Tools and Contexts

Dr. Tony Talbert, who wrote this remarkable post that “just happened” to appear on Google+ this morning, is an education professor at Baylor University who just spent a semester at a nearby high school:

I wanted to better prepare my own university students, who are studying to become teachers, for the challenges of teaching and leading in a 21st century public school environment. I knew that the only way to do this was to update my own perspective.

His main discovery was that, in contrast with the past, his students this fall

considered digital technology not simply a tool for a specific task but instead a context for living and engaging in the world around them.

That’s not new news for me, but I’d been struggling to find words for the difference … and for some of the miscommunications and misunderstandings with colleagues and friends at Former School.  Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y would shrug and say, “I’m just not good at Technology” … and the more I heard it, the more it irked me.  But I wasn’t sure exactly why.  Part of it was the fixed mindset notion that one could just be, and stay, “not good at” something.  There are lots of things I’m “not good at,” but with most of them, I could get better if I really wanted to.  “You play the piano, don’t you?” asked someone recently.  “I do,” I told her, “and I got better after I stopped taking lessons, when I decided I wanted to play for me rather than for The Teacher.”  I knew that Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y could also “get better at Technology” if they really wanted to do so.

But that was only part of my irritation.  It wasn’t until I read Dr. Talbert’s piece that I could find words for the rest of it.  More Than One Ms. X and Mr. Y at Former School was “good at Technology,” but they used “it” in ways that didn’t resonate with me, and that didn’t seem to resonate with Latin Family members, either.  “You’re making Prezis in Mr. Y’s class, aren’t you?” I asked one time, when we were about to make a product for which Prezi would have been a good fit.  They rolled their eyes … and I suddenly realized that, in That Mr. Y’s class, “making Prezis” was an end in itself, not a means to a greater end.  “Can we make something physical?” they asked me.  “Or maybe a video?”  And of course that was fine with me because I was interested in demonstrated learning, not a particular tool.

And then I realized that whenever I used the word tool in regard to an app, a website, or a program, there was at least a bit of eye-rolling … the kind of eye-rolling that young people unconsciously do when their elders are ever-so-slightly out of touch.  The kind that my generation did when we were asked “Why do you spend all that time at The Mall but you don’t ever buy anything?”

For us, of course, The Mall wasn’t a tool, a place where you go to buy things … though, to be fair, we did buy things (especially food, movie tickets, and arcade tokens) when we were there.  It was a context, a place where we met and socialized, the physical equivalent (as danah boyd points out in It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens) of the virtual space in which teenagers meet and socialize today.  Was it a learning context?  It certainly was a place for informal learning … and I’m reminded that older generations were suspicious and fearful of that context, and that education reformers of that era produced a book (which I’ve read several times) called The Shopping Mall High School.

But then I left Former School and began my virtual work with the Latin Family at District Q, District Y, and the Gifted Homeschoolers.  After a few weeks, I realized that “Technology” was, in fact, our learning context and not just a set of learning tools.  Without our Virtual Classroom, our Google Drive documents and forms, and the Tres Columnae Project site, would our shared work even be possible?  Even when the Virtual Classroom is down or the site is loading slowly, “Technology” is more than just a tool or even a set of tools.

“The thing that I love about it,” I told my neighbor O at our Thanksgiving Day gathering, “is that I still get to do all the things I love about teaching face to face, but I don’t have to do the things I dislike.  And we can actually build deeper relationships more quickly because everybody has a personal, private way to ask questions if they need to.”  That’s a different context for teaching and learning, not just a different tool set.  But without Dr. Talbert’s terminology, I’d still be struggling to express what’s different and why.

Contexts are important, not least because they influence the kinds of tools we use and the ways we use our tools.  At Former School, where the physical context was deliberately designed for information transmission at a time when information was limited and scarce, it only makes sense that “Technology” would be seen as a tool … and not necessarily a desirable, useful tool, either.  That One Ms. X, who left a few years ago, was perfectly happy to use a SmartBoard as a screen for “her” overhead projector and handwritten transparencies … and that made sense because Ms. X was in the information transfer business, and handwritten transparencies are more reliable and easier for that.

I just realized it’s significant that there are tables in the center of the “computer lab” at District Y where the Latin Family meets.  At Former School, there were rows of computers that mimic rows of desks.  Is that why it’s been easier to build and sustain a Joyful Learning Community there?  What other contextual features have influenced us, and what other discoveries await?


Published in: on November 28, 2014 at 4:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

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