Educational technology: it’s the hottest movement out there in education, and has been for some time. In fact, there seems to be a rather non-discriminating admiration for anything edtech among many teachers today. You can’t open an educational journal, print or online, without being bombarded with ads and articles extolling the virtues of the “latest and greatest” technological tool for the classroom.
And many of these tools are great, but we have to be careful anytime we decide to add a new technology into the classroom. Forget the cost of any new technology in dollars–and adoption of some edtech tools comes with a rather hefty price tag–there’s another cost that needs to be taken into account: time.
Since time is a finite resource, any time you spend using a new technological tool in the classroom must necessarily come at the cost of something else. The key question is, “Is there a net value in learning that takes place as a result of using the tool?” If we can truly answer, “Yes” to this question, we can confidently move forward with adding the new tech tool. If we can’t confidently answer, “Yes” to this question, however, we should be hesitant about adding the new technology.Is there a net value in learning that takes place as a result of using the tool? Click To Tweet
Now, I’m not arguing against the use of educational technology in general. I have seen some amazing teaching and learning taking place in classrooms across the country that wouldn’t be possible without the use of edtech. On the other hand, I’ve also seen teachers wasting enormous amounts of valuable class time using technological tools that are time-intensive (boot up, log in, open a window, open a file, save, print, etc.) and lead to less actual student thinking and learning than the “old school” methods they replaced.
In addition, we must always keep in mind that the human brain evolved to learn in certain ways. To give just one example, the brain is designed to learn from situations in which there is a strong emotional component. Emotions “tag” experiences chemically in the brain, making us more likely to remember those experiences later. When the new technologies added to the classroom heighten students’ emotional connection to learning, a net positive effect on learning should occur; however, when the new edtech has the effect of distancing students from an emotional engagement with content, those technologies (no matter how “cool” they are in other ways) may actually lead to poorer retention of the material.We need to ensure these non-negotiables don't disappear from the classroom when we add new tech Click To Tweet
The bottom line is that there are some things educational technology does well, and some things it will never be able to do, and we need to make sure that these “non-negotiables” don’t disappear from the classroom when we add new tech tools. Below are three components that should be included in every lesson you teach because they match the way the brain is designed to learn best. When you add a new layer of edtech to the classroom, make sure that you don’t cut time devoted to any of these three components or you’re likely to end up with a net loss of learning.
Three Components to Build into Every Lesson
1. Face time
Many new technologies are touted as ways to promote student collaboration. For example, Google Docs allows students to work simultaneously on a single document, divide up the work, and interact digitally about on-going revisions. In addition, the software allows the teacher to follow a group’s progress and note the individual contributions of group members. These benefits are certainly powerful arguments in favor of using Google Docs for group writing assignments.
But let’s look at the flipside of the argument for a moment. As Amy Williams notes in her Education Week Teacher article, “A Call for Fewer Screens in the Classroom,” “the interactive nature of technology platforms can also be illusory.” Williams points out that, “It’s easy for students to remain in their own discrete spaces and to avoid the difficult nature of interacting with peers when a screen functions as a mediating force.”
You might ask, “Is face-to-face interaction necessary?” And I guess the answer to that question is, “It depends on what your goals for your students are.” Certainly, for any writing assignment, the teacher’s goals are going to include that the students thoroughly research their topic and that they produce a well-thought-out piece that is also well-written. And it’s possible for them to meet all of these goals using Google Docs without ever working face-to-face.
But are those the only goals we should have for our students when it comes to collaborative writing assignments? If it were my classroom, I would also want my students to learn how to negotiate with others face-to-face concerning different visions for a collaborative document, different sources to use for support, even different wording of individual sentences. Students learn so much about writing by hearing the arguments of a peer. And tech tools such as Google Docs can make it easy for students to avoid such difficult negotiation of meaning by simply dividing up the work and then cobbling the pieces together digitally.
And there are other advantages of having students work face-to-face every day. In one interesting study done recently, 104 preteens were pre-tested on their ability to infer the emotional states of people in photographs and videos. 51 of these preteens then spent five days at a nature camp where no televisions, computers, or smartphones were allowed, while the remaining 54 students continued their normal school activities. When the five days were over, both groups were post-tested using the same method as before. The researchers found that the preteens who spent five days away from all screens (and were thus forced to interact much more face-to-face with their peers) improved significantly in their ability to read non-verbal emotional cues as compared to their peers who followed their normal school routine (Uhls, 2014).
This study shows that our ability to emotionally “read” and connect with others improves with even a few days of practice. And when we consider the fact that employers continually tell us that being able to get along with others and work as a team is one of the most important qualities they look for in employees, its obvious that we need to make sure that we balance the use of tech tools with face-to-face interactions.
2. Just me and my thoughts
Another important component of any lesson is individual processing time. The brain learns best when it takes in input from the senses and then has the opportunity to “go internal” and make relevant connections between the new learning and old learning. Unfortunately, many teachers find it hard to work in time for their students to do this all-important thinking.
Of course, the age-old enemy of individual processing time is traditional lecture methodology, where the teacher talks non-stop for an entire class period. I’ve written about the many reasons why this approach virtually guarantees that there will be little learning, but suffice it to say that non-stop input is one of the biggest impediments to student thinking and learning.
But it’s not the only one. Other well-intentioned teaching methodologies that work brilliantly for many purposes can still get in the way of individual student processing time. Take cooperative learning, for example. I’m a big fan of cooperative learning, but some teachers get so used to using certain pair and small group structures that they forget to include individual processing time in their lessons, as well.
One of the best ways to ensure that students get to make connections between the new learning and their own prior knowledge and life experience is to get in the habit of following new input with a quick individual processing structure before having students pair up or meet in small groups to share their thinking. Perhaps the easiest structure to use for this purpose is the simple Quick-Write, where students respond in writing to a prompt for 2-3 minutes. And research has shown that students do better thinking when they write their Quick-Writes by hand as composed to typing them on a computer. This is because the slower pace necessitated by handwriting allows students to process the material longer, and therefore more deeply.
What does any of this have to do with edtech? Well, nothing specifically, but again, the more time we devote to the use of technological tools in the classroom, the more likely it is that the important component of individual processing time will get left out of lessons entirely.
3. Boots on the ground
One final component that should be present in any lesson is movement. There are so many learning advantages conferred on students by simply getting them up out of their seats regularly that I don’t have time to go into all the details here, but I’ll give you a quick bulleted list of just a few of them:
- We get more oxygen to our brains when standing as opposed to sitting (I’ve seen estimates in the 15-20% range), and a brain that’s more oxygenated is a brain that’s more ready to learn.
- Many students get restless when forced to sit for long periods of time; when given the chance to get up and move, their “attentional clocks” get reset, and they’re better able to focus on the next chunk of input.
- Most students enjoy movement, so having the opportunity to get up and move also provides a dopamine rush, leading to better mood (and it’s always easier to teach students who are in a good mood than it is to teach students who are in a bad mood).
- If the movement is vigorous enough to raise heart rate and respiration, students also get an extra shot of noradrenaline and BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in their brains. Noradrenaline and BDNF have been shown to grow new connections in the brain (neurogenesis), specifically in the part of the brain most responsible for new learning, the hippocampus.
To sum it all up, regular movement is a “magic pill” that improves mood, refocuses attention, and puts the brain in a better state for learning.
Again (you’re probably thinking), what does any of this have to do with educational technology? And again, the answer is, “Nothing, at least directly.” But my experiences in classroom coaching have shown me that often, when a new layer of edtech is added to the classroom, the amount of time students stay seated, looking at a screen of one type or another, goes up–and the amount of movement goes down.
When it comes to edtech, we need to be thoughtful about our choices and consider not only what the new technology will do for our students, but also what we may have to cut from our normal classroom routines to make room for it. Again, the key question to ask is, “Will there be a net gain or net loss in learning as a result of adding this technology?”
And even when you feel the answer to this question is, “Yes, I believe there will be a net gain in learning,” make sure that you make time in every lesson for some individual (screen-free, non-networked) processing time for all students; that there are two or more opportunities per class period for students to work together face-to-face (not looking at a screen); and that students have the opportunity to move two or more times per class period. We know that individual think time, social interactions (on topic, of course), and movement work for learning, and they are much more reliable than technology (no bugs, no crashes, no rebooting necessary).
So, by all means, keep your eye out for new educational technology that can enhance the learning in your classroom. But remember that the brain developed to learn in many ways that don’t involve technology, and seek that all-important balance.
Fernbach, P., & Sloman, S. (2017, April 18). Cognitive science shows that humans are smarter as a group than they are on their own. Retrieved from https://qz.com/960175/cognitive-science-shows-that-humans-are-smarter-as-a-group-than-they-are-on-their-own/
Uhls, Y. T., et al. (2014). Five days at outdoor camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 387-392.
Williams, A. (2017, March 21). A call for fewer screens in the classroom. Education Week Teacher. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2017/03/21/a-call-for-fewer-screens-in-the.html
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Waag Society.