algorithm to tweak.  Along the way, there’s no concern that they’re not using the latest compiler or newest toy/tool – the focus is working on the job and exploring along the way.

What happens between these grades?  The education system, of course.  Do we need the newest and coolest tools in between?  Not necessarily.  In fact, Sylvia from Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show! shows that the excitement of learning and building can indeed happen in between.  Grant Wiggins sheds some real insights about how schools just kill the excitement “Mandating the daily posting of objectives, and other dumb ideas“.  Yeah, schools can really do a job on that.

But … can’t we have a couple of cool tools?

Absolutely.  But make sure that it’s for the right reasons.  I have to smile when I think about an argument I experienced as to what was better – ShowMe, ScreenChomp, or Explain Everything.  Do we need to make software selection a peeing contest?  Evaluate all three for a purpose, choose one, and move on.  It’s ultimately the understanding that you’re teaching a topic and not teaching about the latest or coolest tool on the market.  A constant search for the coolest tool puts one on a treadmill that just won’t stop.  Read blogs like this one or Richard Byrne’s “Free Technology for Teachers“.  Both of us dog lovers appear to have all kinds of time on our hands to do the evaluation of things for you.

At the end of the RCAC Symposium, a few of us were sitting around musing on Gary’s words.  We were asking the question “Where are they now?”  You know – the Lighthouse Schools, the Model School Districts, the Schools of Tomorrow, the Schools of the Future, the exemplary schools …  Often kicked off with a huge infusion of one-time money and the coolest tools at the time, reality once again kicks in.  The tools get old.  The hand selected staff moves on, sometimes because of burnout. The principal or superintendent changes. Or the district decides to go in a different direction.  The only thing that remains constant are kids entering to look for a good education.  Don’t they deserve it just as much as the students that cracked the seal on new, shiny equipment?  Had the focus only been on good teaching and the technology added as the school became ready…

Back to the donuts…one of the things that Gary noted during his speech was that typically he keynotes and then is sucked off the stage and back to the airport.  At the RCAC, we do things a bit differently.  The keynote speaker does a breakout after his/her keynote where people may elect to follow and ask questions and clarifications on the points raised.  It’s also a litmus test for the speaker; if people want another hour with them, they know that they hit it out of the park.  Gary was SRO in his breakout and passed around the box of donuts to his audience.

Back to the title … if a person or district is basing a direction solely on the cool tool, it’s a waste of energies.  Wouldn’t the money be wiser spent on professional learning opportunities to learn how to excite with the tools or applications that you already have in place?  To do otherwise, it seems to me, means resetting the odometer to zero and starting all over again.

8 thoughts on “It’s a Poor Man Who Blames His Tools

  1. This post reminds me on a conversation I had with Rodd Lucier (@thecleversheep) at #rcac13 about buzzwords in education – specifically the latest ‘flipped class’ and ‘genius hour’.

    Let me be the first to admit I put those terms in my presentation summary to generate an audience. Buzzwords peak interest. A marketing strategy.

    I admitted this during my session which lead to my conversation with Rodd afterwards.

    Most great educators have been ‘flipping classes’ for years. This is my 7th year of teaching and I have never taught without a class website – where resources are always being posted.

    Science and Drama teachers have been running ‘genius hour’ classes since the beginning of time.

    So, just like the app classification with SAMR, I’d love to get away from hearing about teachers who are ‘flipping their class’ – and ‘genius hour’ is just student choice.


  2. That’s a good summary, Brian. I’ll admit that I was surprised with the title of your presentation when you sent it to me! I remember thinking at the time – makes sense, what would AFLAC be without the duck? There are so many distractions that the sensational needs to be done just to contend for attention.

    It should come as no surprise that I agree with you about the concept of the class website. I remember 80353 where we had the class wiki. It’s a repository as well as a look ahead for the entire course. Nobody ever showed up and asked “So, what are we doing tonight?”

    As I sit here pondering your words, I’m seeing the latest buzzword as another “cool tool” in the words of Sophia. For some reason, there’s a sense that one needs to know the latest and greatest lest one get left behind.

    I wish that I could have spent the entire time in your session but responsibilities took a slightly higher priority. (Someone had to make the bread pudding…) My favourite two constructionists were in the audience and made a point of telling me that you were the real deal. You can’t want more than that.


  3. Thanks, Doug.

    I guess we need another visual model like SAMR to showcase buzzwords. Put flipping classes and genius hour at the bottom as surface level, but initial steps to the greater picture. It’s not enough to post videos to a website and then assign ‘homework’ in class, but it is a starting point I suppose. The “S” if you will.

    I resonate with the “cool tool” piece you mentioned. In my first few years, I was always trying to find the newest and best ‘tool’. Somehow the bells and whistles trumped the functional process of my lessons. Glitz and glam made it engaging. Now I think engagement is so much more than just that. It’s not even about the ‘tool’ – and I was trying to get hired.

    While the identity of your favourite two constructionists remains unknown, I have a hunch and I appreciate their kind words. Humbling experience to say the least.


  4. Thanks, Doug.

    I guess we need another visual model like SAMR to showcase buzzwords. Put flipping classes and genius hour at the bottom as surface level, but initial steps to the greater picture. It’s not enough to post videos to a website and then assign homework in class. It’s a starting point though I suppose. The “S” if you will.

    Unfortunately I resonate to the “cool tool” approach. In my early years I used to think I needed the newest and best ‘tool’ to drive a lesson. All the bells and whistles would lead to greater student engagement. I now understand engagement is so much more than glitz and glam. I also think that the lesson should determine the ‘tool’ and not vice versa. I chalk it up to me trying to get hired (pun intended)!

    While the identity of your two favourite constructionists remains unknown, I am humbled to say the least.


  5. I agree that the focus should be on good teaching, not tools. How does someone like me, an instructional technologist working with tech dept, bring this up to administration? I’m afraid to speak-out against poor teaching (worksheets, drill/kill, infinite lecturing) since I’m not asked to comment on pedagogy. People come to me for tools, but I’m going to recommend strategies first and tools second.


  6. That would exactly be the approach, April. Nobody likes being told that they’re doing things wrong but there isn’t an educator that isn’t looking for better ways to engage all of her students. I find that it works best when you can model what you want to see. A good way is to take someone’s class and teach it for them with them in the room to watch. You can then demonstrate how you see a lesson fused with technology playing out.


  7. Thanks, Doug. Really interesting post. I think with tools, apps and educational resources generally, the question really comes down to what we are trying to accomplish. It seems very popular to align apps and materials to all different sorts of models, but the alignment doesn’t really help unless the teacher knows what outcome they’re trying to achieve. The alignment seems to imply that the “higher levels” of the models are preferable to the lower levels, but that really depends on the level of performance of the learner in question.

    Also, different kinds of apps have very different purposes. I like to call them “skill acquisition,” “skill extension,” and “reference tools.” Something like Explain Everything, to me, is a skill extension app. Kids create their own presentations using it, but in order to use it they need some foundation in core skills…reading, for example. If a student doesn’t have the component skills to use something like Explain Everything, then a skill acquisition app, like Bugsy Kindergarten Reading School, might be in order.

    Sometimes I think we make arbitrary decisions about whether something is “pedagogy” or a “cool tool.” I appreciate what you said about evaluating apps like ShowMe, ScreenChomp and Explain Everything for purpose. None of them, strictly speaking, is pedagogy. None of them provides instruction. But in the context of great instruction, cool tools like these can do a lot.


  8. Pingback: It’s a Poor Man Who Blames His Tools | Learning @ Swansea NUT

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