The Intersection of Teaching, Learning, and Technology

At Laura Holmgren’s request, last spring I wrote what became the inaugural post at poly360.org, a blog for the independent school community in which I work.

I’m fortunate to work in a community where the topics covered in that post are actually part of ongoing, day-to-day discussions I get to have with other teachers and technologists.

I’m cross-posting the piece here.

The Intersection of Teaching, Learning, and Technology

Richard White – 360 Reflection

When I was nine years old I read Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, a story in which Danny and his friends Joe and Irene program a computer to do their homework for them. At that time the personal computer was still a fantasy, but the possibility of being able to have a machine handle my academic chores–my learning–was absolutely intoxicating.

Fast-forward a few years: I’d gone from programming a mainframe in high school to majoring in Computer Science in college, and then from teaching computer programming in high school on IBM PCs (pre-Internet!) to teaching AP Physics in Berkeley. I’d re-discovered the book from my childhood–there’s my name on the inside, written in my mother’s neat cursive–and read again about Danny’s hard-earned lesson: that programming a computer is not a shortcut to learning. The last page of the book, though, opens up a new possibility:

“Danny had a strange, wild look in his eyes, and a faraway smile on his lips. ‘Listen–what about a teaching machine…?'”

I began investigating the possibilities of technology-enhanced programmed instruction. The learning process for an inspired student can be a pretty straightforward process: get exposed to something new, learn a little bit about it, and then use what you’ve learned to do something interesting. For some subjects, the process of presenting information and checking for understanding is ideally suited for a computer, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Programmed instruction in book form had existed for years, and computer-based math instructional methods were already being launched.

I was a month or so into developing my own programmed instruction when I began to realize that this system, whatever its benefits might be, also had the effect of isolating me from the very best part of my vocation: working with students to help them understand the world around them. Teaching content, exploring with students the process of interpreting content, and perhaps most importantly, learning to develop strategies for dealing with new and unexpected situations, all demand a dynamic, creative, process that is the very heart and soul of my work. There was no way for me to write this stuff down, to program it, to “classroom flip” this aspect of my work.

That hasn’t kept me from leveraging technology where appropriate. The vast majority of my current curricular materials are online–lessons, labs, homework help, and practice tests–and students across the U.S. and abroad use these materials as a guide in their own learning. I am part of a global learning and teaching community, using technology that is faster, cheaper, and better than ever. We are actively exploring new ways that we can use that technology to improve education.

But at the heart of it all–sometimes just barely visible behind the iPads and the laptops, the email and the tweets, the websites and the Massive Open Online Courses–are students and teachers, working together, just as we always have.

And there is nothing that will be able to replace that.

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