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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.