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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  • Lucy Gray

    Great idea for framing conversations on the role of technology in schools, Betsy. The other piece to this, for me at least, is that some educators are expecting technology to boost or accelerate “student achievement”. As a nation, we’re obsessed with finding that elusive silver bullet that will fix education and I don’t think technology is the answer. Instead, we should be focusing on how technology can support student engagement and empowerment because when those elements are in place, students learn.

  • matt montagne

    I find that as I’ve used my laptop more and more, I’ve become more of a consumer of stuff and less a maker. I used to make tons of stuff out of wood, but have made less and less over the years as I’ve increased my laptop screen.

    This past week teachers at my school engaged in a fairly intense learning experience as we prepare of next year when all of our students will show up to school with their own laptops. At the end of the week we created personal digital stories…visit the link below to view one of our teacher stories where she addresses the “makers versus sponge” tension that you write about here:

  • Paul Topping

    I suspect that the kids were just amazed that parents were so impressed with the Keynote slides. So many kudos for so little work.

  • Joe McCarthy

    The @radar tweet linking to this post in my Twitter feed was immediately followed by a tweet by @dcinc66 linking to a 2020 Forecast for The Future of Learning.

    The report by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation and the Institute of the Future includes 6 themes, one of which is “The Maker Economy”, highlighting the skills and educational models needed to support the ways that “personal fabrication echnologies and open-source principles democratize production and design”.

    I’m glad to see great minds thinking – and making – alike.

  • Josh

    School tech should start with a simple question: will this tool help students learn?

    Taking someone else’s ideas or forming one’s own ideas is a separate educational issue.

  • Gary S. Stager

    Here is a paper I wrote on the subject, A New Paradigm for Evaluating the Learning Potential of an EdTech Activity –

  • elizabeth corcoran

    Gary: Your paper is very thoughtful. I like your concluding point: “The value added by the computer increases as the nature of the activity becomes more modern, learner-centred, constructionist, complex and inventive….”

    Have you been following any specific examples?

  • elizabeth corcoran

    I’d pair your “will the tool help students learn” with “how will the tool help students learn” or perhaps “what will the tool help students learn.” Seems to me we learn something from just about any experience. Sometimes what we learn is valuable; sometimes it’s hurtful. I am haunted by a (recent) memory of a 10-year (or so) kid on the Chicago subway with a guy who might have been a father or relative: the kid was learning how to panhandle. He was soaking up the lessons — as bitter and harsh as they were.

  • elizabeth corcoran

    Great report. Love this point: “This 2020 Forecast illuminates how we are shifting toward a culture of creation in which each of us has the opportunity – and the responsibility – to make our collective future. People are creating new selves, organizations, systems, societies, economies, and knowledge.”

  • elizabeth corcoran

    That’s a bit harsh. Many of these kids had never used Keynote before. They were genuinely proud of their work. It may seem like little effort for you — but to them it was a new world.

    I spoke, too, to the teacher. For the previous 10 years, she had assigned students the task of doing a report “on an element.” It wasn’t substantially different than this assignment. She is certainly not a techno-fan (which is partly why the students had not touched the iMacs all year). She told me, in a sort of embarrassed way, that she felt the students absorbed more about the elements than previous classes ever had.

  • elizabeth corcoran

    Matt – I know the problem. It’s awfully easy to get sucked into reading what other people do. I’m guilty of being a sponge much of the time. That’s part of why I think it’s helpful to make the distinction.

    I loved the video/slide that you included. Your teacher’s comments are exactly on the mark!

  • elizabeth corcoran

    Lucy –
    Yes, I’m with you on that. We shouldn’t be looking for the “silver bullet” — but instead for the cowboy (cowgirl) who saves the town. That would be a great teacher.

    At my son’s recent “promotion” ceremony from 5th grade, all 60 students stood up to recall one special moment in school. For many of them, it began with a teacher. Sometimes the teacher was goofy. Sometimes she (or he) was inspiring. None of those inspirational memories were associated with computers.

    The only caveat: what I keep hearing from teachers is that they need to feel in control of the tools thrown at schools to have that sense of confidence and mastery that helps them inspire kids. We can’t wish the technology away. Instead we’ve got to master it.

  • BalancEdTech

    Related idea from Clay Shirky, listen to the extended version if you have the time:

  • Josh

    “What will the tool help students learn” – makes it seem like we should pick a tool (Keynote, whiteboards, laptops, iPods, whatever) and then try to figure out how and what students can learn using the tool.

    We shouldn’t pick tools in this way.

    In the past many students couldn’t make it to school everyday (and thus had trouble learning) because it was too hard to get to school. A tool called the school bus now helps students get to and from school reliably, solving that problem.

    We already know what students should learn. How can we help them learn?

  • elizabeth corcoran

    Nicely put. You are right on the mark in pointing out that it’s *not* about the tools — the goal is learning. The tools, as they say, are just a means to the end.

  • Phil Earnhardt

    The 2010 HBO documentary of Temple Grandin shows Temple in a science class in high school. Her teacher shoed the class a brief film about a forced perspective room. Her high school science teacher challenged her to build a model of such a room. She thought intensely and ultimately was able to create the model. Today, a student would have a difficult time repeating Temple’s labor. They would have to avoid the internet sites that explain how to make such a room with step-by-step instructions.

    Note that acting like a sponge may not be the worst thing in the world. We think of sponges soaking up everything, but that’s not how they work in nature: sponges operate as a filter. They capture the nutrients from the water and allow the other stuff to pass through. Listening and observing others can be an active or passive operation; honing our ability to filter information is crucial to dealing with the information fount called the internet. Networks like twitter can be viewed as a hierarchical information filter. If students could create exercises where they function as hierarchical filters, that would be an excellent and practical exercise. All of this has the side-effect: think for yourself, and trust the ability of yourself and your community to filter the good stuff from the crap.

  • Eric Dobbs

    Computational thinking and computational doing are powerful tools for teaching powerful ideas. I liked how Gary Stager’s article emphasizes “powerful ideas”. I’d like to expand on that thought with a few concrete examples.

    Once upon a time, a very long time ago, long division was the subject of doctoral dissertations. Today long division is taught in elementary school.

    What changed between those eras was the introduction of arabic numerals. Long division in roman numerals is profoundly difficult. The new technology of digits, and especially the humble number zero, completely changed long division into the relatively simple algorithm that we all learned in grade school.

    The technological revolution that I want to see in education would make physics and calculus and linear algebra accessible to elementary aged kids, among other advanced subjects. But current student assessments are measuring for things like long division — more advanced subjects would be missed completely. And schools of education are not preparing future elementary teachers to teach more advanced material.

    When I talk about teaching physics in elementary school many people look at me like I’m insane, or that I have no concept of “age appropriate”. But “the future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.”

    In 1967 Seymore Papert was introducing elementary aged kids to LOGO. The turtle graphics in logo are differential geometry — very advanced mathematics made completely accessible to young children. Some of Alan Kay’s recent work includes fifth-graders recreating Galileo’s experiments and then building computer models of gravity on the computer to compare with their experimental data. That’s physics — newtonian mechanics to be specific — made accessible to grade schoolers.

    Forty-three (seriously? 43?!) years later we don’t see even LOGO among educational standards. I don’t think there are enough adults who understand what a huge leap it is to teach differential geometry to kids through turtle graphics. In the late 1970s Apple II computers poured into many schools and LOGO became widely available in education. But those thirty plus years ago a bunch of adults saw some pretty pictures, shrugged, and ignored it as child’s play instead of recognizing it for the little revolution it really could be. What else could we be teaching with these tools? If we could start elementary kids with an elementary understanding of newtonian mechanics, what could we be teaching them by the time they got to high school?

    I really like Gary’s comments about powerful ideas and can’t agree forcefully enough that computational thinking and computational doing are powerful tools for teaching powerful ideas. It is about the tools, but not /only/ about the tools. Like the humble number zero, computing can completely transform the nature of the material we would like to teach our children.

  • elizabeth corcoran

    I love your conclusion & points: “Like the humble number zero, computing can completely transform the nature of the material we would like to teach our children.” Here, here. It can — if we have some ideas about what to do with it, if we share those ideas with one another, and if we morph our ideas in the face of real experience.

  • elizabeth corcoran

    You make great points. (And I didn’t intend to demean the noble sponge. Guess I was thinking of the artificial genus.) We all need time to imagine and daydream. Thanks for being part of this community — and for helping to filter some of the ideas of this discussion.