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2001 Gwen Gawith: Digitised Cinderellas

2001 Cathy de Moll: The Internet and September 11 disaster

2001 Mark Treadwell: Cognitive and conceptual development

2001 Gillian Eadie: ICT directions

2001 Rob Green: Integrating ICT into the secondary curriculum: PD for teachers

2001 Gwen Gawith: Garbage detection is a key component of information literacy

2000 Ron Johnston: Knowledge is abundant, but the ability to use it is scarce

2000 Stuart Hale: The last communication revolution.

1999 Pete Sommerville: Virtual field trips.

1999 Gwen Gawith: An open letter to Bill Gates.

1999 Gwen Gawith: Hype, hope or information literacy.

1998 Mark Treadwell: The emperor's new computer.

1998 Nola Campbell: A conversation about being online.

1998 Gwen Gawith: Intelligent technologies: Teaching for information literacy.

1997 Gwen Gawith: Technology and ODL: Rent an information literate luddite!

1997 Gwen Gawith: Technology and learning.

1996 Gwen Gawith: IT: charms or challenges.

1994 Gwen Gawith: new technologies: new skills for information literacy.

information literacy:
ICT & learning online

Intelligent technologies need intelligent learners:teaching for information literacy

Keynote talk for Hamilton Principals' Conference 28.8.98 :

Gwen Gawith


What does it take to be literate in an age of information? A lot of media hype implies that students have, somehow, mutated genetically so that, if they are plugged into computers, they learn better. This is absolute nonsense.

Beyond the media hype and tripe are clear messages about the changing tools of learning, and what students need to learn in technologised environments.

So, what does it take to be literate in an age of information? What is the role of the teacher in an age of information? In 2000 will we still need teachers or just computer technicians? I will present the unusual view that NZ is extremely well placed to meet the challenge, but that we need to recognise our strengths and build on them instead of wailing about our lack of technology and opportunity.


The context for this talk is the recently published NEMP report which you will all have in your schools, along with a Forum comment sent to each teacher. This is arguably one of the most significant documents to appear in recent years and, along with the maths and social studies provides a staff development agenda for the whole year. What it says, in effect, is that while students have little difficulty finding information - with or without computers - they had signficantly more difficulty understanding and processing that information. I'll give you a good example. This is not just referring to higher order thinking skills. I am talking about identifying information to answer simple factual questions like when was Galileo born and simple inferential questions like why was he important?

I also want to talk about the context for learning in schools. I am appalled at the numbers of exhausted teachers I'm encountering in schools. I think the Ministry has a lot to answer for in terms of how the curriculum statements have been implemented, and, in particular, the way contracts have been let to a wide variety of contractees, each of whom has followed different inservice models and methods to the point where teachers are gasping for air. It has magnified the problem out of all proportion.

The reality is that there is ONE national curriculum. There are eight essential skill areas and they should be taught in all seven essential learning areas. If we stuck to teaching (and I see a vast difference between the good old fashioned sport of teaching and the concept of facilitation which often means expecting kids to know without ever having been taught)... if we stuck to teaching these essential skill areas and simply demonstrated in our inservice courses how they are interpreted differently in different curricululum areas (for example problem solving in maths and problem solving in technology might be interpreted differently although they integrate perfectly well), the NEMP results might be somewhat different.

Not only have we approached each new curriculum statement as if it were something requiring a unique pedagogy and skills vocabulary, but we are busy implementing assessment systems which favour tick by tick achievement of discrete objectives rather than the integrated approach of monitoring the development of eight essential skills in seven curriculum areas, in other words the type of integrated approach in which we were world leaders.

I think the curriculum is in danger of being implemented in such a reductionist, fragmented and superficial way that we might as well just go back to teaching rocky shore, people who help us and the supermarket.

If you don't believe me, the NEMP reports provide irrefutable evidence that we are sacrificing depth for breadth and that kids are neither gaining knowledge nor problem-solving and thinking skills. I think it is time for a radical reappraisal. I also think that unless we have that radical reappraisal, it is a total waste of money to go on pouring technology into schools.

Who is driving it? If it is ERO, and I have my doubts, I think we should, as professionals stand together and stand on our hind legs and DEMAND THE RIGHT TO TEACH FOR DEPTH, FOR THINKING AND FOR UNDERSTANDING, because this is precisely what we are not doing, as evidenced by the NEMP reports.

Remember Bruner's spiral curriculum. We could do worse than go back to it. Remember the curriculum document that specified 8 essential skill areas and 7 essential learning areas and indicated that all skills should be taught at all levels.

Did this mean chunking it up into nonsensical tasks at each level and ticking things off, or did it mean that KNOWLEDGE BUILDS CUMULATIVELY if it is encouraged to do so through repetition and the systematic use of learning skills that are modelled and monitored.

IT enhancing student learning:

Having stated my real concern for the context we are providing for meaningful learning in our schools, I now want to look at core issues are just plain common sense:

Apart from motivation and enjoyment, which may, arguably, be conditions for learning, but are NOT synonyms for learning, there is, to date, little concrete evidence of any significant IT-related increase in quantity and quality of learning. There is clear evidence that computer-based learning is effective for students with learning and language difficulties. It affords them a high-status and motivational opportunity to practise the skills they lack and they feel as if they are in control of the learning. To a certain extent this is true of all students, even high ability students enjoy practising routine skills and there is no reason why they shouldn't. They all NEED repetition and rote learning although we tend to forget it in our curriculum-driven quest for endless problem-solving, enquiry, etc approaches. The evidence for the increase in motivation for learning is true of almost all children, though it is also true to say that in IT-immersion environments children reach a boredom threshold beyond which, however glitzy, IT lacks the ability to motivate. In other words, if you eat too much chocolate you get sick!

Brains don't train themselves. The computer that sits on top of the occipital joint needs to be programmed. It needs to be TAUGHT how to learn, TAUGHT how to think and TAUGHT how to select, reject, analyse, synthesise and interpret information. We wouldn't dream of buying computers without buying software, but we go from year to year assuming that someone, somewhere, somehow has programmed students' cognitive software - taught them how to think, taught them how to learn, taught them how to use and process and produce information with critical discrimination.

There is also evidence from reputable international research that when students are working independently or co-operatively in what is known as knowledge construction environments - basically well designed and clearly guided technology-based projects or enquiry learning with a problem-solving focus, they reach extraordinarily high levels of perseverance and academic achievement.

But I stress again that this is proportional to the quality of the guidance and coaching provided by the teacher and/ or the software.

There is no such thing as good IT or bad IT. It's a question of what you do with it. Computers have raised busy work to an art form in some schools.

Effective use of IT to support and enhance learning is not guaranteed by merely installing it. IT-based learning needs to be designed, coached and monitored carefully if it is to be cognitively enhancing, not cognitively-bypassing!

I think one of the most insidious and damaging assumptions built into the web hype is that we are breeding children who are somehow more intelligent than their predecessors; that, somehow, because of the technology, will be able to think faster and more effectively.

On the contrary, the simple truth is that, to use the current jargon, we will never optimise the use of IT until we optimise the use of the cognitive capacity of children's brains.

These are exactly as they always were, ie some kids are dumb, some kids are smart, and lots are in between although these words are so politically incorrect that they are only used by children themselves! Yes, the world has changed. Yes, all children need education like they never needed it before.

There is nothing magical or mythological about IT. It is splendid stuff if you know what you want to do with it and if you have a driving purpose and someone to help you. The difference will be whether you have a well trained brain which is trained to learn, and a mind-driven purpose for using the stuff.


There's almost a feeling of the computer being a genetic modification; somehow plugging kids into computers enhances their natural cognitive capacity, and it happens more with them than us because, as you know, they were born attached by a mouse, not an umbilical cord, and they all find it easy.

It is easy to scoff, but, the fact remains that this is the myth fed by media hype. Simply, personal experience in developing and delivering IT-based learning over the last seven years reinforces the tiny bit of research there is in the field which states categorically and unanimously that IT-based learning is enormously powerful but it needs to be well designed and well monitored and managed.

What is required is NOT technical knowledge as much as pedagogic knowledge - knowledge of how children learn and how to teach children how to learn - the very knowledge that people don't get in preservice training, or in most tertiary courses.

A computer in the hands of someone who can read, learn, think critically and analytically is a wonderful tool. In the hands of someone who cannot read, learn or think, it remains a toy and a brilliant babysitter!

Computers are brilliant tools if they are regarded as EXTENSIONS of the human brain. In other words the more you've extended your brain the more use a computer is to you.

I think one of the unfortunate consequences of the drip feed introduction of the new curriculum statements alongside all sorts of other things is that teachers feel that they are too busy to see the wood for the trees. The challenge of the NZCF was simple - to integrate the essential skill areas into the essential learning areas, no more, no less. But what we've seen in each successive Curriculum Statement is this simple challenge turned into a myriad of achievement objectives and different terminology to describe what can be called enquiry or resource-based or problem-solving approaches in every area of the curriculum including maths, science and technology. I am now seeing what I describe as a conveyor belt approach to enquiry topics. While resource-based learning or, more precisely, constructivist information literacy learning is the academic 'field' for my PhD work, I simply don't think that more is better. Skating across the surface of knowledge from topic to endless topic is a contradiction of everything we know about deep learning, and learning to love knowledge and learning.

I am totally convinced that it is better to do one major resource-based learning, inquiry, problem-solving, call it what you will, unit a year in any subject area, or integrated across several, and coach the skills BEFORE students do the learning, MONITOR the use of the skills and EVALUATE the knowledge they acquire as a result of using the skills. This is a diagnostic approach which provides evidence of the specific areas in which students need more coaching and more practice. Assuming that teachers do it already is a mistake. NEMP proves that they do not.

What it does require is a clear understanding that learning skills need to be modelled and monitored over and over again. It is the teacher that makes the difference and if we want to make better use of technology we're going to need more teachers who CAN model and monitor learning skills - cognitive skills, not technological skills. We're also going to need a lot more people, and I don't think these need to be teachers - with high level technical skills to support the technology in classrooms.

There's a lot of rubbish purporting to be information on the Internet, and you wouldn't know it was rubbish if you didn't have the knowledge to discriminate. Above all else an information literate person is one who can use, interpret and produce information with critical discrimination, who can select and reject information and use it to build knowledge. The Internet is a valuable source of information but to use it with discrimination requires a level of knowledge and understanding that is not present in the technology.

Simply, the Internet spreads muck a lot faster. It doesn't make muck into knowledge.

Muck detection should be taught across the curriculum and in teacher education - preservice and graduate. For teaching muck detection you do not need technology. You need the type of teachers and students who are, themselves, knowledge-rich critical thinkers, skilled in information sifting and analysis and discrimination.

Information literacy is the type of literacy that results when people are able to find and use information selectively and effectively. Finding it is, relatively, easier than using it as the NEMP studies suggest. Using it with critical discrimination is a massive challenge because it requires a level of thinking and learning skill beyond many students often because they have not been taught adequately.

If you ask yourself what an information literate person should be able to do, it becomes easier to see that information literacy is at the heart of learning just like reading and writing. An information literate person is able to analyse, synthesise and collate information, relate it to an information purpose and interpret the results in the light of their own knowledge. The more the information overload, the more the multiplicity and sophistication of information technologies, the higher level of information literacy needed.

What we need is not technologically sophisticated teachers, but teachers who teach their subjects with passion and depth of knowledge and push knowledge and insist that, however it is presented, wordprocessed, multimedia projected or whatever, it is knowledge, not superficial pasted up facts dowloaded from Encarta. It is not EASY to bring teachers up to speed with technology, but it is a lot easier than it is to inspire lacklustre teachers to share their passion for learning!

So, why am I actually really positive.

1. I think that we've got a fine tradition of precisely the sort of teaching that will achieve outstanding results in IT-enhanced knowledge construction environments. We have had, and I'd like to think we still have, teachers who can teach imaginatively and creatively in the type of integrated problem-solving knowledge construction environments that HAVE been found to exploit the learning potential of IT. BUT we need to take the pressure off them and get the focus back to teaching students to learn, given the time and the incentive of building knowledge along with using computers and telelearning technologies. This type of learning and teaching is FUN. It doesn't require huge amounts of technology or technical expertise. It DOES require time, it does involve risk taking, it involves extensive planning; it needs sustained and coherent inservice, and it needs more enthusiastic support from principals.

2. We have got a solid tradition of good skills teaching, and we need to build on this. Instead of doing more and more we should simply be training teachers to document and monitor and evaluate how they are teaching comprehension and thinking skills. These skills are remarkably easy to teach, but few teachers have been taught to do so. Assessment should focus on collecting evidence from students that they can understand, synthesise, interpret and communicate information in a variety of forms and media appropriate to the purpose; that they have built knowledge from the information they have gathered. What does it matter if the technologies we embed are low-tech - tape recorders, phones, etc? If a child cannot use a low-tech approach with comprehension and understanding, are you telling me that plugging them into iridium-based multi-media delivery at the speed of greased lightning is going to improve their comprehension, and interpretation of information?

3. We have got some of the world's leading pioneers in the field, and some of the world's key resources - and yet we constantly look to overseas for magic panaceas.

Per capita there have been more books published on information literacy in New Zealand than in any other country in the world. They are now sold all over the world, and in terms of giving solid paractical advice to teachers they are unique. And now there is a new one which you can get free if you take a personal subscription to Good Teacher. Mark Treadwell's pioneering work in identifying and evaluating Internet sites for curriculum relevance and educational importance is, likewise, being exported to other countries who have nothing like it. Sunshine Online is an amazing and innovative online magazine which is streets ahead of anything else in the world - and it has been available free to New Zealand teachers. Computers in New Zealand Education is a low-cost magazine which documents successful IT-based learning experiences. We have got AMPLE guidance and guidelines.

The challenge is remarkably simple. We are paid professionals. We do not HAVE to be bullied by the Ministry, or ERO or any other agency. If we are producing children who can read and reason, who have the literacy and information literacy skills needed to make effective use of INFORMATION and information technologies, we should be able to stand firm and demand the right to be teachers not computer technicians.

If we are successful in teaching students to read and think and reason with or without technology, we will achieve the outcomes that Costa and Liebmann see as learning for beyond 2000. If our outcomes focus on learning, technology can only enhance our efforts and our outcomes.