Friday, March 6, 2009

In Defense of Technology for the Sake of Education not AS Education

Many well-meaning educators have a long-held belief that we must "teach technology" (learn to use Excel by following this 9 week course outline) as opposed to integrating technology (work with your team to create a Wiki about the causes of the Civil War). To understand the difference, let us unearth an old argument with our beloved high-school English teachers. . . .

Mrs. Grammar says, "Students, you must be able to identify the parts of speech and diagram sentences before you can understand the English language and write an essay! We will concentrate on these skills, and eventually, you will be able to write a good and correct essay." Imagine Mrs. Grammar's students are in 11th grade, the TAKS* test is looming, they wonder,

"If I stick with my diagramming in Mrs. Grammar's class, will I be able to make a 2 on the essay, pass the test, and graduate from high school?" Mrs. Grammar is insistent. Diagram! Noun, adjective, verb!


Nine grueling weeks later, students are minimally competent at identifying basic parts of speech and diagramming very simple sentences. Her administrative evaluator suggests, kindly, that perhaps she should have the students try to actually write an essay. She acquiesces and has them write. It's terrible. She sees "he don't like . . .," "her and me are . . ," and even the dreaded preposition ending a sentence error is in nearly every example. Did the students learn nothing?

Actually, the answer is "yes," they learned nothing . . . about writing an essay because the two activities (parts of speech and diagramming & essay composition) do not relate to each other. Mounds of research prove this, but Mrs. Grammar will probably never be convinced, even if 30 years of experience should have proved it 30 times. After all, she believes, this is how SHE learned it. Whether you agree with her or with me, as a practical-minded and open-minded educator yourself, you probably know that what makes essays better is writing lots of essays of all kinds and reading other people's essays, and then writing more essays yourself.

Along the same line of thought, well-meaning educators everywhere insist that discrete, program-related technology skills must be taught if students are to gain competence. "Students must know how to use Excel," the voices insist. How can they function in a business world that uses Excel without experience using Excel?

The answer is similar to the one we offer Mrs. Grammar. If 17 year old 11th grade students cannot identify a noun, yet they speak their native language (English) and write in a way all can understand (though perhaps incorrectly), the practical-minded teacher realizes she, at this juncture, must work with what she's got. Students who can write essays have just got to get writing right away.


When we meet students who use their skills as digital natives and operate computers in ways their teachers perhaps cannot understand, we must not hold them back from doing the equivalent of diving in to write that proverbial essay. Our students are not just essayists in the realm of technology, we have 8 year old Tolstoys . . . full-fledged novelists of the digital world. If they are not already, given the merest opportunity, they will soon be. To ask our tiny Tolstoy tots, our digital natives, to learn to click the mouse this way then that "all together now!" or learn to use this specific program or that, is even more tragic and less useful than asking our 17 year old essayists to spend their junior year in English learning to identify nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Please help your fellow educators understand that . . .

We must not keep students from reaching their potential as digital natives because we do not speak their language.

What's a "Digital Native"? Find out here.

*Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, Texas's state standardized test
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