We need to take bigger mental leaps as educators and policymakers


Marc Tucker, President and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, had a blog post back in August titled Instructional Technology: Villain of the Piece – or Savior? In that post, he postulated five ways that technology could be used to improve student achievement:

  1. Use word processors to teach writing.
  2. Giving students access to the wealth of information on the Internet.
  3. Giving students access to powerful modeling and simulation tools.
  4. Giving students access to some of the most talented teachers in the world.
  5. Using the technologies of natural language processing and artificial intelligence, in combination with other technologies, to provide automated, accurate, and timely assessments of student progress.

I didn’t have a huge beef with anything that he listed. All of those likely have a place in our new systems of learning, teaching, and schooling. But they still reflect a fairly limited vision of what student learning with technology could be. Here’s what I said in my comment:

Marc, with due respect for all of your excellent work, I believe that you are missing the true impacts of digital technologies and the Internet. Every single one of the examples you list above portrays adults as the directors of the learning process and students merely as consumers.

The real transformation occurs when we give students access to robust learning technologies and then get out of their way as much as possible, giving them the power and permission to DIRECT THEIR OWN LEARNING. For the first time ever, our children have the ability to be powerful creators, collaborators, and contributors to our global information commons. They have the ability – at surprisingly young ages – to work with each other and with adults to follow their interests and passions and do relevant, authentic, meaningful knowledge work. In your list above, did you acknowledge the ability of digital technologies and the Internet to facilitate personal ownership, investment, and self-learning affordances in our youth? Nope, not at all. See http://bit.ly/NwBQrV for more about this concept.

Do children need help and guidance from adults along the way? Absolutely. But go visit a Big Picture school, or a New Tech school, or a High Tech High, or an Expeditionary Learning school, or an Edvisions school, or an Envision school. Learn from the work of Henry Jenkins, danah boyd, Mimi Ito, and others. Then think about what you left out from your list above…

I think we need to take bigger mental leaps as educators and policymakers. Digital technologies reinvent daily what our students could be doing, but our mindsets are holding us back. Marc never responded to my comment but if he ever has time I’d love to hear his thoughts (or yours)…

[Guiding questions: What can we do to give students more agency and ownership of what they learn, when they learn, how they learn, and how they show what they’ve learned? What can we do to better incorporate digital technologies into students’ deeper thinking and learning work in ways that are authentic, relevant, meaningful, and powerful? As we move toward more cognitively-complex, technology-suffused learning environments, what individual and societal mindsets – and local, state, and federal policy supports and/or barriers – need reconsideration?]

Image credit: Skimboarder gets big air, back flip

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

3 Responses to “We need to take bigger mental leaps as educators and policymakers”

  1. Scott,

    Thanks for posting on this topic and sharing your idea that we need to think big about how the emerging changes we’re seeing are impacting and influencing learning today and in the future. I think it’s important to recognize the responsibility we, as adults – teachers, admins, curriculum devs – place on the shoulders of our young people today.

    Yes, young learners can become “powerful creators, collaborators, and contributors to our global information commons” just as you say. They can also get lost in the swirling, expanding online universe that the ‘net has become. Digital Literacy begins with giving students the tools to decipher the good, bad, and ugly of information on the Internet. The method of sink or swim is catchy and popular, but it ultimately can lead to some swimmers getting a great view of things at the bottom of the pool.

    Recognizing the need to empower, support, monitor, and mentor our young learners creates an important new role for teachers – that of guide, coach, and collaborator. This “stepping aside” pivot can challenge a professional’s view of themselves and their career. The degree to which teachers see this move as beneficial to themselves and their students will determine the ultimate success of all involved.

  2. Scott,

    I’m having trouble reconciling this with when you said, essentially, that you didn’t think “bigger mental leaps” would be compelling for most educators.


    Talking with educators (and policy makers) about how teachers could “Use word processors to teach writing” won’t get us anywhere. By that I don’t mean that it won’t get us anywhere in a conversation. I mean it won’t get us anywhere toward using technology in meaningful ways. That’s why I still advocate for having conversations about the kind of advanced learning we want students to engage in, not the technology we want to use. If educators and policy makers aren’t ready to talk about that kind of learning, our goal should be to scaffold them there, not to move the conversation down to the tool level. That conversation is too easy.


    • Thanks for asking, Russ. I know that we need to be thinking bigger as educational systems and as policymakers. I also know that when those of us that do think bigger talk in those frames, that language usually doesn’t resonate with folks because they have NO IDEA what we’re talking about because they’re not living it themselves (like we are).

      So in response to that, I don’t think the answer is that we need to move the conversation down to the tool level. I think the answer is to somehow talk about the ‘big picture’ in ways that are concrete enough for people to understand what we’re talking about.

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