Radio, television, VCRs; they were all touted in their day as tools that would revolutionize learning. They didn’t. At best they added levity to classroom activities, at worst they were distractions. Computers and the Internet followed the same pattern but created new grey areas, particularly in computer lab settings because children appeared to be on task, silently following instructions on a screen, obediently clicking a mouse, typing on a keyboard or searching online. In many contexts, this docility was confused as a step forward for learning.
As hardware quickly advanced from desktops to laptops and other mobile technologies, very little changed in pedagogical terms. The computer lab setting was simply shifted from a dedicated classroom to all classrooms but children were still mostly anchored to devices, engaging individually with screens, following step by step instructions. The widespread use of digital tools in class created the billion dollar EdTech industry with the lobbying muscle to match. Most recently, it has created a new technological promise: personalisation through data analysis. The surge of Big Data in EdTech certainly deserves attention but for now lets focus on the effects of the incessant lobbying and marketing that led to the overwhelming presence of digital tools in classrooms around the world.
For decades, Big Tech companies have seen schools as the perfect, captive markets for their products. Microsoft, Apple and Google have each had their turn as the digital brand of choice for schools and each of them have claimed that their tools in particular are better suited to develop so called “21st century Skills.” Perhaps because they were the first to dominate the market, Microsoft’s tools became, and largely remain, almost synonymous with “computer skills”, “computer classes” and even “technology curriculum”. Endless formatting of Word documents and Powerpoint presentations were the default exercises one often encountered in computer labs around the world. More recently, editing video and using Powtoon, and in some cases even programming basics with Scratch or Code.org, entered the mix along with watered down versions of digital citizenship.
Of course, mastery of any of those tools or topics would not in and of itself be a bad thing but teaching tools for their own sake, without developing transferable skills or creativity, is always questionable. In our current context of ever increasing automation, it is unjustifiable. We are at the beginning of a fundamental shift in human history in which Artificial Intelligence will replace humans in an increasing variety of roles and activities and schools need to take on the enormous responsibility of developing the skills that will allow their students to thrive in an automated world. Perhaps more than ever, schools need to develop creative thinking skills in their students.
As often as the word creativity is used, however, it is often misunderstood and misapplied in schools. A common myth regarding creativity is that it is necessarily related to the arts and therefore associated with talent; meaning either you’re born with it or not. But that is not accurate. Equally dangerous is the common notion that creativity is synonymous with freedom, meaning that any time students are allowed to choose “freely”, with little or no constraints or structure, they are being creative. Creativity can most definitely be taught, (though perhaps developed is a more accurate term) and technology is a great facilitator for the acquisition of creative skills but digital tools alone will do little to develop a systemic approach to the application of creative skills. The creative process is a complex interaction of higher order thinking skills requiring structure and guidance. Digital Thinking is the name I give to the Five Strands that can provide the structure and guidance to develop the application of higher order thinking skills towards creativity and innovation.
1. Project Management
Project Based Learning is an excellent framework for creative skills to be developed not least because creativity needs a real world application for it to be meaningful. Hidden within the traditional PBL framework lies an often unexploited goldmine of learning opportunities: Project Management. For example, collaboration and communication are often touted as key skills to be taught in the 21st century but how exactly are those skills developed and assessed in schools? Moreover, collaboration and communication are only two of the skills that effective project management requires: risk assessment, resource management, responsibility and accountability, leadership, these and many others are key components of successful project management that can be taught and assessed. In fact, project management is the structured application of transferable skills, necessary throughout life and applicable in any context.
2. Design Thinking
Design Thinking is a proven methodology for developing creativity and innovation by engaging many higher order thinking skills within the context of empathy. It approaches problem solving by putting design teams in the shoes of the people whose problem they’re trying to solve. Furthermore, a distinguishing characteristic of the Design Thinking process is its iterative nature. Iteration encourages continuous improvement based on feedback and reflection and therefore provides an important space for metacognition, an essential part of the learning process, necessary for the full development of higher order thinking skills.
3. Digital Citizenship
Digital Citizenship has been a common thread in many school technology curriculums for many years now and yet it often falls short of what school communities need. In fact, with the pervasiveness and dominance of the “digital” in people’s lives, the very idea of teaching “digital” citizenship, as if separated from other core civic values and skills, seems anachronistic. Many aspects of Digital Citizenship should be pushed out into other areas of the core curriculum and applying critical thinking to technology should begin as soon as tools for instructional purposes are introduced. Applying critical thinking to technology is not only a valuable component of a young person’s formal education but perhaps also a crucial one in our current era. It is important to give students the skills and the opportunities to reflect on the mechanics, biases and social impact of technologies like Artificial Intelligence.
4. Computational Thinking
At its core, Computational Thinking is a universal, transferable set of problem solving skills. Computational Thinking includes abstraction, algorithmic thinking and analysis that develops a logical structure to finding solutions. It is therefore a valuable addition to any young person’s learning ,independently of whether or not they grow to develop an interest in Computer Science or programming. Programming is just one way in which Computational Thinking can be applied.
5. Digital Literacy
Digital Literacy is what traditionally comprised Technology Curriculums in the scenario outlined above. Everything from video editing, to word processing and online search has traditionally been taught in “Technology Class” or “IT Class”. These tools, however, are necessary in all subjects and can contribute significantly to the acquisition of knowledge and skills in all disciplines and should therefore be integrated directly into the core curriculum of all subjects. Furthermore, with self paced methods like Badges, it adds the benefits of differentiation, agency and self reflection.
Schools need to apply the critical thinking skills they develop in their students and go beyond Big Tech’s slogans, logos and marketing ploys as well as the geekily cool yet completely superficial products and services offered by most EdTech companies. Education technology, by definition, focuses on tools. Technology in education, technology for learning, needs to push beyond Edtech.