Friday, June 18, 2010

Let's Help Dan

American Educator publishes new piece by Dan Willingham (in pdf. form), piece promptly gets criticized on Net (on a blog).

There's something in that, methinks.

I've got no problem with a cognitive scientist talking about the brain all he wants. I think there's a lot to learn about learning in the work of Willingham and other academics. I actually like Willingham and have chatted with him occasionally about issues in education. And I think we should be thankful to have someone in the cognitive sciences with an interest in what we do as educators.

But, I think that just as we need the help of cognitive scientists to help us better understand the brain, they also need us to help them understand the context and reality of the classroom. And this has to be a conversation, not a series of diatribes. Otherwise, we create something analogous to a music journalist telling a musician how to play better and the musician turning around and saying the journalist doesn't know how to write. And that's useless.

So with the intention of creating discussion, I do embark...

One of the first things Willingham says is that "new technologies do not represent a silver bullet", and on that front he's absolutely correct. And I don't think any proponent of ed tech would argue with him. And I don't think any teacher with any amount of experience whatsoever in dealing with kids would think that there's a silver bullet for anything.

Where Dan starts to lose me, however, is in completing that thought by saying that "Just using a new gadget does not guarantee student learning". It's not that I disagree with that statement in and of itself, but rather I disagree with what the statement assumes: that technology is about gadgets.

We have to be really careful to explain what we mean by "tech" and what we mean by "gadget". An iPad is a gadget, but it allows for the operation of technology. A laptop is a piece of hardware, it's a gadget; but it allows access to the greater operation signified as the technology of the Web.

I'd say there are passive devices and active devices. Passive devices give you content; they simulate in digital form what we've come to expect of the physical world. I'd put a Kindle in this category; the screen on a Kindle attempts to simulate the page of a paper book. Active devices, on the other hand, are open and promote sharing -- by design. Active devices allow you to get onto the Web and do stuff, make stuff, create stuff, share stuff, and -- most importantly -- learn by doing. Active devices have the capacity to allow the user to manipulate the content of the Web from the point of view of creator and editor, author and reviewer -- all while breaking down the traditional hierarchies and top-down corporate models of content production.

So in the same way that there is a difference between a gadget and technology itself, there are also differences among types of gadgets.

I'm not sure from this article, however, exactly what it is that Willingham is defining as a "gadget" and what he defines as "tech". He seems to equate Web 2.0 tools and computer hardware in some odd way. For example, in a list of possible downsides to several devices, he suggests that Twitter isn't very useful because it is "limited" to 140 characters (granted in an entire article on tech and learning, that's all the attention he gives to Twitter). But, as anyone who has spent any time with Twitter soon realizes, the technology is not "limited" to 140 characters. Nor is Twitter really a "device".

Allow me to conceptualize here.

Twitter is a searchable network format for sharing and searching info and links in real-time. I think Willingham may be thinking about Twitter as a "gadget", whereas it really represents a "form" of communication, not a "device" for communicating. In a way, "tweeting" as a communication technology has transcended the device of "Twitter" -- and it did that long ago (in relation to how long it has existed). That distinction -- between tech and device -- is understood only once one becomes fluid in the application of the technology to a variety of working problems: from direct communication to sharing links to following conversations via 3rd party apps to using Twitter specifically for pedagogical purposes like hashtagging classes or searching in real time to gauge mass response on a current issue.

Tweeting, therefore, does not represent the act of using a new gadget, but rather represents a mode of communication unique to the current cultural paradigm. By analogy, the telephone was a gadget; but the act of telephoning was a form of communication technology in action.

Willingham writes a very compelling section of this paper on interactive whiteboards; and he says that the mere presence of an interactive whiteboard does not mean that students will learn better. And he is 100% correct. But he and the other researchers could have asked any experienced teacher and they would have given you the same answer. Because the whiteboard is a tool/device/gadget. And no gadget will produce any significant result on its own accord. Rather, the whiteboard has to be used in an effective way by the teachers and students. If the whiteboard is used in a passive way, you'll get passive learning (if any). If the whiteboard is used in an active way, you are more likely to get active learning.

Willingham makes a strange case concerning overhead projectors in comparing them to chalkboards -- or more specifically, what is written on a chalkboard. Citing a study of Japanese math teachers who prefer chalkboards, he says that the reason why is because the notes written stay up on the board and can be referred to later. But the comparison of overhead projectors to chalkboards denies the reality of what a projector actually does. A projector projects. That's it. A chalkboard, on the other hand, captures handwriting. The more apt comparison would be between a chalkboard and whatever program or app one is using. So, if a teacher is concerned about 'saving info' on the board, just use a program or app where the info is saved, open multiple tabs, use a backchannel, and by all means in any 1:1 situation: let your students access the information and notes you are creating in real-time; the blackboard, by contrast -- I can't believe I'm actually blogging this -- can be erased. And that info is lost forever. And it is so much more difficult to share.

In a way it seems to me that any teacher who would prefer the blackboard -- for the reasons stated -- just hasn't taken the time to figure out how to use the technology. For the record, it's actually easier than programming the time on a VCR.

Now, those are examples where I think Willingham's arguments don't really jive with the reality of an experienced tech-savvy teacher/learner. There's a lot in Willingham's work that really does work. His criticisms of multi-tasking ring true for the most part, and his observations that brain research can and should apply to teaching are not things I'd argue with. But I think Dan needs a bit of an immersion lesson in ed tech.

And so, I suggest we thank Dan for the good stuff he's been doing and offer to help him understand where many of us are coming from. After all, Dan writes about Twitter (sparsely), but -- and I say this as a person who has spent his fair share of time sharing and learning through tweets -- I don't think Dan really gets it; because I never see him there. I never see Dan in #edchat. I never see Dan getting into Twitter conversations (and that's actually one of the great things about the format: you can watch other people's conversations develop in public). I never see Dan sharing links. And when I look at the bibliography of his article, I see lots of peer review journals cited, but I don't see any sign that Dan has done any of the dirty work -- I use that term endearingly -- of ripping into the real live 24/7 conversation that's happening in the Ed Tech community every single day.

He's not there.

So how could he possibly understand? He's busy referencing articles by a lot of other folks who aren't there. And don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of academia and I think there is an enormous contribution to be made to intellectual life by the writing and reading of peer review journals. But Willingham's article makes recommendations to teachers about technology -- and Willingham himself isn't even adept at the technologies that he's writing about.

Some of my favorite twitterers are academics -- from Alec Couros to Jay Rosen to Ira Socol -- who've come to use the format as a perfect place to share ideas and engage in debate with the public.

But Dan's not there.

So let's help Dan. Let's get him into our PLN. Let's help him understand what this is about -- not by reading a book about it, but by actually doing it. And I'm serious about this. I may have disagreements with Willingham on many issues (his thoughts on learning styles come to mind), but I respect that he's taking part in a dialog about teaching. I just wish he'd take part in that discussion in a more open and perhaps less sheltered way.


  1. I too have conversed with and challenged Dan. And I think he's a very brilliant, and very interesting academic, but I've also come to realize that he functions in a quite closed world.

    Twitter, et al, would help him learn.

    First, most of Dan's research is "meta research." He researches research. This is valuable from a validity point of view, but also quite removed from realities, and his sense of his own works' validity is entirely based in the belief that all experience can be quantified and averaged. He is so deeply entrenched in that position that two years ago he admitted by not even knowing what postmodernism was, much less having a sense of why his overall view might be challenged by so many.

    This, as you point out, gets extremely problematic when Dan decides to speak outside of academic journals and circles, which he does continually. He is, and I think this is intellectually fatal, using social media as a one-way broadcast system (see Barack Obama for someone else suffering from this problem). So he broadcasts to teachers about learning styles, or gadgets, yet, he has observed no classrooms, spoken to no teachers or students, no engaged with the world he is studying in any way. And because his "listening" is confined to occasional debates via email or YouTube comment, he is missing the intellectual flow of his age.

    A few years ago Terry Eagleton, the great scholar of Literature, wrote an obituary for Edward Said. Said, he said, was a "public intellectual," not an "academic." Said was engaged with the world, and involved with a wide swath of important interests. Academics tend to focus so narrowly they lose touch with the world in which they live, and thus miss the obvious indicators regarding whether their work has relevance or real validity.

    Educational academics like Alec Couros and Jon Becker are those "public intellectuals" - active parts of the global conversation. This doesn't just make them leaders, it ensures the value of their work in this "social science."

    If Dan wants to dabble in education and sociology, he needs to do the same.

    - Ira Socol

  2. great post. well said!

  3. Shelly, I'm at a conference so must be brief and can't respond to your thoughtful post until Tuesday. . .I am grateful that you've invited the impressive people who contribute here to pitch in ideas to help me learn. I'll look forward to their posts.

  4. Hi Shelly! My name is Jasmine Parsons and I am an intern at Stevenson University and we are interested in having you come and speak about teaching paperless at our school. If you could email me at that would be great! I look forward to hearing from you.

  5. Shelly
    Back from my conference, and hoping that more people in this community will weigh in.
    You are dead-on in your observation that everything discussed in my article concerns using technology for one-way communication, not for collaborative learning. Initially I thought to discuss both topics, but I quickly discovered that there are virtually no research studies on the latter.
    Note that the column I write is called "Ask the Cognitive Scientist." The whole point is that I'm talking about research. (Obviously that doesn't mean that other points of view aren't valuable--American Educator mostly publishes articles that are not rooted in a scientific point of view. But that's what I do.) That's part of the reason that I didn't write a broader article outlining some of what technology can do for teachers. The second, equally important reason, is that I am not qualified to write such an article were I to want to undertake it. As you note, I'm not there. I know what's been studied empirically, but I don't know what's happening at the cutting edge. It's my opinion that a lot of exciting applications have been generated--that's why I encouraged teachers to seek out online communities for ideas, advice, and support.

    I think that an article by someone who *is* on the cutting edge about what technology can do for teachers would be great in _American Educator_. For what it's worth, I'd be glad to talk to the editor to encourage her on this idea.

    Ira, I'm sorry that you didn't take up Shelly's call for this interchange to be helpful and productive. I read your comment as dismissive. I'm also sad that you have fabricated beliefs for me, e.g., that "all experience can be quantified and averaged," as well as actions "he has observed no classrooms, spoken to no teachers or students, no engaged with the world he is studying in any way." Yes, I talk to teachers. My wife is one teacher I listen to. Yes, I observe classrooms.

    Ira, I read your blog on occasion and think that you often have interesting observations. This type of comment--one in which you concoct beliefs and actions for others--is beneath you.

  6. Hey Dan,

    Thanks for being game to get into the conversation in this way. I do think Am Ed would benefit from seeing where things are on the cutting edge and there are lots of great folks who'd be an excellent entre into that realm.

    I would love to see you taking part in some of the more "on the ground" conversations happening in the twitterverse and the like as I think those conversations would help you understand both the nuances in what's going on with ed and tech from that perspective as well as hearing the direct voices of really engaged teacher in a forum where so many are talking so passionately and eloquently about reform -- far from the lights that generally shine on the decision makers and big talkers. I also think they'd benefit tremendously from having your body of knowledge and expertise in terms of research become even more a part of their conversation.

    As we move forward in the cultural shift that's been occurring at least since those cultural canaries -- newspapers and the music industry -- were forced to change or perish, I think it's best that the day-to-day practitioners of the art of educating and the paper-to-paper practitioners of the art of research come together in a more open ongoing discussion relevant to both.


  7. Dan,

    I may have come across harsher than I intended, but as I've said to you before, I think you are on shaky ground re; "the responsible writing of research." That is, while I completely respect your research, I do not think it suggests any of the causalities which you (consciously or unconsciously) suggest when you broadcast/publish for a wider audience.

    This - in my global view - is a problem for you. Not an individual problem, but a theoretical problem constructed by your position, training, and philosophical viewpoint. Your research, and your statements, do indeed suggest a belief that, "all experience can be quantified and averaged." You need not say those words, your protocols, your writing, your discussions, all indicate this. I'm surprised that you argue this point, since this belief is the foundation of modern social science.

    As for "observation" and "conversation" revolving around your wife who is a teacher, well, this would be like me assessing the world based on, say, my child's experience in school. I can't deny that any of us humans can avoid our lenses being somewhat ground by personal experience and friendships, nor will I deny any anecdotes right to be a point of data, and yet, those of us who study the phenomena of the world (or universe) owe it to those who read our our work to not just assemble more information and feedback than that, but to explain how we have obtained that information and feedback.

    You (and correct me if I am wrong), usually work at researching research. As I said, this has tremendous value. It forces questions to the front in the way no single study can. It assembles data in ways important to other researchers. But it is fundamentally different from the field research I do, or the action research Shelly does. When I, or Shelly, present what we discover, we are talking about the realm of the school, the classroom, itself. We are functioning within that environment. You are, as an academic one step removed, doing something different.

    The advantage to "this" environment, in my opinion, is that observations informally made and informally presented can be challenged immediately in an open way. Doubted, picked on, sometimes laughed at. That is the point. We tend to go from Twitter to Blog to (perhaps) more "academic" writing or presentation. We can fight one day, build ideas together the next. And we do this in a "place" filled with a wide range of educational stakeholders, meaning that our information is filtered through a dense web of knowledge - a process very different than traditional academic peer review.

    The result, to this postmodernist, is not necessarily "better research," but it is, as we say, "grounded theory" - based in observed realities.

    All those years ago in Galileo v The Church, you know, for all the science, the Jesuit accusers were quite right. Galileo was wrong: the planets did not obit the sun on circular paths. All Galileo's proof could not obscure the reality observed by the Jesuits, who knew that Galileo's claim was impossible. They may have been wrong about much, but they were quite right about the falsity of the "circular orbit" claim.

    Old story for sure, but this is why we doubt, this is why we "fight," this is why we discuss.

    - Ira Socol

  8. Shelly, After reading your post and the article, I wondered if we read the same article. I was expecting a piece that was dismissive of technology. Instead what I saw was a piece which said that, if one uses technology, one should use it thoughtfully, in a way that is appropriate both to the technology and to the teaching goal. The implication (stated explicitly, really, at the end) is that different technologies are useful for different things. That seems to me to be obvious. It's also very broad, because it doesn't answer the more important question: given that X is my goal, what is the best tool to achieve it? But then, he's a cognitive scientist; I wouldn't expect him to answer that question. I would, instead, ask teachers.

    Perhaps, by the way, it's not at all obvious that technologies should be chosen and used in an appropriate fashion. Did Britain put whiteboard in all classrooms because they decided that they were the best tool? Or was it to show that they were "using technology"? Is California adopting e-textbooks because they allow multimedia, collaboration, or whatever else is built into them? Or is it to save money? You, clearly, use technology thoughtfully; sadly, I'm not sure that's true of everyone.

  9. David,

    I suppose I too found the Willingham article dismissive, and dismissive based on a limited set of terms and definitions which the author never explores.

    The problem - besides my issue with that averaging of human experience - "the students did..." "the students can..." - data based on quantitative averaging - is that Willingham fails to define either "technology" or even "attention" - he assumes that you will know and believe in these terms as he does.

    My research, admittedly NOT quantitative but historical, indicates that technology changes profoundly impact our ways of learning, our forms of attention, our cognitive processes. The first humans creating cave painting invented a new form of asynchronous communication which changed learning and attention theory forever. So did those who created writing systems, then the alphabet. Socrates bemoaned literacy for what it would do to learning, attention, working memory, and human knowledge. Gutenberg's inventions created the notion of truly linear storytelling. It is likely that the novel would have never found its way past the poem or song in human knowledge transmission without the printing press and movable metal type.

    None of this means that any "technology" is "good" or "bad." But as Heidegger said, technology is how we manipulate the world, and that includes our cognitive world. So, when newsreels of the Boer War reached Britain, or purported newsreels of the Spanish-American War reached the United States, a cognitive shift occurred, and the human brain - having met these technologies - now required new levels of proof to find something true. Radio brought synchronicity - the demand for "real time" information never conceived before, and was so engaging - according to researchers of youth in the late 1920s - that it was dangerous.

    So, yes, Gutenberg spread asynchronous knowledge transmission. He introduced the notion of Fixed Text, without which, much of the Reformation would not have worked. He gave rise to the novel, and thus the demand for steam-driven presses and machine-made paper, which allowed contemporary journalism to appear. Yet he also dehumanized communication, gave immense power to governments, churches, and capitalists, and, yeah, wiped out about half the languages of Europe. Good and bad, but that technological breakthrough altered cognitive processes.

    So it is not really a question of what technology seems "better on average at a statistically significant difference for this task or that." It makes no real difference. The question is, how does education shift to adapt to new forms of attention and cognition which already dominate everywhere but in the classroom.

    - Ira Socol

  10. Dr. Willingham,
    In your article you posed the question, "should technology change the way you teach?" And then, you failed to adequately explore all of the possibilities of the question you posed. You offered a couple of scenarios that conveniently fit with your mulit-tasking opinion/research, but as you admit, you didn't delve into the interactive tools. And what's worse, you brought up Twitter and then proved that you didn't understand the range of its possibilities without being clear about your supposed self awareness of that lacking.

    As I said in the post that prompted Shelly's post(linked to above) we need a higher standard from those who write about teaching and learning in our flagship teacher journals. My criticism may be more appropriately directed at the American Educator editors, but I suspect that they've given you a pretty free rein.

    Kelly Tenkely said in the comments to my blog, "The problem is, because he has failed to do his homework here, I am also tempted to discredit anything legitimate he has done because he is not showing me that he understands the research process."
    Kelly and my colleagues who are the primary readers of American Educator need you pushing farther out into what's possible. We don't need safe, warmed over theories that have resided comfortably in your files and are then slightly turned and trotted out for another round of articles.

  11. @Shelly: regarding AmEd. . .let me know if you're interested and I'll do what I can on my end to move the idea forward. . . that's an offer that goes for others here as well. .I should have a conversation offline with anyone who is interested. As to spending more time in the world of ed tech.. . in principle, of course! In practice, I'm not going to lie to you, time is a problem. (As I'm sure you know, there are communities paralleling this one devoted to other points of view, and those communities invite me to explore their world further, whether it be charter schools, the no-excuses approach or whatever. Often these invitations are issued in all capital letters.) That said, I'd rather direct my time to this problem than others and increasingly I am.
    @David (and others) I'm sure that most of the conclusions seemed pretty obvious. . . they seemed kinda obvious to me as well. . .apparently not so obvious to those who plop smartboards into classrooms w/o a plan.
    @Dan_McGuire: I can see why you're frustrated. . .I should have made it clear that I was writing only about a narrow segment of technology. Honestly, I thought that the article was anything but dismissive. Bear in mind that the point of my articles is usually "there are pretty good data on this. . .you should pay attention to this." Suggesting that a teacher consider changing his or her practice is, to me, something for which the bar should be set fairly high. And again, the bar for the column I write is based on empirical studies. Most of the applications around tech simply haven't been evaluated, and where they have, the data indicate "little effect." My conclusion, however, was not "no effect" but was "probably wasn't implemented in an effective way." The reason that I saw my article as taking a positive tone was that I thought I was basically upbeat about the possibilities despite the paucity of data. My column is typically *not* about pushing farther not into what's possible. Other writers do that, but again, I'm really not qualified to do so. My column is about what's known from a scientific point of view. As I've said, I think a boundary-pushing article on ed tech has real possibilities.


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