Rupturing the Wineskin, or Funnel Vision

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I’ve just read the article Disrupting Class by Christensen and Horn. A few thoughts:

The Right Direction

My first reflection is that I agree with the article’s overall surface message as I understand it, which is something like

  1. Education in many schools remains “teacher-centric”;
  2. It’s long been apparent that certain uses of technology should ideally help bring about a change to a more “student-centric” model, but
  3. This change is not happening in many schools, because many teachers simply use new technology as an add-on to or replacement for something they did in the past, and
  4. Using marketing terminology, technology use in school should be “disruptive” in the sense that it shouldn’t compete with existing “products”, but should rather create new “market niches” for new “consumers”.

I agree with all four of these points (albeit with some concerns about the fourth, to be expanded below). The role of technology in the shift of education’s overall focus from instructor to student is definitely important and essential, and this shift is definitely not something that automatically happens on its own by buying a few smartboards or adding a few laptop carts. Whenever possible, new technology should be used in school to do things that couldn’t be done before, in new ways.

Every implementation of a new tool or technology should be an opportunity for teachers to think “what could we do with this?” rather than “what can we continue to do with this?”

Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like this is obvious. We don’t use airplanes to fly from train station to train station. I like to think that most teachers are not consciously trying to put new wine into old wineskins, and that most of the worst problems in this area arise when teachers are under pressure from above to make students cram for standardized tests.

Adobe Flash Cards?

So far so good. But my second big reflection on the article is that I disagree with the article’s underlying paradigm of students as consumers. I initially found the article’s opening example of the ideal lesson of the future somehow perturbing, and couldn’t put my finger on why.

In a classroom of the future, students are learning Mandarin Chinese grammar. The students wear noise-canceling headphones and work with laptop computers.

One student is directing the work of a brick mason on his computer screen by having him assemble a sentence in the same way that he would construct a wall — block by block. There are stacks of blocks with words on them in the background of the screen; each is colored for its potential role in the sentence.

The student directs the mason to pick blocks out of the appropriate stacks and put them in the correct order of a Mandarin sentence. When all the required blocks have been assembled in the proper sequence, the Mandarin word replaces the English on each block, and the student joins the brick mason in reading the sentence (which is written phonetically in the Roman alphabet).

When the student doesn’t get the pronunciation right, the brick mason looks pained. The mason says the correct pronunciation, and when the student gets it right, the brick mason gives a high five. Mandarin is a tonal language, so the blocks then tilt to help the student see and feel the tones. 

Another student in the same classroom is learning the same material from the same software program by rote memorization — listening to a native Mandarin speaker and then repeating the sentences, in a mode of learning familiar to her parents’ generation.

Both students are learning to put together sentences that they’ll use in a conversation together in front of the rest of the class — some of whom are using the same learning tools as these two, but many of whom are learning Mandarin in other ways tailored to the way they learn.

This vision for the classroom of the future is not new. It’s one that people have talked and dreamed about for years in a variety of forms…

I wasn’t irritated because I thought the teacher should have been giving a lecture – I think learning should be student-centered. I have no problem with anything where students play little games or use headphones. I like when students learn at their own pace. Mandarin lessons from a cartoon bricklayer? Sure, why not?

I realized that my problem with the example was that the students are using technology entirely for cramming drills, and not for producing anything. The only moment of student creativity or independent thought above the level of doing rote memorization comes the end of the example, when a class discussion is alluded to.

In other words, in the article’s vision of the classroom of the future, technology will be a fancy version of flashcards. The students will spend a certain amount of time absorbing large amounts of context-free information passively, with a few interactive elements to make sure they don’t fall asleep, and then the technology will be put away and they will have a conversation. The performance task that comes at the end of this example lesson is something that could have been done around a campfire 100,000 years ago. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Perhaps some of this is a function of the article’s age. It’s undated, but the comments go back to 2008. However, given the elaborate allegory crafted comparing students and consumers later in the article, I think it’s telling how cognitively primitive the interaction with the software in the example is. (And they had a lot of collaborative, creative tools even back in the dark ages of 2008, so I think my criticisms are still fair.)

This is going to sound absurdly self-evident and trite, but I don’t think students should be seen as consumers. I think they should be seen as creators. We learn by doing. We learn by combining, collecting, analyzing, communicating, sharing. Maybe one step in those processes could be copying or memorizing, but thinking about the best way to use tech in education shouldn’t make us dream of a future of flashcard-like games and memorization drills with headphones. Online classes shouldn’t be a new way to be shouted at by a teacher for kids in rural areas.

Students should use tech to help them talk, write, brainstorm, connect, adapt, synthesize, analyze and transform _while_ they are learning, and they should use the most appropriate tools for those tasks all throughout the creation process. The article does discuss the possibility for a future of partially student-produced learning modules at its end, but in a sense that’s still the same teacher-student relationship, just with a certain fraction of peer-prepared lectures replacing teacher lectures. While I support the general message of the article, I’m a bit uneasy with how restricted its underlying vision for tech seems to be.

The end goal seems to be to put a student in front of a screen, where knowledge is pumped into him or her. Students shouldn’t be fitted with instructional software modules that give them drills to master or hoops to jump through – they should select from a variety of software options as tools for assembly, creation, and reflection while they are constructing their own understandings.

Therefore I think the article, while it mentions the importance of the shift from teacher-centered to student-centered learning, comes up short in envisioning possibilities for meaningful technology use. It still reflects a paradigm of students as empty, passive vessels waiting to have facts poured into them, and as technology as a sort of funnel – a new and shinier funnel, but still a funnel. It should be turned around and used as a loudspeaker.

5 thoughts on “Rupturing the Wineskin, or Funnel Vision

  1. Hi Alex – It was great to read this post. In the first section your point that “We don’t use airplanes to fly from train station to train station. I like to think that most teachers are not consciously trying to put new wine into old wineskins, and that most of the worst problems in this area arise when teachers are under pressure from above to make students cram for standardized tests.” There is so much to unpack about this statement. One thing for me that sprang out of it was that when we ourselves understand the potential of new mediums and tools we can start to think differently. This is also consistent with your second point about standardized testing, that until the aims of education change, the method has not incentive to do so.

    On your second comment about the ideal Mandarin class of the future, I couldn’t agree more. I found the isolation of the work happening in this class disappointing. As we advance in education, I think we will grow to see the classroom as the place where face to face aspects of learning takes place and out of class where the emphasis is on independent learning/preparation. Do you have any thoughts about the relative importance of those two domains and/or ideas for others?

    1. Thanks for the compliments – as we saw with Chris Betcher’s presentation about the Tokyo trains this morning, I think metaphor can be one of our most powerful tools (although it’s also something that can be misused, or erroneously misapplied, or used to cloud the facts. I’m reading a science-fiction novel right now that deals with this issue – an alien race has evolved with a language that makes it impossible to lie, and the book is about how humans’ bad influence leads them to gingerly experiment with similes, and then metaphors. Which are, when you think about it, lies. Chaos ensues. )

      On your last paragraph – devil’s advocate time: You mention that in the future the classroom might fulfill certain collective needs, while outside of class would be the place for work done more in isolation. I wonder about how defensible the importance of the face-to-face aspects of learning will be in the future. I like teaching in a school, and I like the fact that the kids come to school, but in the secondary school levels, what do kids need to be physically present for? Teamwork? If they’re each going to be using separate online devices for their team projects anyway, why do they need to be in the same room? Lectures? Why wouldn’t I just record my speech and send it to them? Advice on the project from peers and teacher? Why couldn’t we do it over FaceTime or chat? Again, I personally enjoy the physical space of “school” immensely, but I wonder how necessary it will be… we used to feel it was _crucial_ to go to the video store to rent videos. Are schools Blockbuster Video? I don’t know.

  2. Great response Alex. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here in terms of how technology is often still being (mis)used in our classrooms. I do still see some value in these types of rote activities though, as I would feel that they would work for me as a learner (particularly with something like languages). I think they’d be most effective as part of a conscious differentiated approach though; for example, some rote learning activities to build up vocabulary first, followed by online discussions with native speakers.

    1. I agree that drills have their place – I’m trying to learn some Japanese now myself through pretty old-school methods including flashcards- but if someone in 2011, regardless of age, wanted to learn a language through computerized repetition drills, IN school would probably be the last place to do that effectively. In the example, what would be the point of employing a Chinese-speaking person to put the headphones on the kids? Why couldn’t they boot up the program and put their own headphones on – at home?

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