Makers versus Sponges

School tech should start with a simple question: Will students absorb others' ideas or make their own?

The rumbling debate over whether technology helps or hurts us — and our kids — is growing louder. The ever articulate writer, Nicholas Carr, stoked debate with his new book, “The Shallows.” (Yes, he believes, Google makes you dumb.) Last Monday, the New York Times worried that technology may be reshaping our brains. Also last week, neurobiologist Steven Pinker weighed in on the New York Times op-ed pages today with a piece that waves away those concerns. (Everything rewires our brains, he notes.) If that seems like too many quick links, the New York Times’ Bits blog recaps some of the debate here.

On the education side, the Washington Post took theses questions to the classroom in a piece entitled, “Some educators question if whiteboards, other high-tech tools raise achievement.”

I keep wondering why we lump all “technology” into the same basket. By doing so, we ignore the most important distinction of all: whether we are sponges for absorbing other people’s ideas, or whether we’re making our own.

O’Reilly has long been a champion of the “Maker” movement so perhaps this amounts to singing to the choir. But here’s one slice through the technologies organized according to their potential relationship to kids:

IT Tool: Sponge or Maker?
Smart boards in classroom SPONGE: Kids absorb lectures with better graphics
Electronic games SPONGE: Kids learn to master rules of the games (and sometimes the content, too)
Scratch MAKER: Kids create their own games
iPod Touches SPONGE: Kids absorb & interact with presented material
iPod Touches with “homemade slides” MAKER: Kids create their own “flashcards” to present on gadget
Powerpoint / Keynote / Prezi / Glogster, etc, MAKER: Kids have to pull together materials to create presentations

A Powerpoint (or Keynote) presentation is hardly the height of intellectual achievement. But when we think about how kids interact with ideas and media — what promotes creativity and learning — it seems to me we need to focus on whether the gadgets are the means for kids expressing themselves or a way of imprinting someone else’s ideas onto their brains.

Of course, a kid doesn’t need to make a Prezi presentation to deliver a great and inspiring report. But we live in a world that values flashing lights and cool transitions.

That struck home a few weeks ago when I saw a group of fifth grade students show off a semester’s worth of work to their parents and guardians. They had done traditional, glue-and-paper reports on different U.S. states, a project that had extended over about a month as the students gathered information, wrote summaries and clipped out pictures. Then, a week or so before “open house” night, the students were asked to deliver a report on one element in the periodic table using a Keynote presentation.

On the evening the parents and guardians showed up, I saw the same act repeated over and over: students grabbed the arm of their guest and dragged them over to watch their Keynote. They stood by, beaming as the slides clicked through. They had also absorbed a surprising amount of information about their elements, where they were found and why they were located on the periodic table. The students were proud of their state reports, too =- and knew they had worked far longer on them. But at least on this evening, the Keynotes stole the show.

Back in the 1970s, kids who sat glued to the television screen didn’t have a choice: we were all just sponges for the stuff broadcast over the airwaves. Today’s computer technology lets us choose if we want to be a maker or a sponge. Shouldn’t that be starting point when we argue about the role of technology in schools?

Postscript — Could this be the ultimate “Maker” class? Encouraging engineering in kindergarten.

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